Mergers between two firms are daring enough – so newly formed trifecta CMS Olswang Nabarro is an audacious creation.
It's often the case that within the crucible of a training contract, through common toil and shared experience, lifelong friendships are formed. But would you ever suspect that one such friendship could lead to a major law firm merger? Dig below the recent triple mega-merger between CMS, Olswang and Nabarro and you'll find exactly that: a tale of star-crossed trainees and the firms they went on to manage.“CMS executive partner Duncan Weston and Olswang's CEO Paul Stevens actually trained together at Nabarro,” legacy CMS grad recruitment partner Ian Herbert reveals. “So the firms were well known to each other.”
But there's more to it than that. Ultimately, the catalyst for this tie-up was a changing legal marketplace where mergers are the new black and the need to provide global sector coverage is greater than ever. Graduate recruitment partner Marie Scott (ex Nabarro) recalls “a squeeze on the mid-market. For Olswang and Nabarro the choice was between becoming a boutique or doing something to compete.” The three firms were all very different, both in terms of their work and to some degree their culture too. When first announced the merger put us in mind of a supergroup consisting of say... Queen, Iron Maiden and Little Mix. One chipper trainee painted the union more like this: “Olswang excelled in tech, media and telecoms, Nabarro in real estate, and CMS in energy and infrastructure, but CMS also provided general muscle on bigger deals – so it's a good synergy, mixing a sector approach and CMS's global strength.”
“The firms were well known to each other.”
The merger, which went live on 1 May 2017, created a behemoth. CMS Nabarro Olswang (or 'CMS' for short) is now the sixth largest law firm in the world by headcount and also the sixth largest in the UK by revenue. It's quickly worked out a new strategy befitting the bold merger, announcing a focus on six sectors: energy; financial services; infrastructure and project finance; life sciences and healthcare; real estate; and technology, media and telecommunications (TMT). The merger brings the number of UK locations up to eight (of which Sheffield, London, Bristol, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen take trainees) – add in a splurge of European offices plus a smattering of Asian locations (including Dubai, Beijing and Hong Kong), and you might be surprised to hear that the firm's still “actively looking” for a US merger. “We're not just seeking to scale up,” insists Ian Herbert. “The other firm would have to have similar standards, and we're only looking to go where clients are.” Legacy Olswang graduate recruitment partner Simone Ketchell adds that “we’re conscious US mergers need to have the right cultural fit.” Nonetheless, it's a sign of real global intent – trainees boldly remarked: “Watch this space.”
New possibilities abound, at home and abroad, within the training contract as much as anywhere. The vast majority of the seats which existed at the legacy firms have been carried over, along with the guarantee of a secondment, be that overseas or to one of the array of clients now assembled. The new firm is also setting out an unusual approach to training by sending vac schemers to Swiss business school IMD for a week. As for how the merger has affected trainees: “change is always unsettling – even if it's just changing your socks – but it's nice to be part of a firm that's driven, ambitious and trying to go somewhere.”
Where we're going, we don't need roads
To understand what brought the new CMS together, we're firing up the flux capacitor and heading back to a time pre-merger (ie 2016). Let's start with CMS, which, as Ian Herbert explains, “had the size, but saw an opportunity to reinforce its position and gain the expertise of two firms with stellar reputations in sectors that were complementary to our strengths.” Where it did excel was in energy and infrastructure related work, with Chambers UK naming it one of the best in the country for oil and gas work. Legacy CMS also had 60 international offices, by far the most of the three, commanding a particularly strong presence in Europe, plus exotic locations like Iran. This international scope was something both Olswang and Nabarro had been strategically targeting, and CMS delivered. But CMS had a much broader practice offering than just energy and infrastructure, evidenced by CMS partners ruling as practice heads in six of the 11 merged departments. Chambers UK granted CMS rankings for pensions, professional negligence, corporate M&A, banking and finance, real estate, litigation and other areas.
Next up, Olswang, where the focus had always been on TMT, though the firm also received Chambers UK rankings for its mid-market M&A, litigation, real estate, public law and life sciences practices (among others). It served well-known businesses from the media sector including the BBC, ITV, Time Warner and Viacom, and recently advised Jeremy Clarkson on his move to Amazon, after having counselled the presenter during the Top Gear 'fracas' when he punched one of his producers.
