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  • The rush to Seoul
  • Herbies' in-house advocacy unit
  • Overseas seats and client secondments  

Herbert Smith Freehills

Herbert Smith Freehills' expansion plan is well under way, but will it be hitting the brakes any time soon?

Seoul searching 

The result of 2012's merger between Herbert Smith and Australia's 'Big Six' member Freehills, this is now an £800m firm with 2,800 lawyers operating out of Asia, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the USA.

The merger supports the view by some that, in years to come, the market will be dominated by a few global powerhouses. The tie-up fell under the remit of the old Herbert Smith's 'Project Blue Sky' – its ambitious plan to take the firm global by targeting countries like Australia, the USA, South Korea and Germany.

Project Blue Sky's hit-rate is quite something, ticking off country names with stunning rapidity. The Freehills merger has made HSF the biggest firm in the Asia-Pacific region, taking the crown from Baker & McKenzie. A disputes-focused office in New York opened for business in 2012, broadening access to US clients.

April 2013 saw the firm open a Seoul office, hot on the heels of the country's relaxation of its restrictions to foreign firms. (You can read more about the 'rush to Seoul' in our bonus features) HSF has also set the foundations for its own offices in Berlin and Frankfurt, and has its eyes on Latin America, says training partner Matthew White: "Brazil is probably where we will focus our attentions on developing an energy-led office."

Corporate and dispute resolution are the big beasts at the firm, and both practices are ranked up there with the best by Chambers UK. A host of industry expertise – in areas such as energy, financial services, technology, pharmaceuticals and leisure – runs alongside HSF's full-service offering. Energy and mining had for some time been a focus for legacy Herbies, and the merger with Freehills has boosted that side over in the mineral-rich land that is Australia.

“They're still looking at ways to pool together client bases and forces,” added one source, but by May 2013 the two legacy firms had already worked on around 250 joint advisory and cross-referral matters since the merger in October. This includes advising China National Offshore Oil Corporation on its $1.9bn acquisition of interests in a liquefied natural gas project in Australia. We'll have to wait and see until the revenue figures are published, but so far Herbies' Aussie tie-up looks like it has got off to a good start.

Litigation nation 

HSF is organised around five divisions: corporate; dispute resolution; finance, real estate and projects; employment, pensions and incentives; and competition, regulation and trade. Trainees will complete a corporate and litigation seat throughout their training contract, and stints in real estate and finance are also likely. On top of that, there are more specialist seats on offer in employment, pensions and incentives; competition, regulation and trade; tax; and IP.

Trainees get to list “between three and six preferences” at each seat rotation, and “it's quite unusual not to get one of your top three.” HR “do take into account your general development,” and “they'll ask if you have a qualification preference, and if so what.” There's also the opportunity to go on an international or client secondment – check out our bonus features for more information.

There's plenty of choice when it comes to litigation at HSF. Trainees can be placed in three or four large litigation groups, "but within those there are some more niche things: in group one there are a lot of Russian disputes; in group two there's more oil and gas work, while group three does some media and a lot of insolvency; group four encompasses public law but also financial services regulation and banking litigation.”

Sources said that “there's a good mix of work, which is a positive thing as you get to be very busy,” but the potential downside is that the “groups are not particularly cohesive – there's not a common thread that unites them.” There's a mixture of international and domestic clients, like London Underground, Chevron and Abbott Laboratories, as well as the chance to work in more specific groups focusing on insurance, construction, international arbitration and advocacy. In the larger groups, “who you work for depends on your supervisor and how territorial they are – but it is encouraged that you work with other people as well.”

Rogue traders and financial misbehaviours 

Increased work on the banking/financial services regulatory side (regulatory scrutiny is where it's at these days) means that litigators have been helping retail and investment banks with mis-selling claims, derivatives litigation and disputes arising from the Libor scandals. One such case involved advising Credit Suisse in a mis-selling claim brought against it by a high net worth individual whose investments suffered in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis. “It's a fascinating group,” said one source who had worked on a mis-selling claim and “got a hands-on look at the documents on the case. You get to immerse yourself in the evidence, draft witness statements and put together the materials – it's very interesting.”

Regulatory and corporate crime lawyers united over the 'rogue trader' Kweku Adoboli case (Adoboli's 'unauthorised trading incident' resulted in the loss of£1.5 bn to UBS and the arrest of Adoboli). Trainees here told us how work fell mostly into three categories: “General advice on things like money laundering rules; investigations work, which is sometimes anticipatory and sometimes occurs when a client is being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office; and finally corporate support, when an M&A transaction is going through and we need to design questionnaires for both buyers and sellers on corporate crime, practices and related topics.”

