Global opportunities knock at Ashurst trainees' doors...
Five (hundred million) for silver
Already firmly settled as one of the UK's 'silver circle' firms, Ashurst set its sights higher in 2012 when it merged with Australia's Blake Dawson (now Ashurst Australia). Post-merger Ashurst now has 25 offices across 15 countries, and its revenue has remained in excess of £500 million every year since. Our sources were unsurprisingly enticed by “the global nature” of the firm and its work, as well as its “very strong reputation in areas like corporate, projects and finance.” Ashurst's rankings in Chambers UK confirm this: it's cream of the crop in oil and gas work, projects, and transport. It also rakes in a plethora of other impressive rankings in areas including banking and finance, competition, infrastructure, real estate finance, and capital markets. Worldwide, the firm is also quite the hot-shot in these practices.
“The people make it stand out – we take our work very seriously but the people in the firm don't take themselves too seriously.” One former law student remembered that “anyone I mentioned the firm's name to said it was a great firm and really friendly. Everyone had only positive things to say – that was the main thing that drew me in.” Others compared Ashurst to magic circle firms that “really wring every last bit out of you! I'm not saying I haven't worked hard and done long hours, but Ashurst isn't obsessed with your hours. They prefer if you get a good breadth of work and know when to say no to someone.” We did hear of a few shockers (“not going home, jumping in a cab at 9am to have a shower, then coming back and working until midnight the next day”), but several sources highlighted getting a day or two off in lieu after any particularly gruelling hours. They emphasised: “If you're going into a City law firm, you know you're going to work long hours, but here it is appreciated when you do.”
"Everyone had only positive things to say – that was the main thing that drew me in.”
Reflecting on the firm's strategic goals, managing partner Simon Beddow tells us: “About five years ago, we recognised we needed to be stronger in Asia Pacific and build a stronger global natural resources practice. That's why we merged with Blake Dawson of Australia, and that merger has been enormously successful.” Going forward, Beddow expects “a stronger market position in infrastructure, oil and gas, energy, and finance in the jurisdictions where we have offices. We expect that to continue to develop over the coming years and really put us in the top tiers.” For example, Ashurst recently started work for the Sydney Metro, and Beddow attributes this gain to Ashurst's work acting for Crossrail in the UK. “We took our expertise in this sector and marketed it to the city of Sydney who are building something similar. As a result, we won the mandate to do all of the work related to the Sydney Metro.”
Lawyers, guns and money (minus the guns)
Trainees must complete a compulsory finance seat during the course of their training contracts. This can be either in banking, securities and derivatives (SDG), or restructuring. Trainees submit at least two seat choices to HR before each rotation, who “normally try to make things work and take everyone's preferences into account.” Sources further explained that “if you don't get your first choices it'll be explained why and taken into account in the next round.” The handful of international secondments available are usually given to either third or fourth-seaters (although some second-seaters have been known to jet off) and are “not easy to get. There are about five international seats and maybe 20 applications.” Banks and financial institutions are common client secondment destinations. Before the allocation process for each seat, HR set out the secondment opportunities in that round. “Generally they're the same, but there may be one or two additions depending on where more or less work is needed.” Hopefuls must complete an application form, with a paragraph explaining why they want to go to their chosen office or client. Generally, sources felt seat allocation could be a bit more transparent: “It's a difficult job for HR, but a bit more transparency about the process might make people who don't get their choices feel a bit better.”
Corporate projects is one of the most popular seats, partly because the department is “highly regarded and getting top work.” The work is usually divided into two parts: the projects side and the finance side. Within each is a variety of sub-teams, including energy and resources, transport, infrastructure, and construction. Some sources got involved in high profile matters, such as the Hinkley Point C project – the construction of a nuclear plant in Somerset. “As trainees on this matter, we were involved in completion and drafting a few of the minor documents.” Other general tasks included managing data rooms, due diligence, and various project agreements.
