One of the first big law firms to become an Alternative Business Structure (which allows non-lawyers to be partners), Irwin Mitchell has a reputation for innovation and business savvy. Over the last few years the national giant had been concentrating on building up that business at pace, gobbling up smaller firms and opening new offices as it aimed for scale (it now has 15 locations across the UK). But it also hasn’t been afraid to take tough decisions, including a partner clear-out last year and pandemic-linked cuts and training contract delays in 2020. The net result is ten solid years of growth, with turnover now at £269 million.
IM boasts three key practice areas: corporate, personal and private client. Its work for individuals is dominated by personal injury and medical negligence, while corporate clients are divided across eight main sectors: manufacturing, technology, financial services, real estate, education, media, sports and consumer services. Some teams have a distinct identity, say insiders, with the feedback from the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey indicating that the trainee experience at the firm can be quite different according to which seat and location you find yourself in. How stimulating the work is, for example, “depends on the team” according to one of those surveyed — a familiar comment about firms of this size, in fairness.
Overall the “hands on and partner led” training is excellent but rookies emphasise that it’s “very much in at the deep end”. That’s no bad thing provided that you’re prepared for it. One trainee describes it like this: “I have had hands on responsibility from day one, attended trials, JSMs, new client meetings, taken witness statements etc. as soon as I arrived. I also had the support around me to make me feel comfortable and confident trying new tasks. Feedback was always constructive and understanding of my level.” Another says “in both of my first two seats I have been expected to action a wide variety of tasks without being shown how to do them.” Not that you can’t ask questions if you’re less comfortable with immediate responsibility: we’re told that “every partner I have worked for is incredibly approachable and genuinely cares about your training.”
The quality of work is, accordingly, top rated. “Supervisors are willing to give high degrees of responsibility if you demonstrate you can handle it” — which can mean some fascinating (and harrowing) stuff for those doing a seat in IM’s market-leading personal injury team, in particular. Similarly, on the corporate side, one trainee happily reports being “given day to day responsibility for some company restructures, under supervision”.”
IM’s London office in the Holborn/City borders is the scene of much of this corporate action, and is very much what you would expect from a City law firm. Meanwhile, the Sheffield office — which is the firm’s headquarters, having been founded there in 1912 — is the nerve centre for the wide-ranging personal injury practice that IM is probably best known for. It’s also home to insolvency, litigation, employment, construction, regulatory investigations and real estate teams. Private client is split across a range of locations in West London, the South, Manchester and Leeds.
What unifies this all is a down-to-earth culture. “It’s not unusual to come in to the office in the morning and find a Greggs sausage barm and coffee waiting for you on your desk!” reports one rookie. There is a “complete open-door policy,” another of the firm’s young lawyers tells us, “as it would have to be, with an open plan office.” We don’t often see survey comments quite as heartfelt as this one: “I have always been met with understanding and warmth. I was told by one of the partners during a particularly stressful day, ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’, and she dropped everything she was doing to assist me and make sure I met a very important deadline”. Bless.
Tensions arise less from interaction between fellow humans than with the firm’s problematic IT, which inspires frequent technology rage. Our spies report “frustration with technology on an almost daily basis” and “reliance on paper files”. There are apparently “many case management systems used throughout the firm which can lead to confusion as not all cases are on the same system”. You’d assume that such a firm would struggle with the move to home-working, and certainly there were initial teething troubles with not enough work laptops to go around (“like gold dust”). But overall Irwin Mitchell has scored highly for WFH adaptability, with rookies saying it’s gone “fantastically well — it feels like business as usual and I am able to produce the same quantity and quality of work from my home”.
Those physically in the office send mixed feedback depending on which location they’re operating out of. It’s not exactly rooftop swimming pools, but the firm recently moved to new digs in both Manchester and Birmingham, with some trainees reporting “lovely and inviting” surroundings. Others, such as Bristol, “could be better” and efforts to make the place more eco-friendly are similarly site-dependent (although one insider tells us there’s an “environmental society” on the case). Nor is the firm great for perks. Rather underwhelming highlights include “reasonably good” shopping discounts through a corporate deals website, private healthcare and cheap cinema tickets. A bit more effort from the powers that be on things like coffee (IM’s is apparently terrible), canteens (not all of the offices have one) and firm-funded socials would be appreciated. “There is no graduate recruitment budget for trainees apart from when we are trying to impress the vacation schemers, so trainee socials are self-organised and self-funded. Other than standard Friday night drinks, there aren’t a wealth of socials at the firm,” we are told.
But who needs barista-poured coffee and lavish socials when you have a life? Although not officially classified as such, the “fantastic” work/life balance is undoubtedly the best perk — and a pretty amazing one at that — with IM one of the few big law firms where lawyers regularly leave before 6pm. One trainee sums up the vibe: “A standard day in my current seat is 9am-5pm; whilst this isn’t the norm, the work/life balance here is a real perk. A trainee telling you that they stayed until 8pm would be met with gasps of shock.”