BWB wears its B-Corp badge with pride, attracting trainees with a taste for social enterprise.
Que sera, sera, whatever will BWB
BWB is highly esteemed for its work in the charities sector, but it's more than just a niche way of bringing in business. “It’s very central to BWB’s sense of itself. A charitable ethos permeates the way the firm approaches its practice generally.” In this spirit, it’s worth mentioning the firm’s ‘B-Corp status’, which means it’s certifiably one of the good guys: a for-profit company that’s committed to social and environmental responsibility. “When I was applying for jobs I was disappointed that most City firms didn’t put as much importance on representing smaller organisations as they did on having the biggest clients and the biggest global presence. When I came across BWB it seemed completely unique.”
While its charities work remains at the heart of BWB’s identity, there's more to this philanthropic hub – as demonstrated by Chambers UK. In London the firm’s immigration practice comes out on top, and UK-wide the firm ranks highly in education, parliamentary and public affairs; and media and entertainment. The firm has its sights set on corporate and commercial expansion, which trainees described as “a balancing act. Once you start trying to be socially minded there’s unlimited ground to cover, but at the end of the day we are a commercial law firm.” For now, big-name clients include Samaritans, Comic Relief and Barnardo’s, as well as Goldman Sachs and Nikon.
The firm operates a six-seat programme of set ‘flight paths’, with each consisting of two six-month stints followed by three four-month seats. “When you arrive on day one you know what the next two years will hold, so there’s no squabbling over who’s going to end up in what seat.” It's not entirely set in stone however. “I got my second choice of flight path,” said one second year, “and I did get the opportunity to swap with other trainees as long as it added up.”
Loco for coco
The charities department is the largest in the firm and is divided into groups like culture and creative, social finance, education, election campaigns, public sector spin-outs, and trusts. “There’s no strict hierarchy which has you working for one partner and an associate,” we learned. “It’s more of a free-for-all, which is handy because you can approach different people and receive wider experience.” The group recently helped WWF with regulatory intervention into media accusations of inappropriate funding practices, and it also advised on governance and constitutional issues surrounding the Royal Albert Hall, which involved dealing with the Charity Commission, the Attorney General and the Charity Tribunal. “A lot of charities have been concerned recently by new data protection regulations and how they approach supporters, so we have a team dedicated to that which is going bananas at the moment.” Tasks for trainees included drafting articles of association, completing charity commission applications and reviewing contracts.
“It’s not pure company law where you rack them up quick and cheap.”
It's an extremely varied seat. “BWB tries to be a full-service firm, so you’re not only doing the core things like helping charities get registered. You're also doing important tangential work that comes with the territory.” One insider recalled “ad hoc enquiries relating to gift aid, tax matters and accounting standards – which can be a bit outside of your comfort zone.” Another explained that “you get some interesting permutations within the work because it’s not pure company law where you rack them up quick and cheap. Engaging with the Charity Commission is like litigation in that you have to anticipate what a regulator will do.”
The corporate and commercial team (or coco) is seen as “a good seat to start with. It gives you the basics and focuses on them intensely, and you get a great variety of work.” Sources elaborated: “We have essentially the full sweep of corporate and commercial work, including transactions, M&A, placings and standard commercial agreements.” Clients range from The Institute of Masters of Wine to FM Conway, an infrastructure services company. On the commercial contracts side, a recent highlight saw the team work with Nikon on its sponsorship agreement for the 2017 Open Golf Championship. On the corporate side, the firm worked for Spanish investment manager Alantra Partners on its acquisition of finance adviser Catalyst Corporate Finance for approximately £30 million. “I’ve been increasingly involved in post-completion and making sure Companies House gets the right updates,” said one trainee. “A lot of it is very detail-oriented; you can find yourself drafting letters of advice which are subject to intense review.” Trainees praised the responsibility in the team: “Everyone’s really supportive and happy to let you run with things. Nobody expected any prior knowledge and everything was explained really well.”
