If you’ve got a penchant for private client work and are thinking of heading south for your training contract, look no further than Salisbury-based Wilsons.
Town and country
Trainees who want something a little more bucolic than big city life may be drawn to Wilsons. It offers “a strong private client reputation and good-quality work," according to one interviewee. "I wasn’t interested in a London firm and I found the culture here really appealing.” Chambers gives Wilsons top marks regionally for its private wealth and agricultural practices, while the charities team is ranked nationally. Teams working on property, employment, banking and commercial law round out the firm's practices.
“A strong private client reputation."
“Sometimes people think of rural firms as being backward,” one trainee said perhaps a tad pejoratively. But, they continued, “Wilsons is very forward-thinking and is always looking for ways to improve.” Another source believed: “We don’t have the biggest range of practices but we're excellent at the things we do.” As well as its HQ in Salisbury, Wilsons has a small office in London’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields housing just six lawyers, which occasionally offers a seat blending commercial, charities and family work.
First seats are allocated by HR and the training principal, but first-years are asked for preferences before starting. Then, “during the first mid-seat review the training principal will ask you about your preferences. If there’s something you want to do they make a real effort to give it to you.” There are no compulsory seats, but all second-years with the firm at the time of our research had done a contentious trusts and probate seat.
Contentious trusts and probate is a “growing area of the law,” according to trainees. Most cited the 2015 Ilott v Mitson case on which Wilsons worked as a reason for their interest in the area. This case came about when an estranged daughter made a claim for her mother’s estate, which she had left to a number of animal charities in the UK. It went to the Supreme Court, and in 2017 Wilsons won the case for its charity clients (Blue Cross, the RSPB and the RSPCA) as the court ruled that the daughter’s reasonable provision should be reduced to a minimum. Another case saw Wilsons act for three other charities in six claims over a £4.8 million Isle of Man property company left to the charities in a will, which was challenged by several of the deceased's family members. Insiders also described disputes over farms and other landed estates. As these examples suggest much of the work involves charities, and across its contentious and non-contentious practice the firm acts for big names like Macmillan Cancer Support, Help for Heroes, the RNIB and the RNLI.
"It’s really eye-opening how people try to swindle old ladies out of their money!”
"It’s really eye-opening how people try to swindle old ladies out of their money!” one trainee reflected on their time in the team. Interviewees also enjoyed all the “investigative work like reading medical records, going through accounts and learning how to put a claim together." And another source shared: “I wanted to do work that dealt with real people and real problems.” Responsibility comes quickly on this team, a source told us: “I had a set number of cases that were my own, so I was able to speak to clients and write letters. I was also expected to keep an eye on deadlines.” Some trainees are able to get involved in a spot of arbitration or attend court. One had done “two or three things in the Chancery Division. That was a really good experience, despite the long days.”
On the non-contentious side of trusts work is the probate and trusts team, which also gets involved in its fair share of charities-related work. The team focuses on administering clients’ estates both before and after death, which includes landed estates and properties “up and down the country.” The work the firm does in this area is all confidential, but we can tell you lawyers act for individuals and trustees on estates worth several million pounds. Trainees described “having to do house clearances, drafting lasting powers of attorney and selling assets.” We heard attention to detail comes in handy in this seat: “You have to be very thorough with checklists.”
"Property law related to farms and estates like grazing licences.”
One interviewee told us of their seat in tax and trusts: “It really appealed to me because I like there to be a right answer rather than just having to argue a point.” Trainees told us the seat proved “more varied than anticipated,” and largely entailed “estate planning for private individuals and families, drafting wills and tax considerations.” We heard about clients based at home and abroad, and insiders said: “You really feel like you’re part of the fee earning team. You’re expected to make money but that goes two ways because you're given work that will earn money.” Sources praised the amount of client contact, which includes “witnessing wills, a day’s mediation and sitting in on meetings.” One interviewee reflected: “You get to find the best way of advising clients, and they are really appreciative of that help.”
There are three property seats to choose from at Wilsons: commercial property, residential property and property estates. The last of these involves work for landed estates and farms which means large sales and leases, as well as “a lot of property law related to farms and estates like grazing licences.” When it comes to responsibility, we heard: “At first they hold your hand but eventually I had my own matters like leases by reference and I was drafting notices before going through amendments with a partner.”
