Recently merged CRS is a dominant force in the verdant field of private wealth.
November 1, 2014 was a big date in the legal calendar – the day that Charles Russell and Speechly Bircham got hitched. For Speechly Bircham, the course of legal love hadn't always been smooth: in 2013 the Londoner was set to shack up with Withers, but the proposed merger fell through at the voting stage. Charles Russell, meanwhile, had always been a bit more of a loner: formed in 1891, it was a family-run enterprise with three branches and a Russell in situ since the beginning.
Both legacy firms were known for their strength in the private client sphere, and together they're stronger than ever, having formed the biggest private wealth team in the country (one that wins a top-tier Chambers UK ranking, we might add). The amalgamated CRS has a revenue of £135 million, around 500 lawyers and a proud perch in the UK top 30. A major benefit of the match has been an increased network of overseas offices. Both legacy firms had a Geneva base, and Speechlys conferred further European coverage in Zürich, Luxembourg and Paris. Charles Russell, on the other hand, contributed a Middle Eastern presence, courtesy of offices in Doha and Bahrain. It also brought Cheltenham and Guildford outposts to the table, both of which provide services for well-heeled clients and businesses without the City-sized bill.
CRS has plenty of commercial clout to balance out its top-shelf private client expertise. Charles Russell's legacy specialities in sport and retail have brought some well-known names to the books, including the FA, Nike, Arcadia Group and Cadbury. Overall, the merged firm is divided into four sections: business services, real estate and construction, litigation, and private client. The former two are headed up by legacy Speechlys partners, with the latter pair overseen by ex-Charles Russell lawyers.
The two firms are still working on becoming fully integrated. At the time of our research, no Speechly Bircham lawyers had yet joined the Guildford or Cheltenham bases, and many CRS solicitors in London were still residing in their respective legacy offices, though we're told the firm's on the hunt for a single City crib. Two incompatible IT systems also slowed things down for a while, though this will be fixed by the time the next bunch of trainees turn up. Our trainee sources nevertheless took a chipper view of the tie-up: “We've had a lot of drinks events so people can get to know each other. Everyone's been fun to work with so far. Culture-wise the two firms seem really well aligned.”
Marital bliss... mammoth divorce
When we made our calls, there were 41 trainees in London, eight in Guildford and four in Cheltenham. Trainees firm-wide get to list three preferences for each seat, and are asked to describe their reasons for choosing each one. “The HR team does its best to accommodate your choices – they're receptive as long as you have a well-thought-out reason for wanting a particular seat.” A few client secondments as well as a stint in the Geneva branch are up for grabs each rotation. “I went to HR quite early on and expressed interest in the Geneva seat,” an insider told us. “The opportunity to do international work and go skiing every weekend was just too good to turn down!”
CRS's private client team handles tax and trust issues, wills and estate planning, probate, deputyship and immigration matters for the world's wealthiest, from entrepreneurs to landed gentry to mega-rich international families. “It's a very technical, intellectually demanding seat," interviewees said. "You have to read through a lot of legislation and apply it to a client's bespoke needs.” Apart from burying themselves in black-letter law, trainees get involved with “lots of drafting of wills, trust documents and powers of attorney.” A few sources mentioned involvement in Liechtenstein disclosures, a process that allows UK citizens to declare previously undisclosed offshore assets to HMRC, thus avoiding criminal investigation. "These clients are people who, for one reason or another, have inherited some kind of tax issue and are looking to resolve it by working together to reach a solution," clarified one. "They aren't people who have the tax authorities chasing them.” Overall, our interviewees appreciated the level of responsibility they'd encountered. “I attended lots of meetings and frequently had calls with a client on my own to explain things like how a will operates,” reported one. “There's a lot of scope to build relationships and take ownership of matters.”
