Stephenson Harwood LLP - True Picture

Hop on board this logistics finance flagship, which offers boatloads of responsibility and a fleet of international secondments.

Orient Express

Need to get from A to B? For Stephenson Harwood, this is what it's all about. “We've long been known as a shipping firm, but our big focus now is what you could call logistics financing,” a trainee explained. That's figuring out how to finance goods as they move along the business world's increasingly globalised supply chains, by the way. Chambers UK rankings show that the firm's shipping, rail and aviation finance teams are all cruising at high altitudes. It's not all transport-related work, though; the full-service firm also calls at a number of other ports – it's built up an admirable collection of ship-shape nationwide rankings for its expertise in art and cultural property law, capital markets, commercial contracts, physical commodities, financial services, civil fraud, and investment funds too.

SH's ranks total around 380 lawyers worldwide, 270 of whom work out of the London HQ. The rest are spread mostly between its East Asian offices – Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore and Seoul – with a few in Dubai, Paris and Piraeus. The firm added its Seoul branch in 2014, bidding adieu to its Guangzhou base that same year. According to training partner Neil Noble, "we have plans to continue investing a lot in the region."

The trainees we interviewed were drawn to SH for the following reasons: “It's a mid-sized firm with high-level work. As a trainee, you aren't just stuck doing the photocopying. We regularly sit across the table from big firms, but there's still a small intake here and a friendly, inclusive culture."

Pack your bags

Before each seat rotation, trainees get to submit their top three choices and the firm divvies out seats from there. “You can be more specific and choose subgroups, so in reality it's more than just the six seat choices they list out.” Our interviewees gave the system a thumbs-up, telling us: “It's usual to get your first or second choice.” That said, “certain seats, like commercial litigation, go like hot cakes, so some people do find themselves disappointed.” 

One option rarely leads to disappointment, though: “The firm offers fantastic international secondments, and you're pretty much guaranteed to get one eventually if you're interested.” Singapore (which offers shipping and finance work), Hong Kong (finance) and Dubai (litigation and corporate) are “perennial” options; a new seat in Seoul was introduced in 2015. To bag one of these overseas seats, trainees are asked to put forward a business case for them going, which HR sends (along with their seat reviews and CV) to the partners of the office in question. "I'd definitely recommend the experience!" one enthused. "It's a great way to see the firm from a different perspective and experience new cultures. The teams are typically small, so they have high expectations.”

The real estate department handles three main lines of work: “There's general commercial, which deals with landlords and tenants; environmental and planning, which sees things like environmental reports and development consent orders; and real estate finance, which supports the banking team with real estate-related elements.” Many of our interviewees had dabbled in more than one area during their time here and agreed: “It's a great first seat. You're often left to manage a transaction from beginning to end. The repetitive nature of some transactions means you learn the ropes quickly, and because they don't typically stretch into the multimillions, it doesn't matter as much if your work isn't perfect first time.” That said, “we've shifted focus onto working for more large institutional investors," which means some higher-value matters have been added to the docket. The firm recently acted for LaSalle Investment Management on its £140 million acquisition of Golden Square Shopping Centre in Warrington, and advised a bank syndicate led by HSBC on a £540 million facility made available to property owner Mount Eden Land. Other key clients include Schroders, Intercontinental Hotel Group and Wells Fargo. Due diligence is a typical task for trainees on transactions of this scale, but when it's a smaller matter, they're more likely to find themselves drafting licences and leases, dealing with enquiries from clients, and submitting land registry applications.

Buy the boatload

Finance subgroups include ship, rail, aviation, real estate, banking and insolvency. “Because of our history as a shipping firm, ship finance accounts for around half of the department's undertakings,” we heard. Those working on this team will find “we're involved in lots of massive deals – stuff we do is often on the news.” Indeed, the maritime mavens have worked on some titanic deals in recent months, advising Deutsche Bank on its $1.2 billion loan facility for the partial financing of container ships, and DVB Bank America on a $1.32 billion senior multi-tranche facility to finance two semi-submersible rigs for a Norwegian drilling company. Most matters here involve “loads of huge tankers and industrial ships,” but “there are occasionally a couple of posh yachts involved.” Typical trainee tasks include liaising with foreign counsel, dealing with conditions precedent, drafting documents like mortgages, and making sure matters are progressing smoothly. “You pretty much get exposure to everything, apart from the high-level tasks like drafting loan agreements – those are left to the associates.” Still, interviewees warned of a “steep learning curve” thanks to the shipping industry's reputation for tricky lingo: “It's probably not a great choice for a first seat.” Luckily, SH's compulsory LPC module on international trade and transactions at BPP helps: “It's essentially an introduction to all of the firm's specialist areas.”

