Not content with just being a City bruiser, Norton Rose went on to forge a huge global network – and the firm gears its trainees for a fittingly international career.
From the trees on the Thames riverbank emerges a resplendent edifice, its nine-storey glass atrium refracting sunbeams like an ice palace. The impressive digs house an impressive firm. Norton Rose Fulbright is a global powerhouse, with some 3,800 lawyers and around 55 offices scattered across the world's major legal hotspots. The past five years have seen NRF on an ambitious expansion spree: since 2010 it's welcomed Australian, South African, Canadian and American outfits into its fold. (Click on the 'bonus features' tab above for the full lowdown.) The paint is still drying from its most recent takeover – Texas outfit Fulbright & Jaworski, in summer 2013 – but this behemoth doesn't look done expanding just yet. The firm recently announced several alliances with African firms, including one in Zimbabwe, and we heard tell that it anticipates more significant growth in Africa as well as Latin America.
The London branch, home to around 500 lawyers and another 100 trainees, bags dozens of Chambers UK rankings, demonstrating strength in everything from aviation to commodities to energy to insurance. Aspiring trainees should pay attention to the firm's finance prowess in particular, as the training contract here is quite banking-oriented. The firm is top of the crop in the funds, aviation finance, shipping finance and capital markets spheres, and it's highly revered on the financial crime, real estate finance, insolvency and financial services sides too. All trainees have to do a banking seat (either asset finance, project finance or general banking), and stints in corporate and disputes are also required. "HR has a tough job with allocation," our trainee interviewees admitted. "It's kind of like Jenga since there are so many of us." It seems they're pretty good at the game, though: the vast majority of our interviewees were pleased with the ways the chips had fallen, telling us: "It's rare not to get what you want if you're upfront with HR and back up your preferences."
Stakes on a plane
Among the general banking team's specialisms are restructuring, insolvency, asset finance and real estate finance matters. "There are also plenty of tech finance transactions.” The client list comprises VIPs galore, including Bank of America, BNP Paribas, Deutsche Bank and ING. Trainees here reported “liaising with local counsel, commenting on foreign law security documents, and making sure conditions precedent are up to speed. You get more and more responsibility as your seat progresses.”
The asset finance practice is huge in the aviation sector, and frequently advises on leasing arrangements for aircraft purchases, as well as cross-border aircraft portfolio transactions. Clients range from airlines and banks to export credit agencies, brokers, governments and regulatory bodies. There are plenty of household names on the roster, including easyJet, Malaysian Airlines and Monarch Airlines – lawyers in New York and London recently teamed up to advise the last of these on its $3.5 billion re-fleeting programme; Londoners also helped Scandinavian Airlines with the financing of four planes acquired from Airbus by the Chinese Bank of Communications. "We're constantly liaising with counsel in other countries,” trainees reported. Drafting finance documentation, "which gives you great exposure to everything that's going on with a deal," is also par for the course, "though you have to do a bit of support and document management work before moving on to meaty tasks like this," they noted.
Alongside its aviation is a rail-focused team with a similarly enviable client portfolio. Lawyers here recently advised the UK Department for Transport on the re-letting of the InterCity East Coast Franchise, though it's not just domestic work the team handles. "Many of the locomotives we deal with run throughout Europe, and the banks we advise are foreign too, so international aspects come into play pretty often,” a trainee said. They went on to tell us: "I spent a lot of my seat working on a large ongoing locomotive transaction, which meant running small draw-downs and financings.”
With a whopping 140 lawyers, NRF's projects team is itself the size of a small firm. The group is big in the energy, infrastructure and mining sectors, and has heaps of international clients, including Standard Bank of South Africa, Denmark's DONG Energy and Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy. Africa-based work has become a big focus in recent years. In 2014 the team advised Australian securities company Sundance Resources on its sponsorship of a $5 billion development of iron ore mines, plus rail and port infrastructure to transport the ore, in Cameroon and the Republic of Congo. For trainees, “most of your time is spent proofreading, drafting minutes during conference calls with counsel, and doing verification. They trust us with a lot – for example, we send emails off without having them checked over by partners all the time.” One interviewee noted that “the team has a rep for being especially hard-working, and I guess it's true – I worked really long hours when I sat here. But I had plenty of client contact and was even taken abroad for a closing. It was definitely worth it.”
