Much like Kylie Minogue, this firm is small in stature but a big name in the entertainment world.
Ben Sherman, Chelsea FC, David and Victoria Beckham, Microsoft, DreamWorks, the Royal Household – Harbottle & Lewis's client register reads like a who's who of today's glitterati and creative industry giants. Indeed, some of the biggest names in the advertising, digital media, fashion, film, gaming, music, publishing, sport, television and theatre spheres seek commercial advice from the legal eagle, whose media and entertainment practice is among the best in the country.
Don't be lured into thinking this is some niche little boutique, though. Current trainees were keen to point out that Harbottle is a full-service outfit and in fact often acts as a one-stop shop for its celeb clientele. The reputation management group recently secured a public apology for cricketer Kevin Pietersen after a Specsavers advert implied he'd tampered with his bat during the Ashes, and also scored libel damages for long-haired lothario Russell Brand after The Sun on Sunday said he'd cheated on Jemima Khan. Meanwhile the property team has kept busy negotiating a lease for Mrs Beckham's flagship shop on London's Dover Street.
Despite these flashy connections, however, interviewees warned against pursuing a career at Harbottle in the hopes of hanging onto the coattails of the rich and famous. “You don't come here because you want to meet the Beckhams or because you think it'll be like working at heat magazine,” said one. “No one here is in it for the glitz and glamour of spotting celebs; we all have a very keen interest in and understanding of the commercial realities of the industries we work in.” Noted.
Trainees inform the firm of their seat preferences before starting their training contract. “The training partner does her best to allocate what you want,” sources agreed, though they did acknowledge “that isn't always possible.” New starters have all four rotations mapped out for them in their induction week, but “it's not totally inflexible from that point; if you have a big problem you might be able to switch them around.” The media seat is understandably “very popular,” as is the standing secondment to Virgin Atlantic. No seats are compulsory, though everybody does a turn in either litigation or employment to fulfil SRA requirements.
The media rotation, which takes two trainees at a time, offers work in a variety of areas: theatre, film, television, music, sport and IP. Harbottle built its reputation on the theatre industry, and its work here shines to this day: the firm earns top-band Chambers UK rankings for its many West End credits, among them advisory roles on The National Theatre's worldwide production of War Horse and the theatre arm of Warner Bros.' adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Lawyers also lent their nous to the producers of the deliciously devilish The Book of Mormon during its transfer from Broadway to the West End. Meanwhile on the film and TV side, Harbottle has ties with all the big studios, from Universal Pictures to DreamWorks to Carnival, recently advising the latter on its financing and production of series five of Downton Abbey. A source who'd predominantly worked in this sphere described their involvement in film financing deals and theatre adaptations, telling us: “It's exciting and interesting stuff.”
Meanwhile, solicitors on the sports side of things delve into issues like sponsorship, broadcasting and image rights. The firm recently assisted video game developer EA SPORTS with a contract with Lionel Messi that will see the Argentine footballer become the global face of the FIFA franchise. Lawyers also advised Olympian Tom Daley on the establishment of his own image rights company. “I gained a lot of hands-on experience drafting various types of agreements,” reported one trainee, adding: “It's a client-facing seat – I sat in on a number of meetings, which I really appreciated. On top of that I had a chance to write an article for an sports website.”
Many of the firm's media clients hit up the corporate team for assistance on transactions like sales and acquisitions, the majority of which are worth less than £100m. The firm also advises start-up companies seeking venture capital. Interviewees were happy with the level of responsibility they'd encountered here, with one telling us: “I got to step into an associate's shoes after he left mid-transaction, which meant I was drafting and negotiating with the other side. My experience was pretty intense, but it's indicative that if you show you're willing and able, the firm will happily to put you into a more senior role.” Of course, trainees have got to put in the appropriate groundwork first, namely in the form of handling due diligence and document management, and assisting with admin. Even so, sources took a 'glass half full' view of this, acknowledging that “going through the nuts and bolts of transactions is a good grounding for the remainder of the seat.”
When they're not undertaking commercial cases like contract disputes, Harbottle's litigators can be found tackling issues of privacy and defamation. The firm's lately been wrapped up in “a lot of phone-hacking litigation,” having advised more than 80 victims of the News International scandal, and has also kept busy with its work for the Royal Family, recently assisting the Duchess of Cambridge with the fallout after French tabloid Closer published topless pictures of her. Salacious as such scandals are, however, most of our interviewees had spent their time on the commercial side. Still, they had plenty to rave about, praising the “daunting but good experience” of handling the court run. “You're put in front of the master to try to get applications approved.” There's no escaping some low-level disclosure and research tasks, but new recruits are given their own debt collection files to run. “Having that responsibility actually exceeded my expectations,” said one. “If I qualify now, I know I could do the job of an associate.”
