Stephenson Harwood LLP - True Picture

If the business of logistics floats your boat, Stephenson Harwood's international work could be just the ticket.

Use your imagine-Asian

Stephenson Harwood's historical expertise lies in the world of shipping, and it's no surprise that it wins a consistently high Chambers UK ranking in this area year after year. But the firm is also recognised for its work in areas like asset finance, real estate, litigation, capital markets and projects, as well as for more specialist practices like commodities, rail franchising and aviation finance. Along with the firm's shipping prowess, these latter rankings point towards SH's talent for work related to transport and, more broadly, logistics. And commodities aren't the only things being ferried around the globe: SH offers trainees the chance to do an overseas seat in Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai or – as of 2015 – Seoul.

While 300 of SH's 350 lawyers are based in the London HQ, this globetrotter has a particular penchant for Asia, with offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Seoul, Dubai and Singapore. Although the firm closed its Guangzhou office in 2014, it established a partnership in 2016 with Guangzhou-based firm Wei Tu, which was created by former SH lawyers. "This means that we are now able to offer clients a ‘one stop shop’ for Hong Kong, English and PRC law advice, with the PRC advice being offered by Wei Tu," training partner Neil Noble informs us. Besides the Asian presence, two offices in Europe – Paris and Piraeus – complete the firm's octet of overseas outposts. Many of our interviewees commented on the international nature of the work at Stephenson Harwood: “We certainly have an international perspective, and the firm facilitates good relationships with our overseas offices.”

Wheels in motion

Newbies submit their top three seat preferences before they start each new seat, and our interviewees told us that “everyone usually gets their first or second choice.” We heard a few comments regarding a lack of clarity when it comes to seat allocation. “There's some confusion about whether it's a good idea to go and talk to the department before you put it on your preference list,” one trainee remarked. Another added that “it would be nice to know if certain subgroups have specifications for whether the trainee they take has to be in a certain seat.” There are six main seat options trainees can choose from, although within these “there are quite specific teams, so actually you have an awful lot more choice than you first think.” Although the most popular seats tend to “differ from intake to intake,” one recurring favourite among trainees is commercial litigation: “We have an incredibly strong litigation practice and everyone wants to have a go in it at some point.”

In the corporate department, subgroups include projects and infrastructure, and corporate funds. In funds, “the work we did was largely listing what were often Jersey or Isle of Man-based funds on the London Stock Exchange.” For trainees, this translates into a fair amount of due diligence, such as verifying prospectuses, collating evidence about fund performance, and producing checklists to show all regulations have been complied with. More substantial tasks include attending board meetings, investigating companies for potential risks, and producing red-flag reports (indicating potential problems with security). We heard that the corporate projects team “provides a full service to clients, from financing a building project to getting the bricks delivered to the site.” The work is “split between project finance and construction-based work, and we also do a lot of procurement.” Trainees were positive about the responsibility levels in this group: “I've amended and drafted documents, and I've been allowed – with supervision – to mark up changes on a financing document. There's a lot of ad hoc drafting on the construction side, as sometimes clients will want to find a precedent that is unique to their deal.” Another trainee added: “I've really enjoyed the variety – but I've never spent time photocopying or printing documents!” Matters in the corporate department tend to be in the mid-market range and worth hundreds of millions: the firm recently advised Shield Therapeutics on its £162 million AIM IPO, and acted for specialist healthcare company BTG on its $475 million acquisition of biotech manufacturer PneumRx.

"Being abroad forces you to be a lot more independent and confident, and coming back to London I felt a lot more grown up."

The real estate department is split into three sections. General real estate focuses on “opting and leasing land, working with clients from big institutional investors to developers and landlords.” Then there's the real estate finance group, “which assists with the property aspects during the financing of a property acquisition.” Finally you have environment and planning, which covers work like "development consent orders and discounted payoff applications, as well as the kooky renewable stuff which is very interesting.” The deals in this department tend to be smaller than in corporate: “The client is usually spending tens of millions rather than hundreds of millions.” For example, in 2015 SH advised LaSalle Investment Management on the £75 million sale of Griffin House in Hammersmith to the National Bank of Kuwait. The firm has also been involved in some larger real estate transactions recently: it advised Schroders UK Real Estate Fund on the acquisition of various London buildings – including Kings Mall shopping centre in Hammersmith for over £150 million. At trainee level, tasks include drafting assignments and amending leases, and “when there's a large corporate transaction, real estate will come in to draft things like certificates of title.” Trainees are also responsible for collating and managing all the documents that lenders require, “from certificates of title and shareholder certificates to insurance policies.”