The corporate department regularly advises on complex cross-border M&A deals, often teaming up with other offices to do so. Lawyers from London, Amsterdam and Hamburg recently united to advise BP on its acquisition of jet fuel business SFRA, a move that added around 73 new airports to Air BP's global fuels network. Corporate clients include both buyers and sellers, and range from big-name banks – like Barclays, HSBC and Lloyds – to small companies across the energy, technology, infrastructure, mining, transport and life sciences sectors. "99.9% of the work I've done has been international," said a trainee here, who went on to report that "corporate requires a lot of partner input; you can't step up after a certain amount of time the way you're able to in, say, asset finance. There's always proofreading for you to do, regardless of how experienced you are.” That said, we did hear from trainees who'd advised clients "almost directly” and “run small agreements alone.” Corporate trainees sit with a specific group like M&A.
Banking, energy, insurance and transport disputes form a large portion of NRF's litigation workload. The department is huge, with 108 lawyers in the banking litigation team alone. This team services the likes of BNP Paribas, RBS and Citigroup – at the time of our calls, lawyers were embroiled in Citi's high-profile finance dispute against Mercuria Energy, which involved $270 million of loans backed by metal held under lockdown in Chinese ports. Again, trainees sit with a specific subgroup, like insurance or transport. Our interviewees were pleased with the responsibility and variation of tasks they'd encountered. “There's a lot of admin and research, but the latter can be really interesting, and the resources are excellent," said one. "If you show partners that you're diligent and capable, they let you contribute to first drafts of things like submissions for expert determination.” One's most rewarding moment had been “getting the expert's decision back and seeing it referred to paragraphs I'd drafted!” Another enjoyed getting to grips with the “geo-political issues underlying the work.”
Many aspiring trainees target NRF for its enticing array of overseas seats. Six-month stints in Hong Kong, Milan, Athens, Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, Paris, Singapore, Dubai, Tokyo and Johannesburg are all on the menu. "Not everyone's wishes can be accommodated," insiders said, “but if you flag up where you want to go early on, you have a good chance." Those with experience abroad drew some comparisons with London: apparently there's “a lot more responsibility” in Athens; “less trainee-level and more associate-level work” in Singapore; “slightly less support” in Dubai; “not enough training but an overall exciting experience” in Hong Kong. There are also client secondments at the likes of ExxonMobil, Citi and HSBC.
Big (Apple) dreams
As far as working culture goes, our interviewees described a collaborative atmosphere in which "people feel a sense of loyalty to each other. Part of that is that trainees have a lot of access to partners, and that we're made to feel valued. Partners are usually really approachable and often ask your opinion on something or swing by to say, 'You've done a great job, thanks.' It's great that we sit right alongside our supervisors. You pick up so much by listening to their conversations with clients or other lawyers." It helps that “most people here seem to have a good sense of humour. People have fun together; it doesn't feel like a chore coming to work.” At the same time, trainees were keen to note that "we have certain similarities, but NRF isn't just a club for people who are clones of each other. There's scope for a lot of different personalities here, and that's what makes us work well." It seems the more competitive among them make good use of the many firm-sponsored sports teams and most enjoyed the 2015 spring party, held at indoor arcade Namco Funscape. Shier individuals, fear not: there are plenty of more laid back affairs on the calendar too, like the Friday drinks trolley.
