These undisputed leaders in the shipping sector offer “adventurous and proactive” trainees a contentious-heavy experience and the opportunity to go far.
Holman Fenwick Willan is a fine example of why it pays to go international. In shipping this is more of a bog-standard requirement, but still, the firm has properly embraced it of late: by permanently relocating a senior partner to Asia, “we’re demonstrating great commitment to the Asia-Pacific region,” says training principal Toby Stephens. Across offices in London, Paris, Brussels, Piraeus, Dubai, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and São Paulo, the firm’s goal is to “have a truly global management,” Stephens tells us. “We always make sure that all our international offices feel empowered. They're not just satellites.”
Shipping has been the firm’s mainsail since Frank Holman, a mariner’s son, and shipping and insurance mogul John Holman set up a legal practice in London in 1873. Over the last few years, HFW has adopted a slightly different tack to its competitors: when the economy hit the poop deck many were forced to diversify, but Holman instead focused on its areas of expertise. As Stephens puts it, “we managed to stick very close to our roots and have concentrated on what we're good at. Other areas are definitely considered complementary to the main area in which we operate.”
No surprises, then, that the shipping team has been top ranked in Chambers UK since the dawn of time. The group’s expertise evolved over the years and spread into areas like commodities, aviation and logistics, which today also earn first prize in Chambers UK. A huge chunk of the firm's business therefore consists of shipping, from wet to dry, via shipping litigation and ship finance. Big clients include RSA, Barclays, Rolls-Royce and Eni.
Seat options include: energy and resources (split into commodities; construction; EU/competition, fraud and insolvency; and corporate); shipping (litigation and finance); insurance and reinsurance; aerospace; and international (the overseas seat). Before joining the firm, recruits indicate a preference for their first seat. “Usually this is a bit of a stab in the dark,” our sources commented, with one laughing it off: “I had absolutely no idea what to put down!” Sources agreed that the firm does its best to play fairly and accommodate trainees' preferences as much as possible, gauging willingness to travel and qualification hopes. We advise thinking carefully about which contentious seats you do, because options are more limited abroad. “The rule is that we have to do at least one transactional seat, and the other three will be litigious. Usually in other firms it's the other way around, but we're a heavily litigious firm.”
All trainees are expected go abroad for at least one seat, “and of course we all want to, or we wouldn't have applied to work here!” Decisions on when and where to send trainees on secondment depend on the overseas offices’ requirements. As one interviewee put it, “they do whatever makes commercial sense, so you don't always get your first choice, but it's the way it should be.” At the time of our calls, out of 31 trainees 24 were in London, two were in Hong Kong, and the rest were scattered between six overseas offices. A willingness to travel is a must at Holman Fenwick Willan; Toby Stephens describes ideal candidates as “proactive and adventurous.” Several sources had chosen to qualify abroad and were staying on as NQs in Asia and elsewhere in Europe.
International seats vary in focus. Options can include non-contentious versions of energy, shipping, EU/competition and insurance as well as contentious options including shipping, insurance and commodities. Whatever you end up doing, trainees promised “exciting work" such as "advising the Thai government on EU arbitrations to do with trade negotiations, which was cool!” Other topics we heard about included the import of rainbow trout and the cigarette trade. One source raved that “it was so interesting, I didn't expect to be doing any of this, and my own international background certainly came in handy – the firm values it a lot.” In the overseas offices the international seat involved “advising my foreign colleagues here on UK law and how it works, as well as liaising with clients since I'm the one who speaks English best.”
“I could talk for ten hours about everything I've done in six months,” gushed a trainee about the shipping seat, which all sources named their favourite, “for obvious reasons! It's so alive as a subject and a really hot topic. It's a very commercial field where people are constantly trading.” Across the ‘wet' and ‘dry’ disciplines, “the tasks vary massively.” In the shipping litigation and admiralty departments the emphasis is on wet work, particularly in the overseas offices, including “high-profile” vessel collisions, groundings and salvage. Trainees find themselves on the front line: “Clients ring up for quick advice – for example, about trying to arrest their opponent's assets.” SMIT, a leading salvage firm, is a huge client, as are BP and COSCO Bulk Carrier, and HFW also works for P&I clubs and shipowners. In the Piraeus office, “you have very good clients who throw everything your way: finance work, charter party work, or if things go bad at sea they'd instruct you to proceed with salvage,” said one overseas trainee. Another reported that “a Supreme Court case is coming, so we're doing a lot of prep work for that, assembling witness statement exhibits.”
