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 Olswang. 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.
Get into the Swang
Some shirk the limelight, others revel in it. London mid-sizer Olswang, however, occupies the middle ground, conducting its business in and around the glare of flashbulbs. The firm's cultivated a rep as a media maestro since its founding in 1981, and its standing in the technology, media and telecoms (TMT) sector is still the firm's main selling point. High-calibre clients like Warner Bros, the BBC, Microsoft and Amazon point to a pro, while a top-tier media and entertainment ranking from Chambers UK seals Olswang's status as a go-to firm in the area. Of course, this all goes down very well with Olswang's trainees: “The clients are big household names, which makes the work satisfying, especially because you see the work that you've done in the papers.” One of Olswang's clients has received a fair amount of press attention in recent years: Jeremy Clarkson. The firm stepped in to help handle the fallout from that altercation on the set of Top Gear, but more recently helped Jezza negotiate his way to a new motoring series with Amazon.
“TMT is always going to be in the shop window.”
But let's take a look behind the headlines for a moment, as there's more to Olswang. The firm's other sector specialisms cover banking, leisure, life sciences, real estate and retail. Chambers UK ranks Olswang in almost 30 areas outside the TMT bracket; high-ranking practices include mid-market corporate/M&A, IP, administrative & public law and life sciences. When asked about the spread of attention paid to those sector specialisms, training committee member and partner David Bunker told us: “With the brand and client base that we have, TMT is always going to be in the shop window. That's what we are known for and where we have our most active clients. We're focused on being a leading TMT specialist firm with significant interests in other areas, and we're hoping to keep expanding internationally.” New associations with law firms in Singapore and Hong Kong have recently added to Olswang's international reach, which encompasses offices in Paris, Brussels, Madrid, Munich and Singapore.
In London, CEO Paul Stevens is looking to modernise the firm. “He turned up at the trainee induction to set out where the firm was going," sources told us, “and he's looking to introduce a more agile way of working.” This, we hear, will be facilitated by an ongoing conversion to open-plan space, plus investments in tech to make it easier to work from home. With its relative youth, Olswang's never been an old-fashioned kind of firm, and sources were quick to point us to its forward-thinking approach. “Once you join, you are an Olswang person: an Olswanger. And an Olswanger is someone who embraces different ways of thinking.”
The firm's 31-strong trainee cohort are all based in Olswang's London office, close to Holborn tube station. There are no trainees in Reading. Before each rotation, trainees submit three seat preferences. Everybody can select a 'hot seat' and most end up sitting in it at some point. Seats like MCT (see below) and IP are very popular, but trainees were impressed by HR's handling of the allocation process: “They will tell you what is realistic, because allocation does come down to business need. Being up front gives you the resources you need to plan ahead.”
The spy who loved TV
The media, communications and technology (MCT) seat is consistently popular and it's easy to see why: the firm serves the crème de la crème of the film, TV, publishing, sports, music, gambling, games and advertising industries. Matters range from commercial negotiations and M&A deals to regulatory quandaries and data protection issues. “There's a lot to try, which makes the seat interesting, as you're not stuck on the same type of matter for six months.” Recent highlights include advising media company Viacom as it agreed a deal to let Sky oversee Channel 5's TV ad sales business; structuring the tax aspects of spy thriller The Night Manager on behalf of production company The Ink Factory; and helping Tesco sell its broadband business to Talk Talk. Typical tasks saw trainees research media regulations and draft service agreements and licences. “I was able to get a lot of drafting experience,” said one source. “You're very rarely working from precedent so you have to communicate a lot with your colleagues to produce a new document.” Communication's also important because “many trainees go beyond their supervisor to find the work they're interested in. If you want a bit of everything then you have to balance that yourself and keep everyone updated.”
A handful of trainees take up a litigation seat at each rotation, with one lucky rookie assigned to the media litigation team. “People are pretty keen to do that as you work on the most high-profile stuff.” More broadly, the department handles commercial, employment, competition, real estate and IP disputes. A significant case of late involved representing three Safari internet browser users whose data was unlawfully tracked by Google; they subsequently sued the company, resulting in the first new tort to be recognised by English courts in 80 years. The group also hit the headlines when it successfully overturned regulations introduced by the government which allowed members of the public to copy music and films that they'd bought for their own personal use. Sources felt that a seat here wasn't “so hands-on – it's more administrative than anything else. It's hard to get challenging tasks as a trainee, and the complex nature of litigation means there's sometimes a lot of bundling.” It all depends on “the stage at which you enter a case: you could be unlucky and get into your seat two weeks before a case goes to trial, in which case you'll just be learning how the photocopier works.” Those who were fortunate enough to get there earlier picked up “the more interesting tasks,” like drafting witness statements and attending meetings with counsel.
