A series of smart combinations has seen this City banking big-shot balloon into a global behemoth with outposts in Australia, South Africa and the Americas. And there may be more to come...
If law firms were retro arcade game characters – bear with us – Norton Rose Fulbright would surely be Pac-Man. Since 2010 it has gobbled up Australian, South African and Canadian outfits, and in 2013 it swallowed up Texan firm Fulbright & Jaworski. Burp! As if that wasn't enough, 2014 heralded the opening of an outpost in Rio de Janeiro, the firm's 55th office worldwide. So has that sated NRF's appetite, or is there room for more? “We're particularly interested in establishing an office in Mexico, as well as moving further into Africa,” reveals trainee recruitment partner Duncan Batchelor.
What do trainees make of all this expansion? “There's a palpable sense of optimism in the office,” one said. “But I think we're still waiting to feel the full force of the Fulbright merger and the opportunities it will open up around the world.” The merger had been live for nearly a year by the time of our calls, so for our part we think NRF needs to hurry up and work out what it's going to do with all its new global goodies. Trainees were pleased to report there haven't been any negative side-effects of all the gobbling up the firm has been doing (heartburn perhaps?). “Even after all the changes we've been through, the friendly, easygoing vibe we're known for hasn't died, and no one has been lost in the shuffle.”
Know that a training contract at Norton Rose Fulbright has a heavy banking slant. Don't be shocked if six months in disputes means six months of banking litigation. A seat in one of the pedigree banking groups – asset finance, project finance or general banking – is compulsory, as is a stint in corporate and one in disputes groups (fortunately there are lots to choose from in these latter groups). That leaves trainees one free choice. They can opt for one of the niche practices, revisit banking, corporate or disputes, go on a client secondment (mostly banking-based), or take a trip to one of the many overseas offices (more on those below). “There are some restrictions because of business needs, but people are largely happy with the way seats are dished out.”
The banking group is recognised by Chambers UK for its asset finance, projects, general banking and transport work. If a company wants to buy, build or finance something anywhere in the world, NRF can probably sort them out. Clients include HSBC, Bank of America and Deutsche Bank. Asset finance and project finance are by far the most frequent stops for trainees. “We're very active in emerging markets like Africa and Russia, and there's a lot of work for lenders in areas like real estate and telecoms,” observed one.
The asset finance team is recognised by Chambers UK for its rail, aviation, shipping and general finance work, and NRF is the only firm to receive top-tier rankings in all four of these categories. The seats on offer are shipping and aviation/rail. Clients of the latter team include easyJet, British Airways and Bombardier, the Derby-based manufacturer making the new trains for Crossrail. But a lot of the work stretches far beyond London and Derbyshire: lawyers recently worked with their colleagues in Poland and New York to deliver five Boeing 787 Dreamliners (built in the US) to Polish flagship carrier LOT. “Our clients are spread all over the world and so are the assets they're buying,” observed one trainee. There are a lot of ducks to get in a row for these deals to work, and sources commented that “you need to be seriously organised and capable of staying on top of things – you might end up having to close several different aircraft deals all on the same day.” Trainees spend their time “managing transactions and keeping notes of which documents have and haven't been signed and agreed.” The experience in this seat can vary from person to person: one source reported that “there wasn't tons of client contact,” while another said they'd been managing small deals themselves. There's also the occasional chance to attend deliveries of planes, which are always interesting, champagne-flute clinking events.
The project finance team works on a lot of financings for wind farms and biomass plants, as well as doing oil and gas work. “Some of the deals that come through are huge!” said one awestruck interviewee. For example, the firm is advising Dutch bank ING on a $4.1bn project to build a gas and petrochemicals plant in Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan. “Trainees are expected to pull their weight on the big deals,” said one trainee. “Projects has a bit of bad rep for long hours, but I loved it.” Why? “I've helped oversee the closings of deals that have been in the press.” We did hear from some sources who'd been stuck doing bibling and due diligence, but they also mentioned completing discrete drafting exercises and meeting clients. Trainees are a shared resource, so “you aren't shackled to doing just one kind of work if you're sitting with a partner whose specialism doesn't quite match your interests.”
