Herbert Smith Freehills - True Picture

HSF balances a famous litigation practice with a formidable corporate offering, but there's so much more on offer at this global giant.

2020 vision

In this increasingly globalised world law firms are linking up over vast distances: 2012 saw the conscious coupling of Britain's Herbert Smith with Australia's Freehills, creating an Anglo-Aussie behemoth with 26 offices and 2,800 lawyers worldwide. After months of what it called 'socialist' consultation, Herbert Smith Freehills recently launched its 'Beyond 2020' strategy which includes a Barack Obama-style pivot towards the Asia-Pacific market. “Being the leading firm in the region” is central to this strategy, one trainee told us, and a glance at the Chambers Asia-Pacific rankings in areas like energy or arbitration show the firm is already achieving this aim. But it hasn't forgotten to consider its capabilities further West either: the strategy will also seek to build up HSF's clout in the US, possibly by way of future associations or mergers. In addition, HSFers-to-be can look to become sector specialists – particularly in areas like energy, mining, transport and infrastructure – as the firm reduces its emphasis on practice area divisions. The ultimate aim? To be as global and interconnected as can be, so expect HSF to tinker with its tech and push the likes of remote and agile working to make border-hopping matters a logistical breeze.

Corporate and litigation are HSF's core practices, with the latter historically considered the firm's crown jewel. “The firm is nicely balanced between the two, which puts it in a good position, whatever the economy,” explained one trainee, “after all, when the economy's good, people buy and sell to each other, and when it's bad they sue each other.” Given this configuration, trainees have to do at least one corporate and one litigation seat; they also have to apply for a seat in a specialist department like pensions, employment or competition. But with over 60 Chambers UK rankings, many of them top-tier, it would be a mistake to describe HSF as limited in scope. And it's just as well, as the firm's HR department has a cohort of 135 trainees to shuffle around. A look at the rankings inevitably prompts comparisons with the magic circle, which the firm probably finds quite boring. But legal markets are evolving, and HSF shrewdly prefers to identity as a global firm that can compete internationally with the American giants as much as the British – take Asia as an example – and it's succeeding according to Chambers Global, which places HSF as the eighth most capable global firm.

"In a good position, whatever the economy.”

Trainees are encouraged to submit a paragraph explaining their choices with each seat application. The process is repeated four months before changing seats, with trainees informed of their next destination two months later. Trainees can list up to eight choices each time and, interestingly, can also list seats they don't want to do. With “lots of trainees and lots of spaces to be filled,” it's no surprise that some trainees told us seat allocation “can be a little fraught.” But overall our sources thought that HR “does its best to be fair and transparent.” Indeed, HR's willingness to have a dialogue with trainees was often praised. “If you're given a seat that you didn't apply for, HR will speak to you in advance and explain why,” a trainee told us, “and if that happens, they'll try their level best to make sure you get your first choice next time.” For a few, not getting their chosen seat was a blessing in disguise; “some people have gone into seats they expected to hate, thoroughly enjoyed them, and now want to qualify there.”

The international seats are a huge draw, and the firm's focus on Asia means that seats in that region were especially sought after. “We all want to go to Hong Kong, Tokyo or Singapore,” one insider joked. Those that had jetted off found a hefty helping of responsibility on offer. “You're not quite treated like an associate,” said one, “but you're not far off from it.” Teams tend to be smaller, leading not only to more responsibility but to a slightly more “casual” way of working. Secondments, both foreign and domestic, are applied to as part of the usual seat allocation process, with no special procedures enforced. And if you one day join HSF's ranks, the chances of going in-house or abroad are high: all trainees are offered a secondment and around 90% take them up on the offer. 

Litigation trainees can sit with one of nine sector-focused teams, which between them cover everything from fraud to media to financial services disputes. Chambers UK top-ranks the practice within the 'elite' division (it's one of two in the City to get this accolade), and deems HSF's civil fraud and contentious construction teams among the best in the UK (and its financial crime team among the best in London). This formidable reputation for all things contentious draws in a steady stream of news-grabbing matters. The firm, for example, recently negotiated the first ever Deferred Prosecution Agreement under the Bribery Act on behalf of ICBC Standard Bank. HSF has also been representing Goldman Sachs and Société Générale in a dispute with the Libyan Investment Authority – a task complicated by the fact that there are currently at least two entities in Libya purporting to be the country's government. Other clients here include energy giant Chevron, aerospace multinational BAE Systems and Japanese trading conglomerate Marubeni.

