With a client roster chock full of royalty, landed gentry and minted entrepreneurs, Farrer excels at private client and family work – but an ever-growing commercial offering shows this firm's got a few more cards up its finely tailored sleeve.
Farrer's gilded reputation for handling the legal needs of the uber wealthy drew trainees to its stately 17th century residence, situated in Lincoln's Inn. “The firm is incomparably high-class when it comes to private client and family work,” said one, adding: “It's a nice world, and I wanted to be a part of it.” And while money can buy the high life, it can also come with a long list of headache-inducing issues, from messy divorces to complicated prenups to intricate tax plans and estate management quandaries. This is where Farrer confidently steps in, safe in the knowledge that its 226-year heritage will see it through even the most novel of needs posed by its exclusive clientele. Its sturdy base of ultra high net worth individuals helps to bag the firm high Chambers UK marks for its private client, family, contentious trusts and rural affairs practices.
But the story doesn't end there. As training principal Paul Krafft tells us: “We're traditionally known for private client matters but we do a lot of work for non-private clients too. Our work base is broad and we want to appeal to – and do well for – all types of clients.” Farrer's commercial arm, for one, isn't to be underestimated. Krafft explains: “The four areas we're broadly divided into – private client, commercial, disputes and property – used to be pretty much equal in size, but commercial is now the biggest.” The corporate group, for example, works for the likes of British clothing retailer Boden, mining company GB Minerals and dim sum experts Ping Pong; lawyers recently advised the latter on the £8 million sale of Ping Pong Holdings to LA-based investment fund Vert Capital. Yet high rankings in areas like charities, education and publishing also reveal the scope of Farrer's client base, which includes Save the Children, Eton College and the Telegraph Media Group.
Farrer's future, Krafft adds, revolves around a plan “to slowly and gently expand each area of our work. Over the past five years banking, contentious trusts and residential property have perhaps grown the most, but it's been fairly incremental. We're not planning any huge takeovers, we just want to grow in all areas at a sensible pace.” The firm's three-year strategy – launched in 2015 – revealed Farrer's intentions to become a leading name in the child protection space, as well as its desire to unite teams on common matters; the charities and financial services groups are set to work on more charity bond issues, for instance.
Love will tear us apart
The variety or practice areas coupled with a six-seat structure to sample them with was a major draw for our interviewees. Trainees have to complete a seat in each of the property (commercial, residential or estates), private client (onshore, international or tax), contentious (disputes, media or family) and commercial departments (corporate, banking and financial services, charity and community, employment or IP and commercial), plus another in one of those departments. Their sixth seat is usually a repeat stint in the department they hope to qualify into. “They were really flexible and whenever I expressed an interest they told me, 'Yes, of course,'” one source said of the grad recruitment team's efforts. Another clarified: “You're supposed to get at least two of your top choices guaranteed but it's not always the case.” Nevertheless, even those who didn't always get what they wanted agreed that “HR did a really good job with my selection of seats and I enjoyed the ones I hadn't chosen myself.”
“... involved art that had been confiscated by the Nazis."
Divorce cases involving children, substantial assets and/or international domiciles are bound to be tricky, but Farrer's family team deals with it all, along with prenuptial agreements (at the earlier and more hopeful stage of matrimony). "The clients are really interesting and there are loads of challenging issues to get your head around. You take on responsibility early, by interacting directly with clients both in meetings and in court. By the end of the seat I was drafting complex financial disclosure documents.” This is a contentious seat of course, and interviewees felt the pressure of “tighter deadlines and unpredictable twists. We all have to muck in and do the best for our clients.” Some thrived on how “upbeat" and fast-paced the department was, and were evidently thrilled to be “working alongside lawyers at the top of their game.” Others weren't quite feeling it as much: “Because the area of law is more personal and emotional, the contrast with something like financial services can be jarring. I preferred the cold clarity of finance." A recent highlight saw the team successfully represent Yasmin Prest – the former wife of ex-oil tycoon Michael Prest – in a high-profile case which took place in the Court of Appeal; it centred on Michael Prest's appeal against his suspended prison sentence for not paying £360,000 in maintenance, and the overall matter value was a mighty £37.5 million.
“I helped to sell a castle.”
