Although HFW has always harboured strong feelings for shipping, it seems to be plotting a course for broader horizons.
From sea to shining sea
With specialised sector focuses and a fleet of 18 offices strategically placed across the globe, it's safe to say that HFW really knows its ship. The most recent addition saw the firm cross the pond and merge with Houston-based Legge, Farrow, Kimmitt, McGrath & Brown, further expanding its expertise. Another recent change has seen it rebrand from the slightly old-timey sounding 'Holman Fenwick Willan' to the snappier 'HFW' and update its website with a more casual look. Although historically the firm has been known for its shipping practice, trainees were keen to highlight an increasing diversification: “There are many opportunities for people who are not just interested in shipping; there's definitely a drive to diversify our practices.” The key industry groups are now shipping, aerospace, insurance and reinsurance, energy and resources, commodities, and construction.
“...interesting work, minus the ridiculous hours.”
Chambers UK seems to agree: the firm ranks top for shipping, commodities, aviation and transport, while raking in numerous other rankings in its key sectors. Its strength in all things litigation was a big draw for many, as well as the “interesting work, minus the ridiculous hours.” And unsurprisingly, the biggest draw was the guaranteed overseas seat: “You're able to not only spend time abroad, but you're guaranteed exposure to international clients, even working in London,” sources enthused. “It's not just in terms of where they have offices and the scope of their reach, but even the type of work is international.”
So what's next for these eager globe-trotters? Training principal Toby Stephens sheds some light on the firm's future: “We are continuing to grow the network, but we want to strengthen the offering that we have in particular. The Middle East and Asia have been targets in previous years, but I think the firm wants to look at the Americas now – both North and Central/South America. We're keen to build on the platform of our Houston office and generally expand in the region.” We asked trainees about this too. “In the future I think we will look very different – that may well mean more offices or more international opportunities, but either way opportunities for trainees will continue increasing,” one interviewee reckoned. “There also seems to be a growing initiative to do more than just litigation,” another chipped in, “I think we'll be growing our corporate practice throughout our international offices.”
Most trainees tend to do three contentious seats and one transactional because of the prominence of litigation across all industry sector specialisms (although this is not set in stone). Trainees give HR a list of three preferences as well as three international preferences before each seat rotation. Sources felt the system to be “very good – where you haven't got your first choice, you tend to get that in the next rotation.” Others explained: “By the end of your training contract you will have likely done the seats you most wanted to do, but they don't necessarily come how you expect them to.” Seat popularity changes with each intake, but one consistent trend has been the interest in shipping litigation.
With shipping comes ports, and with ports come a wide spread of international destinations trainees can jet off to: Hong Kong and Singapore being the popular picks. Others include Dubai, Geneva, Greece, Paris, Melbourne, Perth and Piraeus. “The accommodation is all sorted, and the flights booked for us though a travel agency. Pretty much everything is sorted – you just kind of rock up,” sources quipped. Language skills aren't necessarily a prerequisite, though in Paris “everyone is French qualified and although the work is in English, they generally prefer people who can speak French so they can socialise better.”
"Pretty much everything is sorted – you just kind of rock up."
The shipping team splits its time between wet work and dry work. Wet work “is when something goes wrong so it's more likely to get wet.” Sounds logical. This means anything to do with vessel collisions, salvaging work, ships that explode or sink, piracy – “stuff you'd find in a James Bond movie,” trainees laughed. Dry work on the other hand deals with disputes and breaches in contracts. Sources felt “there's a high level of responsibility from day one” in this seat. Tasks include drafting letters of advice, drafting claims submissions, legal research, taking witness statements, then a bit of bundling and disclosure too. On the wet side, trainees mentioned preparing arrest tables and even releasing vessels from arrest, most notably on OW Bunker's bankruptcy. Another headline case for the team saw itsecure the release of 26 hostages held by Somali pirates after four and a half years of captivity.
The finance team deals with both shipping finance and asset finance, with some ship recycling cropping up occasionally. “More work is done acting for banks rather than owners,” sources noted, though the team does occasionally act for owners too. Work involves both the sale and purchase of ships, new financing/refinancing, and escrow work. “In terms of hands-on experience, I think this seat is really fantastic. It's non-contentious so there's a lot more scope for trainees having exposure to the other side.” Sources got involved in “drafting huge amounts of finance documents,” and one mentioned “hosting a closing meeting on my own.” They felt “it's a bit of a drop in the deep end but an amazing experience, and I learnt a lot from it.” The department recently acted for Danske Bank as agent and security trustee for a syndicate of banks in connection with a term loan facility to Hoegh LNG Holdings for a floating storage and regasification unit.
