Holman Fenwick Willan LLP - True Picture

More than just a shipping firm, Holman Fenwick Willan offers a litigation-heavy training contract with at least one guaranteed seat abroad.

Bring me that horizon

Holman Fenwick Willan has long been known for its prestigious shipping pedigree, but these days the London firm's international commerce side takes centre stage. HFW has a heavy sector focus and, in an effort to become more streamlined, recently reorganised itself around four industry groups: shipping, aerospace, insurance and reinsurance, and energy and resources. “We went for industry groups rather than practice areas to be more in tune with the way our clients are organised,” explains training principal Toby Stephens. The forays into construction and aerospace are relatively recent.

Many of our trainee sources were attracted to HFW for the international scope of its workload, and for the firm's expertise in shipping and commodities law (both practices win top nationwide rankings from Chambers UK). "It's important to understand how important international commerce is to the firm's identity and how much of that kind of work you're likely to do," a trainee noted. "I think people sometimes hear the word 'shipping' and immediately think 'piracy'. We do handle that kind of work and are in fact very well known for it, but it's a smaller part of our output than you might think, and often something that's left to experts like master mariners." Something else to know about a training contract here is that it's heavy on contentious work. There's litigious work across all four industry groups, and trainees frequently complete three contentious seats and one transactional one. "Our transactional teams are growing very quickly and are starting to open up some doors qualification-wise, but still you shouldn't come here if you're not okay with doing mostly litigation," one source pointed out. Not that this kind of work is narrow in scope; HFW handles everything from construction adjudications and trade arbitrations to contractual disputes and insurance claims.

The London headquarters sit at the centre of HFW's global network, which includes a dozen offices across Europe, Asia and Australia. “You're not so much working with other offices as they are working with London,” said one trainee. “I've only done one or two entirely British cases during my training contract,” a second-year reported. Indeed, this is the firm for you if, for example, you want to "negotiate a contract in one country providing for oil to be piped from a second to a third," or “help a client purchase a ship, use it to transport goods across international waters, and then defend them against claims the goods were damaged.” Given the firm's many international clients, language skills "will definitely help your application,” insiders revealed. “Most trainees here speak more than one language.”

The firm now strongly encourages trainees to do an overseas seat as part of their training contract. Getaway options include Perth, Shanghai, Dubai, Piraeus, Paris, Brussels, Hong Kong and Singapore – we hear the latter two are the most in demand. There's usually only one trainee at a time in each branch, which naturally leads to quite a bit of responsibility. “I'm pretty much doing the work of a junior associate,” said one sitting abroad at the time of our call. 

The Seaborne Identity

Midway through each seat, HR sends trainees an email laying out upcoming seat vacancies. "It lists not only the available sectors, but also whether each seat is contentious.” Trainees rank three seats in order of preference, and “the firm guarantees you at least one first choice.” While some felt this process can “feel a bit like a lottery sometimes,” most interviewees found it suitably fair and transparent and were satisfied with where they'd ended up.

In the international spy community, 'wet work' is a euphemism for assassination. In shipping law, its meaning is a lot more tame. "It's basically admiralty stuff like vessels sinking, colliding or needing to be salvaged,” a trainee explained. "Hijackings and other piracy-related incidents too." And then there's dry work, which "primarily involves contract disputes – for example, disputes arising out of a charter party or sales contract. Dry is more academic, while wet is practical and more likely to end up on the news.” HFW does heaps of both strands. Its shipping team is one of the largest in the world and counts 15 master mariners among its ranks. Clients range from underwriters and shipowners to shipping companies and big salvors like SMIT. 

Trainees who'd worked on wet shipping described “a heavy amount of research” into questions like “When can missing sailors be declared legally dead?” and “When is weather severe enough to frustrate a contract?” They also told of “corresponding with the client and the other side, agreeing elements of disclosure, and drafting witness statements.” While wet shipping cases “are often extremely large and last for years,” dry work tends to take the form of “a lot of small matters.” Trainees with experience on this end of the practice typically encounter "tons" of drafting, from instructions to counsel to witness statements to demand letters. Many dry cases involve Protection and Indemnity Clubs, specialised insurance companies that deal with maritime risks for example, a claim that a certain port is not safe enough for its purposes.

