The sun never sets on Ashurst, which is both a global player and a City heavy hitter.
Now open in Ashtralia
Much like Justin Bieber's love life and the true identity of Rey from Star Wars, Ashurst's future merger plans are the subject of gossip and rumours. In particular, City scuttlebutt has it that this legal heavyweight is constantly on the prowl for a US suitor. Back in 2013, for example, the firm flirted with the idea of merging with Chicago colossus Sidley Austin. The firm demurred when we asked about the possibility of a US merger, so in the absence of any outright denial, we'd fling our own two cents into the rumour mill and interpret this as: a transatlantic tie-up isn't off the table, but don't go fascinator shopping just yet.
Why should you care about these rumours? Large mergers redefine a firm's identity, its work and its culture; they signal the firm's aspiration towards the emerging global elite – none more so than a transatlantic merger – and for the applicant you need to see how you can fit into tomorrow's firm.
For now though, Ashurst is content to enjoy the fruits of its 2012 merger with one of Australia's 'Big Six' firms, Blake Dawson. Those fruits saw post-merger Ashurst extend its global reach to 25 offices across 15 countries, covering Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Australia and North America. “Like many businesses, we see Asia as a key part of our long-term growth strategy,” says graduate recruitment partner Hammad Akhtar, “and both legacy firms had strong Asian practices.” Following a review by consultants Bain & Co, it looks as if Ashurst will be pushing its finance capabilities, and drawing upon its strength in the resources sector to boost its infrastructure work. Chambers UK rates Ashurst – which is often labelled a 'silver circle' law firm – as top-dog for its oil and gas, renewables and rail work, but also ranks a slew of other core areas, including banking & finance; capital markets; corporate; litigation; and real estate.
Prior to starting their training contracts, Ashursters-to-be receive a list of available departments, complete with a review of each from a trainee's perspective. They are then told to list “at least two departments, although some of us pick three,” and the process is repeated two months before the end of each subsequent seat. To gain some extra guidance, sources recommended squeezing in a chat with supervisors during mid-seat appraisals. Seats are ranked in order of preference and most agreed that “HR does take your preferences into account.” Of course, with 95 trainees knocking around it's hard to please everyone, but our sources “always felt that the process was fair.” All trainees have to do a finance seat – in either banking or securities and derivatives – and another transactional one: a stint in corporate; energy, transport and infrastructure (ETI); or real estate should do the trick.
“A high point for me is the level of training and supervision,” said this source, flagging the extent to which Ashurst puts the 'training' into 'training contract.' two weeks of formal training kick-starts proceedings, and it doesn't just cover lawyerly things like finance and billing, but also all-important skills like handling stress. In addition, sharing an office with one's supervisor – usually a partner or senior associate – gives trainees a great opportunity to learn by osmosis. “You get to hear them on calls and see the way they work,” one reported, before gushing: “It's good to be close to a role model!” Each department also runs a training programme for the first few weeks after seat rotations.
“No one's going to be like 'you're not an M&A trainee, go away!'”
The corporate department attracts a number of private equity firms, banks and big-name companies like Morrisons and Gala Coral; the group recently advised the latter on its £2.3 billion merger with fellow betting and gaming operator Ladbrokes. There's also been an increasing amount of work for financial institutions of late: Ashurst acted for RBS as it sold its private banking and wealth management business to Union Bancaire Privée – a Geneva-headquartered private bank. Trainees join a particular subgroup (M&A, private equity, equity capital markets or financial institutions) but the boundaries are quite fluid: “You can seek out different kinds of work – no one's going to be like 'you're not an M&A trainee, go away!'” In private equity, there's a “need to fire out documents as quickly as possible,” so trainees swiftly shoulder a good amount of responsibility. “You're basically in charge of the more standard documents,” explained one, “like board minutes, appointments and resignation letters.” In contrast, there's more of a ramping-up process in equity capital markets: one source started off with “proof-reading” before working through “a massive verification exercise during an IPO – I was thrown in at the deep end, but was given enough support so that it didn't feel too overwhelming.”
Corporate and banking “complement each other,” said a trainee who'd sat in both departments. Partners and senior associates have their areas of expertise, but “as a trainee you'll work on lots of things.” The department has a solid reputation for leveraged finance, investment grade, debt portfolio and credit funds work, but it's also growing its infrastructure finance clout. Clients include lenders like HSBC and Santander, as well as borrowers like IT company Aveva. While most deals are worth hundreds of millions, some do break into the billions: a recent highlight saw the team act for Bank of America Merrill Lynch as it advised Shell on a £47 billion takeover offer for British oil and gas company BG Group. Trainees are commonly tasked with “making sure all the necessary documents have been provided,” as well as “performing company searches to make sure that the target companies are financially sound and have no red flags.” Other typical tasks include “drafting ancillary documents, managing local counsel teams around the world, and big diligence projects like verifying prospectuses.” Needless to say, this is a good spot for those hungry for responsibility.