Dispute resolution “picks a lot of work up from other teams, although we probably have the lowest number of charity clients.” Contentious work therefore stems from commercial, IP, real estate and administrative matters. There's also reputation management work, including a Supreme Court case for Times Newspapers Limited which asked whether cost orders restricted newspapers' freedom of speech. Trainees spoke about handling “a lot of standard contractual disputes, plus disputes where a charity has been left something in a will and a relation tries to challenge it.” Their workload could include client meetings and taking instruction over the phone, but compared to other departments client contact was less common here. “You can’t have a trainee running with things because anything could end up with a judge. Though I’ve done my fair share of isolated research, I’ve often been involved in the next steps – like drafting letters of advice, or cease and desist letters – which is really important.”
“I found the whole thing completely fascinating.”
Immigration is another extremely strong area of work for the firm, but “it's not a big department – the whole team is less than ten people.” Together they handle the immigration quandaries of both individuals and businesses. One corporate the firm recently aided was commodities trader Rhodium Resources, which set up a presence in the UK, and needed to transfer someone from its Singaporean operation. Clients include Children in Need and Busta Rhymes. “EU applications are a huge thing at the moment,” said one trainee. “People are trying to make sure their status is secure.” The seat received high praise from sources: “I found the whole thing completely fascinating; I loved being able to call and meet clients as a trainee.”
“In terms of the working environment, people have really lucked out if they’ve got a training contract here,” sources enthused. “We have people who have moved from magic circle firms for the culture and have taken a financial hit to do so.” Hours are part of that deal. When the worst spell a trainee could report was “staying after 8pm a couple of times before a court deadline,” they could be confident that “it's definitely more reasonable than the typical City firm.”
As a consequence, there's a lot riding on maintaining the balance between being a socially responsible company and a profit-making law firm. “Everyone’s quite self-reflective; there are often open discussions about how we can improve what we do as a business, while trying to adhere to our values. I think what we're doing is great even if it’s not perfect, and I think it makes for a friendlier, less corporate culture.”
As for the social aspect of the experience, “it’s not like a student union, but there are plenty of opportunities to socialise. Later we’re going to see Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe.” Classy. We also heard about gin tastings, regular pub outings and a Narnia-themed Christmas party at the Natural History Museum for the coco team. “It's a good trainee cohort. There isn't any Hunger Games competitiveness, but we’re not hanging onto each other for dear life either.”
The offices, which are just off Southwark Bridge, are currently undergoing major expansion. Part of this involves a new charity hub which will rent desks out to start-ups who aren’t yet ready for their own premises. The offices are open plan, which most enjoyed. “It’s quite egalitarian. Even senior partners will hotdesk in the office so it’s nice to see them sat nearby.” They also reasoned: “The open-plan structure helps with the culture; you can’t just harangue subordinates because you’d be making a scene and disrupting everyone’s work.”
The retention process, trainees reckoned, “is quite ad hoc. I don’t have concerns about being kept on but I don’t know if I’ll get the department I want.” Some had been given clear indications – others hadn't. In the end three of four qualifiers were kept on in 2018.
The firm recently increased its intake from four to six.
How to get a Bates Wells Braithwaite training contract
Training contract deadline (2021): 1 June 2019 (opens 1 October 2018)
The vacation scheme
Bates Wells Braithwaite hosts three vacation schemes over Easter and the summer. Each lasts for two weeks, and there are four spaces per placement.
Around 500 candidates apply using the same application process as the one adopted for direct training contract applications (details below).
Vac schemers spend each week in a different department. Before they join, they submit their top three preferences for where they'd like to sit, and the firm endeavours to accommodate the first two. Senior graduate recruitment and HR advisor Hayley Ferraro tells us that during their placement candidates “usually have the opportunity to attend client meetings, draft documents, take minutes and even go to a trial or an employment tribunal, depending what is happening in the relevant department.” Attendees must also complete a half-day assessment, which culminates in a group debating exercise. On the social side there are lunches and evening drinks with the current trainees, and vac schemers are also invited to any firm-wide events occurring during their visit.
