A focus on private wealth brought Charles Russell and Speechly Bircham together; as the gold dust settles on the merger, CRS is turning its gaze to the world's stage.
Gettin' Bridgey Wit It
Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton did it right. Instead of buying a single marital home, they had two properties side-by-side that were connected by a bridge – so much more exciting, and just think of the storage possibilities! Charles Russell Speechlys has opted for a similar arrangement (well, almost). The firm came about in 2014, after two of London's best known private client pros decided to join forces. The only thing left to do was sort out the starter home for these newly-weds. So Charles Russell's digs at 5 Fleet Place were soon accompanied by a sibling property at 10 Fleet Place – right next door. Three years later and managing partner James Carter tells us that “we've completed the re-organisation of both properties, so now everyone is effectively in the same place as their team.” Number ten houses corporate and real estate, while everyone else is in number five. But the refurb is still lacking one finishing touch: “We're working on getting a little bridge built between the two buildings so that you don’t have to go outside to get to the rest of the firm,” Carter confirms.
With post-merger wrinkles ironed out in the UK, Charles Russell Speechlys is now ramping up its international strategy. Carter explains that “we've done some more recruiting in Switzerland so our presence there is now significantly larger than it was 12 months ago.” Charles Russell Speechlys has two offices in the country, in Geneva and Zurich. The option to do a seat in Geneva comes up fairly regularly. Expansion isn't stopping within the confines of Europe though: in July 2017 Charles Russell Speechlys announced the opening of its first Asian office in Hong Kong, complementing its other overseas bases in Paris, Luxembourg, Doha and Manama.
Back home Chambers UK dishes out top marks for the firm's private client work, which is “what we're known for, so it's a really popular seat for trainees,” sources revealed. It's the same story in the Chambers High Net Worth guide, which also hails the firm's private wealth offering as its pre-eminent practice. The UK guide gives many an additional shout-out to Charles Russell Speechlys, but in particular the firm's agriculture and rural affairs, family, corporate/M&A, IP, construction, real estate litigation, restructuring/insolvency and sports expertise come highly recommended.
Goldmines and tax fines
At the time of our calls most trainees (37)called the London HQ home, while eight were based in Guildford and five in Cheltenham. The firm is split into four sections: business services; real estate and construction; litigation and dispute resolution; and private client. “It's recommended that you try and do a seat in each area as you get a sense of the whole firm, but there is a bit of wiggle room.” In London and Guildford, trainees submit three preferences to HR per rotation, along with a justification for each choice. In Cheltenham “it's a little different as we only have five seats, so it's more a case of the trainees just rotating through the available options.” No matter where trainees were based, everyone was pretty happy with the set-up: “It's very fair and 99% of the time HR allocates you one of your preferences.”
Trainees can access the private client department through a seat in family, private property or tax, trusts and successions. Wills, immigration issues and Court of Protection matters fall under the latter’s remit, as well as the dishing out of tax and trust advice to landed estates or heritage property owners. Here trainees were “going to client meetings with partners, drafting wills and amending lasting powers of attorney.” Another revealed: “I'm the first point of contact for the clients and I get to interview them. I was actually surprised at how much contact I got straight away.” Private property, meanwhile, is divided into “two streams of work: developments – where mostly foreign clients buy new land to develop – and high value property purchases. We frequently work with high net worth clients from the Middle East and Russia, and they normally snap up more than one property at a time.” For trainees this meant “running our own files right from the beginning: we do everything from attending client meetings to drafting enquiries, contracts and transfers of leases.”
Real estate is split into several divisions: general real estate is the largest, but other subgroups include regeneration, investment and development. Newbies can take on a mix of whatever takes their fancy. Recent hits include advising house-builder Bellway on the disposal of its interest in Barking Riverside, a joint venture regeneration scheme worth over £1 billion; acting for commercial developer Derwent London on the letting of a theatre above the new Crossrail station on Tottenham Court Road; and assisting a syndicate of private investors on the £40 million refinancing of pre-lets tied to the Hamilton EcoCampus in Scotland. “You start off with admin tasks, like Land Registry applications,” trainees told us. “But as you go along, you're in on client calls and drafting leases and licences to assign.” All trainees were buzzed by the chance to “run small matters on your own. You become the person in charge of a portfolio of leases for large commercial properties – obviously with supervision.”
“It was so weird meeting these people who I'd seen on TV.”
The employment, pensions and immigration group was a popular choice as “it offers a good mix of contentious and non-contentious work for both employers and employees.” Severance negotiations, senior executive exits, partnership liabilities, whistle-blowing matters, shareholder disputes and more are covered here. The group's known for its skill in the retail, sports and financial services sectors, and you'll find the likes of Nike, Hotel Chocolat and investment management firm Baring on the client roster. Trainees got stuck into “a lot of research, as well as drafting advice and simple settlement agreements.” Immigration issues come into play when “big companies sponsor employees for their visas. Since Brexit it's been really busy.” Contentious matters saw newbies drafting claim forms and responses. “I've also been to employment tribunals where I've been the only representative of the firm; I helped out the barrister and took notes. I've also prepped a lot of bundles, but the group balances tasks out well, so I never felt like I was tied to a photocopier!”
