Shipping and secondments are de rigueur at this international firm.
Steel runs through Reed Smith's roots like a rich seam of tomato sauce through a batch of baked beans (bear with us). Established in 19th-century Pittsburgh by a pair of attorneys, the firm soon started up a close relationship with tycoon Andrew Carnegie, the creator of US Steel (world's first billion-dollar corporation, dontcha know). More blockbusting businesses followed, for the likes of Heinz and Mellon Bank. Since its early days in the Keystone State, Reed Smith's travelled far and wide – now it has more than 1,700 lawyers in 26 offices across nine countries. Recent merger talks with US-based Pepper Hamilton could've seen the firm become one of the 20 largest in the world, with a predicted revenue of $1.5 billion – but alas, the potential partners just weren't meant to be. A new alliance with a Singaporean firm, however, has just boosted its clout in Asia.
Rather unusually for a US-based firm, the London base is the biggest of the lot and it's been demonstrating its pull factor of late: it's just nabbed a finance partner from Ashurst, and Addleshaws' head of insurance. Despite its size, the trainee intake is still relatively modest, a fact that appealed to our sources. And while Reed Smith has a steely core, its lawyers are thankfully made of softer stuff, as trainees attested. “There's not an aggressive working culture. It's a serious place – it's an international law firm in the City after all – but there's a very human side to it. People are down to earth and genuinely approachable.” Trainees also appreciated the “diversity of work available – you can do unconventional seats like media and shipping.” Indeed, shipping is a core industry for the firm, along with energy and natural resources, media and entertainment and financial services. The firm's renowned for its litigation work, especially in the financial sphere (Reed Smith claims the title of fifth largest litigation department by head count in the capital) but the transactional side also earns a clutch of Chambers UK rankings.
“Regulatory issues tied to Brexit are a hot topic.”
Trainees can choose from ten seat categories, each of which contains several subgroups. HR allocates seats by seniority, "so fourth-seaters are given priority." For their first seat trainees list preferences by category and from then on they put in a bid for specific subgroups and supervisors. Some interviewees thought that “the process lacks transparency and isn't well organised because we only find out where our next rotation is a week before we move, which is odd.” However, most had no issues with the allocation system and praised the HR team's approachability. The firm also told us it is now informing trainees about seat moves three weeks before each rotation.
Many trainees sail into the top-ranked shipping group and are docked in either wet shipping or dry shipping. Wet shipping involves issues that take place at sea, from piracy cases to pollution claims to salvages in the wake of groundings or collisions. Lawyers here recently acted for the owners and underwriters of the 'Norman Atlantic' ferry after a fire broke out on the vessel's car deck as it left a Greek port. “I met a different client every week,” said sources on the wet side. “When a new matter comes in the trainees review all of the documents that the client sends through, summarise the key points of the case and give the partner an initial briefing.” Drafting instructions to counsel, attending settlement meetings and conducting research for arbitrations are also on the menu here. Dry shipping, meanwhile, revolves around contracts work: “A lot of the contracts relate to the hiring of a vessel, and issues arise over the interpretation of those contracts.” We heard that “the cases are very unique, so you spend a lot of time reading shipping textbooks and researching – it's a very academic seat.” However, “you also get to work on more practical matters, like drafting submissions and advice to clients.”
“I got the most responsibility in this seat.”
There's also a ship finance seat, where sales and purchases make up the bulk of the matters. Clients include banks like Barclays, private equity and investment funds like York Capital and trader clients like oil and gas outfit Saudi Aramco. The group recently advised a London-based investment firm, Hayfin Capital, as it lent $100 million to a New York-listed shipowner, Genco, to enable it to refinance some of its vessels. “I got the most responsibility in this seat,” one source raved, “and I got to lead a restructuring transaction: I would let the partner know what I was planning to send out first of course, but I got to speak to the client every day.” Others enjoyed the two main strands of work here: “You have the financing side, where as a trainee you'll help with loan agreements and security documents, but you also have the work that stems from the purchase of ships, so you'll get involved in the documents that are required to register the vessels.”
Over in energy and natural resources, trainees are “a pooled resource – you can expect to work for the different groups in the department like trade finance, regulatory and commodities. In physical commodities I've worked on arbitrations to do with the buying and selling of iron ore, coffee and wheat and been involved with large agreements relating to mines and jet fuel.” Daily tasks include “preparing files for court, drafting submissions and emails ahead of settlement, and looking at costs.” Trainees also flagged that “regulatory issues tied to Brexit are a hot topic – I've been busy with research because there have been a lot of enquiries from clients as to the effects of Brexit.” The department works for leading energy companies, commodity trading companies and investment banks. Names on the roster include Glencore Grain, mining company Vale International, Deutsche Bank and trade associations like the London Bullion Market Association.
