A push on various diversity fronts is yet another big plus at this distinguished Fleet Street-gone-global institution.
Interested in magic circle firms but have no clue how to differentiate them? Fleet Street-based Freshfields' trainees were unanimous about the distinguishing characteristic of their training contract: its flexibility. “I was sceptical that it would be as flexible as they made out,” one admitted, looking back, “but it has been incredibly flexible.” Not only is there the option of three-month seats here, it's “a bit of a luxury to apply for seats as you go through the training contract rather than at the start.”
If you find you don't like a particular seat, you can move on after three months and try to direct your future seats as your interests develop. “People generally go where they want to go, but not necessarily in the order they want," trainees explained. "Therefore, you can't rank seats.” You might try the dark arts, though, and “express cryptically, strongly or less strongly, where you want to go.” Unsurprisingly, with over 2,600 lawyers in 27 offices worldwide, Freshfields offers awesome work, often with an international angle, as well as client and 'network' (overseas) secondments, which are usually popular among trainees finishing up their training contracts.
Founded centuries ago, in 1743, Freshfields advises its first-ever client, the Bank of England, to this day. It's historically a corporate superstar (specifically for private and public M&A), and today's “three behemoth departments of corporate, finance and dispute resolution” each contain numerous sub-teams for trainees to spend time in. Then there are smaller “specialised departments,” including: antitrust, competition and trade (ACT); employment, pensions and benefits; intellectual property and information technology (IP/IT); real estate; and tax. When applying for seats, you need to set out the reasons why you want to work in a particular area (and office or client, in the case of secondments). How does the type of work fit into your 'qualification plan'? You must “justify where you want to go.”
Trainees spoke of Freshfields' “glittering client list and great work.” Let's have a peek at some recent work highlights to see what they mean. The initial public offering (IPO) market has taken off again in 2014 after years of caution following the Great Recession (though it remains volatile), and Freshfields has been in the thick of the action, advising on the flotations of well-known companies like Poundland, property website Zoopla and SSP Group (owner of sandwich favourite Upper Crust, and Millie's Cookies). In late 2013, Freshfields lawyers advised the government on the flotation of the Royal Mail.
Headline deals for the large corporate/M&A practice – which Chambers UK ranks in its highest tier, band 1 – include engineering and tech company Invensys's £3.4bn takeover by France's Schneider Electric; acting for BT on its acquisition of ESPN's UK and Ireland television channels business; advising the London Stock Exchange on taking a majority stake in clearing house LCH.Clearnet; and helping China's Bright Food Group (makers of the delicious White Rabbit sweets, among other treats) when it bought a stake in Israel's biggest food company, Tnuva. Freshfields topped Thomson Reuters' M&A charts for the first half of 2014 both by volume and value, closing 41 transactions worth a whopping $71.1bn – almost 50% more than nearest magic circle rival Slaughter and May, who advised on 21 deals worth $36.2bn.
Most interviewees had spent time in corporate, which is divided into four main teams. 'Corporate A' is financial regulation; 'B' is private equity-related; 'C' is energy; and 'D' does more general corporate advisory work. “I was thrown in at the deep end,” one trainee reported of their corporate seat, consistent with the feedback from others. “In corporate, you work on ten to 15 matters, so you need less time to get struck in. I drafted less important documents and researched precedents. An associate asked me to call up the other side's lawyers and negotiate. There was lots of pubic and private M&A work. My supervisor was good.”
Another recalled of their stint in corporate: “It was intense. People who love corporate talk about peaks and troughs – for me it was one very high plateau. The informal structures are a lot more supportive than the formal. Supervisors are mixed – some are nice, some too busy. People here thrive on adrenaline. I attended client meetings and conference calls at all sorts of strange times of the day.” Working across different time zones only adds to the unpredictable nature of the hours. “You don't realise what working 75 to 80 hours in a week is like until you've experienced it yourself,” a trainee reported. “It's just something you go through.”
The hours can be equally demanding in Freshfields' superb finance practice, where seats include restructuring and insolvency (R&I); structured finance and debt capital markets; and banking. In the latter, “they like trainees who are willing to take on as much as possible, especially grunt work. But I also got a lot of client contact from day one. Anything you can do to make processes easier will help you stand out. My hours were worst in this seat – 100 hour weeks, 20 straight days without a day off. I took a taxi home one night, showered, then came back to work – no sleep. Though when it's quiet you can leave early.” Another said: “I learnt a lot, but finance is not what I want to do.” This is where a major benefit of the three-month seat system kicks in: you can cut your losses and move on.