For those who catch the litigation bug, a seat in commercial dispute resolution is available. “We do a real range,” said sources, “including fraud, IP and insolvency matters, occurring across areas like sports, media, mining and technology.” Key clients here includethe FA, the National Bank of Greece and American software company Arbor Networks;the group recently acted for the latter as it sought to terminate a contract with its distributor, and represented Oxus Gold as the Government of Uzbekistan sought to impose a tax on the mining company's gold exports from the country. Some of our sources had been involved in a case tied to phone hacking: “We got to meet all of the celebrity clients, liaise with counsel and draft witness statements and claim forms. It wasn't all glam though – we had to draft all the cost management schedules too!” It's fair to say some were a bit starstruck: “It was so weird meeting these people who I'd seen on TV. I spent a lot of time reading newspaper articles for research and thought 'is this really work'?”
“You can't tell who's from which legacy firm now.”
In corporate, Charles Russell Speechlys' private wealth panache comes through, as the department advises many entrepreneurs and business owners on their commercial interests; for example, the group acted for the founder of the Currency Exchange Corporation, Michael Cooke, as the company was sold to an Irish financial services provider. You'll still find recognisable names on the client list, like ITV, Everton FC and Age UK, and the team is looking to do more with FinTech and private equity clients. Trainees here assist “with many of the core transactions, by chipping in on share certifications, stock transfers and ancillary documents like board minutes.” In Cheltenham and Guildford “the clients tend to be large regional companies,” but international work is still on offer: “At the moment we're working for a company that builds shopping malls and hotels in Africa.”
From the second seat onwards, trainees can opt to go on a client secondment. In London, “it's almost expected that you'll go on a secondment, because there are so many options.” Spots with ITV, Debenhams and Harrods are among those available. After ranking their secondment preferences during the seat allocation process, aspiring secondees face an interview with the client's relationship partner. Sources did warn that you're less likely to get a place if you're based in the Guildford or Cheltenham offices, as “there are so few trainees – if you send someone away, they'll be short a trainee in the office.”
We're going to Ibiza!
“You can't tell who's from which legacy firm now,” insiders were pleased to report. “We're more integrated across the board.” Inevitably, there are still some instances where the divisions are felt: “Litigation, for instance, can seem a bit split as we've got two long-standing clients – one from each legacy firm – that are still dealt with by the original people assigned to them.” In addition, interviewees from both the Cheltenham and Guildford offices (both former CR bases) believed they had retained the more traditional vibe that CR was known for. However, across all locations sources stressed that “everyone's made a real effort to work with new people and central management have pushed to get everyone together.” These efforts include “an internal rebrand” that has been applied to all three UK bases. 'The Charles Russell Speechlys Way' is part of this rejig; it's a list of qualities that the firm expects its lawyers to embody. Most thought that this was a good idea, but some told us that “the qualities are plastered on walls, mouse mats and our TV screens. They include things like 'Be Human.' I get what they mean, but it's a bit vague and a bit funny!”
“We all got onto this train and the partners served us Prosecco in aprons.”
In fact, sources found people didn't struggle to be human. “It's really great — everyone is chatty and collaborative. You can ask anyone for advice and people are very warm and willing to help out.” Because of this, most people tend to work similar hours – usually from 9am until around 7pm. “I can count the times I've stayed here past 7.30pm on one hand. Plus you enjoy the work, so you don't look at the clock so much,” said one source, summarising a typical experience. When they aren't working, trainees get into the party spirit via a healthy helping of firm-organised shindigs. The biggies are normally London HQ-centric, but lawyers across the firm are invited. “We have our Christmas do at the Savoy and it's wonderful. Everyone comes to London – even the people in Paris and Geneva.” But the award for coolest entrance goes to the Guildford lot, who took a 'party train'to the Savoy last year. “We all got onto this train and the partners served us Prosecco in aprons.” When they reached their destination “there were chaises-longues everywhere, a photo-booth with props and someone wearing a horse's head walking around.” Some of these treasured pics have been blown up and exhibited in the HQ. Summer, meanwhile, saw the firm throw an Ibiza-themed bash “where we kitted out the top floor of the HQ with white leather sofas and flamingos – not real ones though!”
Things sober up in London and Guildford when it comes to qualification. “A jobs list is released by late spring and you apply with a CV and covering letter. They advise you not to apply for more than two positions.” Depending on the department this could progress to an interview with the head of the group and/or a case study exercise. In Cheltenham the process is more chill, “because there are only two people up for qualification here; we still go through the jobs list, but we have more of an informal chat with the partners in the team.”In the end, 17 of 24 second-years stayed on in 2017.
CRS runs a six-year solicitor apprenticeship that lets you study for an LLB in legal practice while working and earning.
How to get a Charles Russell Speechlys training contract
Training contract deadline: 30 June 2018 (opens December 2017)
Each year, 24 trainees are recruited across the offices in London, Guildford and Cheltenham. In London and Guildford, around half of future trainees are picked up from the summer scheme and half from the direct training contract route. Cheltenham, on the other hand, recruits all of its trainees through the assessment centres that take place over the summer.