One-stop Rihanna shop
The corporate team also pools its trainees, except for those working on competition and corporate tax matters (they sit in their own subgroups). “Each trainee has a completely different experience depending on the type of work they get from associates.” Areas to sample include public and private M&A, capital markets, and private equity. Many of the deals at hand are mid-market, and the client roster reflects the firm's specialism in the media and energy industries: Bauer Media, Channel 4, BBC Worldwide, World Fuel Services and Fortune Oil are all on the list. Solicitors recently helped the latter on its acquisition by Fortune Dynasty Holdings for £388 million. A trainee recalled: “I got involved in project management and drafted due diligence reports and ancillary documents on a global M&A deal. I also did some capital markets work which involved verification exercises and attending board meetings.”
What do Kazakhstan's Ministry of Justice, the BBC's inquiry into Jimmy Savile, BSkyB and Barclays have in common? They've all sought advice from Reed Smith's commercial disputes team. In a chart-topping case, Reed Smith acted for Rihanna against Topshop after the retailer sold T-shirts with RiRi's image on without asking her permission: Topshop lost both the original case and the subsequent appeal in 2015. “You get exposed to all kinds of work,” trainees reported, with one explaining: “I've done some insurance recovery matters, some big banking disputes, some fraud and bribery cases...” Luckily “you don't have to get heavily involved in bundling, as we have wonderful paralegals,” freeing up time for “taking on interesting research assignments, drafting basic documents, and putting together short advice notes for clients.” Sources had also attended hearings and arbitrations.
"Sometimes businesses don't want to know about the legal justifications, they just want short, concise facts.”
Other seat options include real estate and employment. Reed Smith picks up a big-ticket ranking for its work in the former, and recently advised US-based investment firm Starwood Capital as it acquired a portfolio of 27 properties across Norway and Sweden worth $1.49 billion. On these large transactions “you play a supporting role, so you'll be organising a lot of the searches that need to be done, and when the deal is complete you'll be making sure that all the forms are submitted to the Land Registry.” Smaller, more trainee-friendly matters do crop up though: “I was able to help clients buy and sell residential properties, and ran those transactions by myself.” Meanwhile in employment there's a combo of contentious and transactional work to get stuck into. “My main matter at the moment is a huge headcount reduction exercise, which involves 80 jurisdictions. I've been corresponding with local counsel, responding to queries and co-ordinating the advice to the client.” Sources had also worked on tribunal cases, where they'd thrown themselves into disclosure exercises and drafted grounds for resistance documents. Employment clients include RBS, BT, PwC and Siemens.
All trainees are encouraged to apply for a client secondment or stint in an overseas office, usually in their second seat. There's also a pro bono secondment to Liberty and/or Reprieve. Once trainees have submitted their CV and survived an interview, they can find themselves hopping off to the likes of Debenhams or Barclays, or if they're going abroad, Abu Dhabi or Athens. Most secondments last six months, though some in-house gigs can be split between two organisations. Those who'd gone in-house gave rave reviews. “I had an amazing time. You're immersed in the business environment so you constantly use your powers of commercial awareness in order to apply the law in a practical manner.” Another plus: “You get to know directly how the client works and how they like to receive advice. Sometimes businesses don't want to know about the legal justifications, they just want short, concise facts.”
“It's not just about billable hours.”
A very average daily grind tends to range between 9am and 7pm, although “in corporate the hours tend to be longer.” Trainees weren't surprised by the “peaks and troughs. There are occasions when you have to stay late and they happen with relative frequency – but that's to be expected in a large City firm.” A source told us that “the latest I've stayed is 3am, which was a complete one-off. I got roped into what I thought was a discrete task at 5pm and just had to stay and work through it. After that, an associate came round with a massive box of chocolates!” Time off in lieu is given to those working consistently long hours. “I think we have two sleeping pods...” murmured a trainee. “But I've only ever been in there for a massage. A guy comes in to give them every other Friday!”
Interviewees reported that “each department has its own kind of vibe. Wherever you are everyone is really approachable and down to earth but teams have different attitudes to working and socialising. The shipping department is a bit more old-school compared to corporate finance where there are lots of young associates, but they often arrange drinks and welcome trainees with dinners. Energy and natural resources lawyers are also keen to socialise.” Sources reiterated that “it's not just about billable hours.” There's a sports and social committee which puts on the firm-wide Christmas and summer bashes. In addition, there are departmental parties. Every few weeks some departments herald Friday afternoon with a drinks trolley and there's also a monthly associates lunch that trainees are welcome to attend. On the sporting side of things, there are football, hockey, softball and netball teams, plus yoga and pilates sessions run by an external provider. When they're not prostrate on their yoga mats, you'll frequently find trainees out for drinks together “on a weekly basis.”