The subgroups in commercial litigation, SH's largest department, are insolvency, real estate, regulatory, arbitration, financial and IP. Though trainees sit in a single group, we hear that “it's possible you might also work for the others.” The department is “one of the most popular” for a reason: “Matters are all very international and intellectually stimulating.” They can be quite big in scale too: lawyers here recently helped the Arab Republic of Egypt trace and recover somewhere between $30 billion and $70 billion of assets misappropriated by former President Hosni Mubarak. Other recent clients include Virgin, American Airlines and Gap. Cases here “tend to be high-stakes, so you're typically closely supervised.” Still, interviewees reported a good mix of responsibility levels, from bundling and taking meeting notes to preparing chronologies and drafting witness statements. Apparently real estate litigation "has the widest variety of matters on offer, including smallish ones like contested lease renewals." On such matters, trainees typically oversee disclosure and research things like how to change the parties of an agreement. "I even got to appear in a few hearings. They weren't the most complicated, but it was a bit daunting going up against a barrister!"


Employment and pensions is one of SH's smallest departments and splits its undertakings roughly 50/50 between the employment and pensions work –“there's a lot of crossover between the two.” Typically, matters here “aren't huge," like the firm's recent defence of Parker Drilling against several claims of unfair dismissal and breach of contract, valued at £100,000, but hefty matters do crop up now and then: the group recently teamed up with the corporate team to advise Acadia Healthcare Company on all the employment aspects of its $662 million purchase of Partnerships in Care Holdings. "On the non-contentious side you're managing documents and drafting things like updates to employment contracts; on the contentious side you get to attend employment tribunals and draft witness statements.” Clients include both companies and individuals. “There are perks to working with high net worth individuals – I once got sent flowers!”

SH trainees share an office with their supervisor, usually a senior partner. “Some places have you sit with a junior person, but here you get to learn from some of the firm's best.” More formal training varies by department. During their first week at the firm, everybody attends an induction covering "law firm survival skills like how the computers work, what the departments do, and where the fire escapes are,” but after that "it's up to your team. In finance I had three days of talks from partners and clients, but in real estate it was lunchtime sessions staggered over the first few weeks.” On the whole, interviewees were satisfied with the firm's approach, with one telling us: “I've never felt unprepared for anything. They definitely give enough training.”

To stay on track, trainees have mid and end-of-seat reviews with their supervisors. “You generally have a good idea of where you stand, as you work closely with your supervisors anyway, but if things are going awry they're useful,” one opined. They don't get mentors, save for an informal trainee one for their first seat, “but there's always someone to approach if you're stuck. Everyone here is really friendly, so getting help is never an issue.”

The Apprentice: You're Hired

SH's London office is a five-minute jaunt from Liverpool Street station, “in a listed building with a super modern interior.” Our trainee sources swooned over the “huge glass atrium” and “amazing shower facilities, complete with free shower gel,” though they stopped short when questioned about the cafeteria. “It's a bit 'school dinners',” one critiqued. “There's a reasonable salad bar and a few sandwiches but only one hot option, and it closes by 4pm.” That said, we heard it redeems itself with Pizza Friday: “You can ask for any number of toppings – food coma!”

Naturally there are some cultural differences between departments – we hear real estate is “jokey,” whereas finance is “super serious” – but sources agreed that “as a whole the atmosphere is pretty down to earth. There's no unnecessary hierarchy, and most partners aren't intimidating – in fact, lots of them have lunch with their secretaries. Other firms seem a bit full-on and aggressive, but you'll find the opposite here. People are happy to chat, and nobody is going to bite your head off no matter how tense things get.”