Farrer receives a gleaming top-tier Chambers UK ranking for its charities expertise. The team advises household names like Age UK, as well as private donors, and educational and religious charities. “Some of the work is corporate-focused, and some of it is advisory,” sources reflected. “So on the corporate side you might be dealing with the Charity Commission, attending meetings, and drafting board minutes. Advisory work, meanwhile, can cover so many issues. You might, for instance, be advising a charity on whether they can hire someone to replace a window when one of their trustees has a stake in the window company. I'd recommend it to anyone.” Trainees also found that they had a lot of contact with school governors and charity trustees throughput the seat. While we can't go into the specifics of the matters here (it's all very hush-hush), we can give you a taste of the well-known clients that come knocking here: The National Gallery, the V&A, BAFTA, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
The property department is made up of separate commercial, residential, and rural property sub-teams. This last group works for Prince Charles's estate, the Duchy of Cornwall, and they recently advised it on the planning of a new 'urban community' in Dorchester dubbed the Poundbury Development. On this team one source helped to “sell a castle, which was so fascinating. I'm still hoping for a site visit! It's cool because we deal with historic properties and make them relevant for the future.” On the commercial side the firm specialises in mid-market transactions and “the clientele varies from private individuals to institutions and charities, which all need to be approached differently.” Responsibility comes in droves: “I worked on a matter involving a big central London property and did everything: I managed the process all the way through, drafted documents and negotiated with the other side.” Meanwhile, the residential sub-team deals with high-value property transactions on behalf of investors, banks and ultra high net worth individuals. Lawyers recently acted for residential developer Hub Group during its £100 million acquisition of a building in Wembley, which will be turned into a mixed-use development comprising shops, offices and homes. Across all three groups trainees get to run their own files with supervision.
“It's not a firm that wants to take over your life.”
As you might expect, Farrer's 17th century office has some “very ornate and traditional” interiors, including “several beautiful paintings and fireplaces.” Interviewees drew our attention to “the incredible Peacock Room, which is where the Charter of the Bank of England was originally signed.” It's not all period decor and pomp, though; much of the actual office space is modern and open-plan. Plus the firm also occupies a modern building nearby if trainees crave a more 21st century retreat. All interviewees appreciated the location: “In summer it's brilliant because you've got Lincoln's Inn Fields just outside, so we all go and eat together, but in winter it's trickier to do that as we don't really have a communal space inside.” However, a monthly 'social lunch' should help to see them through those inclement winter months. “Every Friday, chefs from a café or a restaurant come in and prepare a meal for us, with a different theme every time. They set up a few tables and people can sit with whoever and have a chat.”
When they're not sitting to enjoy a bespoke meal, each trainee sits in a pod with their supervisor: “There's a decent level of privacy, so you can have a conversation without raising your voice, but at the same time you can hear the lawyers around you and learn from how they talk and what they say.” As one noted: “You're expected to work hard, but the support around you is huge.” On average, trainees tend to leave the office between 6pm and 7pm. We heard that “the family team is very busy and often requires trainees to stay a bit later, until 7.30pm." But sources quickly pointed out that "compared to many other London firms, that's not late at all.”
Farrer from the madding crowd
A later night is to be expected when the firm's Christmas do comes around; it's famous for its trainee revue, which sees Farrer's fledglings write and perform “our own satirical play, which essentially takes the piss out of partners in a playful, affectionate way.” Sounds priceless. With that in mind, it came as no surprise to hear that Farrer “has a lot of character, and not a very strong sense of hierarchy.” One incredulous source enthused: “You hear a lot about firms having a 'human face' – every firm says that it does. I didn't want to believe Farrer was all it maintained to be in its marketing, but it really is. Everyone looks out for you and has the time of day for you. On top of that, it's not a firm that wants to take over your life.” In fact, the sociable hours left sources wanting more face time with their colleagues: the current crop of trainees plan a weekend trip together once a year; they told us they'd already enjoyed the sights of Salisbury, and were organising an upcoming jaunt to the Isle of Wight. Room is made for lawyers of all levels to enjoy the fun, with one recent departmental outing involving “an Alice in Wonderland-themed tea party at a really posh hotel.”
At the same time, trainees did flag Farrer's fight against a reputation for stuffiness and lack of diversity. They felt it was fuelled by the firm's age (it's been around since 1790) and the type of work and clients it has. While they disputed the stuffy label, sources did feel some work could be done on the diversity front, although we note that all three partners promoted in 2015 and half of the six made up in 2016 were women. Sources also agreed that their cohort wasn't as “Oxbridge-heavy” as they had expected, and noted a propensity to hire “people with strong interests outside the law.” That, and some background experience beyond the realms of university. “Someone was a major in the army and went to Afghanistan twice, while another guy wrote policies for the Conservatives; there's also an ex-family lawyer from America, a professional dancer and an ex-footballer. It's more about bringing in outgoing 'people people', who can muck in and bring something different to the table.” Could it be you?
When it comes to qualification trainees have a chat with the training principal in their fifth seat, and by the time they start their final one they will know if they have a job. Seven out of ten qualifiers stayed on in 2016.
How to get into Farrer & Co
Vacation scheme deadline: 31 January 2017
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2017
Applications and interviews
Both those applying for the vac scheme and those applying directly for a training contract are asked to answer a set of questions and send a cover letter.
