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Bristol: a cracking place for a career

15/05/2012

Bristol is jumping with new office openings and expanding law firms. Here, CityLawLIVE's Anna Williams chats to those who've made the move to this attractive South West spot and analyses why Bristol is the place to be for exciting legal work and an enviable work-life balance.


The other week I met with Richard Waller, who heads the London office of TLT - one of the largest firms with a Bristol heritage. Over coffee, we discuss his reasons for leaving the capital 14 years ago to pursue professional life in the South West. "It was my 40th birthday," he smiles, recollecting the Eureka moment, "and I was getting the bus to work as usual. I'd been at the same London law firm for 18 years and I thought, I either make a move now or I stay forever. I knew that if I was going to move, it had to be somewhere different, not just another London firm. It was a combination of having been somewhere for a long time and thinking about my family - my kids were still very young at the time.

"Bristol felt right. I considered other major cities, but from a work perspective, and culturally, cities like Leeds or Manchester can feel very different to London. I worried that fitting in was going to be harder for me in a northern city. In Bristol, I found that an awful lot of other people also used to work in London. In that sense it felt very similar, and to be honest not provincial at all."

Richard's story is one I have heard from others who have already taken - or hope to take - the road to professional life in the South West. As TLT now has an office in London, Richard typically works in the capital four days a week and spends Mondays in Bristol. "When I'm there, I drive to work," he tells me. "People moan about Bristol traffic but actually it is totally predictable and I know I can be in the office in 45 minutes, even though I live in a very rural area about 35 miles away. It can take just 30 minutes on the way home. Whereas a lot of people hate Mondays, I find them less tiring and I get home feeling far more refreshed than any other day of the week. In London, I'm typically around more in the evenings and mixing with other lawyers. I personally find a slower pace in Bristol, but that's probably not true of all Bristol lawyers - the Bristol scene is definitely active."

Someone who's ideally positioned to confirm this is TLT's managing partner David Pester. Cue another coffee date. David's experience is more typical in that he lives in Bristol itself and can walk to the office. Other colleagues cycle, take the train or hop on a ferry. He tells me that one lawyer used to canoe to work, which has to be the most unusual method of commuting I've ever come across. David speaks of a strong professional network spearheaded by the Bristol Law Society and supported by a variety of affiliate groups, which include the Bristol Junior Lawyers Division and the Bristol Young Professionals. For him, Bristol's real advantages lie in the availability of quality client work and practitioners. He talks of nationally sourced instructions but also of South West clients who combine their international business interests with a preference for fostering local links and buying local services. One such client is Aardman Animations, which has used TLT for many years. As for which industries have a heavy footprint in the region, David highlights insurance, tech/media, aerospace, and tourism and leisure.

A decision to pursue your career in Bristol has to be about more than finding an affordable house and building a life in a beautiful part of the country. It's about finding an employer that can help you achieve your career goals. While some firms focus fully on the local market, others like TLT cast their net far wider. "Our biggest clients are banks and pub companies that operate nationally," Richard reveals, explaining that TLT's decision to move into the capital in 2005 was all about strengthening existing client relationships. Remember: starting out in Bristol need not mean staying there forever. As Richard discovered, an opportunity to work in the capital (or elsewhere) might arise: "This has certainly been the experience of several of our lawyers and trainees who have moved to our London office."

Bristol firms succeed in winning work from the London market, partly because the South West is a less costly place to do business, but also because they can attract both experienced professionals with existing client connections and fresh talent, ripe for developing. It's a virtuous circle, you could say. With two major universities in the city, plus two more post-graduate law course providers, recruiting trainees and pupils isn't difficult, and there's also a healthy appetite for London-qualified associates. Proving just this point, later in 2012, international firm Simmons & Simmons will launch in Bristol.

And just as the roster of new firms keeps changing, so the kaleidoscope twists for the city's established law firms. Last week, TLT announced new ventures in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Belfast. In Northern Ireland it is opening an office from scratch, while in the other two cities it is merging with Scottish practice Anderson Fyfe. David explains that the move was driven by financial services clients: "Increasingly, clients want us to provide a UK-wide solution. These offices represent an opportunity to meet changing client needs, win additional market share and recruit new talent, while positioning us as a true national firm." I can tell he's pretty excited by the challenge and rather pleased that, between us, we fail to come up with more than one other firm (Pinsent Masons) with offices in each of the UK's legal jurisdictions: England & Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

If you intend to make Bristol the focus of your training search, be aware that it has a fantastic selection of employers covering the waterfront of practice. The best known of the Bristol-born commercial firms are Burges Salmon, Osborne Clarke and TLT. Each services a large number of corporates and financial institutions that are headquartered outside the South West. Osborne Clarke is also present in London, Reading and overseas; Burges Salmon is regarded as a peer of the London mid-sized firms, despite not having a full London office.

The city also hosts a slew of multisite firms with a variety of practice leanings and UK footprints: DAC Beachcroft, Bevan Brittan, Bond Pearce, Irwin Mitchell and Thompsons, for example. From among the City of London stalwarts there are CMS Cameron McKenna, Reynolds Porter Chamberlain and, soon, Simmons & Simmons. Each firm has something slightly different to offer in terms of clientele and specialist areas of legal practice, albeit that the City firms do not run full Bristol-based training schemes.

If a South West-focused multisite firm is your bag then smart choices include Ashfords, Clarke Willmott, Foot Anstey and Thrings, or how about a firm such as Veale Wasbrough Vizards, which operates in London and Bristol. Smaller general practice and high-street firms play their part, too, among them the Quality Solicitors-branded Burroughs Day, plus it's worth noting that Co-operative Legal Services now runs its national operation from Bristol. For a full list of opportunities in Bristol, you can use LC.N's Find a Training Contract search function or its Find a Pupillage search.

At some (though not all) Bristol firms, student hopefuls must present themselves as fully committed to the region. The strongest connections typically come from an upbringing or education in the area, or a first career. My tip for anyone serious about joining a decidedly South West firm or chambers would be to build on your existing regional ties and learn something about the regional business environment.  The websites of the organisations you wish to apply to are a good place to start, and online publications such as South west Business Insider and  Bristol Business News should also help. If your knowledge is up to scratch, you're bound to come across better when asked to explain your reasons for starting (or continuing) your career here. David tells me that TLT welcomes candidates from across the United Kingdom and is not looking for a regional connection but wants employees to have drive, ambition, excellent client communication skills and commercial acumen: "We go to law fairs all over the country. It's more the case that they should be interested in working in one of our locations and understand what we are about as a firm."

Let's wrap up with a handy chart focusing on where training contract opportunities lie for the Bristol minded. These are 12 of the largest firms:

Firm

Offers Bristol training contracts

Offers London training contracts

Offers training contracts elsewhere in the UK

Ashfords LLP

Yes

 

Yes

Beale and Company Solicitors LLP

Yes

Yes

 

Bevan Brittan LLP

Yes

Yes

Yes

Bond Pearce LLP

Yes

 

Yes

Burges Salmon

Yes

 

 

Clarke Willmott LLP

Yes

 

Yes

CMS Cameron McKenna LLP

Some seats available

Yes

Some seats available (and overseas seats)

DAC Beachcroft

Yes

Yes

Yes

Foot Anstey

Yes

 

Yes

Osborne Clarke

Yes

Yes

Yes

TLT LLP

Yes

Yes

 

Veale Wasbrough Vizards

Yes

Yes

 

 

Anna Williams is CityLawLIVE conference organiser and research manager at LawCareers.Net.


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