Applications and assessments
BWB receives around 500 direct training contract applications each year. Candidates must first complete an online application form. If successful, applicants complete a psychometric test and if successful, will then be asked to complete an interview.
The firm selects just 20 to attend an assessment day (vac schemers do this during their time with the firm). This usually takes place at the beginning of July. The day begins with a trainee breakfast and Hayley Ferraro and the training principal Paul Seath delivering a brief introduction. Then there is a group and written exercise. Following this, candidates undergo an interview with a panel of two partners and one associate. “It's focused on your CV, grades and experiences,” a current trainee revealed, adding: “They also throw in a couple of general questions to test your knowledge and ability to think logically. It's quite relaxed, though – it's more like a conversation than a grilling.”
The day also involves a trainee-led tour and concludes with an informal drinks session.
The final interview
The firm invites around six candidates from the half-day assessment back for a final interview. When factoring in BWB's internal pool of paralegals and star vac schemers, the total number of candidates who reach this stage is usually around 20.
“At this stage the interviewers are looking to fully understand the candidate's interest in BWB and why they are applying to this firm over other City law firms,” Hayley Ferraro explains. “Candidates who have researched the firm and understand its ethos as well as current issues impacting the legal industry will stand out.”
Our trainee sources agreed that this interview is tougher than the first. “It's more formal and more focused on the law, although there is the acknowledgement that you might not have attended law school yet,” said one. “The legal questions are pitched in broad terms – for example, they might ask you what law you'd like to see changed, or ask you to talk about a recent legal development you feel is important.”
According to a current trainee, “a number of people who've come through in recent years have been in their late twenties/early thirties and have had other career experiences.” Between them, their work experience spans the charity, broadcasting, politics and publishing spheres.
That said, we're assured this is not the result of some fixed design on BWB's part. As Hayley Ferraro says: “We're open to all applicants, whether they're coming straight from university or changing career.”
Trainees do typically have an interest in and experience of charity work, however. As one pointed out: “Everyone here has done some kind of voluntary work at some point, or at least has a strong interest in the third sector. That's what BWB is mostly about, and they like people to demonstrate that.”
Interview with training partner Paul Seath
Chambers Student: Have there been any developments over the last twelve months our readers should know about?
Paul Seath: We were recently recertified as a B-Corp with a higher score than last year. The certification was more rigorous this time because our headcount has risen above 250, so it was more demanding. We’ve also been listed in the top 100 Best Companies to work for, which is really positive for us.
Recently we’ve been working with external consultants on our rebranding, which involves distilling and articulating our values and our reason for being. We’ve decided that we can wrap up what we are as a business using a values statement, which isn’t a strap line or a slogan, but something that has a real meaning, and that’s “For people creating a positive impact.” It seems simple but it actually contains a lot of information and rationale, and we’re now in the process of rolling that out across the business and saying to our staff – including trainees – this is what we are, and this is what we want to be delivering for you in your day to day experience. If we’re not delivering that we want to know what we can do to improve.
We’re also growing year on year internally as opposed to any bolt-on growth. We’ve taken on 8,000 square feet of additional office space here at the office, and half of that will be dedicated to a charity hub of 60 desks so that small charities can use our facilities. This helps us to use the space and also enables us to move into it as we grow. We have also taken our open plan offices to the next level and introduced more agile working, with ten people to every eight desks. We’ve used the space for new group and client spaces, and the environment we’re creating and the technology we’re putting in place to facilitate that is hugely exciting. For people applying over the next couple of years the whole landscape will be very exciting.
CS: With all the expansion we’ve heard about, are there plans to increase your trainee intake?
