Regional focus Bristol
14 May 2012 | By Laura Manning
Building a reputation as an economic powerhouse to rival any UK city outside London, the capital of the South West has shown great resilience during the recession and looks set to return to growth as a centre for the sectors that are likely to blossom.
Bristol’s knowledge-economy – based on areas such as aerospace, financial services and the creative and environmental industries – is at the heart of the growing economy and gives the city an infectious cultural energy.
Despite still being a little rough around the edges, regeneration and rejuvenation through developments such as the retail-led £500m Cabot Circus, has put Bristol on an almost equal footing with picturesque Bath, with the obligatory range of fine-dining and designer shops.
The city has also met its goal of doubling its number of cyclists over the past three years, enhancing the easy commuting links and high standard of living.
The target was set after Bristol was named England’s first ‘cycling city’ in 2008, as part of a £100m government scheme aimed at encouraging cycling. The scheme saw a £23m investment in Bristol, leading to the design of several cycle paths in addition to the first major bicycle rental network.
Just walking around the city, it is clear that more people have chosen pedal power, with bicycles lining the roads and cyclists weaving precariously in and out of traffic.
The trainees from a few of Bristol’s legal giants say the cycle scheme is a significant draw to the city. Osborne Clarke trainee Sarah Gill says it cuts commuting time and helps you make the most of “the really green but vibrant city”.
Bristol’s legal sector is also thriving, with big-ticket work heading its way, as well as several law schools sitting on the front line of a fierce battle for the brightest and best students.
The University of the West of England’s (UWE) dominance in the region has been challenged by the arrival in 2010 of Legal Practice Course (LPC) giants BPP Law School and the College of Law (CoL).
“UWE was a very good university for the LPC, as it had a very impressive faculty of lecturers,” says Bond Pearce trainee Matt Marshall.
Despite being relatively young, CoL’s Bristol branch is gaining a burgeoning status. “CoL has first-rate facilities and is at the centre of the Bristol legal community,” says one law firm graduate recruitment officer.
Sitting by the city’s historic port, BPP’s location certainly does not let it down, and equipped with high-quality facilities it is a clear contender in the fight.
The price of courses in Bristol varies between institutions. BPP, CoL and UWE charge £10,660, £10,880 and £8,550 respectively for the LPC, and £7,250, £7,370 and £5,300 respectively for the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). UWE also offers the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) for £11,600.
With these fees considerably lower than in London, where the LPC can cost as much as £13,550, and in light of increasingly stiff competition for training contracts in the capital, there are many good reasons for aspiring lawyers to start looking west to train.
“There’s a greater pull towards Bristol recently, as trainees’ salaries are quite high and because of the exciting market and level of activity in the area,” says Osborne Clarke legal and graduate recruitment manager Sarah Houston. “The overall feeling here is that things have picked up, not just for the law firms, but business is very busy at the moment.”
Not being entirely immune to the tough economic climate, the South West legal market has not seen major growth in recruitment. Bristol is, however, undergoing some exciting developments in the legal arena, with the arrival of a number of alternative business structures, in particular the Co-operative’s legal arm, Co-op Legal Services (CLS).
And with a massive 150 new positions, mostly to fill its Bristol office, CLS is opening an array of opportunities for those looking for alternative legal careers.
Talking to Lawyer2B’s sister magazine The Lawyer, CLS managing director Eddie Ryan said: “We have ambitious plans for our business and we want people with ambitions to match. The Legal Services Act will change the way in which legal services are delivered in England and Wales and we’re going to be playing a leading role in the new era.”
Bristol’s legal powerhouses continue to maintain their lead in the South West league table, winning work from London clients seeking City-level legal advice at competitive prices.
The kind of work involved is evidenced by Bristol stalwart Burges Salmon making it into The Lawyer’s top cases for 2011, winning a claim brought by Imperial Tobacco and several other tobacco retailers against the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) challenging price-fixing fines. As reported in The Lawyer (9 January 2012), the case, which was heard by the Competition Appeal Tribunal, was expected to run for up to 12 weeks but was cut down early as the OFT’s case collapsed.
Burges Salmon also saw near double-digit growth in both revenue and net profit, although average profit per equity partner (PEP) fell by nearly 5 per cent to £395,000 due to the addition of five new equity partners.
Osborne Clarke also saw a growth in revenue to £90.3m, and stole Burges Salmon’s PEP crown, hitting £403,000.
RPC made its first foray into Bristol in a bid to take advantage of the city’s thriving insurance market – insurers such as Allianz, Zurich and Axa all have strong bases in and around the city.
RPC will, however, only be seconding two trainees to Bristol on a rolling basis for six-month seats to ensure they cover the mandatory contentious and non-contentious seats.
Elsewhere, Beachcroft and Davies Arnold Cooper’s merger went live in November 2011, and posted a 10 per cent increase in half-year revenues, with turnover standing at £88.2m for the first six months of 2011-12. (For more Bristol-based law firm stats see box, right).
However, the tie-up has halted the firms’ trainee intake, with both putting recruitment on hold indefinitely to allow time to develop a collective strategy for the future.
With good salaries, a thriving legal market and cheap professional legal course fees, what is stopping graduates flocking here in their masses?
“A lot of trainees are those that have grown up or studied here,” admits Houston. “There are always going to be peaks and troughs – the fashion always changes.”
