Trainees can bank on top-tier global work at Norton Rose Fulbright.
All things Fulbright and beautiful
What do you do if you're an established City firm looking to make a bigger splash in the global market? Well, if you're NRF, you embark on a merger spree that elevates you to the world's upper echelons within five years: since 2010, the firm's joined forces with outfits in Australia, South Africa, Canada and the US, making it (as of 2015) the fifth largest law firm on the planet by head count. Its latest tie-up, with Texan energy firm Fulbright & Jaworski, helped ratchet up revenue over the billion-dollar mark, with 2014/15 bringing in £1.118 billion. Texas, by the way, is also where you'll now find this firm's global chair, Ken Stewart.
Prolific mergers don't always make a law firm better, but NRF made some clever moves: its mergers transformed the firm into one of the global elite – it's rated as the seventh most capable worldwide firm, according to the Chambers Global Top 30. Despite boasting more than 3,800 lawyers in over 50 offices worldwide, NRF isn't quite done yet. While its appetite for mergers appears to have been sated for now, NRF has entered into new strategic alliances with firms in Indonesia, Uganda and Zimbabwe of late. It's also been bulking up its Hong Kong office with laterals from US firms, and using its existing talent to beef up its appeal in Latin America: a cross-office team of partners from Houston, Rio de Janeiro, Bogotá, Caracas and London has been assembled to tap into the projects and energy work emanating from the region. Down under, the the firm has also had an enterprising year: it teamed up with LawPath to offer discounted legal guidance to start-ups looking to raise capital.
Finance is very much a focus in the London base, which is home to around 500 lawyers and another 100 trainees. Sources here pointed to “a heavy banking slant: even if you're doing a corporate or disputes seat, you're likely to be representing banks and financial institutions.” This slant is especially recognised by Chambers UK, which awards top rankings to NRF's funds, aviation finance, shipping finance and energy work. It's also highly regarded for its financial crime, projects, real estate finance, insolvency and financial services offerings to boot.
“It's rare for a week to go past without any correspondence with a foreign office.”
A six-month shift in one of the firm's banking seats – asset finance, project finance or general banking – is compulsory. NRF's young guns are also required to visit the corporate and disputes departments, technically leaving one seat free for a client secondment, overseas sojourn, or a return to a favoured group. However, we heard “there's a bit of an unspoken expectation you'll do two banking seats.” Still, “most of the overseas seats on offer are in banking,” so trainees can always choose to further their financial understanding while topping up their tans in warmer climes. Many of the positions are in Europe, though stints in Dubai, Hong Kong, Bahrain, Sydney, Singapore and Johannesburg are also available. Not that newbies have to do any travelling to connect with overseas colleagues: “It's rare for a week to go past without any correspondence with a foreign office.”
Trainees now submit a hefty 16 preferences before each rotation: four from each of the firm's core disciplines (banking, corporate and disputes) and another four from 'non-core' groups, like tax, real estate, competition and environment. While this may seem a little listing-intensive, sources generally found that the structured system “helps you to plan out your training contract more effectively.” Plus, “if there's a seat you fancy for your final rotation, you can easily prove that you've consistently shown an interest.”
Many sources had started off with a seat in the banking and finance department. “It doesn't matter which subgroup you end up in: banking is tiring,” one sighed. “Asset and project finance are our hallmark practices, so there's always a lot of work about. It's really not uncommon to leave the office at 11pm.” Furthermore, “banking is a very international department that does lots of work with our Middle Eastern, US and European offices. You need to be comfortable liaising with foreign offices and international clients on a daily basis.” So putting in extra hours to negotiate time zones is par for the course. Though fighting off the odd yawn, interviewees were mostly pleased with the department's opportunities; for those with foreign language skills “there are even opportunities to communicate with foreign-language clients and translate foreign news bulletins for people at the firm.”
“It's always 'go go go'.”
The asset finance group earns impressive rankings from Chambers UK for its shipping, rail and aviation expertise. “You can try a bit of each, as long as the partner you're sitting with gives you the green light,” one informant explained. Clients range from airlines and banks to governments, regulators and infrastructure developers – Virgin Atlantic, the UK Government's Department for Transport and Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation (SMBC) all feature on the client list here. The group's well known for advising on leasing arrangements for aircraft purchases, and recently acted for SMBC as it set up a structure which allowed British Airways to acquire six Boeing planes. On the shipping side, London's finance lawyers teamed up with their Hamburg-based colleagues to help Société Générale ditch its 60% interest in two LNG tankers. “The team takes a keen interest in your development,” trainees enthused, “and you feel like an integrated member from day one.” By the end of their seat, they had led their own small transactions, but thankfully “you can run anything you're unsure of by a partner before sending it off. There's minimal hand-holding, but the supervision is there if you need it.”
