Global heavyweight Herbies will get trainees to the top of their game in both contentious and transactional work.
Everybody needs good neighbours
Olympic year 2012 was host to many a Herculean feat on the international stage. And sure, the likes of Bolt, Ennis, Wiggins and Farah gave a zesty performance, but arguably the real showstopper came when 2,800 high-class lawyers formed a united force. The UK's legendary Herbert Smith and one of Oz's 'big six' law firms, Freehills, came together that year, and since then the firm has continued on its path of measured global expansion, with particularly impressive results in Asia.
Comparisons between HSF and its magic circle neighbours are inevitable – and on a few metrics the firm can outclass them – but a move that distinguishes the firm is its adoption of two headquarters in both Sydney and London. Training principal James Baily fills us in on latest developments: “Since the merger, we've been bedding down over there so that we are comfortably acting as one global entity. We're now fully established in Johannesburg and in Kuala Lumpur, so our focus on Asia continues but is being matched by looking towards Africa too.” Unlike many firms that expand abroad, this overseas growth is directly affecting trainees in the here and now: “We are continuing to push out from our international network and give more opportunities for secondments,” explains Baily. Prospective trainees should dust off their passports, in other words.
“We have a reputation as the best litigation house in the country, if not the world.”
In days of yore, Herbies was best known for its panache in the courtroom, and many of today's generation of trainees told us they too came here because “we have a reputation as the best litigation house in the country, if not the world.”Chambers Global agrees, ranking HSF'S worldwide practice at the top of the elite, where only A&O, Freshfields and Hogan Lovells can truly compete. But this is no one-trick pony. There are around 70(!) ranked practices in the UK Chambers guide alone, plus gazillions in other territories across the globe. Transactional practices feature highly in the firm's rankings across Europe and Asia, and expertise in energy, projects and infrastructure has underpinned much success in Russia and the CIS, Africa and the Pacific region.
Seats are allocated after trainees submit a preference form listing “about eight to nine choices – but you have to do a corporate and disputes seat.” They also have to apply for a seat in a specialist department like pensions, employment or competition. The process then repeats at the halfway point of each seat. “There's also a box for your supporting comments to explain your choices. It's not long – 250 words max, and you're encouraged to be blunt. They want you to tell them if, for example, you've only put a seat down because it's compulsory.” Naturally, with around eight preferences each time, it can get a little hectic, but trainees appreciated that “it's a relatively simple process, although the bureaucracy must be insane on HR's end because there are so many people.”
Running up that Freehill
The international seats are a huge draw. Most interviewees had done corporate work in some form in places like Singapore, Dubai, Paris and Moscow. One insider recalled “preparing novation agreements and joint operating agreements for an oil and gas company in Asia that was divesting its assets. When you go on a secondment you definitely have more responsibility than in London. There's loads of client contact: you're doing real stuff.” Client secondments are equally intense. They include “a public law and human rights focus” at charity Liberty, and corporate assignments at energy giant EDF. Trainees apply for secondments as part of the usual seat allocation process. For those internationally-minded, it's worth noting that there's the chance to qualify abroad as well. Some lucky NQs this year were jetting off to Paris and Sydney.
The litigation seat offers trainees the chance to sit in one of nine sector-focused teams, which between them cover everything from fraud to media to financial services disputes. “There's seven departments, four are fairly general, but one is our in-house advocacy unit," one source listed. "We also have an international arbitration sub-team, banking lit, corporate crime, IP and insurance litigation specialisms.” Another who had dabbled in international arbitration explained: “We do a lot of bilateral investment treaty work.” Some managed to bag themselves a trip to Paris for an arbitration: “Everyone said they were jealous, but they wouldn't have been jealous if they'd seen me slaving over the printer at 5am the day before! There was a fair amount of bundling, but the trade-off is definitely worth it.”
