Charles Russell Speechlys has its sights set on becoming the gold standard of private wealth firms.
New street, new digs
“Our offices are as close as they can physically be, which was a priority for us when selecting a new place,” training principal Chris Putt tells us, as we settle down to chat with him in CRS's sleek 5 Fleet Place digs. Let us explain: back when Charles Russell and Speechly Bircham merged in 2014, number five was home to the former of these private client maestros. The latter was based five minutes away in New Street Square, but instead of crossing the threshold arm-in-arm, the newly-weds opted to remain in their own houses. But then several months later, CRS purchased two floors in 10 Fleet Place (right next door to number five), vacated New Street Square and, well, we don't want to use the term 'consummated' but this final act was highly symbolic. The corporate and real estate teams are based in number ten, while the rest of the firm kicks back at number five. Most things, according to our sources, appear to be going swimmingly: “There weren't any glaring differences between the firms; we were pretty well matched when it came to culture and the type of clients we serve.”
Indeed, both legacy firms were well known for their private client expertise, and drew in a raft of entrepreneurs and family-owned businesses. Now their combined clout in the area comfortably secures CRS a top nod from Chambers UK and the Chambers High Net Worth guide. Going forward, managing partner James Carter has made it clear that the firm will be looking to attract more work from large corporates. This trainee gave us the low-down: “We're targeting corporates and business owners who we can service both as private clients and in a business capacity by dealing with things like advertising, corporate, property and litigation matters.” The ultimate goal, Chris Putt adds, is to secure CRS's status as “a leading firm in the private wealth sphere.” Speaking of wealth, the tie-up has also lined the firm's own pockets: in April 2015, its first post-merger revenue figure stood at £134.5 million, which was more than the combined total of both firms' previous results. 2016 saw CRS continue this upward trend when it posted a £140 million haul in July.
Most of CRS's UK lawyers are housed in its London HQ, though the firm also has domestic outposts in Cheltenham and Guildford. The two regional offices, alongside bases in Doha, Bahrain and Geneva, were supplied by Charles Russell, while Speechly fleshed out the firm’s European offering by contributing lawyers in Zürich, Luxembourg and Paris – as well as some additional heads in Geneva.
A rich heritage
Around 25 trainees start at the firm each year. London absorbs the most, and 17 first-years were based here at the time of our calls. Guildford typically welcomes four per intake and Cheltenham two. The firm is split into four sections: business services; real estate and construction; litigation and dispute resolution; and private client. “The firm likes you to do a seat in each of these,” sources told us, “but it's not set in stone.” Trainees submit three preferences per rotation, along with a justification for each choice to HR. We're told the assignment process “can be frustrating, as HR isn't always transparent about what's going on.” Even so, HR must be doing something right, as most interviewees were ultimately pleased with what they were given.
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 this seat’s remit, as well as the dishing out of tax and trust advice to landed estates or heritage property owners. The team in Guildford recently advised a French baron – Jean Christophe Iseux – on inheritance tax and estate planning after he purchased the former stomping ground of King James I – Apethorpe Hall – from English Heritage for £2.5 million. As grand as that matter sounds, trainees are more likely to find themselves working on wills for clients with oodles of cash. “Typically I attend client meetings to take notes on will instructions while the partner advises them on things like estate planning and tax,” one source summarised. “After the meeting, you get to work on whatever is necessary, be it drafting wills or lasting powers of attorney or writing letters of wishes.” The client may have left the building by the time trainees start drafting but that doesn't mean they're out of their hair. “It's a good seat for client contact,” interviewees told us. “The matters we're working on are very important to them, so they call you directly for updates on how things are progressing.” Sources also got stuck into the tax side too, where they found themselves “researching tax questions for both national and international clients; this element of the seat is quite academic and methodical.”
“The increase in secondments is one of the best things."
A private client seat can also be completed in Geneva, where trainees take a crack at guiding clients through Liechtenstein disclosures – essentially a mechanism that grants an amnesty to UK taxpayers who divulge (and repay) unpaid taxes on offshore assets to HMRC. A stint in Geneva is currently the only overseas seat on offer, but there are plenty of client secondments up for grabs. There’s less scope for Guildford and Cheltenham trainees to get in on the action but London trainees were pleased as Punch to sample life on the other side with clients such as Harrods and The FA. “The increase in secondments is one of the best things about the merger,” gushed one. After ranking their secondment preferences during the seat allocation process, aspiring secondees sit down with the client's relationship partner for either a formal interview or (if they're not fending off hordes of other hopeful candidates with a stick) an informal chat about the role.
Another competitive area to wrangle your way into is CRS's family department, where the lure of handling prenups, divorces and child custody disputes for wealthy individuals proves popular. While most cases here unfold behind firmly closed doors, some do occasionally hit the headlines: the team was recently called in at the last minute to represent former Russian beauty queen Ekaterina Parfenova Fields during an ongoing dispute with her ex-husband and US lawyer Richard Fields over his £6 million fortune. CRS secured a £1.2 million payout for Parfenova, plus annual payments of £320,000. Sitting in on trials and attending meetings with counsel equals plenty of note taking for trainees, though sources also reported undertaking doc review and filling out financial statement forms for divorce cases.
“At one point I was managing over 2,000 documents."
