CMS - True Picture

On 1 May 2017 CMS's drive for mass expansion finally came to fruition as it merged with Olswang and Nabarro. CMS is the big daddy of the trio: the merged firm carries its name (though it's officially called 'CMS Cameron McKenna Nabarro Olswang LLP'). 

The feature below was written and researched before the CMS-Olswang-Nabarro merger took place. The combined firm is recruiting 2019 trainees as a single entity in 2017.

Coat of Many Shades

“It was mostly the European focus”... “CMS was recommended for its energy and infrastructure practices”... “Because it's a big international firm.” Those were the main reasons we heard when we asked trainees why they picked CMS. And they are all good reasons. The CMS network encompasses 3,000 lawyers in over 60 offices across the world, of which around 50 are in Europe. In the UK the firm is most highly regarded for specialist areas including energy, pensions, professional negligence and infrastructure, although it also wins Chambers UK rankings for areas like corporate M&A, banking and finance, litigation, real estate and insurance.

The CMS network consists of 12 distinct firms of which the UK arm (sometimes referred to as 'CMS Cameron McKenna') consists of the five UK offices – London, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen – plus 13 offices overseas. “CMS operates as a European Economic Interest Grouping,” explains graduate recruitment partner Ian Herbert. “We are fully integrated on a number of fields, including a common brand, marketing, financial reporting and management based in Frankfurt.”

Our interviewees weren't the first to note that the firm's name, identity and branding “can be a bit confusing." One elaborated: “All our headed notepaper says 'CMS', but in some places the firm is still referred to as 'CMS Cameron McKenna'.” Ian Herbert comments: “In some jurisdictions – including the UK – the legacy brand name still has a certain cachet, however the firm now operates entirely under the CMS brand.” For a few years now part of the firm's strategy has been to pursue a US merger. “Nothing is imminent,” says Ian Herbert. “but it's still very much on the agenda.” All of this should not take away from the fact that the business is humming along very nicely at the moment. Network-wide revenue grew by 8.4% in 2015/16 surpassing the €1 billion mark for the first time, as the firm continued to expand after its 2014 merger with Scottish firm Dundas & Wilson. 2016 also saw CMS become the first international firm to open an office in Iran.

The firm recruits 40 trainees a year in London, six in Bristol and 14 in Scotland. When it comes to seat allocation, Londoners rank four preferences before each rotation and meet with grad recruitment to discuss these. Most interviewees agreed that seat allocation is handled “quite well,” though some said it can be “hit and miss” – with so many trainees and seat options not everyone gets what they want every time. It “all works out in the end though” and trainees mostly found they got to do their fave seats in their second year. In Bristol everything is much simpler, with all trainees doing a seat in real estate, banking litigation and insurance, plus a secondment. In London, everyone's required to swing by the banking or corporate teams, and most of our interviewees had done a stint in the latter.

CMS's guaranteed secondment had attracted many of our interviewees to the firm. Trainees can do stints abroad, with a client or in another UK office, with Londoners usually pootling off in their second seat and Bristolians in their third. Recently trainees have done overseas seats in Beijing, Bucharest, Dubai, Mexico City, Moscow, Prague, Rio de Janeiro and Shanghai. “The firm sends round a 'bible' detailing past trainees' experiences on different secondments to help you decide what you'd like to do,” a source informed us.

“One matter involved over 100 jurisdictions.”

While overseas seats are popular, trainees can also get exposure to cross-border work in London. “Quite a lot of my work is heavily international,” one said. “One matter involved over 100 jurisdictions.” We noticed that some trainees had had a more domestic experience though –“I have done mostly UK-based things, but a couple of times I did work with colleagues in other CMS offices,” one told.

