The Lex 100 Regional View: Southern Draw

The Lex 100 Regional View: Southern Draw

Having covered more miles than a general election canvasser, Lex completes its review of the regions in the South of England (excluding London), where trainees enjoy a healthy work-life balance and top-notch career prospects. Report by Kate Durcan.

The sun really does appear to shine on trainee solicitors in the South of England: tales of leaving the office at 6pm (regularly) and hitting the beach, or the New Forest by bike, or perhaps cocktails along Exeter’s historic Quayside, are fact, say current trainees, and not the hyperbole of glossy recruitment brochures and websites. Indeed, trainees at regional law offices in the South East and South West – from Kent to Cornwall – appear to have it all: exposure to major-league clients and enviable work experience due their proximity to London, and a high quality of life that living outside the congestion of the Capital inevitably brings.

‘The work-life balance here is fantastic,’ reports Emily Baker, trainee at the Southampton office of national firm Irwin Mitchell, where she was a paralegal prior to commencing her training contract. ‘I have been in this office for two-and-a-half years and can count on one hand the number of times I have had to work past 6pm. In fact, 6pm would be considered late! The work-life balance is really strong here, and even my training principal encourages me to go home.’

The trend for both clients and law firms to wake up to the benefits of locating to the regions continues, as London struggles with lack of both office space and housing for employees, as well as an overwhelmed and super-expensive public transport system. Berwin Leighton Paisner is the latest London-headquartered firm to offer training contracts in the regions, albeit in Manchester, commencing this September, while the Southern regions are home to numerous Top-100 law firms (see Boxes). In terms of clients, a roll-call of the UK’s largest companies are located in the South: Imperial Tobacco Group (Bristol); Pfizer (Surrey); ExxonMobil (Surrey); IBM (Portsmouth); Npower (Swindon); EDF Energy (Gloucester); Rolls Royce (Chichester); Nestlé (Gatwick); not to mention the M4 corridor, known as ‘Silicon Alley’, which is home to tech giants Vodafone, Microsoft and Oracle among others.

Bright future

It isn’t just the work-life balance that is attracting trainees to the regions. Many see their long-term career prospects to be greater in legal markets that are growing, such as in Southampton, Exeter and Reading, for example. ‘The opportunities in the regions are greater,’ predicts Emily, ‘because London is a more established legal market; in Southampton, the legal market is growing. Trainees looking to apply here will see their career take off more quickly.’

Jessica Tallon is in her second seat at Ashfords’ Exeter office. Among her reasons for choosing the firm was the long-term potential: ‘The firm is really growing. At interviews, other firms didn’t have a lot to say about where they were going in the future, whereas Ashfords had just opened a London office and been granted ABS (alternative business structure) status.’ She continues: ‘I get a lot more internal training than my friends in London. I feel that there’s more investment in trainees here, you’re treated as a long-term prospect and you’re expected to grow with the firm, whereas in London it is normal to move on after a few years.’

SOUTH EAST (Thames Valley, M4 corridor, Oxfordshire and Home Counties)
Leading firms* – B P Collins, Blake Morgan, Bond Dickinson, Charles Russell Speechlys, Clyde & Co, Cripps, Dentons, EMW Law, Freeths, Irwin Mitchell, Osborne Clarke, Penningtons Manches, Shoosmiths, Stevens & Bolton, Thrings
Local clients: Pfizer, Bayer UK, BP, ExxonMobil, Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, QinetiQ, Unipart, McLaren, Rolls Royce, IBM, Microsoft, Vodafone, Dell UK, Oracle, Mars, Proctor and Gamble, Unilever.
Average monthly rent, one-bed flat: £900 (Guildford); £785 (Reading); £620 (Southampton)
Cost of a pint: £3.60

*Source: The Legal 500 UK. For a full list of leading firms in all the UK regions, go to

Spotlight on: Osborne Clarke
Where? Bristol, Reading; plus London and 19 international offices
Number of trainees: Total: 39; Bristol: 20; Reading: 4
Trainee salaries: £34,750 – £36,750 (Bristol); £40k – £42k (Reading) 
NQ salaries: £48k (Bristol); £51k (Reading)

Spotlight on: Irwin Mitchell
Where? Bristol, Chichester, Gatwick, Newbury, Southampton; plus London, Birmingham, Cambridge, Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester, Middlesbrough, Newcastle and Sheffield 
Number of trainees: Total: 110; South Stream (Chichester, Gatwick, Newbury and Southampton): 15
Trainee salaries: £25k – £27k (regions) 
NQ salaries: £34k – £39k (regions), dependent on office and division

Spotlight on: Charles Russell Speechlys
Where? Guildford, Cheltenham; plus London and six international offices
Number of trainees: Total: 50; Guildford: 8; Cheltenham: 5
Trainee salaries: £31k – £32k (Guildford); £27.5k – £28.5k (Cheltenham)
NQ salaries: £48k (Guildford); £41k (Cheltenham)

Investment in your career is a point echoed by another Exeter-based trainee, Jo Cowen at Michelmores. She says: ‘The client contact here is great, and Michelmores really cares about your professional and personal development, you’re not just a number. There is so much support at every level, and the trainee intake is small enough that you don’t feel that you have lost your identity.’