NRF's projects team is big in the energy, infrastructure and mining sectors. It advises a wide range of public sector bodies, sponsors, lenders and contractors – both in the UK and internationally. On the international front, “Africa, Central America and South America have become important sources of work in recent years,” one savvy trainee told us. Indeed, a combo of NRF's London, Amsterdam, New York and Singapore lawyers recently advised ING Bank on a $750 million financing for SeaMex – an offshore drilling company that's developing five oil rigs for Mexican state-owned oil company Pemex. “It's a very process-driven seat,” said one trainee, “so you have to take a methodical and thorough approach. We're responsible for a lot of proof-reading and document management, and it's important to keep up-to-date transaction check-lists to keep tabs on what needs doing. If you can do the little things well, the transaction should go through without any hiccups. Prove yourself by doing this, and they may even let you take a stab at drafting a contract.”
General banking's a good bet for those wishing to learn the ropes, as it gives trainees “a broad insight into the different kinds of banking work the firm covers.” Those we spoke to had dabbled in real estate and acquisition finance, as well as restructuring and insolvency matters. The chance to work on a range of deals is “a natural by-product of the quick turnover required for most financings. We're a market leader so it's always 'go go go'.” Back-and-forth negotiations make for an erratic schedule: “One minute you're doodling at your desk, the next you're busting a gut to close a deal as quickly as possible. Most people are up for a laugh, but when work needs to be done everyone accepts there's no time to mess around.” Clients include banking big-shots like HSBC, Wells Fargo and Deutsche Bank.
The Hedge of Glory
The litigation group often draws in clients from the banking, energy, insurance and transport sectors. Rookies sit within sector-specific subgroups, though “occasionally there's the opportunity to shop about if things are slow.” Banking remains big business, with a whopping 108 fee earners regularly involved in contentious work for the likes of BNP Paribas, Lloyds and RBS. Mis-selling claims are never far from the headlines and crop up frequently here: NRF recently advised Lloyds on over £150 million worth of claims tied to the sale of interest rate hedging products to small and medium-sized businesses. In addition, “we're still covering a lot of fallout cases from the 2008 recession,” so there are plenty of corporate crime investigations and insolvency disputes kicking about. On these sorts of cases, “you have to be aware that the stakes are high. Partners take the reins a lot more than in other seats, so trainees' workloads can be quite admin-heavy.” Nevertheless, sources had been in regular contact with counsel and expert witnesses, and drafted letters and e-mails to clients. “The opportunities are there, but you need to make sure everything is triple-checked before it's submitted,” said one insider.
Those joining the corporate department are also placed in one of four sector-specific subgroups, which focus on financial, insurance, energy and tech clients. “There's not much scope for trainees to sample other groups,” we heard, “but the work within each team is varied enough to keep things interesting.” Whether ploughing through M&A or facilitating IPOs, providing regulatory advice or helping out with corporate shareholder matters, juniors found the work on offer “impressive” in its international scope. A recent deal saw the group advise Angola's state-owned oil company, Sonangol, as it acquired Texas-based Cobalt's 40% interest in discoveries off the nation's coast – for a not insubstantial $1.75 billion. “Foreign colleagues regularly dial in looking for local advice, and you'll need to do the same when multi-jurisdictional transactions throw up certain particularities.” Besides producing memos based on these insights, trainees challenged themselves further by drafting board minutes and completion documents, while doing their very best to swerve “the inevitable drudgery of printing and compiling closing documents.”
Banking's fickle schedules may create some late nights, but “it remains a popular seat as you get access to high-profile clients.” Thankfully, other departments, like disputes and real estate, are “a little more consistent: you'll work hard during the day, but it's fairly common to be out of the office by 8pm.” But if you're really after a better work/life balance for six months, nabbing a client secondment is a good idea: “There's just more of an appreciation that people have lives outside of work at these places.” Sources who'd sojourned at clients reported enjoying consistent ten-hour days, as well as increased responsibility: “The level of work is more in line with that of an associate. I was even allowed to lead negotiation calls with the other side.”
“It's important to show that you're globally minded.”
Being globally minded is one thing, but being more of an independent sort is another. If you like a lot of hand-holding, NRF may not necessarily be for you: “The reality of training at a busy top-tier law firm is that getting everything checked by an associate is a luxury that isn't always available,” one interviewee pointed out. “So we're encouraged to go and give things a shot; supervisors trust us to do things to the best of our ability. Of course you'll slip up occasionally, but when mistakes are made they'll sit you down and talk you through where you went wrong.” However, more formal pointers are provided by seat-specific 'knowledge teams', which “organise a few introductory training sessions to get you up to scratch.” There are also mid and end-of-seat reviews, which rate rookies' “technical abilities, efficiency, willingness to contribute and initiative.”