Meanwhile, banking litigation “is split into three main parts: the core lit part, financial regulatory and white-collar crime.” Newbies told us of their involvement with “a lot of fraud cases: there's lots of Libor-related stuff coming through and we represented some of the individuals in the Tesco SFO investigation. It's quite nice working on stuff that's making the front pages.” Trainees get a healthy chunk of responsibility, like drafting witness statements, prepping questions for interviews and conducting research. The workload, however, can be heavy: “I worked on this corruption and bribery file that almost broke me! It was in conjunction with an Australian office, and I had to summarise all the trial transcripts on our end and send them to the Australians for their start of business the next day. Some nights it was fine, but I was getting the transcripts at 7pm and wouldn't finish until 2am. My supervisor would stay awake with me to proofread, so I wasn't alone.” Other work highlights include representing Goldman Sachs against $1.2 billion worth of claims brought by the Libyan Investment Authority.
“Proofreading – that's a glorious trainee task!”
HSF's corporate arm has a penchant for high-value, cross-border transactions, with a keen focus on M&A. “There are four London corporate teams that all broadly focus on M&A. One's general, one focuses on energy, one's more private equity, and one does funds.” Funds was a popular seat for trainees, who explained that “there's a mix of both private and public funds, IPO placings and M&A, plus there's international work for asset managers in Luxembourg, the British Virgin Islands and Ireland.” However, there's also been a strong regulatory aspect to funds work since the '08 crash. “I've had to give advice to fund managers about restrictions and the rules relating to fund formations and stock exchange listings from both UK and European legislation.” A more eye-catching work highlight, perhaps, was representing “the ex-manager of Beyoncé, Kiss and Iron Maiden. The idea was that when you buy songs, the royalties will accrue and make a profit. I got to see the whole life cycle: you have an idea, you form the fund, and then when it comes to fruition you help write prospectuses and proofread to make sure everything is accurate.”
General M&A work saw insiders working “on the private acquisition of Homebase by the Australian company Wesfarmers. I had to issue checklists, drafted small elements of the prospectuses, and chased the clients for updates. A small army of us were involved in the verification stage and then I did a lot of proofreading – that's a glorious trainee task!” When you start to see Homebase stores rebranded as Bunnings, spare a thought for the HSF trainees who helped make it happen. Another biggie with an international flavour was advising Polyus Gold, Russia's largest gold producer, on its $9 billion sale to Sacturino.
Finance is a bit smaller than the other departments, but there's a truckload of matters for trainees to get involved with. A range of financings are covered, including corporate, acquisition, real estate, energy and Islamic. Trainees broke it down for us like this: “There are technically four groups crudely named A, B, C and D. A does acquisitions; B does project finance for the energy sector in particular; C does real estate finance; and D is the derivatives team that works a lot in securitisation. Islamic finance sits in this team because there's a lot of funky derivatives lending that goes on.” Partners across all sub-teams split their time between borrower and lender work for major financial institutions, so it's understandable why key clients include Barclays, BNP Paribas and EDF Energy. Trainees too had seen a decent amount of action, with informants even getting a slice of the now controversial Hinkley Point project. “Because it's a transaction that's over £1 billion, as a trainee it's a mix of legal work and project management. But it's been going on for so long, so I had six months to get up to scratch and go through all the documents – all 700 of them!” Typical tasks include drafting board minutes, getting documents ready for signing, and preparing ancillary contracts, administration agreements and engagement letters.
"It sounds cringe but it's really useful.”
Over in real estate, trainees work in general real estate, planning, litigation or construction. A whole host of investors, developers, corporate occupiers, private equity houses, fund managers and more are on the books. Newbies on the asset management side described “working out leases for one of our main clients' 16 different properties across the UK. You get to see the who life cycle of a transaction, starting from when the property is bought, let out and managed, and then we do the licences.” Recent departmental highlights include advising the state-owned Qatari Diar on its £1.4 billion joint venture with property developer Delancey and a Dutch national pension fund asset manager to develop and manage a portfolio of 4,000 homes.