“I learnt the most in this six months because of the amount of feedback.”
Insurance is split into a contentious seat and a non-contentious seat. The team represents both the insurer and the insured. The contentious side sees “a lot of coverage disputes” and “disputes between insurance companies about liability.” One source was involved in a case surrounding a large Latin American oil rig explosion: “The level of the work was really good. I was doing disclosure, and a lot of correspondence. There wasn't as much drafting as I would have liked, but that was because of the stage the case was at. But I felt I was given tasks which were quite important.” The non-contentious side involved “advising companies on their regulatory obligations, and complying with regulations.” Sources also described the work as “more black letter as it all depended on rules and regulations.” The greatest praise was reserved for the feedback received in this seat: “I learnt the most in this six months because of the amount of feedback. They took the time to explain what I'd done wrong in a nice way – I didn't feel like I was constantly messing up.”
Gently downstream, merrily, merrily...
The energy and resources team works on corporate, projects and finance, commercial disputes, and trade and energy matters. It tackles both transactional and dispute resolution work throughout the course of an energy matter, whether at the exploration and production, storage and transportation, or trading and sale stage. There are a lot of documents that need reviewing in this seat, as well as due diligence and drafting shareholders agreements and memoranda. The team acted for Clugston Construction in relation to the construction of four different 'energy from waste' projects in the UK. It also advised Competentia Holdings in its acquisition of a Texan company that provides engineering manpower globally to midstream and downstream companies in the sector.
“...that's pretty rare for your first seat, but I asked and I got it."
The commodities and construction seats used to be part of the energy and resources group, but have now split off to do their own thing. The commodities group has some overlaps with shipping but “has more to do with trading disputes.” On the non-contentious side, the team advises on sale and purchase agreements between traders. There are two general groups: hard commodities like oils and metals, then soft commodities like grains – we're not talking texture here. “The cases are usually bigger in amounts at stake, but there are fewer of them in shipping,” one interviewee explained. Many in the seat had the opportunity to go to court, with one experiencing “a High Court trial over a big LNG [liquefied natural gas] dispute between BP and Sonatrach, which was super interesting.” Other tasks included helping with case management, some bundling (“everyone doing a litigation seat will do that”), legal research, and drafting documents and advice to clients. One source explained: “That's pretty rare for your first seat, but I asked and I got it. They're open to it if you're keen.” The team recently acted for cotton traders and commodity shippers Cottonex Anstalt in a case against MSC concerning liability for containers.
Last year we reported that the construction team was acting for Hochtief in connection with the collapse of a 6km tunnel at the Glendoe hydroelectric scheme. In 2017 the case was resolved in favour of the firm's clients. Much like this one, a lot of cases are “big and high profile.” The majority of the work is contentious and then “the majority of those disputes go to arbitration, although there have been a few big ones in the last year that have gone to the higher courts.” Trainees could therefore get involved in drafting parts of pleadings, drafting witness statements, correspondence with the other side, and document management. Sources “found it interesting to get an overview of how bigger cases are organised and resolved, while being given the opportunity to improve your drafting.”
The vibe at HFW was described as “very friendly and down to earth. You won't find any pretentious characters here.” Sources also highlighted the “open-minded approach” many share at the firm: “You genuinely get the impression that you're not just a trainee here. The partners are interested in your progress and how you're doing.” Another reckoned the culture was “old school – but I mean that in a positive way rather than stuffy and full of old men. I mean the firm has a set of principles, knows what it's good at, and has no issue sticking to that.” And most importantly, trainees emphasised: “I would recommend coming here if you want a good work/life balance.” The common trainee trait seems to be “people who are determined, but with a nice way of doing it. There are no shark-like attitudes.”
“There's no face-time mentality or policy. It's a case of finishing your work, and once you've done that you can go home.” Another source elaborated when saying: “If there's a shipwreck, there's a shipwreck. If you need to be on call then you need to be on call. I've never felt there's no point to it. You're never saying for the sake of staying.” Inevitably, there are “a couple of late nights, but nothing really past a couple of midnights – it's not a regular occurrence.”
"We can just meet up or hang out because we want to, not because we're being made to.”