CMS's energy practice comes highly recommended by Chambers UK, which deems it one of the best in the country for oil and gas work. The department is home to that sub-team plus three others: energy disputes; environment; and the awesomely named power group (which covers renewables and alternative energy). Clients include Big Oil supermajors BP and Eni, as well as National Grid and the Mexican ministry of energy on the power side. Lawyers recently acted for German utility company RWE on the sale of the Lynemouth coal and biomass plant to a Czech utility company and have been advising National Grid on its carbon capture programme since 2009. Trainees in the department “do both commercial and corporate work.” This means tasks range from reviewing and drafting contractual agreements to co-ordinating documents and doing due diligence on deals. In addition, “because of the low oil price we have decided now is the time to step up our business development game,” a trainee revealed. “We're reaching out to smaller oil exploration companies who we wouldn't normally work with.”

There's also energy-related work in the corporate department, which covers the insurance, life sciences, tech, retail and leisure sectors too. The firm has over 100 corporate lawyers in London working on both mid-market and higher-value “big-ticket” deals. For example, one big deal saw the firm advise Norwegian state hydropower company Statkraft on its £3.9 billion partnership with RWE to develop the Triton Knoll offshore wind farm in the North Sea. Lawyers also advised Eurostar during the government's sale of its 45%, £757 million stake in the high-speed rail company, and – in a mid-market deal – counselled Laing O’Rourke on its £69 million auction sale of seven PFI school-building projects. Trainees support more senior lawyers, taking on a project management role and dealing with due diligence and ancillary documents. “I drafted significant sections of the due diligence report,” one source told us, while another had “drafted and negotiated board minutes and called external counsel for a legal opinion.” There are administrative tasks too, such as proof-reading, preparing document bibles and running completions, which means “physically taking the client around the room getting them to sign documents.”

I closed my eyes... when?

Corporate's size and the fact “the hours are definitely long” meant some trainees felt it wasn't quite their cup of tea, while others had thrived here –“the work is really adrenaline-driven,” one enthused. As for the hours, “there are days when it's quiet and I go home at 6.30pm,” a source told us. “There have also been days when I have been here until 3am or 4am.” Another added: “The worst was a deal on which I stayed until 10pm every day for a few weeks, and for which the completion was an all-nighter.” In other departments hours are “really reasonable” with days usually lasting from 9am till 7pm or so, plus the occasional need to stay a few hours later.

The banking group represents both borrowers and lenders. Among the latter are the usual suspects (Lloyds, Barclays, HSBC) as well as alternative lenders like Oaktree and Crescent Capital. London lawyers recently acted for the latter together with their CMS colleagues in Portugal on a €53 million loan for the acquisition of an Iberian IT management company. Trainees who work on such leveraged transactions spent their time doing company checks and managing conditions precedent checklists, “comprising board minutes, shareholder resolutions and directors' certificates.” There are also distinct project finance and projects departments. These often work with each other and with corporate and real estate on major domestic or international projects. “For example,” a projects trainee told us, “if a client wants to build a biomass plant from scratch, they will want to acquire the rights to the land, set up contracts with National Grid to buy the energy needed, arrange financing, and negotiate the contract with the entity that will be building the plant. I was dealing with the last part of this.” Besides biomass generations the firm has recently advised on the construction of wind farms, schools, hospitals and roads.

The insurance litigation team handles professional indemnity, reinsurance financial services, construction and product liability matters, predominantly acting for big insurers like QBE, ACE and Chubb. The team is split between London and Bristol, with the latter focusing on professional indemnity, working for insurer clients defending accountants, solicitors and builders accused of negligence. A Bristol trainee told us: “I worked with both the London and Bristol offices day to day, doing research and putting together bundles for larger cases, while handing smaller files like applications for default judgment myself.”

The pensions group oversees both contentious and transactional matters, earning top-tier Chambers UK rankings for both lines of work. There's some insurance-related work here too, as well as “representing trustees setting up trusts or changing the deeds of arrangement.” The firm has recently advised the trustees of the pension schemes of major companies like Sanofi, TUI and EDF. Trustees also need ongoing support and advice, “as changes are introduced to tax and pensions arrangements every April.” To help keep rookies on top of things “they frontload all the training in this seat.” Formal training is pretty intensive in every seat, with weekly seminars the norm, some of which require several hours' preparation in advance.

