Holman Fenwick Willan LLP - True Picture

This isn’t some fusty old shipping firm: with six months abroad for trainees and expanding international horizons, our sources noted a deliberate “fluidity to work with anyone, anywhere.” 

Holman away

It was during the reign of the 'Sailor King' William IV that the Holman family − sailing-ship owners − set up a maritime insurance firm in briny old Devon. You get the picture: HFW has shipping pedigree by the Panamax-load, which has become a prized commodity overseas. The firm now has a fleet of 17 offices across the globe and has recently ridden a wave of expansion partnering up with firms in Riyadh, Beirut, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Singapore via associations, alliances and 'best friend' networks.

Back in London, the firm is awash with top Chambers UK rankings in shipping, transport and commodities, thanks to its top-flight work for megaclients like British Airways, Total and Rolls-Royce. The firm also wins accolades for its work in the broader commercial arena, but often with some overlap with its core practices, such as travel or insurance.

“The international flavour of the work,” was one quoted unanimously by our trainee sources as a top reason for joining HFW. "It's pretty much guaranteed that you'll do a seat abroad," (the firm strongly encourages it) and with six months training in Paris, Piraeus, Geneva, Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Perth or Melbourne, this is a big perk and an uncommon one among firms of Holman's size. One trainee added: "Most of our clients are international, so because the firm is moving more in this direction, it would be an advantage to have a language.”

"It's more of an 80:20 split towards litigation.”

Over the past few years, HFW has also had a structural change, centring all operations around key industry groups. Last year, the firm had settled on: shipping, aerospace, insurance and reinsurance, and energy and resources. This year trainees told us that “we had four groups; now we have six.” An influx of work in the energy and resources group has meant that separate factions in commodities and construction have now sprouted. At the time of our calls, these fledgling groups had pulled in the most punters, with the majority of our sources testing them out at some point. Both, however, are overwhelmingly litigation-heavy, which has become a common theme in recent years for the training contract as a whole. Trainees told us that “while we do both contentious and non-contentious work, it's more of an 80:20 split towards litigation.”

Most trainees tend to do three contentious seats and one transactional rotation, because of the prominence of litigation across all industry sector specialisms. But there's plenty of corporate work going “and if you're really passionate about something, then HR will try their best to accommodate you. You can tell them at the beginning that you want to have a transactional focus.” Even as first-seaters, trainees get to “throw their hat in the ring” and list three preferences, although “you are at the bottom of the list for getting what you want.” Mid-way through each seat when the process repeats, newbies “get a presentation from trainees who are currently in the department you're thinking of going to.”

Shiver me timbers

Before you apply, you should know that 'wet work' isn't just something from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare“Wet work," a trainee explained, "is when something goes wrong so it's more likely to get wet.” We're talking about when vessels collide, sink, get hijacked by pirates or need to be salvaged. And if some work is wet, then there must also be 'dry work', right? “That's contracts disputes,” told a trainee, such as sales disputes, problems with charter parties or bill of landing discrepancies. HFW does heaps of both strands. Its shipping team is one of the largest in the world, with around 150 lawyers in that department alone, and counts 13 master mariners among its ranks. Clients range from shipowners, charterers, governments and brokers, including CMA CGM, the world's third largest shipping container company.

"You get a real sense of what it would be like to be an actual lawyer.”

One of the most recent wet cases involved acting for the salvors of the $1.2 billion BP drilling platform which nearly capsized in the Gulf of Mexico. Many dry cases involve protection and indemnity clubs, which are specialised insurance companies that deal with maritime risks – for example, a claim that a certain port is not safe for purpose. Dry trainee tasks included “reviewing the relevant clauses in charter parties – because it's rare to just review a straight-up contract. It's a lot of the initial research and collecting evidence and compiling bundles.”

The separate ship finance team deals with the “buying and selling of ships and refinancing them.” Sources proffered that “they throw you in the deep end, but I've relished it.” And our sources weren't kidding; they got to manage their own files like “re-leasing and mortgaging vessels over in Panama,” which required “explaining the deals directly to clients and banks.” The work in finance is particularly international; just one of our sources had handled “a lot of Nordic clients and a couple of things coming out of Piraeus.”

The insurance team acts for both insurers and policyholders across the shipping, aviation, international trade and logistics sectors. Trainees told us that “it's a lot of oil and gas work, but you get a definite feel for all of the practice groups and industries.” On the contentious side, there are “a lot of arbitrations. It's great but depends if you like being hands-on and collecting loads of expert evidence.” On the non-contentious side, “it's very European-focused, working for EU insurers who are trying to roll out policies in five different countries, and we deal with the regulatory side.” Work involved newbies “helping to draft long advices to clients on the impacts of technical regulations, and applications to the FTA. You get way more responsibility – you can deal with clients' questions directly. You get a real sense of what it would be like to be an actual lawyer.” Recent highlights included advising US insurer Ironshore on the regulatory approvals needed in the UK, Dubai, Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore stemming from its $1.84 billion acquisition by Chinese investment group Fosun International.

"They even ask you to do the insurance module on the LPC,” said our sources. But this seems like a wise move, given what we heard from a trainee about reinsurance: “Say my Bugatti breaks down. You take that insurance policy to the general market, where different parties buy off bits of the risk attached to it, and that's reinsurance. It's extremely interesting, but it's so complicated."

“All the offices are used to trainees turning up for six-month stints.”