“You have to use your own judgement.”

Sources found it “really exciting” to work on such “big ticket cases.” And thankfully, with technological advances and the Belfast office (which provides document support) on hand, a litigation seat at HSF is quite light on bundling. Instead trainees can find themselves grappling with “quite complex” research, where there's "no easy answer, so you have to use your own judgement.” It's not make-work either; some sources told us that “the best part of this seat was seeing partners and counsel use your research.” Inevitably there is some doc review, but our interviewees were happy to balance that with project management tasks and drafting opportunities on pleadings and witness statements.

The corporate teams focus on high-end, cross-border transactions, such as Telefónica's £10 billion sale of O2 to Three's parent company, which involved both the London and Madrid offices. Other large scale deals include advising Anheuser-Busch InBev on its £68 billion takeover offer for brewing behemoth SABMiller, and acting for property developer Hammerson as it embarked on a joint venture with Allianz Real Estate Germany to acquire a portfolio of Irish property loans (the largest deal of its kind in Ireland, valued at €1.85 billion). “I don't think I ever did the same task twice in this seat,” enthused a trainee, “except for board minutes, which you can't really get away from!” Well, that and “verification, which is something the NQs tease you about,” our source added. As well as this, interviewees got to draft “basic completion documents and due diligence reports.” Trainees tended to be “general resources for the whole department,” although some supervisors were more protective than others. On the whole, “it's a good training opportunity,” one interviewee told us, “as you typically get to see many different ways of working.”

Freehills are alive with the sound of... murabaha

Finance is a strange one at HSF. It's quite a bit smaller than the other departments, and “a lot of people don't really know what it's about.” Those in the know gave it glowing reviews, however. “Finance is quite exciting,” a trainee enthused, “it's growing very quickly and everyone's really upbeat about the practice.” Partners here split their time between borrower and lender work for major financial institutions – like UBS and Deutsche Bank – and blue-chip borrowers like UK water company Severn Trent and engineering outfit Weir Group. A range of financings are covered, including corporate, acquisition, real estate, energy and Islamic. On the latter side, the team advised Virgin Group on its first Islamic murabaha facility as it sought to gain ground in the Middle East's telecoms markets. Trainees don't do as much legal research as elsewhere, with project management taking the place of jurisprudential head-scratchers. Not that anybody seemed to mind. “You get to see the impact your work has on the deal,” a source told us, “as you spend a lot of time co-ordinating with the other side, reviewing their documents, taking care of due diligence and making sure that everything is in place.” The work's “quite intense,” and our sources appreciated that it “might not be everyone's cup of tea,” but for them it was quite the ride.

Real estate has been another driver of HSF's London growth of late. The work here brings in another top-tier, big-ticket ranking for the firm, with the department servicing a whole host of investors, developers, corporate occupiers, private equity companies, fund managers and more. Recent gems have seen the group advise on the redevelopment of the Marble Arch Tower; fellow firm Ashurst on the lease for its new premises in the London Fruit & Wool Exchange; and AXA Investment Managers on Google's move into BNP Paribas' old digs in King's Cross. Trainees work in four main areas: general real estate, planning, litigation or construction. One source who'd sat in planning told us: “You're given a lot of independence actually. We mainly handle planning inquiries, and I was able to review sources coming in from architects and draft planning documents like 106 agreements. There's a big advisory element to it, so the trainees usually do the bulk of the research.”

There's no shortage of training at HSF, sources revealed: “We get sessions on practical skills like forming relationships and project management techniques, as well as on more legal-oriented topics; there's a running series of contract, tort and international conflicts of laws lectures.” Interviewees especially praised the trainee development centre, which “gives you a chance to develop the necessary skills to become an associate.” The centre hosts roleplay sessions with actors, which cover topics like “how to deal with difficult co-workers – you can really put your skills to the test!” If that all sounds a little stressful, HSFers also have access to “cocktail-making classes.” An indispensable skill for any stressed-out lawyer.

