On chambersstudent.co.uk...

  • How to get into HFW
  • Interview with training principal Toby Stephens
  • Piracy: an international problem

Holman Fenwick Willan LLP


Shipping specialist Holman Fenwick Willan offers trainees a wealth of international opportunities and all the responsibility they can handle.

Preparing for takeoff 

Holman Fenwick Willan was founded by two mariners during the panic of 1873, which was largely triggered by the discovery that the newly completed Suez Canal couldn't be used by commercial sailing vessels because the winds blew in the wrong direction.

Rough winds are buffeting the shipping industry again these days, but as one trainee explained, shipping's “countercyclical nature means we're always going to have work – in good times parties will be making contracts; in bad times they'll be breaking them.”

Along with fellow specialist Ince & Co, HFW is top-ranked for shipping by Chambers UK. Trainees saw this practice as “the beating heart of Holmans, even though they're marketing themselves as able to do lots of other things.” Recently, HFW has been promoting its growing corporate offering alongside strengths in transport, trade and energy, which have been bolstered by new aerospace and construction departments.

The firm's heavy-duty client list includes RSA and Barclays alongside a huge range of industrial giants like British Airways, Rolls-Royce, Glencore and Eni. With recent new offices opened in Perth and São Paulo, the firm is “really ambitious abroad.” Considering the firm's strong international ethos, training principal Toby Stephens advises that recruits “need to be open to working or travelling abroad at some point in their career – if you don't like getting on aeroplanes, this is probably not the place for you.”

The first seat is allocated by the firm, then trainees put down three choices for each subsequent seat, choosing from a heavily contentious set of options that includes: trade and energy; shipping and transport; insurance and reinsurance; aerospace; and commercial banking disputes. There's also a compulsory corporate projects and finance seat.

Stephens explained that thanks to HFW's new offices abroad, “we guarantee each trainee an overseas placement” – the flip side of which is that going abroad, if not technically compulsory, is “more than encouraged” by the firm. There's “hot competition for the shipping seat,” so “persistence is key,” although a willingness to go overseas for this does raise the odds.

Setting sail 

Shipping offers trainees “a very dynamic, very active” environment in a department with impeccable pedigree. The practice is divided into 'wet' work and 'dry' work. The former involves perils at sea like collisions, groundings, piracy and salvage, and lets trainees “get stuck into some interesting problems. You have to pick up the background quite quickly, so it helps having a mariner in the office who you can ask technical questions of.”

Piracy is naturally “the first thing that grabs your attention,” said one trainee, who explained that due to strict confidentiality, “everybody knows we do it, but we can't really talk about it.” Somali piracy might be subsiding, but there are still “problems” in the Horn of Africa – HFW's work involves “not actually getting the crew off” a stricken ship so much as “dealing with the vessel stuck there, the contract, the charter party.” HFW lawyers also advise on anti-piracy efforts, including drafting the international maritime council's standard form for the use of armed guards onboard vessels. (You can read more about piracy in our bonus features.)

In salvage cases stakes are similarly high, thanks to a trend towards cargo ships getting bigger. HFW recently acted for the salvors of a $1.2bn BP drilling vessel which almost capsized in the Gulf of Mexico. In another case, after “a fire on board a vessel, we had to deal with the ship owners and cargo owners to get the salvors a decent reward in the salvage arbitration. It was quite a reactive, tactical case to work on.” HFW benefits from having a flotilla of international offices close to major shipping routes. One trainee told of “working on a pollution claim" in which "the lawyers nearby in Singapore took witness statements, while we made the defence back in London.”

Responsibility levels for trainees in London aren't always that high, perhaps because of the specialist nature of the work – we heard the 19 master mariners on staff “tend to get sent off to go and look at things because they'll know what they're talking about” Still, trainees who go on secondment to the smaller overseas teams can look forward to a wider range of work and responsibilities. One reported being “left in control of a case,” deciding which jurisdiction to hear a dispute in, and another went to “get things signed by surveyors and had conferences with counsel.”

Dry work generally deals with contractual disputes, particularly involving charter parties, which are the contracts by which boats are let by their owners to cargo carriers. In one such dispute, “our clients hired a vessel for a four-year period and on giving it back the owners claimed it hadn't been maintained properly.”

In the pipeline 

Trade and energy trainees also end up handling some dry shipping: one “high adrenaline” case involved “using all angles of attack after our client's ship had been arrested,” while another trainee “got to initiate the arrest of a vessel which had our client's goods on it – the threat meant we ended up getting paid and got the goods back, but it was still fun!” The bulk of trade and energy work, though, is in shareholder or trade disputes subject to international arbitration. This involves work for industrial clients in mining, oil and gas joined by commodities work “including grain, wheat, cotton and oil – not the kind of thing you do at university; it was all new to me.”

Sources' experiences had been “pretty intense” and offered high levels of responsibility – one trainee handling petroleum sales “that had gone a little bit wrong” was entrusted with “preparing the questions and interviewing the witnesses directly.” Some trainees also told of taking notes at hearings, “then translating them into a more understandable form to send to the client,” and “phoning counsel to discuss our case,” while another had even “gone before a master asking him to give permission for a worldwide freezing order.” Overall, our sources in trade and energy benefited from being “involved in fewer cases to a much greater extent – your input is a lot more valuable, and you really learn case management.”

