The future is Fulbright
"As a result of our growth and development, we are now a top-ten global legal practice by revenue and number of lawyers." So graduate recruitment partner Duncan Batchelor told us this year, revealing the transformation this famous old City firm has gone through. Fresh from a merger with Texan giant Fulbright & Jaworski in June 2013, the newly minted Norton Rose Fulbright counts 3,800 lawyers in more than 50 cities across the world. The UK part of the firm was known primarily for its financial prowess, but the merger will undoubtedly open a lot of new doors.
Why Fulbright? Duncan Batchelor again: “Cultural fit is incredibly important in any large organisation or combination. Ours is a people business, and it was one of the key criteria from the outset that we would join with a firm with a similar culture, ethos and outlook." He adds: "Looking at the international axes of trade – such as the axis between Africa and China, which few firms are able to service in the way we can – the inclusion of the Fulbright practice is perfect to complement our existing network." Read more about Batchelor's thoughts on the merger here.
“Ultimately, we can't yet tell how the merger will affect our culture and vibe, but our American expansion feels very exciting,” trainees said, alluding to a 2010 merger with Aussie firm Deacons and not mentioning in all the excitement the recent tie-ups with Canadian and South African firms that have been equally important in NR's recent expansion. “The deal with Fulbright is seen as a relationship rather than a takeover. Fulbright is such a big fish in the States: we know we're joining a good thing.” One source said: “Wealth and clients are global, and we were lacking a US presence. The merger make a lot of sense.”
Six becomes four
Norton Rose was unusual among the largest City firms in that it ran a six-seat training contract. This was always a big draw for students who liked the idea of sampling lots of different areas of law. However, the firm recently switched to the more common system of four seats that last six months each. “I think the idea is to create uniformity across offices, particularly in light of 2010's Australian merger,” one trainee said. Duncan Batchelor explains: “First, the sixth seat often lost its value as qualification decisions were usually made during the course of the fifth seat. Second, we noticed that people often repeated a seat which they had previously done in their last four months. Third, and from a client perspective, clients were often keen to take trainees for a six-month secondment rather than a four-month period.” We were expecting a lot of griping about the change from the current trainees, but in fact they appear to have taken it on the chin and appreciated the logic behind the decision. They did say: “The transition to the four seats could have been handled better. It was all done very quickly, and many of us applied here specifically for the six seats. That will be different with new intakes, of course.” All agreed: “The HR team does really try to get you the seats you want, but it's important to make your wishes known early on.”
Seats now fall broadly into the following categories: banking; dispute resolution; corporate; real estate; competition and regulatory; employee incentives and pensions; and tax. In the future “all trainees will have to undertake one of the banking seats, one corporate and one disputes,” interviewees said. “Within each team there are sub-specialisms and partners that have their own niches. It means there's a lot of choice.” For example, banking covers a wealth of options, including asset finance, general banking, project finance, derivatives/capital markets and Islamic financing, while real estate includes the likes of planning, construction and property litigation. One source explained: “There's an internal publication detailing what each partner does, so you have the ability to make an informed decision when it comes to seat changes.”
We've mentioned in passing NRF's prowess when it comes to all matters financial, but perhaps we understated it. Chambers UK awards the firm rankings – often top rankings – in every type of finance category going. The corporate and litigation practices are also genuinely high-end and don't look out of place on magic circle-level deals. The only other area we'll single out for special mention is projects and energy work. Norton Rose has long had a decent reputation in this area, but this will be significantly boosted by the US merger. Fulbright & Jaworski was a Texas native, and energy law is the stock-in-trade of all the biggest Texan firms.
Coming up Roses
“There are two large asset finance teams, and in both areas Norton Rose Fulbright is a leader,” trainees said. “The teams have some incredibly long-standing clients, and asset finance is at the core of the firm.” The split is between an “exclusively” marine-focused group and an aviation/rail team. Shipping was one of Norton Rose's first departments and has been a part of the firm for over 200 years. The UK practice is very connected to the firm's Athens and Paris office and works with “all the big names” in the shipping world, including advising Talbot, Hiscox and other Lloyd's syndicates in defence of $77m worth of claims following an alleged piracy attack on a crude oil tanker. The aviation and rail practices act for the likes of easyJet, KLM and Transavia, and recently advised China Aircraft Leasing on its Airbus order. Interviewees agreed the teams “instil real discipline and attention to detail.” One said: “Although there is a lot of document management, the teams are relatively small, so there's good scope to get involved and get very early responsibility.”