PS: We’ve just upped our intake from four to six, and while we’re not actively looking at recruiting more right now, it’s definitely something that will be on the agenda in the near future. We’ve also got to keep an eye on the SQE, which could affect the way we recruit trainees in the future. The fundamental thing with recruiting more trainees is we want to be sure we can retain them at the end of their training contracts. As far as we see it the whole training process is the start of a journey with us, so that’s one of the reasons we want to be careful when we look at the numbers. We have every reason to believe that with the way things are growing we will increase our intake, possibly up to eight.
CS: What do you think sets a training contract at BWB apart from other firms?
PS: One thing is the commitment that I’ve got personally to the trainees and to their future success. I would like to think they have an advocate in me who always looks at things from their perspective. They also have a very good team who supports them.
Trainees also get a lot of responsibility here as well as very interesting work. We have a huge commitment to retaining people, and we’ll bend over backwards to ensure that we can retain them all, although this isn’t always possible. The increase in agile working is something that’s relatively new for trainees and has really evolved. While it’s sometimes necessary to be in the office and get hands-on exposure, we realise that working away from the office can be just as beneficial for trainees as it is for partners.
Nicole Cardinali: There’s a lot of support here. I have monthly meetings with trainees and the deputy principals as well. Last year we also looked at flight paths and now have a different structure which is different from a lot of other firms.
CS: Is there any work experience that is expected or required prior to joining the firm?
PS: If someone is telling you they want to work in your sector it’s great to see something on their CV that evidences that, but we also recognise that some people, especially those coming straight out of university, might not have had that ability. If someone’s had to fund themselves through university and work in a pub or a supermarket we would look at that type of experience and see that as demonstrating a commitment to getting where they are and as being just as valuable as something like volunteering. Social mobility is very important to us – allowing people to move into law regardless of their background. We’ve just signed up to RARE recruitment and we’re integrating that with our ‘apply for law’ system from September 2018 onwards. We absolutely want to see a good mix of people and that applies to diversity as well as social mobility.
CS: How would you describe the ideal candidate for a training contract at BWB?
PS: I don’t think there is a single ideal candidate. While we of course want to recruit people who will gravitate towards our charity and social enterprise team which remains the engine room of the firm, there are other departments which are collectively bigger and we also need to ensure we recruit people who will want careers in those departments. Sometimes you’ll meet a very promising candidate just out of university who has massive potential, but I don’t think they’re any more ideal than an excellent candidate who’s just turned 30 and is looking for a career change.
CS: Is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t already covered?
PS: I’d like to add that there may be individuals who think they won’t get a look in because of their grades or because they got into trouble when they were younger, and I think those people ought not to be ruled out. I would say that individuals in those circumstances should approach me personally, and I’ll be open to a conversation with those candidates because they deserve a chance.
Bates Wells Braithwaite
10 Queen Street Place,
- Partners 38
- Associates 64
- Total trainees 12
- UK office London
- Graduate recruiters: Hayley Ferraro & Nicole Cardinali, [email protected]
- Training partner: Paul Seath
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 6
- Applications pa: 400+
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 or other
- Vacation scheme places pa: 12
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 October 2018
- Training contract deadline, 2021 start: 1 June 2019
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 October 2018
- Vacation scheme 2019 deadline: 31 January 2019
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £36,000
- Second-year salary: £38,000
- Post-qualification salary: £60,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
Main areas of work
The closing date is 31 January 2018.
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2018
- Corporate/M&A: Lower Mid-Market Recognised Practitioner
- Employment: Employer (Band 4)
- Employment: Senior Executive (Band 3)
- Immigration: Companies & Executives (Band 1)
- Immigration: Human Rights, Asylum and Deportation (Band 2)
- Information Technology Recognised Practitioner
- Real Estate: Lower Mid-Market (Band 1)
- Administrative & Public Law (Band 2)
- Charities (Band 1)
- Data Protection & Information Law (Band 4)
- Education: Institutions (Higher & Further Education) (Band 2)
- Education: Institutions (Schools) (Band 2)
- Media & Entertainment: Advertising & Marketing (Band 2)
- Parliamentary & Public Affairs: Electoral Law (Band 2)
- Professional Discipline (Band 4)