Lights, camera, transaction
Freshfields has been a top City firm for hundreds of years and still acts for its first client, the Bank of England. In 2000 the firm merged with German giants Bruckhaus and Deringer and since then has made world domination its mission. A new foothold in Singapore has been the most recent addition to a portfolio of 28 international offices. Freshfields is famous for its stellar corporate and finance work, but the dispute resolution practice is also very strong and growing rapidly. It has recently been involved in several headline-grabbing cases, including that of Mukhtar Ablyazov, the Kazakh banker alleged to have embezzled £3.3bn of BTA Bank's money.
In a deal reportedly worth £10m, the firm acted as an official sponsor of the London Olympic and Paralympic Games and advised the Games' organising committee on issues ranging from athlete visas to infringement of the Olympic brand. Other recent mouth-watering deals include the sale of Stansted Airport, Britain's fourth largest, for £1.5bn and managing the investment of £700m by China's Dalian Wanda Group in a five-star hotel planned for London's slick new Vauxhall development site Nine Elms. Couple that with many multi-jurisdictional, multimillion-pound deals and a client roster that includes Barclays, BP, Rolls-Royce, Goldman Sachs and the Financial Times, and you can see why Freshfields is an alluring prospect. One of our sources summed it up neatly when asked why they'd applied: “I wanted the prestige, the highest quality work on offer and the best training contract going.”
Our insiders had a lot of praise for Freshfields' unusual but “incredibly flexible” offer of three or six-month seats: “The three-month system works very well because if for some reason you find yourself in a seat you're not enjoying you can leave again quickly without feeling like you've lost a quarter of your training contract.” Another told us: “You need to discuss a career plan with Trainee Development – if you say what your interests are long-term they do take them into account.” As well as the seats on offer in corporate, finance and dispute resolution, trainees have the chance to sit in the four specialist areas: tax; employment, pensions and benefits; real estate; and antitrust, competition and trade.
Almost all of our sources had spent time in corporate, where the work is split between four subdivisions: 'A' works for financial institutions, 'B' deals in private equity and infrastructure, 'C' in energy and retail, and 'D' specialises in media, technology and telecoms. Most trainees will spend time in at least one of these subseats, and return visits are also highly likely. A source said: “In the transactional teams the hours vary hugely; there are big peaks and troughs, but it's not unusual to be working a 12-hour day.” Trainees are mostly tasked with admin and research work across the department, and one insider confided: “I didn't feel much like a lawyer.” Despite this, our sources had mostly enjoyed working on the mega-deals in this multinational powerhouse, and they heaped praise on both the “awesome and really sociable” teams and the “comprehensive support network.” The department bagged the gong for Corporate/M&A Law Firm of the Year at the Chambers Global awards and recently advised on the merger of Random House and Penguin, two of the so-called 'Big Six' international publishing houses.
Corporate A mostly deals with “financial regulation work, but there are bits of M&A as well.” An insider told us: “It's one of the more black letter areas. You need to be able to read legislation and land on a definite answer. By the end of the seat I felt I'd learned exactly how a finance document is put together. It's a team of pure lawyers.” Over in corporate B “the clients are large private equity houses, and there's a lot of M&A work.” Trainees start on admin tasks, but the responsibility does increase, particularly for those who stay a full six months: “I was working on closings and the drafting of some complicated agreements. It's a mix of document work, research and client contact, and I had the chance to draft a whole suite of documents on one smaller case.”
Corporate C deals in IPOs and public M&A work. “A lot of what you do is coordinating the admin side of transactions, but you do get opportunities to liaise with specialists too. It involves a bit less brain work than some of the seats in other departments.” Meanwhile, in corporate D there's a lot of “interesting legal research,” and the cases range from telecoms work to “international oil, gas and mining matters.” Low-level work can't be avoided across the department, but as one trainee pointed out: “Even the menial work doesn't feel menial once you learn how important it is in moving a file forward, and they're good at making you feel part of the team, whatever you're doing.”
Field of dreams
With 33 partners and 144 solicitors, dispute resolution is also a formidable force, and it was a regular stop for the trainees we chatted to. One source said: “It's definitely competing with corporate and finance for engine status,” while another told us: “It feels like the department is growing rapidly; we're really busy. These are contentious times!” As with corporate, there's a smorgasbord of subseats within dispute resolution. The department hosts the financial institutions and disputes group; the international arbitration group; the commercial disputes group; engineering, procurement and construction; environmental planning and regulation; and IP/IT. The supervision on offer is “consistently brilliant,” a view echoed by trainees across the firm, and our insiders relished the “chance to take ownership of work.”
The financial institutions and disputes group was a frequent stop for those we spoke to, with trainees “working on a number of cases for the big banks. Often you will be looking at disputes that haven't got to the litigation stage yet, and you also spend time working closely with the Financial Services Authority. It's largely international work, and there are insurance and sports law files too. I didn't get to go to trial, but I know people who have.” Over in the international arbitration group “the hours are relentless, but the work is exceptionally good. It's a really prestigious department. I was involved in an oil and gas dispute, and I drafted a lot of claims notes. The team is small so you can get stuck in and take responsibility.” Clients instructing the latter team include Deutsche Bank and Siemens, but the department is best known for its work on multibillion-dollar international oil disputes.