Gill explains why she was drawn to Bristol despite working for a year as a paralegal at Nabarro in London. “London is great for some things, and I can totally see why people choose it, but it’s quite full-on,” she says. “I love living in Bristol – it’s really green, outdoorsy, relaxed and friendly, but with loads going on. The bits I liked about London I can dip in and out of in Bristol.”
For Burges Salmon trainee Martin Jones, Bristol was the only choice. “There’s a lot of flexibility in Bristol. I love being in the middle of the city, and 10 minutes later be in the middle of the country and 10 minutes later on I’m by the seaside,” he says.
“There are all the benefits of a cosmopolitan city – you can have sushi for lunch, but go to a country pub in the evening. There are some really nice areas too, and a plethora of up-and-coming areas attracting more young professionals as the city expands inside itself.”
Burges Salmon trainee Elsa Knoertzer, a French national who was brought up in Africa and the Middle East, was drawn to Bristol in part for the music scene, with the “small and quirky artists playing in all sorts of locations”, and because of the biking scheme.
“For outdoor lovers there’s a lot of rock-climbing and places to run,” she says.
“There are also opportunities for mountain-biking.”
But as well as the location being aesthetically pleasing, the trainees are keen to point out that the work at the law firms is both interesting and challenging.
“The advantage for me was the quality of life it offers – you get the quality of work but not at the expense of an outside life,” says Bond Pearce third-seat trainee Suzi O’Donnell, a career-changer who spent eight years in the air force.
Marshall adds that he has been given experience in a variety of work. “It depends on the seat, but I’m kept busy which is always good,” he says. “We are quite trusted, and have a lot of client contact, meetings and interactions. The quality is good and the level of work is very challenging.”
Jones points out that it is frustrating when they feel people in London undervalue their work. “They don’t always appreciate the quality of work we do here,” he says. “I’m in my fifth seat in banking, and our clients are second to none. The clients are big, the deals are big – all very high-pressured. The size of the deals is eye-watering at times.”
The relationship between trainees in neighbouring firms is also highlighted as an advantage, with the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division holding regular events. “We also meet up with other firms through sport and we did a carol service with Burges Salmon,” adds Osborne Clarke trainee Alex Wilson.
Wilson is currently in the property department and says the work is very challenging. “It’s been crazy,” she claims. “On day one I had so much responsibility and was really thrown in at the deep end.”
Indeed, Bristol has a lot to offer for any young lawyer who wants to combine a successful legal career with a good work-life balance. And with the recent developments in the legal market, Bristol could well be an attractive alternative to the Big Smoke.
Bristol recruiter Q&A
What makes Bristol the ideal place to train for aspiring lawyers?
Bristol is a great city to live and work in, it’s become a real business centre and is continuing to grow. Companies such as BAE Systems and Lloyds Banking Group have offices in and around Bristol. This allows our lawyers to work alongside the same types of clients and get exposure to the same type of work that you would do anywhere in the country, while enjoying perks like walking or even cycling into the offices safely and easily.
How many of your trainee solicitors come from Bristol or the surrounding area?
Some of our trainees have grown up in Bristol and further afield in the South West – all love living and working in the city. All of our trainees apply to Burges Salmon because of the top-quality work we do and the opportunity to work with leaders in their field. Our location is seen as more of a bonus, not an essential requirement.
Do you feel there has been a change in the number of aspiring lawyers attracted to Bristol? And if yes, why?
Yes, as shown by our increasing number of applications each year and our trainee intake steadily rising every few years. National and international companies now turn to Bristol-based firms for legal advice, which means the city is definitely an option to develop a top-quality career.
What are your trainees’ average working hours?
It depends on the department and the work that they are doing, but trainees tend to work 9.00am-6.30pm, although it must be said that all-nighters can happen when particularly big deals are being completed.
What is the social life like for your trainees?
Very good. Trainees form a good social life quickly in the firm which is certainly encouraged, with monthly all-staff socials and ad hoc departmental events. Options for eating and drinking are numerous in Bristol and there is definitely something for everyone.
What’s the best thing about working in Bristol?
Living in a brilliant city, complete with a city lifestyle but only a short train or car journey away is fantastic countryside, amazing beaches and weekends by the coast.
What’s your favourite pub, bar or restaurant in Bristol?
Acapella in Totterdown for a lovely home-made pizza followed by a drink or two on the way home at Banco Lounge.
Where do you live in Bristol and how long does it take you to get to work?
I live a half-hour walk or 10-minute bike ride along the river from the office. Great until you get a puncture.
Bristol firms’ vital statistics
Total lawyers: 215
Bristol trainees: 19
NQ salary: £38,000
Total lawyers: 128
Bristol trainees: 13
First-year salary: £24,000
NQ salary: £39,000
Total lawyers: 375
Bristol trainees: 46
NQ salary: £40,000
CMS Cameron McKenna
Total lawyers: 35
Bristol trainees: 5
NQ salary: £44,000
Total lawyers: 202
Bristol trainees: 13
NQ salary: £39,000
Total lawyers: 209
Bristol trainees: 14
NQ salary: £40,000
Total lawyers: 18
Bristol trainees: 2
NQ salary: £44,000
Total lawyers: 155
Bristol trainees: 19
NQ salary: £38,500