Find your favourite flavour at Freshfields, where you can fill two years with eight different seats – and get some of the best training in town.
Cookies and crème de la crème
You’re in the ice cream parlour picking your allotted two scoops. You want a bit of chocolate of course, then you spot the rum and raisin and it’s a done deal. But then coconut comes on the scene and you must have it NOW, and then pistachio, mint and cookie dough throw curve ball after curve ball at you. And what if you miss out on a zesty scoop of sorbet? It’s all too much. You break into a sweat that only an ice cream can remedy. This is basically what it’s like for most trainees when they pick their seats. Unless you’re one of those curious students who knew exactly how their law career was going to play out since they were kids, picking a seat is tough. But a Freshfields trainee at the ice cream parlour just solves the problem by picking eight scoops. It sounds greedy, but, speaking for many, “I didn't know what I wanted to do going in,” a trainee told us. The option of doing eight seats “gave the opportunity to see more and increase the chances of finding somewhere I was interested in.”
This had big appeal with candidates – that and the undeniable prestige of this magic circle institution. Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer formed in 2000 from a three-way merger, bringing together around 270 years of experience. Today, the firm spans 17 jurisdictions with a total of 28 offices. “One good thing about Freshfields is that we are more balanced than some other firms in terms of our mix of practices,” trainee recruitment partner Andrew Austin explains. “We're obviously well known for our corporate and transactional work, but we have a market-leading disputes resolution and antitrust departments as well. That can be very helpful when the M&A market is up and the litigation market is down, or vice versa.” He highlights that the firm “continues to work on huge M&A transactions, huge disputes and huge regulatory matters – some of the biggest and most complex ones in the world. I think that's the sort of work that people come here for and stay for.”
Hundreds and thousands
In theory, trainees can fit eight different seats into their training contracts, although in practice many double up on the seats they like, or use their last six months to go abroad or on client secondment. Disputes seats and specialist seats have to be kept to three months, though trainees can do more than one within those groups. The firm expects its trainees to complete at least one seat in corporate, one in finance, and one in dispute resolution. Within those, trainee list their preferences each rotation: “You submit your preferences to the trainee development team and rank them in order.”
The process itself is based on appraisals – “good performance makes it more likely that you'll get what you want” – as well as how far along the training contract you are: “senior trainees take priority as there's a focus on where they want to qualify.” Sources felt “the process isn't that transparent; people sometimes end up with seats they haven't put down.” But they conceded that “it's quite difficult with 160 trainees.” Nevertheless, “they're generally quite good at taking a long view, so if you don't get what you want in a particular seat move, they'll likely give it to you next time. It's an ongoing dialogue.”
“It's strongly encouraged to go on secondment in the final six months.”
Sources also wanted to mention international secondments: “There aren’t enough going around for everyone, so it's a competitive process.” Each rotation, trainees are given a list of what secondments are available, and similarly to the regular seat process, trainees rank officesand can write a short description of why they want it. “It's strongly encouraged to go on secondment in the final six months, but there have been occasions where ad-hoc client secondments have cropped up.” Popular destinations have included New York, Hong Kong, Singapore, Amsterdam and Berlin, and the firm subsidises flights and accommodation.
Freshfields is one of just four firms Chambers Global places at the very top of the global M&A market, so the corporate seat is quite a big deal. Clients are huge and multinational. A recent matter involved advising Formula One on its sale to US-headquarted Liberty Media for $8 billion. Lawyers also advised SoftBank on its £24.3 billion acquisition of ARM Holdings. Other big-name clients include BP, the London Stock Exchange and Hewlett Packard.
The group covers both public and private M&A, private equity, reorganisation work, capital markets and corporate governance between its four teams: A, B, C and D. Corporate A “does transactional and regulatory work” which includes large-scale M&A “for companies that are a bit more regulated, like insurance companies.” The team also covers advice for clients who are thinking of moving to a different jurisdiction. Corporate B “deals with private equity,” while C does a mix of capital markets, public M&A and private M&A. Corporate D specialises in sectors including telecoms and oil and gas. Trainees often “did lots of things related to M&A transactions like drafting board minutes, due diligence, and drafting the due diligence report.” Sources felt “there's definitely a sense of things popping up quickly. It's a steady stream of work that goes up and down in intensity, which can be exciting.” Generally, the “volume of work isn't necessarily high, but the intensity is as it's usually driven on a shorter deadline.”