In the general corporate transactions group, trainees got stuck into a wide variety of work: public companies mergers and acquisitions, private M&A, work for financial institutions, and private equity matters. “The department is split into subgroups, but as a trainee you're not going to be kept in just one of those groups – you get a good mix.” Of course, verification comes up a lot for trainees, which “isn't everyone's favourite task as it can involve long hours.” Other typical trainee fare in this seat includes research, drafting board minutes, liaising with overseas counsel, and general document management. “As a corporate trainee you can show your strength by managing things properly and making sure things are done by a certain time.” The team recently advised on multinational energy services company John Wood Group's proposed £2.3 billion acquisition of Amec Foster Wheeler.
"...by far the most complex work I've done in my training contract because it's so specialist.”
Banking is “one of the largest departments,” and trainees may find themselves sitting here as their compulsory finance seat. Otherwise, they may head to securities and derivatives or the restructuring group. Sources mentioned they enjoyed leveraged buyout (LBO) work: “I had a really good team who would seek me out to do that kind of work.” Besides LBO work, there's corporate lending, funds finance, portfolio work and insurance. “A big trainee task is managing the conditions precedent process, which involves reviewing documents as and when they come in.” Interviewees also noted drafting ancillary documents, producing company transactions bibles, then “towards the end of the seat, drafting sections of larger finance documents.” They felt “it was a good mix of typical trainee tasks and more bespoke work.” One grumble some had was with the general nature of transactional work: a few mentioned “intense periods, like one week where I was here past 12 midnight every day.” Though our sources clarified: “It's not necessarily something they are doing wrong, it's just transactional work generally.” A recent deal saw the team act for lenders China Development Bank on the financing of a multibillion-dollar Indonesian high-speed rail project.
The securities and derivatives team is another option for trainees' compulsory finance seat. The group's main clients are “all the big banks you can think of, which is great for getting exposure.” Many felt “it's been by far the most complex work I've done in my training contract because it's so specialist.” Areas covered include corporate trustee advisory, debt capital markets, structured products and derivatives. Sources explained the seat “initially involves a lot of proofreading and reviewing either prospectuses or issuing debt and bonds. We help update those and add new information. From a trainee perspective, your role is to liaise with regulators like the Financial Conduct Authority, and make sure they're provided with the right documents at the right time.” On top of that, there are tasks such as reviewing legal opinions and drafting ancillary documents. Comparatively, those on client secondments felt they got to experience “so much negotiation” on behalf of the companies.
Dispute resolution comprises litigation and arbitration. Within these, there are specialisms that include – but are not limited to – energy, real estate, construction and financial regulatory. About a third of the team's work “comes out of our corporate and banking side.” Trainees can expect “standard bundling and project management-type tasks,” and one was “lucky to get involved in a financial investigation into a bank.” There is also “a lot of research – it feels like you're doing proper law which is nice.” Recent work highlights include defending former RBS chairman Sir Tom McKillop in High Court proceedings brought by RBS shareholders claiming damages of approximately £2 billion against the bank and its former directors.
The real estate seat was described as “more bitty” than most.For example, “in projects or banking you might have two matters at once, but in real estate it's more like ten to 12 matters.” Because they are relatively small, “you're the first port of call for clients – they don't even know who the partner is sometimes.” On top of ample client contact, trainees get involved in due diligence, draft leases and licences, and negotiate contracts with the other side's lawyers. The department represents some seriously high-profile clients, including Westfield, BP and Transport for London. It recently advised Jamie Oliver's Restaurant Group on the buy-back of its Australian franchise restaurant businesses.
“The culture was part of why I picked Ashurst,” sources admitted. “It's not a soulless place to work.” Each interviewee agreed that “everyone is friendly and polite” and many “could happily call the vast majority of my intake friends.” Sources also praised the approachability of everyone, regardless of seniority: “If you have an issue, there are so many people around – whether trainees, associates or partners – to really guide you through. The atmosphere is very much 'you're here to learn, and we're here to support you in that process'.” And although each lawyer “is very driven,” trainees clarified that “people aren't arrogant or up themselves. It's more forward thinking – people are less like stuffy lawyers and more fun.”
