Stars in their eyes
In 1951 in Guildford, a couple of showbiz enthusiasts met at law school. They were Harbottle and Lewis (Laurence and Brian respectively), and four years later they set up shop in Mayfair, specialising in the legal aspects of film and theatre production and representing dashing thespians like Laurence Olivier and Dirk Bogarde.
As we've morphed from the era of the matinee idol into the digital age, the firm has kept pace with the ever-evolving media and entertainment sector. Today its reputation management team deals with dodgy tweets and texts as well as what's published the traditional print way. A digital media team handles data protection, IP and privacy issues, while the interactive entertainment group specialises in video gaming.
Along with all the newfangled digital platform business, the firm has maintained its position in the theatre and film industries as well as taking in clients from the music, TV, publishing, broadcasting, sport, fashion and advertising sectors. Harbottle may have the media and entertainment arena mastered (as evidenced by top-notch Chambers UK rankings), but it isn't some one-trick legal pony. This is a full-service place that can sort out corporate, litigation, tax, employment, property, family and private client issues for its creative industry clients, and even has some more niche areas in its armoury, such as 'charity and philanthropy', 'entrepreneurs' and 'LGBT community'.
As you might expect, Harbottle has a whole host of household names on the books. To mention a few, there's Kate Moss, David and Victoria Beckham, the National Theatre, Sir Alex Ferguson, Microsoft and the publishing house Penguin. The firm recently represented cricketer Kevin Pietersen over a libel issue in which he was accused by national papers of match-fixing via text message. It was also involved in two massive 2012 privacy cases involving the Royal Family in various states of undress –acting for the Duchess of Cambridge regarding those photos of her sunbathing published in French magazine Closer and dealing with those other photos of Prince Harry cavorting in Las Vegas.
There's no business like legal business
There are six seat options – litigation; corporate; employment; property; media; and family, private client and tax (all three in one seat) – as well as a client secondment at Virgin Atlantic.
No seat is strictly compulsory, although “you pretty much have to do litigation to get the contentious box ticked, and everyone does corporate because they need trainees.” Before starting at the firm, future trainees put in a request for a top choice of seat. On arrival, their four seats are already mapped out: “You don't have so much choice about the other three seats, but they try their best to take your preference into account. If you have an issue with a particular seat, they're good about rearranging things.”
Litigation is split between commercial work and the media and information group (MIG). The latter deals with privacy or defamation issues and is currently working on behalf of phone hacking victims. Commercial litigation might involve trainees “going on the weekly court run – I went before a Master a couple of times, which was pretty nerve-racking.”
On top of this is the usual trainee fare of bundling and photocopying, but the chance to extract unpaid legal fees offers up a greater level of responsibility: “You get decent exposure to the nuts and bolts of litigation when you run debt management files by yourself.” The department recently acted for one of the founders of Skype and his wife when their luxury coastal home was found to be defective. Litigators also represented Virgin Atlantic Airways in a dispute with its UK catering suppliers, Sky Chefs.
Trainees praised the “very friendly, quite young” corporate team, whose clients tend to come from the media sectors. For instance, the department advised Penguin Books on the acquisition of shares in Snowman Enterprises, the company which owns the rights to Raymond Briggs' famous character and brand. We'll have to move swiftly on, because even just softly humming the tune to 'Walking in the Air' makes us feel like weeping uncontrollably...
New recruits face up to “research, drafting ancillary documents and board minutes” as well as “company secretarial work – doing annual returns and looking at shares.” One more lugubrious interviewee stated: “It's largely about document management and keeping the machine well-oiled. I did an awful lot of photocopying, a few verification tasks, due diligence and data rooms. That's the trainee's lot really – it's pretty standard stuff.”
And now on to media, undoubtedly “the reason people apply to the firm and the seat that most have their eyes on.” The seat is divided into two – there's theatre, film and television; or music, sport and IP. One interviewee told us: “I sat at the film and theatre end of it. It's very much a commercial seat, and I worked on all sorts of production deals, both big and small.”
Trainees can expect to take on “first drafts of opinions or getting bibles together for film financing transactions. I also did a lot of ad hoc commercial research into relevant points of law that emerged, like the licensing regime theatres go through when hiring child actors.” Along the way, trainees appreciated the partners' input: “They were keen to show me all the different stages of a financing.”
Among others, Harbottle represents Universal, Working Title and DreamWorks, and recently advised Neal Street Productions on BBC fave Call The Midwife and Shakespeare series The Hollow Crown (featuring the Student Guide's actor of choice Ben Whishaw). Theatre-wise, the firm worked on the Broadway production of Breakfast at Tiffany's and new play The Audience, starring Helen Mirren as the Queen.
A contented source declared: “The high points were working on films like Steven Spielberg's Lincoln and helping with the War Horse film and play. That's what I wanted to do, those high-profile projects. The perks are also fun – I got to go to screenings and opening nights, although this doesn't happen very often.” Interviewees also mentioned “mingling with celebrities” at the British Comedy Awards. The hours seem to be another bonus – “it's a lot more civilised than the City. The latest I've worked is 9pm, and that was completely voluntary!”
The man with the golden bundle
It's best to keep the jazz hands at bay. Despite the glitzy client list, all our sources warned potential trainees not to get any flashy delusions of life at Harbottle. “Don't apply to a media firm because you think it'll be glamorous or sexy. They're not interested in gossipy people who want to meet celebrities. They want intellectually capable people who have a clear interest in the business and legal side of media and entertainment.” Many trainees had prior work experience or careers in creative industries, although this isn't strictly necessary. “The key thing is a proven interest.”
What else characterises a Harbottle trainee? Aside from having attended “a really good uni” and being “proactive, outgoing and easygoing,” the new recruits here are “nice – I know that sounds wishy-washy, but it's true. They don't want backstabbing people who try to get one over on each other.”
Harbottle folk work in a “lovely building” in Hanover Square. “It's great to be so central with Soho just next door.” The different departments are separated over five floors. However, everyone gets to mix together in the James Bond-themed kitchen, aka the notorious room 007, which is decorated with “Bond posters from the 60s and 70s, back when Harbottle worked on the films.” The kitchen comestibles are “another massive perk – we get a free home-cooked lunch every day, and you can have as much as you like.”
The firm's quiz nights are held in the kitchen, and there's a summer treasure hunt that involves the unusual sight of solicitors “running around the Oxford Circus area solving riddles” in a bid to win a day's holiday. “It's pretty entertaining and gets quite competitive.” As well as this, there's a Christmas party and fairly regular Friday drinks.
When it comes to the serious business of qualification, sources felt “it's not as clear-cut and open as at other places. There isn't a jobs list. During the review at the end of the third seat, your supervisor will ask you where you want to end up.” As such, “if you enjoy an area and want to work there, don't be too quiet about it.” The firm retained three of its five qualifiers in 2013.
Unsurprisingly, media is a highly popular area. A trainee warned: “You need to keep an open mind. All the clients are media-based, but it's not wise to be focused solely on a media department job, because it's so competitive.”
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These firms with a strong media law practice:
- Collyer Bristow
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- Farrer & Co
- Lewis Silkin