“I didn't feel I was stuck in the minutiae.”
In real estate, trainees can sample a mix of commercial, property management, planning and construction work. Key clients of late include big asset and fund managers like Ares, InfraRed Capital Partners and Benson Elliot. Olswang scores a big-ticket ranking from Chambers UK for its real estate work and deals can occasionally pass the billion mark: the team recently advised Brandeaux Student Accommodation Holdings on the £1.15 billion sale of its UK portfolio to the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board. Most other deals, however, are worth hundreds of millions. Trainees are often given their own smaller files to run: “It involves lots of toing and froing on the phone to clients and then drafting leases and licences to alter or underlet. You're working on lots of different matters in one day – it's a jam-packed seat.” Consequently, “the buck stops with you in real estate; you can't leave something and go on holiday without making sure it's all in order. If someone says, 'Who is dealing with this lease and what's going on with it?' then it's purely down to you to answer.”
“It's helping us to learn by osmosis."
Olswang's Holborn office boasts a canteen and an in-house Starbucks, but the switch to open-plan also kept trainees happy: “It's helping us to learn by osmosis, by seeing and hearing what people are working on. It also removes the fear of knocking on a door to ask something.” At the same time, there are formal structures in place to support trainees. “When I arrived at the firm a second-year trainee buddy was assigned to me. He was great to bounce ideas off, and we'd go for coffee every week.” Newbies also get assigned “a partner, who's normally quite senior, to be your mentor throughout the training contract. They explain a lot of the unwritten rules of working in the office.” In addition, there's a partner supervisor on hand throughout each seat. “Mine was happy to take an hour-long coffee break to discuss what I wanted to work on and how I could get those assignments.”
These support structures help to create a “fairly liberal hierarchy – you never feel you have to keep your head down despite being surrounded by partners.” Other trainees labelled the firm “modern and progressive,” with one explaining: “We need to appeal to our clients and be as progressive as they are.” With all those media and techy clients knocking around, trainees found the dress code to be relatively relaxed. “You don't feel like like you're dressed to go into court every day. Everyone looks cool but not super-formal, and there are a couple of dress-down months during the summer.” On a more progressive note, “corporate social responsibility is a big deal.” Trainees are expected to devote 5% of their time to CSR work; sources had tutored GCSE students and planted flowers in a school, but also took part in big charity events, like a cycle ride from Brussels to Paris, which helped to raise £100,000 for the Carers Trust in 2016. “You'll complete these challenges with partners who don't have their 'partner hat' on, so you'll just discuss everyday life things.” To cap it off, the firm puts effort into being green, by recycling and using its rooftop gardens to grow veg and make its own honey. We're assured that the firm's beehives are “still going strong,” with one trainee adding: “They're not a marketing stunt; people have a genuine interest in protecting bees in urban environments.”
“Most socialising is off the cuff.”
Olswangers looking for a bit of relief from their work don't necessarily have to leave the office. “We've launched a table football tournament that pitches the corporate lot against the commercial lawyers.” Trainees also took a break during Euro 2016 “to watch the England game in a meeting room,” but given the team's performance, we question how relaxing that 90 minutes was. If football makes you groan, then trainees do take advantage of the many bars lining the streets of High Holborn and Covent Garden, “especially if the weather's nice.” However, “most socialising is off the cuff,” with sources reporting that the firm “isn't excessively social – most people have their own life outside work.” There are monthly drinks, plus Christmas and summer parties, but this trainee summed up the cohort's thoughts best: “Could we do more? Probably.”
Working hours can throw a spanner in the works when planning social events. Unsurprisingly, corporate was flagged as a troublesome seat for long hours. “It's generally feast or famine, but my war story involved consistent post-midnight finishes, with the latest being around 3am.” Elsewhere, most trainees found they were out the door by 7.30pm, and didn't feel any obligation “to hang around just to show your face – I've left at 5.30pm before.” On retention, sources warned that future trainees shouldn't come to Olswang with a set plan. “Even though it's a full-service firm, people tend to forget that, and come here only wanting to do media, communications, technology or IP.” Consequently, “there aren't enough NQ positions available in those areas, so it's inevitable that some qualifiers will leave because they couldn't get jobs in them.” In the end, Olswang kept on five of its eight qualifiers in 2016.
