What's better than a merger between two big firms? A merger between three. That's the view of Nabarro, Olswang and CMS who merged on 1 May 2017. The new firm is officially called 'CMS Cameron McKenna Nabarro Olswang LLP' (phew!) but trades as 'CMS'.
The feature below is about pre-merger Nabarro. It was written and researched before the CMS-Olswang-Nabarro merger took place or was announced. The combined firm is recruiting 2019 trainees as a single entity in 2017.
Raising the barro
Given its rep as a mid-sizer with the ability to handle big-ticket real estate work, it's no surprise that Nabarro appears to have its house in order. The latest three-year plan (launched in 2015) is in full swing, with the firm developing its focus on four sectors – real estate, infrastructure, healthcare and life sciences, and technology – and looking to draw in more international work. “We're definitely going to be expanding overseas,” trainees informed us, pointing to the firm's existing bases in Brussels, Dubai and Singapore; Nabarro recently poached the managing partner from an Australian firm's Singapore office in order to boost its projects practice in the region. Nabarro also has its membership of the Broadlaw Group – a network of co-operating firms across Europe – to help it secure those desired international assignments.
At the same time, Nabarro isn't neglecting its presence at home. In 2014, it opened a Manchester base to complement its London HQ and Sheffield office. “Manchester is doing great,” says graduate recruitment partner Marie Scott. “We've now got 40 people working there, and it started with just six. Manchester is attracting international investors and continues to be a centre for large real estate developments and major infrastructure projects. But you’ve got to be there to capitalise on this vibrant market. We’ve had a lot of success locally. ” Since opening, the office has notched up a combo of real estate and corporate deals worth over £1 billion – the £225 million 'New Victoria' development in Manchester's city centre is just one of them.
All of this feeds into what has been a stable time for Nabarro, with new clients like BP and eBay joining its books in the last year, and a fourth consecutive turnover rise posted during 2015/16 – revenue rose modestly by 3.5% to £130.4 million. Our sources were happy with the firm's progress, and cited the sector focus as a step in the right direction: “It's good for the firm, but it's also good for us, as it makes it easier for everyone to get to know each other. They're really keen on getting the departments to interact and collaborate on certain pieces of work.” Another predicted that “we'll be shouting a bit louder about our specialisms and making it clear that we can be a one-stop shop for our clients.” Nabarro's been making efforts to ramp up its perception as a full-service firm in recent years; while its strongest Chambers UK rankings cluster around real estate-related practices, the firm also picks up nods in areas like litigation, corporate/M&A, employment and IP.
“You might make a verbal submission at the RCJ.”
As of October 2016 Nabarro had 52 trainees in London and 11 in Sheffield. Seats at the firm last for four months instead of the standard six, and all trainees have to do a stint in property, corporate and disputes. There's also an overseas seat in Brussels, “which is especially interesting as it's a mix of EU and UK competition law.” There's also a client secondment to Mercedes-Benz. “It mixes commercial and IP work, so you end up doing a complementary half-seat in those two areas.”
Nabarro is ranked by Chambers UK as one of the top seven firms in the City for big-ticket property work, pipping to the post several magic circlers. Lawyers have a hand in some of the biggest property deals in London and surrounds. For example, the firm recently acted for an international consortium of investors as they snapped up 22 Bishopsgate – London's latest skyscraper which when completed in 2018 will be the tallest in the City. Lawyers here also advised Google on the design and build of its UK HQ in King's Cross and are currently working on the funding of two buildings that will fill 'The International Quarter' – the £2.3 billion Olympic legacy development in Stratford.
“You get a lot of autonomy,” said sources in the property department: “You decide what you do and when, and choose when you need support or guidance.” This meant that trainees ran their own smaller matters “like leases, licences or surrenders,” and got to grips with plenty of the drafting. “You really need to get your head around the documents. There's tonnes of exposure to lease terms so you've got to understand it,” one reported. “There's also a lot of partner contact – if something comes in and the client wants it done by Friday you just feed straight back to the partner and don't waste any time.” This responsibility “comes right from the start, but luckily you begin with lots of training sessions which are really comprehensive.” In Sheffield, sources were just as happy with the responsibility, with one boasting: “You'd have about 20 to 30 matters going on at one time which you'd be drafting the leases for – you need great time management skills.”
"You have to think on your feet. It's a great experience.”
