Our lips are sealed
The creation of a pair of drama buffs in the 50s, Harbottle & Lewis initially catered to the upper crust of the film and theatre industry – early clients included Laurence Olivier and Dirk Bogarde – before extending its reach to keep stride with the evolving market. This is now a complete media and entertainment practice taking work from the music, TV, publishing, broadcasting, sport, fashion and advertising sectors.
“We strive constantly to stay ahead of the digital curve, becoming increasingly innovative as the law evolves,” says film and TV partner Abby Payne, mentioning the firm's ever-growing involvement in the digital industry. “There are so many ways of getting information out there now, which means the digital world affects every department, whether it's film or sport or video games or publishing.” Indeed, the prospect of brand damage at the hands of social networking is keeping the reputation management team especially busy, while the digital media group currently has its hands full with web-related data protection and privacy issues.
That's not to say the firm is limited to just a few media-related offerings; it's actually full-service, which helped keep financials up during the recession. In addition to providing general commercial and regulatory advice, lawyers advise on corporate, employment, finance, IP, litigation and tax matters across the aforementioned creative industries, with some niche areas like aviation, charity, family, private client and personal injury too.
This broad scope makes for an interesting client list, which includes Penguin, Sega, Gok Wan, Channel 4, Kate Moss, DreamWorks and the England Cricket team to name a few – there remain a host of other illustrious names on which our lips must stay sealed. We can, however, reveal a couple of recent highlights: acting for the Catholic Church on media issues surrounding the 2010 Papal visit and advising the Royal Family on the broadcast of a certain wedding and the suppression of certain topless photos.
Trainees choose from six seats – corporate, litigation, employment, property, family and media – with the option of a client secondment at Virgin Atlantic.
Trainees list their preferences beforehand and are told their seat schedule upon arrival at the firm. “You're allowed one preference that they try their best to fulfil, but otherwise you've got to go where the work is,” one informed us.
Most trainees hit the litigation department at some point in order to fulfil the SRA's contentious requirement. The practice is one of the firm's billing powerhouses and is split into commercial litigation, personal injury and media groups. The last houses the firm's celebrated reputation management team, which regularly acts for some famous – and often confidential – names. “I was able to attend a hearing for a celebrity, though I can't say who,” a source revealed. “It's kind of painful to see recognisable faces in reception and not be able to tell your friends... but it does make for some fun lunchtime gossip!” Harbottle's litigators also recently defended the founders of Skype against a multibillion-dollar suit brought by eBay, and are currently entangled in a major banking and fraud dispute involving Saudi billionaire Maan Al-Sanea.
For trainees, research, drafting, document management and bundling are the norm. They also attend hearings and perform the weekly court run –“there's a lot of out and about to the seat!” Endeavouring to collect outstanding client fees is another highlight. “You get to run the debt collection files yourself, so there are lots of opportunities to take the initiative.”
Corporate is another sizeable practice, handling work for clients including Virgin Holidays, Comic Relief and literary agency United Agents in recent years. Lawyers advise on “the buying and selling of a lot of TV and film production companies,” plus private equity financing and venture capital sourcing matters, including the recent joint venture between MAMA Group – a festival and live music venue operator – and HMV. For trainees, this translates into “a lot of indexing, filing and other due diligence,” though luckily “it's not like some firms where you're locked in a data room forever: I got to run a small transaction myself, so there was drafting and such to be done for that,” one reported. Even the team's more sizeable transactions “aren't so unmanageably large that you can't get a full view of the deal.”
Harbottle's media seat is without a doubt its most popular. After all, “it's the whole reason a lot of people apply to the firm.” The seat, which takes on two trainees each rotation, is split into two parts: theatre, film and television work is in one; the other is music, sport, advertising, IP, publishing and interactive entertainment (i.e. video games).
While trainees tend to sit with specialists in one grouping or the other, they can request work in all of the areas that interest them, with most undertaking assignments in several different sectors throughout the course of their seat. “Every bit of work has interesting elements,” said one, mentioning a recent assignment that entailed making amendments to the nudity clause in a film's cast agreement. “All the partners are experts, so you're working directly with people who are very well known in their fields.” And pretty well connected, it seems – trainees who sat with the music guys reported tagging along to the odd client's gig after work. For more media highlights and details on secondments, see our bonus feature.
007pm and I'm outta here!
Sources reported a good balance of “young and eager” and “more traditional” people at the firm. “The trainees bring an enthusiastic energy to the office, but we've also got some of the older guys around who're representative of people's impressions of Harbottle in its glory years,” one explained. Fortunately, there's little divide between the groups, which trainees put down to the small size of the firm and the relative lack of hierarchy. Case in point: “A partner in my group offered to get me a choc ice from the corner shop earlier!”
Work/life balance appears equally hunky-dory, with trainees regularly leaving the office before 7pm.
The firm is based in Hanover Square in the heart of the West End. The 'one department per floor' layout of the “lovely old building” means trainees remain apart during the day, but the celebrated '007' lunch room – named for the Bond posters adorning the wall, a relic from the firm's early representation of the franchise – provides communal territory and a daily free buffet lunch.
The recession put a damper on socialising, but there's been a “definite” initiative to liven things up again of late. In addition to “quite regular” after work drinks, there are charity-related activities like fund-raising treasure hunts and firm quizzes. “There was even a public head-shaving to raise money for Teenage Cancer Trust.”
There's also the odd partners/trainees v associates football match, group away days and the British Comedy Awards, to which the firm receives some free tickets. “It's a big night out, dressing up and walking the red carpet with Mitchell and Webb,” reported second-years. Sadly, the date of the 2011 awards clashed with Harbottle's Christmas party, but you'll have to excuse our lack of sympathy seeing as the latter was “a posh do” at Claridge's in Mayfair.
For all their praise of Harbottle's exciting client list and interesting work, our sources cautioned applicants against “an assumption that a training contract is really glamorous. Our clients and media focus make the firm seem edgy, but for the most part you'll be doing ordinary trainee tasks, which aren't all that thrilling. You might get a tiny dose of the glamour, but it's naïve to pursue the firm because you want to meet a celebrity – and Harbottle can spot someone like that a mile away.” As one source pointed out, “the media attraction is a given for most applicants. Make sure you come to an interview prepared to answer what other things you find interesting about the firm.”
Despite a raise in trainee salaries in 2011 that now puts first-years on £30,000, compensation remains a gripe among those who are “sceptical as to why wages are so much lower than firms of equivalent size.” That said, most are content to sacrifice City pay for a decent work/life balance and stimulating workload. “People come here for the clients and reputation and work more than anything. Everyone knows we're one of the lower-paid West End firms – people should know that when they apply and decide whether it's worth it to be here.” The firm retained four of five qualfiers in 2012.
While Harbottle doesn't require prior experience in the media sector, it “definitely helps” to have something on your CV that shows an interest in the industry.