Holman Fenwick Willan's aerospace lawyers have advised on the fallout of some major air accidents in the last few years: they recently represented the operators of the helicopter that crashed in Vauxhall in 2013 and acted for Haughey Air in a dispute against helicopter design company AugustaWestland following the death of businessman Edward Haughey in a 2014 helicopter crash in Norfolk. Trainees sitting with the team, which is top-ranked by Chambers UK, need to know their tort law: "A lot of your time is devoted to assessing quantum of damages.” Given the ease with which aircraft cross borders, they can also expect to bone up on the various international conventions that govern aviation. On the non-contentious side, the team handles a lot of asset finance work: it recently oversaw a Latin American airline's disposal of its planes, and regularly advises high-net-worth individuals on financing arrangements for private and corporate jets. On such matters, trainees are commonly tasked with managing closings and "ensuring that everyone has the right documents at the right time.”

The insurance team acts for both insurers and policyholders across the shipping, aviation, international trade and logistics sectors. Lawyers on the contentious side recently defended Aon against a $140 million claim over property damage that occured during a fire at a Lithuanian oil refinery, while their colleagues on the advisory side helped the General Insurance Corporation of India during its acquisition of specialist insurer Antares. Trainees told us a seat here is the most research-heavy of HFW's offerings. “You can also expect to do a bit of bundling and take part in disclosure exercises.” It's "likely you'll spend most of the time working on a couple of major cases,” interviewees said, "but sometimes smaller cases come through and you get to run them. Everything is supervised, but you're the main point of contact with the client. You'll handle all the client care letters and conflict searches and such.”

On dry land

The firm's new energy and resources division works on corporate, projects and finance, commercial disputes, and trade and energy matters. This is where trainees head for a seat in HFW's well-regarded commodities practice. This team has sub-groups that focus on particular types of commodities, such as grains, metals, and oil and gas. Across all are “a lot of disputes under the Sale of Goods Act, which means that the commodity is either alleged to be different from what was contracted for, or to have been damaged in transit.” Trainees here typically assume a “case and document management role,” but there's also room for research, drafting advice, updating the client on the progress of the case, and taking part in settlement negotiations. On the non-contentious side, the commodities team regularly advises on sale and purchase agreements between traders. We heard from a trainee here who'd drafted a purchase agreement for a supply of liquefied natural gas and coordinated a global review of pollution laws.

Interviewees with corporate, projects and finance experience reported "filling in Companies House documents, researching the AIM rules and briefing clients on the impact of new regulations.” In contrast, a seat in fraud and insolvency is filled with contentious work. The team deals with a lot of cross-border fraud cases, often in connection (as the name of the group suggests) with international insolvencies. Sources with experience here described their role as "quite hands-on," telling us they'd kept busy advising insolvency practitioners on their powers, reviewing documents to determine their relevance, and assisting clients with court applications. We even heard of one trainee who got to attend a trial in the Virgin Islands – by video link, that is.

As with any firm, a training contract at HFW will inevitably involve some late nights, though it's worth noting that the prospect of a late night didn't particularly perturb our interviewees, likely because it's not a frequent occurrence. “I can count the times I've stayed after 10pm on two hands,” said one, while others chimed in to tell us: “By and large, people are out of the door between 7pm and 8pm, and if you're not busy, it might be more like 6.30pm. If you're still working at 10, people will comment on it. And if you're still here at midnight, you've had a really late night!” This is pretty standard across seats, by the way. "No department is known for horrific hours."

High tides

Given HFW's long-running ties with the shipping industry, it's not surprising that "there are a few old-school elements to the firm," like "the way most of the big, successful partners are men who come from an old-fashioned English background. There are a few dinosaurs in the upper ranks." But our sources were keen to note that "this doesn't dominate the atmosphere the way it used to" and "our image is definitely shifting from old-school shipping firm to cool international firm now that trade and commodities work has come to the fore. There's a big campaign to increase the number of female partners and senior associates, and lots of talk about how the younger generations of lawyers are taking over and modernising the firm." One result of this, our sources noticed, is that "there's an increasing emphasis on efficiency and post-recession belt-tightening.” In any case, "the general ethos remains quite friendly and approachable. There's a lot of good teamwork going on, and it's easy to find someone to turn to if you need help."

Trainees had no complaints about HFW's social scene, where "there are more departmental ongoings than firm-wide ones.” We hear the contentious insurance and shipping teams are the most active on this front, and that the aerospace department regularly sends a drinks trolley around every other Friday. “It's up to us to organise our own socials,” trainees said. "We usually do dinner or drinks once a month. If nothing else, you'll always find Holmans people propping up the bar downstairs in the Habit.” As far as formal dos go, “people get very excited about the annual charity quiz night,” which we're sure has nothing to do with it being “quite boozy.” The summer party, a funfair at the Honourable Artillery Company barracks, is also eagerly anticipated.

The firm releases a list of NQ vacancies in May of each year, and job offers are made in June. Some interviewees felt this is a little late in the day, but everyone we spoke to was hopeful about being kept on. The process itself is quite formal: second-years submit their CV to their chosen departments and are subsequently interviewed. In 2015, 13 of the firm's 16 qualifiers stayed on.