When the working day is over, the firm's lawyers don't have to venture far to get to the nearest watering hole – it's in the building's basement. Although The Habit doesn't belong to HFW, “if you go down, there's likely to be HFW people there. We do get a discount!” Socialising is mostly informal, because as one trainee put it, “we can just meet up or hang out because we want to, not because we're being made to.” The office location was also praised -- “it's a three-minute walk from St Katharine Docks, so when it's sunny it's amazing. You can have lunch and see the boats.”
In general, the firm has pretty high retention rates: “They have the approach that they invest in you and want to keep you.” And if someone does leave “it's usually been because they didn't have the specific job they wanted, not because there's no job for them.” Overall, HFW “tries its best to make sure people stay.” The process is “on the whole fairly transparent”; the firm releases a jobs list, then trainees apply and interview for their chosen department. In 2017, the firm retained 12 out of 14 qualifiers.
Trainees emphasised "don't feel like you have to love shipping to come here and do well. The firm is looking for a wide range of people."
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How to get a HFW training contract
Training contract deadline (2020): 31 July 2018
HFW runs a week-long vacation scheme in the spring, as well as various summer schemes during June, July and August.
Vac schemers spend time in one department each week. Our HR sources tell us “the work is hands-on and is set to them by fee earners, and there are a couple of assessed exercises throughout.” Participants, who are assigned a trainee buddy to help them settle in, also attend a handful of practice area presentations and workshops. At the end of the scheme, which includes several organised socials, attendees have an interview with two partners.
Our sources encouraged prospective HFW trainees to apply for a vacation scheme if possible. “Many of our training contract offers are made to individuals who have completed a vacation scheme with us. It's a good way for us to get to know you, and for you to get to know our firm and our sectors.”
The application process
HFW offers around 15 training contracts each year. Applying for the vac scheme means you're automatically considered for the training contract too. The firm typically receives 700 vac scheme applications and 500 or so direct training contract applications. Candidates – from both avenues – who impress on paper are invited to a half-day assessment centre. This involves a written exercise, a critical reasoning test, a group exercise and an interview, typically with an associate and a member of HR, or two associates.
The group exercise sees candidates discuss a topical commercial issue, while the written one asks them to read a document and write a letter of advice. The interview lasts about 45 minutes and “questions might include: what drew them to HFW, why they chose an international firm, and a few commercial questions,” HR tells us. “People should know they don't have to be knowledgeable about shipping – or indeed any of our industry sectors – in particular; they just need to demonstrate an understanding of what it means to provide a service, in any context. It's also important candidates show they understand our scope of work, and that it's something they're interested in.”
From here, vac scheme spots are allocated, while direct applicants who pass go on to complete a second interview, this time with two partners. Vac schemers undergo this interview during their placement.
HFW is after candidates with a minimum 2:1 degree and AAB at A level. The firm attends around 12 law fairs each year, but this isn't the limit of its recruiting scope. “This year we've got trainees from 17 different institutions,” HR tells us.
We're told the firm seeks out “bright, pragmatic and globally minded individuals – someone who wants to make a mark on things rather than blend into the background.” Legal experience is always a plus, but the firm values all types of exposure to business –“even working in a bar and cashing up every night.”
Applicants should be aware that a seat abroad is compulsory at HFW. As such, “they're definitely keen on languages,” current trainees told us. That said, training principal Toby Stephens is quick to clarify that while “languages are always a useful additional string to your bow," they are "not compulsory in any way."
International trade explained
65 Crutched Friars,
- Partners 170
- Associates 300
- Total trainees 33
- UK offices London
- Overseas offices 16
- Graduate recruiter: Sarah Burson, [email protected], 0207 264 8293
- Training partner: Toby Stephens
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 15
- Applications pa: 1,000
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 (mitigating circumstances considered)
- Minimum UCAS points: 340 (mitigating circumstances considered)
- Vacation scheme places pa: 35
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 October 2017
- Training contract deadline 2020 start: 31 July 2018
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 October 2017
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 31 January 2018
- Open day deadline: Rolling
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £37,000
- Second-year salary: £39,000
- Post-qualification salary: £61,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £7,000
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London and Hong Kong Overseas seats Paris, Geneva, Piraeus, Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Perth and Melbourne
- Client secondments: Variable
Main areas of work
Each year we run a one week spring vacation scheme and two - three summer vacation schemes (varying between one and two weeks in duration).
We typically recruit around 80% of our trainees from our vacation schemes.
Open days and first-year opportunities
We run an insight day aimed at first year students in the spring.
University law careers fairs 2017