Most attributed this dynamic to the firm's recruitment efforts: “We don't go for Apprentice-style candidates who saunter in on their first day like they know everything,” one said. “In fact, a partner once told me that when you join a new department, they expect nothing but enthusiasm and a smile.” On paper, there are few commonalities among the current trainee crop, which hails from “a mix of universities like Warwick, Durham, York and Edinburgh,” and ranges in age “from 24 to 30.” We heard about trainees with previous careers under their belts, like ship-brokering, and about others who'd whizzed straight through from law school. “We all get on. We're a small intake and all studied together on the LPC, so we're pretty close-knit.” Friendships are solidified over pints in the nearby Gable or Tokenhouse pubs, as well as trainee dinners, commercial litigation “away days to Paris and Prague,” the annual firm-wide quiz, and the “messy and scandalous” Christmas party at The Brewery. “Trainees are allowed to go before they join. At the first one I attended, one of the managing partners stood up and sang a song.” Were they any good? After a pause, our source answered with a rueful “no.”

And finally...

Our sources all expressed a desire to stay on with SH upon qualification. A lucky 15 of 17 NQs got the chance in 2015.

You may also be interested in...

Our practice area feature on Shipping

These firms with a strong shipping practice: 

- Clyde & Co
- Holman Fenwick Willan
- Ince & Co
- Reed Smith
- Thomas Cooper
- Watson Farley & Williams

These mid-size commercial firms in London: 

- Bird & Bird
- Charles Russell Speechlys
- Macfarlanes
- Mishcon de Reya
- Olswang
- Travers Smith
- Watson Farley & Williams

How to get a Stephenson Harwood training contract


Vacation scheme deadline: 8 November 2015 (winter); 31 January 2016 (spring and summer)

Training contract deadline: 31 July 2016


Stephenson Harwood receives around 900 applications for its vacation scheme and another 600 direct training contract applications.

Both types of applications begin with the same online form, which asks candidates to list their academic credentials and work experience. According to HR manager Sarah Jackson, “non-legal work experience can be useful as well as legal experience – roles in a different industry can allow people to develop transferable skills and provide a valuable insight into a commercial organisation.” She goes on to say that “applicants must be able to explain their interest in a career as a solicitor, and Stephenson Harwood specifically. We want to see that they've done their research and have thought about what life as a lawyer involves.”

Tests and assessment day 

Around 250 applicants make it past the screening stage, and are asked to take numerical and verbal reasoning tests.

The next stage is a 45-minute interview with a member of HR that involves a mix of competency-based questions and enquiries into a candidate's background and experience. This is the final step for vac scheme hopefuls; meanwhile, around 30 direct training contract applicants are invited to an assessment day. This kicks off with presentations from each candidate on a commercial issue, followed by a Q&A with assessors. Then there's a 45-minute to one-hour partner interview plus a commercial scenario to analyse.

Sarah Jackson tells us: “We're looking for applicants who demonstrate intellect, good analytical skills and sound judgement, good verbal and written communications skills, drive and determination, and have an appreciation of the bigger picture.”

The vacation scheme 

SH runs five vac schemes: a week-long placement in the winter, a two-week scheme in April, and three two-week placements over June and July. There's room for eight candidates on each, and participants are automatically considered for a training contract.

Each attendee is allocated a partner or associate supervisor, plus a trainee buddy they can approach for help or with questions. Alongside their departmental tasks, vac schemers attend practice area presentations and strategy talks, and they carry out the aforementioned assessment day tasks.

The firm takes these assessments into account when deciding who gets a training contract offer, as well as feedback from candidates' supervisors and buddies. “We ask about their input into tasks especially,” Sarah Jackson says. “I think enthusiasm goes a long way – we always remember the people who get stuck in and were always offering to help out with things. We're always impressed by those who ask thoughtful and considered questions.”

The number of vac schemers who receive training contract offers “really varies year by year,” Sarah Jackson says, adding that the firm doesn't prioritise vac schemers over other applicants. “We will make an offer to an outstanding candidate whether he or she has completed a placement or not.”

Interview with training partner Neil Noble

Student Guide: What were the highlights of the 2014/15 financial last for Stephenson Harwood? Any major developments?

Neil Noble: The international side of the business continues to grow. In 2014 we opened a new office in Korea and that's very much consolidated. We've had trainees go out to the office in Seoul already. The same is true of Dubai, which opened in 2012 – it's grown rapidly, it's probably our fastest growing office at present. We've had a number of trainees go out to Dubai on six-month secondments.