A little while ago we were watching Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (we swear this is relevant), and we couldn't help but notice HSF's geometric Liverpool Street digs standing in for the villain's Moscow headquarters. And why not? (Aside from the fact that they're not in Moscow). It's a striking building, with a cool-looking external staircase that's perfect if you need to flee from bad guys in a hurry. The offices are getting a new refurb this year, which our sources felt was a little overdue, but Brad Pitt didn't have anything to grumble about when he used the conference rooms – nor did Daniel Craig when filming Skyfall there. The London base is in fact split between two buildings connected via a bridge: Exchange House and the smaller Exchange Square.

Herbie essence

And speaking of squares, the one outside the office “buzzes” with lunch and dinner options, as well as places to unwind with a tipple after a long day's lawyering. The White Horse is a perennial favourite, and if that gets a little old, “Liverpool Street, Shoreditch and the South Bank are just a short walk away.” Which is just as well really, because HSF's large trainee intake “is always willing to have an unofficial pint after work.” More officially, the firm runs an array of events, from St Patrick's Day and Burns Night celebrations to “bowling and karaoke nights out.” There's also a number of sports teams, a book club and various affinity and networking groups. The firm's canteen provides a handy meet-up space as well: “The food isn't that great, but it's cheap, so I can't complain,” one trainee told us.

And of course, the question on everyone's mind when it comes to a firm like HSF is: 'what are the hours like?' “They're long and there's no getting away from it,” is the answer, “but they're not unreasonable in that I've never been in a position where I've had to stay late unless it's super necessary.” Of course, lateness is in the eye of the beholder, and hours generally vary “depending on what seat you're in and what time of the year it is.” For example, one corporate trainee recalled many a peak and trough: “There was a week where I'd be in till midnight, 1am or even 2am, followed by a week where I'd leave at 5.30pm.” Contrast this with a stint in arbitration, where the hours were more stable: “I consistently left at 7pm with only a few late nights.” When the hours do occasionally veer into more punishing territory, the firm makes a point of scheduling in some much needed me-time. “Once I had to stay until 2am and come back in at 8am,” recalled a trainee of their time in finance, “so come Friday I was told to go home at 4pm.”

As the training contract winds to a close, the firm releases a list of NQ vacancies about a month into the final seat. Trainees can apply to qualify into all available departments, even if they haven't sat there. In 2016 HSF kept on a remarkable 63 out of 64 qualifiers.

Since 2011 Herbies has provided the government of Sierra Leone with free legal advice as part of its 'Fair Deal for Sierra Leone' programme.

How to get a Herbert Smith Freehills training contract


Training contract deadline (2019): 6 January 2017 (finalists and graduates); 31 July 2017 (penultimate-year students, finalists and graduates)

Vacation scheme deadline (2017): 31 October 2016 (winter); 6 January 2017 (spring and summer)

Vacation scheme 

Herbert Smith Freehills runs vac schemes throughout the year. Students in their second and third years, as well as graduates, have the opportunity to apply for the spring or summer programme – the former takes 20 applicants for two weeks, while the latter is split into two intakes of 30 and lasts three weeks. A winter scheme is available to those in the final year of their degree and graduates, and takes around 20 for a two-week programme.

Vac schemers get a week each with two different supervisors (summer participants do an extra week with one of them), and provide a helping hand with whatever their supervisor happens to be doing. This can include writing research notes or sections for client advice, preparing cases for court, or even attending client meetings. “We don't put on a show,” graduate recruitment partner Veronica Roberts assures us. “We don't set academic tasks but make sure everything is real work.” As vac schemers only sit in two different groups in the firm, HSF also lays on a series of interactive talks from different practice areas.

The firm goes to town on the social side. On the first night of the vac scheme, the cohort of wannabe lawyers is sent off for a group dinner, which firm representatives steer clear of so that the vac schemers can relax and get to know each other. One of the firm's current trainees who went through the programme liked that when they joined they “knew people from the vac scheme.” Our sources suggested that HSF does a great job at building a sense of community: “it was very easy to settle in and see yourself working here.”

