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. But over the last few years the national giant – which has 14 offices across the UK – has been concentrating on the rather more traditional pastime of gobbling up smaller firms as it aims for scale. Specifically, Irwin Mitchell has been building up a private client practice (AKA advising very rich people), following the acquisitions of Mayfair’s Berkeley Law and multi-office South East firm Thomas Eggar.
This strategy has seen IM create three key practice areas: corporate, personal injury and private client. They are divided across six sectors: manufacturing, technology, financial services, real estate, education and consumer services. Some teams have a distinct identity, say insiders, with the feedback from the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey 2018-19 indicating that the trainee experience at the firm can be quite different according to which seat and location you find yourself in. A gradual standardisation is taking place, but some major discrepancies remain. For example, Legal Cheek understands that some trainees in the firm’s London offices are still being paid different salaries to each other.
Overall the training is “to a high standard” but how it is delivered can apparently “vary wildly”. As one rookie puts it: “The training varies greatly between different departments. In some I was given regular training sessions in matters which were directly relevant to the work I was/am carrying out. However in others the training was essentially ‘on the job’ and gained through experience and asking individual supervising solicitors to explain aspects of the work.”
The quality of work is similarly mixed – but of generally a high standard. “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.
IM’s London office in the Holborn/City borders is the scene of much of the 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 – is the nerve centre for the wide-ranging personal injury practice that IM is probably best known for. It’s also home to a regional corporate team which handles some high profile national deals. Private client is split across a range of locations in West London and the South.
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.”
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”. Another reckons that “it’s rare to go a week without a major incident email” with the IT helpdesk a “saving grace”.
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 work/life balance is undoubtedly the best perk – and a pretty amazing one at that – with IM one of the few big law firms to have an average leave the office time of 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. The firm encourages flexible and agile working so it is easy to work from home or another office when necessary.”