Dry shipping work for one source included “charter party disputes and two arbitrations, for which they flew me home for from my secondment!” Another reported: “They let me have a crack at drafting witness statements for the High Court, and sometimes clients even came to me first to find out what was going on.” In the overseas offices “you always get more responsibility because they're all smaller than London, so trainees are naturally given more of their own work,” sources agreed. “When I was in Shanghai,” a trainee explained, “there was a High Court matter, and I had to liaise with partners in the London office entirely on my own.”
The newly created energy and resources seat (“part of the firm's effort to show we're cradle to grave when it comes to commodities”) sees trainees join an internationally operated team, which recently brought an Australasian group on board. It handles matters relating to oil and gas at all stages of production, energy trading and offshore work, energy dispute resolution, and energy insurance, as well as EU/competition law. Sources in commodities felt they were working in an expanding department, acting for “some big clients – mostly commodities houses.” As a trainee involved in high-level shipbuilding or energy arbitrations, “you do a lot of bundling, but I also got to go to attend a very heated dispute.” In EU/competition interviewees found the work “really rewarding.” One gave an example: “I was working on sanctions, and I had a couple of small advisory cases by myself. It all gets checked of course.” The firm's major clients still include global energy beast Eni, Australia's largest independent oil and gas company Woodside, and UK leader EnQuest. A recent case involves acting for Hellas Gold in a dispute over the terms of acquisition of a gold mine.
The recently opened aerospace department offers trainees a predominantly contentious seat option, where work includes large PI claims following accidents, convention claims, and research into contractual and insurance matters. “In this seat you have to be able to synthesise facts quickly,” one observed, while another remarked: “I had lots of responsibility, and was able to run one small file by myself and bigger ones almost singlehandedly!” One source got at least one of their five-a-day working on “the transportation of a large batch of asparagus,” while another “investigated the rules of remoteness” and “went to court once with a barrister. In the end the judge threw the case away, which was great for our client.” Finally, one interviewee “worked on a few high-profile helicopter crashes you would have heard of in the media recently,” such as the 2013 Vauxhall helicopter crash.
The atmosphere in the London office is “generally friendly if a bit old-fashioned,” sources told us. In the past we've reported that the firm could be more nurturing towards trainees. Our sources didn't deny this, confirming that there isn't really a formal mentoring system in place, but they ultimately agreed that “you're never abandoned. If it's not your official mentor, there will always be your direct supervisor in that particular seat who is ready to listen and help out.” And is there any truth in the legends of the terrifying partners? The consensus was that while “generally, all the partners are lovely and approachable, there are those three or four you know to avoid,” with one source stoically confessing: “I had to work for one in particular who was a total ball-buster. But it didn't take away anything from the seat.” Our interviewees were realistic about their lot: “It's all based on business needs – no one forces you to stay late, but if there's something to finish you'll want to get it done.” Our research continues to show that HFW is suited to resilient types who are ready to accept every challenge a partner might throw at them.
It isn’t all work, though. The firm hosts regular parties at Christmas and in the summer, with events like the office-wide boat party on the river. Every department has its own social scene too, and shipping is rumoured to be particularly keen for a pARRRty (sorry). Sources agreed that overall the social side of things probably isn't as structured at HFW as it is in other firms, but this is part of the firm's overall policy of hiring and growing proactive, independent individuals who can easily be left to their own devices. As put by Toby Stephens, “the kinds of people we hire aren't those who need their social life organised by the firm.” Fair enough.
So what kind of person do they hire? While the firm does value second languages, these are by no means required. They are, however, looking for candidates with an interest in international business, a degree of commercial awareness, and the desire to know more. At the time of our interviews, not all trainees had come straight out of uni; several had prior legal work experience, and a few had come from different careers altogether. The firm hires from across the country, from London to St Andrews, with the current trainee list encompassing 21 different institutions.