The other office worth mentioning is Beijing, which was officially opened in 2013. We recruited a team to go into Beijing to do projects-related work. Hong Kong and Singapore remain strong but they've been there a long time now, so there's not the same level of dramatic growth.

SG: What would you say the firm's key practice areas are? Could you maybe give a rough idea of the firm's core practices using percentages?

NN: If you divide the work between contentious and non-contentious across the whole firm there's around a 50/50 split. If you divide it up differently, into work types, it's probably 35% commercial litigation, 20% corporate, 20% finance, 15% trade and shipping litigation and the rest is real estate and employment. Those are broad divisions – within corporate there are sub-groups.

However, we also focus on sectors. For instance, we do a broad range of work in the transport sector. In that area, we have lots of lawyers involved in ships, planes and trains and that translates into a lot of corporate work, finance work and litigation.

SG: What do you think the future looks like for the firm as a whole? SH opened in Seoul, but also closed one of its Chinese offices (in Guangzhou) – what happened?

NN: We closed our office in Guangzhou because we felt that our work in Greater China is better off being focused in our offices in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing, the bigger commercial centres. However we maintained close links with the city and have since announced an alliance with Wei Tu, which was founded by our former colleague Xianming Lu after leaving Stephenson Harwood. This alliance gives our clients access to PRC legal advice which we are not able to provide.

I would not be surprised to see, in five years' time, proportionately the biggest growth in the Asian offices. We have close associations in Indonesia and Myanmar, so we do lots of work in that part of the world. Seoul was on our wish list for a long time – we were doing so much work with Korean companies but doing it remotely. In terms of other places we are looking at and doing increasing amounts of work in, there's Africa. It's probably the most undiscovered continent for Western law firms relative to the other continents. Everyone has been in East Asia and Middle East for a long time, even in South America to an extent, but Africa is a bit different. There aren't many English firms that have their own network of offices there. Africa is increasingly becoming an important part of global trade – there's a huge amount of investment from places like China, so for a firm like us with a big footprint in East Asia it makes sense to be looking at Africa as an area of long term development and as somewhere that we will have a presence.

We've already connected to the African Legal Network comprised of top tier firms so we have secondees from there coming into London, and we've started sending people to Africa – we had someone go to a Kenyan law firm for several months. Africa is a big area of interest for law firms like us because it's not saturated in the same way as parts of the Middle East and East Asia.

SG: What would you say the future looks like for Stephenson Harwood's London office? How does it tie into the firm as a whole?

NN: At the moment we're seeing pretty broad levels of stable growth across all practice areas, which wasn't the case a few years ago. The financial crisis led to a very sharp upturn in contentious work so the litigation team has been phenomenally successful and has grown significantly. Over the last 18 months the transactional parts of the firm like corporate, real estate and finance have picked up and we're definitely getting broader growth across the board.

SG: Who would be the ideal Stephenson Harwood trainee? What are you looking for in a candidate? Any particular background? Do you have any general tips for candidates?

NN: Rather than a single type of person, we look for a group of people with different skills because, by the end of the training contract, different parts of the firm will need different types of people. Not everyone is suited to being a litigator and not everyone is suited to real estate there's always a danger in looking for one type of person. It's best to have a mix of personalities and strengths. So we're looking for that balance and we want to make sure we get a diverse range of people with different backgrounds and skills.

Tips: it's always good to come armed with something more than just what you've got on your CV. I think people who succeed have an awareness of and interest in what's going on in the wider world, whether that's the local economy or the global picture. If you have news stories you can talk to the interviewers about, particularly what's interesting to you and what you've got involved in, then this makes you stand out and might make you a little more interesting than the next person who comes through the door.

Trade sanctions in international law

Trade sanctions have long been an important diplomatic tool in the arsenal of national governments. The United States in particular is known for enacting sanctions against countries – from Cuba to Iran – which have provoked its ire. Diminishing defence budgets and lack of public appetite for military intervention have led the US, along with the EU and various other nations, to impose sanctions on Syria, Egypt and Russia in recent years. Such sanctions can be imposed unilaterally by a single nation – as is the case with the US and Cuba – or by an international body on behalf of all its members – for example, the UN on South Africa in the 1980s and Iraq in the 1990s.