Trainees revealed: "There were a few concerns about the culture changing when the latest merger went through," but most were content that "NRF hasn't forgotten its roots." That said, "it'd be nice to see more of an influence from the American merger on the trainee side of things. Some of us were hoping they'd open up a New York secondment." Aside from this point, our sources felt by and large clued in on the firm's plans for the future. "We all know that our target markets are Africa, the USA, South America and India. We're told where the pitches are and where we're focusing our practices, and lots of teams keep blogs we can follow too, such as the Regulation Tomorrow blog. The bottom line is: NRF is part of the global elite and will continue to expand.”
But will today's trainees be tomorrow's NQs? “The firm does try to accommodate everyone,” one source thought, "but I just wish they'd publish a jobs list to ease some of our fears about qualification. At the moment it's a case of putting in your application and hoping for the best." Several interviewees were under the impression that “where person A and person B want the same job, but person B also has an offer for another position, HR massages it so that both individuals stay on, irrespective of B's preference. It can be a great thing, but it's not always fair.” In 2015, 45 out of 57 qualifiers stayed on with the firm.
Curious about hours? An average day for many of our interviewees runs from 9am to 8pm. Don't rule out the “occasional horrendous but very much appreciated” all-nighter, though.
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How to get a Norton Rose Fulbright training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: 31 October 2015 (winter), 8 January 2016 (summer)
Training contract deadline: 31 January 2016 (finalists and graduates, law and non-law); 15 July 2016 (penultimate year undergraduates; law and non-law)
Norton Rose Fulbright requires prospective trainees to have a minimum AAB at A level and 2:1 degree, though like many firms it takes extenuating circumstances into consideration. Trainee recruitment team members Caroline Lindner and Jillian Dent tell us that a global mindset is highly valued: “We really want people who would like to do a secondment, either internationally or at one of our clients – a flexible approach is important.”
The firm targets 30 UK and Irish universities each year: it attends law fairs, hosts drinks receptions and organises various negotiation competitions and presentations as well. Lindner and Dent advise students to engage with the firm if it visits their campus “to get the best out of us.”
The vacation scheme
The firm runs three vacation schemes each year: two three-week schemes in the summer, and one eight-day scheme in the winter. There are 40 places available across the three schemes, and candidates are paid £300 per week. Around 1,500 people apply for the vacation scheme every year. We're told somewhere between 50 and 60% of each trainee intake has completed the scheme.
Applications for the vac scheme begin with an online form that touches on an applicant's academic history, work experience, business knowledge and interest in NRF. “We're looking at the skills and qualities which an individual can bring to the practice, along with a genuine interest in and awareness of commercial issues,” our trainee recruitment sources say. “Accurate spelling and grammar are essential too.”
Those who impress go on to complete an assessment day similar to the one outlined below, and from here the firm chooses its vac schemers.
Vac schemers spend their visit in one or two departments, sharing an office with an associate or a partner. They're also assigned a trainee buddy. In the past attendees have reported drafting, attending meetings, sitting in on conference calls and undertaking research tasks. “NRF is a people place, so get to know as many people as you can here – the partners in particular,” advised one of the firm's current trainees.
At the end of the scheme, an interview with two partners determines who gets onto the training contract (although if a vac schemer decides he or she is not ready for an interview yet, that's not frowned upon – see our interview with Jonathan Ball, below, for more details.)
The training contract application process
Around 2,000 people apply for NRF's training contract each year. The form is exactly the same as the one for the vacation scheme.
“We expect to see some legal work experience from our training contract applicants,” say Lindner and Dent. “You don't have to have done our vacation scheme here or one at another firm, but you do need to show commercial experience.” They go on to mention “we're client-facing and place a huge emphasis on teamwork, so if you've done something like sport, drama or volunteering, we want to hear about that too.”
The firm invites the strongest applicants to an assessment day that involves an interview with two partners (or a partner and a senior associate), a written assessment, and a group negotiation exercise. The interview aims to test an applicant's motivations for joining NRF, their commitment to the law and their commercial knowledge. Meanwhile, the assessment and exercise aim to measure thinking and writing skills, and how well someone works as part of a team. The written assessment in particular is “more focused on what we do as a business,” Lindner explains.