Training contract applications 

The firm receives a total of around 3,000 applications each year, and about half of these aim directly for a training contract. Direct training contract and vac scheme applications are processed in the same manner. Applications come from both law and non-law students with the balance tilting slightly towards the former.

A mercifully short form asks for qualifications and uni grades, as well as evidence of prior work experience. Though some form of legal experience is desirable,Veronica Roberts makes it clear that “it doesn't need to be at a huge firm. What matters is that the effort has been made to do something, which doesn't have to be weeks and weeks of work.” The other meaty section of the form is dedicated to the achievements of the applicant, and asks not for a long list but the ones that they are most proud of, and an explanation of why. “Students often move on a step and say how the skills they learnt could help with their future job, though this isn't a requirement,” says Roberts. “We do like to see one example of an academic accomplishment, which can be with a society rather than in a classroom, and also something more extracurricular.”


Those whose forms impress, and get through a short verbal reasoning test (for which there's a practice run first), are invited to an assessment morning, each of which takes eight students. These are split into three sections: a group case study, assessing applicants' ability to work in a team; an individual case study, doubling up as a partner interview in which candidates get a set of facts and have to make a short presentation that conveys their powers of analysis; and a competency interview that tests the basic skills necessary to make it as a Herbert Smith Freehills lawyer. Students also get some time to chat with current trainees confidentially, and senior partners give a talk about where the firm is and where it is going.

For interviews – either on the assessment morning or at the end of the vac scheme – Veronica Roberts advises: “It's important to build a rapport with your interviewer. We understand the process can be nerve wracking and we appreciate that, but moving past your nerves is an important part of our day jobs.” It's also essential to have some questions for interviewing partners, and to listen to the answers carefully – “we always leave time for this, and interviewees are welcome to build a discussion around the questions they ask.”

Trainee profile 

“We're not looking for the finished product – we're looking for potential,” says Roberts. A trainee should be able to display “technical ability, but at the application stage that means the ability to think things through logically, and think on your feet to solve a problem.” Herbert Smith Freehills also prizes communication skills, and the ability to be able to build trusting relationships with clients and colleagues. Roberts likes applicants to be “well-rounded – clients are real people too, and often want to get to know you as a person at the same time as talking legal advice.” In terms of academic accomplishment, there's no specific A-level or UCAS-point requirement, but an earned or predicted 2:1 degree or above is the norm.

Herbert Smith Freehills abroad

Twin peaks 

Herbert Smith Freehills has a key advantage among its competitors: twin lead offices in the UK and Australia. Their positioning at opposite ends of the earth (and in practically opposite time zones) has proven attractive to clients looking for a 24-hour global service.

Australia's geographical proximity to Asia – and its several shared time zones – means that the region is a natural candidate for the firm's expansion plans. Herbert Smith Freehills has already established offices in Bangkok, Beijing, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, Seoul, Shanghai and Tokyo, as well as an associated office in Jakarta.

Seoul power 

HSF was only the third international firm to launch in Seoul, setting a trend that would see many an ambitious player follow suit. It all started when South Korea decided to liberalise its market, mirroring similar moves across the region: Singapore, Malaysia and Myanmar all begun opening their doors to foreign enterprise. It's easy to see foreign businesses' attraction to South Korea. It's the world's 11th-largest economy, and Asia's fourth-biggest. The forecasts around its growth and potential are often optimistic: it's considered a 'Next Eleven' economy, identified alongside countries including Indonesia and Mexico as potential economic superpowers. The only dent in South Korea's otherwise glossy armour is its proximity to and periodically volatile relationship with North Korea – a point that impacts on its credit rating and can make long-sighted investors wary.

HSF has certainly done well in Seoul, and its success has inspired others to follow its lead: there are now 25 international law firms operating in South Korea. The team there has worked with KOGAS, Samsung and Acciona Energy on multibillion-dollar deals. Perhaps surprisingly, Brexit could throw a spanner in the works of UK firms present in the country: the free trade agreements that allowed UK law firms into South Korea were forged by the EU. HSF and others remain very much committed to their Seoul strongholds, so to them a bilateral trade agreement between the UK and Korean governments is a priority for the future.