ETI has always been a popular seat. “I've heard that a ridiculous number of people list it as a preference,” said one trainee. It's split into various sector-focused subgroups, like oil and gas; waste and resources (which includes renewable energy); transportation; and social infrastructure and defence. Those who were lucky enough to pitch up here found the seat rewarding, as “you get to work on and see a physical project develop.” Unlike corporate and banking, where revolving credit facilities and complex structures can seem “a little abstract,” ETI sources were able to point to bits of infrastructure that they'd helped to create. The department recently advised on an £18 billion agreement to build a new nuclear power station in Somerset; an investment in Málaga's metro network; and the part-funding of a £2 billion 'Priority School Building Programme', which aims to replenish schools across the UK. Those who'd completed a stint in oil and gas were especially happy, as they'd been able to draft a whole host of fee letters, legal opinions, debentures and “bigger documents like facility agreements – it's a lot to get your head around but it's really interesting!”
Probably the best brewery site in the world
Those with the ability to juggle lots of things at once may be interested in a real estate seat: “In other departments I had to balance two or three matters at a time,” one explained, “but here you'll be on 20 things at once.” The department's known for its big-ticket work on regeneration and development projects, and in recent months helped Westfield and property developer Hammerson with their £1 billion joint venture to overhaul downtown Croydon; assisted Transport for London with its £1 billion development of Tottenham Court Road Station; and represented property investor Vastint as it purchased a brewery site in Leeds from Carlsberg. Tasks to be deftly juggled include “drafting under-leases, registering transfers and filling out Stamp Duty forms.” The latter, we hear, “aren't as bad as people say they are!”
In litigation, “there aren't any formal subgroups as such,” but we're told partners and senior associates with similar areas of expertise naturally group together. The department focuses on the financial services and energy, resources and infrastructure sectors, with clients including UBS, Tullow Oil and Total. However, you'll still find cases cropping up in other sectors, like telecommunications, for example: lawyers recently acted for London-headquartered Lebara when rival Lycamobile attempted to prevent its customers from using Lebara's video streaming and social networking sites. Trainees split their time between the “main things” (i.e. large matters they work on with their supervisors that run throughout their seat) and “lots of one-off tasks for people operating in areas that our supervisors don't.” The tasks themselves are “very different to what you get in a transactional department. There's a lot more research and drafting advice involved, and more hierarchy too: supervisors go through and red-mark everything!” While a large amount of bundling “isn't the most glamorous task,” sources here did report “the most client contact” they'd had throughout their seats: “For weeks I was attending meetings with clients and taking accurate notes of what was being said.”
“We've got meat eaters, vegetarians and people who don't eat gluten.”
To land one of Ashurst's coveted secondments, you'll need to fill out a short form setting out why you want to go to a specific office or client. This, along with your CV, will need to impress HR and – in the case of client secondments – the client relationship partner. “I'm not sure if HR reads all of them or just sends them through to the partners,” admitted one source. The firm offers the chance to spend six months at either a UK-based client or in one of the overseas offices. The latter tend to be quite a bit smaller, so future secondees should get used to the idea of being “the only trainee.” Naturally this leads to fantastic levels of responsibility, but it's also necessary “to push back on things if you don't have capacity.” Understandably, the overseas secondments are competitive and “not everyone who wants one will get one.” In contrast, “people who want client secondments tend to get them.”
Ashurst used to have a bit of a 'work hard, play hard' reputation. While our interviewees were certainly a sociable bunch, they felt this rep had been blown out of proportion. Even so, they did concede that “there's always something going on” after hours. We heard of “various clubs and activities, like language classes, sports clubs and even a German theatre group.” There are “drinks and get-togethers” for those who enjoy a tipple, with some departments – like disputes – wheeling out a drinks trolley every Friday. They may not play as hard as they used to, but Ashurst's lawyers still put in the hours – as the existence of sleeping pods suggests. “On a good day I might leave between six and seven,” said one trainee, “but usually it's more like eight.” Another was slightly more unclear about the typical working day: “Realistically I don't know when I'll leave!” Work demands do cut both ways: while we heard of lawyers staring down the barrel of a deal at 4.30am, we also heard of them leaving at 5.30pm when their workload permitted. “If you're finished at 5.30pm no one will look down on you for going home,” a trainee confided; “indeed, they'll tell you to make the most of it!”
One point our sources felt had stuck was Ashurst's “friendlier than average” reputation among the crop of City law firms – something it has maintained “without sacrificing the quality of work.” One trainee stated: “People are as intelligent as their counterparts in magic circle or US firms, but here you'd happily walk into anyone's office to ask a question.” Future trainees don't have to pour themselves into a particular 'Ashurst mould', and our sources described their colleagues as a varied bunch. “We've got career-changers, law students, non-law students, meat eaters, vegetarians and people who don't eat gluten,” one joked.