Mixing it up a Lidl

Commercial litigation, the firm's largest department, has a “very varied” array of matters on offer, covering bankruptcy, fraud and asset tracing, regulation, construction, engineering, IP, banking and international arbitration. While trainees generally sit in one subgroup, we heard it's common to try out work in more than one area. We mentioned above that commercial litigation is SH's most popular seat. Why? Because of the high levels of responsibility on offer, say trainees. One newbie enthused: “I had the chance to speak in court, which was great! Petrifying, but great.” We should add that less compelling tasks – legal research, bundling, copy checking – are par for the course here too. But even the opportunity to sit in court watching the action was commended for being a great way “to get a feel for what you're working towards.” Another reason for the department's popularity is that “trainees can get involved in very interesting cases, particularly in the fraud and asset tracing team.” Recent clients include Ryanair, HSBC, KPMG and Gap, and the firm has also been advising Generator, a specialist in mixed-use development, in a High Court claim against Lidl.

The subgroups in the finance team include real estate, banking, shipping, rail and aviation. Those in ship finance reported “lots of drafting, particularly in relation to ship sales and purchases,” as well as “liaising with the various parties to a given transaction, including ship brokers, managers and the ship registry.” The ships being financed come in all shapes and sizes, “from cargo ships and tankers to wind farm support vessels and a rather posh super-yacht.” Unsurprisingly, the deals have a very international bent: “I would say on average a transaction involves maybe five or six different jurisdictions,” one trainee estimated. These might include Germany, Norway, the US, Brazil and South Africa. The firm recently advised on a loan for an eight-ship deal with two Chinese shipyards, worth $156.5 million. Over in rail finance, trainees work on “rolling stock finance and procurement deals for train parts,” as well as “advising rail operators on day-to-day legal issues.” Tasks for trainees include managing conditions precedent checklists, preparing document lists, and helping to set up franchise agreements. Sources also pointed out that “being aware of current issues is very important, as the rail industry is changing a lot at the minute with projects like HS2 and Crossrail." We were told that while “the rail sector is more domestic than shipping or aviation, there is an international element to the work, mostly European.” For example, SH recently advised Spanish train manufacturer CAF on the €600 million acquisition by Arriva Rail North of close to 100 new CAF-built trains for its Northern network.

Seoul mates

As noted above, overseas seats are available in Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai and Seoul. “The general rule is that if you want to go on an international secondment you will be able to," sources said, "especially if you're flexible about where you want to go.” Everyone who had been abroad told us that they would recommend it; trainees cited smaller office sizes as a great way to “get stuck into the work.” Others felt that an overseas seat is a good idea because “if you want to have a long and successful career at an international firm, it makes sense to go abroad and see how the different offices work together.” One interviewee pointed out another benefit: “I'd be lying if I said the choice was completely because of the work. In general being abroad forces you to be a lot more independent and confident, and coming back to London I felt a lot more grown up than I did when I left.”

There are "plenty" of formal training sessions at SH and trainees say the seminars are “very well run and well organised.” After an initial week-long introductory programme, training differs by department. “In corporate I had three full days of being introduced to all the different sub-teams," one trainee reported, "while in real estate there were lunchtime seminar sessions over the first couple of weeks.” Interviewees agreed that the sessions are “all fairly informal, which is nice because you can talk to associates and learn how everything operates.” Trainees share an office with a supervisor, who is usually a partner: “It's nice to be sat with a partner because a lot of calls happen in your room, and you pick up a lot from listening in on them.”

The London office, right next to Moorgate tube station, is structured around a glass atrium “which allows in a lot of light.” The entryway's original historical staircase and marble floor make for a very “grand entrance,” and trainees mentioned that “every now and then you see architecture students standing outside taking notes!” As far as on-site facilities go, the showers were appreciated as was the cafeteria, although we heard grumbles about its opening hours: “It closes at 4pm, and often people do work until after 6 or 7pm, so it can be hard to find something to eat after a certain time.”