Though overseas seats aren't a regular occurrence at Olswang, they happen from time to time with two trainees heading to Munich in 2016.
How to get an Olswang 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 Olswang is to undergo a three-way merger with Nabarro 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.
Each year Olswang receives around 800 applications for its summer vacation scheme. There are ten to 12 places up for grabs on the scheme. The application form consists of the “usual contact and education information, plus a CV and cover letter,” graduate recruitment and development manager Katharine Banbury tells us. “At this point we're looking for a passion for the law. That doesn't necessarily mean legal work experience; you can engage with the law in a variety of ways. People sometimes think if they haven't done a legal placement, they're out of the running, but we value any role where commercial experience has been gained.” The firm expects candidates to have or be on track for a 2:1 degree.
If you manage to grab the firm's attention, you will be invited to take an inductive reasoning test. If you ace that, a 45-minute telephone interview with a member of HR awaits. Those who succeed – usually between 5 and 10% of applicants – go on to the final stage: a two-hour assessment centre in London that involves a partner interview and a commercial awareness task.
Direct applications for the training contract follow this format closely, though the application form involves an additional commercial awareness question, while the interview with HR is conducted in person.
“Our scheme is very tough to secure a place on as we use it as part of our trainee recruitment process, so expect some rigorous testing,” says Banbury. “It runs for two weeks, which gives us a real insight into each student. It's a very valuable part of the process for us.”
Vac schemers spend each week in a different department, and have an associate supervisor and trainee buddy to assist with their day-to-day work. “Alongside their trainee-style tasks, they attend a series of workshops, seminars and lectures, plus networking and social events,” Banbury summarises. Numbers vary, but roughly 50% of incoming trainee intakes tend to be drawn from the vac scheme.
While Banbury assures us there is “no formula for being a successful candidate,” she does like to see those “who have something distinctive about them – a passion they have pursued, like a sport, or charity or CSR work. People stand out particularly if they can show transferable skills.”
Banbury's ears also prick up when candidates are au fait with Olswang's business. “We're quite vocal about our ambitions,” she says, “so people who look beyond our headline practices and understand our changing focus (and the role of future trainees within that) are incredibly impressive. We want candidates – whatever their background – who see the difference between the study of law and the practice of law, and what that means for a commercial client base like ours.”
Olswang's representation of Jeremy Clarkson
We've all been there. Tired. Irritable. In dire need of a succulent steak to round off a hard day's filming. But unfortunately Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson took it a step too far, thumping producer Oisin Tymon in the face when the piping hot goods weren't promptly delivered. This was one mega-tantrum too far, and Clarkson was going to need a media pro to help patch things up. Fortunately for him, Olswang – whose name is still synonymous with the media industry – stepped up to the challenge and represented Clarkson throughout the ensuing disciplinary investigation.
Top Gear was one of the BBC's most popular shows, attracting millions of viewers per episode, making it one of the most-streamed programmes on iPlayer. With such an appetite for car-talk, fans were understandably upset when the show was axed and Clarkson suspended. And they let their anger be known: a petition to reinstate him was signed by over one million people and dramatically delivered to the BBC on a tank ridden by a man dressed as 'The Stig.' Even then prime minister David Cameron spoke up for his old pal, calling the star a “huge talent.”
At the BBC tribunal, Olswang's senior partner Mark Devereux acted for Clarkson, while Slater and Gordon stepped in for Tymon. The decision was not one fans wanted to hear: the outspoken presenter's contract would not be renewed. In the aftermath, BBC director-general Tony Hall made a statement: “A member of staff – who is a completely innocent party – took himself to Accident and Emergency after a physical altercation accompanied by sustained and prolonged verbal abuse of an extreme nature. For me a line has been crossed. There cannot be one rule for one and one rule for another dictated by either rank, or public relations and commercial considerations.” Without Clarkson in the line-up, fellow Top Gear presenters James May and Richard Hammond abandoned ship, declining to sign new deals for the next series.
But was Clarkson simply going to take this? No way. He then turned to US litigation shop Quinn Emanuel to see if a commercial case could be brought against the BBC for breach of contract. It was reported that the presenter may have switched advisers because of a possible conflict of interest with Olswang: the BBC is one of its key clients, after all. The firm recently advised it when entertainment company AMC paid $200 million for a 49.9% stake in cable channel BBC AMERICA.