The size of annual trainee intakes is another key advantage to regional training contracts, say trainees. Intakes can be as large as 80-100 in a single-site at the Magic Circle, for example, whereas recruitment numbers are typically smaller in the regions, leading to a host of advantages such as more personal training, great exposure to clients and challenging work. Anna Mattingley recently qualified into the corporate department at Osborne Clarke’s Reading office, having changed careers from a non-legal role in a large technology company. When choosing where to train, she recalls: ‘I went and shadowed a fee earner at a Magic Circle firm and thoroughly enjoyed my day; the matters there were fascinating. However, I had come from a background with a lot of responsibility, so I was worried I would feel lost in the size of the firm or that I’d struggle to be one of a large intake. At OC in Reading, I am just one of two in my intake, with only three in the intake below.’

Big fish, small pond

Now a newly-qualified solicitor, team size remains a key factor for Anna. She says: ‘I really enjoy being part of a large team that operates in smaller teams comprising of a partner, another fee earner and a more junior resource, allowing you to experience all aspects of the matter rather than simply the discrete tasks you may be required to assist on. I knew that was the type of environment I would flourish in.’

‘In terms of work, you get the chance to take on a lot of responsibility with clients,’ echoes Matt Atkinson, a second-seat trainee at TLT in Bristol. ‘So in my first seat, I was the first point of day-to-day contact for the client, which was a major public sector body. I don’t think this would happen so much in London. Also, there are smaller teams here, so the work that filters down to trainees is of a higher calibre.’

Smaller trainee intakes also mean greater camaraderie, and less competition, among trainees, according to Matt: ‘I have friends at large London firms and it’s almost cutthroat between the trainees. It’s not like that here at all. There is usually only one trainee per department, so there is a genuinely supportive environment between the trainees.’

Trainee Stuart Willis at Ashfords in Taunton, Somerset, highlights the high level of partner contact at his firm: ‘Partners are definitely more approachable here. The partner I’m working with at the moment will take time out of his schedule to talk me through things and teach me what I need to know. The partner-trainee contact here is really, really good and there couldn’t be any more client contact than there is already.’

New territory

Don’t think for one minute that you have to be from a particular region in order to lay your hat there. Matt originates from Manchester, but chose to join TLT in Bristol after being impressed by the firm while working as a paralegal for its client Barclays. ‘I had an open mind on location. The main thing for me was I wanted to work at a firm where I would genuinely fit in. I wasn’t bothered about the ‘name’, but I wanted to go where I would get along with the people.’

However, without ties to a location, you will have to convince recruiters that you have a genuine interest in their firm and commitment to the area. Polly Dallyn is in her fourth seat at Charles Russell Speechlys’ Guildford office, and offers this sound advice: ‘Make sure you know the place well and have good reasons for being there. Firms want to see that you actually want to work there and you’re not just trying your luck outside London. Most applications will ask why you want to be in [that region] and you need to have solid answers, particularly if you’re not from there.’

SOUTH WEST (Bristol, Cheltenham, Swindon, Exeter, Plymouth, Taunton )
Leading firms* – Ashfords, Bond Dickinson, Burges Salmon, Charles Russell Speechlys, Clarke Willmott, DAC Beachcroft, Foot Anstey, Harrison Clark Rickerbys, Michelmores, Osborne Clarke, TLT, Thrings
Local clients: Imperial Tobacco, Airbus, EDF Energy, PPL UK Distribution, Intel Corporation, Honda, WH Smith, Zurich Assurance, GE Aviation Systems, Hargreaves Lansdown, YEO Valley, Student Loans Company, Bristol Water, Yankee Candle Company, The Unite Group
Average monthly rent, one-bed flat: £750 (Bristol); £637 (Exeter)
Cost of a pint: £3.70 (Bristol); £3.50 (Exeter)

*Source: The Legal 500 UK. For a full list of leading firms in all the UK regions, go to

Spotlight on: Burges Salmon
Where? Bristol, London 
Number of trainees: Total (all based in Bristol): 56
Trainee salaries: £35k – £36k
NQ salary: £47k

Spotlight on: Michelmores
Where? Bristol, Exeter; Sidmouth; plus London 
Number of trainees: Total: 15; Bristol: 2; Exeter: 13
Trainee salaries: £24k – £26k
NQ salary: £38k

Spotlight on: Foot Anstey
Where? Bristol, Exeter, Plymouth, Southampton, Taunton, Truro
Number of trainees: Total: 21; Bristol: 11; Exeter: 6; Plymouth: 3; Taunton: 1
Trainee salaries: £27k – £28.5k
NQ salaries: competitive