Some interviewees who thrived in finance and corporate seats found their dispute resolution seats a little “slow-paced” by comparison, while others relished the different working environment. “In litigation, deadlines are so much further ahead, so it's easier, even for trainees, to manage your time,” one reflected. “Hours can be as long, although you can see them coming, unlike in corporate.” Contentious seats include: environmental, planning and regulatory (EPR); financial institutions disputes; commercial disputes; engineering, procurement and construction (EPC); intellectual property; and the European Union (competition law) disputes group. This trainee's feedback was fairly typical: “I did a lot of drafting expert reports, and had conferences with experts and counsel. I did a lot on the technical side of litigation and also the project management side. A junior associate was very good at giving me the same kind of work she was doing, then giving detailed feedback.”
You can only stay three months in the smaller, popular dispute resolution sub-teams, and some would have preferred to stay on. “As soon as you get settled, you're off,” one lamented. Working on a long-running case or cases, “it's hard to be useful in a couple of months. Responsibility is low because you're not in a position to make decisions.” With so many trainees in a firm of Freshfields' ginormous size, experiences varied, and others found they had more responsibility, ”doing a lot of research, working on presentations, going to client pitches.”
While some DR teams are more “hierarchical” than transactional teams, for some trainees they were “friendlier than corporate – I found they care more about your development.” Others felt the opposite. “The training can be a bit hit and miss,” more than one had found. High-profile litigation includes fallout from the Russian oligarch wars between Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich and the late Boris Berezovsky, which recently settled on the eve of another mega court battle. Freshfields litigators also won an $8bn case for Deutsche Bank in its fiendishly complex dispute with Norwegian investment fund Sebastian Holdings, and is defending engineering giant ABB in a groundbreaking cartel case brought by the National Grid.
While interviewees praised the flexible training contract and the opportunity to try lots of things out in shorter, three-month seats, they did caution that you might not get every single seat you want –“you can't choose all eight seats. The seat allocation process is not always transparent. You submit your choices to trainee development and they let you know where you're going.” In such a huge training programme, this is only to be expected, and such gripes were minor in the grand scheme of things.
So, how do trainees cope with the long hours and challenging work? Most revel in it. And colleagues are generally friendly: “I preferred Freshfields' people,” one said when contrasting the vacation scheme here with another big firm's. “More genuine, less stuck up, very nice.” Secretarial and other admin support is greater here than at smaller firms, although inevitably “sometimes someone can get stuck on a massive task for ages, like due diligence, reviewing hundreds of documents. But these jobs have to be done. Everyone has a shared PA. They help during the day. There's also a centralised documents team that helps with things like pdfs and photocopying.”
Lifestyle-wise, one source commented: “I plan my weekends carefully and don't sleep in on Saturdays until two in the afternoon (tempting as it is). I see friends, work out. I see other trainees at weekends a lot too, which helps. You go through it together.” More formally, “trainee development sends you an email if you work more than 60 hours in a week, asking 'are you okay?'” Free dinner in the “really nice” canteen afer 7pm and free cabs home after 9.30pm also help to soften the blow of late nights. For the hardest core, there are sleeping pods – bedrooms with bathrooms – in the office.
Many Freshfields trainees look forward to doing a client or overseas secondment, typically in their final six months. Most offices in Freshfields' network participate, and the most popular are (surprise, surprise) the more exotic locations like New York, Tokyo, Singapore and Hong Kong. Client secondments include the Bank of England, Sony, Tesco and the Stock Exchange, and pro bono secondments are at Oxfam and Tower Hamlets Law Centre. You don't just apply to an office, like Berlin, but to a practice area as well, like competition or regulatory: “You apply for the type of work as well as the office.” Landing your preferred secondment can be competitive and depends on experience gained in your previous seats, so it's wise to start thinking early and strategically about where you might like to go. Freshfields usually provides and pays for a serviced flat “within walking distance of the office” to those who get to go on secondment. In more expensive cities like Tokyo the firm raises your salary to reflect the higher cost of living.
Reviews take place every three months with a partner (a 'trainee intake partner', or TIP), who has feedback from everyone you've worked with. Sometimes trainees have 'buddies' too – “a more junior associate, though not senior enough to action anything.” Responsibility “depends on how well you prove yourself in the early weeks. Make a mark. But if you're on a huge case there may be relatively menial work to do – you're a small cog in a big machine.”
What of the social scene? “Different departments have a different social profile – something you should be aware of when starting your training contract.” Transactional teams “tend to have more social events and are more organised, putting more emphasis on socialising – because the ebb and flow of deals lends itself more to social activities, like lunch celebrating a closing. And also because the personalities tend to be more sociable by nature. In dispute resolution the social side is sometimes lacking, as it doesn't have the same work cycle, and the personalities are different, more bookish.” Bigger departments, like banking, invite trainees on their annual ski trip and help with the cost. But “litigation doesn't take trainees on its ski trip.”