What's the office like? “We have such a great venue – it makes a great base for a party! You really feel proud when you walk through the door,” hooted trainees, who were quick to mention the “amazing, panoramic views right across the City” afforded by the firm's perch at the top of Broadgate Tower. “It's fantastic – the walls are floor to ceiling glass, which makes it really light and airy.” There's also a canteen “with a good spread” of toothsome snacks and repasts – perfect for building up strength to ace the qualification process, which “varies by department: some will conduct a half-hour interview, while others will get you to deliver a ten-minute presentation on a piece of work.” It all gets underway two months into the final seat, and trainees discover their fate around two weeks after those interviews/presentations. In 2016, 15 out of the firm's 24 qualifiers stayed on.
Seat supervisors aren't too hands-on, but do make themselves available: “My supervisor has taken the time to walk me through things I didn't understand.”
How to get a Reed Smith training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2017): 31 January 2017
Training contract deadline (2019): 30 June 2017
Vacation scheme entry
Candidates applying for Reed Smith's vacation scheme begin with an online application that covers the usual topics – academics, work experience, personal interests – and also asks “substantive questions about the candidate's research and understanding of the firm, and their motivations to join,” graduate recruitment manager Lucy Crittenden tells us. Following this, there's an online “situational strengths” test. Successful candidates are then invited to participate in a “strengths-based” interview with a member of HR and a partner or senior associate.
The firm's two vac schemes take place over June and July, with 12 students on each. During their visit students split their time between two different practice areas. Our trainee sources were plenty pleased with the set-up, telling us “it was really well structured. We crammed in a lot of talks, presentations and business-style games, and there was even a mock trial.” One told of “undertaking research, attending meetings and helping prepare a client pitch – it really felt like I was contributing to something.”
“You also get to go on some fun excursions,” insiders reported. In the past these outings have included dinner on Brick Lane and a Jack the Ripper tour, as well as a cocktail-making class at Tower 42.
The firm interviews every vacation schemer for a training contract at the end of their visit. “We aim to take as many as we can. Usually we make offers to around 60% of them,” Crittenden reveals.
Direct applications for a training contract begin in the same way as the vac scheme process, with a situational strengths test and strengths-based interview.
Successful completion of these two stages leads to an assessment centre that involves a case study exercise and a group exercise. For this last portion, “each student is given a brief and then asked to come together to discuss them and think about which one is best to put forward for funding,” explains Crittenden. At this point, “that's it – we hire after that.”
Crittenden's advice for impressing? “Make sure you do some research before you come, but more importantly make sure that you act like yourself and do things with a smile and get involved. Don't be put off by the assessors in the room; treat it as any meeting you'd be involved in.”
Demonstrating a solid grasp of the business world is key for nabbing a training contract with Reed Smith. “We want people who have the right attitude and are commercially strong, not just technically strong,” says Crittenden, who suggests reading newspapers and watching the news to keep up to date with commercial ongoings. Of course, simply being able to rattle off the latest mergers and public offerings won't take you all the way with this firm. “It's important to make sure you can link a certain development to something that might impact our law firm, or be able to explain why it could be important for business.”
Crittenden also cites work experience as “another great way to develop commercial expertise. This can be with legal or commercial entities, of course, but don't discount things like working in the local pub – that's still a business, and you can develop valuable skills there, too.”
Common shipping terms
Reed Smith LLP
20 Primrose Street,
- Partners 116*
- Fee-earners 253* (excluding partners, but including trainees)
- Total trainees 50
- * denotes UK figures
- Contact Chloe Muir
- Method of application Online application form
- Selection procedure Assessment centre
- Closing date for 2019 30 June 2017
- Training contracts pa Approximately 24
- Applications pa 1,500
- % interviewed pa 7%
- Required degree grade 2:1
- Training salary (2015) First year: £38,500
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- % of trainees with a non-law degree pa 40%
- No. of seats available abroad pa 2
- Post-qualification salary (2015) £63,000 plus bonus
- % of assistants who joined as trainees 43%
- % of partners who joined as trainees 45%
- Overseas offices Abu Dhabi, Athens, Beijing, Century City, Chicago, Dubai, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Houston, Kazakhstan, London, Los Angeles, Munich, New York, Paris, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Princeton, Richmond, San Francisco, Shanghai, Silicon Valley, Singapore, Tysons, Washington, DC, Wilmington
Main areas of work
Sponsorship and awards
LPC funding: fees paid plus £7,000 maintenance.