“You still get a lot of responsibility,” said one trainee who'd sat in property litigation, “so you'll be liaising with counsel, for example, but everything has to be partner-checked before it goes out; that's just the nature of litigation.” Another added: “The department has really high standards, so you have to think extremely hard before passing on anything for review.” It covers a range of property and landlord/tenant disputes, but specialises in rent reviews, redevelopment issues and rights of light spats –“a very nebulous area of law, which can involve going through seriously old deeds and records of parliamentary debates.” As well as drafting landlord and tenant notices, trainees got their time in court. “You might pop down to the RCJ and make a verbal submission to a master: you're basically presenting a case to these daunting judges and they might ask a question you don't expect so you have to think on your feet. It's a great experience.”
Real 'barro loads of deals
There's a lot of crossover between the property and corporate departments at Nabarro. They work with many of the same clients, like real estate fund Brockton Capital, and recently collaborated on a deal that saw German client Union Investment Real Estate enter a joint venture with Oxford Properties. The team also has expertise in the healthcare, online gaming and infrastructure sectors and handles both public and private work. “Because of the range of specialisms you get to work for the likes of tech companies, entrepreneurs and start-ups, which I suppose you could categorise as 'cool'.” On a fund-raising matter one source found themselves “overseeing conditions precedent checklists, running Companies House filings, and liaising with investors and the company to make sure it all went smoothly.” Most trainees saw their role as “project management” and noted that “there's not so much drafting because the transactions are quite big.” However, on the more “entrepreneurial stuff” trainees could get their hands on a few drafting assignments: “They're more willing to let you have a go, and I got the chance to draft the terms and conditions for a business's website.” The Sheffield corporate team is an active group too; it recently advised the Singapore's state investment fund, Temasek, on its role in a joint venture to redevelop a section of London's Southbank. Over in Manchester meanwhile, the team busied themselves by assisting property investment business Redefine International with its £490 million acquisition of a UK property fund.
"What I think sets it apart is the lack of difficult personalities or intimidating people.”
There are peaks and troughs in the funds and indirect real estate assets (FIRA) seat. “It's a notoriously busy seat with some of the longest hours at the firm, but when I was there it was all pretty quiet!” The team works on huge financings which underpin real estate deals. “The firm liaises with the investors and helps to bring the money in, so you see correspondence from all sorts of addresses and postcodes.” Trainees here are “basically sat at the top looking down,” which means: “You're pulling together lots of corporate documents and sending letters out. You've got to stay on top of your document list, so you'll be chasing people up across the firm – it's quite organisational.” Drafting can come in the form of board minutes (“the classic trainee task”) but we also spoke to sources who'd “put together diagrams to show how companies are organised, be it limited liability partnerships, Luxembourg entities or – not so popular now – Panama entities.”
To learn the tricks of the trade, trainees often spend the first two weeks of each seat immersed in training. “You sit with members of the team and they take you through the basics. There are loads of opportunities to ask questions so it breaks the ice – you get to know the people that you will be working with throughout the seat.” Those in Sheffield get to be a part of the action too: “They pile us on a train to London around 6am for a 9.30am start. It does knacker you out, but it's better than trying to concentrate on a videolink!” While trainees were happy with the day-to-day support provided by their partner and associate supervisors in each seat (“they'll talk you through any questions you have”), a few sources felt that “the firm could invest in more paralegals to take on document control tasks. You do need to know how it works, but there is a feeling that in some seats you spend far too much time just filing and scheduling.” The firm told us this happens especially when departments get busy and that paralegal deployment is always under review.
“It has everything that other City firms have,” one source noted, adding: “It has the clients, the deals, the random bits of Caribbean work etc... But what I think sets it apart is the lack of difficult personalities or intimidating people.” Another agreed: “It's not a 'traditional' law firm because it's not stuffy. I've worked in terrible places where the hierarchical structure governs all of your interactions. Here, trainees deal with partners all the time, and a lot of partners are up for a drink after work.” Sheffield sources appreciated the smaller scale of their office: “You end up knowing everyone as you move around the departments. For birthdays people will embarrass you by singing Happy Birthday, and we're always going out for lunches.”
“A lot of partners are up for a drink after work.”
