Wherever you’re considering doing your training contract, the UK regions are an attractive proposition. On the one hand, legal work is increasingly being decentralised from London as savvy clients demand a more cost-effective service. London-quality work is now being undertaken outside the capital, particularly at national firms with regional offices, because it’s cheaper for the client and technology has made location less of an issue. Alongside this, the cost of living in London, particularly housing, has reached crisis point.
The Midlands may not spring to mind as an obvious hub of commerce, international law firms and globally-recognised companies, but it should do. The region is headquarters to several Top 100 law firms by size, and blue-chip companies such as GKN, Next, Severn Trent and Travis Perkins. It also boasts 14 cities, 20 universities, 23 science parks and two international airports. For many trainees, choosing a training contract in the Midlands is a no-brainer.
‘Don’t get bottle-necked into thinking that it’s all about London,’ advises second-year trainee Anna MacDonald at Gateley in Birmingham, who completed her law degree at King’s College London. ‘Be open-minded. A lot of people on my law course thought that they needed to stay in London, but the industry is starting to realise that, economically, the regions are the best place to be.’
‘Always consider the regions,’ echoes Thomas Doyle, who is in his third seat at the Nottingham office of Eversheds. ‘Don’t think for one minute that you’ll be working on small matters - everyone in this office works for household-name clients. Working in the regions won’t hold you back; if anything it will enhance your career.’
Birmingham is the UK’s second-largest city by population after London, and along with Nottingham, is a key economic centre of the Midlands and where the majority of large, commercial law firms are located. These cities have some of the best transport links in the country, facilitating both business and pleasure. Katherine Utton completed her first two seats at the Nottingham office of Browne Jacobson and is now in her third seat at the firm’s Birmingham office: ‘The Midlands is so accessible. I can go down to London easily and there’s a motorway up to the North. Being central has the benefit of being able to get anywhere very easily, so you can pick and choose where you go.’
Accessibility within the cities themselves, as well as affordable city-centre accommodation, are among the main benefits of the regions, say trainees. ‘I always wanted to live in a city that I could walk around and not have to commute,’ explains Lisa Boyle, who is originally from Donegal and is now at Gowling WLG in Birmingham. ‘You can afford to live in the city centre in Birmingham. With law, you know you will have to put in long hours, but you can be home in five minutes rather than face a long commute home.’
*Source: The Legal 500 UK. For a full list of leading firms in all the UK regions, go to www.legal500.com.
WEST MIDLANDS (Birmingham, Coventry, Wolverhampton)
Leading firms* – Browne Jacobson, Clarke Willmott, DWF, DLA Piper, Eversheds, Freeths, Gateley, Gowling WLG, Irwin Mitchell, Mills & Reeve, Pinsent Masons, Shakespeare Martineau, Shoosmiths, Squire Patton Boggs.
Local clients: Jaguar Land Rover, Cadbury, BBC, GKN plc, Severn Trent, JCB, National Grid, HSBC
Average monthly rent, one bed flat: Birmingham: £755; Elsewhere: £494
Cost of a pint: £3.49
Spotlight on: Gowling WLG
Where? Birmingham, London and nine overseas offices
Number of trainees: Total: 60; Birmingham: 31
Trainee salaries: £38k - £41.5k (London), £37k - £40k (Birmingham);
Key strengths in Birmingham*: corporate and commercial, tax, EU and competition, commercial litigation, employment, health and safety, pensions, energy and projects, real estate and construction, IT/telecoms and IP.
Clients: Birmingham City Council, AstraZeneca, HSBC, American Express, Philips Electronics, Ministry of Defence, Taylor Wimpey, the RFU.
Spotlight on: Eversheds
Where? Birmingham, Nottingham, London, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Ipswich, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle and 45 overseas offices
Number of trainees: Total: 125; Birmingham: 24; Nottingham: 7
Trainee salaries: £37k - £38.5k (London), £26k - £27.5k (Regions)
Key strengths in Birmingham and Nottingham*: corporate and commercial, banking and finance, commercial litigation, employment, health and safety, pensions, real estate, planning, IT/telecoms and IP.
Clients: HSBC, Severn Trent, Anglian Water, KMPG, Goodyear Dunlop Tyres, Siemens, Nestlé, HS2, Staffordshire County Council, Next.
Affordable city-centre living doesn’t just facilitate work, it’s great for play as well. Fellow Gowling trainee Bethan Rowlands comes from the south coast of Wales and ‘loves Birmingham.’ She says: ‘I can walk home from work, or easily meet people in the city, so Birmingham has a much better standard of living than London. I’d never have been able to afford to live in the centre of London, and it’s great to live where all the action is, especially when you’re from a small town in Wales.’
Among the social highlights of Birmingham are numerous theatres - including the Birmingham Hippodrome, one of the largest touring theatres in the UK - the NEC, the Digbeth music scene, major sporting venues such as Edgbaston and Villa Park, the Christmas markets and an ever expanding pool of restaurants and bars. ‘Birmingham has improved so much in terms of restaurants and bars, even since I did my vac scheme in 2014. It feels like something new is opening every week,’ notes Lisa. ‘Our office is slap-bang in the centre of the business district, so it’s hard to leave the office without going out for a drink.’
Nottingham, too, has a legendary social scene due to its large student population. Sam Lloyd is currently in his third seat at Browne Jacobson’s London office, but was in Nottingham for his first two seats. ‘The social scene in Nottingham is brilliant. There is always plenty going on, and within the firm there is a lot of sport, such as football, rugby, cricket and a netball team. Although it’s Nottingham-centric, it does flow out to the other offices.’ He adds, ‘Nottingham is a pretty good size. Everything is a 15-minute walk and it’s a really clean city. London is huge, everywhere takes about 45 minutes to travel to and it’s very dirty.’