And finally there's Nabarro, which excelled at real estate work. Before the merger this mid-sizer was homing in on the core sectors of real estate, infrastructure, healthcare and life sciences, and technology. As with all three firms, though it had specialisms, Nabarro's work spread across a range of areas. The firm had only a small overseas presence, but it did have a well-established Sheffield office and had recently opened in Manchester to capitalise on Cottonopolis's busy real estate market.
But let's speed back to the present: like kids in a sweet shop, partners are gleefully eyeing up their new colleagues' client rosters, hoping to pick up new work. With its new integrated departments, the firm can offer existing clients services they couldn't have dreamt of before, so there's plenty of potential for new business. Ian Herbert, an infrastructure partner himself, gives an example: “Dominic Dryden was a tech specialist at Olswang. He worked with a global oil company on all its tech needs, so recently I've been introducing Dom to lots of our other oil and gas clients to cater to their tech demands.”
"I sit next to two ex-CMS guys on one side and someone from Nabarro on the other.”
It's important that matching departments mesh together. While some specialist departments – like TMT – primarily contain the lawyers of one legacy firm and have seen little change, larger departments like real estate and corporate have had to bring together lawyers and caseloads from three different firms. Trainees found that “it hasn't been a hindrance. There's been a real push for partners from different firms to work together, to utilise the new connections and push new work through.” With the London teams all united in Cannon Place (legacy CMS's flash offices, complete with floor-to-ceiling screens showing rolling news) another trainee added: “My team is really knitting together. The way they have set up the floor plan helps: I sit next to two ex-CMS people on one side and someone from Nabarro on the other.” A legacy CMS trainee told us about “working for an AIM-listed tech company which is an important legacy Olswang client,” while another described “using some Nabarro software which stores a database of agreements that are needed for a round of investment. We input all the information and it generates an initial draft, taking into account tax risks.”
Talking of software, IT systems are always one of the niggliest things to get right in a merger. While everyone at CMS is now kitted out with a Surface Pro, trainees reported “problems with Outlook and general teething problems with IT – but I was surprised that people at the higher levels actually cared about the issues we were experiencing.” A similarly attentive approach has been taken on other fronts. Though news of the merger filtered through via “Chinese whispers” and “rumours” (“a woman in my office jumped out of her chair and shouted 'we're merging!'”), since the formal announcement “there's been almost too much communication.” Newsletters and meetings occurred regularly, “letting trainees know what had been decided and what hadn't.” One interviewee continued: “Before the move we had quite a long discussion with grad recruitment at which we could voice our concerns.” Trainees told us the firm is "to some extent trying to adopt the best approaches from the three firms," with precise new policies on everything trainee-related being hammered out over time.
We wondered if the firm put on many social events to foster post-merger integration. The answer is yes. “There was a lot of organised fun at the beginning: drinks at Nabarro, Olswang and CMS's offices. And the Nabarro trainees actually stepped up to organise a pub trip before the firm even had.” We struggled to keep track of all the different events: departmental, trainee, inter-office – basically any combination you can think of. Before the merger went live, all trainees got invites to CMS's yearly ball – “a black-tie event at the Waldorf” – along with future trainees, and a summer social was in the pipeline at the time of our calls in June 2017. “There have been lots of opportunities to get to know each other," one interviewee said, "and we all realised that we're fairly similar, and that the others weren't monsters!”
“The others weren't monsters!”
Monsters, no, but polar cultural opposites? Well, not according to our sources. Over and again, the verdict was “a good cultural match. Everyone I've met has been great: relaxed, open and easy to get on with. At Olswang I was happy talking to anyone, be it a partner or a paralegal, and I get the feeling it's the same now. There are casual Fridays, tidy Fridays and special treats. Little things like that make a big difference.” Going forward, one optimistic trainee said, “the culture is what we bring to the firm, not what the firm creates. We won't suddenly become different people, so a new culture has been created with the best bits of the three firms.” Olswang brought a choir, there are now a whole host of sports teams, and a highlight is the 'CMS world cup' (a football tournament between the international offices). The conflicting dress codes of the legacy firms, another talking point, was settled in a relaxed fashion. “Partners who prefer deck shoes haven't stopped wearing them. Certain partners still rock up in gym gear and don't get changed until lunchtime. People read a bit too much into the dress code. Anyone can wear anything as long as when they're meeting clients they've got the right gear.”