Take me to the place I love
Nestled in the shadow of Tower Bridge, NRF's swanky More London digs received a thumbs-up from trainees. “There's a bit of an outdated perception that anything south of the river is a write-off,” one scoffed. “But we're a stone's throw from City Hall and London Bridge Station. It's definitely a hub for big business, but you get the benefit of feeling like you're a little less in the smoke than you would be in the City proper.” Instead, Nortonians get a spectacular view of the City from their glass palace across the river. Trainees would appreciate a more open-plan layout though: “It can be quite nerve-wracking to knock on doors when you first arrive!” However, trainees do share an office with either a partner or a senior associate, who often acts as a good intermediary. With a newly renovated cafeteria and an in-house music room –“complete with a grand piano and inspiring views of the bridge” – there are also plenty of good spots for NRF's lawyers to chill.
If they're not huddled round the old Joanna, NRF's off-duty lawyers can usually be found at either The Bridge or The Ship on Tooley Street. “Both are Friday staples for us trainees,” one added, “but partners come along too, and will usually insist on getting the first round in!” A few drinks were in order around qualification time, when 39of NRF's 43 second-years were elevated to NQs. “If you're a good candidate departments will find a space for you, even if there isn't one going. In the last qualification round a few people didn't get offers from their chosen departments, but banking was able to open up extra positions and offer them places instead.”
“Even in urgent times people give you the time of day for a light-hearted conversation,” trainees beamed. “There's a real feeling that from the off everyone is keen to get to know you.”
How to get a Norton Rose Fulbright training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2016/17): 30 October 2016 (winter); 8 January 2017 (summer)
Training contract deadline (2019): 29 January 2017 (finalists and graduates, both law and non-law); 16 July 2017 (penultimate year law undergraduates, plus finalists and graduates – both law and non-law)
Norton Rose Fulbright requires prospective trainees to have obtained a minimum AAB at A level and 2:1 degree, though like many firms it takes extenuating circumstances into consideration. Trainee recruitment team members Natasha Sheehan and Riann Quinn tell us that a global mindset is highly valued: “We really want people who would like to complete a secondment, either internationally or at one of our clients – a flexible approach is important.”
The firm targets 22 UK universities each year: it attends law fairs, hosts drinks receptions and organises various negotiation competitions and skill sessions as well. Sheehan and Quinn 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 seven-day scheme in the winter. There are 45 places available across the three schemes, and candidates are paid £350 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 vacation scheme begin with an online form that touches on an applicant's academic history, work experience, business knowledge and interest in Norton Rose Fulbright. “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 two departments, sharing an office with an associate or a partner. They're also assigned a trainee buddy. In the past attendees have completed drafting assignments, attended meetings, sat in on conference calls and undertook research tasks. “Norton Rose Fulbright 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.
The training contract application process
Around 2,000 people apply for Norton Rose Fulbright'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 Sheehan and Quinn. “You don't have to have completed our vacation scheme 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 taken part in 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 Norton Rose Fulbright, their commitment to the law and their commercial knowledge. Meanwhile, the assessment and exercise aim to measure critical 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,” Sheehan explains.
The day includes lunch with the current trainees and a tour of the building. “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.”
How to be a lawyer in a globalised market: the view from Norton Rose Fulbright
Norton Rose Fulbright
3 More London Riverside,
- Partners 1,100*
- Assistant solicitors 3,800*
- Total trainees 103
- *denotes worldwide figures
- Contact Graduate recruitment
- Method of application Online
- Selection procedure Application form and assessment day including written exercise, negotiation exercise and interview
- Application dates for 2019
- Finalists and graduates: 29 January 2017
- Penultimate-year graduates: 1 June 2017
- Training contracts pa Up to 50
- Applications pa 1,500+
- % interviewed pa 5-10%
- Required degree grade 2:1
- Training salary
- First year: £42,000
- Second year: £47,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- % of trainees with a non-law degree pa 50%
- No of seats available abroad pa Approximately 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.
Main areas of work
When we hire you, we are making an investment. By providing the highest standards of training we ensure we obtain maximum return on this investment both for your development and the future of the firm. Becoming an outstanding lawyer is about continuous development – we will make sure you are challenged and rewarded in equal measure.
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 career insights, advice on secondment choices, regular updates on your progress and will take the time to sit down with you and explain a deal or technical issue.
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 confidence to build long term, trusting relationships with clients and colleagues.
Finalists and graduates may apply for our winter scheme from 1 to 30 October 2016, with assessment days in mid-November.
Penultimate-year undergraduates and finalists may apply for our two summer vacation schemes from 1 October 2016 to 8 January 2017, with assessment days in January 2017.
First year-undergraduates can apply for our First Step programme from 1 to 28 February 2017. The programme will run from 3 to 7 April 2017.
Penultimate-year undergraduates, finalists and graduates are eligible to apply for our two open days.
Please refer to our website for full details.