“They undertake a lot of initiatives internally to make sure lawyers have a well-balanced lifestyle.”

Trainees commended SH for offering "a good work/life balance." How is this made possible? “They undertake a lot of initiatives internally to make sure lawyers have a well-balanced lifestyle,” one trainee mused. “We have football, rugby, and netball teams; choirs; volunteering for charities; and the firm offers language classes too.” Others pointed to a range of events to keep trainees' social calendars busy. “There's a trainee welcome dinner at the firm twice a year. The firm chef cooks a three-course meal and there's lots of wine.” We also heard of Friday nights at the Globe pub, the "legendary" SH quiz, and a Christmas party at The Brewery (next to the Barbican) to which future trainees are invited. The ability to have a life outside of work is doubtlessly also helped by the fact that “if you've done all your work and it's 6pm, you can go home.” Trainees generally reported working from around 9am to 7.30pm, although a few busy bees mentioned that “during the week it's not uncommon to be here until 9 or 9.30pm.” Sources remarked that working weekends is rare but not unheard of.

Our interviewees couldn't agree on a set personality that thrives at SH, only that everyone is “genuine, decent and down to earth.” We spoke to some trainees who had had previous careers, and others who had come straight out of university, although one thing that almost all of our sources had in common was a desire to stay on at the firm after qualification. In 2016, 13 of 16 qualifiers were retained.

“The firm is growing, which is very exciting, but people need to take into account that the culture has shifted to become a little bit more formal and corporate than it used to be.”

How to get a Stephenson Harwood training contract


Vacation scheme deadline (2016/17): 12 November 2016 (winter); 31 January 2017 (spring and summer)

Training contract deadline (2019): 31 July 2017


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

Both types of application begin with the same online form, which asks candidates to list their academic credentials and work experience. According to graduate recruitment 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.” When thinking about what sectors you may want to gain experience in, remember Stephenson Harwood's focus on all things shipping. Jackson 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 an online critical reasoning test.

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 placement 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 case study.

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 

Stephenson Harwood runs five placement schemes: a week-long placement in the winter, a two-week scheme in the spring, and three two-week placements over June and July. There's room for eight candidates on each (so 40 in total), 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, placement scheme students 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 placement scheme students who receive training contract offers “really varies year by year,” Sarah Jackson says, adding that the firm doesn't prioritise those who have taken part in a placement 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: Are there any highlights from the last year that you'd like to mention?

Neil Noble: Generally the year has been very good. Our financial results were great, and 2015 was our strongest ever in terms of profitability.

From an external perspective, one of the most notable highlights of the last year was our rebrand. While the aesthetics have changed, the project was about far more than that. Comprehensive market research – plus the widest client feedback project the firm has ever undertaken – gave us unparalleled insights into market perception. We received feedback on aspects such as what people think of the firm and what really sets us apart. The project also took into account the views of people who work across the business, giving us a holistic understanding of who we are, how we’re perceived and what values we want to underpin our business. The rebrand has given us a renewed vigour with which to move forward and plan our future.

It’s also worth highlighting our female career progression programme (FCPP), which involves mentoring our female lawyers. This includes one-to-one discussions with a designated partner. The emphasis is on providing support and a sounding board, while also focusing on finding and implementing practical ways to assist our female associates in developing their careers. We also host talks by external and internal speakers, on topics such as achieving your goals and career progression experiences and challenges.

We also received the National Equality Standard accreditation – we’re only the fourth organisation ever to do so, which speaks volumes about how high their standards are. To do this, we had to show how our practices, policies and procedures met a set of seven stringent standards. Our work with the FCPP was highlighted as one of our key strengths in this area, which we are really pleased about.

From the prospective of a future trainee, one of the highlights of the last year has been that we’ve had two trainees qualify into the Dubai office for the first time.

SG: The firm re-established an association with a Chinese law firm in Guangzhou. What was the reasoning behind this?

