Meet Irwin Mitchell at the Legal Cheek UK Virtual Law Fair on 4 November 2021
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 savviness. 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 in 2019 and pandemic-linked cuts and training contract delays in 2020. The net result is eleven years of consecutive growth, with turnover and profit before tax hitting £275.8 million and £23.7 million, respectively.
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 21-22 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”, one trainee informs us. “You get a good spread of work and responsibility right from the get-go and trainees get the chance to have a lot of hands on contact with clients.” A fellow rookie praises the “excellent support and supervision” but warns this can vary across departments, while 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 work is “generally stimulating”, according to one insider, “however as a trainee there is a lot of repetition and file reviewing, bundle preparation etc.” We’re told “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 rookie happily reports being given the opportunity to tackle “complex pieces of research” within the first few weeks of their TC.
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 very supportive 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. “All the partners in my team are very down to earth and very approachable,” another says. “They are always just a Microsoft Teams call or an email away.” And what about this heartfelt comment: “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, with one source describing it simply as “not fit for purpose”. Other grumbles include a “very slow” case management system and “pretty poor” telephone set-up. “IM is not as up to date as its competitors in terms of tech,” another blunty summarises. You’d assume that such a firm would struggle with the rise in agile working, and certainly there were initial teething troubles with not enough work laptops to go around (“like gold dust”). But the firm appears to have ironed out most of the kinks with a decent budget to purchase office essentials.
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’s relatively new digs in Manchester and Birmingham are located in “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. Another rookie also bemoans the lack of “information and visibility” on the few sweeteners that are available. 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 “excellent” 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 can often be found heading for the exit before 6pm. One newbie tells us “trainees only work late if something is urgent or the team needs all hands on deck”.