As we mentioned, a desire to wine and dine celebs won't get you far with this firm. “That's not what we do. You have to actually know about the industries we service and what they want from their lawyers.” Historically a good number of trainees have sampled life in creative industries like publishing or theatre before coming to Harbottle, though this isn't requisite. Still, “it's important to show you're enthusiastic and passionate about our work – take a look at your background and try to show the firm what you can bring to the table.” More crucial is some legal work experience, though bear in mind this will have to be done elsewhere as Harbottle doesn't run a vac scheme.
Our sources characterised ideal recruits as people who are “approachable, have a good sense of humour and aren't arrogant.” Expanded one: “We're only about 100 lawyers, so it's really important they don't bring on people who rock the boat. We have a collaborative environment, and the firm prides itself on maintaining a mutual sense of respect across all levels of seniority, right down to the support staff.” One of the ways Harbottle encourages this cross-rank co-operation is through free lunches for all employees. “Everyone sits together in the canteen, which makes it easy to talk to people you don't come across in your everyday work,” said one insider. “It's a small thing, but it makes a big difference – you really feel like part of the firm.”
While trainees admitted that “there's a natural competitiveness between us seeing as a lot of people want to qualify into media,” we were assured, “this doesn't manifest itself negatively.” Indeed, trainees find plenty of time to enjoy one another's company during jaunts to the nearby Duke of York and end-of-seat nights out. “We've had some fun ones like bowling. There's also a treasure hunt in the summer, and we have a legendary Christmas party. Last year it was masquerade-themed.” Back at the office, located on Hanover Square, the firm hosts quiz nights in the James Bond-themed kitchen. The proximity to Oxford Street and all its shops can be “tough on the bank balance,” but sources agreed: “It's a great central location. You can pop out to do anything you need to at lunch – when you're not having it here, that is.”
Don't forget there's much more to this firm than just its media practice. In 2014 the firm retained three of its five NQs.
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2015
As you might expect, there's plenty of clamour for a training contract at Harbottle & Lewis. The firm received over 400 applications last year for just five training contracts. For the 2014/15 year, three trainees will start in September and the other two in March.
Harbottle doesn't run a vac scheme, so all applications are made directly for a training contract. It's rare to find the firm at any university law fairs or recruitment events, so you can't rely on charming the powers that be into giving you an interview. Rather you've got to make sure your typewritten application form is sufficiently impressive and shows off your personality.
The firm vets all applicants for grades: an upper 2.1 and AAB at A level (or equivalents) are required. Be sure to explain any mitigating circumstances in your application form if your scores don't quite match the brief.
Applications which pass muster are handed over to five senior associates or partners who decide who to interview.
Insiders told us the first interview is “more of a meet and greet” than a formal assessment. “It's not too taxing and mostly entails going over your application,” said one trainee, adding: “The underlying judgement was: 'Are you a normal person? Can we work with you? Do you have the right social skills?'”
Those who successfully navigate this are invited to a second interview with trainee partners Sandi Simons and Abi Payne before speaking with Caroline West, head of HR, later the same day. Current trainees recalled the interview with the partners as “a bit tougher and bit more nerve-racking than the first. You're made to think on your feet about technical law questions.” Nevertheless, they agreed: “It's a fair interview – they're definitely not trying to be cruel or make you panic.” Afterwards candidates undergo a two-and-a-half-hour written examination.
Sandy Simons offers this advice for impressing at interview: “It's about being bright, about showing you have a real interest in coming to Harbottle & Lewis and can explain why. Beyond that, we just want someone who is personable and easy to get along with.”
Most of our interviewees this year had some media sector work experience before joining. “We don't necessarily require industry experience,” Simons clarifies, “but candidates should have some sort of experience relating to the law. This especially applies to those who haven't done a law degree. We don't take people on without some clear evidence this is what they want to do.”
One more thing: applicants seeking sponsorship are now required to undertake their LPC at the University of Law and to choose from specific electives, including international commercial law and international IP. Non-law students are encouraged to obtain their GDL there too.
Student Guide: How would you characterise the past year for the firm?
Sandi Simons: We've had a very positive 12 months and have been extremely busy throughout the firm, across all of our practice areas.
SG: Harbottle is seen primarily as a media and entertainment firm, but trainees suggested its expertise runs much deeper. Is this something you agree with?
SS: Yes definitely. We obviously have heritage and a lot of experience across all of the media industries, but we are much more than that. We act for clients from a variety of sectors on the full range of legal issues; we also have a strong private capital practice.