The firm's specialist contentious teams mostly sit with the relevant department – energy litigation with the energy team, real estate litigation with the real estate team and banking litigation with that team. This means the general commercial disputes team is “very cosy.” It works on things like product liability, fraud, asset management, shareholder agreements, contractual claims and arbitrations. “For one High Court case I drafted a memo to the client explaining the settlement options,” a trainee told us. “I also dealt with the court, drafted disclosure statements, helped put together an interim application, and compiled witness statements.”

Any dream will do

We were struck by how varied our interviewees' reasons were for choosing CMS, citing European work; the appeal of sector work like energy or life sciences; big-ticket corporate work; or just after a broad commercial training in the City. This meant trainees had quite diverse backgrounds and outlooks on life: some had international backgrounds while others were more a product of the establishment; some were wannabe corporate hotshots – “I might whine to my friends that I am working so much but I actually enjoy it!” – while others were more anoraky practice specialists. Most firms and most trainees claim their firm doesn't have a type, but at CMS it's actually true.

Like CMS's trainees, “the departments definitely have different personalities,” largely because of differences in size and hours worked. Still, all our interviewees described their colleagues as friendly and approachable, and most teams are sociable with “a culture going for after work drinks.” Trainees club together frequently too: “I'm very fond of my trainee intake,” one interviewee told us. “We try to go for drinks at least once a week.” There's an annual trainee ball and team away-days too. The highlight of the social calendar is the 'CMS football world cup' in which women's and men's teams from different offices take each other on. The 2016 tournament was held in Glasgow and sources said: “It was really nice to meet people from all the other offices.”

“I'm very fond of my trainee intake.”

In London, the firm moved to new offices in the Cannon Place development directly above Cannon Street station in summer 2015. The new office's open-plan layout “has created a much better working environment in which you can just pop your head up and ask a question if you need to.” The move to Cannon Place – paired with various tech and outsourcing innovations – is reported to be saving the firm a total of €100 million in operating costs.

When we asked about qualification, trainees rightly drew our attention to CMS's relatively low NQ retention rate in recent years – this trend continued in 2016 with just 38 of 56 qualifiers kept on. The low figures are partly down to CMS taking on all Dundas & Wilson's current and future trainees at the time of the 2014 merger, while not upping the NQ intake. But all ex-D&W trainees have now passed through and we were assured the firm is working to ensure the trainee intake matches NQ demand more closely in future. A few of our sources also felt there was a “lack of information” about the NQ process itself, but most were more sanguine, pointing to the fact that available jobs and the retention decision are both announced quite early.

There are lots of reasons to choose CMS: the guaranteed secondment, the European and international office network, the sector focus, the broad commercial training. What's yours?

How to get a CMS training contract


Vacation scheme deadline (2017): 15 January 2017

Training contract deadline (2019): 30 June 2017

Since the information on this page was prepared it has been announced that CMS is to undergo a merger with Nabarro and Olswang effective 1 May 2017. The firm is recruiting 2017 vac schemers and 2019 trainees as a combined entity, CMS. The feature below was written and researched before the merger was announced.

Application, assessments and interviews  

Applications for a CMS training contract or vacation scheme start with an online form, covering the usual academics and work experience info and two short-answer questions: “One asks why applicants want to be a commercial lawyer and work here specifically; the other tests commercial awareness,” graduate recruitment manager Danny Cash says. A critical reasoning test rounds off this stage.

Approximately 15% of applicants are invited to an assessment centre. Those aiming for a vac scheme spot come in for a half-day that involves an interview with an associate or member of HR. “We test certain competencies, but it's also about getting to know the applicant – understanding more about their background and motivations,” Cash tells us. A commercial analysis exercise follows.

Training contract candidates face the same interview and commercial analysis exercise outlined above, and those who perform well are invited to stay for more assessments in the afternoon. These include a presentation and a group exercise, the latter related to a hypothetical scenario one may come across as a trainee. “There's nothing candidates can do to prepare,” clarifies Cash, explaining that “we're looking at their analytical and teamwork skills.” A partner interview involving competency and situational judgement questions, as well as topical commercial questions, concludes the day.