NN: The Guangzhou office left Stephenson Harwood in 2014 and set up their own firm – Wei Tu. That firm now practices PRC law, as opposed to being an English law practice. Earlier this year, we entered into a CEPA (Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement) with them, forming the 'Stephenson Harwood – Wei Tu (China) Association.' This means that we are now able to offer clients a one-stop shop for Hong Kong, English and PRC law advice (with the PRC advice being offered by Wei Tu). Additionally, because Wei Tu is led by Xianming Lu, who worked for Stephenson Harwood for a number of years previously, clients can expect the same standards of advice and service as they would from Stephenson Harwood.

SG: Last year you mentioned that the Dubai and Beijing offices were growing very quickly. Is this still the case? Are any other offices experiencing a similar rate of growth?

NN: Dubai remains strong. As I said earlier, they recruited two of our trainees as associates into their finance and disputes teams in March 2016, in addition to other hires and a transfer from the Paris office. This significantly increased the headcount and is indicative of the success and ambition of the team there. It's fair to say that in recent years our China offices have probably seen more growth than the others. Our Shanghai office is actively pursuing new senior hires, mainly on the asset finance side of the practice. We've also got the association with Wei Tu in Guangzhou, and in Hong Kong there have been significant lateral hires, with others currently in the pipeline too.

SG: Is the firm looking to expand in any particular regions?

NN: Expansion in relation to Hong Kong and Shanghai was a strategic decision made to grow that part of the network. Otherwise, I don't think there's one particular practice, office or region that is being targeted specifically for growth. There has been general growth around the whole firm, and that reflects the fact that the financial health of the firm is very good. All of the groups are looking at opportunities to expand.

SG: How does Stephenson Harwood's London office tie into the firm as a whole?

NN: The revenue split of our six main groups in London (commercial litigation, corporate, employment and pensions, finance, MIT and real estate) is broadly reflected in the overall firm-wide split. This means that the London office works with and alongside our overseas offices in a genuinely joined-up way. Our financials are strong across the board, in terms of both practice areas and office locations, with all parts of the firm contributing – and that’s our plan for the long-term too.

SG: What sort of person would be the ideal candidate for a Stephenson Harwood training contract?

NN: We don't have one type of person, and that is largely because this is a very diverse and varied firm in terms of our practice areas, the cultures we embrace and the clients we serve. We're very international in our practice, particularly in London. We obviously want bright people with strong intellect, but it's not all about that. We like people who are ambitious, who come in, get involved and help to develop the firm. We like to see people who've done interesting and unusual things: maybe they've set up their own business or been involved in lots of charity events – it can be anything. If they've shown an energy or passion in one sphere, then we will be able to see that they're capable of bringing that to their legal career as well.

SG: Do you have any general tips for candidates during the application and interview process?

NN: In terms of standing out, it's about showing us the things that you have done or the person that you are. They may seem irrelevant, but your passions (whatever they are) really are interesting to us, as they give us an insight into you as a person and what you'll bring to the firm. Don't be frightened to tell us about the things that may seem a bit unusual or are very personal to you. Ultimately, be interested and interesting, and show us who you are.

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Stephenson Harwood LLP

1 Finsbury Circus,

  • Partners 140+
  • Associates 300+
  • Total trainees 36
  • Contact Sarah Jackson, [email protected]
  • 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 2019 31 July 2017
  • Applications pa c. 1,500
  • Training contracts pa 18
  • Required degree grade 2:1
  • Training salary  
  • First year: £38,000
  • Second year: £42,000
  • Holiday entitlement 25
  • days % of trainees with a non-law degree pa 50%
  • Overseas secondment opportunities 
  • Post-qualification salary £62,000
  • % of trainees offered job 86%
  • Overseas offices Paris, Piraeus, Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai, Seoul, Dubai, Beijing
  • Associated offices Bucharest, Jakarta, Yangon, Guangzhou

Firm profile

Stephenson Harwood is a thriving, international law firm with over 140 partners and more than 900 staff worldwide. Our people are committed to achieving the goals of our clients - listed and private companies, institutions and successful entrepreneurs. 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 and arbitration; 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 office 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 2016/2017: 40

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

Remuneration: £260 pw

Closing date: 12 November 2016 for winter, 31 January 2017 for spring and summer.

Open days

18 January 2017, 15 February 2017, 27 March 2017, 26 April 2017

Closing date: 31 January 2017

Sponsorship and awards

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