Freeths' wide web of offices gets trainees “excited to be part of a big firm with a small-firm feel.”
Taking advantage of its tongue-twisting name, Freeths has recently adopted 'Freethinking' as one if its slogans. And according to trainees, a free-thinking attitude has certainly allowed the firm to be “quite pioneering.” This is most readily apparent in its deep-seated urge to merge; this strategy means the firm now boasts 11 offices across the UK, though at the time of our research there were no new merger suitors knocking at the door. But the firm isn't standing still. For example, “in Birmingham we're keen to build a new litigation team. We're recruiting people with a client book we can build on.” Sheffield has seen a boost to its insolvency and restructuring team with the addition of a new partner, while Manchester welcomed three new litigation partners. Freeths has also upgraded a few of its main hubs in 2016 making them “bigger and slicker.” For instance, “Milton Keynes has just moved into a new building. We've got kitchens on every floor and conference rooms coming out of our ears!”
Along with all this activity, revenue has zoomed upwards, rising 14% to £63.8 million in 2015/16. This has been helped along by some significant instructions of late. For instance, the firm advised on the £100 million sale of the Ideal Care Homes amalgam of companies to retirement homes firm Anchor and on the sale of Lafarge Tarmac to Irish building merchants CRH. In recognition of its work, Freeths wins a slew of Chambers UK rankings across its Midlands and Thames Valley heartlands, most notably top billing for its property practice in the East Midlands and for its family and private client work in Oxford.
Those desperate to join the firm might find it most rewarding to apply for the legal assistant programme, rather than directly for a training contract. This programme initially lasts for six months (though can be extended to twelve) and after those six months it's decided whether you can continue on to the training contract. The programme is open to all graduates, and legal assistants' work blends administrative and legal tasks. “There's no distinct difference between the work of a legal assistant and that of a trainee.” believed one source. Time spent as a legal assistant can also be used as time to count for and so shorten the training contract. The firm does still offer the traditional training contract route too, but “there are only a couple of those places each year.” The rest of the intake come via the legal assistant route. In addition, over half of trainees opt to do their training contract alongside the part-time LPC; the firm grants five days of study leave plus time off for exams. Sources described the experience as "stressful" as it put a lot on their plates. One concluded: “It's doable, but you have to be disciplined.”
"Conference rooms coming out of our ears!”
Mentors are assigned to each newbie and help trainees adjust to life at the firm. “There are about five or six senior partners who take on three to four trainees each and meet up with us regularly.” Not only this, but mentors serve as go-betweens for seat allocation. Before each rotation “you make a note of your top three seat preferences. Your mentor then hashes things out with HR and the training partner.” The larger offices like Nottingham naturally offer the most seats but trainees in the smaller outposts can undertake stints in another office if a seat isn't available closer to home. At the time of our calls there were eight trainees in Nottingham, five in Birmingham, four in Oxford, three apiece in Milton Keynes, Leicester and Derby, two in Manchester and in Sheffield, and a lone trainee in both Leeds and London.
"We are sometimes known as a bit of a property firm,” noted one trainee. Real estate is indeed the firm's biggest department and home to over 100 lawyers, practising in different subdivisions. For example, “in Nottingham the department is split into housing, development and property finance sub-teams.” There's also crossover with other departments, for example on something like construction litigation. Clients include Center Parcs, Santander and Bellway Homes, and in 2016 Freeths advised Anytime Fitness on its new UK headquarters in Watford. A trainee told us: “I was involved in two deals helping big builders and operators of care homes acquire land to build on.” In property finance the clients are “mainly local authorities and pension funds or fund managers.” Rookies told us they "got exposure to lots of sale and purchase agreements, drafted deeds of covenant, reviewed leases for indemnities, and dealt with stamp duty land tax forms.” And young solicitors aren't just stuck in the office all day drafting – some had “worked on development projects which involved visiting the site to see everything I'd worked on in three dimensions!”
Milton Keynes offers what is “technically a real estate seat but involves a lot of commercial work too.” For example, the firm advises Luton and Bristol airports on concession agreements. A source explained: “You know the shopping centre areas in airports? Shops bid for spaces and the winners enter into concession agreements with the airport. Those include things like insurance and how to check boarding passes and passports when processing sales. We use a standard form contract that has been built up by the firm over numerous years, which we tailor to each concession holder.” Clients of the property department also include "high net worth individuals who own small property holdings and want to sell or lease property.” Trainees are given their own files of this type to handle. “On one lease renewal, my supervisor was happy for me to meet the client by myself. I spent an hour taking them through the lease and the issues at hand.”