The firm's energy and resources (E&R) division works on corporate, projects and finance, commercial disputes, and trade and energy matters. The contentious work here “plays out much like a traditional dispute but with a few big characters making it more interesting.” Like most litigation, “it's very document-heavy and on day one you're doing all the correspondence with counsel.” On the non-contentious side, there's a “significant amount of corporate work for ports and terminals.” Some had been working on the creation of a private port in West Africa: “It's covered land leases, rights to operate, and financing, which has all been really good exposure.” Others had drafted sale and purchase agreements, plus service agreements between a Middle Eastern oil company and four thousand oil managers “which was worth over a billion pounds.”

The new commodities and construction practices have now grown out of E&R as separate groups. Commodities focuses principally on liquefied natural gas (LNG), grains, metals and oil. Insiders declared that “it's another litigation-heavy seat. It's a mix of trade disputes, commodity quality issues and demurrage disputes [the charge for slack ship unloading or discharging].” Sources also worked on an “LNG dispute about the allocation of costs between two shippers, drafting witness statements, bundling, cross-checking documents and answering queries.” On the non-contentious side, the commodities team regularly advises on sale and purchase agreements between traders. Construction lawyers were recently working on “a big case in Scotland where a tunnel collapsed in a hydroelectric plant.” This meant our sources were “in court taking attendance notes, researching and bundling.”

Continental rift

The EU, competition and regulatory team falls under the broader energy and resources group. “It's comprised of small mini teams in different areas; there's some sanctions work, money laundering and market regulations.” A lot of work stems from regulating M&A deals, which almost always involve cross-border matters: “Our client was buying a business who had connections to seven different jurisdictions.” EU-related regulatory work is enjoying a Brexit boom these days: “It's an exciting time to be in the department.” Normal tasks are research-centric on things like “what do certain technical terms in a competition law mean?” There's also a fair amount of drafting submissions to competition authorities. In the fraud and insolvency sub-team there's a wealth of cross-border work. “You're only ever an arm's length away from some colourful characters,” one claimed. “You're given the first stab at everything. You do a lot of research and court prep but the partners ask you to chip in with your input at client meetings too.”

"You can talk to absolutely anyone.”

As with any City firm, a training contract at HFW will inevitably involve some long hours, though it's worth noting that our interviewees found late nights to be quite infrequent: “The latest I stayed was 1am, but that was a one-off" −this was a typical comment. "It's not like other firms where you're doing that every night, but you still have to remember that we are a City firm and sometimes you need to stay.” Other than this, our sources told us that “the hours are really quite reasonable. Obviously it can fluctuate, but on average it's 9.30am until about 7pm.”

“Everyone is just up for a laugh," quipped a trainee. "I was really scared about joining, but in my first week I was sat with a bunch of partners at a pub quiz. It was great, because you can talk to absolutely anyone.” This culture appears to have travelled firm-wide: “All the offices are used to trainees turning up for six-month stints, and they're just so friendly and welcoming.” One reflected that “having to go abroad as trainees creates more of a global feel.” Several observed a certain “fluidity to work with anyone, anywhere,” and told how this contributed to the firm “becoming more modern and dynamic. We used to have this reputation for being a bit old-fashioned, but now we have younger partners and we're expanding.”

Back in the Habit

On the social scene there's “Oktoberfest, which is... interesting," told a trainee, wisely withholding the full details, except that "it's held in our café, which has a garden, and there's a BBQ, beer and pretzels." Some events are specifically for vac scheme season, like the stint at 'Europe's largest social ping pong club', Bounce. But impromptu trips to the pub – The Habit – which is conveniently located “right under our building,” are a regular occurrence. For those wanting to detox from the booze, there are a lot of sports on offer too. There's football, sailing and a touch rugby team, which competes against other City firms in Regent's Park. Having banned the rough tackles of trad rugby, sources agreed it's “a good way to network with clients and we all go for drinks after.”

Qualification goes like this: trainees first have individual informal chats with HR to discuss where they are thinking of applying. Then a list of jobs is sent out, normally in May. Trainees then have a week to submit their choices. Interviews will be more formal if the position is in demand; if the opposite, expect to just have a pleasant chat. “It's a long process, but this year there were more jobs than trainees, which was a weight off.” In 2016 12 out of the firm's 13 qualifiers stayed on as NQs.

Don't fancy starting in September? Holman now has two start dates, so why not pop along on a spring tide (March) after six months sailing the Seven Seas?

How to get a Holman Fenwick Willan training contract


Vacation scheme deadline: 14 February 2017

Training contract deadline: 31 July 2017

Vacation scheme 

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

Trainee profile 

HFW is after candidates with a minimum 2:1 degree and AAB at A level. The firm attends around 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 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

Several of Holman Fenwick Willan's practice areas work on matters related to international trade. Here's the lowdown on the sector.

Holman Fenwick Willan LLP

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

  • Partners 161
  • Associates 261
  • Total Trainees 30
  • Contact Sarah Burson
  • 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 2019 / March 2020 31 July 2017
  • Training contracts pa 15
  • Training salary (2016)  
  • First year: £36,000
  • Second year: £38,000
  • Holiday entitlement 25 days
  • Number of seats available abroad (2016) 8
  • Post-qualification salary (2016) £58,000
  • Overseas offices Brussels, Dubai, Geneva, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Paris, Perth, Piraeus, Sao Paulo, Shanghai, Singapore, Sydney. Associations: Abu Dhabi, Beirut, Kuwait, Riyadh, Shanghai, Singapore, Tianjin

Firm profile

We are an international law firm with over 450 lawyers worldwide and a market-leading reputation for advising businesses operating in a number of industry sectors, including aviation, commodities, construction, energy, financial institutions, insurance, mining, ports and terminals, shipping, space, yachts and travel, cruise and leisure, 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 matters 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, yachts, 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.

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).


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.