Refreshes the parts other firms cannot reach
CMS trainees now complete four seats, as they did at Olswang and legacy CMS (Nabarro had six seats). A seat in real estate means stepping into an area in which Nabarro had made a name for itself. The team's work includes helping foreign investors tap into the UK's lucrative real estate market, aiding property managers with large portfolios, and advising clients like hotels and student accommodation companies. For example, the team advised Kingboard Chemical, a Hong Kong investor, on its £271 million acquisition of office-space expert WeWork's London building, and acted for student accommodation company GSA and Singapore's sovereign wealth fund on their acquisitions of a 7,150-bed student accommodation portfolio from Oaktree Capital Management. Clients across the firm include National Grid, Imperial College, Land Securities and Blackstone Property Management. “You're thrown straight into running files and getting to know clients," a trainee told us. "I mainly worked on smaller sales and purchases and learnt how to tailor emails and letters to clients.” The combined practices of the three firms mean real estate makes up roughly 25% of the new firm's revenues.
An energy and infrastructure seat provides work on some enormous international projects, particularly in the oil and gas sector. Legacy CMS worked with Shell, BP, National Grid and the Mexican ministry of energy, and advised on BP's acquisition of a stake in the Zohr gas field in Egypt for an initial $375 million. Matters tend to be long running. “I don't think there are any quick versions of these deals," observed one interviewee wryly. "You're always working on really, really big matters. I got the chance to review financing documents, draft board minutes, participate in negotiations, call clients, and take charge of conditions precedent checklists.”
"I dealt with the terms of a licensing agreement for a start-up to branch out into Asia."
A media, communications and technology seat, highly prized at legacy Olswang, sees trainees focus on commercial work for tech and media clients: licensing, joint ventures, financing, production, distribution, contractual matters etc. "I dealt with the terms of a licensing agreement for a start-up to branch out into Asia," one trainee told us, "and I was involved in large compliance reviews for tech clients." There's also work related to the film sector. "We were doing distribution and licensing work for film distributors and drafting creative talent contracts," one source reported. Lawyers also recently advised CBS Films on all production matters for 2017 action flick American Assassin, which was filmed in the UK. Other clients range from the BBC and ITV to the Ministry of Sound and Elisabeth Murdoch, who the firm advised on a number of TV production joint ventures.
One trainee told us of their corporate seat: “I worked with a mixture of entrepreneurial clients like smaller start-ups but also did two huge IPOs and an M&A deal. Day-to-day work varied from drafting board minutes to attending client meetings. It has meant really long hours – it's extremely busy but a great experience!” Past corporate clients of the three legacy firms include RBS, Royal Mail and SSE (ex-CMS), FremantleMedia, Warner Music and literary agents Curtis Brown (ex-Olswang) and Care UK, Heineken and John Laing Infrastructure (ex-Nabarro).
Our final talking point has to be NQ retention. “Just as with any big change, the merger did cause some anxiety about retention rates,” trainees agreed. Legacy CMS hadn't had great retention in recent years, Olswang's record was mixed, and Nabarro had kept on over 80% of qualifiers in the past five years. With an inflated number of trainees (180 at the time of our calls), our interviewees were “pleasantly surprised by the number of NQ jobs that were available.” Currently “it's down to each department how it decides to assess you, but at the very least there will be one interview. You can apply for two different positions if you want to.” The firm had not confirmed its retention rate at the time we went to press - go to our website to find it. In future the overall number of trainees is going to come down, which sources within the firm told us was down to increased use of new technology and the firm's legal services unit.
Handy hint: this newly merged firm's full name is 'CMS Cameron McKenna Nabarro Olswang', but you can (and should) just call it 'CMS' in applications and elsewhere.
How to get a CMS training contract
Applications, assessments and interviews
Getting your foot in the door at the newly-merged CMS begins with an online application form. Applicants must give written answers to three typical questions – 'why CMS?' for example – and head of graduate recruitment and development Mirrick Koh prizes presentation. “Avoid long paragraphs. We want something easy to read because we see so many applications.” Get specific too: “If we can substitute CMS in any of your sentences with another law firm then it's too generic.” Next, applicants complete an online critical reasoning test.