The day includes lunch with the current trainees, a tour of the building and even an afternoon tea. “It is quite a full-on day, but we've deliberately designed it to be like that,” our sources tell us. “We want to give people a real impression of what we're like as a business, and we want to see how they respond to that.”
Norton's international network
A good way to introduce Norton Rose's international network is to talk about its banking work. As we explain in our True Picture on the firm, NR's banking practice actually covers several different groups which you could consider distinct practice areas. What unites them under the banking header is their central relation to bank-backed commercial loans. These can be loans to buy things (asset finance), build things (project finance) or take over things (acquisition finance).
This kind of finance work requires people to run the transactions (M&A), handle disputes (litigation) and organise non-bank funding (capital markets). Also needed are lawyers to advise on related property, regulatory, competition, employment and tax issues – all areas in which NR has strong practices. (It should be noted that these teams also have a significant workload independent of the banking practice too.)
Banking is one of the world's most globalised industries, which provides one explanation for Norton Rose's recent worldwide expansion; the tide of globalisation is forcing all businesses involved in banking to extend their reach. The finance-focused magic circle firms have enjoyed an established and solid network of overseas offices for over a decade, but the past few years have seen an increasing number of City firms jostling for a position on the world stage, with many pursuing international mergers. Norton Rose is among the more successful members of this group.
On 1st January 2010 NR merged with Australian firm Deacons. No small potato, Deacons had 150 partners and offices in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Canberra, Perth, Singapore and Jakarta prior to the merger. Then on 1st June 2011, NR undertook a three-way merger with Canadian firm Ogilvy Renault and South Africa's Deneys Reitz. A fourth tie-up followed on 1st January 2012, this time with yet another Canadian firm: Calgary-based MacLeod Dixon. Calgary is in the oil-rich Canadian province of Alberta (aka the Canadian equivalent of Texas), and MacLeod Dixon also had offices in the oil-producing nations of Kazakhstan and Venezuela.
You can't be a global law firm without a presence in the US, and NR's goal of merging with a US firm was an open secret for the first few years of the 2010s. There were informal referral relations with a couple of US firms and as we understand it NR sounded out a couple of these before finding a merger partner. The choice eventually fell on Texas-based Fulbright & Jaworski, like MacLeod Dixon a firm with a strong energy practice. The merger took place on 3rd June 2013 and as a mark of Fulbright & Jaworski's importance in the partnership the name of the whole firm was changed to Norton Rose Fulbright.
Generally speaking, the stated aim of the Deacons merger was to expand the firm's presence in Asia, while the South Africa tie-up was initiated to help NR's emerging Africa practice. Africa's natural resource sector is booming, while Canada and Australia also have large natural resources industries: oil and gas is big in the former, as is mining in the latter. Both commonwealth nations are seeing increased investment from European and Asian businesses into these sectors. Simply put, where there's investment, there are loans. Where there are loans, there are banks. And that's where Norton Rose Fulbright comes in. Now that the firm has an extensive American presence, it's poised well to tackle the energy sector on all fronts.
In just a few years, since 2009/10, Norton Rose has gone from being a international City practice with around 1,000 lawyers to a global firm with a lawyer headcount over three times the size. In 2014 the firm opened its first Brazil office in Rio de Janeiro, complementing existing Latin American offices in Caracas (Venezuala) and Bogotá (Colombia). It also signed alliances with two African law firms in winter 2015, giving it a presence in two of the continent's more unpleasant jurisdictions, Uganda and Zimbabwe. (We should note that at the same time the firm closed its Prague office, denoting perhaps a shift in the relative importance of different global regions both for NR itself and the world economy.)
NR's globalism is reflected in its trainee group, which includes a large number of people with South and East Asian family backgrounds. 16% of trainees are from an ethnic minority background.
