Freshfields is a magnet for the hottest deals and wrangles crowding into the City from around the world. The implication? You'll need stamina to keep up at this elite magic circle firm.
The magic 8
For a mighty magic circler like Freshfields, its Fleet Street office entrance is surprisingly low-key. But don't be fooled: after passing through its reception you come face to face with the full glory of its grand atrium. Beavering away inside – and in the firm's second office just down the road – are over 1,000 lawyers. At the time of our calls this included 160 odd trainees, who joined this global powerhouse because of its “reputation, international scope and three-month seat system.”
With regards to its rep, Freshfields can't be faulted: being top-ranked for high-end M&A by Chambers UK makes Freshfields one of three corporate elites – and one of the world's four most capable corporate firms according to Chambers Global. Recent headline-grabbers include advising Tesco on the £4.2 billion sale of its South Korean business, Homeplus; assisting BT with its £12.5 billion takeover of mobile operator EE; and acting for a consortium of investors as they bought City Airport for $2 billion. But a recent instruction from HSBC to defend it against a Libor manipulation claim reveals Freshfields' two other core strengths: finance and litigation. It's ranked as part of the 'Elite' for its contentious efforts, while its finance arm is honoured for its banking, capital markets and asset finance work in particular. Overall, Chambers UK rates Freshfields in more areas of law than there are Kardashians: the firm's competition, construction, restructuring/insolvency, tax and regulatory teams are among the many areas that also win top nods. And with 28 offices across Europe, the Middle East, Asia and North America, trainees reported that pretty much all of the work has some kind of international element.
Freshfields' unusual seat structure also helps it to stand out from the crowd: both three and sixth-month seats are available, so trainees can theoretically fit in eight during their training contract. Rookies usually complete at least one six-monther – often their secondment – so a seven-seat training period is common. Freshfields never used to impose seat requirements on its trainees, but now expects everyone to complete a corporate, finance and dispute resolution seat. There are plenty of options within each of these, and while it's possible to extend most seats, those in disputes have to be kept to three months – but you can get around this by doing more than one contentious seat.
Sources did want to make something clear: Freshfields might wax a little too lyrical about its international secondment offer. The large majority of our interviewees headed abroad, but the sheer size of the trainee cohort means that many don’t jet off. So who gets to go? “You have to have really good feedback in your reviews. The thing is, every department has a subjective approach to the formal appraisal scores, so someone a bit average might get all 5s and go to Hong Kong, while someone brilliant might get 4s and end up rejected. It's important people realise it's not a given.” Other destinations pined for include NYC, Tokyo, Abu Dhabi, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Dubai. Client secondments are also in demand: many trainees headed in-house in 2015, to the likes of The Bank of England, HSBC and Liberty.
“They won't have time to micromanage you.”
The corporate department spans private equity, reorganisation work, capital markets and of course M&A deals. Trainees across all four areas reported managing the day-to-day running of transactions, drafting the likes of board minutes and SPAs, and delving into research. One told us: “Often you'll work in small groups, so they won't have time to micromanage you. I worked on an IPO and attended one-on-one meetings with the client.” Those who stretched their time here to six months felt it was worth it, “as you get more responsibility and further understand how the other departments feed into corporate. If you show you can cope they'll let you handle complex tasks under supervision – it's great!”
A seat in one of the financial areas will cover a broad array of topics and business sectors, from energy and infrastructure to transport, debt capital markets and giant syndications. The restructuring and insolvency team recently acted for steel trader Stemcor on its complex $2 billion debt restructuring, while the structured finance and debt capital markets gang advised HSBC on a £1.3 billion facility agreement, which supported the purchase of General Electric's portfolio of UK residential mortgages. Over on the transport side, the group acted for Arcus Infrastructure Partners as it sold its £3.6 billion stake in UK-based Angel Trains to an Australian pension investor.