Sanctions are playing an increasingly big role in the practice of international trade law. Certain businesses – including those in the shipping, energy and infrastructure industries – have to keep abreast of current sanctions that are in place and consider the effect potential future ones could have upon existing relationships with businesses in targeted countries. As a result, international law firms like Stephenson Harwood, which has well-established international trade and shipping practices, are tasked with monitoring the rapidly changing diplomatic landscape that influences the imposition and relaxation of sanctions. They must also keep a close watch on the ways in which courts have responded to the effects of sanctions in various jurisdictions.

In 2013 Stephenson Harwood successfully represented the Iranian Melli Bank, which was subject to an asset freeze under newly implemented EU sanctions. At the time the asset freeze was put into place, the opposing party in the case, ship management services company Holbud, owed Melli Bank a commitment fee under a discount facility agreement. Holbud argued that the imposition of sanctions frustrated the contract, thereby freeing it from its obligation to pay. The judge rejected this argument, stating that Holbud should have applied to HM Treasury for licence permitting payments to be made pursuant to the discount facility agreement. Evidence demonstrated that such an application was likely to be granted, and as a result Holbud was ordered to pay Melli Bank the full amount claimed.

Stephenson Harwood LLP

1 Finsbury Circus,

  • Partners 125
  • Associates 200+
  • Total trainees 32
  • Contact Sarah Jackson (graduate.
  • Method of application Online application form via
  • Selection procedure Application screening, online verbal and numerical testing, face to face interview and assessment centre
  • Closing date for training contracts commencing March/Sept 2018 31 July 2016
  • Applications p.a. c.1,500
  • Training contracts p.a. 16
  • Required degree grade 2:1
  • Training salary  
  • 1st year £37,000
  • 2nd year £40,000
  • Holiday entitlement 25 days
  • % of trainees with a non-law degree p.a. 50%
  • Overseas secondment opportunities  
  • Post-qualification salary £60,000
  • 86% of trainees offered job 
  • Overseas offices Paris, Piraeus, Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai, Seoul, Dubai, Beijing
  • Associated offices Athens, Bucharest, Jakarta, Yangon, Guangzhou

Firm profile

Stephenson Harwood is a thriving, international law firm with over 125 partners and more than 750 staff worldwide. We act for a wide range of listed and private companies, institutions and successful entrepreneurs. We also offer a full range of services in a wide variety of sectors. Join a firm that’s ambitious, growing and delivering ground breaking deals. You’ll work in tight, focused teams alongside associates and partners, and will be right at the heart of the action.

Main areas of work

Commercial litigation; corporate; employment and pensions; finance; marine and international trade; and real estate.

Trainee profile

Firstly we look for a quick intellect. As well as at least a 2:1 in any subject area plus 320 UCAS points or equivalent, you’ll need strong analytical skills, sound judgement, imagination and meticulous attention to detail. Also vital are the communication skills to be persuasive and build rapport, plenty of drive and determination, plus a keen interest in business. Mandarin Chinese language skills are useful.

Training environment

We take just 18 trainees on each year. So you can look forward to a huge amount of individual attention, coaching and mentoring. Your structured programme involves four six-month seats in our contentious and non-contentious practice groups. You can expect on-the-job training complemented by in-house seminars; to share an offi ce with a partner or senior associate; and to benefit from a continuous review of your career development. You could also have the chance to spend one of your six-month seats in Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai or Seoul and to take advantage of client secondment opportunities. We’ll give you your own caseload and as much responsibility as you can shoulder.


These include subsidised health club membership, private health insurance and screening, pension, life assurance, private GP services, critical illness cover, dental insurance, retail vouchers, subsidised cafe, season ticket loan, 25 days’ paid holiday a year and language tuition where appropriate.

Vacation placements

Places for 2015/2016: 40

Duration: one week in winter, two weeks in spring and summer

Remuneration: £260 p.w.

Closing date: 8 November 2015 for winter; 31 January 2016 for spring and summer

Open days

13 January 2016
10 February 2016
17 March 2016
23 April 2016

Closing date: 31 January 2016

Sponsorship & awards

 Fees paid for GDL and LPC at BPP Law School London and maintenance awards of up to £6,000 (if still studying).