All in all, three areas dominate CRS’s corporate scene: capital markets, private equity and mid-market M&A. Clients hail from a range of sectors in the London office, including financial services, real estate and telecommunications. Consequently you'll find clients like hedge fund sponsor Sisu Capital, property developer Countryside Properties and British telecoms company Arqiva on the books. In Cheltenham, the corporate group has “a crop of clients that are active in Africa,” and deal-doers recently advised the vendors of a Nigerian shopping centre as they sold it to South African real estate investment trust Hyprop and capital growth fund Attacq. In Guildford, trainees completed a joint corporate/commercial seat and encountered a number of pharmaceutical clients: a highlight saw the team act for independent pharmacy chain Laville as it acquired Arms Chemists. Across the offices, our sources were up to their elbows in due diligence, but also got to draft ancillary documents like shareholder resolutions. Several tested their drafting skills on “more heavy-duty assignments” in the form of share purchase or shareholder agreements.
Real estate is split into several divisions: general real estate is the largest, but other subgroups include regeneration, investment and development. Rookies are free to sample work from each of them. Throughout the department, property developers and investors like Land Securities appear alongside clients who sound like they've been pulled straight from the historic rolls: the Merchant Taylors' Company for example, or the City of London Corporation. Sources here had toiled away on sales of commercial buildings and sites. One example saw the team advise specialist property provider BioMed Realty as it acquired and pre-let a £60 million development site that will house biotech company Illumina. Sales of large property portfolios require “a lot of due diligence,” one interviewee recalled. “At one point I was managing over 2,000 documents, but thankfully you also get put on the smaller transactions where you’re transferring just one or two properties.” Leases and licences to assign fall into the lap of trainees and “by the end of the seat you're running the smaller files.” While the responsibility on these matters is ramped up, there are still plenty of “admin-y tasks” – such as preparing land registry applications – involved.
Fraud matters dominate the firm's commercial dispute resolution team: lawyers here recently assisted the liquidators of Bahrain-based Awal Bank’s subsidiaries, after a $9.2 billion fraud claim was brought by Saudi financial services business AHAB. Fraud aside, you'll find matters touching on sporting disputes – Chelsea FC and The FA are both clients – or relatively straightforward commercial disagreements over debts and contracts. “We're encouraged to work for a variety of partners and get a range of experience,” one litigator told us. “One minute you're filing basic bundles or sending stuff to court and the next you're drafting witness statements or attending court hearings.”
Fifty shades of purple
Trainees can also scratch their litigious itch in contentious trusts and estates (“essentially private client gone wrong”), property litigation, construction, engineering and projects, and IP litigation. Those in the latter were quick to highlight the team’s well-known clients like Nike, Wagamama and Paddy Power; lately the group acted for that purveyor of chocolate-induced joy, Cadbury, as it sought to protect its trade mark covering the iconic 'Cadbury Purple' colour.
Two years on from the merger, how do trainees think the land lies? “I think some teams are taking longer to integrate, but on the whole people are quite similar.” While trainees knew of each legacy firm's reputation – Speechly was known as the more progressive of the two, while Charles Russell was considered a rather traditional firm – they were at a loss when trying to identify differences in the lawyers hailing from them. However, trainees in Guildford and Cheltenham – both former Charles Russell bases – felt more of a connection to CR's traditional reputation. “But traditional in the sense of paying attention to detail rather than being stuffy,” sources stressed. One Guildfordian mused: “I think it's a well-deserved reputation. Our London office might be more slick and corporate but here we're still tied to the brand that we worked so hard to build.”
“No one's screaming for a will at 9pm.”
One thing trainees across the offices agreed on was that “people are very collaborative: it doesn't feel like there's much hierarchy and seniors don't shove crap work onto trainees. We all have our part to play and pull our weight equally.” That leads to regular 7–8pm finishes in many groups, though typical departure times vary depending on the clients: “Corporate and banking clients work later and so will you if you sit in those areas, but no one's screaming for a will at 9pm in private client so you can leave at 6.30pm and carry on with things the next day.”
London-based events often draw in people from across the firm, like the “amazing Christmas party at the Savoy.” The HQ usually hosts an event once a quarter, and some are especially good at flattening any sense of hierarchy: “There was one where the partners had to serve everyone drinks – they were all wearing funny aprons that had been designed by the marketing team. As a trainee you don't feel you can say no if a partner's filling up your glass.” The capital also serves as a handy destination for cross-office departmental socials. One involved a trip to Shoreditch's Flight Club: “It's a darts bar and it's great. We had some food, some drinks and threw a few darts – what more could you want?”
The qualification process has become “somewhat more formal than it was before: we receive a jobs list and have to make official applications, but generally the partners are quite good at indicating where you stand during your seat.” In the end, 18 of 25 second-years stayed on in 2016.
Energetic trainees can take their pick of CRS's football, hockey, softball, squash, netball, tennis or cricket teams. Don't worry if you're no Ronaldo though, as the firm's sporting prowess is best described as “spirited.”
How to get a Charles Russell Speechlys training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: 31 January 2017
Training contract deadline: summer 2017 (exact date TBA)
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 vacation 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 advisor 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.”
The vacation scheme
Vac schemes take place in both the London and Guildford offices across June and July. Around 60 shortlisted candidates complete a psychometric test and video interview.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 application form includes a quirky question to draw out a bit of personality; it 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 application form includes a quirky question to draw out a bit of personality; it 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?'
To date, direct applicants have also completed a psychometric test and video 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 it is currently reviewing whether or not to continue using the psychometric test.
Private client law explained
Charles Russell Speechlys
5 Fleet Place,
- Partners 159
- Other fee earners 471
- Total trainees 48
- Total staff 1,010
- Contact trainee recruitment team, firstname.lastname@example.org
- 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