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 past few years the national giant had been concentrating on building up that business at pace, gobbling up smaller firms and opening new offices — most recently in Cardiff and Liverpool — as it aimed for scale (it now has 17 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 multiple years of consecutive growth, with this year being a rare exception: revenue was down slightly under 3% from £283.3 million to ££275.7 million after halting its fast-track PI work last September to focus on more complex, higher-end work.
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.
The firm operates a “flexible by choice” policy, which means employees can work from home as much as they like, work responsibilities permitting. While many people will view this as an obvious advantage, some of the trainees feel they are missing out on “osmosis learning” as a result. One mole reports: “It is often difficult to arrange for the team to all come in to the office on the same day. I believe that this has resulted in less training in the soft skills required to be a solicitor eg responding to client calls, interacting with other legal professionals face to face.” This woe is echoed by another trainee: “Not enough transactions and even when I do come in the office, not enough interaction happening amongst team.”
Other trainees are more positive, although several highlighted the quality of training varies between teams. “Some line managers take the time to provide feedback promptly, or through your one to ones. Other line managers don’t provide any feedback on document work or one to ones follow late/ they don’t prepare for one to ones. Generally, so far, I have been satisfied with training and feedback on how to improve,” says one rookie. Others report “the training in complex personal injury is excellent”, that there is “wide variety of work, helpful supervisors, timely feedback. Overall great experience,” and that “everything is learn by doing, which works well for me personally but can be difficult for some”.
The work, on the other hand, is reportedly “fascinating” and “there is a lot of responsibility given” to trainees. The “majority of work is stimulating and client-facing”. An insider says: “Contentious departments tend to give more stimulating work but generally I feel you are given a wide range of tasks and trusted to get on with the task and feedback given. You are always thought of when there is a meeting with clients, Counsel or experts and given this exposure which is a key part of learning during your TC.”
IM’s London office in the Holborn/City borders handles much of the firm’s corporate work, 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, both among trainees and emanating from supervisors and partners. “I never felt like I needed to walk on eggshells around supervisors,” says one newbie. “Everyone is super responsive to queries and providing support, including partners.” Supervisors are described as “brilliant and very friendly”, “never judgemental and always deliver feedback in a positive way”; partners as “very approachable”; and peers as “supportive and available even when working in a virtual way. Past trainees have acted as buddies and this has always ensured I have had someone to approach, even with the silly questions”.
Tensions arise less from interaction between fellow humans than with the firm’s problematic IT, with one source resorting to sarcasm: “2004 called it wants one of the 100 case management systems back.” IT issues, according to one insider, are “extensive and consistent”, while another complains: “There are constant IT issues. The databases are very old and systems regularly crash. As trainees, we are not allowed work mobiles. This means we rely on softphones which often don’t work.” Our spies don’t hold back with their IT gripes ― “the technology is really lacking and way behind the curve”; there are “regular system outages… our time recording platform, Outlook and case management systems are regularly down”; the legal tech is “very poor”, “still operating on Microsoft 2010 with some staff on a Microsoft 365 pilot that seems to have been going on a year. Bespoke case management system used in the Complex PI division is archaic and not fit for purpose. Significant lack of innovation with regards to legal tech”.
The perks are private healthcare, shopping discounts through a corporate deals website, and cheap cinema tickets. But who needs barista-poured coffee and lavish socials when you have a life? Perhaps the greatest perk of working at Irwin Mitchell, aside from the friendly team and interesting work, is the work-life balance, which sounds pretty much as good as it can get. This is appreciated by Legal Cheek’s spies, who report it is “rare to do overtime and I generally feel encouraged to speak up if my workload gets overwhelming. Flexible working policy means I get to drop off my daughter at nursery and pick her up at the end of the day without any issue, even if it means I have to supplement my hours in the evening”. One insider says they generally leave work before 6pm, although they acknowledge trainees in some teams will regularly work considerably later. The firm’s flexible working policy “encourages a healthy work life balance to fit around an individual’s lifestyle”.
One rookie describes their experience: “At first, I missed the engagement in the office however, most colleagues make an effort to go into the office once a week and the flexible nature of the way the company works means I can work when it suits me, which enables me to go to medical appointments/ the gym throughout the day and then work earlier in the mornings or later in the evenings.”
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).