And finally...

Holman Fenwick Willan allows trainees to qualify abroad, an option a couple of qualifiers took the firm up on in 2015.

You may also be interested in...

Our practice area features on Litigation and Shipping

These firms with a strong shipping practice: 

- Clyde & Co
- Ince & Co
- Reed Smith
- Stephenson Harwood
- Thomas Cooper
- Watson Farley & Williams

These firms with a strong litigation bent: 

- Clyde & Co
- Dechert
- Herbert Smith Freehills
- Ince & Co
- Irwin Mitchell
- Kennedys
- Kingsley Napley
- Peters & Peters

How to get a Holman Fenwick Willan training contract

Vacation scheme deadline: 14 February 2016

Training contract deadline: 31 July 2016

Vacation scheme 

Holman Fenwick Willan runs a week-long vacation scheme in the spring, as well as three two-week schemes over June and July.

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 obtain a spot on the scheme if possible. “We're very interested in candidates with legal experience, and the vac scheme is a great opportunity to get some. Plus it's a good way for people to get to know the firm.”

The application process 

HFW offers 15 training contracts each year. Applying for the vac scheme means you're automatically considered for the training contract too. The firm typically receives 600 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 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 Holmans, 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 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.

Who is the firm interested in? 

HFW is after candidates with a minimum 2:1 degree and AAB at A level. The firm attends ten law fairs each year, but this isn't the limit of its recruiting scope. “This year we've got trainees from 21 different institutions,” HR tells us.

We're told the firm seeks out “intellectual, proactive, ambitious 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 in 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

At its heart, international trade is all about goods and services getting from A to B – with A and B being different countries. Just like commerce occurring within a country, international trade is governed by contracts: but with goods and services delivered across international borders, which country's law governs the contract? Under international law, the parties involved can specify which country's law will govern their contract and which country's courts will rule on any disputes. The same country doesn't have to be chosen in both instances: in theory, the contract could be governed by the laws of A, with disputes being heard in B's courts. Parties are also free to pick the laws of a completely unrelated third country.

What if B doesn't want to let A's goods into the country? If both countries are members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), then a lawyer's role can be somewhat limited. If, for example, they're representing a company from country A, whose goods are being blocked from entering country B, then legal action can't be brought on behalf of the client directly. Only member states can access the WTO's dispute resolution mechanism, so the company in question would first have to lobby A's government to bring a case against B.

Such disputes take a different course if there's a multilateral trade agreement in place. These can be: simple agreements that regulate trade between two states; complex treaties that set up international trading organisations like the European Union; or even agreements between different international bodies. Unlike the WTO system, most multilateral trade agreements include an Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) clause, which allows private entities (like the company above) to initiate disputes against state parties directly. Instead of being heard in a state's court, these disputes are resolved via arbitration. This effectively provides investors with a neutral forum in which to air grievances, but as a method it's also courted a fair amount of controversy: the hearings are often closed to the public, and critics claim that well-resourced corporations can abuse the system to thwart the adoption of policies they dislike.

Yet the use of ISDS clauses has proven popular: over half of the world's countries have been sued under them since 2000. And it looks like they're here to stay – proposed free trade agreements between the EU and the US and Canada include ISDS clauses. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is a prime example. If agreed, this free trade agreement would virtually erase tariffs – which impose taxes on imported goods – between the US and EU. It would also alleviate other restrictive mechanisms (like quotas) in order to increase trade between the two.

Its supporters argue that the TTIP will boost the EU's economy by €120 billion and the US' by €95 billion, adding jobs in a time of stubbornly high unemployment. Then there are its detractors, who object to the inclusion of an ISDS clause in the treaty, and worry that the deal will lower regulatory standards.

Life in an overseas office

If the thought of packing your bags and jetting off for an overseas stint appeals, you're not alone. Yes, the chance to complete an international secondment tends to be pretty popular among trainees in big corporate firms. Dubai, Hong Kong, Moscow, Paris and Singapore are all sought-after destinations, although firms send trainees everywhere from Dar es Salaam to the Falkland Islands. But what's it really like to work abroad for those months?

The work 

First things first: this is no holiday. Our interviewees generally agree that the big advantage is increased responsibility. “That's the tagline,” recalled one source, “but you really do get more involved.” Overseas offices are often considerably smaller, “with fewer people between you and the partners.” Trainees from Hong Kong to Dar es Salaam frequently told us they were “working directly with partners” on “associate level work.” The best part? “Feeling like I was at the forefront of the transactions.”

