Read all a-boat it
Holman Fenwick Willan is an institution in the maritime world. The firm's origins date back to the late 1800s, when solicitor and seafarer extraordinaire Frank Holman set up shop on London's Lime Street. Riding the wave of his family's historical success in shipping – among their accomplishments were the establishment of two hull insurance organisations and one of the world's first shipping protection clubs – Holman eventually enlisted E.A. Fenwick and W.C. Willan as first mates, and the triumvirate embarked on its maiden voyage as HFW.
A century-plus later, it's clear their endeavours have paid off: HFW is celebrated at home and at sea as a leader in shipping law, recognised in Chambers UK alongside fellow maritime experts Ince & Co. Thanks to the fairly sturdy nature of the shipping industry and the fact that litigation makes up some 82% of HFW's business, the recession has been relatively smooth sailing.
The firm managed to keep revenue afloat throughout the downturn – posting a salubrious 10% rise in 2011 – and even pulled off international office openings in Perth and Sao Paulo in 2011. “There will always be problems in shipping, so in that respect we're more recession-proof than other firms. We've actually got a lot of work that resulted from the market crash,” trainees reported. At present, the firm relies on a global network of 14 offices across Europe, Asia and Australia, with flagship London leading the way.
In keeping with management's aim to maintain its status as “the leading firm in international commerce,” the last few decades have seen HFW fish for offerings beyond traditional shipping work. Trade and energy, insurance, corporate, finance and aviation all now feature among the sectors covered, tacking the likes of Barclays, BP and Kuwait Oil Company onto the firm's already respectable client list.
Transactional work in particular has been lavished with some extra attention lately as the firm endeavours to guarantee its ability to “actively sell our capabilities across the board,” in the words of training principal Toby Stephens. That said, we're not talking your run-of-the-mill corporate transactions here; deals tend to retain a heavily industrial flavour. A recent success on the M&A front saw HFW advise on one of the year's largest deals in the mining sector: the sale of a 25% stake in Indonesian coal mining outfit Bumi to Vallar.
Trainees can choose from seats in trade and energy; shipping and transport; insurance/reinsurance; commercial banking and disputes; aerospace; and corporate, projects and finance (CPF for short).
No seats are compulsory, though “pretty much everyone does CPF to satisfy SRA requirements” as it's the sole transactional seat. Each seat is quite broad, so trainees' exposure to particular matters and sectors can vary wildly depending on the partners they work with and how busy the department is when they visit. “Sometimes when we compare our workloads, it can seem like we're at different firms!”
Trainees are assigned to their first seat and submit a “wish list” for each subsequent one, naming their top three choices to give the HR team an initial idea of where people want to go. “There's room for specific partner and sub-team requests.” A list is then circulated confirming where spots are available and trainees bid for their preference. There are usually a minimum of two spots up for grabs in each seat, so the majority of people end up with their first choice.
While a sizeable chunk of trainees tend to arrive each year with some kind of interest in shipping work, those with alternative interests are well catered for. “The firm is equipped for a variety of work beyond its traditional reputation for shipping. It's possible to do a training contract without actually touching on shipping law now,” one pointed out. “We've just added an aerospace team, and there are new opportunities for trainees all the time. It's an exciting time to be here.”
The trade and energy department “is incredibly broad,” handling everything from contractual disputes and international arbitration matters to insolvency cases and derivatives work. On the commodities front, HFW acts for trading companies like the International Cotton Association and Kuwait Oil Company on quality, pricing and shipping matters. “Most cases involve contractual disputes between buyers and sellers looking to ship things like wheat, oil, grain and coal,” trainees informed us. “That means you occasionally touch on shipping law since clients are often charter parties.” While some trainees spend their seat working for partners who focus exclusively on one type of work, others “float around more generally.” Alongside the occasional research assignments and obligatory bundling comes “a lot of drafting and client contact – you're involved in case management daily, so you're often meeting with counsel and trade experts. There's not a lot of black-letter law.”
Commercial banking and disputes “is a new department – it's sort of a spin-off of trade and energy with some more commercial elements,” sources explained. As such, “there's a lot of overlap between the two.” The group handles disputes across the construction, marine, banking, natural resources and commodities sectors.
Thanks to “drastic changes in the shipbuilding market,” shipbuilding disputes currently comprise a hefty portion of the work, though the group also contends with fraud, banking and insolvency matters. Clients are “mostly international” and range from Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank, which the firm is representing in a litigious matter connected to the infamous Saad/Al Gosaibi fraud case, to WMS Gaming, one of the world's biggest slot machine suppliers.
Trainees reported taking a “very involved” stance in proceedings, attending meetings with counsel and interacting “regularly” with clients. “I got to go in front of a couple of masters in the Royal Courts of Justice,” one said, recalling the experience as “scary but totally exciting.”