Finance trainees are typically tasked with keeping track of all of the documents needed for a transaction and liaising with the other side if anything is missing. “It's not as dull as it sounds,” interviewees insisted. “It's a really good department to build a network in, and they expose you to different streams of work: in banking I got to work on leveraged finance deals, corporate treasury matters and real estate financings.” Another source was equally impressed: “I felt they put trust in me to work with private equity clients on urgent matters and let me develop my negotiation skills with supervision. The cliché about magic circle firms is they don't let you talk to clients, but there are plenty of smaller deals where you can get that experience.” Other trainee tasks include researching precedent deals and managing CP lists, drafting facility agreements and clauses in loan contracts, and handling Companies House filings. A final word of wisdom from sources: “You think of finance as being all about the numbers, but it's actually about the words. You spend a lot of time reading and writing.”
The dispute resolution department is big on private equity disputes, and handles a lot of contentious work in emerging markets in Africa and Latin America. It recently acted for a South African mobile phone operator, Econet Wireless, as it initiated multiple proceedings (including a Lagos-based arbitration) tied to its interest in telecoms company Zain Nigeria (now Airtel Nigeria). The firm has extensive experience with CIS mandates and has had a hand in some huge cases involving oligarchs: one is a long-running dispute involving a Kazakhstan-based bank, BTA, which alleges that Freshfields' client, Mukhtar Ablyazov, defrauded it of almost $5 billion.
The international arbitration side is particularly known for its work in the oil and gas sector. The group has taken on a multibillion-dollar case on behalf of three UAE-based entities – Pearl Petroleum, Dana Gas and Crescent Petroleum – against the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq; Freshfields' clients are seeking to determine their rights to two oilfields in Kurdistan. Interviewees reported “a good mix of commercial and investment treaty arbitration,” which involved the “typical trainee tasks” paired with a gradual increase in responsibility: “I was taking client calls alone, researching a number of complex legal points and putting together a section of a reply.”
“It wasn't stressful, it was fun.”
Commercial disputes (CDG) is one of the more popular dispute resolution seats. Often trainees here spend their seat on one or two large cases, from IP and audit disputes to large-scale investigations work. Some felt “it's a little more hierarchical and there's less client contact,” but they'd been pleased to get some experience on pro bono matters and the chance to “speak at a team meeting in my third week.” Prepping for trial meant “some bundling and doc review,” but other, more substantive tasks included “putting together witness statements and preparing exhibits, which takes ages.” Trainees also reported seeing cases go all the way through to the High Court and the Court of Appeal. Other seat options in disputes include environment, planning and regulatory; financial institutions; engineering, procurement and construction; EU competition; and IP/IT.
There's no denying that Freshfields' trainees sound a tad more tired than the average budding lawyer. They put it down to the unpredictable hours and long days: “You'd have two weeks of really nice hours and then two weeks of hell. I stayed until 4am on my birthday”– this kind of comment wasn't unique. Yet these magic circle rookies wouldn't have it any other way: “We're doing it for a reason, and we're all in it together. Once, we were signing a massive deal in corporate and everyone was in the office in their PJs all night – it wasn't stressful, it was fun.” Client secondments offered the solace of more regular hours, as did quieter periods during the summer. Sources also stressed that “most of the time, you're shown appreciation for staying late,” though early-morning exits don't guarantee time off in lieu.
Home sweet... office?
But is there any real need to go home? After all, there's a gym, a dentist, a doctor, a physiotherapist and a fully stocked canteen (“a sushi chef comes in on Tuesdays and Thursdays”) in the office. “It's so you never have to leave,” one recognised sardonically, but admitted: “It's all appreciated – they're all great bonuses.” The overall atmosphere was the biggest bonus for many sources, who found the vast majority of their colleagues to be “friendly, willing to help, and interested in you as a person.” Culturally speaking, “this is a very big office, so each team will have its own idiosyncrasies,” but “the firm as a whole is trying to keep track of the general vibe and you're asked about each team after seat rotations.” What's more, “there's now a trainee feedback group where you can bring comments to management via a representative. They value our voices.” Some felt that this marked Freshfields' attempt to shift its reputation for being slightly “stiff.” But they quickly added: “That's not the reality at all. Most partners are approachable; they come down and buy you coffee and have a chat. There's generally a lot of laughter.”