Interview with trainee recruitment partner Jonathan Ball and trainee recruitment manager Caroline Lindner
Student Guide: What's been going at the firm work-wise? Any particular highlights of 2014/15 that you'd like our readers to know about?
Jonathan Ball: Since our combination with Fulbright & Jaworski in 2013, we have spent a lot of time on integration. The combination opened up more opportunities from the US and we're always working on interesting projects with colleagues around the network which is exciting.
We opened an office in Brazil in 2014 and our alliances in Africa in 2015 mark a significant step forward in the development of our practice, and will further enhance our global offering.
SG: Are any practice areas growing faster than others, and are any shrinking?
JB: Areas like IP, data security and cyber risk are continuing to grow. Many of our clients are very concerned about areas of growing risk (such as cyber) and are looking to us to support their needs globally. IP contentious work continues to be active and as a result, we recently expanded the team in Germany. Regulatory risk work is also growing and for many clients, from banks to pharmaceuticals, this is an ongoing issue. In M&A, the corporate team recently acted for Orange in the sale of EE to BT – one of the biggest public market transactions this year.
SG: What's most obviously changed about life at the firm since the Fulbright merger? All trainees agreed it had been “seamless,” but some used the word more positively than others.
JB: We have achieved significant growth in recent years, creating a truly global practice. We are committed to building a strong platform for our global business and encouraging our lawyers to take full advantage of the opportunities that our global capability presents. As part of their training contract all our trainees are offered secondments with either a client or within one of our international offices. So the biggest most obvious change is the expanded global practice and what this brings with it.
SG: Is there anything you can say about the firm's strategy for the future? Any plans for further expansion on the horizon?
JB: Our strategy is based on global growth supported by strong industry focus and excellence in client service. As such the development of emerging markets presents an abundance of opportunities for our clients. Latin America and Africa are key regions. We opened an office in Brazil in 2014 and our alliances with Africa in 2015 mark a significant step forward in the development of our African practice. Being part of a global network allows trainees access to work extensively with our clients and foster relationships with them. This is hugely valuable as it enables the trainees to understand the client’s business and add value to the process.
SG: Any news on overseas seats? Last year your predecessor as trainee recruitment partner Duncan Batchelor mentioned the US, specifically New York, and South America as being in the pipeline.
JB: We're currently sending trainees all over Europe, the Middle East and Asia, a number to Australia and, more recently, Johannesburg. We constantly review secondment opportunities for our trainees.
SG: Moving on to recruitment: how tough is it for HR to try and accommodate everyone's needs and requests when allocating seats? And with so many trainees, how do you make sure people's trajectories meet their expectations?
Caroline Lindner: We do a lot of work with our future trainees before the training contract starts. During the LPC we have a lot of contact with each student. For example, we hold both practice area and secondment fairs. We then meet with trainees regularly throughout the training contract to make sure they're going into teams that suit their skills as well as their ambitions. We have business needs to meet but we focus on each trainee too.
JB: It will always be a challenge but we have a dedicated trainee development team working with the trainees to make sure their aspirations are met. A large percentage of trainees are recruited from the vac scheme during which they get a taste of what the teams do and that can help to inform them.
SG: Similarly, how do you manage things when it comes to the NQ jobs process? Am I right in thinking there's no jobs list?
CL: Correct. We ask trainees to put forward their requests and as we spend a lot of time with them we do know their strengths.
SG: Has anything changed in your recruitment scope we should know about?
CL: We are engaging with more universities than ever before. We visit 30 but receive applications from many others. Law firms' engagement levels at universities have gone up. Diversity and inclusion are incredibly important to the practice, so we have to go out and search for talent in a very competitive market.
SG: Has anything changed in the application process?
CL: We still run an assessment day but the exercises are different. We have refined the application form. We are testing for commercial awareness, and expect all candidates to have a good knowledge of the practice.