Pub-wise, regular trainee haunts are happily within milliseconds of the Fleet Street HQ: the Hack & Hop and, merely a few doors further down Whitefriars Street, The Harrow, a rather smart 18th-century affair. Also popular is the nearby Witness Box, as people are still “very insistent” on calling it, even though it's been a Jamies Wine Bar for some time now. There are sports teams aplenty for those who are interested, including sailing off the Isle of Wight and in Devon. Diversity-wise, trainees were “pleasantly surprised about how keen partners are to engage women, especially those with kids.”
There's also been a big push recently to improve LGBT visibility through the Halo group – read our bonus features for more. Trainees get involved in various charity fundraising events, including the London to Paris Bike Ride, and there's a regular workshop at a school in Haggerston. Freshfields also recently launched the Stephen Lawrence Scholarship, which aims to help black and ethnic minority students from less-than-privileged backgrounds get a foothold in the law.
Another nice thing Freshfields does is with the Big Issue. Over to a trainee to explain: “A Big Issue vendor comes into the office once a week. As part of trainee induction, two trainees go with a vendor to help them pick up the magazines, then help sell them on the streets. It was the most memorable day of my induction. We have our own job stresses – this helped put a perspective on things.” Well quite.
74 out of 89 stayed on at qualification in 2014.
Vacation scheme deadline: 6 January 2015
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2015
Quite a few of you might see a Freshfields 'campus ambassador' or two around your uni in the coming year – part of the firm's initiatives to reach out to students. If you're a penultimate-year student interested in commercial law and want to make a bit cash, you may want to consider becoming an ambassador yourself when the firm invites its next round of applicants. And if you're applying for a Freshfields vacation scheme or training contract, it can't hurt to get to know some of the recruiting team in this capacity and make a good impression.
Every single one of the 2,000-plus applications Freshfields receives each year is read from beginning to end by a member of the recruitment team.
The firm tries to evaluate these applications in the round rather than in a mechanistic way, so those unexpected Bs in your A levels won’t automatically cut you from the running. You'll need to look pretty impressive academically, though.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the Freshfields application form is the big blank box. The firm basically says 'Tell us about yourself in 850 words' and leaves it up to you what to fill in. Recruitment sources tell us they're distinctly unimpressed by those who write “with an element of routine or cliché or received wisdom.” Indeed, glib catchphrases like ‘cutting-edge deals’ rarely go down well, even when the sentiment behind them is genuine. The most successful applications are simply written in a direct and unaffected way, and for a good reason: why would anyone be impressed by a form that could have been written by five hundred other applicants?
There is also an online verbal reasoning test to complete.
The assessment day
About 12% of applicants are invited to the firm's assessment day, which involves three components that can take place in any order. Both vacation scheme and direct training contract applicants go through this.
There's a written assessment, which lasts 45 minutes and sees candidates asked to review draft documents, highlight the mistakes, discuss the ambiguous elements and redraft an extract so it is clear and correct. This does not require any knowledge of law and is designed to assess a candidate's ability to analyse the written word.
There's also what the firm calls an ‘analytical interview’ during with applicants’ analytical skills are assessed. This lasts an hour and usually takes place with a partner and an associate. Candidates are given 20 minutes to read a business-based article, usually from The Economist or FT, and are then quizzed on it. “You could be asked how the subject of the article could bring work into the firm, or what parts of the firm could be involved,” recalled a trainee of the process. “Mine was an article about Airbus – we ended up talking about the price of oil, the merits or otherwise of cheap airlines and new markets the firm could move into. They didn’t expect me to know that Freshfields had just done a huge Airbus deal, although obviously it would have been great if I had.”
Finally there's a general interview that also lasts an hour, and is usually done with a different partner and associate duo. This interview centres on competency-based questions designed to draw out attributes like motivation, organisational skills, capacity for teamwork, degree of curiosity, level of common sense, and "stickability" – that is, the ability to act sensibly and cheerfully under pressure. "We always ask for evidence of these traits," new trainee recruitment partner Andrew Austin emphasizes. "And we always leave 15 minutes at the end for candidates to ask questions."
He adds: "We want people to stay with us. We want interesting people who will keep work in proportion to everything else in their lives. We always ask, 'What do you do for fun'?"
The vacation scheme
Insiders tell us the firm's “very structured” three-week vacation scheme is “focused on commercial awareness and thinking about things from a business perspective.” It includes a day spent on a mock transaction with some of the partners – "quite rushed obviously, but quite useful nonetheless” – plus lunchtime departmental fairs that allow candidates to get to know more about different parts of the firm.