Vacation scheme / Academy 

As of 2017 CMS is calling its vac scheme an 'Academy'. We're not sure why this is or if and how this new programme will differ from a regular vac scheme. We'll update this page with more info as soon as we have it. For now we'll give some details on how CMS's vac scheme has always run in the past.

In 2016 CMS received around 800 applications for its three London schemes, one of which takes place in the spring and the other two in the summer. The firm's Bristol office also runs a summer scheme and received around 150 applications for this in 2016. London takes between 15 and 20 students for each placement, while Bristol takes four to six. Each is two weeks long.

Participants spend their entire placement with one practice group. Each student is assigned a supervisor and a trainee buddy, and gets involved in anything the practice group is working on at that time, including research tasks, drafting or client meetings. A structured training programme that covers topics like presentation skills also features, as do various social outings.

On the final day of their placement, vac schemers who wish to apply for a training contract complete the group exercise and partner interview that direct applicants undergo in the latter half of their assessment day.

Trainee profile 

A 2:1 degree and 320 UCAS points are needed to get through the door. Danny Cash tells us CMS is on the lookout for candidates who have “the ability to overcome obstacles and stay focused, a collaborative and positive approach, and an agile commercial mind that shows an interest in our clients' businesses.” He adds that an international outlook and good communication skills are also requisite.

CMS in Bristol and Scotland


Each year around six trainees take up training contracts in CMS's Bristol office. There are three seats on offer: banking litigation, insurance litigation, and real estate. In their third seat trainees here also have the option of undertaking a secondment with a client or in one of the firm's domestic or international offices. At the time of our calls in summer 2016 trainees told us that the Bristol training contract usually consists of going round all three seats plus doing a secondment; in the past the office also offered real estate litigation and technology seats, so other options may pop up in the future.

Professional indemnity cases are the bread and butter of an insurance litigation seat. The department deals with coverage cases –“advising a client on whether a particular event is covered by their insurance policy”– and defence work, acting for insurers and insured clients like surveyors, engineers, architects, consultants or brokers charged with professional negligence. Trainees do not get so involved in the former as “they lean heavily on black-letter law.” Working on negligence defence cases trainees spend their time “going through the documents and marked whether they were relevant or irrelevant,” dealing with settlement negotiations and drawing up detailed chronologies. There's also legal research and bundling to deal with, though one trainee told us: “I was in charge of some smaller files myself, such as an application to set aside default judgment with involved talking to clients quite a lot.”

Trainees in banking litigation witness PPI claims or debt recovery matters. As the former are often low value, trainees “are given ownership of a number of PPI claims. We'll also tasked with cost negotiation matters which we can just run with.” Drafting witness statements and other court documents is a common trainee responsibility, as is research, helping with witness statements preparing for mediations or attending client meetings. A trainee told us: “The team was dealing with a big disclosure exercise and I was the main person handling that for a couple of weeks, which was quite a big responsibility.”

A trainee with experience in real estate told us the team “generally does work for and with the London office, though it has a couple of Bristol-specific clients.” Trainees work on purchases and sales and we heard that in summer 2016 after the Brexit referendum rookies were busy “working on a lot of commercial property deals, as some funds have suspended trading and have been selling assets to foreign investors to free up spare cash.” In more regular times we were told that trainees “run smaller commercial unit leases but can also assist the partners on high-value purchases of things like retail or commercial premises. There's a lot more involvement with the clients compared to other seats.”

When it comes to retention being part of a small intake means “you feel like you are sheltered from there being too much competition.” And while CMS's Bristol sources were less het up about qualification prospects than their London peers we heard some grumbles here too suggesting the process for deciding on jobs could be improved.


CMS takes on 14 trainees a year in Scotland who are split between the Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow offices. London and Bristol trainees have the chance to spend a seat in any of the Scottish bases.

The Glasgow office was added to the firm in 2014, following CMS's merger with Dundas & Wilson and bringing increased oil and gas, and financial services capabilities to CMS. Offshore wind projects are a prominent focus for the former group but the team also handles other renewable and low carbon matters like biomass and tidal projects.