A moot point?
Trainees are given a mentor, usually a recent NQ, who they can go for lunch with to discuss any issues. Supervisors are in charge of workflow. “I think the right people are in charge of supervision," reflected one source, praising the firm's "support system.” HR organises in-house training, but the firm is also a member of Law South, a grouping of 12 law firms which collectively puts on professional skills courses such as “an introduction to corporate practice,” as well as mooting cups and events with a range of speakers.
“Family friendly,” was a phrase we heard time and again during our research. “Work/life balance is something that’s really emphasised here,” sources agreed. Hours are pretty civilised, with trainees rarely staying past 6.30pm. "You get the odd day when you won’t be home until 9pm, but you don’t mind," one source felt. Another added: “One of the good things about private client work is that it doesn’t lend itself to hard deadlines.” Given that "people go home and spend time with family" at the end of the day, Wilsons is "quiet in terms of the social side," although the firm’s been working on this recently. “Historically it’s not something we’ve been great at," reflected one interviewee, "but there’s definitely been an effort to get everyone to the pub on a Friday and spend a bit more time socialising.” We also heard about Christmas and summer parties (the latter was held at a racecourse in 2017), as well as football and netball teams.
As mentioned in the intro, the firm's been looking for ways to improve lately. Management gives quarterly updates on things like strategy, although the general consensus was that these tended to be “quite vague.” A staff survey was recently rolled out too, and revealed that staff would enjoy “more transparency on where the firm is headed.” Other suggested areas of improvement include office tech and flexible working. “We’re starting to catch up with things like hotdesking and working from home, and I know several partners are keen,” one source revealed. The offices themselves were described as being “amazing, right in the city centre” – the building used to be the city's Crown Court and is just 100 yards from the entrance to the cathedral.
Retention is an “informal” process, and in previous years the NQ process was criticised by trainees for being slow and “unnecessarily bureaucratic,” and losing people to other jobs as a result. This year, however, we heard that the firm is making a “real effort” to let people know about retention sooner, and in 2018 three out of four qualifiers were retained.
Trainees at the firm at the time of our research went to university across the country – Kent, Manchester, Cardiff, Durham, Exeter, UEA, Southampton.
How to get a Wilsons training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2019): 30 March 2019 (now accepting applications)
Training contract deadline (2021): 30 June 2019 (now accepting applications)
Each year Wilsons sifts through between 200 and 300 applications total for its four training contracts and five vacation scheme spots on offer.
Following an initial screening, up to 25 applicants are invited to an interview with HR director Sarah Williams and a partner. HR manager Jo Ratcliffe tells us this is a chance for the firm to “get to the bottom of where candidates see themselves heading.” A current trainee confirmed “all the expected topics were covered, including where I saw myself in the future and what interests I had outside of work. I found it very relaxed. ” Another recalled that “a lot of the questions were based on my CV.”
From here, the firm decides who to invite to a vac scheme. Training contract applicants, meanwhile, go on to an assessment day in August if they cut the mustard. The number of applicants who secure a spot varies each year, with ten lucky hopefuls usually making the cut.
The day consists of an in-tray exercise – “you're given tasks via email and have to diarise your entire day,” a trainee told us – plus drafting and proofreading tests, and a group task. The latter forms “quite a big section” of the day, Jo Ratcliffe tells us. “Sarah Williams and I, together with some partners, usually sit in on that to observe how effectively the candidates interact with each other.” We're told that in the past this task has taken the form of “two sets of candidates communicating through an intercom about how to get a batch of eggs from one side of a map to the other,” and “debating the pros and cons of saving a group of people who'd been trapped.”
The firm's week-long vacation scheme takes place in July and has five places available. Vac schemers visit a different department each day of their visit. “We try to balance it so that they get a good mix of work overall,” Ratcliffe tells us. On the final day, there's an informal lunch attended by the senior and managing partners. “The trainees usually take the vac schemers out for lunch at some point too,” Ratcliffe adds.
When it comes to choosing the final four “it all boils down to who the best candidates are for the long term,” Ratcliffe concludes. The firm requires candidates to have at least a 2:1 degree from a top-30 university, and Ratcliffe tells us that work experience, while not a necessity, is viewed very favourably: “It's great when we get someone who's made a concerted effort to get as much experience as possible.”