“Friendlier than average”
With variety in mind, trainees added that Ashurst is “making lots of effort on the diversity front.” For now, the environment “is still pretty middle-class,” but the firm is taking part in the RARE recruitment project, which helps candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds secure training contracts and other professional jobs. Another source told us that there's been “a focus on addressing the gender gap at the top.” Ashurst has targets in place to ensure that women comprise 40% of all partner promotions by 2018; in 2016, it struck 33% when four of 12 partner promotions were given to women. In addition, the firm has plans to allocate at least a quarter of management positions to women. Also fortifying that diversity front is a number of US-style affinity groups, including ones devoted to multiculturalism, LGBT lawyers and carers.
In keeping with this “friendlier than average” vibe, mid and end-of-seat appraisals follow “a collaborative process.” The former tend to be more informal: “There's space for a general paragraph which you fill in with details on how you've been doing so far, and if there's anything of concern you can flag it up and discuss it.” The end-of-seat review is more thorough, as there's a lengthy form for both trainees and supervisors to fill out. Naturally, how useful these appraisals are “depends on how invested your supervisor is,” but on the whole our spies appreciated “having some reassurance that you're doing fine,” as well as “the opportunity to say if you want to get involved in different types of work.”
Being a commercial lawyer is complicated, but thankfully the “qualification process is really simple.” How simple? “Halfway through your final seat grad recruitment asks you to think about where you want to qualify,” one relayed, “and then you hand in your updated CV and list at least two choices.” The firm's 2016 retention figures will be published here as soon as the firm confirms them to us.
It will be interesting to see where Ashurst's first Australian-based managing partner, Paul Jenkins, will take the firm after assuming the role in summer 2016.
How to get into Ashurst
Vacation scheme deadline (2017/18): 5 November 2017 (winter, now accepting applications); 7 January 2018 (summer and first year, now accepting applications)
Training contract deadline (2020): 7 January 2018 (opens 1 October 2017); 31 July 2018 (opens 1 May 2018)
Applications and interviews
Around 1,200 applicants gun for the 40 to 45 training contracts Ashurst offers each year, so it's safe to say competition is fierce. The first step to landing the job is completing an online application form. This is the same for both vacation scheme and straight-to-training-contract applicants, and is accompanied by a cover letter that serves as a chance for applicants to demonstrate key competencies and really sell themselves.
Those who impress are invited to an interview day, which takes place in the London office and lasts between three and four hours. First up is an interview with someone from the graduate recruitment team that involves competency-based questions, plus a chat through the candidate's application form. For training contract applicants, an interview with two partners focusing on behavioural and scenario-based questions follows this.
The day also involves, for both vac scheme and training contract applicants alike, an hour-long written case study exercise. The candidates are given documents to read through and have to respond to a scenario. It is said that there is a lot to read, but part of the task is to see how well people manage their time.
Ashurst runs three vac schemes: a week-long placement that takes place in December; and two three-week placements over the summer. Both vacation schemes are for all penultimate law students, final year students and graduates (the latter two categories encompass both law and non-law students/graduates).
The only major difference between the winter and summer schemes is that participants on the former only sample one department during their visit, while summer schemers try out two. Each placement includes presentations from lawyers across various practice areas, networking sessions with trainees and a dinner with partners.
Vac schemers undergo a training contract interview at the end or following their placement. This is conducted by two partners and takes the same format as the final one training contract applicants complete on their interview day.
Ashurst also runs a first year programme – Ahead with Ashurst – for a week in April. This involves a blend of work experience, mentoring, support, and training. Those who secure a spot on the first year programme will be given priority if being considered for a vacation scheme and/or a campus ambassador role. The programme is open to first year law students and those in their second year of a four-year course.
How to wow
Ashurst requests a minimum of AAB at A-Level (or equivalent) and a 2:1 degree (predicted or already achieved) from prospective trainees. The firm also uses a contextual recruitment plug-in, which enables it to analyse every applicant's social mobility characteristics. If you're confident you can demonstrate and satisfy all the firm's competencies, you should certainly look to apply. FYI, those competencies are analytical ability, academic ability, commercial instinct, communication skills, teamwork/interpersonal skills, flexibility, determination and drive.
Prior work experience tends to stand candidates in good stead, and this doesn't necessarily have to be in the legal sector. Any type of experience that has helped someone develop the skills needed to be an effective lawyer will be appreciated.
The silver circle explained
5 Appold Street,
- Partners 410
- Total trainees 90 (London)
- Contact Cheryl Evans, HR manager graduate recruitment
- Website www.careers.ashurst.com
- Facebook www.facebook.com/AshurstTrainees
- Method of application Online
- Selection procedure An interview day - see our website for full details
- Closing date for 2017/18 vacation schemes 5 November 2017 (winter, now open); 7 January 2018 (summer and first year, now open)
- Closing date for 2020 training contracts 7 January 2018 (opens 1 October 2017); 31 July 2018 (opens 1 May 2018)
- Training contracts p.a. 45
- Applications pa 1,500
- Required degree grade 2:1 (or equivalent)
- Training salary
- First year: £41,000
- Second year: £46,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- % of trainees with a non-law degree 50%
- Number of seats abroad available pa 10
- Post-qualification salary £72,000
- % of trainees offered job on qualification 82%
- Overseas offices 25 offices in 15 countries