CMS's Edinburgh was founded in 2011 and bolstered hugely by the 2014 merger with Dundas & Wilson which was founded in the Scottish capital in 1759. The office maintains strong ties with the other UK bases and works in four core areas: banking, financial services, dispute resolution, and commercial.

CMS's Aberdeen base was launched back in 1993 for the initial purpose of servicing clients in the oil and gas industry. However, it's grown over the years to cover a more comprehensive array of practices including corporate, disputes resolution and employment. Clients here range from small local companies to international big-hitters like BP, ConocoPhillips and Eni.

English trainees with experience in the Aberdeen office's oil and gas team labelled it “a fantastic experience – Aberdeen is a great office to work in if this type of work interests you.” CMS recently represented oil and gas company BG on the sale of its £562 million interest in the 'CATS' pipeline to infrastructure funds firm Antin. Our sources said that they felt “spoilt” to work on high-value deals, with some adding that they'd received “a lot more exposure to clients” than in London. As one told us: “The clients would email me directly; they weren't hidden away. I ended up more or less taking on the role of an associate, conducting weekly conference calls with the purchaser and their solicitors.” Others told of “due diligence tasks for oil and gas transactions, and a bit of drafting of share purchase agreements and confidentiality agreements.” They went on to tell us: “The office is so busy – sometimes they don't have enough people to do the work, which is why they have to get people up from London!”

The disputes teams in Scotland are integrated into the firm-wide dispute resolution group, meaning that lawyers work on both litigation and arbitration for a mixture of domestic and international clients. One trainee with experience in Edinburgh's disputes group told us the seat is “a general one that involves energy, insurance and even some private client work. No two days are the same.” Trainees typically take attendance notes at meetings, prepare briefs for counsel, draft witness statements, and complete “a lot of document recovery exercises – someone has to deal with that side of it.” Most of the team is dual qualified in Scots and English law and works on cases throughout the UK.

The real estate team doubled in size after the merger with Dundas & Wilson and counts Standard Life, the University of Glasgow and National Grid among its clients. As you may have guessed, the energy sector brings in clients with real estate and construction needs to the Scottish offices. Other sector expertise includes hotels and leisure, retail and mixed-used development, property finance, and general portfolio management.

Trainees based in or seconded to Scotland – much like their Bristol counterparts – relayed that they still felt included (as far as possible) in the London operations. The same travel options apply – those in Scotland can hop on a plane safe in the knowledge the firm will pick up the tab. “They organise things so that other trainees outside London can participate – otherwise there is a danger of forgetting the people who are far away. You do have to find the cheapest flight of course!”

Interview with graduate recruitment partner Ian Herbert

Student Guide: What is the firm's current strategic plan?

Ian Herbert: I have been at this firm for 12 years now and one thing I have felt throughout is that this is a firm on the way up in terms of its general profile and reputation. In the 2015/16 financial year we posted figures which show we are increasing revenue and becoming more profitable. [CMS firm-wide revenue grew 8.4% to over €1 billion in 2015/16 while profits were up 6.8% – SG.]

Just working here you get a real sense that you are part of something big. We are growing internationally and the CMS network now consists of over 60 offices. We also recently set up an alliance with South East Asia firm Rajah & Tann and we now have offices in Latin American countries like Brazil and Mexico. We are growing in the Middle East too with a new office in Oman opened in 2014. Our strategy is very much focused on growth and doing more work for existing clients and winning new clients.

Student Guide: The firm's name and brand are not consistent across all your locations and the different names sometimes cause confusion. What is the reason for this and are there any plans to change it?

Ian Herbert: CMS operates as a European Economic Interest Grouping. I believe that is the same structure used by firms like Deloitte. We are fully integrated on a number of fields, including a common brand, marketing, financial reporting and management based in Frankfurt.

The reason we haven't dropped the other names beyond CMS is partly because of regulatory prescriptions related to our local name. And in some jurisdictions – including the UK – the legacy brand name still has a certain cachet. However, the firm now operates entirely under the CMS brand.