Sources felt there was “good exposure and the chance to work with foreign lawyers – we were dealing with projects going on in North Africa and the Middle East, and we had a mini-project where we'd deliver advice on local anti-corruption law around the globe.”

International arbitration clients include BP, Alstom and the Kingdom of Spain. This is a popular choice because “the team is very small, so you get to have more responsibility than you would in the general groups.” It's also a “very academic team, which focuses on a lot of publishing, networking events, lectures and webinars to give to clients.” It's also “very research-based – it's basically what you think law is like when you're in law school. You're choosing the things that support your view and preparing counter-arguments.” Trainees had prepared witness statements, attended hearings and, inevitably, done their fair share of disclosure as well.

Stake 'n' markets 

The corporate group serves a roster of FTSE 100 and 250 companies, including names like G4S, Virgin Group, Pearson and Moneysupermarket.com. There has been a bit of a reshuffle in the corporate division of late: “There were seven or eight larger groups, but now they've condensed that down to four; the idea is to give people a greater breadth of experience so that you don't become super-specialised.” Most of our sources had spent time in a group that dealt with general public and private M&A as well as equity capital markets. “The work is so varied. I've helped to sell chicken farms – anything can come up!”

Trainees don't get “to draft the big headline points, but you do get bits of discrete drafting and get a good experience of the more ancillary documents.” Some had found themselves in groups which encompass more of the firm's sector specialisms, like energy and TMT. This can involve “working on technology outsourcing agreements for major clients as well as profit work on a mobile licensing deal.” The team have recently advised Cable & Wireless Worldwide on its $1bn takeover by Vodafone. Energy work involves assisting on “farm-out agreements, for when a company wants to buy into an oil concession and, for example, wants to take a 30% stake in it.”

The real estate and finance groups combined to form one division in 2012 in the aftermath of the Freehills merger. Finance is “not our strongest department, but it's definitely a growing division and a lot busier recently. It's quite nice to be in a place where people are striving to get better, and you're considered to be a player much more.” Again, there are a smaller number of groups which work on a broader range of financial transactions and activities. One group encompasses securitisation, debt capital markets and derivatives work, which went down well with trainees. “At other big finance firms they put all of those things into separate groups, but here you get to do a bit of everything.”

Clients include well-known banks and financial institutions like BNP Parabas, Citibank, Credit Suisse and Standard Chartered Bank. Trainees had worked on securitisation deals, with one able to “do the first reviews of a suite of documents, like an agency agreement and a trust deed, and put my comments on them.” Sources generally agreed that because the finance teams are smaller, “there are more opportunities as a trainee.”

Real estate comprises general, construction, property litigation and planning groups. Long-standing clients include FTSE 100 property company Hammerson, Standard Life and EDF, but the teams have also won new international clients like Sime Darby from Malaysia and the Renaissance Group from Russia. Lawyers advised Hammerson on the sale of its London office portfolio to Brookfield Office Properties, a large North American developer, for £518m. Construction lawyers then stepped on board to assist Brookfield on its joint venture with Oxford Properties to redevelop London Wall Place for office and retail space in the City.

The construction group has a wide range of clients in the energy, transport and infrastructure, and commercial spheres. Trainees had got involved in “a number of nuclear power plant deals” and loved them. “There are few projects in the construction industry that are as complex as a nuclear power station – the consequences of something not being correct are huge.” Tasks included making amendments to construction contracts, which addressed the appointment of architects and engineers, and assisting on the drafting of collateral warranties.

Fun direction 

“Morale is really good at the moment,” one trainee reported. “The merger has given us a shot in the arm, and people are feeling energetic.” Others felt that “the firm has more direction now, more focus – not that there wasn't a plan before, but now it's more visible.”

The merger has also cranked communication levels up a notch as well, with regular group sessions and “monthly CEO updates” to keep everybody updated. Sources cited the recent “firm-wide consultation” on the firm's values as an example of this improved quality of communication, and now a refreshed set of post-merger values have been shaped to steer “the way the firm will go in the future.” Ultimately, “people have been pleased about how, culturally, there's a lot of similarities between the legacy firms.”

There's quite an academic culture at Herbert Smith, with an “emphasis on intellectual engagement with law and society – you'll walk past people having conversations in the corridors and hear someone say '... and ninthly...'.” There's also a nice balance between individual striving and broader considerations: “It's not a stereotypically aggressive environment, but it's still an entrepreneurial place. There's an energy and intensity here, but it's often directed in a collective movement to get things done. There's not an unhealthy competitive atmosphere.”

Traditionally, the firm has been painted as a more formal one, but the formality appears to be more associated with the litigation groups, where “it's more hierarchical – corporate teams tend to be friendlier, though that's a broad-stroke generalisation.”