Similarly, the finance department has a number of arms. Our sources had the most experience in general structured finance, capital markets and project finance, but the wider team also covers infrastructure finance, real estate finance, restructuring and insolvency, and securitisation among other areas. The team recently advised ConvaTech, a medical products and technology group, on its proposed $1.8 billion IPO and listing on the London Stock Exchange. Trainees saw a range of matters, whether working on the side of the bank, or on the company side. There were “some generic tasks like bundling and dealing with originals,” but trainees were also drafting various documents or bits of documents. “I wrote the finance part of a due diligence report for an M&A that the corporate team was handling,” one told us. In areas like asset or project finance, the drafting was “more process driven” because “you usually have a really good precedent which you can update rather than doing it from scratch.” Client contact can be decent here: “Quite quickly people were willing for me to send out emails to clients, speak on the phone, and join calls. It's the department where I dealt with clients directly the most.”
Both in London and in the worldwide rankings, Chambers Global puts Freshfields in the top rank for dispute resolution. The cases are fittingly high-profile, such as the team’s successful representation of Raoul Weil, former CEO of UBS's wealth management division, in a US federal jury trial. He was charged in the investigation of Swiss banks and bankers for allegedly assisting US tax payers in evading billions of dollars of US taxes on assets secretly held in Switzerland, and was recently acquitted.
“If you're willing to push things forward and take responsibility then that can happen. I got to do a lot of fun stuff.”
Many sources had completed a stint in the financial institutions disputes groups, which unsurprisingly involves “a lot of litigation for investment banks.” It is one of the bigger subdivisions of disputes, usually taking on approximately ten trainees per round. Another large subgroup is CDG (commercial disputes group) which is popular with trainees; the seat tends to involve one or two big cases. The trainee’s role spans the whole range, from the “simple trainee tasks” to more substantive ones: “There's a lot of preparation in litigation, so preparing bundles, doc review, and making sure everything is ready for court. But you also get to draft quite a lot – things like witness statements.” Research also cropped up a fair bit. “You're supervised at all stages in DR, but if you're willing to push things forward and take responsibility then that can happen. I got to do a lot of fun stuff.”
International arbitration does “a mix of commercial and investment arbitration across the globe.” A recent success for the group was acting on behalf of Vestey, an international food business, in its long-running ICSID arbitration against Venezuela. Vestey was awarded a sum of $98 million plus interest for the unlawful expropriation of its century-old investment in a cattle farming business in Venezuela, which had been seized at gunpoint in 2011. “I've had a really good, broad range of tasks,” one interviewee expressed. “I've done legal research, worked on two legal opinions, drafted a section of a witness statement, as well as reviewing documents from clients to find out how we can use them.” Other seat options in disputes include environment; planning and regulatory; engineering; procurement and construction; EU competition; and IP/IT.
“The hours are long,” one trainee bluntly put it. Life at a magic circle firm is hard work, but trainees knew what they signed up for. “I've never had hours that haven't been warranted.” Sources agreed that hours tend to fluctuate depending on the team and “the approach to work of the immediate person you work for.” Although you can’t really differentiate a firm on hours at this end of the market, “because of the three-month seats, it means people are nervous if there's less work as it means less time to make your mark.” If the hours are particularly gruelling, we did hear of some “custom days off in lieu,” though “the process isn't formalised and it's up to the individual partner or deal team.”