On the assessment day for a training contract you will be asked to complete a written exercise, take part in a group negotiation and have an interview with two senior members of the practice. These exercises are now more focused on what we do as a business. We're looking for candidates to get across their interest in training as a commercial lawyer.
JB: The vac scheme constitutes an automatic application for the training contract including the interview. The vacation schemes are an important part of our recruitment strategy but you can also apply directly for a training contract without having gained work experience with us.
SG: Do you think it's true that despite everything the firm still retains a medium sized attitude which feeds its culture? If yes, how do you maintain that and why is it important?
JB: We have a very open, non-hierarchical culture. We're a big international business, with over 3,800 lawyers and other legal staff worldwide, and inevitably the size and international nature of the firm permeates the culture. In everything we do, we are led by our global business principles of quality, unity and integrity. Unity in particular is so important, and maybe that's what comes through. But anyone coming here needs to understand we're an ambitious, successful business.
SG: You have recently started in the role of trainee recruitment partner. What are you most looking forward to in the position? Do you have any grand plans to change anything?
JB: Recruitment is one of the most fundamental things for the firm in the long term. I'm looking forward to expanding the scope of where we look for our upcoming intakes.
We're doing interesting things with universities: for example Imperial College London hasn’t got a law school but they do have fantastic graduates, and we want to work with institutions like that. It's important to have diverse people with different backgrounds and different ideas, and we're making great strides with the student population in being seen as an organisation that people really want to work for. However, in order to survive in this market we need to get out and meet and talk to undergraduates and graduates who are considering a career in law.
Norton Rose Fulbright
3 More London Riverside,
- Partners 1,200*
- Assistant solicitors 3,800*
- Total trainees Up to 100
- *denotes worldwide figures
- Contact Caroline Lindner
- Email email@example.com
- Website www.nortonrosefulbrightgraduates.com
- Method of application Online
- Selection procedure Application form and assessment day including written exercise, negotiation exercise and interview
- Closing date for 2018 31 January 2016 (finalists and graduates) 15 July 2016 (penultimate year undergraduates)
- Training contracts p.a. Up to 50
- Applications p.a. 2,000+
- % interviewed p.a. 5-10%
- Required degree grade 2:1
- Training salary
- 1st year £41,000
- 2nd year £46,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- % of trainees with a non-law degree p.a. 50%
- No. of seats available abroad p.a. Approx. 15
- Overseas offices Over 50 offices in cities across Europe, the United States, Canada, Latin America, Asia, Australia, Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia
Wherever we are, we operate in accordance with our global business principles of quality, unity and integrity. We aim to provide the highest possible standard of legal service in each of our offices and to maintain that level of quality at every point of contact.
Main areas of work
Our mentoring scheme will help you make the most of the vast breadth of knowledge and experience across the organisation. Your partner mentor will offer you everything from career insights to resolving any concerns you may have about a particular transaction you are working on, your client or international secondment, or your general progress.
To be successful here you will understand and embrace our strategy and our focus on six key industry sectors. An impeccable academic record and intellectual rigour are prerequisites. We expect successful candidates to have at least AAB at A-Level (or equivalent) and be on track for a strong 2.1 (or equivalent). You will have an enquiring mind with a profound and genuine interest in the world of international business and the commercial environment of our clients. Your global mindset means that you will embrace the international opportunities on offer. Your interpersonal skills will be second to none and you will have the confi dence to build long term, trusting relationships with clients and colleagues.
Finalists and graduates may apply for our winter scheme from 1st to 31st October 2015, for assessment days in mid-November. Penultimate-year undergraduates and fi nalists may apply for our two summer vacation schemes from 1st November 2015 to 8th January 2016, for assessments in January 2016.
First-year undergraduates can apply for our First step programme from 1st to 29th February 2016. The programme will run from 4th to 8th April 2016.
Penultimate year undergraduates, finalists and graduates are eligible to apply for our two open days. Please refer to our website for full details.