While there may not be too much socialising at an office-wide level, there's still lots going on at HSF. Each group has its own entertainment budget, meaning that departmental socialising is common. We heard of well-attended Christmas and summer parties; pizza and proscecco nights in conference rooms; group traditions like “going out for a new-joiner curry on Brick Lane”; and karaoke nights: “After you've left the karaoke bar with the partners you've been singing with all evening, there's not much hierarchy left.”

Trainee-specific events tend to dip depending on when a large cohort are on secondment, but the group still comes together to organise things like its own Christmas party each year: “We assign coordinators from each intake, and everyone chips in 25 quid.” Being “fortunately located in Exchange Square” makes it easy to find somewhere to grab a few drinks after work as well.

Trainees heaped praise on the firm for the way it handled the qualification process: “They've done really well and kept us regularly updated.” That's quite some feat, considering the number of trainees hoping to progress through the ranks. A clear timetable alerts trainees to when things will happen, and a jobs list indicates how many positions will be available in each division. “Everyone hears the outcome of the decisions on the same day, and they even give everyone an allocated appointment to deliver the news – mine's at 11:05am.”

And finally... 

At the time of our calls in mid-June, our sources were just a couple of days away from finding out their future employment status. 54 out of 66 eventually found out that they had jobs in September.

You may also be interested in: 

The other 'silver circle' City firms:

- Ashurst
- Berwin Leighton Paisner
- King & Wood Mallesons SJ Berwin
- Macfarlanes
- Travers Smith

Our practice area features on Litigation & Dispute Resolution and Projects & Energy

These firms which also have a strong energy practice:

- Dentons
Vinson & Elkins
- White & Case

Key Facts

The facts 

Location: London

Number of UK partners/solictors: 159/439

Partners who trained at the firm: 61%

Total number of trainees: 166

Seats: 4x6 months

Alternative seats: overseas seats, secondments

Extras: pro bono – Whitechapel Legal Advice Centre, RCJ CAB, FRU, death row appeals; language classes

Chambers UK Rankings 2014

  • Administrative & Public LawUK-wide (Band 1)
  • Banking & FinanceLondon (Firms) (Band 2)
  • Banking LitigationLondon (Firms) (Band 2)
  • Capital MarketsLondon (Firms) (Band 2)
  • Competition/European LawLondon (Firms) (Band 2)
  • ConstructionUK-wide (Band 1)
  • Corporate Crime & InvestigationsUK-wide (Band 1)
  • Corporate/M&ALondon (Firms) (Band 2)
  • Data ProtectionUK-wide (Band 3)
  • Employee Share Schemes & IncentivesUK-wide (Band 2)
  • EmploymentLondon (Firms) (Band 2)
  • Energy & Natural ResourcesUK-wide (Band 1)
  • EnvironmentLondon (Firms) (Band 3)
  • Financial ServicesUK-wide (Band 2)
  • FraudLondon (Firms) (Band 1)
  • Health & SafetyUK-wide (Band 2)
  • Hotels & LeisureLondon (Firms) (Band 2)
  • Information TechnologyLondon (Firms) (Band 1)
  • InsuranceUK-wide (Band 2)
  • Intellectual PropertyLondon (Firms) (Band 2)
  • International ArbitrationLondon (Firms) (Band 2)
  • Investment FundsUK-wide (Band 1)
  • Life SciencesUK-wide (Band 2)
  • LitigationLondon (Firms) (Band 1)
  • Local GovernmentUK-wide (Band 4)
  • OutsourcingUK-wide (Band 3)
  • PartnershipUK-wide (Band 1)
  • PensionsLondon (Firms) (Band 1)
  • Pensions LitigationUK-wide (Band 3)
  • PlanningLondon (Firms) (Band 2)
  • Private ClientUK-wide (Band 3)
  • Private EquityUK-wide (Band 4)
  • Product LiabilityUK-wide (Band 2)
  • Professional DisciplineUK-wide (Band 2)
  • Professional NegligenceLondon (Firms) (Band 1)
  • ProjectsUK-wide (Band 2)
  • Public International LawLondon (Firms) (Band 2)
  • Public ProcurementUK-wide (Band 3)
  • Real EstateLondon (Firms) (Band 1)
  • Real Estate FinanceLondon (Firms) (Band 3)
  • Real Estate LitigationLondon (Firms) (Band 3)
  • Restructuring/InsolvencyLondon (Firms) (Band 1)
  • RetailUK-wide (Band 1)
  • TaxLondon (Firms) (Band 2)UK-wide (Band 2)
  • TelecommunicationsUK-wide (Band 1)
  • TransportUK-wide (Band 1)