But the expectation to give a lot was met with a sense of humanity: “There's the feeling that everyone is in it together, and people recognise when you work hard,” sources reflected. The culture was unanimously praised by trainees, who noticed “people work hard and are serious, but can have a good laugh and enjoy themselves too.” Trainees reckoned there's quite an emphasis on working as a team, and found said teams to be “very diverse and very inclusive.” They felt “it really seems they want to train trainees. There's a big emphasis on investing in you so you grow and stay with the firm.” Another big plus was that “on the whole, partners and more senior staff are relatively approachable,” trainees agreed. “People are happy to answer any questions you have and meet to discuss improving.”
One of the hottest topics in our interviews was the big office move in 2021, from the Fleet Street building that is “showing a bit of age” to new digs at100 Bishopsgate near Liverpool Street. “There's going to be a canteen and gym in the new office, and a GP and dentist on site,” one highlighted. But a few said they’ll miss Fleet Street: “From a dispute resolution perspective, it's near the courts. There have been several occasions where I've made dashes over there – that'll become harder, but generally Liverpool Street is more accessible to most people.”
“It really seems they want to train trainees.”
Freshfields has a vibrant social life, with regular events for trainees and associates to get involved in. “Once or twice throughout the seat, we will have a team event. It could be anything, like pizza making or cocktail making.” One source highlighted a “welcome pizza, ping pong and pints” event when they started in their first department, and others mentioned the popular event of curry followed by karaoke – curryoke? There are also “more informal drinks, in particular on Thursdays or Fridays.” Big firm-sponsored events include summer parties and Christmas parties: “Two years ago it was at the Natural History Museum, and last year I think it was at Battersea Park.”
The prospect of retention was a source of some uncertainty this year for our interviewees, although they did view the process as “very simple; we indicate the practices we're interested in, in order of preference. Before each qualification round, the partners and seniors in the team have a discussion among themselves, and we found out about a month and a half into our final seat. It's basically put on trainees to go to partners in the team you're interested in to have a conversation and make sure they know you're really interested. In that sense it's quite informal.” In 2017 the firm retained 58 of its 78 qualifiers. That's a lower rate than in past years, when the firm has kept on 80 to 85% of qualifiers.
If you want to do some good, pro bono is "a massive deal" at Freshfields, so much so that it counts exactly the same as billable client work.
You may also be interested in...
Our True Picture reviews of the other magic circle firms:
These big global firms:
Our practice area features on:
How to get a Freshfields training contract
Training contract deadline (2020): 4 January 2018 (non-law and law; opens 1 October 2017) 17 July 2018 (law; opens 1 June 2018)
You may have come across – or come across in 2016/17 – a 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 3,000-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 'B's 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 500 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 emphasises. “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.
M&A at Freshfields
The magic circle explained
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP
65 Fleet Street,
- Partners 125
- Associates 454
- Total trainees 153
- UKoffices London, Manchester
- Overseas offices 26
- Contacts [email protected]
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 80
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Minimum UCAS points or A levels: None
- Vacation scheme places pa: 60
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: Sunday 1 October 2017 (winter), Friday 1 June 2018 (summer)
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: Thursday 4 January 2018 (winter), Monday 16 July 2018 (summer)
- Vacation scheme applications open: Sunday 1 October 2017
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline date: Thursday 4 January 2018
- Workshop deadline: 4 January 2018
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £43,000
- Second-year salary: £48,000
- Post-qualification salary: £85,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £7,250 for the GDL and £7,000 for the LPC
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London
Because we support clients wherever in the world they operate, we must deliver a consistent high-quality service across the globe. You will play an important part in this process.
Main areas of work
You and your team will need to come up with solutions that work in the real, commercial world, not just the ones that reflect what’s right or wrong in law. We’ll show you how.
Our lawyers focus on at least one industry sector and work in one of seven practice groups: antitrust, competition and trade; corporate; dispute resolution; people and reward; finance; real estate; and tax.
We’ll show you what life as an international commercial lawyer is like, and what sets us apart from other firms, so you can make a confident decision on whether to apply for a vacation scheme or training contract.
You’ll also meet trainees, associates and partners, and learn about improving your application from our graduate recruitment team.
We’ll also pay your travel expenses to the office, and for accommodation if you need it.
University law careers fairs 2017