Over two-and-a-bit centuries, Charles Russell has evolved a lot. Established in 1891 by the son of Lord Chief Justice, the firm traditionally served wealthy Roman Catholic families. Today the private client and family practices are still going strong, but it's really corporate and litigation work that accounts for a hefty bulk of the firm's business. Since 2011 the firm has focused on nine key sectors: charities; energy; family; healthcare; private wealth; property; retail and leisure; sports; and technology, media and communications. This approach “forms the key part of our strategy. We want to concentrate on areas where we have expertise,” says training partner Eve Ellis.
As its practices have grown, the firm's expansion hasn't been totally seamless. In 2012 its Oxford office closed, and its Cambridge branch was sold to another firm. “From a UK perspective, we felt we were already well covered,” explains Ellis. However, CR retains regional offices in Cheltenham and Guildford as well as overseas outposts in Geneva and Bahrain. Trainees have the opportunity to spend time in these international offices as well as venture out on secondment to big clients like Cable & Wireless, Actis, the FA and ITV.
At the time of our calls, 23 trainees were beavering away in the London office. There were eight more in Guildford and five in Cheltenham, while another two were out on secondment. In London trainees can take seats in corporate commercial (coco), sports, IP, media/reputation management, healthcare, banking, dispute resolution, property litigation, family, private client, property, employment and pensions. In Cheltenham, new recruits can sit in private client, property, coco and dispute resolution, while in Guildford coco, dispute resolution, insolvency, trusts and estates, family, employment, property, property litigation, private client and construction are on offer.
Many trainees were attracted to the variety of practice areas on offer at Charles Russell. “I hadn't decided what area of law to go into, and I liked the firm's diverse training contract” was the prevalent feeling among sources. Others pointed out that “it's rare for a City firm to have a strong mix of private client and commercial work. Plus it has a reputation for being one of the nicer places to work in the top 50.” Those in Cheltenham and Guildford were drawn to the combination of a “regional setting and high-quality work.”
Russelling up business
The firm's corporate department works in the London mid-market, often advising on capital markets transactions for AIM clients from a whole range of sectors – mining and natural resources, telecoms, IT, manufacturing, real estate, biotech and transport. The firm recently advised Canadian gold mining company Yamana Gold on the acquisition of Extorre Gold Mines and acted for CIC Energy during its merger with Jindal Steel & Power. Other clients include Oxfordshire tech company Transense and another gold mining operation, Centamin. In corporate “you're encouraged to delegate where you can. Some trainees complain about photocopying and bundling, but you're encouraged to use secretaries. It's not looked down upon if you do delegate; it encourages you to step up.” Of course, if there's a big transaction going on “you can only take a back seat. But on smaller matters, you're expected to contribute.” One source had amended articles and attended client meetings, and “also did several completions, taking in the whole process of an M&A deal.” Another described taking on “some drafting of documents for deals as well as letters and e-mails to clients. I also drafted the more simple sections of due diligence reports myself and worked on presentations for AIM companies.”
Meanwhile, trainees in the commercial group “did some work for online start-up businesses. We've got a good forward-thinking, energetic team, so there's lots of small new clients from digital and start-up businesses.” The practice also includes significant sports and media-related work: the firm recently advised Paddy Power on an Olympic-related ad campaign. The online bookies cheekily sponsored a different athletics event in a French village called London and needed to ensure its billboards didn't contravene the strict rules prohibiting non-approved companies associating themselves with the 2012 Games.
Litigation at Charles Russell is “a broad department that takes in pharma, IP and real estate matters.” Clients are suitably varied and include the Central Bank of Bahrain, the government of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, the Welsh Rugby Union and Barclay Pharmaceuticals. “I was the point of contact for some clients,” remembered one trainee. “I got involved in the day-to-day running of some files and went to court with counsel. I drafted letters of response and advice to clients as well as witness statements in the run up to a trial.” Those who'd been in property litigation took on “lots of small matters. You get given a lot of responsibility, which involves juggling a caseload. That's a good learning experience. It's heavy on actual law, so it helps to have an interest in the law rather than just soft skills like negotiating. I worked on a big trial, which was quite exciting. I drafted witness statements, prepared research and notes and dealt with the court printers and the transcription guys. I got to run areas of the case myself.” It certainly sounds quite hectic. “The workload was... impressive,” laughed our source. “There were a lot of late nights.”
Though it's “not unknown to be in until three in the morning or consistently be leaving at 11pm,” the hours at Charles Russell are generally more “reasonable” than that. Trainees who'd toiled into the small hours felt that the firm makes up for it by offering time off in lieu. Overall, “the focus is on willingness to get the job done, rather than showing face.” One source confirmed this: “I walked out at 5.30pm to play football, and no one said anything.”