‘The opportunity to learn and develop’
In terms of quality of work, trainees in the Midlands report some enviable experience. Prior to becoming a trainee, Sam spent time working as a paralegal at Browne Jacobson and on the very day of his training contract interview he was also due to attend the Court of Appeal on a client matter. He says: ‘In the short time I’ve been in commercial, I’ve completed the drafting of an agreement for a film that is coming out next year, having put the draft together myself.’
Second-year trainee Nim Tank at Shoosmiths in Birmingham says: ‘I’ve benefitted so much from working at Shoosmiths and I’ve had so many fantastic opportunities.’ She is about to go on her second secondment to a luxury make-up brand, having already completed a secondment at Volkswagen Group during her first, corporate seat. ‘I joined in March and the emissions scandal was still going on, so I was helping the General Counsel deal with all that. It was so interesting to see what their objectives are now and in the next few years,’ she recalls. ‘Working with well-known clients is really rewarding.’
Anna at Gateley has also enjoyed her corporate seat: ‘Corporate was fantastic,’ she enthuses. ‘Your first completion is incredibly nerve-racking but exciting. I was so involved in the process – acting for the seller means you get much more to do than acting for the buyer – and it was such a relief when it completed. And the glass of champagne at the end was also very nice!’
EAST MIDLANDS (Nottingham, Leicester, Derby, Northampton)
Leading firms* – Browne Jacobson, BHW Solicitors, Eversheds, Freeths, Flint Bishop, Gateley, Geldards, Hewitsons, Howes Percival, Nelsons, Shakespeare Martineau, Shoosmiths, Spearing Waite.
Local clients: Avon, Boots, Capital One, HM Revenue and Customs, Next, Rolls Royce, Siemens, Speedo International
Average monthly rent, one bed flat: Nottingham: £961; Elsewhere: £659
Cost of a pint: £3.20
Spotlight on: Browne Jacobson
Where? Nottingham, Birmingham, London, Exeter, Manchester
Number of trainees: Total: 26; Nottingham: 15; Birmingham: 8
Trainee salaries: £36k (London), £25.5k (Regions)
Key strengths in Nottingham and Birmingham*: corporate and commercial, commercial litigation, health and safety, clinical negligence, personal injury, professional negligence, charities, personal tax, trusts and probate, public sector, real estate and construction, IT/telecoms, IP and sport.
Clients: Nottinghamshire County Cricket Board, Nottingham City Homes, Sir Robert McAlpine, University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust, Hiscox, Zurich, NHS Litigation Authority, Lloyds Development Capital.
Spotlight on: Gateley plc
Where? Nottingham, Birmingham, Leicester, London, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester, Reading and Dubai (The firm is due to split from its Scottish arm, HBJ Gateley, in May 2017).
Number of trainees: Total: 28; Nottingham: 3; Birmingham: 9; Leicester: 2
Trainee salaries: £26k (1st year, Regions)
Key strengths in Nottingham, Birmingham and Leicester*: corporate and commercial, commercial litigation, banking and finance, insolvency, commercial property, employment Clients: Allied Irish Bank, Santander, HSBC, The Football League, West Ham United, Ernst & Young, University of Leicester, Macmillan Publishers, Taylor Wimpey.
Spotlight on: Shoosmiths
Where? Nottingham, Birmingham, Northampton, London, Basingstoke, Edinburgh, Milton Keynes, Manchester, Reading, Southampton
Number of trainees: Total: 43; Nottingham: 4; Birmingham: 7
Trainee salaries: £26k - £27k
Key strengths in Nottingham, Birmingham and Northampton*: corporate and commercial, commercial property, property litigation, debt recovery, IT/telecoms, employment, personal injury
Clients: RBS, The Law Society, Volkswagen Group, British American Tobacco, Debenhams Retail, Peugeot Citroën, the NEC, Bibby Financial Services, St Modwen Developments.
Anna believes that, because there are typically fewer trainees at regional offices compared to London, the experience gained can be greater. ‘Here you get the opportunity to learn and develop more. We don’t have a huge amount of trainees, so one-to-one time with the partners is phenomenal.’ Fellow Gateley trainee Alicia Corby highlights the quality of her experience at the firm’s Nottingham office. She says: ‘In my first seat, real estate, I really enjoyed managing a file from start to finish, doing everything that needed to be done, from the client engagement letter to billing at the end. It was brilliant.’ She suggests that trainee experience in the regions can sometimes be better than at larger, London firms: ‘Because this firm is aiming at a national level, instead of say, a Magic Circle level, you can get involved more. You see how a transaction fits together and you see how the other departments fit together. You’re not a small cog.’
Kiran Gosal is currently in her third seat at Eversheds in Birmingham and recalls her first seat in the firm’s construction department. ‘It may sound a cliché, but working on such high-profile developments in and around Birmingham was a real highlight. When I started, I was working on a development local to the office, so I would see it whenever I went out at lunchtime, which was really satisfying.’
A different lifestyle
Quite simply, all the trainees interviewed feel they have access to high-quality and often international legal work without the disadvantages that living in the capital can bring. ‘I did a vac scheme in London,’ says Kiran, ‘but the lifestyle wasn’t for me. In Birmingham I feel I have all the benefits of working in London, but without the drawbacks.’
‘I wanted to do London-quality work but not live in London,’ adds Thomas. ‘Here at Eversheds in Nottingham I have the best of both worlds.’
Katherine at Browne Jacobson warns against being blinded by the high salaries on offer in London: ‘What is important is that you get what you want out of life, which may not be just work. Decide what is important for you and don’t get distracted by the big salary. I know plenty of people who have.’
‘Having a good quality of life means that you enjoy your work more,’ adds Anna at Gateley, ‘and you don’t have those financial pressures outside of work that you might have in London.’