“We have a two week induction before we start, and that's your standard IT training, presentation skills, internal systems training. It's deadly dull, but completely necessary.” The bulk of PSCs take place then, with the rest dished out throughout the training contract. Then there's a healthy smattering of learning seshes in each seat. “There's a corporate briefing once a fortnight, and there was a three-day introduction to litigation – lunch presentations, whole firm seminars, the lot.” Once trainees enter their second seat, a trainee development centre hosts role-play sessions with actors. These cover topics like “how to deal with a situation if you need to go to your brother's wedding but your supervisor says you have to work. It sounds cringe but it's really useful.”
When good neighbours become good friends
Strange sounds sometimes emanate around HSF's London office, perched above Liverpool Street station. “We call it the whale song,” insiders revealed. Confused? “At night, if it's quiet, you can hear the train announcements, but it's distorted so it sounds like whale song.” Despite their railway location, trainees aren't shuddered around in their seats by each moving train. Far from it, as the office is the epitome of uber swank, boasting a “really cool lift that feels like a 'beam me up Scotty' moment every time I use it.” A jazzy external staircase and series of bridges that connect Exchange House and the smaller Exchange Square complete the modern look. Incidentally, the train theme doesn't alight here, as HSF is the main adviser to the new HS2 high-speed north-south railway line.
Handily, HSF's digs are right in the midst of Broadgate Square and Spitalfields market: “They're literally just in front of the office and there's a huge TV screen there that broadcasts Wimbledon, and in the winter there's an ice-rink.” When they're not gliding like gazelles across the ice, you can find HSFers either having ad hoc drinks in the hustle and bustle of Shoreditch or going to firm-organised events. “The twice-annual pub quiz, the Xmas and summer dos, and Chinese New Year celebrations are great.” The biennial trainee ball was the most talked about event, however. Held last time at the National History Museum, a downside is that because it's every two years some trainees have to wait until the end of their training contracts for the chance to go. Also, “now most of my intake are on secondment, there's only seven from my year going.”
“Things are busy in the manic periods, but insanity is definitely not the norm.”
But like most firms of this ilk, it's not all play. “The only thing that stops us from having more socials is the work!” Transactional newbies generally put in the longest hours: “You get your fair share of sustained periods of 14-hour days, but this is only when there's a big deal on and everyone is in. After we finished, the partner was really appreciative and told us to take his card and treat ourselves to drinks – as long as we didn’t spend more than our salaries on a bottle of wine!” On average, most sources were slogging it out from 9.30am to 7.30pm: “It's not too bad, they're very good at helping you maintain a good work-life balance.” A source summarised: “Things are busy in the manic periods, but insanity is definitely not the norm.” Worth noting here is that the NQ pay is actually above the rates at magic circle firms.
HSF 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. “You tell HR what you're thinking, they go and chat with the departments, then there are interviews. They're really good if you haven't got anything – they'll tell you before the main announcement and try to find you something.” In 2017 HSF kept on 55 of its 70 qualifiers.
Hate bundling? Luckily HSF outsources most of its doc review tasks to the Belfast office, leaving “lawyers to do the interesting legal work.”
How to get a Herbert Smith Freehills training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2018): 23 October 2017 (winter – opens 18 September 2017); 29 December 2017 (spring and summer – opens 18 September 2017)
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 4,000 applications each year, and about a third 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.”
“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 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.
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, as 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. One of HSF's latest ventures is an office in Johannesburg – the firm had been looking at establishing a foothold on the African continent for some time previously.
Herbert Smith Freehills
- Partners 476
- Associates 1,429
- Total trainees 147
- UK offices 2
- Overseas offices 24
- Graduate recruiter: [email protected], 020 7374 8000
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 60
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Vacation scheme places pa: 80
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: 29 December 2017
- Winter Vacation scheme 2017 deadline: 23 October 2017
- Spring & Summer Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 29 December 2017
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £44,000
- Second-year salary: £48,000
- Total cash potential: £90,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- International and regional
- UK Offices with training contracts: London & Belfast
- Graduate opportunities also available in Europe, USA, Asia, Australia and Africa.
Main areas of work
Winter: 23 October 2017
Spring and summer: 29 December 2017
Open days and first-year opportunities
University law careers fairs 2017