Maritime = merry times
Shipping and transport is HFW's biggest department, and trainees assured us a seat here is “great fun.” The work is broadly split into two factions: wet and dry shipping. The former deals with physical damage to vessels like collisions and salvage, acting for P&I clubs, underwriters, shipowners and salvors (the guys responsible for salvaging ships and their cargo). A recent success saw the team defend a multijurisdictional cargo claim against leading ocean carriage organisation BBC Chartering. The wet team also handles piracy issues, a field in which HFW is a world leader – its lawyers have been involved in more hijacking cases than any other firm globally, contending with the legal issues that arise when pirates seize vessels, rigs and, in some cases, crew. The group's expertise was instrumental in the 2010 release of Paul and Rachel Chandler, the British couple infamously captured and held hostage for more than a year by Somali pirates.
On the dry side, there's P&I indemnity claims, charter party disputes and more shipbuilding disputes. “Unlike commercial, where the litigation is usually court-based, it's more arbitration-based in shipping as we usually deal with insurers rather than owners.” For trainees, legal research, drafting witness statements and researching various points of shipping law are all part and parcel of the seat. Thanks to “amazing support staff,” there's “less admin and more responsibilities than you'd expect. On a small case I was able to help with the negotiation settlement and draft the settlement agreement,” one source revealed.
Home and away
The corporate, projects and finance group (aka CPF) is the product of a recent amalgamation between “what used to be separate corporate finance and ship finance teams.” Despite the merger, sources still notice a “firm distinction between deals on the corporate side and the ship finance side.” While the bulk of corporate work is oil and gas-related projects, the team also advises on multinational regulatory matters and handles M&A in the insurance sector. Trainees identified “two legs to corporate work: there's an administrative element that means you're often putting together bibles and collating documents for filing; there's also quite a bit of substantive drafting of contracts and shareholder agreements.”
On the finance side “it's mainly shipping-related deals,” though the team also handles assets in the superyacht and corporate jet sectors, counting ship finance banks, yacht owners and cruise operators among its clients. HFW's recently been involved with some jumbo ship finance deals, including Nordea Bank's $750m credit facility for Belgian tanker owner Euronav – the largest financing deal in the tanker market since the onslaught of the recession.
“There's not much research because finance work doesn't really require that,” trainees told us, describing a stint with the ship finance team as a “very active” experience. “There's a lot of day-to-day case management, which involves drafting mortgages and liaising with various ship registries to make sure certain aspects of the deal can progress.” There's also the odd chance for trainees to run their own matters.
“It's expected that people who come here probably want to go abroad for a seat,” said one source, and the vast majority of trainees complete an overseas seat during their training contract. Toby Stephens confirms that demand has risen dramatically in recent years. Each rotation sees seats up for grabs in shipping hubs – which have recently included Paris, Piraeus, Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Geneva, Brussels, Melbourne and Sydney.
“On my first day abroad, I was asked to meet with a client and draft a submission. The degree of responsibility you get is phenomenal,” one source testified. HFW also sends trainees on client secondment to a variety of insurance and banking organisations. “They're department-specific and offered ad hoc.”
Back in the Habit
“If you're not interested in international work, HFW is not the place for you,” sources warned. “There's an international element to almost everything we do.” Indeed, as Stephens points out, “just short of 50% of our business last year came from outside of London, so giving an international training is something we focus on.” As such, proving you've got not only an interest in but also awareness of international commerce is vital if you want to land a training contract.
Despite the firm's interest in global expansion and an “increasingly commercial outlook,” trainees insist HFW's “miles away from your bog-standard commercial firm – the clients aren't just some vague corporate entities.” In fact, the firm's maritime roots help the firm retain “an old-school feel,” sources thought. “It's not stuffy or formal, and it's not very hierarchical. But certain practice areas like shipping have an old-fashioned ring to them, so it's rather traditional in that sense.”
Moreover, HFW's litigation slant means that corporate cabin fever is rarely an issue. “Everybody keeps a suit jacket on the back of their chair in case of emergency client meetings or even emergency court hearings. You can never really plan your day – it's quite exciting!” Of course, “important deadlines can occasionally keep you working late,” but late nights aren't the norm. “The office isn't equipped for late working, which is a good sign – you won't find a late night café or any sleep pods here!”
Most departments run a weekly drink event, and there's a firmwide buffet lunch every two months or so. “They lay out a lot of great food. Even before you join, you can attend a Christmas lunch for new joiners as well as a summer one with an outdoor spread – it's buffet central from the off!” Sources also praise the firm's summer barbecues and sports teams as “good forums for meeting people from other departments.” Past Christmas dos have included a shindig in the basement and a fancy ball. “This year there was a live band and Michael McIntyre performed.” A recent summer fête was also a hit, with a fun fair featuring carnival rides and fairground games. “Throwing wet sponges at the partners was the best,” one source recalled fondly.
Among trainees, ad-lib interaction is pretty frequent, too: most Thursdays and Fridays you can find someone enjoying their Holman's discount at the Habit, a local underground wine bar near the firm's offices behind the Tower of London.
While the firm certainly receives applications from ex-mariners and those with some shipping cred on their CV, landlubbers are welcome all the same. “An interest in international work is the main thing,” as is “the ability to talk about the firm's sectors without bullshitting – they can see right through buzzwords like 'piracy' and 'maritime'.”
HFW's a good place to consider if you've a litigious nature and want to be “more than a slave to the photocopier.” Retention rates aren't too bad either: in 2012, nine of 13 qualifiers stayed on at the firm.