The banking practice's prowess in areas like energy and natural resources means that many of these matters trickle into the corporate practice too. “Deal volume has really picked up again,” said one trainee, thinking back to the dark days of the financial slump. “And it helps that we're active in emerging markets like Africa and the CIS countries.” NRF is ranked as one of the best firms in the City for high-end M&A by Chambers UK – hardly surprising when it picks up deals like Barclays' £1.3bn sale of its Africa operations to its subsidiary Absa. “Corporate is notoriously busy, and the hours can be long,” we were told. “You could be doing 60 hours a week when it's busy – 50 is probably normal.” Another source added: “I tend to get in at 8.30am and usually head home at about 8pm – but sometimes I leave at 6pm, and sometimes I'm in till 1am.” Insiders here spoke of drafting shareholder agreements and ancillary documents, and breezing through lower-level work like verification and due diligence.
The disputes group focuses on areas like transport, trade, energy, insurance and – you guessed it – banking. In addition there's a thriving anti-bribery and corruption team whose work spans the corporate and disputes groups. One recent insurance-related case saw the firm advise several London market insurers including ACE, Brit and Novae on $1bn worth of losses related to the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme fraud. Other recent clients include BP, AIG, Munich Re and RBS. “The work is excellent – I loved being staffed on high-profile, newsworthy matters,” said one trainee, clearly as impressed with this client list as we are. “I worked on disputes for supermajors [like Big Oil] and state-owned energy companies,” another told us. Interviewees spoke of doing court filings and conducting legal research, as well as drafting parts of claims and interviewing witnesses. But these are big, heavily staffed cases trainees are working on – don't they feel rather removed from what's going on? It would seem not: “I could see where my work was going and how it was contributing, even when I was doing lower-level tasks. I felt like I was actively contributing.”
As mentioned above, trainees described their work as “incredibly international,” especially in the transactional departments. If this exposure isn't enough for you and you've got itchy feet, there are plenty of opportunities to complete seats abroad. The firm runs six-month placements to far-flung places like Dubai, Johannesburg, Melbourne, Perth, Sydney, Singapore and Tokyo, as well as locations closer to home like Amsterdam, Milan and Paris. We heard rumours that jaunts to the US and South America may soon be possible too. “The range of overseas seats is impressive – that was a big draw for me when I was applying,” one trainee commented. Paris, Singapore and Australia are particularly competitive destinations, and it's easy to see why. While temporary Sydneysiders can go ride the surf on Bondi Beach, trainees in Melbourne “get to stay in one of the most exclusive hotels in the city – one person kept bumping into Justin Bieber in the foyer!” For those not bothered about leaving Blighty, NRF also seconds trainees to clients like Citi, BP and Soc Gen.
NRF offers an extensive suite of formal training opportunities. These includes breakfast meetings, seminars and presentations covering technical issues like changes to banking and tax law, plus soft skills like public speaking and time management. Even after all this, “there are still times when you don't know how to do something, but there are online resources to help with that, and we have designated 'knowledge lawyers' on each team too.” The firm also provides trainees with both a trainee and a partner mentor. “I never feel short of people to turn to,” one commented. “My partner mentor is brilliant and is really interested in my progress.” Trainees themselves have mid-seat “quick chat with your supervisor” reviews and more rigorous end-of-seat appraisals. For the latter, they complete an online self-assessment which is then paired with feedback from those they've worked with. “Supervisors are also pretty good at giving you feedback on the hoof,” we heard.
So who gets in here? Naturally a firm that reaches all around the world is never going to have just one 'type', but our sources were able to single out a few key qualities they think NRF values. “There's a noticeable focus on quality, detail and care here,” said one source. “People get impatient if you turn in work with spelling mistakes, for example. So an eye for detail is important.” Another interviewee added: “They like trainees with international interests and backgrounds.” Indeed, at the time of our calls the trainee group contained quite a few individuals who hailed from foreign climes or had studied abroad, and we were pleased to see a very healthy smattering of non-English names on the list. Legal work experience is common too.
We mentioned the firm's reputation for having a relatively friendly atmosphere earlier, so here's some more of the gushing positive feedback we got from our interviewees this year. “There's real camaraderie across the firm,” one source said. “It doesn't matter whether you're a lawyer, a secretary, a paralegal or one of the repro guys – we all connect really well.” Another added: “It's genuinely a lovely place to work with a palpable team spirit. And people laugh a lot here.”
We're sure that laughs broke into big gleeful smiles when the firm's choir trounced the bankers at BNP Paribas to win Office Choir of the Year for the second time running as part of the 2014 Music in Offices Awards. “People here feel a real affinity with the firm, so they're always getting involved in social events.” The firm's More London office even has a music room that offers panoramic views of the Thames and City Hall, and trainees told us they occasionally catch sight of sandy-haired London mayor Boris Johnson on his bike from there.