“There's a lot of excitement about that.”
Thinking forward, the firm will be moving in 2019 from its Broadwalk House digs to a “brand new, top of the range office” in nearby Spitalfields (currently being built). “There's a lot of excitement about that,” and it's a positive signal, say some: “The firm wouldn't do it if they weren't heading for growth. It costs a lot.” Currently, the offices are split across two buildings that are opposite each other. Although some liked the walk across the road for some fresh air, most agreed “it will be very nice to all be in one building.” The new office will predominantly have offices shared by two or three people.
Socially, there's “so much going on – both formally and informally.” One highlight was the trainee ball – those on the GDL or LPC who have a training contract offer are invited too. One trainee fondly recalled playing 'Ashopoly' on their vac scheme: “We had to run around London trying to do these tasks. It was really fun!” Then generally “every time there's a new intake, there's a social event of some kind – usually drinks and food in a bar nearby, paid for by the firm.” Some departments also reported having a drinks trolley most Fridays, potentially followed by a few bevvies in either the Horse and Groom, or the White Horse just down the road.
But it's not all hitting the town and making merry – Ashurst folk are also encouraged to get their teeth into some pro bono and CSR work. “Trainees have to do some compulsory pro bono, and we can do that at the clinic in Tower Hamlets. You get to help people struggling to pay for housing, or going through a divorce.” Sources also got involved in activities like the London Legal Walk, reading groups, and monthly lunches at homeless charities. Some trainees also recently set up an Islamophobia response unit linked to a charity in order to “act on behalf of those who suffer attacks.”
Historically, Ashurst's retention rates have been pretty decent. “Unless you choose not to stay with the firm, I think people try to keep you on as much as they can.” The qualification process is “pretty straightforward,” according to those currently applying: “You submit your CV and give at least two preferences, then get asked to assign a weighting to those – only for HR purposes. Partners then have two weeks to interview you, though some interview and some don't. After two weeks they tell you if you got the job in that department. Generally they try to give as many people jobs as possible.” There's no jobs list, but apparently HR flag up departments that aren't hiring beforehand. In 2017, Ashurst retained 36 of 40 qualifiers.
Chambers Global ranks Ashurst in 16th place among the world's most capable law firms for international work – the territory of formidable US giants like Skadden and Jones Day.
How to get into Ashurst
Training contract deadline: 7 January 2018 (opens 1 October 2017) and 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. 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
Interview with London managing partner Simon Beddow
Chambers Student: Are there any highlights from the last year you think are important to mention?
Simon Beddow: We've worked on some really significant, market-leading deals. We advised EnQuest, the largest independent UK oil producer in the UK North Sea, on its financial restructuring, which was the largest and most complex recent European oil company restructuring. We also acted for China General Nuclear on its investment in Hinkley Point C – the largest ever Chinese investment into the UK. We went on to advise Berendsen (a textile, hygiene and safety solutions business) on its recommended £2.17 billion acquisition by Elis, a French public company with operations in Europe and Latin America. We regularly do big headline deals that appear on the front pages of the Financial Times.
CS: What should students know about the firm's strategy going forward?
SB: About five years ago we recognised that we needed to be stronger in the Asia Pacific region and build a stronger global natural resources practice. That's why we merged with Blake Dawson of Australia, and that merger has been enormously successful. This occurred in part to create a stronger global platform that could serve clients from a range of industries, especially those within the financial services, energy and transport sectors.
Over the past five years in the UK we've been acting for Crossrail and doing all the work in relation to the new line. We took the expertise we gained and marketed it to the city of Sydney, which is looking to build something similar to the Crossrail project. As a result, we won the mandate to do all the work related to the new Sydney Metro. Last year we recruited a projects partner in the New York office, so we're looking to develop our profile for infrastructure work in the US as well. We see the Trump administration as an opportunity, as it has a focus on investing in infrastructure.
In the coming years we expect our market position to develop even further in areas such as digital economy, infrastructure, energy and resources, real estate and funds and financial institutions.
