A family affair
Established by the son of a Lord Chief Justice, Charles Russell has been advising the wealthy since 1891. Star family and private client groups are a legacy of its impressive history, but it's actually dispute resolution and corporate/commercial work that now make up the bulk of its business.
As senior partner (and great-great-nephew of the founder) Patrick Russell told us: “The roots of the firm are in private client and litigation; however our work is now much broader and commercial advice is at least 50% of our business and also much more international in outlook. What is most important though is that while the work has grown, we still maintain the traditional qualities that have made the firm what it is.”
In 2011 CR adapted its business model to focus on nine sectors: charities; energy; family; healthcare; private wealth; property; retail, design and leisure; sports and media; and technology and communications.
Charles Russell has offices in London, Cheltenham and Guildford and overseas outposts in Bahrain and Geneva, the last of which has two trainees resident for each rotation. The idea is to win corporate instructions from the many private wealth clients CR already has. “There's a gap in the market,” explained one trainee. “There are a huge number of corporations with headquarters in Geneva: the idea is to tap into that.” The Bahrain outpost also takes one trainee every seat.
“I wasn't sure what area of law to go into, and Charles Russell has a wide spread of practices,” was the feeling of most of our sources. The firm's London HQ offers the most variety, with seats in litigation, coco, real estate, employment and pensions, family and private client.
The smaller group of Guildford trainees can choose from family, employment, litigation, property litigation, insolvency, private client, real estate and construction, while in Cheltenham they rotate between coco, litigation, private client and real estate.
Guildford trainees rank preferences in order before they begin – after this “it's simply a case of speaking to HR and stating what we want.” London is “a little more formal,” with trainees completing a form two months before each seat change. Family and employment are always “very popular,” and because coco “takes five or six trainees, it's highly likely that you'll go there.” Consequently some “opt for it first to get it out of the way.”
Coco covers capital markets, M&A, banking, tax, competition, IP, funds, media and sports law on top of general commercial work. In London, Charles Russell mines the corporate mid-market, and receives Chambers rankings for its capital markets work for AIM clients. Many clients come from the worlds of energy (mining company Centamin), healthcare (pharma company Shire) and media and telecoms (ITV, US publishing empire Meredith Corporation). The group has acted for IT and communications consultancy Bluefish in its disposal of Vodafone's multinational communications business, Vodafone Global Enterprise. It also represented the government of the Bahamas in the process of privatising the Bahamas Telecommunications Company.
On large deals trainees can find themselves working on quite menial tasks, such as “uploading and reviewing documents, printing, bundling and checking the bundles against the originals,” although this is balanced with “drafting board minutes and shareholder resolutions and giving advice on the issuing of new shares.”
In the commercial half of the seat, trainees may get the opportunity to take on sports, IP and media-related work: “If you're interested, you only have to speak to the relevant people to get involved.” The firm picks up Chambers UK accolades for its sports practice, and has clients like The FA, Paddy Power and Man U's merchandising arm. When Wayne Rooney received a three-match ban after his red card representing England against Montenegro, CR successfully got it reduced to two, not that it did him much good in Euro 2012. It also advised Thierry Henry on his return to Arsenal on loan and the British Horseracing Authority on the introduction of the controversial whip rule.
The firm has a strong reputation for privacy and libel work, but has made some lateral hires to increase its visibility in the advertising and digital marketing spheres. It has advised Westfield, both on the shopping centre chain's brand partnerships with AmEx and adidas, and on social media-related issues like data protection and prize draws. ITV, Barclays and YouView are other key clients, as is Noel Gallagher.
The colour purple (Pantone 2685C)
The firm's IP expertise is clustered around patent, trade mark and brand protection in the arenas of retail, media, technology, sports and life sciences. Clients include Wagamama and Arcadia (which owns much of the high street, including Topshop and Bhs). The firm recently defended Cadbury against opposition from arch-competitor Nestlé in the extension of the trade mark for its shade of classic purple. Trainees report a mixture of “bundling and disclosure exercises” with perks like “getting to sit in on conferences with counsel and attending client meetings.”
The vast litigation and dispute resolution (LDR) department encompasses teams in insolvency, pharmaceutical litigation and property litigation. Trainees raved about the consequent “variety of chunky, high-profile work for household-name clients.” LDR newbies get their own small debt claim files to run with. “You report back every so often to the fee earner, but you're essentially given autonomy to process the case as you see fit. As the litigation process can be quite lengthy, you may only get to dip in and out of a high-value claim in your six months – the small fast-track work allows you to get the investigations done, issue the claim and see it through to the end.”