On the social side, there are plenty of lunches with trainees and partners, plus outings like curries in Brick Lane, a Thames rib (speedboat) experience, and a night at The Comedy Store.
Since 2010, Freshfields has also opened up some of its international offices to vac schemers. Applicants can submit a proposal on why they should spend an extra week in an overseas office. Past destinations have included Amsterdam, Brussels, Frankfurt, Dubai, Hong Kong, New York, Paris, Singapore and Washington.
Halo – Freshfields' LGBT network
Andrew Austin, trainee recruitment partner since June 2014, is also a leading sponsor of Halo, Freshfields' global affinity group for lesbian, gay, bi and trans employees. The group recently launched a “Champions” programme for non-LGBT allies: you don't have to be gay to show your support at Halo's various social events and activities throughout the year, Austin tells us. These include talks, external networking events, quizzes and drinks parties. Halo currently has around 100 members from 15 offices.
In December 2012, Halo held its first international conference in London, and its second took place in Frankfurt in May 2014 over two days.
Momentum is really building, and in 2014 Freshfields joined the ranks of gay campaigning charity Stonewall's annual list of the country's top 100 gay-friendly employers for the first time. At 66th, Freshfields is the first and only magic circle firm to make the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index 2014.
The Stephen Lawrence Scholarship Scheme
In March 2014 Freshfields announced the first six scholars in its Stephen Lawrence Scholarship programme, launched initially for three years to promote access to the profession for young black men from underprivileged backgrounds. It has the backing of Baroness Doreen Lawrence, whose 18-year-old son Stephen was stabbed to death by racist white thugs in Eltham in 1993.
Scholars get careers advice, mentoring and other support from Freshfields, including opportunities to visit the firm and an alternative route to interview for a training contract. They also receive £3,500 towards the cost of their studies. Clients including the Bank of England and Goldman Sachs are helping Freshfields deliver some aspects of the scheme.
Freshfields' commitment to pro bono and community work ensures a year-round programme of events to keep trainees busy when they're not at their desks. We round up the highlights below:
Tower Hamlets Law Centre
This East London Law Centre provides free legal advice to those on a low income living within the Tower Hamlets borough. Trainees and paralegals from Freshfields attend the centre every fortnight for two hours at a time to give housing advice. “It's normal for as many as fifteen people to show up, so usually we find ourselves chatting to two or three people each.”
What kinds of issues do lawyers help out with? "It's always tenant work. We interview people and assess their situation so we can give them the best possible advice. Often we're going over notices for eviction to see if they're valid, and sometimes we'll draft a letter to the landlord for the tenant. We also give advice on rent arrears or general problems concerning the upkeep of the house someone is living in. Sometimes they're in a position where they're about to be made homeless.”
“It's really rewarding to be doing a good thing for people who wouldn't otherwise be able to afford it. We're able to use and develop important legal skills at the same time.” Another had discovered: “It's a great experience. People within the firm respect the fact that we're doing it and they make sure we have the time around work.”
Helping Hackney schools
Freshfields also participates in the Lawyers in Schools programme, offering trainees the chance to visit Haggerston School in Hackney. “I worked with a class of 11 to 13-year-olds interested in law, and talked to them about human rights, intellectual property, employment law and how these relate back to their lives,” one insider told us. “It's really rewarding. Teaching the children was great because we could see they wanted to learn. We had a lot of discussions on difficult issues like human rights, which got them thinking about things that were close to home for them.”
Trainees also have the chance to mentor pupils on-site at Freshfields' Fleet Street office. One told us: “I'm mentoring a sixth-form pupil at the moment. She comes to the office, and chooses how the sessions are run and what we talk about. We've looked at her university application together and discussed her career. She's also been able to do work experience at Freshfields and see how a firm of this size operates.”
This not-for-profit company was established to bring practical learning and entrepreneurial spirit to the curriculum in schools across the country. Freshfields hosts regular trips for primary school children in London to visit the Fleet Street office and hone their business skills. We were rather sceptical of just how useful this scheme actually proves – not to mention a tad frightened by the prospect of nine-year-olds swaggering around with Apprentice-style tricks up their sleeve – but our sources insisted it's all good fun.
“Recently they came for the day, and we put together a series of sessions where they had to set up a business selling Easter cards and work out how to turn a profit. At the end of the day, they put together presentations and we judged them in turn, giving feedback on each.” We're delighted to report that no child was fired by anyone pretending to be Lord Sugar.
Another trainee told of helping run a session where seven-year-olds were tasked with designing a new sustainable planet. Any global political leaders reading this (President Obama? Chancellor Merkel? Nick Clegg?), please take note...
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP
65 Fleet Street,