Charles Russell will be adding Speechlys to its name and £57m to its revenue once it merges with fellow private client big'un Speechly Bircham in late 2014.
Charles Russell has achieved the rather unusual feat of operating under the same name since its establishment in 1891. Things will change on this front after the Londoner's merger with Speechly Bircham in November 2014, but only just: the new firm will be known as Charles Russell Speechlys. Of course, there are far bigger changes in store from a foundational point of view – the merger will be quite the shake-up for Charles Russell, more than doubling its lawyer head count (bringing it up to 500) and boosting revenue enough that the newly beefed-up shop will sit comfortably in the UK's top 30 firms. Speechlys' current managing partner James Carter is set to head up the newly merged entity from November onwards.
For Charles Russell, the union will, among other things, help it economise on its expensive London premises; meanwhile Speechlys will benefit from the new-found ability to offer lower rates for certain types of work through Charles Russell's well-established offices in Guildford and Cheltenham. This merger is a meeting of minds as well as pockets. Both firms are best known for servicing well-heeled private clients – each has a long track record of Chambers UK rankings in this area – though they're keen to consolidate their other practice areas. There are plans to reorganise into four primary divisions: business services; litigation and dispute resolution; private client; and real estate and construction. Both firms will increase their respective international presence as well. Both Charles Russell and Speechlys have an office in Geneva, but the latter's European presence also comprises bases in Zürich, Luxembourg and Paris; meanwhile Charles Russell brings some Middle Eastern coverage to the table, recently launching a construction and real estate-focused office in Doha to complement its existing outpost in Bahrain. According to our sources, further international expansion will be a priority post-merger.
Because of their wealthy clientele – which, for these firms, includes landed gentry and celebrities alike – private client shops often attract a reputation for being traditional in their dealings. In previous years trainees at Charles Russell have told of “a certain charm” echoed by the firm's wood-panelled meeting rooms and ever so polite partners; Speechlys, on the other hand, has long favoured some slightly more modern touches – including open-plan offices and an elaborate recycling scheme – and has made no bones about its desire to grow on the corporate finance and IP sides. With the latter's MP at the helm of the new firm, we wouldn't be surprised if these ways of working prevail under the new Charles Russell banner.
At the time of our calls, Charles Russell had 25 trainees in London, eight in Guildford and four in Cheltenham. Seat allocation sees trainees list three preferences at the start of each seat. Post-merger options haven't yet been confirmed but in London will most likely include a few new areas like IP and technology, plus a newly widened range of secondments and overseas seats. There's a smaller choice of seats in the regional offices, with secondments and the Geneva seat reserved for Londoners.
Charles Russell is one of five firms in London that earns top rankings in Chambers UK for private client work, and post-merger the firm will dominate the market in size as well as reputation. A seat with the team is a popular choice. Interviewees reported working with landed estates, super-rich foreign clients and even royalty. “I got to visit an estate owner at their beautiful house in West London to take instructions, but with overseas clients it's mostly by telephone or Skype.” Work here ranges far and wide: on the advisory side there's tax and trust structuring, probate and estate administration, Court of Protection and immigration advice; meanwhile the contentious trusts side of the practice handles trust, probate, charity litigation, and Court of Protection and property ownership disputes. “It's the most traditional department in the firm, with a clear hierarchy, though that works well – there's very much a teacher/pupil structure, which is good for learning. You're always invited to meetings to talk through clients' needs, and once you understand the nature of the department, there's a lot of responsibility.” Trainees with experience here had completed first drafts of wills and trusts and assisted with powers of attorney. The latter task “is the kind you oversee yourself, dealing with the clients from the off. Having to take accurate instructions and translate them into a final document really hones your skills. By the end of my seat I was contributing to meetings.”
The firm also runs a private client seat in Geneva, where lawyers help expats manage their finances, investments and tax responsibilities. It's not uncommon for trainees here to get involved in calculation-heavy Liechtenstein disclosures, part of a taxpayer compliance programme under which people who haven't paid tax to HMRC on offshore assets can escape criminal proceedings. “It's very rare that you meet such clients – they tend to stay as far removed from the process as they can.” Among the spoils of residing abroad is “a very posh flat in a massive old terrace of houses, ten minutes' walk from Lake Geneva. There's a good social life in the office, plus lots of cultural festivals in the summer.”
