When Berrymans Lace Mawer merged with Scotland’s HBM Sayers in May 2014, the combined entity rebranded as BLM and promptly broke through the £100 million revenue mark. But it has been a turbulent journey since then. Government reforms affecting insurance work — a central practice area for BLM — and the collapse of long-standing client Thomas Cook prompted it to review its business model.
This has meant several rounds of redundancies as the firm pivots towards higher end work as part of its ambition to be one of the leading global insurance and risk law specialists. The transition has seen revenue stagnate at just over £100 million, with profit per equity partner sliding over 25% to a 10-year low of £167,000.
The firm, however, has put in a solid performance in the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey 2021-22, suggesting that the junior end of the firm continues to tick along quite nicely amid the repositioning taking place at a strategic level. Trainees paint a pleasant picture with plenty of comments praising the informal environment (office dress is casual, unlike many law firms), where “we are all very good friends” with “not much politics”.
The training is rated highly, with reports of “excellent supervision focusing on gradual development over the course of the two years, as well as the right amount of chucking in the deep end (with lifeguards on active duty) to get vital learning experience”. Rookies did note, however, that the quality of training was “impacted to a degree due to working from home”.
The work is what you’d expect from an insurance law firm with an impressive client roster. “Plenty of opportunities to work with your own clients which is excellent,” responds one trainee. A first-seater in the property damage team described their experience: “there has been a lot of substantive work given to me. I am responsible for my own smaller cases which give you a variety of work to deal with such as developing case strategy, giving updates to clients, drafting pre-action letters or initiating proceedings. The work that the property damage team does is also varied as I have worked on different types of property damage ranging from motor impacts and flooding to fires and oil leaks”.
Close ties to the major insurers see a hefty chunk of trainees complete a client secondment each year, with placements at the likes of Hiscox, Aviva, Zurich Insurance Group and the Association of British Insurers. We’re told secondments are also available post-qualification. There are also opportunities to get involved in the firm’s expanding private wealth team and commercial advisory group, which BLM established in late 2017 with the hire of 33 lawyers from Slater and Gordon.
BLM has also dipped its toe into international waters, launching Global Insurance Law Connect, an international network with other insurance law specialists. There aren’t opportunities to be seconded abroad, however, which doesn’t faze one rookie: “What you don’t have in international secondments you can convert into eco-friendly tokens. Swings and roundabouts.” Other common trainee seats include insurance-related personal injury departments such as motor and casualty, occupational disease, local authority and professional indemnity.
One trainee offers a withering review of the firm’s tech: “The IT is a bit ‘hit or miss’ — when it works it’s great, when it doesn’t it can really impact upon your day.” Yet, the situation has improved. “I think lockdown has pushed the firm to make tech decisions quicker and that has really benefited us,” reports one rookie. Despite these changes that have improved the situation somewhat, consensus remains that the legal tech is still “pretty basic”, with some grumbling about the lack of support from the firm in helping juniors to set up their desks at home during the pandemic.
Perk-wise, our insiders report getting their birthday off, and, erm, free hot chocolate in the kitchen. Those chasing the dizzy heights of MoneyLaw should probably look elsewhere. Pay is considered “low” in comparison to competitors, a fact that is reflected in the number of trainees that choose to stay at BLM post-qualification, with the September 2020 retention rates sitting at just 37%. Trainees start on a salary of £31,000 in London which rises to just £45,000 upon qualification.
The trade-off is a “an extremely friendly, supportive place to work” – “no real perks but no real jerks, which is a perk” as one junior put it – and a healthy work/life balance in which BLM scores highly. “In my commercial litigation seat I would generally be out by 5:45/6pm,” shares one insider, whilst another boasts “I work 9-5 and I am a 2.5 year PQE Associate”.
One trainee summarised: “work/life balance is a real priority for the firm and I have never been made to feel that I had to work late to ‘prove myself’. Superiors have called out instances where I have been looking to work late to meet deadlines and have even arranged work internally to ensure that I didn’t have to work late”.
Relatively short working hours facilitate a social life that trainees describe as “very good”. Though there aren’t many firm organised socials “which is a shame” (bar the annual summer blowout), the trainees “take it upon themselves” to organise after-work socials and are even allocated “a trainee budget to do our own thing”.
The national outfit has 13 offices spread across the UK and Ireland but its Manchester and London offices are by far the largest. BLM’s Manchester headquarters is, as one trainee puts it, pretty much all “beige and 90s” but it is moving into new premises soon. By comparison, the firm’s London base affords trainees some spectacular City views – “my desk faces on to the Shard,” one insider tells us – as they enjoy the “open plan, clean, spacious, bright and airy” workspaces, just off Fenchurch Street (appropriately in the heart of the capital’s insurance district).
The firm announced the closure of its Bristol and Leeds offices in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, with teams in the cities moving to permanent remote-working. The 25 or so annual trainees that BLM takes on are most likely to be working in either Manchester or London, with a handful based in Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool and Southampton.