One went as far as flagging “the general day-to-day at the office” as their social highlight. Others were more into blini than bundling, and would take a G&T over a CDO any day. We think that this trainee's gargantuan list of highlights reflected the social appetite best: “Well, there's the famous banking ski trip, the Christmas party at the Natural History Museum, the socials at Bounce, curry nights, karaoke, that conference in Amsterdam where we stayed in a five-star hotel, the boat trip, those cooking classes and that trainee party at the TIP's house [Freshfields speak for 'trainee intake partner' – there's one for every eight trainees].” Not content with all this hobnobbing, thirsty young Freshfielders are now demanding a trainee-only summer party. Cheers to that!
Freshfields' trainees saw qualification as a “semi-formal process.” While the firm does encourage trainees to speak to the relevant partners in the departments they're aiming for, Freshfields does also rely on an online form in which trainees list their top two to three choices. But the view from some was that “the form is irrelevant: the conversations you have with partners beforehand are more important. You've sailed down the Thames with them, drunk beer with them, and in some cases even been on holiday with them, so it's easy to say, 'Can we talk about qualification?'” In 2016, 71 out of 80 qualifiers were retained.
It's all change at Freshfields. The firm's currently looking for showier digs closer to Liverpool Street, and its presence in Manchester is growing: after moving its legal services and back office staff to the city in 2015, the firm's considering offering legal apprenticeships and even training contracts there.
How to get a Freshfields training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2017): 2 January 2017
Training contract deadline (2019): 2 January 2017 (non-law) 17 July 2017 (law)
You may have come across – or come across in 2016/17 – one of Freshfields 'campus ambassador' around your uni – this is a fairly new initiative from the firm to reach out to students. If you're a first-year student going into your second year, interested in commercial law and want to make a bit of cash, you may want to consider becoming an ambassador yourself when the firm invites its next round of applicants. And if you're applying for a Freshfields vacation scheme or training contract, it can't hurt to get to know some of the graduate recruitment team to find out more about what Freshfields has to offer.
Every single one of the 2,000-plus applications Freshfields receives each year is read from beginning to end by a member of the graduate recruitment team.
The firm tries to evaluate these applications in the round rather than in a mechanistic way, so those unexpected Bs in your A levels won’t automatically cut you from the running. You'll still need to look pretty impressive academically, though.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the Freshfields application form is the big blank box. The firm basically says 'Tell us about yourself in 850 words' and leaves it up to you what to fill in. Graduate recruitment sources tell us they're distinctly unimpressed by those who write “with an element of routine or cliché or received wisdom.” Indeed, glib catchphrases like ‘cutting-edge deals’ rarely go down well, even when the sentiment behind them is genuine. The most successful applications are simply written in a direct and unaffected way, and for a good reason: why would anyone be impressed by a form that could have been written by five hundred other applicants?
There is also an online verbal reasoning test to complete.
The assessment day
About 12% of applicants are invited to the firm's assessment stage, which involves three components that last half a day in total. Both vacation scheme and direct training contract applicants go through this.
There's a written assessment, which lasts 45 minutes and sees candidates asked to review draft documents, highlight the mistakes, discuss the ambiguous elements and redraft an extract so it is clear and correct. This does not require any knowledge of law and is designed to assess a candidate's ability to analyse the written word.
There's a general interview that also lasts an hour, and is usually done with a partner and associate. This interview centres on competency-based questions designed to draw out attributes like motivation, organisational skills, capacity for teamwork, degree of curiosity, level of common sense, and “stickability”– that is, the ability to demonstrate your understanding of what being a Freshfields trainee entails. “We always ask for evidence of these traits," graduate recruitment partner Andrew Austin emphasizes. "And we always leave ten minutes at the end for candidates to ask questions."