Corporate projects and finance is the firm's only transactional department and is “divided into two halves – one side does shipping and aviation; the other does general corporate.” HFW's client base still has a strongly international and industrial flavour – in a recent deal it advised the Cameroon Oil Transportation Company on the €75.3m refinancing of a pipeline. Recent lateral hires have almost doubled the size of the department and diversified HFW's corporate offering. Capital markets work now brings a “new capability to the firm: we're working on IPOs, debt issuing and Islamic finance – a real variety of projects.”

The competition team involves technical work regarding “complaints to the EU Commission” on issues like abuse of dominance. One trainee had the opportunity to “attend four hearings in my first week.” Clients of the team include UEFA and Air China.

Stormy weather 

Trainees felt that “high levels of responsibility are common throughout HFW – they get you involved with proper work rather than just chucking bits of research at you.” While some trainees really thrived on the opportunities offered, others saw “a need to be a bit more nurturing and maybe a bit less hands-off.” The firm doesn't really have an official mentoring system, which training principal Toby Stephens puts down to not being a large firm where that formality is necessary: “It's more the sort of culture where it's about picking someone you're comfortable talking to.”

Sources warned of certain partners with “very big personalities who have a reputation for working trainees very hard,” and several felt “there isn't an attitude of sharing work around the department,” as some partners are very possessive of 'their' trainees. Stephens admitted that “some seats generally get the tougher tag” but felt that those experiencing them “come out better trainees” as a result. We've said in the past that the secret of success as an HFW trainee is to be thick-skinned enough not to be bothered by the occasional rough-and-tumble of life here, confident enough to shine (and so pick up more interesting work), yet humble enough to accept that the partners rule the roost.

One trainee “had a misconception that because we aren't corporate-heavy, we wouldn't do long hours, but that's not the case.” On average trainees work from 9am to 7.30pm, which they saw as “pretty reasonable,” although be warned a couple of seats involve much later hours, some weekend work and a culture where “you feel obliged to stay until the partners go home.” The firm provides mid and end-of-seat reviews – some trainees were pleased with the “really good” level of detail these entail, while others found the ten-page review forms “quite frustrating.” You can't please everyone, we suppose.

HFW inhabits a majestic 1980s pile in concrete and pink granite, with life-size sculptures of crutched friars paying homage to Tower Hill's monastic history. “Every Friday” trainees habituate “the Habit, just below the offices,” which offers wine, traditional pub grub and sawdust-and-barrel medieval theming a little at odds with all the tinted glass and marble outside. Trainees raved about the subsidised canteen –“we all congregate down there for lunch”– and its “daily theme, like curry day or Mediterranean food,” plus “barbecues outside in the summer.”

In addition to various departmental drinks trolleys, every two months there's a big firm-wide buffet lunch that includes wine and a chocolate fountain. Big events like Christmas and summer parties are held every other year, alternating with smaller departmental dos. As well as a trainee-led running club and a football team with a dashing new blue and gold kit, there are more unusual opportunities like “dinghy racing in the Docklands organised by one of our mariners.”

The international offices each have a flavour of their own – the Brussels one “is in an old architects' office, so it's quite snazzy, with cool artwork, strange lights hanging down and a lovely view over the city,; meanwhile Geneva offers the lure of “looking out of your office window to see the Alps.”

Plenty of trainees have previous careers in “industry, insurance, shipping, or the navy,” we heard, although most come straight from uni, making for “a few more down-to-earth characters, rather than everybody being pure lawyer.” HFW is diversifying rapidly due to the tough economic conditions – one trainee noticed that while “the firm had felt a lot more London-centric and like a family” during their vac scheme, “that's giving way to a more corporate atmosphere – it's more business-oriented now.”

Trainees had mixed feelings about qualification – one suggested that “they will make an attempt to take everyone on, but whether that will be in London is debatable.” In the past some trainees have gone to competitor firms rather than qualify abroad, but Toby Stephens offered reassurance that although “we want people to go to a jurisdiction where there's the potential to grow the business, there are still more jobs in London than through the international network.” In 2013 HFW kept on 13 out of its 14 qualifiers.

And finally... 

Trainees opined that successful applicants are now “not only bright but very commercially aware and abreast of issues in the industries of their clients.” The big publication for the shipping industry is TradeWinds– maybe take a look at that.

You may also be interested in:

Our practice area feature on Shipping

These firms with a strong shipping practice:

- Clyde & Co
- Hill Dickinson
- Ince & Co
- Reed Smith
- Stephenson Harwood
- Thomas Cooper
- Watson, Farley & Williams

Key Facts

Location: London

Number of UK partners/solicitors: 74/122

Total number of trainees: 35

Seats: 4x6 months

Alternative seats: overseas seats, secondments

Extras: pro bono – Morden Legal Advice Centre, LawWorks

Chambers UK Rankings 2014

  • Asset FinanceUK-wide (Band 2)
  • AviationUK-wide (Band 1)
  • Commercial ContractsUK-wide (Band 3)
  • CommoditiesUK-wide (Band 1)
  • ConstructionUK-wide (Band 4)
  • InsuranceUK-wide (Band 2)
  • LitigationLondon (Firms) (Band 6)
  • ShippingUK-wide (Band 1)
  • TransportUK-wide (Band 1)
  • TravelUK-wide (Band 3)