SG: How would you describe Harbottle's current place in the market?
SS: We are well positioned as a growing firm with clear niche expertise. There are very few firms that can combine true specialist industry knowledge with a full service offering. The nature of the work we are involved in is as diverse as our client base: we can undertake big corporate deals to private client work, in addition to our specific expertise in the media and entertainment industry.
SG: Do you think students often have misconceptions about what working at the firm actually entails?
SS: We make it clear during the interview process the sort of work they can expect to be involved in as a trainee, which can be very varied. They can expect to have greater exposure to partners and clients, and take on more responsibility at a much earlier point in their career than at some of the larger firms.
Most applicants have done their research. Anyone who thinks it is about meeting celebrities will have been weeded out early on! All our trainees are well rounded, have done their homework and have a clear understanding of the nature of the work we do. I'd be surprised if any trainee was disappointed by the work they were doing.
SG: What does the future have in store for Harbottle? What's the strategy for the next few years?
SS: We plan to continue growing organically, maintaining our focus on our areas of niche expertise. With so much diversification and growth in the media and technology space, these will obviously continue to be areas of focus for us. Similarly, our private capital group has seen significant growth in recent years, and we envisage this will continue.
SG: What do you consider the main challenge for the firm in coming years?
SS: The pace of change in the sectors our clients operate in. Our clients often work in fast moving and innovative sectors, and are often looking to break new boundaries. In response, we have to be creative and innovative in the advice we provide. We are small and flexible enough and have the right mixture of expertise to achieve this. Also, we're not overly reliant on any one practice area, so when certain areas are doing better than others, we can adjust quickly.
SG: What do you look for in future trainees? How can an applicant impress you?
SS: It's about being bright, about showing you have a real interest in coming to Harbottle & Lewis and can explain why. Beyond that, we also want someone who is personable and easy to get along with.
SG: Do you have any advice for someone thinking of applying to Harbottle?
SS: Do your research. We get candidates who come in and don’t know anything about the firm, which is really off-putting. Show us that you're really keen. We want to know that you want to join us.
The trainees we spoke to at Harbottle were keen to stress that their days aren't spent schmoozing around town and sipping frothy coffees with the stars of stage, screen and sport. This firm, they emphasised, isn't interested in “people who want to meet celebs or just think media law is glamorous and sexy.” Au contraire, this is serious legal business that's focused on the commercial aspects of the creative industries. Don't forget, “the people you deal with are agents and production studios; it's not like you're on phone with starry clients.” Still, there's no denying Harbottle is the cat's whiskers when it comes to media law, and new joiners can expect a very intriguing selection of cases at hand.
One of the main missions of Harbottle is to protect the privacy of high-profile clients and strike when media activity starts getting libellous. Take the example of Roger Moore: when the Sunday People claimed to have an exclusive interview with the actor under the headline 'I've Had Moore Women Than James Bond', Harbottle lawyers successfully sprang to action on his behalf. Thanks to the work of the firm's litigators, the paper was forced to admit that no such interview ever took place and that the headline comments were never actually made. Recently, solicitors have taken on other defamation and reputation management cases on behalf of Kate Moss, cricketer Kevin Pietersen, the Duchess of Cambridge and, thanks to a certain nude Las Vegas débâcle, Prince Harry.
Theatre work has been an integral part of Harbottle's caseload since the firm's beginnings in the 1950s. Today it advises on more West End productions than any other firm, having worked on shows like Billy Elliot, One Man Two Guvnors, and Singin' In The Rain. When productions transfer between the West End and Broadway, Harbottle is on hand to advise with the financing. One of the firm's biggest clients is Joey the horse, by which we mean the theatrical behemoth that stars in War Horse. This show has a stage presence that projects far beyond Manhattan and Drury Lane – Harbottle is advising the National Theatre on licensing arrangements for productions in Germany and Australia as well as contractual arrangements for a UK tour.
What about sport? In this arena, the firm takes on contentious and transactional matters, and services individual sportspeople too. Harbottle's netted some sterling sporting customers in recent years, including Chelsea FC, the England cricket team and diving dynamo Tom Daley. Sponsorship is a major area of practice – lawyers recently advised Barclays on its renewal of the title sponsorship for the Premier League and acted for Emirates over its shirt sponsorship deal with Real Madrid, the world's most valuable sports team. Speaking of Emirates, Harbottle also advised the company on its £36m decade-long naming rights sponsorship of the TfL cable car, which has officially been dubbed the 'Emirates Air Line'.
Harbottle & Lewis LLP