In the second act of this drama, Clarkson and Olswang continue as key protagonists, but they're joined by a third: Amazon. With Clarkson a free agent, Amazon entered into negotiations with him and Andy Wilman –Top Gear's former executive producer – to settle a deal on distributing a new motoring show. The result? 36 episodes for Amazon Prime at a reported cost of £160 million. Clarkson had Olswang on hand to negotiate this multi-media deal, which will see more money pumped into each episode than Netflix's House of Cards (Hollywood A-Listers Matt Damon and Charlize Theron will be making appearances in the first season). Olswang went on to register trademarks for names like 'Gear Knobs' and 'Speedbird,' creating all kinds of speculation about Clarkson's latest telly outing. Eventually it was announced that the show would be called The Grand Tour and you can catch it from 18 November. But don't reserve a weekend for an epic binge-watch: Amazon Prime is sticking to a once-a-week schedule for its eagerly anticipated release.
Interview with training committee member and partner David Bunker
Student Guide: The vote is in and the decision has been made: Brexit it is. How do you think it will affect Olswang?
David Bunker: As it is only 3pm on the day after the vote, it's a little early to tell! If, as we might expect, the UK goes through a period of economic and political uncertainty, we will still be here to support our clients through what may be a difficult business and legal environment.
Given the size and nature of this change, we have established a 'Brexit Taskforce' internally to best assist clients in navigating these uncertainties. While some clients may be less active others may see this as an opportunity.
Similarly, like all legal practices, if the economy takes a downturn certain practices are more resilient – like litigation and restructuring – than others. We are certainly in good shape, but it is still far too early to tell.
In a global sense, the UK continues to be a significant economy for inward investment opportunities. Post-referendum, the future may be different from that which we had envisaged, but the UK is still not a bad place for business.
SG: Are there any recent highlights that you'd like our readers to know about?
DB: We are a firm with a strong sector specialism, so our client and deal highlights tend to be linked to the areas where we are most active – TMT and real estate. That's where we are working on ground-breaking deals for clients such as ITV, FremantleMedia and Microsoft. We're also advising on significant real estate deals for clients such as Delancey and BMO Real Estate Partners.
Something that speaks volumes about our commitment to the trainee pipeline is the fact that over the last five years six former trainees have become partners across our London and Singapore offices. Given our size, that really is something we can feel very proud of and it also serves as an inspirational reminder to our trainees to aim high from day one.
SG: Olswang has made the transition to agile working and an open plan office. How will these developments shape the trainee experience?
DB: It's a good question and we've been thinking about it a lot. I am a partner who has shared an office with a trainee for years. When you move to an open plan environment it all becomes slightly different. But we're very much alive to adapting to maintain the close and personal relationships that have traditionally been fostered between trainees and their supervisors – they'll just develop in a different environment now. With agile working we need to be alive to those issues as well. That said, we do see opportunities to collaborate more easily with other groups on cross-departmental transactions and to cultivate a more nimble, entrepreneurial environment.
SG: Will international secondments become a more regular feature of the training contract?
DB: I think it's one of those things that depends on both the trainees wanting those opportunities and the firm having a business need at the relevant time. We certainly encourage integration between our international platforms by having people spend time in other offices; we're pleased to have an international network from which both our clients and staff can benefit. For example, we have two trainees heading out to Munich this September and we have had trainees complete secondments in Paris in the past.
We're also very proud of our client secondments, as trainees can head to our key clients like the BBC, ITV and Amazon. The opportunity to do a client secondment is always popular among our trainees. We actively encourage them to go so they can understand what it's like to be in a client's environment and be on the receiving end of our advice.
SG: Olswang's media, communications and technology seat is very popular but of course not every trainee can sit and qualify there. Do you have a formal system at the recruitment stage to ensure that you don't just hire those who are dead set on MCT?
DB: There's not a formal system but it's something we are conscious of during the recruiting process. Certainly when I was a trainee I didn't have a clue what I wanted to do and it's still the case with some trainees. As you travel through your training contract, your mind may change as you experience different groups and the opportunities that they offer. It's hard to be sure of what you want to do for the rest of your legal career when you are just staring out. With our brand position we are particularly attractive to people who want to operate in the TMT sector but that can make things quite competitive when it comes to qualification.
In recent years our trainees have qualified into all of our different departments – some advise TMT clients while others do work for our many other clients. My advice to any future trainee is to keep an open mind and see where things take you…