Trainee recruitment consultant Donna Davies tells us the content and structure of the covering letter play an important part in the assessment process. “Ideally we want the letter to be well constructed, matching their skills to our specific requirement and outlining what attracts them to our practice areas and training programme." From here, the top 100 vac scheme applicants who impress are invited to an open day that involves a Q&A and group and written exercises.
Meanwhile, the lucky 40 training contract applicants who make it through the first round are invited to an interview with a partner, which generally lasts between an hour and a half and two hours. Instead of facing set questions, interviewees “are really allowed to run with it,” Davies tells us. Current trainees recalled the experience as “interesting and free-flowing,” with one telling us “it felt like they were really trying to get to know me and were prepared to challenge me on certain points to see if I could back up my opinions.”
Around 30 go on to a second interview, which takes place with two partners. Candidates are given a brief scenario on arrival and asked a few questions on that, before moving on to a more general discussion about their application. The case study portion usually takes between 20 and 30 minutes, while the rest is an hour to an hour and a half.
Farrer holds three two-week vacation schemes across Easter and summer, taking on ten candidates at a time. Each vac schemer is assigned a trainee buddy and sits with a different team each week. Our sources recalled that they’d been treated “just like trainees,” having drafted board minutes, conducted research and been taken to client meetings. Alongside such tasks, vac schemers are given a case study to work on over the course of their visit. This exercise culminates in them pitching for fictitious clients.
To make the most of their vac scheme, Davies advises candidates to “show a real interest in the firm and your desire to work here. At the same time, remember that it’s also a chance for you to find out about us.”
Completing the vac scheme doesn’t automatically entitle candidates to a training contract interview, but those who are granted one skip straight to the second interview round, as outlined above.
How to wow
The firm asks for a minimum 2:1 degree and 300 UCAS points. Beyond that, “work experience – casual work, informal shadowing or a vacation scheme – is valued as it's a good way to demonstrate general commercial awareness,” according to Davies.
Given the firm's abundance of private client work, as well as family and employment law, “applicants need to have a certain sensitivity and be sympathetic towards individuals,” partner Jonathan Eley points out. “Our clients expect confidentiality and discretion at all times, so candidates who recognise the importance of that will certainly get a tick in the box.”
Interview with training principal Paul Krafft
Student Guide: Would you be able to break down the firm's practice areas in terms of headcount?
Paul Krafft: Broadly, there are four areas: private client, commercial, disputes and property. And size-wise, I think they used to be pretty much equally sized, a quarter each. Now I think corporate is bigger, then disputes is second, and property and private client are the same. In terms of percentages, I would say that commercial is in the low 30s to, disputes in the low 20s, and then there's a balanced split between property and private client with those two adding up to 40%.
PK: What areas of the practice are growing, shrinking or changing?
SG: The general plan is to expand each area slowly or gently. What's grown the most over five years? I'd say banking, our contentious trusts practice and residential property, but it's fairly incremental.
PK: Does the firm intentionally play up its work for 'nicer' clients, such as charities, and play down the work it does for private wealth clients, partly for confidentiality reasons?
SG: No, there's no particular emphasis on any particular clients; we treat all clients the same. We're traditionally more known for private client work but we do work for non-private clients – our work base is so broad and we want to appeal to all types of clients.
PK: What's your strategy for the future?
SG: I think it's more of the same really. We think we work right at the top end in a number of quite diverse areas and we want to keep doing that. We're not planning any huge takeovers or anything. We're going for growth in all areas, but at a sensible pace.
PK: Farrer has a reputation as quite a traditional firm? Do you actively try to dispel any notion that the firm is old-fashioned, or do you just get on with it and let the culture speak for itself?
SG: I suppose we do do that a little, but in the sense that we try to market ourselves as a modern firm with traditional roots. That is perhaps trying to dispel the image you mentioned a little. A lot of it is more that once people get to know us they don't think that applies.
Dickens and the law
Farrer & Co LLP
66 Lincoln's Inn Fields,
- Partners 74
- Assistant solicitors 167
- Total trainees 20
- Contact Trainee recruitment consultant
- Method of application Online via the firm’s website
- Selection procedure Interviews with trainee recruitment partner and partners
- Closing date for 2019 31 July 2017
- Training contracts pa 10
- Applications pa 1,000
- % interviewed pa 5%
- Required degree grade 2:1
- Training salary (September 2016)
- First year: £35,000
- Second year: £38,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- % of trainees with non-law degrees pa 40-60%
- Post-qualification salary (2016) £59,000
- % of trainees offered job on qualification (2015) 80%
- % of partners (as at 2016) who joined as trainees over 60%
Duration: Two weeks at Easter, two schemes for 2 weeks in summer
Remuneration: £300 pw
Closing date: 31 January 2017
Sponsorship and awards
LPC funding: fees paid plus £7,000 maintenance