Having assessed applications and critical reasoning scores, approximately a quarter of applicants progress to a 20 minute interview, which has traditionally been done over the phone (though the firm is considering updating this to a video interview). “It's an opportunity to ask about what attracted them to the firm, what they've heard about the firm recently and any contact they may have had with us. There will also be a couple of competency based questions – it's a nice, personal interaction,” says Mirrick. Should it remain as a telephone interview, applicants won't have their disarmingly good looks to impress with, so graduate recruitment manager Claudine Vega advises “wearing a suit. Pretending it's a standard interview may influence how you act on the phone. Smile too: we can hear it. You should also listen to our cues – us saying 'ok; yes; thank you' – that's a hint to wrap it up.”
Next there's an assessment day, with a competency based interview (or two) with both partners and senior associates, a case study exercise, group exercise, lunch and a tour. Fittingly, Mirrick tells us “the most recent case study focused on a merger.” In a blow to millennial misanthropes Mirrick has noticed that “during quiet points people will get out their phones and flick through their feeds! You should be taking every opportunity to speak to partners and your peers – they may be your future colleagues.” Needless to say, throughout all stages an in-depth knowledge of the merger will prove invaluable. If this is the first you've heard of it – get reading!
“The vac scheme will be the primary pipeline for training contracts,” Mirrick explains. Vac schemers from across the UK offices spend a week in London; the firm pays for accommodation and the week's activities are “dedicated to learning the business of law.” This includes lots of interaction with clients (“the National Grid and Land Securities allowed us to take people on site”), a work simulation exercise and structured assessments. The second and third weeks are more conventional in that vac schemers work in a particular department and attend various social events. Mirrick tells us that candidates have a strong chance of nabbing one of the firm's 65 (approx) training contracts “as long as they maintain a standard consistent with what we've seen in their interview, and as long as they don't do anything crazy.” If they are successful, the learning continues with a week of induction at IMD business school in Switzerland at the start of their training contract.
At least ABB at A Level and a 2:1 degree are a must, as are all the normal qualities law firms ask for, but CMS has its eyes peeled for something more: Mirrick believes that “CMS is ambitious in what it wants to achieve, and has already taken bold steps – so people need the ability to get on board. We are looking for someone who can be agile in their thinking and can react to, accept and embrace change.” Applicants should demonstrate “how they've handled a situation where a spanner has been thrown in the works. Life isn't all plain sailing – if something happened which altered how they had to think about a situation and they reacted well, that shows courageousness and agility.”
78 Cannon Street,
- Partners 1,000
- Associates 4,500
- Totalt rainees 130
- UK offices Aberdeen, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, Manchester, Reading, Sheffield
- Overseas offices 63
- Graduate recruiter: Mirrick Koh, 020 7367 3000
- Graduate recruitment partners: Ian Herbert, Simone Ketchell and Marie Scott
- Application criteria
- Training contract pa: 65
- Applications pa: 3,000
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Minimum UCAS points or A levels: ABB
- Vacation scheme places pa: 65
- Dates and deadlines
- Please visit our website for all deadlines
- Salary and benefits
- First year salary: £40,000 (London), £37,000 (Bristol), £24,000 (Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow), £26,000 (Sheffield)
- Second year salary: £45,000 (London), £39,000 (Bristol), £26,000 (Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow), £29,000 (Sheffield)
- Post qualification salary: £67,500 (London), £49,000 (Bristol), £39,000 (Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow), £40,000 (Sheffield)
- Holiday entitlement: We offer 25 days holiday and there is a Holiday Purchase Scheme (5 days)
- Sponsorship: LPC and GDL fees plus maintenance grant
- International and regional
- Client secondments: Trainee secondments to: Beijing, Bucharest, Dubai, Mexico, Prague, Rio de Janeiro and Singapore.
Main areas of work
During the training contract, our trainees undertake four six-month seats across the various practice areas and are given responsibility within high-profile transactions and cases. There is also a guaranteed secondment, which includes secondments to one of the firm’s clients or to one of its UK or international offices.
The second part of the programme includes an internship within one of our UK offices. Participants gain real experience in a commercial environment and develop skills needed to succeed as a trainee solicitor at a modern future-facing law firm. A supervisor and buddy will be your main point of contact and will provide high quality work which will give you an accurate insight into the work of a trainee solicitor.
First-year opportunities: First Steps
Attending our First Steps programme will put you in a strong position to apply for any of our other graduate opportunities. Each student is paid £350 to attend the programme for one week.