Trainees across the Midlands offices can also do a seat in the commercial team. “The department does everything from acting for local authorities to dealing with joint venture agreements.” Trainees told us of working on waste services contracts, “which doesn't sound so exciting, but I did get to draft all the tender packs for the bidders. I then helped draft the contracts themselves.” Another told us: “I worked on commercial lending transactions for both lenders and borrowers. I had to list who was responsible for each of the conditions precedent and draft the documents that arose as a result of that, like legal charges, debentures and guarantees, plus board minutes and terms and conditions.” Milton Keynes offers a specialist commercial seat focused on drinks, hospitality and leisure, where the work has a property flavour too. “We mainly handle licensing issues and the acquisition of property portfolios for hotels, pubs and restaurants.” For example, Premier Inn is a big client. Trainees spend their time “drafting leases, assisting on plot sales and dealing with due diligence.”
After real estate, corporate is the next most common seat for trainees and is available across all the larger offices. In Birmingham, sources said, “the team is really active on banking, M&A and IPOs – we do quite a bit of work helping companies float on AIM, the Alternative Investment Market.” For instance, the firm advised Belvoir Lettings on its £15.5 million AIM entrance. Other clients include Travis Perkins, Aldi, Experian and Lloyds Development Capital. Trainees told us they draft disclosure letters, debentures, guarantees and document lists. In Oxford, corporate work is “90% M&A acting for the seller.” Sources had “collected company accounts, disclosed liabilities, and then explained everything to the client.” Then there are the post-completion tasks –"land registration if there's property involved" – and "occasionally the job of drafting company articles and shareholder agreements.” One recent M&A deal saw the firm help CTC Aviation sell its £140 million airline pilot flight school.
Contentious options at the firm include clinical negligence, private litigation, IP and commercial litigation. The clin neg team is top ranked in Nottingham by Chambers UK and its work is mainly claimant side. Trainee tasks include “drafting instructions to barristers, expert reports, letters to the insurers, letters of claim, chronologies and medical records” as well as “chasing different organisations and agencies.” One source told us: “A highlight – if that's the right word – was when I met a gentleman who had just lost his wife. We helped him sort things out as he had been his wife's carer.” Another interviewee told us of a different case they had worked on: “It was very high-value – we claimed over ten million pounds. It related to a 40-year-old man who had been the victim of birth injuries. We made a care claim that his mother should be compensated for the care she gave him and he should get support for future care too.”
Trainees described the atmosphere at Freeths as “friendly," putting this down to the fact there's "no untoward competition between trainees” and "everyone is proud to be a part of a team." One trainee gave an example of the good team spirit: "The head of the Milton Keynes office recently gave a bunch of flowers to everyone who had worked on this big deal and said a personal 'thank you' to everyone.” Trainees put it all down to the “Freeths ethos.” Try saying that five times fast.
“Cocktail making, crazy golf, pizza making and a day out at Go Ape.”
Insiders said that most trainees clock off around 6pm, leaving plenty of time for an active social life. There are quarterly trainee socials which in the past have included “cocktail making, crazy golf, pizza making and a day out at Go Ape.” Trainees also all trek to Nottingham at the firm's expense for the annual murder mystery night. It's normally themed and past dress codes have included '1920s' and Grease. "It was a bit cringe to start with," one source said of the latter. "All the actors started singing about how the murder had happened!” On a more professional note, trainees told us about 'Initiative', a firm networking group that started life in Nottingham and has now spread to the other offices. It involves things like comedy night outings and summer drinks at which junior lawyers at the firm can get to know professionals from other sectors, plus the higher-ups at Freeths.
No doubt cross-office events like the ones described above are partly organised to encourage trainees from across the network to mesh together. This made us wonder how the firm's offices are gelling together more generally given many owe their legacies to separate firms. “You can tell in some locations that they used to be other firms," believed one trainee. "That's particularly true in Oxford. It used to be a firm called Henmans – Tim Henman's dad's old firm – and the office still has a particular way of doing things and is quite posh.” The latest news from Oxford is that in summer 2016 (nearly four years after its merger with Freeths) the Oxford office finally dropped 'Henmans' from its name and is now just plain 'Freeths'. Still, “there are slight differences in policies from office to office, for example for dress-down Fridays. In some places it's every week, in some it's at the end of the month, and people do different things regarding what they pay to charity to do it.” Having said all this, our sources were very happy with what the firm has to offer overall, citing everything from “yoga and massage sessions" to the annual bonus.
When it comes to qualification time, wannabe NQs tell their mentors where they want to qualify and that's passed onto HR. There are no interviews for jobs and generally trainees felt that qualification depends on whether “your supervisor from the department you want to qualify into likes your work and thinks you'll be a good fit.” In 2016, all 14 qualifiers were retained.
All new starters get taken out to lunch by chairman Colin Flanagan to help them settle in.
How to get a Freeths training contract
Training contract deadline (2019): 28 February 2017 (flexible route); 16 July 2017 (conventional route)
Legal assistant deadline (2016): rolling
There are three routes into Freeths. The first is the conventional route, whereby candidates apply for training contracts two years in advance. This is increasingly being superseded by two options that let future trainees complete their legal qualifications while working at the firm: the so-called 'flexible' route and the legal assistant route.