A final point: being a native of Salisbury isn't a prerequisite for this firm, but Wilsons is likely to seek assurances that you're happy to make the city your home.
Interview with training partner Charlotte Watts
Chambers Student:Have there been any developments over the last twelve months that our readers should know about?
Charlotte Watts: We’ve grown in the last twelve months and we’re very busy so it’s a good time to be a trainee. We’re now taking on five trainees because we’re growing, particularly in private client and commercial. Trainees are able to tailor their contracts to whatever type of law they’re interested in and get a really broad range of experience.
CS:We’ve heard about the recent staff survey. Is the firm planning on making any changes in light of the results?
CW: Not so much within the training contract, but what we’re working on beyond that is mapping out a clear career plan for fee earners and increase the amount of information we circulate within the firm. We also want to push for more social events to get people together in different areas.
CS: Where do you see the firm in five years’ time?
CW: We’re going to remain firmly based in Salisbury but I imagine we’ll be larger than we are now, mainly through organic growth. We’re focusing on our high-net-worth clients, charities and private businesses. We may be bigger but we’ll keep the same ethos. Something that came out of the staff survey was how friendly the firm is which is important when you spend so much time here.
CS:What sets a training contract at Wilsons apart from other firms?
CW: Our culture really sets us apart. People always remark on how friendly and approachable the people here are. Trainees can approach anyone from partners to associates to the support team. Because we’re a medium sized firm trainees can get that atmosphere and get good quality work – for example, we’ve got several big contentious cases on at the moment – so trainees get good exposure at the outset rather than just photocopying and preparing bundles. We want them to get a varied experience and see them grow in the long term. We’re also small enough that as trainees go through their contract they’ll be able to experience most departments.
CS: How would you describe the ideal Wilsons candidate?
CW: We like to have people who can use their initiative and are creative thinkers. We want people who will think outside of the box because the work here tends to be very varied. It’s also important to have an eye for detail and fit in with the culture and atmosphere here.
CS:Is there anything else we should know about Wilsons?
CW: I was a trainee here, and I think it’s a great place to train because you get such a variety of work and you get to work with really interesting people who do interesting work.
St Johns Street,
- Partners 29
- Other solicitors 40
- Trainees 8
- UK offices 2
- Contact Jo Ratcliffe, [email protected], 01722 427564
- Training partner Charlotte Watts, [email protected]
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 4
- Minimum required degree grade 2:1 or other
- Vacation scheme places pa: 5
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications: Open now
- Training contract deadline, 2021: 30 June 2019
- Vacation scheme applications: Open now
- Vacation scheme 2019 deadline: 31 March 2019
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: Above market rate
- Second-year salary: Above market rate
- Post-qualification salary: Above market rate
- Holiday entitlement 25
- LPC fees: Partial
- GDL fees: No
- Maintenance grant pa: No
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: one; occasional seat in London
Main areas of work
Family: The team’s expertise ranges from pre-nuptial agreements and civil partnerships to divorce, children’s arrangements and surrogacy law.
Charity: Wilsons has one of the most highly ranked teams in the UK. We advise on the complete range of legal needs and have a particular specialism in contentious and non-contentious legacy work. The constitutional and governance team has considerable expertise in advising military charities and the charitable care sector.
Agriculture: Wilsons’ rural team has developed a practice centred on the needs of rural business and landowners. These include complex sales and purchases, development options for landowners, grants and diversification advice and property litigation, including landlord and tenant, partnership matters, boundary, title and rights of way disputes.
Commercial: The commercial team specialises in employment, commercial property and corporate work. Corporate work focuses on commercial tax and asset planning, transactions and refinancing. The team deals with an unusual breadth of work requiring high-quality, bespoke commercial advice.
Property: Our clients have substantial commercial, agricultural and residential property interests and the firm advises on purchasing, letting and sales, and has a reputation for gaining excellent results in the options over and sales of development land.
Litigation and dispute resolution: Wilsons has one of the largest teams outside London. We advise clients on a wide range of contentious matters to provide an efficient and effective means of dispute resolution. In addition to its expertise in agricultural and probate disputes, the firm has specialists who can advise on all aspects of commercial dispute claims and reputation management.
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2018
Southampton and surrounds
- Agriculture & Rural Affairs (Band 1)
- Charities (Band 3)