Freehills on the horizon
Established in 1882 by Mr Herbert Smith, this firm numbers among the largest in the City. “We were born out of old English, red-braced litigation, but the firm has proactively evolved into a full-service offering,” trainees reflected. True enough: while still one of the UK's leading firms for dispute resolution, Herbies now also advises a large proportion of the FTSE 100 on corporate matters from its 19 offices worldwide.
Beyond the “twin engines of disputes and corporate,” energy and natural resources is a growing field for the firm, while the finance and international arbitration practices are also areas of focus. Revenue in 2011/12 rose by 3% to £480m, although that didn't stop a redundancy round and the loss of over 40 jobs in summer 2012.
“The biggest thing that's happened to us in 2012 is the decision to merge with Freehills,” training partner Matthew White said. This tie-up with one of the 'Big Six' – Australia's equivalent of the magic circle – went live on 1 October 2012. It created a new firm that goes by the name of Herbert Smith Freehills and, says White, “consolidates our place as the number-one firm in Asia-Pacific. We're also still considering opening offices in South America, Frankfurt, Equatorial Guinea and Seoul. A boutique litigation base in New York opened at the beginning of September. The firm is constantly expanding, which is incredibly exciting for us.”
Trainees themselves stressed how “international” Herbies feels: “Although London is still very much the hub, a global outlook is reflected in the trainees we're hiring and the work we do.” Matthew White said: “We only recruit people with a global mindset. We expect people to work abroad at least once and probably twice in their career.” A trainee added: “People that come here are interested in the world. Most have language skills and worldwide experiences. Although it's not fully international yet, you can feel the shift.”
Trainees can choose from a vast selection of seats. The list includes spots in various types of litigation, corporate, real estate and finance, as well as specialist seats which include: competition; IP; employment, pensions and incentives; advocacy; and tax.
Trainees are strongly encouraged to complete both a litigation and a corporate seat in London, a client or overseas secondment, and no more than one specialist seat. However, all sources agreed that “there's a lot of flexibility.” One said: “I think about 90% of us do a London corporate and litigation seat, but there might be the business need for you to head to another department or do the seat in another country for that matter,” Another added: “Completing a litigation seat is non-negotiable, but then I don't know of someone coming to Herbies not wanting to do one – it's what we're best at.”
Seat allocation “isn’t sorcery.” Trainees advised: “When you give in your preferences, make sure you speak with those in charge and have good reasons for your choices. The process is very logical here. Most people get at least two or three of their first choices.”
It would be fair to say that Herbies trainees are blessed with opportunities to go abroad. “The emphasis on secondments is a big part of pushing that international outlook,” trainees said. Overseas offerings include Hong Kong, Tokyo and Paris (the three most popular – and most difficult to get), Singapore, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Moscow. Client secondments are equally numerous and available at several energy companies, banks, plus other organisations including BSkyB, Liberty and O2.
Although trainees are now expected to complete some kind of secondment, “most people want to go on one anyway” and “no one's forced to go abroad – that's not in anyone's interest.” Interviewees did feel, though, that “if you want to be part of a global, elite firm, you have to be willing to move around. From associate to partner, people are constantly travelling and relocating.” One added: “It's also the best way to consolidate your experience in a practice area and truly interact with our international clients in their own cultures. The benefits for your career are numerous.”
A weekday at Bernie's
The 'disputes' practice encompasses a plethora of specialities and subgroups, including insurance litigation, construction disputes, banking litigation, general commercial (the largest subgroup), shareholder disputes, international arbitration, public law disputes and corporate crime. “All our clients are massive companies,” trainees remarked. “A lot of the stuff we work on is high-profile – it's fascinating.” Herbert Smith is representing the Queen's bank, Coutts & Co, in four separate High Court claims and is acting for Bernie Ecclestone in a $171m dispute arising from the sale of substantial shareholdings linked with Formula 1. Other clients include BSkyB, Société Générale, the Royal Society of Arts and “any big bank you can think of really.”
The general disputes practice is so vast that it's currently split into two massive groups – “three if you count the energy disputes team as well.” To define massive, one trainee clarified: “My group was about 90 fee earners.” Another admitted: “It can be difficult to get to know everyone in these large groups, but on the whole everyone is very friendly and keen to help. You do get to work with some of the leading litigators in the world.”
Trainees receive work either from their supervisor or from partners who “send e-mails round with details of cases that you can volunteer for.” They can gain experience of tasks such as drafting witness statements but said: “The responsibility levels are lower in litigation than elsewhere. There's a lot of bundling and copy-checking to be done and you're going to be the one to do it.”
The hugely popular international arbitration seat acts for “big multinational companies.” One trainee said: “On one case I was dealing with parties from Africa, the Middle East and Russia. It was very exciting.” Training partner Matthew White says: “This is an area that's constantly expanding. Our drive to open in New York is a good example of that move forward.” Trainees feel: “You get a lot more responsibility in this seat than you do in other litigation teams. It's smaller and there's no outside counsel, so there's a lot more research and drafting to do.” One added: “I also attended a number of hearings and the cases are incredibly interesting. The seat allows you to actually use all those years of law school!”