All pathways start with an online form that covers a candidates' educational background, work experience and motivation for becoming a lawyer.
A handful of trainees from each intake come via the conventional route, which is roughly in line with procedures at other firms.
Candidates apply, and those who impress on paper attend a “simple, relatively informal” interview with a partner. From here there's an assessment day, which includes a timed writing exercise, a debate between trainees on a current affairs topic and some team-building games. Our trainee sources recalled having to build a Meccano helicopter without an instruction manual –“it made a good ice-breaker” – and undertaking “an exercise in which we had to list items we could use to plan our survival after a plane crash in the wilderness.” As one summed up: “Some firms rely on aptitude tests, but Freeths' whole process is much more geared towards getting to know you as a person.”
The firm makes its training contract offers following the assessment day. Note, those who receive a training contract this way receive a loan from the firm for their GDL and/or LPC, rather than having their course fees paid for.
The flexible route is a particularly sought-after option, as it allows future trainees to join the firm straight after their degree while working through their GDL and/or LPC part-time, with their fees funded by the firm. The firm takes on one or two candidates for this route each year.
The application process for the flexible route is the same as the conventional one, though it takes place earlier in the year. Those who receive an offer join up as part-time legal assistants on a starting salary of £18,000, and in the second year of their LPC they start their training contract.
As HR director Carole Wigley tells us: “We are really looking for outstanding candidates for this route, because we are making a significant investment in them.”
Legal assistant route
The majority of trainees enter the firm through the legal assistant route, one that continues to grow in popularity. For more, see below.
How to wow
“There is no such thing as a typical Freeths candidate,” says Carole Wigley. “If you are bright and talented and will make a real difference to our firm over the coming years then you should apply.” Freeths is flexible in its approach to finding the right talent hence so it has no minimum criteria and welcomes applications from both law and non-law graduates as well as from those with the GDL and the LPC.
Our sources advised applicants to “do as much as you can to get to know the firm and meet people here before you apply” – for example by making an effort to meet firm representatives at law fairs. “If you impress at a law fair, your name will get noted down,” we're told.
When it comes to impressing at interview, our sources advocated “a willingness to learn – so many people come out of uni thinking they know it all, but when you're in practice it's very different, and it pays to show you appreciate that.”
Finally, Carole tells us she's particularly interested in candidates open to the possibility of moving between different offices during their training contract. “You've got to be really keen and really flexible to impress us.”
Freeths' legal assistant programme
The legal assistant pathway essentially sees applicants recruited initially for a six-month fixed-term contract which if completed successfully is extended by a further six months. There are appraisal reviews every three months, and after nine months, participants find out whether the firm can offer them a training contract.
HR Director Carole Wigley tells us this: “We take a 'three schemes' approach: direct entry, where you'll start a training contract in two years' time. We recruit two to three candidates that way; the 'flexible' scheme where you can simultaneously work on your LPC part time and then there's the legal assistant route. While we would never close off any off the schemes, we recruit about 85% of our candidates as legal assistants first.”
“It's perfect, really – you get practical experience while waiting for the trainee opportunity to come along,” said one trainee who'd come to Freeths this way. “What's more, you're automatically considered for a trainee role after nine months, which is an added incentive. At other firms, you could be a paralegal for years without getting an interview.”
At any given time, the firm usually has around 20 candidates doing such placements. The basic qualifications required are a 2:1 (law or non-law) and ABB at A level. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis throughout the year. “There's no point applying until you can join us, as we're looking for people who can start immediately,” Carole Wigley advises.
Candidates fill out a standard application form, and those who pass screening have two successive interviews: one with a member of recruitment and one with chairman Colin Flanagan, who Carole Wigley tells us is “very involved in our recruitment programme – he likes to meet everyone who comes in.” One trainee recalled their interview with the top dog as “more about me, my CV and my hobbies than just my legal knowledge.” You'll want to brush up on your grammar knowledge before going in as there's a written test as well. Around 80% of those completing the legal assistant route at Freeths end up with a training contract.
Living and working in Nottingham
The Birmingham legal scene
80 Mount Street,
- Partners 127
- Lawyers 201
- Total trainees 30
- Contact Carole Wigley, HR director, 0845 274 6815
- Method of application Online application form
- Selection procedure Interview and selection day
- Closing date for August 2019 16 July 2017
- No of training contracts pa 20
- Applications pa 750
- % interviewed 10%
- Training contract starting salary £25,000 (September 2015)
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- Post-qualification salary £38,000
- % trainees offered job on qualification 90%
- Overseas / regional offices Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Leicester, London, Manchester, Milton Keynes, Nottingham, Oxford, Sheffield and Stoke on Trent.
Main areas of work