At the time of our calls Charles Russell's corporate/commercial department was split into three subgroups – corporate M&A, banking and capital markets, and commercial contracts – with trainees able to do a split seat between two of these areas. The commercial group works with an impressive range of clients, including Nike, ITV, Wagamama, Tesco and Sotheby's. The team recently assisted the Barbados government with endeavours to grant licences for offshore oil and gas exploration, and defended Paddy Power against objections to “cheeky” publicity stunts like the high-street bookie's 2014 'money back if he walks' campaign aired during the Oscar Pistorius trial. Over in corporate, lawyers have kept busy advising Travelzest on its administration following its failure to take naturist holidays mainstream, a matter which involved the sale of two (clothes on, thankfully) Canadian subsidiaries. “It's pretty low responsibility at first – you're mostly doing research and helping out on secretarial stuff,” said a source with experience on the M&A side. “But eventually there's a chance to draft ancillary documents. Partners keep a close supervisory role, but there's enough responsibility to keep things interesting.” Elsewhere, a trainee who'd focused on finance described their role in a mezzanine financing of a property development: “There were lots of parties involved, which made it complicated. I gathered conditions precedent, did the fact checking, drafted the first draft of our opinion and attended the completion. It was a good level of experience.”
Litigation is one of the firm's biggest departments, with disputes spanning the sport, IP, property, pharmaceutical, fraud and commercial spheres. High-profile representations of late include acting for Baker Tilly as liquidators in a $9.2bn fraud case against Awal Bank, and defending The FA against an appeal made in light of its decision to relegate the Doncaster Rovers Belles from the top tier of the Women's Super League. Debt recovery cases are typical trainee fare –“essentially you issue proceedings against old clients who haven't paid, which gives you really valuable experience going back and forth with them” – and though advocacy isn't terribly common among new recruits, one did report “going to court on a case for a cost-conscious client. It was just me and the barrister, which was a great experience.” Others told of taking notes, attending meetings with counsel and taking a crack at first drafts of letters to clients, claims and cost schedules “where possible.”
Sources tell us a major priority post-merger is “getting everyone in London under one roof as quickly as possible,” most likely in one of the legacy firm's existing offices. Charles Russell's City branch, “right in the thick of things, near St Paul's,” is no doubt a tempting choice. The modern edifice has marble floors and ”glass everywhere,” plus a subsidised canteen dubbed Charlie's. “It's a nice place to get chatting to people around the firm.” Still, the lower rents in Speechlys' New Street Square premises make it a more likely destination for the economically minded new firm. Over in Guildford, interviewees were excitedly awaiting a move, telling us “the current office is quite tired, but the new one is very modern and spacious.” The roomier the better, seeing as this branch might well play host to outsourced support staff post-merger. Cheltenham, on the other hand, remains still a bastion of tradition for now. “It's old and designed like a rabbit warren, with a big wooden Georgian staircase straight out of a Jane Austen novel.”
Among our interviewees, the consensus was that “we're a traditional firm, and that's by no account a bad thing. It's a testament to the standard of quality we've perpetuated over the years and simply means we have a reputation to uphold.” It helps that “there are lots of Russells still running around,” including recently retired senior partner Patrick Russell, who “still pops in now and again. It's nice to have that family atmosphere.” Trainees told of certain steadfastly old-school elements of life at the firm – “hard-copy memos are returned formally, for instance” – and even mentioned a few downright old-fashioned customs like the way “certain people rely on Dictaphones rather than more computer-savvy methods of note-taking.” The Cheltenham office, as its rich interiors suggest, “particularly likes to cater to our heritage. We have wood-panelled meeting rooms, and partners prefer you to use a fountain pen when you meet a client.”
As you might expect, “Charles Russell attracts a certain type of person – there's a fairly strong South East, Oxbridge contingent here.” Still, sources were keen to say: “People shouldn't be put off by that; we're not all twin-set and pearls Oxford grads.” In any case, this distinctive demographic is likely to be diluted after the merger. The firm doesn't run many trainee-specific socials, “but we do meet up for lunch whenever we can, and people often pile into the pub next door after work, especially when the weather's nice.” As far as firm-wide events go, there's a sports dinner held each year in a fancy London restaurant, though couch potatoes need not fear – “it only has a very loose reference to sports.” There's also a summer boat party and a well-received Christmas carol concert. “Last year we listened to a couple of partners and associates who'd formed a string quartet, then we all choked back mince pies and mulled wine.”
With merger plans simmering away, it's little surprise qualification proved a tricky process in 2014. Our interviewees – who were in the middle of applying at the time of our calls – revealed that several commercial and litigation roles were retracted after appearing on the jobs list. “It all feels slightly chaotic and up in the air. We haven't got much information.” In the end the firm managed to keep on 12 of its 19 qualifiers.
Applicants interested in Charles Russell should keep their ears open and eyes peeled for news on the coming merger and how it will affect future trainees. The firm's growing international ambitions suggest foreign language skills in particular will be at a premium in years to come.
Charles Russell LLP
5 Fleet Place,
Charles Russell is to merge with Speechly Bircham on 1st November 2014 to become Charles Russell Speechlys. The merger will create one of the world’s leading private wealth and business law firms with 170 partners and a total of 500 lawyers and combined revenues of £135m, placing it within the UK top 30 law firms.