CS: How is Brexit affecting the firm and the firm's clients? What challenges and opportunities do you think Brexit will pose for the firm?
SB: It is difficult to say at the moment. I suspect, like many thought, that Brexit will put the brakes on things a bit. But the last 12 months have been very busy, partly because of the weaker pound. There's been more inbound investment in real estate, for example; we've done work for Asian investors buying up flagship real estate in the UK, which is easier for them now as it's cheaper. There's also been more inbound M&A for the same reason.
What sort of Brexit we have is the real concern for most City firms. If we cannot secure access to the European financial market it could have an impact on UK law firms. I suspect that the impact for us would be less than that experienced by firms that are more exposed to the banking sectors. We've been trying to make sure we position ourselves so that we aren't completely dependent on what happens with Brexit.
CS: Does the firm have plans to grow trainee numbers?
SB: I think like many firms our trainee numbers will remain pretty stable. We are seeing clients taking a keener interest in how much is charged for work conducted by junior members of staff. The market is becoming more sensitive to what it is fair to pay for and we have to make sure that the work our trainees are undertaking is of value to our clients. There are artificial intelligence products developing and clients are looking at those too – some of the work that trainees currently do may potentially be automated.
CS: How can a candidate really impress Ashurst's trainee recruiters?
SB: Time and time again we see applications where there's no mention of our name, and if there is, it could easily be taken out and replaced with the name of any other law firm. The sort of person who writes that kind of application does not impress at interview. We want people who really understand the firm they're applying to, and can show us that they know what we do and how we do it. We don't expect them to know the job inside out because they're not here yet, but we want them to at least have some idea. Essentially, we want candidates to show us that they really want to be here and that we're not just any old law firm. It sounds surprisingly easy, but so many people don't do it.
We look for people who are intelligent and excited by the prospect of working in a high performance culture and on high quality, complex deals – people who are up for a challenge. An affinity for team work is also essential; candidates have to demonstrate that they have that high performance ability, but also that they can work collaboratively.
CS: What advice do you have for readers who are about to enter the legal profession?
SB: If you come to a firm like Ashurst you'll find that it is demanding and hard work, but it can also be a lot of fun and massively rewarding. If you don't like it the money will never be enough to keep you happy. My advice to students is that they should make sure that this is what they want to do and that they go to a firm where they're going to be happy.
In all big firms, the likelihood of trainees staying in one place throughout their careers and becoming partners is diminishing. People entering the profession now should think more broadly about the possibility of having a career that starts somewhere and ends up somewhere else. You can go to a firm and get fabulous training, be really happy, and if you choose at some point to go elsewhere, you'll have a great foundation for those future positions.
5 Appold Street,
- Partners 126
- Associates 302
- Total trainees 86
- UK offices London
- Overseas offices Abu Dhabi, Beijing, Brisbane, Brussels, Canberra, Dubai, Frankfurt, Glasgow (support office), Hong Kong, Jakarta (associated office), Jeddah (associated office), London, Madrid, Melbourne, Milan, Munich, New York, Paris, Perth, Port Moresby, Shanghai, Singapore, Sydney, Tokyo, Washington DC
- Contacts Graduate recruiter: Cheryl Evans, HR manager graduate recruitment, [email protected]
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 40-45
- Applications pa: 1,200
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 or other
- Minimum UCAS points or A levels: 340 or equivalent
- Vacation scheme places pa: 110
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 October 2017
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: 31 July 2018
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 September 2017
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 5 November 2017
- Summer and first year schemes: 7 January 2018
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £42,000
- Second-year salary: £47,000
- Post-qualification salary: £72,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £8,000
- Overseas seats
- Dubai, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Madrid, Singapore, Tokyo
Main areas of work
Our winter and summer vacation schemes are for all penultimate law students as well as final year students and graduates studying a law or non-law degree. Applications are open between 1 September 2017 and 5 November 2017 for the winter scheme and 1 September 2017 and 7 January 2018 for the summer scheme.
Open days and first year opportunities
University law careers fairs 2017