While the atmosphere across these offices may be similar, the actual bricks and mortar are quite different. Sheffield and Manchester are open-plan (though partners get their own office in Sheffield), while the Moorgate-based London HQ is divided into “offices which hold two or three people.” Londoners claimed the office has the mythical “wow factor,” with views worthy of distraction: “I'm in a meeting room right now and I'm looking over at St Paul's and the Barbican,” one gushed. Sheffield trainees were no less satisfied with their office, but still let slip a little London-envy. “Everything takes a while to roll out here after it's been done there. The fancy taps that they had in London first, for example. Also, our canteen is still cash only, whereas in London you have a pass which you can load with credits.”
In both offices “trainees organise most of the informal social outings,” and it seems they are doing a sterling job. “I've made really good friends with the trainees,” said one Londoner, “as we're in the pub every Friday!” In Sheffield, the trainees got their organising hats on to host a charity ball. “It was 80s-themed and we invited the Manchester office – one trainee dressed as Danny from Grease, which he sort of pulled off...” Apart from those training sessions in London, sources felt that they didn't get too many chances to catch up with their chums in the other offices. However, one event which does bring all the trainees together is the London-based summer party: “There was a barbecue and plenty of drinks at a nice venue – it was just great to catch up with people.”
Where do the offices stand in the battle of the hours? Were they to compare, the London trainees might come away feeling a little sour. Sheffielders told us their leaving time “sort of averages between six and seven” with 11pm as the latest of the late nights. London trainees, meanwhile, gave a different account. “I get out on average around eight,” said one, while others reported staying until the early hours of the morning on big deals. There's always a silver lining though: “You do get dinner at the firm when you stay late – it's a real social occasion!” Retention is usually pretty good too; in 2016, 23 out of 27 qualifiers were kept on.
Completing Nabarro's summer vac scheme is compulsory if you're looking to score a training contract here. Be sure to apply by the January deadline to be in with a shot.
How to get a Nabarro training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2017): 15 January 2017 (CMS vacation scheme)
Training contract deadline (2019): 30 June 2017 (CMS training contract)
Since the information on this page was prepared it has been announced that Nabarro is to undergo a merger with Olswang and CMS effective 1 May 2017. The firm is recruiting 2017 vac schemers and 2019 trainees as a combined entity, CMS. The feature below was written and researched before the merger was announced.
Nabarro recruits exclusively through its summer vacation scheme. Indeed, as the firm's graduate recruitment website notes, the chances of securing a training contract without completing the vac scheme are ' in a word, non-existent'. Hopefuls need to be super-organised to bag themselves a place – the application window opens on 1 October 2016 and closes on 3 January 2017. The earlier you apply the better – the first assessment days are actually before the deadline (see below). The firm receives around 750 applications in total, 100 of which are shortlisted to attend an assessment day.
Getting to this point requires a 2:1 degree and AAB at A level. Beyond this “we want people who are commercially aware and interested in the sectors we focus on,” says graduate recruitment and trainee development manager Mirrick Koh. “They need to demonstrate great interpersonal and teamwork skills, and that they're okay with early responsibility – self-motivation is a must.” Work experience is also a plus, and it doesn't have to be legal. “It's about showing us you have that 'get up and go',” says Koh.
In 2016 the firm recruited 18 trainees from 16 different universities.
Assessment days take place in December and January. In both London and Sheffield, candidates participate in speed-networking sessions with eight firm reps – these can be anyone from trainees and fee earners to legal secretaries and IT staff – along with a group exercise and a written assessment. At this stage, recruiters are examining participants' interpersonal skills and ability to take in information and exercise judgement.
The assessment day also features an interview with a partner and associate. Mirrick Koh suggests candidates “brainstorm the questions you're likely to face before you come – like 'Why do you want to be a lawyer in a commercial environment?' and 'Why this firm?'. It's also good to make a note of relevant skills and experiences so you're not caught off guard on the day.” Afterwards, candidates receive an office tour and lunch.
Of 100 attendees, 50 typically nab a vac scheme: 40 in London and ten in Sheffield.
The firm runs three three-week schemes between June and July each year: two in London and one in Sheffield. According to our sources, two-week stays are also up for discussion if candidates have prior work commitments.
Vac schemers start off with a general induction followed by a day of IT and research skills training. After that, they sit in a single department for the duration of the scheme. One notable feature of the scheme is 'Project Nabarro', an exercise that sees candidates divided into groups and asked to complete a written task and give a presentation on it. In recent years this has taken the form of a real estate project and corporate project which included a client pitch.