Moving in, moving out 

Opening up in international markets is a tricky business, and firms are quick to close overseas arms that aren't profitable, or are otherwise at risk. Just as firms are rushing to the South Korean market, they're reconsidering their presence in the Middle East – HSF is part of this trend too, having closed its Abu Dhabi office in 2015. The region's once booming economy has faltered since the recession, thanks to falling oil prices, increasing political turbulence and an uneven recovery of the property market. Along with HSF, Latham & Watkins, Vinson & Elkins and Simmons & Simmons have all withdrawn from Abu Dhabi, with lawyers from each office for the most part moving to Dubai.

However, a firm of HSF's size can afford to be flexible. As developing economies worldwide open up to foreign investment, there are a host of opportunities to choose from: and as a bumper round of partner promotions in the firm's Asia-Pacific offices shows, the firm is more than ready to exploit them. HSF's latest venture is an office in Johannesburg – the firm had been looking at establishing a foothold on the continent for some time previously.

Privatisation and the law

Find out how how lawyers are involved in privatisation.

Herbert Smith Freehills

Exchange House,
Primrose Street,
Website www.herbertsmithfreehills.com

  • Partners 485
  • Total staff 5,116
  • Total trainees 140
  • Contact [email protected], 020 7374 8000
  • Method of application Online at www.careers. herbertsmithfreehills.com/uk/ grads
  • Selection procedure Online application form, verbal reasoning test and assessment centre
  • Application Required degree grade: 2:1
  • Closing date for 2016/17 vacation schemes  
  • Winter: 31 October 2016
  • Spring/summer: 6 January 2017
  • Closing date for 2019 training contracts 
  • Finalists and graduates should apply between 1 October 2016 and 6 January 2017
  • Training salary 
  • First year: £44,000
  • Second year: £48,000
  • Post-qualification salary Total cash potential of up to £90,000 upon qualification
  • Overseas offices Asia, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the US

Firm profile

Takeovers and mergers. Arbitration and litigation. We’ve got it all. And because we’re one of the world’s leading law firms, we also work with some of the biggest international organisations on some of their most ambitious projects. We’re market-leaders in Asia Pacific and we have over 2,900 lawyers in offices across Asia, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the USA. Working across borders is a key part of our philosophy. And, thanks to the quality of our international network, we’re able to offer our clients both domestic and cross-border services.

Main areas of work

Our work is incredibly varied. We provide top quality tailored legal advice to major corporations, governments and financial institutions as well as different types of commercial organisations. Our dispute resolution practice is number one in the UK, Asia and Australia and includes both our leading international arbitration practice and award-winning in-house advocacy unit – meaning we can offer a complete litigation service and a realistic alternative to the bar. We also have a market leading corporate practice. And that’s not all. Our other practice areas include finance, competition, regulation and trade and real estate and employment, plus specialist areas like intellectual property and tax. Herbert Smith Freehills prides itself on being a world class law firm that brings together the best people to achieve the best results for clients.

Trainee profile

We look for people with the drive to make the most of the opportunities on offer and the ambition to become brilliant lawyers. As well as a great academic record, you’ll need to be commercially minded and willing to build relationships with clients and colleagues alike. And if you’re also assured, perceptive and empathetic, we’ll give you more than the chance to experience everything. We’ll give you the chance to be a part of it.

Training environment

As a trainee, you’ll have the chance to be a part of everything. Rotating around four six-month seats, the contract balances contentious and non-contentious work with pro bono opportunities, real responsibility and total support.

Sponsorship and awards

Herbert Smith Freehills provides funding and a maintenance allowance for GDL and LPC courses.

Vacation placements

Herbert Smith Freehills run winter, spring and summer vacation schemes. We also run two-day workshops exclusively for first year students around Easter time, designed to give students an early insight into a career at an international law firm. Finalists and graduates can apply to winter, spring or summer schemes and penultimate year students should apply for summer. Applications open for a winter scheme from 1 to 31 October 2016, applications for spring open from 1 October 2016 to 6 January 2017 and summer opens from 1 December 2016 to 6 January 2017.