Almost every trainee we spoke to had taken a seat in the project finance department. “It's one of the largest groups at the firm,” and “the department is incredibly dynamic and consistently fluid. There are partners from all over the world that fly in and out.” One sub-team focuses on energy and projects; the other is more geared towards mining, infrastructure and construction. Basically, “the energy stuff is financing the building of power stations or acquisitions of energy companies,” interviewees explained. “It's predominantly international work.” The other team is involved in matters like “the building of airports and roads and the financing of mining companies.” The department is “notoriously hard-working, and you can get some crazy hours,” interviewees admitted. “It's punishing at times, but the work you're doing is interesting.” One said: “Realistically, you will be proofreading, but there's also quite a bit of drafting.” Another added: “These are mega-transactions, so it's hard to get that full amount of responsibility, but you are involved, and the training is comprehensive.”
Corporate is still a “big driver” for the firm. “NRF isn't as well known for its corporate work, because of our finance and projects expertise, but the teams are very strong.” Interviewees thought the departments were doing well: “The telecoms practice is expanding internationally, and the insurance practice is working on several big deals.” The private equity team recently worked on the $315m sale of the Oxford Aviation Academy, while the insurance group advised on the $300m sale of Brit Insurance to RiverStone. M&A deals continue to be big-ticket work: the firm advised The Royal Bank of Canada on the $2bn acquisition of Latin American, Caribbean and African private banking businesses, and the general corporate team acted for Müller Dairy UK on the £279.5m public takeover of London Stock Exchange-listed Robert Wiseman Dairies.
NRF's disputes practice is split into four teams, covering broadly but not exclusively: financial and general commercial litigation; construction, transport, energy and trade; insurance (including marine litigation); regulation and investigations; and white-collar crime. “The insurance and regulatory teams have had a heavy influx from Fulbright,” trainees said. “Following the merger, disputes on the whole is growing. It's not always been a focus for NRF, but there is a lot of new potential.” Recently, NRF has represented fellow firm Collyer Bristow in an £100m claim against insurance brokers and is acting for the US trustee of Lehman Brothers in the protection of interests in the UK and other jurisdictions outside the US.
The opportunities to go on overseas secondments are second to none at NRF. Destinations currently span three continents, and no doubt more will open up in the future. See our overseas seats table for a full list. “The options really are incredible,” interviewees said. “Going overseas is very much encouraged by the firm – it's almost compulsory. To be perfectly honest, it'd be strange to come to NRF and not want to go abroad. We're such an international entity.” Duncan Batchelor says: “We're a global firm and are looking to hire people with a global outlook. That is reflected in our selection for candidates. Those coming to Norton Rose should expect to work with international clients and colleagues and to travel overseas from time to time – not only as a trainee but throughout their careers. The chance to work in another office and with our clients in another region gives people a wider exposure to the business. Applicants need to think beyond the two years of the training contract and think about the benefits working overseas can bring to their careers.”
The East Asian placements are very popular, as is Paris. The option of heading to Australia is a new one, much to the delight of trainees. NRF also runs a variety of client secondments, mostly at “a mix of banks and energy companies.”
Do the hula
“Although we're a massive City firm, people are very down to earth and inclusive,” trainees said. “You're never treated as a low-life trainee. Common sense prevails, and people respect each other. People are reasonable and helpful.” Our sources had all made “good friends” at the firm. “People meet up for lunch as often as they can, and some are even holidaying together this summer.”
Norton Rose loves sport, with mixed hockey, rugby, cricket, sailing, football, netball, tennis and softball clubs all knocking about. Music and language lessons are held in the office, and the firm won 'Business Choir of the Year' in 2013. Interviewees reflected how “lovely it is to hear them practising in the atrium.” Although there's no official Christmas party, teams put on their own events. “One held an American line-dancing do, and the corporate department threw a Hawaiian-themed party. Grass skirts and flip-flops were heavily encouraged.” The firm also held a 'welcome Fulbright' drinks function “to help with early integration.” Informally, Brigade and The Bridge, both pubs on Tooley Street, are firm favourites.
Retention rates at NRF are pretty good, interviewees admitted. “They don't release job lists, because it's about showing that initiative and nurturing good relationships with the team you want to work with.” One said: “It's probably the correct way to run things but can make the process stressful. Some departments decide earlier than others, and it all gets a bit mad.” All agreed: “If you're a good candidate and you don't get your first choice, they will make every effort to place you elsewhere, which is great. You never feel abandoned.” Some 24 out of 26 qualifiers were kept on across three retention rounds in 2013.
Long respected as a top City firm that treats its employees with respect, Norton Rose is now entering a new phase. Hopefully the Fulbright merger will bring all the benefits of globalisation without compromising the firm's pleasant nature.