Finally, there's also what the firm calls an ‘analytical interview’ during which applicants’ analytical skills are assessed. This lasts an hour and takes place with a different partner and an associate. Candidates are given 20 minutes to read a business-based article, usually from The Economist or Financial Times, and are then quizzed on it. “You could be asked how the subject of the article could bring work into the firm, or what parts of the firm could be involved,” recalled a trainee of the process. “Mine was an article about Airbus – we ended up talking about the price of oil, the merits or otherwise of cheap airlines and new markets the firm could move into. They didn’t expect me to know that Freshfields had just done a huge Airbus deal, although obviously it would have been great if I had.”
Austin adds: "We want people to stay with us. We want interesting people who will keep work in proportion to everything else in their lives. We always ask, 'What do you do for fun'?"
The vacation scheme
Insiders tell us the firm's “very structured” three-week vacation scheme is “focused on commercial awareness and thinking about things from a business perspective.” It includes a day spent on a mock transaction with some of the partners –"quite rushed obviously, but quite useful nonetheless”– plus lunchtime departmental talks that allow candidates to get to know more about different parts of the firm.
On the social side, there are plenty of lunches with trainees and partners, plus outings like curries in Brick Lane, a Thames rib (speedboat) experience, and a night at The Comedy Store.
Since 2010, Freshfields has also opened up some of its international offices to vac schemers. Successful candidates can submit an application on why they should spend an extra week in an overseas office. Past destinations have included Amsterdam, Brussels, Frankfurt, Dubai, Hong Kong, New York, Paris, Singapore and Washington.
The magic circle explained
Halo: Freshfields' LGBT network
Andrew Austin, graduate recruitment partner since June 2014, is also a leading sponsor of Halo, Freshfields' global affinity group for lesbian, gay, bi and trans employees. Halo currently has around 100 members from 15 offices. The group recently launched a 'Champions' programme for non-LGBT allies. As Austin tells us, you don't have to be gay to show your support at Halo's various social events and activities throughout the year. These include talks, external networking events, quizzes and drinks parties.
In December 2012, Halo held its first international conference in London, and its second took place in Frankfurt in May 2014 over two days. Momentum is really building: in 2014 Freshfields joined the ranks of gay campaigning charity Stonewall's annual list of the country's top 100 gay-friendly employers for the first time. In 2015, it jumped from 66th to joint 9th place and came in equal 17th in 2016.
The Stephen Lawrence Fellowship
In March 2014 Freshfields announced the first six scholars in its Stephen Lawrence Scholarship programme, launched initially for three years to promote access to the profession for young black men from underprivileged backgrounds. In 2015, almost 40% of graduate trainees were educated at private establishments, which only 7% of the population attend. The fellowship has the backing of Baroness Doreen Lawrence whose 18-year-old son Stephen was murdered in an unprovoked attack in Eltham in 1993. His legacy remains strong, more than twenty years after his death.
Since 2013 more than 120 law undergraduates have made applications for the scholarship scheme, with 20 applicants being offered a place between 2013 and 2015. Scholars get careers advice, mentoring and other support from Freshfields, including opportunities to visit the firm and an alternative route to interview for a training contract. They also receive £3,500 towards the cost of their studies. Clients including the Bank of England and Goldman Sachs are helping Freshfields deliver some aspects of the scheme.
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP
65 Fleet Street,
- Partners 410
- Associates 1,576
- Total Trainees 167*
- (* London based)
- Contact [email protected]
- Method of application Online application form
- Selection procedure Online verbal reasoning test, two interviews and a written test
- Closing date for 2019
- Law and non-law: 2 January 2017
- Law: 16 July 2017
- Training contracts pa Up to 80
- Applications pa c. 2,000
- % interviewed pa c.18%
- Training salary
- First year: £43,000
- Second year: £48,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- % of trainees with a non-law degree pa c. 40%
- No. of seats available abroad pa c. 42
- Post-qualification salary £85,000
- % of trainees offered a job on qualification (spring 2016) 87%
- Overseas offices Abu Dhabi, Amsterdam, Bahrain, Beijing, Berlin, Brussels, Cologne, Dubai, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong, Madrid, Manchester, Milan, Moscow, Munich, New York, Paris, Rome, Shanghai, Singapore, Tokyo, Vienna, Washington DC
Main areas of work