Depending on where you're sent, your work could not only be commercially interesting, but also politically charged. Would-be Rémy Dentons should consider Brussels or Washington DC, while those with an interest in geopolitics should look no further than the Middle East. “I took part in an arbitration between three local governments over an oil concession,” said one trainee who had been based in the region.

The social side 

It's not all work and no play though. At times it can be “a bit like Fresher's week,” with secondees from all the English firms in the area clubbing together to form tight-knit groups ready to let loose. Elsewhere, trainees benefit from well-established expat communities, “so you don't need to know the local language to make friends.” Of course, that's not to say that you can't make friends locally!

Regional business hubs like Singapore or Dubai are great jumping-off points for people interested in exploring neighbouring countries. “I could hop on a plane in Hong Kong, and be in Japan two hours later,” boasted one trainee.

Cultural quirks 

In the United Arab Emirates, the working week runs from Sunday to Thursday so that Friday – the Muslim holy day – can be observed. Adapting to the change can be “frustrating”, but one Dubai-based trainee felt that a Sunday start made for a “calmer beginning to the working week.”

Singapore's rep for its efficiency and strict laws can make it sound a little soulless. Nonsense, we say! In fact, Sinapore's streets and markets are alive with the sound of Singlish, a colourful local dialect drawn from Malay, Hokkien Chinese and English. Don't worry if you initially "blur like sotong"– you'll soon be an expert.

Holman Fenwick Willan LLP

Friary Court,
65 Crutched Friars,
Website www.hfw.com

  • Partners 148
  • Associates 227
  • Total trainees 30
  • Contact Sarah Burson
  • Email grad.recruitment@hfw.com
  • Website www.hfw.com/graduate-recruitment
  • Method of application Online application form
  • Selection procedure Online application form, assessment centre (at our London office), vacation scheme (if applied for), final round interview with 2 partners
  • Closing date for September 2018 / March 2019 31 July 2016
  • Training contracts p.a. 15
  • Training salary (2015)  
  • 1st year £36,000
  • 2nd year £38,000
  • Holiday entitlement 25 days
  • Number of seats available abroad 8 (2015)
  • Post-qualification salary £58,000 (2015)
  • Overseas offices Paris, Brussels, Geneva, Piraeus, Dubai, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Perth, Melbourne, Sydney, Sao Paulo

Firm profile

We are an international law firm with over 480 lawyers worldwide and a market-leading reputation for advising businesses operating in a number of industry sectors, including aviation, commodities, energy, offshore, mining, insurance, and shipping and transport, all of which are integral to the way international commerce works. Our clients value the in-depth knowledge this focus brings and as a result our lawyers work on some of the most complex, high-value, international cases in those sectors. We offer our trainees an environment where they will be working alongside some of the most respected and talented lawyers in their field. If you are driven, enjoy challenges and are motivated by the idea of completing a training contract in a global environment, then we would like to hear from you.

Main areas of work

Aviation, commodities, construction, energy, financial institutions, insurance & reinsurance, logistics, mining, ports and terminals, shipping, space, superyachts, travel, cruise & leisure.

Trainee profile

We look for trainees who are bright, commercially-focused and hard working. Strong communication skills and team working skills are a must. In addition, as our training contract is truly international we look for individuals who have a global perspective and an interest in completing international work. Our trainees come from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines and we welcome applications from both law and non-law students and undergraduates and experienced graduates alike.

Training environment

Every year we recruit only a small number of trainees- 15 per year split across a September and March intake. This enables us to give every trainee our full attention, and means that your individual contribution makes a real difference. A training contract at HFW consists of four six month seats – typically three contentious seats and one transactional seat, with at least one seat spent outside of London in an international office. Overall, we aim to provide you with a dynamic, supportive and varied environment in which you are challenged to become the best lawyer you can be and encouraged to contribute to the success of our global business.


Our salaries are competitive. Trainees receive an annual salary of £36,000, increasing to £38,000 after the first year of the training contract. On top of that, we offer additional benefits, which include: study assistance and grants; generous contributory pension; subsidised gym membership; season ticket loan; life assurance; non-contributory medical insurance; cycle to work scheme, dental insurance, free GP service.

Vacation placements

Our vacation schemes are a key part of our recruitment process for trainees and we actively consider all of our vacation scheme participants for a training contract. Completing a vacation scheme enables you to experience our work first hand, and also provides you with valuable insight into our industry sectors, our global reach and our culture. Alongside spending time in at least one department of your choice, you can expect to attend presentations, social events and a final round Partner interview for a training contract. Each year we run a one week spring vacation scheme and two - three summer vacation schemes, (varying between one and two weeks in duration).