Spotlight on: Ashfords
Where? Bristol, Exeter, Plymouth, Taunton, Tiverton; plus London
Number of trainees: Total: 24; Bristol: 4; Exeter: 12; Plymouth: 4; Taunton: 3; Tiverton: 1 
Trainee salaries: £25k – £27k (Bristol); £23k – £25k (South West)
NQ salaries: £43k (Bristol); £38k (South West)

There are downsides to living and working in the South, of course. The cost of property, whether buying or renting, is high in locations around London. ‘A good quality place is almost the same level as London, but there are cheaper places,’ notes Polly, speaking specifically of Guildford. ‘This is a commuter belt and quite popular, and a lot of young professionals live here,’ she explains.

Similarly, the South West is peppered with idyllic villages or quaint seaside towns (think Broadchurch), as well as major commercial centres such as Bristol, all of which equates to high property prices. According to Rightmove, six of the ten most desirable places to live in the UK are located in the South West. But in the main, the cost of living is still less than London. Siobhan Lewis is nearing the end of her training contract at Burges Salmon in Bristol, where the cost of rent is ‘quite high’, she says. ‘It’s going up faster than salaries, but you don’t have the transport costs that you have in London because everyone walks or cycles everywhere.’

Life’s a beach

And here we find ourselves back to quality of life. ‘Bristol is smaller and more compact than London,’ describes Siobhan. ‘I can walk home rather than being stuck on the tube, and I have time to catch up with friends and family in the evening. There are a lot of people who have come here from bigger London firms and have realised that they can do top-quality work but still have their evenings and weekends free.’

‘I live on the quay in the [Exeter] city centre, which is absolutely beautiful,’ reveals Jessica at Ashfords. ‘You’re really close to the beaches here and the atmosphere is really relaxed. There’s lots of cocktail bars – not a big, clubby scene but more chilled than that; it’s stunning.’

Trainee Beth Nash at Foot Anstey originates from Plymouth and works at the firm’s Exeter office. She says: ‘Increasingly, more and more people want to come and work in the South West and move outside the big cities. In Plymouth, there are a lot of developments going on, cosmopolitan developments, and a lot of chain restaurants are opening up, with the same in Exeter. Exeter and Plymouth are both busy cities – you don’t ever feel it’s quiet or like a middle-aged town, it feels young and thriving.’

While trainee pay may not match the largest London firms, trainees are unanimous in their belief that the shorter working hours and quality of life are worth the trade-off. ‘The work-life balance is worth every penny of what you get paid,’ says Stuart at Ashfords.

Matt at TLT speaks for many: ‘I have a friend at a Magic Circle firm and I’ve never seen him since he started his training contract! As a young person in their 20s, I am ambitious, but I’m not prepared to sacrifice these precious years of enjoying life.’

Applying to regional firms – trainees’ top tips

• ‘Try and speak to as many people in firms that you can, especially the big regional players in the area you want to be; and get involved in as many events and opportunities as possible because people do remember you, so it helps to make a good impression.’ Jo Cowen, Michelmores, Exeter

• ‘A lot of people I went to uni with focused on London and thought that that’s where all the opportunities are, but it’s better to be more open minded to other locations.’ Beth Nash, Foot Anstey, Exeter

• ‘It’s really important to visit a variety of different firms. It’s easy to complete your analysis of a firm based on its website, but when I visited Osborne Clarke, I felt I absorbed the culture quickly. So visit firms, either by informal shadowing or by securing vacation schemes, and consider the size of teams/departments you want to work in.’ Anna Mattingley, Osborne Clark, Reading

• ‘Really think about whether you want a work-life balance or just a career focus, and think about how you deal with stress and working long hours, as well as the type of work you want to do.’ Emily Baker, Irwin Mitchell, Southampton

• ‘Think about how much you value your quality of life. Some people just want to work, but you can have a satisfying job and work for high-profile clients but still have a nice life. Don’t be blinkered by big City lights – it’s not always what it’s cracked up to be.’ Siobhan Lewis, Burges Salmon, Bristol

• ‘I’d personally recommend not going to London. Obviously, it depends on where you grew up and where your family connections are, but there is a lot to be said for the regions. Trainees here don’t look at London with envy at all.’ Stuart Willis, Ashfords, Taunton

• ‘Consider the environment where you want to be. Can you see yourself living and working there? You can’t judge a firm or a place from its website, so apply for vac schemes – that’s the best way to judge a firm – and mooch around the town as well. That’s what I did.’ Jessica Tallon, Ashfords, Exeter

• ‘My personal advice is to choose somewhere where you feel you’ll fit in with the people. Get a feel for the kind of people there and base your decision on that.’ Matt Atkinson TLT, Bristol