Some of the larger matters have included acting as administrator to the defunct Awal Bank of Bahrain, a multibillion-dollar issue with multi-jurisdictional fraud allegations. On matters like this, “you spend a lot of time making sense of what's going on,” but as a trainee, “you're encouraged to get stuck in. There's admin, but you feel an important part of the team.”
Trainees may work on contentious trust and probate as part of their litigation seat, where there's plenty of client contact and the opportunity to attend hearings and draw up first drafts of witness statements.
“If you want private client work, I can't think of a better firm to train with,” one source declared. A recent step-up in international work using the Geneva hub hasn't put paid to the firm's staple private client business of “wills and probate, powers of attorney, trust administration and tax.” There's also a niche practice in mental capacity work.
Despite the natural “hand-holding” that takes place between partners and their established clients, trainees report good responsibility – “drafting wills, appointing and resigning trustees, helping out with probates and researching discrete tax issues.”
Trainees keen on private work tend to be “interested in people not companies,” but there's a growing demand for research on Shari'a law and giving resultant corporate advice. Further, there are “so many cross-referrals between departments you'll get to see business disputes.”
One trainee each rotation sits in Geneva's private client department. A secondee there became intimately acquainted with the Liechtenstein Disclosure Facility (a service identifying individuals with registered companies in the principality who may be UK tax-liable).
The family seat is renowned for providing contact with high-profile and wealthy people. “From the off, you'll get to hear at first hand the advice the firm is giving to clients.” Work revolves around divorce petitions and financial settlements, and there's a small but strong children practice, although “we try to get people to settle matters for themselves, as it's nicer for everyone concerned.”
In addition to secondments to The FA, Actis Capital and Cable & Wireless, trainees have the opportunity to spend time in Bahrain or Geneva. The overseas seats “aren't that popular, as people aren't that keen on upping their lives,” so “if you want to go, it's almost guaranteed.” Geneva's corporate practice has only been around for a year and a half, so “things are very focused on business development – when you're there, you're often representing the firm at networking events.” Across the board, trainees reported increased levels of responsibility away from home, and appreciated the firm's pastoral care: “They're aware that moving to another country is difficult, so they'll do things like pick you up from the airport.”
Appraisals come every three months. The mid-seat one is “helpful in order to be put on the right track,” and the end one “great, as you can focus on improving skills for your next department.”
Desert island discussions
“I've never met anyone here I wouldn't be delighted to go for a beer with,” said one trainee. People are “very friendly – if you have a day off, they'll ask what you're doing, and if you're upset, they want to know what they can do to help. There aren't many boundaries, but it's really nice being friends with your boss.” London trainees go for drinks “most Fridays” and recently ventured into All Star Bowling. The last Christmas party was James Bond-themed, although a few sources complained: “They started clearing everything away at 8.30pm so we moved onto a bar, although none of the partners followed with credit cards.”
In Guildford and Cheltenham, “it's not every Friday in the pub, but we go for drinks and dinner every couple of months.” There is “netball for girls and football for boys,” as well as a book group and frequent fund-raising events for the firm's charity of the year – currently child bereavement foundation Winston's Wish.
The firm's HQ just off Fleet Street is “brand new and very plush.” The Guildford office is conveniently placed by the River Wey, so lunch is often al fresco come summer. The Cheltenham office used to be a Georgian town house and sits just off the A40, in “boutiquey” Montpellier – great for both shopaholics and the office's many commuters.
There's a one-firm policy – although those in the regional offices sometimes feel forgotten: “We get constant firm-wide e-mails about cakes in the London kitchen – it can feel like they forget we're here.”
Charles Russell's application form is known for including a couple of “quirky” questions. Recent ones include 'What two items would you take on a desert island?' and 'If you could have a superhero power, what would it be?' These are often tempered with a less left-field, but still non-legal question, such as 'What one measure would you take to improve the green issues at your current place of work?' Advice: “All they want is for you to interest them and show you've got a personality. If your answer raises a smile it indicates there's something going on behind your ears that isn't purely academic.”
Trainees who made the cut see it as an efficient filter: “It's easy to send off blanket applications when you're applying to similar firms. Unusual questions put a lot of people off – if you like it, you'll complete it.” Despite off-putting questions, Charles Russell still receives around 1,400 applications for just a dozen or so training contracts.
Charles Russell provides an excellent all-round training but come qualification “it's worth bearing in mind that the two biggest departments are coco and litigation.” In 2012, 18 out of 19 qualifiers accepted NQ jobs with the firm.