On the social side there's a scavenger hunt around the City, a pub quiz, a dinner with partners and senior associates, and a combined skills session and drinks event.
Nabarro has 20 training contracts up for grabs in the 2017 recruitment round: 15 in London and five in Sheffield. The firm prefers its London trainees to complete the LPC at BPP; meanwhile Sheffielders typically attend BPP or the University of Sheffield.
Interview with grad recruitment partner Marie Scott
Student Guide: How has 2015/16 been for the firm?
Marie Scott: In terms of our performance financially, it's been another strong year. Turnover rose 3.5% and it's been strong across both the transactional and dispute resolution divisions. We're also continuing to invest in people across the firm, bringing in ten lateral hires in the last six months across the offices globally and promoting five senior associates to partner.
Markets always have an impact and there was a bit of a pause ahead of the EU referendum vote, but our performance in comparison with our peers has been very good. It’s been a year of investment and continued turnover growth following three consecutive years of increased profitability. I’m pleased to say we’ve awarded associates over £1 million in bonuses for each of the last two years too.
SG: What were the highlights of 2015/16?
MS: Our agile working programme means everyone can work one day from home, allowing of course for business needs. It means you need to be fully set up on the IT side; with your laptops and mobiles to make working from home as simple as possible. It's just like being at your desk, but you can be in your pyjamas, and it can shave off a good few hours of journey time.
From a trainee perspective, trainees can work from home on a case-by-case basis but mainly to accommodate, say, visits from plumbers or dentist appointments. Trainees need to be properly supervised to ensure continuity and not to leave them exposed. They will be in the office the majority of the time We spoke to trainees and the majority of them preferred being in the office, because they were able to dash into someone's room to ask questions.
SG: Can you give us any insight on how the firm might be affected by Brexit?
MS: The firm is strategically positioning itself: we have a core Brexit group which draws on lawyers and partners who have been primed and are up to speed with everything happening day-to-day. We're doing regular briefings for lawyers too; we are on top of things and are managing what we need to.
In terms of what the future might hold, it's uncertain. What I can say about Nabarro, is that since I joined as a trainee, it has been prudently managed and conservative with a small c, so it's well positioned to withstand shifts in the economic cycle.
Everyone has an entrepreneurial spirit, and with prudent financial management we are resilient to market changes, and able to take opportunities when they come. Even if the worst happens and we go into recession – and just to be clear, we aren't saying that's the firm's prediction of what will happen – we can say that we weathered the last one well in comparison to others, and I have absolute confidence that we could do that again.
Every cycle has opportunities. For example, private equity sees opportunity in uncertain market and with the softening of the pound and some price corrections, international investors are going to be looking again at UK assets.
SG: Last year we heard about your three-year plan. How is it going?
MS: It's going very well, and continues to be our three-year plan. We have no intention to adjust it regardless of Brexit.
Core to our three-year plan is our sector focus. We are internally organised in practice divisions, but face clients through four sectors: real estate, infrastructure, healthcare and technology. All staff are included in at least one of those sector groups and people are encouraged to work within them. The purpose of our sector groups is so that we can align with the needs of our clients. I explain this to trainees all the time: clients don't say 'hello I'm a litigation client.' They say 'I'm a pharmaceutical company.' By having ourselves organised internally, we can respond by understanding the industry and the market and what the client's needs are. Unless you understand the client and how they operate, you can't give the best advice.
It was a bit of a lightbulb moment when we decided it was how we would go forward. The next plan will continue with this focus. We can go out and pitch to the tech sector, presenting a team of people comprising of lawyers from many practice areas, all of whom understand the specific business. It's quite fundamental now and has worked well, so it continues to be our core focus alongside developing our international work, which is the other part of our three-year plan.
SG: Is the aim to have your offices working together as a network?
MS: We already are a fully functioning and collaborative network! Our Sheffield office has been around for many years and there has always been strong collaboration between the two offices. We make every effort to collaborate and ensure that we aren't separate offices with colleagues who never meet or speak. In real estate we have clients where we work across both sites and there are people working as a big team in both offices. It makes no difference that people are a couple of hundred miles up the road. So Sheffield is definitely not a satellite office.