The application process
All candidates – whether they're applying for the summer scheme or directly for a training contract – complete the same application form. When reviewing the forms, recruiters are looking for “well-rounded peoplewith a real passion for the law, plenty of team spirit and a drive to make their own mark,” says graduate recruitment manager 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.”
Following the application form, around 80 candidates are shortlisted to complete a situational judgement test and video interview. For those that have applied for a place on the summer scheme, successful candidates will then be offered a place on the scheme. During the scheme candidates are required to take part in the assessment centre that ascertains their suitability for a training contract.
For those that have applied directly for a training contract, an invitation to attend an assessment centre is offered upon successful completion of the video interview. All candidates – whether they have come through the summer scheme or applied directly – will experience the same assessment centre, which is made up of a mix of group and individual tasks.
The vacation scheme
Vac schemes take place in both the London and Guildford offices across June and July. 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 Hayley, 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, with the firm’s summer party taking place during the first week. “We are lucky that the summer party coincides with the summer scheme as it means students can get a real feel for the firm and mix with different people.” 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.
At the end of the scheme all candidates receive detailed feedback on how they have performed both during scheme and on the assessment centre. “It’s a two-way process,” says Hayley; “we also like to receive feedback from the students so we can continually work to improve the summer scheme.”
Interview with managing partner James Carter
Student Guide: Over the past 12 months, what have been some of the highlights at the firm?
James Carter: In the 18 months following the merger it was all about physical and business integration. We have achieved most of what we set out to do there. We have also had an internal rebrand and we’ve introduced the 'Charles Russell Speechlys Way'. It's all about setting the core values of this firm in terms of how we want to deliver legal services, treat clients and each other. We have a clear identity that differentiates us from other firms, which we hope is attractive to trainees and other lawyers.
More recently, the focus has been on extending our reach overseas. We have expanded our presence in Switzerland and have opened offices in both Dubai and Hong Kong. We already have a well-established presence and reputation in the Middle East, but Hong Kong is our first foray into South East Asia. It is very exciting and we are lucky to have recruited some top quality lawyers to grow our presence there.
SG: What does the firm have planned for the future?
JC: We are continuing to build the brand, by focusing on the core strengths of the firm and most importantly reinforcing how we are best able to bring value to our clients. We remain one of the few international firms that has private wealth at its core and we will continue to drive that forward. Our new offices in Dubai and Hong Kong are very much part of that focus.
SG: Brexit is the big unknown at the moment – how is the firm dealing with it?
JC: London will remain a global centre for firms like us, so we'll be able to continue to advise our clients on all the changes ahead. But it's still too difficult to tell the full extent of the impact. Following the referendum, it was all doom and gloom, but while activity was sluggish in the summer following the vote, momentum steadily picked up over the following months. There will be periods of uncertainty to come and these will inevitably have some impact. Uncertainty is not good for transactional lawyers.
SG: Finally, what do you look for in candidates and what advice do you have for our readers?
JC: We have a very wide range of practice areas and they require different approaches and different skill sets. At the end of the day, however, if you deliver good, proactive legal advice, you'll thrive whatever the focus you have. Therefore, we need individuals who are flexible and do not accept that one size fits all. This is not the case for our clients and those who do best at this firm are the ones who adapt their delivery and skill sets to cater for a broad range of clients.
So I would advise students to be inquisitive, to have an enquiring mind and to look at problems from a variety of different angles. Clients really value that, and it's very important that you help your clients to build confidence in you. That's how you become a good lawyer and succeed.
Private client law explained
Charles Russell Speechlys
5 Fleet Place,
- Partners 163
- Associates 309
- Total trainees 50
- UK offices London, Guildford, Cheltenham
- Overseas offices Doha, Geneva, Luxembourg, Manama, Paris, Zurich
- Graduate recruiter: Hayley Halvatzis, [email protected]
- Application criteria
- Training contract and vacation scheme applications open in December each year
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: 30 June 2018
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 31 January 2018
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant: Yes
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London, Guildford, Cheltenham
It has made us a leader in the world of dynamic growth and family businesses, and among the world’s leading creators and owners of private wealth and their families. Major corporates and institutions find our more considered and personal approach a refreshing alternative to conventional business law firms.
Main areas of work
These practice areas are focused on the following sector areas: charities and not for profit, construction and infrastructure, energy and natural resources, financial services, healthcare, private wealth, real estate, retail and leisure, sport, and technology, media and telecommunications.
University law careers fairs 2017
• Warwick: Tuesday 24 October 2017
• Bristol: Tuesday 31 October 2017
• Oxford: Saturday 4 November 2017
• Birmingham: Wednesday 8 November 2017
• Reading: Wednesday 8 Novemeber 2017
• Exeter: Wednesday 15 November 2017
• Durham: Wednesday 22 November 2017
• BPP: Thursday 16 November 2017
• The London Law Fair: Wednesday 29 November 2017
• City Law Live: Friday 8 December 2017