HFW is seeking to “feed its fast-growing network with clever young people,” with the encouraging (provisional) retention rate of 16 out of 18 trainees in 2014 to prove it.
Vacation scheme deadline: 14 February 2015
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2015
Holman Fenwick Willan runs a week-long vacation scheme in April, as well as two two-week schemes over June and July.
Vac schemers spend time in one department each week. Our HR sources tell us “the work is hands-on and is set to them by fee earners, and there are a couple of assessed exercises throughout.” Participants, who are assigned a trainee buddy to help them settle in, also attend a handful of practice area presentations and workshops. At the end of the scheme, which includes several organised social dos, attendees have a interview with a partner.
Our sources encouraged prospective HFW trainees to try to get a spot on the scheme if possible. “We're very interested in candidates with legal experience, and the vac scheme is a great opportunity to get some. Plus it's a good way for people to get to know the firm.”
The application process
HFW offers 15 training contracts each year. Applying for the vac scheme means you're automatically considered for the training contract too. The firm typically receives 600 vac scheme applications and 500 or so direct training contract applications. Candidates from both contingents who impress on paper are invited to a half-day assessment centre. This involves a written exercise, a group exercise and an interview, typically with an associate and a member of HR.
The group exercise sees candidates discuss a topical commercial issue, while the written one asks them to read a document and write a letter of advice. The interview lasts about 45 minutes and “questions might include what drew them to Holmans, why they chose an international firm, and a few commercial questions,” HR tells us. “People should know they don't have to be knowledgeable about shipping in particular; they just need to demonstrate an understanding of what it means to provide a service, in any context. It's also important candidates show they understand our scope of work, and that it's something they're interested in.”
From here, vac scheme spots are allocated, while direct applicants who pass go on to complete a second interview, this time with two partners. Vac schemers undergo this interview during their placement.
Who is the firm interested in?
HFW is after candidates with a minimum 2:1 degree and AAB at A level. The firm attends ten law fairs each year, but this isn't the limit of its recruiting scope. “This year we've got trainees from 21 different institutions,” HR tells us.
We're told the firm seeks out “intellectual, proactive, ambitious and globally minded individuals – someone who want to make a mark on things rather than blend into the background.” Legal experience is always a plus in applicants, but the firm values all types of exposure to business –“even working in a bar and cashing in every night.”
Applicants should be aware that a seat abroad is compulsory at HFW. As such, “they're definitely keen on languages,” current trainees told us. That said, training principal Toby Stephens is quick to clarify that while “languages are always a useful additional string to your bow," they are "not compulsory in any way."
Student Guide: In 2014 Holman Fenwick Willan moved senior partner Richard Crump to Singapore, making it the first non-merged firm to relocate a team leader there on a permanent basis. What was the motivation for this?
Toby Stephens: We're demonstrating great commitment to the Asia-Pacific region. The purpose was to strengthen that bond and show we have a truly global management. We're not just centralised in London, and we always make sure all our international offices feel empowered and have very good representation. They're not just satellites, and people who take jobs in international offices aren't made to feel like they're being posted to some faraway place.
SG: How well has the firm managed to achieve the strategic goals it set out five years ago?
TS: The firm is being extremely well managed, and during the global downturn we were able to invest and grow the business, so we took advantage of some really good opportunities like taking on Geneva and expanding our Australian office into Sydney and Perth. That's going to set us up nicely for the next ten years.
Those offices are going to grow much more organically – they're only going to increase our turnover – and we want to feed this fast-growing network with clever, ambitious junior lawyers . You only have to look at our competitors who have really struggled and have had to diversify immensely. Instead, we've managed to stick very true to our roots and have concentrated on what we're good at. Other areas are definitely considered complementary to the main area in which we operate. We're fairly nimble, and we can take opportunities when they present themselves. Senior management has done us proud.
SG: How are you managing your recruitment criteria? Are you looking to grow your trainees intake in the future?