The “very popular” in-house advocacy unit “is a unique opportunity” that Herbies can provide. Even though it's within the firm, this QC-led group officially counts as a secondment. Visiting the unit also means trainees can start on the path towards gaining higher rights of audience. Although trainees don't actually get to do much advocacy themselves, “you watch trials and judgings and learn so much. A lot of your time is also spent doing research and drafting skeleton arguments. It's a small group, so you get extremely interesting things to do.” The team is also keen for trainees to get involved in pro bono advocacy cases, where they can actually test their skills.
Energy at Herbies isn't strictly separated into its own department, but the work permeates many of the firm's other groups. “The firm is really pushing its energy capacity and the energy-related seats are very popular with trainees. It's seen as quite glamorous,” interviewees agreed. Within corporate, “one group is focused on general energy work, while another does infrastructure work.” Clients are big international players; for example, Herbert Smith advised Essar Energy, a London-listed FTSE company, on the £2bn acquisition and capital financing of an oil refinery and other assets owned by Shell.
The energy litigation team is headed by top-ranked partner Ted Greeno: “Being able to work with someone like him is phenomenal.” Trainees are “present for hearings and arbitrations, and watching the QCs thrash it out is exhilarating.” Across the energy departments, trainees said: “There is going to be that due diligence and doc review to do, but the teams get you very involved in the research side of things.”
The corporate practice “includes practice work such as M&A, private equity, capital markets and funds, as well as sector specialist work such as energy, TMT and insurance and specialist groups like tax." Clients include Barclays, Merrill Lynch, UBS, HSBC and Deutsche Bank. Herbert Smith has recently advised The Jones Group on its £215m acquisition of Kurt Geiger, and BSkyB on that ill-fated £7.8bn offer from News Corporation. On the whole, “all the corporate groups are inclusive and as a trainee you get access to a range of work.” Although there is plenty of due diligence to do, “the teams really trust you to handle the clients and take responsibility. You definitely get more autonomy here than in most of the litigation seats.”
Although finance isn't a practice traditionally associated with Herbert Smith, “the department is actually amazing and you learn so much,” trainees said. One elaborated: “I think realistically our teams are only a tenth the size of Clifford Chance's or Allen & Overy's, but we offer a very different model. We'll take on a smaller number of highly complex deals. The idea is when something needs proper attention, clients come to our specialists.” Another added: “We're also more borrower-heavy than bank-heavy. There are several non-European clients wanting to invest, and our Asian links give us a big advantage in new markets.”
Although “there isn't as much finance work around” at the moment, trainees all remarked on the “huge” amounts of responsibility they received. “You have to get trainees involved or you won't meet the tight deadlines. From day one you're expected to be fully functioning.” In an interesting development, it's recently been announced that the real estate practice will be merged with the finance department in a restructure following the Freehills tie-up.
The working hours are “as you would expect when you come to a big firm.” There are going to be some very late nights here, and some weekend work. One interviewee said: “I think on average it works out at a 9pm finish, with better days and worse.” Fortunately, “you're hardly ever sat on your own into the evening. If you're working, it's because your team is working. If you put in the hard effort, people do notice and are appreciative.”
Herbert Smith “does still retain that 'formal' reputation, but the negative connotations that accompany that word aren't applicable,” trainees thought. One said: “It's formal in the sense that professional integrity and perfectionism are valued extremely highly. People take a lot of pride in what they do and that focus can perhaps be interpreted as formality.” There aren't dress-down Fridays “but I certainly don't have to wear a tie every day,” an interviewee attested. “The main thing is people have a sense of humour,” another added. “Everyone is willing to laugh at themselves. It's extremely refreshing. People are good-natured, but are aware of upholding our reputation.”
Trainees also felt that, “although it's fair to say that you won't know everyone, people don't get lost within Herbies' size. We're a cohesive firm."
A benefit of Herbies' large size is its thriving social scene. Sports enthusiasts can get involved in the likes of football, sailing, netball, cricket, running and tennis. “We have a really good rugby team and the annual Law Society Sevens is always a good day out.” Trainees recently set up a music society. “They've got a choir, band and orchestra going. You can also book yourself individual instrumental lessons.”
Particular praise was reserved for the annual Burns Night ceilidh. “It's mainly a supper in the canteen, but we have a live band and it's great to see you colleagues doing the dosey-doe!” Every other year the firm throws a trainee ball at Kensington Roof Gardens, while on a Friday night “you'll always find someone out on Exchange Square.”
“It's obviously from the legal press that this year's retention rates are going to suffer,” trainees admitted. “This year's intake was the last of the really big numbers, and they're not keeping everyone.” In fact, 83 out of 100 qualifiers stayed on in 2012, not a bad result, considering.
Aspiring litigators in particular should look out for this firm, which can also provide the big corporate experience.