In terms of Manchester – Manchester is doing great. It's been open a year and a half and there are now forty people in the office, when it started with just six. Manchester is attracting international investors and continues to be a centre for large real estate developments and major infrastructure projects. But you’ve got to be there to capitalise on this vibrant market.
SG: Trainees have started visiting Manchester for a seat or two, which raises the question: are there going to be trainees stationed permanently in Manchester?
MS: At the moment we don't have a full service there, but have added corporate, infrastructure, construction and energy practices recently; there is a big real estate team, so there are opportunities to do those seats. While the office is growing we prefer offering London and Sheffield traineeships at the moment, with some possible seats in Manchester coming online in due course. We will keep it under review, but for the time being we don't want to limit the variety of seats that trainees can experience.
SG: Are there any plans to have trainees maybe moving between offices for seats, or is the plan to keep it more rigid?
MS: That's not currently part of the core program. Going between Sheffield and Manchester is easier, but asking trainees, or insisting that trainees shuffle between London and Sheffield may not be that appetising, especially if someone has just settled in to a new house. Many have partners or family and it's not fair to have them upping sticks on a regular basis. We like to offer some flexibility instead. We've had trainees saying they do want to move, and so we are flexible and will adapt if they want to try something.
SG: Could you tell us a little about the reasons behind your decision to only hire through your SG: vacation scheme?
MS: Well, when I was summer student, at a time when we did not recruit 100% from the vac scheme – as is still the case with a lot of other firms – I was mind boggled why the firm would invest all that time in getting all these people in, and then limit who was offered a space. And all just to keep open spaces for people who come in for half a day – it doesn't make any sense!
When we moved to this system, it was for those reasons. We invest a huge amount of effort in giving them every chance to understand the culture and essentially to interview us for three weeks. We have plenty of vac schemers who are excellent, so there is no way in the world it would make sense for us to make it harder by favouring those we only see us for an hour or so.
Our recruitment has won a number of awards over the years, which is testament to the effort we put in. It's crucial that future lawyers get an understanding of who we are.
Nabarro's growing international presence
A glance at Nabarro's recent developments suggests that the firm's looking to hit the global big time, and our sources at the firm certainly agreed. They were clear that “we're becoming more and more international. Lawyers from Spain have been seconded here, there's more focus on things like offering language classes at work, and there was an event three weeks ago with representatives from foreign law firms.” Another source pointed to the firm “hiring more partners with international experience.” Nabarro's made eight lateral hires so far in 2016: Chris Gooding and Sukhi Kaler (from Toronto-headquartered Fasken Martineau) will focus on cross-border disputes, while David Parton – Irwin Mitchell's former head of construction – brings his knowledge of the Middle East to the table.
Part of this international buzz comes courtesy of the firm's Broadlaw Group, which teams it up with four leading European firms to offer clients access to over 1,000 lawyers based in 27 cities. The group is made up of GSK Stockman + Kollegen in Germany, Lefèvre Pelletier & associés in France, Nunziante Magrone in Italy and Roca Junyent in Spain, and is co-ordinated through Nabarro's London office.
It's a model that's increasingly popular for firms that want to offer clients international reach without the expense of trying to open up new offices in busy established legal markets abroad (see Lewis Silkin's membership of the Ius Laboris alliance for another example). It's also a less risky model, which means that Nabarro can focus its efforts on fast-growing markets like Dubai, rather than overextending itself in several overseas jurisdictions at once.
Training partner Marie Scott clued us in more about the Broadlaw group, explaining that “it's grown from our European alliance that we've had for a significant number of years, but we've brought in French firm Lefèvre and decided the best way forward is to brand ourselves under a united name. It's not a formal merger but we have IP rights and joint marketing material, and it really gives us a good base to properly market ourselves as an international group of firms.”
The umbrella brand also means that lawyers at the firms are also able to “share knowledge and come up with joint marketing strategies.” Trainees at Nabarro can get involved with Broadlaw by doing the Brussels seat, and once they're qualified are invited to “an annual associates' weekend which is a bit like a mini-conference between those at all the different firms. Each one takes it in turns to host and as well as talking about business we spend time having fun, socialising and drinking. That helps cement relationships too.”
Although at present Brussels is Nabarro's only overseas seat, training partner Marie Scott reveals that “we're definitely looking at offering a seat in Dubai. But first we need to make sure there's the right level of work for trainees there, as sending someone off to the other side of the world has to be worthwhile.”