The family department, led by 15 partners across London and Guildford, oversees complex matrimonial and children cases, often with an international element – a recent example saw lawyers here advise Elena Rybolovleva on the English aspects of her case against her ex-husband, oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, in the Geneva court. In the end Rybolovleva was awarded $4.5 billion by the judge, making it the highest-value divorce in history. “The quality of our clients really stands out,” gasped an interviewee. “Much of it's high-profile work, and sometimes is even has a celebrity factor.” Another excited source recounted how they'd “focused on some really interesting stuff, including a lot of matrimonial finance. Initially I would be involved in research, but by the end of my seat I was attending dispute resolution hearings with the client and counsel. I was the only face of the firm there – it was great to be trusted by the partners to go and provide some basic-level advice.” Others told of attending client meetings, taking attendance notes, and drafting letters, court forms and divorce petitions. One noted that “there's a strong pupil-teacher element to the family seat – you work directly with partners, who are keen to help you develop.”
On the transactional side, the firm offers separate seats in corporate, commercial and banking. CRS's souped-up corporate team now covers a comprehensive spread of sectors, including private wealth (natch), real estate and construction, healthcare, sport and media. Clients across these areas include British telecoms company Arqiva, the government of the Bahamas, hedge fund Sisu Capital and Caring Homes Healthcare. The London team recently assisted foreign exchange company Moneycorp with its £212 million acquisition by private equity house Bridgepoint; meanwhile, over in Cheltenham solicitors advised mercenary-turned-oil-baron Tony Buckingham on the Qatari royal family's acquisition of Heritage Oil for £924 million. Trainees typically get stuck into such matters by “managing the due diligence process, drafting ancillary documents like board minutes and preparing stock transfer forms,” as well as “assisting with the completion of deals by co-ordinating all the documents, meeting with clients and making sure everything gets signed correctly.” The commercial team has a similarly impressive roster of big-ticket clients to advise, among them Westfield, ITV and Supergroup (owner of the Superdry clothing brand).
The litigation department includes commercial dispute resolution, sport and fraud. CRS's litigators have been keeping busy with ongoing work for long-standing clients the FA, Nike and the Central Bank of Bahrain; they've also been advising accountancy firm Baker Tilly, the joint liquidators of Bahrain-based Awal Bank, on a $9.2 billion fraud claim against the latter brought by Saudi business group AHAB. Interviewees who'd sat here reported “plenty of run-of-the-mill” duties, like bundling and indexing, plus a good bit of drafting. “I sat with the commercial dispute resolution team and drafted subpoenas for a financial case, as well as a lot of letters for the FA. That was interesting – they have their own regulatory framework you have to contend with.”
In real estate, trainees are likely to find themselves drafting Land Registry applications, licences, and reports on title and leases. Like at many firms, trainees here are handed a handful of their own files to run. “You'll be given a basic property instruction, and then you do the drafting – for instance, a licence to underlet – and liaise with the managing agent.” The department's client base includes institutional investors, property developers, funds, charities and educational institutions. Schools like Eton College and Merchant Taylors are big names on the list, as are the Howard de Walden estate and the City of London Corporation. The team recently acted for housebuilder Crest Nicholson on its £1 billion bid to develop the RAF Wyton air base in Cambridgeshire. Trainees sitting in property litigation also get to handle their own files "such as acting for a landlord on the recovery of rent arrears,” and court attendance is pretty standard too, along with “drafting particulars of claim forms, witness statements and instructions to counsel.”
Conjugal culture clash?
Our interviewees told us their working hours have been “a lot better than expected,” even for those based in London. Across the firm, trainees reported an average daily shift of 9am to 7pm. Of course, longer spells in the office are necessary in the run up to trials or completion: “You should expect to work hard here – we are a top 30 law firm. But the firm is really reasonable about it. And when you end up doing a late night or coming in on the weekend, the partners make their gratitude known."
Another thing we heard from sources across the firm was delight at how well the working cultures of Charles Russell and Speechly Bircham have meshed. (The former was always known as a bastion of tradition, while the latter, meanwhile, favoured progressive techniques like strong branding, an open-plan office and an advanced recycling scheme.) “I've been pleasantly surprised by how similar the firms' working environments have turned out to be,” admitted a Londoner. “As an original Charles Russell person, I was concerned that Speechlys would be more corporate, but it's a really good fit." It helps that "Charles Russell was only ever traditional in terms of its emphasis on getting everything right with the client and showing manners; it was never stiff.” While "the CRS brand is still being developed," trainees revealed that this focus on client service will form an important cornerstone of it.