The qualification process was described as “trainee-friendly.” Hopefuls list three departments they'd like to qualify into in order of preference, and the firm tries to match them up accordingly. In 2014 NRF kept on 41 of its 48 qualifiers.
Vacation scheme deadline: 31 October 2014 (winter), 31 January 2015 (summer)
Training contract deadline: 28 February 2015 (non-law), 31 July 2015 (law)
Norton Rose Fulbright requires prospective trainees to have a minimum AAB at A level and 2:1 degree, though like many firms it takes extenuating circumstances into consideration. Trainee recruitment team members Caroline Lindner and Jillian Dent tell us that a global mindset is highly valued: “We really want people who would like to do a secondment, either internationally or at one of our clients – a flexible approach is important.”
The firm attends 30 or so law fairs each year, and organises various negotiation competitions and presentations throughout the year. Lindner and Dent advise students to engage with the firm if it visits their campus “to get the best out of us.”
The vacation scheme
The firm runs three vacation schemes each year: two two-week schemes in the summer, and one eight-day scheme in the winter. There are 15 places on each, and candidates are paid £300 per week. Around 1,500 people apply for the vacation scheme each year. We're told somewhere between 50 and 60% of each trainee intake tend to have completed the scheme.
Applications for the vac scheme begin with an online form that touches on an applicant's academic history, work experience, business knowledge and interest in NRF. “We're looking at the skills and qualities which an individual can bring to the firm, along with a genuine interest in and awareness of commercial issues,” our trainee recruitment sources say. “Accurate spelling and grammar are essential too.”
Those who impress go on to complete an assessment day similar to the one outlined below, and from here the firm chooses its vac schemers.
Vac schemers spend their visit in two departments, sharing an office with an associate or a partner. They're also assigned a trainee buddy. In the past attendees have reported drafting, attending meetings, sitting in on conference calls and undertaking research tasks. “NRF is a people place, so get to know as many people as you can here – the partners in particular,” advised one of the firm's current trainees.
The training contract application process
Around 2,000 people apply for NRF's training contract each year. The form is exactly the same as the one for the vacation scheme.
“We expect to see some legal work experience from our training contract applicants,” say Lindner and Dent. “You don't have to have done our vacation scheme here or one at another firm, but you do need to show commercial experience.” They go on to mention “we're client-facing and place a huge emphasis on teamwork, so if you've done something like sport, drama or volunteering, we want to hear about that too.”
The firm invites 150 applicants to an assessment day that involves an interview with two partners (or a partner and an associate), a written assessment, a drafting exercise and a group exercise. The interview aims to test an applicant's motivations for joining NRF, their commitment to the law and their commercial knowledge. Meanwhile the assessment and exercises aim to measure thinking and writing skills, and how well someone works as part of team.
The day includes lunch with the current trainees, a tour of the building and even an afternoon tea. “It is quite a full-on day, but we've deliberately designed it to be like that,” our sources tell us. “We want to give people a real impression of what we're like as a business, and we want to see how they respond to that.”
A good way to introduce Norton Rose's international network is to talk about its banking work. As we explain in our True Picture on the firm, NR's banking practice actually covers several different groups firms consider distinct practice areas. What unites them under the banking header is their central relation to bank-backed commercial loans. These can be loans to buy things (asset finance), build things (project finance) or take over things (acquisition finance).
This kind of finance work requires people to run the transactions (M&A), deal with disputes (litigation) and organise non-bank funding (capital markets). Also needed are lawyers to advise on related property, regulatory, competition, employment and tax issues – all areas in which NR has strong practices. (It should be noted that these teams also have a significant workload independent of the banking practice too.)
Banking is one of the world's most globalised industries, which provides one explanation for Norton Rose's recent worldwide expansion; the tide of globalisation is forcing all businesses involved in banking to extend their reach. The finance-focused magic circle firms have enjoyed an established and solid network of overseas offices for over a decade, but the past few years have seen an increasing number of City firms jostling for a position on the world stage, with many pursuing international mergers. Norton Rose is among the more successful members of this group.