Student Guide: Is the firm still pursuing a US merger, as has been reported in the legal press in the past?

Ian Herbert: Nothing is imminent, but it's still very much on the agenda. In the medium to long term we will deliver on that goal – it is part of the firm's long-term strategy. The important thing with any merger is to find a firm to work with which is the right cultural fit.

Student Guide: Does the firm remain committed to taking on trainees in Bristol and Scotland as well as London? And what about getting trainees to move between offices?

Ian Herbert: Yes we are, and trainees will continue to move between offices. For example, in the energy practice there is the opportunity for a trainee to go up to Aberdeen to work with our oil and gas lawyers there.

When I speak to interviewees and vac schemes it's also clear that the chance to do overseas seats in unusual locations like Mexico City or Rio de Janeiro and our client secondments are a big draw. Client secondments are popular as they give trainees exposure to the commercial side of a client's business.

Student Guide: CMS has had consistently low retention rates for several years now. Could you comment on this and perhaps offer our readers an explanation?

Ian Herbert: I think the main reason for the low retention rates is that for a couple of years we have maybe had too many trainees. After we merged with Dundas & Wilson we took on all their trainees and future trainees but the total number of NQ positions reduced in size, while trainee numbers did not decrease. Going forward we are going to be recruiting around 50 trainees in England, which is the right number for the number of NQs we need.


Cannon Place,
78 Cannon Street,

  • On 1 May 2017, CMS, Nabarro and Olswang combined to form CMS Cameron McKenna Nabarro Olswang LLP. For more information on the combination please visit
  • Partners 850 (global)
  • Assistant solicitors 3,200
  • Total trainees 160
  • Contact Danny Cash, (020) 7367 3000
  • Method of application Online
  • Selection procedure  
  • Stage one: online application and psychometric testing.
  • Stage two: assessment day
  • Closing dates Please refer to our website
  • Training contracts pa 50+
  • Applications pa 1,000
  • % interviewed pa 10-15%
  • Required degree grade 2:1
  • Training salary 
  • First year (London): £40,000
  • First year (Bristol): £32,000
  • First year (Scotland): £22,500
  • Second year (London): £45,000
  • Second year (Bristol): £34,000
  • Second year (Scotland): £25,000
  • Post-qualification salary 
  • London: £67,500
  • Bristol: £47,800
  • Aberdeen: £40,000
  • Glasgow/Edinburgh: £38,000
  • % of trainees offered job on qualification 68%
  • Overseas/regional offices London, Bristol, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Prague, Rio de Janeiro, Bucharest, Moscow, Vienna, Dubai, Mexico, Beijing

Firm profile

A global firm of over 60 offices. Headquartered in the City with training locations in London, Bristol, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Opportunities abound for top quality training, global secondments and to work with sector specialists so that your career can thrive in our top ten global elite firm.

Main areas of work

Our lawyers advise international clients across all types of commercial law, including corporate, banking and finance, energy, intellectual property and real estate.

Trainee profile

We welcome both non-law and law graduates who can contribute fresh thinking, an international outlook and formidable communication and analytical skills. The work we do is intellectually demanding and professionally stretching – something you’ll find provides you with an excellent grounding for your career in law.

Training environment

We offer two-year training contracts in London, Bristol, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow. During this time you’ll undertake four seats across our broad range of practice areas, such as energy, intellectual property, corporate or EU competition. Alongside this, you’re guaranteed to spend a seat outside of your ‘home’ office – an exciting prospect. You might be seconded to one of our top clients based in London or Europe, or spend time in one of our international offices including Rio de Janeiro, Edinburgh or Moscow.

Vacation placements

Please visit our website.


Gym membership/subsidy, life assurance, pension scheme with firm contributions, private healthcare, season ticket loan, confidential care line, subsidised restaurant and 25 days’ holiday with options to buy a further five days. You are also guaranteed to spend a seat outside your home office on a client, regional or international secondment.

Sponsorship and awards

The firm will cover fees for the GDL and LPC (or PEAT for Scotland) and provide you with a maintenance grant of up to £7,500. Please see our website for further details.