The finance practice hosts seats in: banking; project finance; structured finance/debt capital markets; restructuring and insolvency; and energy, transport and infrastructure. The department has acted for HSBC, RBS and Morgan Stanley, and was involved in the €1.3bn refinancing of Techem, a global energy service provider. In banking there are a lot of “new money deals, refinancing and restructuring.” Another source added: “Most of the work trainees do is with transaction management and corporate authority documents. You get involved in drafting from the off, and you learn a lot very quickly. My champagne moment came when I went by myself to a client's European office to oversee a signing – that was incredible. There's a lot of pressure, but it's exciting.” Those looking for client contact within the finance department shouldn't shy away from the restructuring and insolvency seat: “One thing that's been noticeable in R&I is the amount of client contact and events. They get you really involved in a lot of networking events, and trainees are invited to prepare and attend client briefings.”
Planes, trains and mega big deals
The Financial Times, Oxford University Press and air and railway engineers Bombardier have all instructed the employment, pensions and benefits team recently. Trainees attend client meetings, draft witness statements and get involved with employment tribunal claims. One source said: “It's a brilliant department; you get so much responsibility. We're all doing good work, and it feel like the partners value our opinions.” One of their colleagues had just been jetted off to Dublin to attend a witness interview. Elsewhere in the specialist seats, the real estate department recently worked on a £1.1bn deal to redevelop a 5.5 acre site just north of Victoria station, and it advised London firm Nabarro on the planned move of its head office to 125 London Wall. One trainee told us: “The team mostly focuses on corporate buildings and developments in the City. We've worked with big funds that invest in the property market, and we've just helped prepare a portfolio of hotels for sale. I've had a lot more partner contact than in other seats.” Another source added: “The associates really do trust us enough to let us work on the big deals.”
At last count there were 42 secondments available to trainees, ranging from seats in overseas offices to domestic in-house client work, and this was a big part of what drew many of our insiders to Freshfields in the first place. There are client secondments to the Bank of England, the London Stock Exchange, Sony and Tesco. Trainees agreed that a three or six-month post away from Fleet Street “is very much encouraged and part of what makes Freshfields what it is.” Still, it isn't just a case of throwing a dart at a map of the world and packing your bags: our insiders described the competition for overseas work as “fierce,” and some seemed mystified by the allocation process. One source said: “I was under the impression that there were more on offer than there actually are. I don't think the HR materials give the true picture.” Another told us: “I've heard they're scaling down the range of secondments.” To clarify, when we spoke to trainee recruitment partner Simon Johnson, he told us: “We've no plans to reduce the list,” and in March 2013 the firm began seconding two trainees at a time to its new Singapore office.
Naturally, the hours can be long and merciless, as with any magic circle firm, but trainees were keen to stress that Freshfields “is understanding of your interests outside of work. If you've made plans for an evening, they will work around you.” One source said: “The hours aren't as bad as they're made out to be, but they are unpredictable,” while another made the apt observation: “It's not just about the hours you're working; the fact is you must absolutely be doing your best work for the duration of the time you're in the office. You can't be sitting there browsing Facebook.” Two trainees picked up on a phrase hammered into them during the induction: "We take our work seriously, but we don't take ourselves too seriously," and while they admitted that it sounds “naff” and “a bit cheesy,” they agreed that it “really is true.”
While trainees spend a lot of time in the Fleet Street HQ, it certainly doesn't sound like a bad place to be: “We have a state-of-the-art gym open 24 hours with personal trainers. There are loads of classes like spinning, body pump and yoga, and it's never too busy. On the ground floor, the canteen is at the base of the atrium, and the food there is really tasty.” Trainees share a room with their supervisor, and one insider said: “The teams are all approachable; it's an open-door kind of place.” There's also a doctor and dentist in-house, leading one source to say: “It feels like a little community. At one point I was starting to feel like I never needed to leave!”
While this was nice to know, it was good to hear that trainees do like to venture out for a drink from time to time. The social life varies across departments, but the transactional teams certainly seem to have the mightiest thirst, and Jamies Wine Bar is a regular favourite on a Friday. A Christmas party in Battersea Park was “like a festival – there was a circus, a fun fair with dodgems and lots of singers and performers.” There is also a bevy of sports teams, including “football, netball, mixed hockey, rugby, girls football and girls touch rugby,” and departmental ski trips to France and Germany are pretty standard. Language classes are also on offer. Pro bono and community work is a big deal at the firm, and trainees can get involved with a free legal advice scheme in Tower Hamlets, school mentoring in Haggerston and Hackney and a charity that helps detainees in Guantanamo Bay.
If you're after top-level work on the softer side of the magic circle, Freshfields might just be the firm for you. In 2013 the firm retained 78 of its 94 qualifiers.