On 1 January 2010 NR merged with Australian firm Deacons. No small potato, Deacons had 150 partners and offices in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Canberra, Perth, Singapore and Jakarta prior to the merger. Then on 1 June 2011, NR undertook a three-way merger with Canadian firm Ogilvy Renault and South Africa"s Deneys Reitz. A fourth tie-up followed on 1 January 2012, this time with yet another Canadian firm: Calgary-based MacLeod Dixon. Calgary is in the oil-rich Canadian province of Alberta (aka the Canadian equivalent of Texas), and MacLeod Dixon also had offices in the oil-producing nations of Kazakhstan and Venezuela. Finally on 3 June 2013, NR merged with American giant Fulbright & Jaworski. Be sure to check out our interview with training principal Duncan Batchelor to hear his thoughts on the effects of the union a year on.
What links NR and the aforementioned firms is a focus on energy and natural resources. Generally speaking, the stated aim of the Deacons merger was to expand the firm's presence in Asia, while the South Africa tie-up was initiated to help NR's emerging Africa practice. Africa's natural resource sector is booming, while Canada and Australia also have large natural resource industries: oil and gas is big in the former, as is mining in the latter. Both commonwealth nations are seeing increased investment from European and Asian businesses into these sectors. Simply put, where there's investment, there are loans. Where there are loans, there are banks. And that's where Norton Rose comes in. Now that the firm has an extensive American presence, it's poised well to tackle the energy sector on all fronts.
Batchelor disclosed in our interview that the firm is eager to expand deeper into Africa as well as to open an office in Mexico; and of course, the firm announced in early 2014 its intention to open a new office in Brazil. Based initially in Rio, the firm's Brazil practice is its 55th office worldwide and the third in Latin America, complementing existing offices in Venezuela (Caracas) and Colombia (Bogotá).
NR's globalism is reflected in its trainee group, which includes a large number of people with South and East Asian family backgrounds. Over 20% of trainees are non-white.
Student Guide: Norton Rose joined forces with Fulbright & Jaworski in June 2013. How have things been going since?
Duncan Batchelor: The last year has been an exciting time for the practice. It's now been more than a year since the combination – we went live on the first of June 2013 – and during this time there has been a lot of integration work. Things are looking good: the infrastructure is in place, and now we’re enjoying the benefits of it. Every single day there are new connections being made, bringing together new people with the right know how, and lots of work is being referred around. I'm working with my counterparts in the US on transactions – that has been one of the great benefits.
We have advised on a number of global deals and been appointed to several legal panels over the last year. Earlier this year we launched a global regulation and investigations practice, bringing together over 600 lawyers around the world. Advisory work is becoming a key focus, and you can only do that properly if you have global capability. We have also formed a corporate partnership with McLaren Mercedes F1 – we're now their global legal advisor. There really are big deals here all the time.
SG: What can you share about the firm's strategy for the coming years?
DB: Our strategy is still to become one of the global elite. In terms of pure numbers, we're up there right now, and in terms of lawyers and offices, we're one of the biggest. Ultimately we want to be the best at what we do globally.
In February we announced the opening of our Rio de Janeiro office, and other offices in the next two years are definitely on the cards. Generally speaking, we'll be even more integrated than we are now. We're interested in Mexico and Africa in particular – specifically Nigeria, Angola, Mozambique. These things always happen at different speeds, but we are still continuing to grow.
SG: Overseas seats are a big part of Norton Rose's training contract. Does the firm have plans to roll out any new destinations?
DB: We recently announced Johannesburg! Overseas seats are very important for the integration of the practice. When a trainee goes to do a seat abroad, work flows in two directions. We're constantly looking at it. We're looking at the US and South America, although this is in the early stages.
There are a lot of regulatory requirements to consider, but overall in every trainee intake everyone goes on at least one international seat or client secondment.
SG: How would you describe the working culture at NRF?
DB: Our culture is very important to us, though it is quite hard to put it into words. It's down to how we all deal with one another. It's a very open and supportive place, collegial and not hierarchical. Partners don't have their doors shut. Everyone treats each other with respect regardless of which level or department they are within the practice.
SG: What sort of character thrives at the firm? How can an applicant impress?
DB: We're always looking for the brightest and best. That is the starting point, but it is only part of it. We want self-starters. People need to be flexible and open to working abroad. Global outlook is very, very important. I went to Germany for several years – that was never on my radar at all, but then I ended up going out there and becoming a partner. That sort of thing happens all the time! We like people who have an international mindset and are commercially aware.
As a basic principle, we aim to recruit the trainees and associates we need in the business and the partners of the future.
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