Up close and personal
Private client is a “dense area of law,” so trainees undertake “a lot of really interesting research. You get a lot of supervision, but I did get to manage my own files and run with things if they were basic, like Lasting Powers of Attorney, which is really just form-filling.” There's lots of drafting of wills, general estate and tax planning, too. “Some big clients with landed estates might have businesses as well, so there may be a corporate element to the seat. Or they might be selling family heirlooms or artworks.” Trainees who head out to Charles Russell's Geneva office found themselves “working largely on the Liechtenstein Disclosure Facility, whereby people declare UK tax that hasn't been paid,” though they also see “more typical private client work, like wills and probate.” Upping and leaving to spend six months in the Swiss outpost “isn't a stressful experience. The firm sorts out a flat, and it's very easy to acclimatise to the office and get involved.”
In the family department, “the clients are generally high net worth individuals – people with Lamborghinis and international property – so it's quite glamorous, for want of a better word.” Trainees work on divorces and financial settlements, as well as “some child-based work – protection and international kidnap. There's not really a late-hour culture, but it's quite intense. Because it's contentious and the clients aren't usually in the best point in their lives, it can get a bit stressy.”
The seat allocation process involves trainees stating their top three preferences and giving reasons for their choice. “They do their best to accommodate you. I only know of one person who hasn't got one of their three choices,” said one interviewee. Appraisals take place in the middle of and at the end of each seat. “They don't take an ambush approach,” thought sources. “If there's a problem, they'll tell you as soon as they notice.” Most felt the appraisal is “more of a constructive chat,” though one or two others pointed out that “appraisals are useful but one-way. You get told what you can improve on, but they're not too interested in what you have to say about the firm. Commercial imperatives triumph. But then we're paid a lot to be here, so you have to suck it up.”
There's plenty of “inter-office interaction. I wouldn't have a problem picking up the phone to London to ask for help. You don't feel like you're on your own,” said one source outside the capital. Generally trainees appreciated the supportive atmosphere: “It's an open-door environment. Partners are generally very receptive and approachable. I feel if I did have problems there are quite a few people I could go to. Charles Russell is not an intimidating place!” CR's strong roots in family and private client influence the firm's culture today: “It's more people-focused than other places,” declared one source. “It's very courteous. People are polite to each other, and so it's retained a certain charm. Employees are treated well. There's a very friendly attitude. You don't really get hot-head partners that shout at you.”
Million dollar questions
“Low-key” describes the Charles Russell social scene. Trainees tend to arrange “informal drinks pretty regularly” among themselves and the more junior solicitors, but “it's not like we're down the pub every Friday.” However, the small intake means that trainees form close relationships and sources at all offices reported going out en masse for lunch and dinner. We also heard about sports teams, a book club and film nights.
Firm-wide events are generally held in London, and Guildford and Cheltenham folk are encouraged to attend. While the firm's Christmas party is “quite tame and comes in for criticism,” the Charles Russell sports dinner is considered to be the “event of the year.” Apparently, “it hasn't got anything really to do with sports – it's an excuse for a three-course dinner and a large bar tab.” Consequently, “a lot of shots are consumed,” and the ensuing jamboree “provides gossip for the firm.”
Despite historically good retention rates, trainees were nervy about qualification, some pointing to the fact that several last year were initially given six-month contracts and others worrying that “they've normally kept pretty much everyone on – perhaps it's our intake who will take the hit!” The jobs list comes out in May each year, and there was doubt at the time of our calls about where positions would be available. It was accepted that there's stiff competition to qualify into certain departments (family and employment in particular were mentioned), and once the list is released, rather than submitting preferences trainees must “nail their colours to the mast,” make a formal application and go through an interview. In the end 14 out of 20 qualifiers stayed on as NQs in 2013.
The CR application form typically includes “a quirky question” designed to “bring out your personality” beyond the usual bland clichés and “make the partner reading the form want to meet you.” Examples of previous questions include: 'If you could shadow someone for a day who would it be?'; 'What kind of animal would you be?'; and 'What would your superpower be?' Representative and useless Student Guide team answers: Jack the Ripper; tapeworm; Lindy Hop dance ability. Regarding interviews, trainees advised that “there isn't a set experience that you should have, like job experience or travelling. They want to know how your experiences have shaped you as a person.”
If you're applying for a regional office, interviewers are likely to want to know why. “It helps to have links to the area rather than just not wanting to work long London hours,” cautioned trainees.