Trainees across the firm have had a few chances to get together socially. A Guildford source told us: "The trainee social committee makes it a point to include everyone in things like the Christmas party so those of us outside of London don't feel cut off. They organise transport for us to get to London.” At the time of our calls, trainees were reeling from a recent sports dinner, "a legacy Charles Russell event. It was a great opportunity to integrate. There was a lot of drinking and dancing." Insiders revealed that "the parties have been way better since the merger. We just had a casino night instead of quarterly drinks.”
Now for the crunch: qualification. How is the merged firm handling it? “They're going for a formal process in which they release a jobs list, and ask us to send in an application form, covering letter and CV. We can apply for more than one role." Interviews are then held with partners from both legacy firms. In 2015, 22 of CRS's 30 qualifiers stayed on with the firm.
The Guildford branch recently upgraded from its oak-panelled office to "much more modern" digs in an office block, complete with "amazing coffee machines – no more instant coffee!”
You may also be interested in...
Our practice area feature on Private Client and Charities
These firms with a strong private client practice:
These mid-size commercial firms in London:
How to get a Charles Russell Speechlys training contract
Everyone on the three-week summer scheme will be assessed for the training contract. In total, the firm aims to recruit about 20 trainees. Around half will be picked from the summer scheme and half from the direct training contract route.
The application form
Direct training contract and summer scheme candidates complete the same application form.
When reviewing the forms, recruiters are looking for “well-rounded people who've got the grades,” says HR officer Hayley Halvatzis. How much work experience is necessary? “Applicants don't have to have loads, but it helps to have some legal work experience. Work experience outside of law is also good if they can demonstrate skills they've learned and show how they're useful for legal practice – customer service skills, for instance, help with developing client relationships.”
Legacy Charles Russell's application form always included a quirky question to draw out a bit of personality. CRS is sticking with this more unusual tactic. The question changes every year and is actually thought up by current trainees, who submit their suggestions to HR. Previous questions include: 'if you could shadow someone for one day, who would it be?' and 'what animal would you be?'
The summer scheme
There are 20 places on the three-week summer scheme, which takes place in July. Around 90 shortlisted candidates complete a psychometric test and then 50 attend an interview with HR and a senior associate.
Those who make it through to the scheme spend each week in a different practice area. Students can list preferences on a form and HR will “do their best” to accommodate their choices. According to Halvatzis, the scheme is like “a very mini-training contract. We try and give candidates as much exposure as possible: they'll attend client meetings and do real fee earning work, like research on a case or checking through a document.” Candidates have a supervisor, though “they might not be the only person giving them work. They also have a trainee mentor for the whole three weeks.” There's also a social event every week. First, firmwide drinks give candidates a “chance to mix with everyone.” During the second week “we do a more low-key event for scheme participants and trainees, like going to Bounce for table tennis.” Finally, there are leaving drinks with partners.
The assessment centre for the training contract takes place at the end of the scheme. It lasts half a day and includes group and individual exercises, plus written tests.
Direct training contract application
To date, direct applicants have also completed a psychometric test and initial interview, before being invited to an assessment centre. Each office does things differently – in terms of who is on the interview panel and when the psychometric test happens – but they all run the same assessment centre (see above). In total around 60 candidates will attend. The firm told us that they are currently reviewing whether or not to continue using the psychometric test.
Charles Russell Speechlys
6 New Street Square,
5 Fleet Place,
- Partners 167
- Other fee earners 420
- Total trainees 48
- Total staff 1,000
- Contact Trainee recruitment teamtrainee. email@example.com
- Twitter @CRS_Trainees
- Method of application Online application via www.charlesrussellspeechlys.com
- Selection procedure Assessment day includes an interview and other exercises designed to assess identified performance criteria
- Offices We offer training contracts in our offices in London, Guildford and Cheltenham
Main areas of work