TS: Trainee intake is remaining steady. We're recruiting people who seize opportunities internationally, and we want to provide them with an international legal focus. Our trainees can expect to be very, very multi-dimensional by the time we've trained them up, both commercially and multi-jurisdictionally. We're focusing on our international legal flavour. English-qualified solicitors have a lot to offer internationally, and of course we're always looking for more and more people who want to work abroad at some stage during their careers. We take people with very diverse backgrounds, and I think as long as we are presented with candidates who are willing to actively develop something overseas, we'll probably look to grow our intake.
SG: What sort of person thrives at HFW? How important are a candidate's international background and knowledge of foreign languages?
TS: Languages are always useful, but they're not the be all and end all. We look for an interest in international commerce and not quite a frontier spirit, but certainly a sense of adventure! Ultimately, if you're a bright, entrepreneurial, sociable team player, you'll do well.
SG: How would you describe HFW's working culture? Trainees described the firm as “friendly” but didn't mention much in the way of social activities. Is anything organised for trainees, or is it up to them to set that kind of thing up?
TS: The firm does do bits and pieces throughout the year, but that's more when it's a case of involving everyone. I always think the kinds of people we hire aren't those who need their social life organised by the firm. Last year's qualifiers all really got on with one another and with their own teams. I knew this anecdotally; this year I only hear after the event!
In terms of the working culture, the firm has its own character. We're very different to our competitors, and the way we're organised contributes to this. Each individual department has its own personality that fits under the umbrella of HFW. You have to come and experience the character of the firm: I've been interviewing people, and they have almost universally said: “When I got here, I just felt at home.”
SG: Is there a formal mentoring system in place?
TS: I wouldn't really call it formal. It's very much an open door policy here – I think people just find somebody they're comfortable with, and then they'll talk to that person if there's an issue. It's informal mentoring. I think perhaps if we grow we might need to have something more formal in place, and it's something we do keep under review.
HFW is one of many firm that sends its trainees to Singapore on the regular. Jetting off to the city-state by yourself for six months sounds simultaneously thrilling and petrifying. You don't speak the language, you don't know your way around, and you have to wake up at awkward times if you want to Skype your mum. Don't panic! Below is a rough guide to some of the more recreational activities out in Lion City.
The social side
While the cost of eating out can be extremely low in Singapore, and accommodation is usually sorted by one's firm, visiting trainees will find alcohol can be shockingly pricey. This doesn't mean every outing will break the bank, though. The city is rife with happy hour deals, and many head out straight from the office to take advantage of these generally time-restricted discounts. Riverside Clarke Quay is lined with bars and clubs and is very popular among tourists, while working locals often make a night of it closer to the business district – at Marina Bay, for example, which is home to many rooftop bars. Among them, there's Lantern, which has a pool and view of the bay; Halo, which gets its name from the bagel-shaped wraparound terrace; La Terrazza, popular with expats; and Kinki, which features graffiti art and is called Kinki (what more do you need?). Taxis, like bowls of spicy noodles, come cheap in Singapore, so you can indulge in one more cocktail without worrying about the cost of getting back.
Various music festivals take place in and around Singapore each year, catering to everyone from Hoxton heroes to jazz cats. Head to the popular Laneway in late January for a mix of pop and mainstream indie, to the Singapore Rock Festival in March for something a bit heavier, or to Baybeats in June for a free taste of the new talent in Asia.
For the arty, edgy, cultured or just curious, the Singapore International Festival of Arts (August-September) also offers music, along with performance art, theatre, dance and live installations.
Singapore is infamous for its harsh punishment of seemingly minor transgressions. Gum-chewing is perhaps the most discussed. For the record, it's not forbidden as long as you don't throw your gum on the ground afterwards; that said, it is illegal to sell or import the stuff.
Singapore's smoking ban is currently confined to restaurants and bars, though it might come to include some open-air public spaces as well. The minimum fine for a smoking-related infraction is S$200. And don't forget you're not allowed to carry durians on public transport. The large and very powerfully scented fruit, encased in a thorny armour, emits a potent and lingering smell that could be deemed the Marmite of Southeast Asia: it divides the population into inebriated adorers and repulsed, gagging haters (hence the ban).
Holman Fenwick Willan LLP