Burges Salmon LLP:
Best Recruiter - National/Large Regional Firm

In a world of continual political and economic turmoil, it's nice to have a few constants to rely on. While we can rarely predict what will happen in our everyday lives, you can be fairly certain that England will lose a penalty shoot-out, Cyprus will give top marks to Greece in the Eurovision Song Contest and Burges Salmon will leave our annual Training & Recruitment Awards with a gong tucked under its belt. Indeed, the firm has taken home so many TARAs over the years that there are rumours it is considering changing its name to Fitzgerald, Reid and Palmer-Tomkinson.

This year's triumph in the Best Recruiter - National/Large Regional Firm category makes it an incredible 10 in a row for the Bristol-based outfit. Such continued success doubtless requires an awful lot of hard work; but it also points to a belief within the firm that recruitment is of primary importance and Andrew Burnette, one of Burges Salmon's team of recruitment partners, agrees that this is crucial.

"We invest a great deal in the process and I don't mean money," he reveals. "It never ceases to amaze me how much time and effort go into making sure that candidates have a good experience. All the people in the process are really dedicated to it and that's because we're truly interested in it. We're recruiting our colleagues of the future, so we want to make sure we get the very best people."

And they must be doing something right, as it's not just the trophy cabinet that has been getting bigger. The firm itself has grown considerably since its first victory at the TARAs, predominantly through its trainee intake. Following another record year in terms of turnover and profitability, the intake was expanded once more by around 12% in 2015.

"From a business perspective, we would rather have people we've trained ourselves, who have come through our ranks and understand our ethos, than take risks with young lawyers who recently qualified elsewhere," explains Andrew. "You never quite know what you're getting with an external recruit. You can take as many references as you want, but you'll never know them as well as someone who trained here. We have quite ambitious growth plans, but we like doing things organically where possible."

With that in mind, the recruitment team has regular meetings to ensure that everyone is on the same page with regard to the candidates needed to join the team and to maintain the high standards for which Burges Salmon has become known.

"We review our recruitment process in an ongoing fashion," explains Frances Lambton, trainee recruitment adviser at the firm. "We hold regular meetings during the year to look at what's working and what isn't, and make any tweaks necessary. The HR team will discuss with the recruitment partners the kind of trainees that the firm wants that year, so we know the various competencies and behaviours for which we're looking. This could mean we will need to tweak the assessment methods slightly. In the last few years we have increased our trainee numbers, so we've had to take care that we are getting the right mix of people."

Viewed externally, this process could be considered to start with each year's online application form going live on 1 October and the subsequent start of the university law fair season. However, Frances and her team have been hard at work well before those dates, finalising questions for the form and preparing marketing materials.

Over the course of the year, Burges Salmon receives around 1,500 applications, with the same form used by those applying for a vacation scheme place as directly for a training contract. Each is read and assessed by the human resources team according to a number of predetermined criteria; if there are any borderline decisions, the form will be reviewed by a training partner.

The aim is to give vac schemers a taste of what life will be like as a trainee at the firm. 

Since this is the toughest stage of the process to get though in percentage terms, candidates would do well to spend that extra bit of time ensuring that their applications stand out. "I'm not a big fan of generic, shotgun applications," warns Andrew. "Our application form is quite word heavy, so I'm looking for somebody who writes fluently, intelligently and actually answers the questions - as you see a lot that don't! I'm also looking for an obvious desire for the profession and some sort of indication that they have a reason for applying to us. People will obviously apply to a large number of firms, but I want to know why they're applying to us specifically."

Around 100 successful vac scheme candidates will then be invited to the Bristol offices to attend an assessment centre in early February, while a similar number of direct applicants will be called to a slightly different assessment centre in August. One of the standout reasons for Burges Salmon's success in the TARAs is the effort it puts into make those invited to these days feel welcome.

"The recruitment process was certainly a deciding factor for me," claims Victoria Lee, a first-year trainee at the firm. "I had an offer from another firm, but it was just so smooth and so professionally handled at Burges Salmon, that was what swung it for me in the end. I remember from the moment I stepped through the door, I was put at ease. The first stage was the assessment centre day and it wasn't stressful at all; it was actually quite enjoyable, which is quite a weird thing to say about an assessment centre. The whole process itself was much better - much smoother and much more welcoming - than at any of the other firms I applied to. There were just little touches that made it special. At the end of the interview, for instance, they mentioned that candidates were often too nervous to eat, so they offered us little packed lunches with chocolate bars."

The vacation scheme assessment days involve a psychometric test, a group exercise and an interview with one of the partners. There is also a chance to get to know the firm, with tours of the office giving applicants the chance to meet some of the lawyers and presentations about the firm from current trainees and partners.

"We try to make it a two-way process," Frances explains, "so it's not all about us bringing people in, keeping them in one meeting room, moving them through to another one for a couple of hours and then showing them the door. The idea is that they get to know about us as well. They get to see the environment in which we work and get to meet as many of our people as they can."

Once on the vacation scheme, this theme continues. The aim is to give vac schemers a taste of what life will be like as a trainee at the firm. So, while there are some fun social events organised - such as boat trips round Bristol or trips out bowling - the key objective is to get people working. "One of the things that I'm often told distinguishes us is that the candidates actually do live work," suggests Andrew. "They are here for two weeks and will sit in two different departments alongside somebody who would usually be a trainee supervisor. They sit in a seat which a trainee would usually occupy and see exactly what it is a trainee does."

At the end of the two weeks, each applicant is offered an interview, which delves into a little more detail than the initial face-to-face to get onto the scheme. This, combined with feedback from those they worked with on the scheme, is the basis on which the decision is made as to whether to offer them a training contract.

Meanwhile, direct applicants skip the short initial interview, but complete a written exercise instead; if all goes well, they will then be invited to attend a final interview shortly afterwards.

Those lucky enough to be offered a training contract through either route are informed as soon as possible, depending on their stage of education, and are regarded as part of the firm from that point on. Contact is maintained throughout the GDL (if required) and LPC, with future trainees receiving invitations to the firm's annual New Year and summer parties, birthday and Christmas cards, and even little gifts for outstanding academic achievements.

"We try to get them to think of themselves as part of the firm before they join," explains Frances. "I think it's much better for them when they start if they already feel like they belong. And it's better for us as well. There's more chance they will really grow roots at the firm and feel part of it, which means they're more likely to stay in the long term, I think."

Indeed, the camaraderie continues through into the training contract, with plenty of peer support and activities organised to help trainees to bond. "There is an amazing social club that organises parties and subsidises sports teams," enthuses Victoria. "It's a really fun and supportive collegiate environment, which is something that I've liked since day one."

And there is plenty of work for the trainees to sink their teeth into. The six-seat rotation gives prospective Burges Salmon lawyers the chance to show what they can do across a breadth of areas, and as they rise to the challenge, they will be treated accordingly. "Right from the start, you're given client contact and a lot of responsibility," Victoria continues. "But then it will ramp up in each seat. You're trusted more and more and it feels like quite a natural progression - it's never scary."

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