Ince & Co
Ince & Co, Holman Fenwick and Willan and Clyde & Co together form the triumverate of top City shipping firms. Ince & Co also specialises in insurance, and while revenues have declined in the last couple of years thanks to tough times in the insurance and shipping markets, it's still very profitable - its most senior partners take home an estimated £545,000.
Shipping firms tend to have a slightly more relaxed attitude to hours than more corporate finance-driven practices, and that seems to be the case here. Assistants say that hours are generally civilised in all areas, and trainees told the RollOnFriday 2016 survey that there was an "excellent work/life balance", and that while they may not be the highest paid trainees, "we can enjoy hobbies instead of slogging away on cases" all night. A senior associate vouched in the 2015 survey that they, "Get to leave on time or even a bit early most days - a vast improvement on previous job at a Magic Circle firm". Facetime doesn't seem to be an issue: "you are expected to put in the work when needed", said a junior associate, "but you are certainly not expected to stay late just for the sake of it". It's "very sensible" agreed a colleague in 2016.
On the downside, shipping law isn't everyone’s cup of tea, especially, it would seem, to the lady lawyers out there. When last we heard, of a total of 97 partners (many of whom started their careers with the firm), only 14 are female. Almost as poor a proportion as the woeful 15 out of 127 at Holman Fenwick. What is it with shipping firms?
Ince has a curious system where there are no departments, everyone just sits together. You can work for anyone, but generally have 10-15 partners who give you work as and when you have capacity. It means that as a trainee, you can carry matters through the two years of your training. A trainee says "not having to drop cases when you move seats" is a clear benefit, as are the "opportunities for really interesting novel work in niche sectors". That might mean the luxury yachts, with a colleague noting that work is "occasionally good with big cases involving big-boy toys". A downside of no departments is the danger of poor work allocation, and in 2016 a couple of trainess complained that there was "not enough work to go round for trainees", with an "imbalance of work" between them.
The opportunity to work abroad is a plus ("good opportunities for foreign secondments", vouched one junior), and on the international front it’s been a busy few years. The firm has European offices Le Havre, Piraeus, Paris, Monaco and Hamburg to its letterhead, plus the only slightly more exotic Dubai, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore. Says one lawyer, "I've been to India, Korea, South America, Central Europe and had a fantastic time of it". So there are plenty of interesting places to work when the fleet's in port.
The firm's profitability stumbled in 2012/13, resulting in 10 fee-earners and six staff being made redundant in the shipping team. In 2014, 33 staff were made redundant. And revenues have declined for two years in a row. In 2014/15, global revenue fell 8% from £86.7m (£52.2m in the UK) in 2013/14 to £79.4m (£47.5m in the UK). The firm blamed "current market conditions, particularly in the firm's specialist sectors", saying that they, "remain challenging due to the continued downturn in the market – most notably in the shipping industry". Juniors in 2016 told the RollOnFriday survey, "the money wagon has stopped rolling along", while a partner said there had been a "continued fall in staff motivation over the last 18 months".
The firm usually takes on a dozen trainees a year. A few years ago the retention rate fell to a miserly 58%. The next year only nine new trainees were taken on, but to be fair all of those nine were retained when they qualified. The firm promptly went back to recruiting a dozen trainees a year. Almost all were kept on for a while (11 from 12 in 2009, 10 from 12 in 2010 and 14 from 15 in 2011), though after the leap to 15, in 2013 only 10 from 15 found a berth in the firm. And in 2015, only nine from 15 were retained - 60%. However the 2017 results were a big improvement as the firm announced a 90% retention rate with nine out of ten trainees being kept on
The performance in the RollOnFriday Firm of the Year survey has also suffered after a stellar run. An impressive second place in 2011 was followed by victory in 2012. And the firm retained its crown spectacularly in 2013. In 2014, though, it slipped to eighth place - though top ten is still excellent. Responses gave particular attention to the "fantastically friendly" people and the "excellent social life" (especially if you like sailing). Such a great place, in fact, that it's the only firm ever described as "like living in a land of unicorns and rainbows".
In 2015 it slipped to 16th place. Though that's a drop, it was still a good result (there were 54 firms in the survey) and it's a sign of the high regard staff hold the firm that they were positive about the problems. Yes, the firm "has been through a difficult year", said a junior associate, "but there is a real drive to make things change - so hopefully the results will show". Others agreed that the firm was doing its best to make things better. "The way people are managed and communication with the staff could be better", said one, "though, to be fair, they are working on it". Many respondents said the firm remained packed to the gills with "approachable and friendly", "generally lovely" people.
But in the 2016 survey it plummeted to 10th from bottom. Chief amongst concerns was lack of work and, consequently, job security. "Every day brings something new", said one lawyer: "redundancies, leaving drinks, folks in floods of tears". Another said there was "plenty of time to relax" - but only because there's "not much work around". A colleague rued, "I'm probably next to be kicked out". Another cited "haemorrhaging partners/fee earners/staff" and the associated bad press. The rainbows "were an illusion", said another, "much like the covering of an oil slick". As for the unicorn, "it was violently *#*@ed before being sold on to the glue factory to help recoup operational costs". In 2018, more redundancies followed, with 32 roles cut in the London office. And there have been several high-level departures, while the firm's hunt for a merger, hitting on Gordon Dadds this year, hasn't always looked like a choice.
Overall, Ince has an interesting set up and what must be one of the best cash/work-life ratios in the City. Let's hope that confidence returns, because in the past, one staffer's assertion that Ince & Co "looks after its people" was bang on the money.