Burges Salmon and Osborne Clarke are the firms that dominate the Bristol legal scene and it's fair to say that the former has been in the ascendant. It has stuck to a policy of steady organic growth, as befits a firm with a reputation as a restrained, stately sort of place with a conservative attitude to life which has allowed it to weather recent economic ups and downs successfully. And it's widely seen as being the top firm outside the capital and top of the heap in Bristol for pretty much every practice.
It’s now grown to 81 partners, and 293 other fee earners and though its head office is in Bristol, its work reaches global heights. It boasts a client list featuring the likes of Eurostar, The Co-Operative Group, FirstGroup and The Crown Estate. Notable deals include advising the Greater London Authority on the regeneration of Royal Albert Docks and advising FirstGroup on its bid for the InterCity West Coast franchise. Having relocated its London office to an award-winning development at New Street Square, the firm has been keen to augment its image as a ‘regional firm’.
Burges Salmon has got a good name for banking, insolvency and corporate work and has made moves to bolster its competition practice too. Notable successes included a £31m AIM flotation of new client Bristol & London, securing a place on the panel of the multinational aviation service BBA group, and nabbing its largest ever securitisation deal from under the noses of numerous Magic Circle candidates.
The firm's trainees, lawyers and support staff are very happy. In 2006 staff voted it RollOnFriday Firm of the Year. In the intervening years it maintained high rankings and in 2016 and 2017 it was re-anointed Firm of the Year. And again in 2018. In a tight field at the very top, it came seventh in 2019. People really are very happy there. A large number of its staff took part in the survey, and they very clear how they felt. "Quite simply, it is a firm run by humans that treats you like humans". If that sounds like faint praise, "it really isn't - having spent six years at a Magic Circle firm run by robots who treated you like cattle it is a very pleasant change". The work/life balance "is as good as you're realistically likely to get doing the kind of work we do", said another.
Staff also applauded the "realisation within management", says one lawyer, "that we have chosen to live in Bristol and want both City quality work AND a Bristol lifestyle". Which means, says another, "I can actually afford to own a house and support a family, whilst having a 15 minute cycling commute". Though it can be difficult explaining to clients that "you don't have to be headquartered in London to provide the legal services they expect".
It is, say staff, a "genuinely friendly" place. "Everyone smiles as you walk past them", says one. "I've been given a lot of support and flexibility", says a maternity returner, "which makes me feel all warm and fuzzy about the firm"
It received dozens of plaudits for its culture. "Having spent my entire career at BS I suspect I take many of the great things about the firm for granted", confessed one lifer, "but I regularly enjoy witnessing the (positive) culture shock new recruits have when joining the firm". Burges Salmon "is THE genuine alternative to life in the City", says another. New joiners agree that it is "a breath of fresh air" after London, while a partner's perspective is that the "highly collegiate" management culture "makes it a great place to be a partner".
So, the positives very much outweigh the negatives, especially when some of the bad stuff is, "the rooms facing the atrium are a bit dark".