Shipping pro Thomas Cooper helps trainees get their sea legs by offering an overseas seat and plenty of work spanning international waters.
Fear not, landlubbers
Fire on a superyacht? Cargo of contaminated grain? Collapsed charter agreements? Chances are Thomas Cooper's extensive shipping practice will have the resources to help. This London-forged firm's been honing its expertise in the area since 1825, and its hard graft on deck has earned it a salute from Chambers UK. Despite boasting five overseas offices in shipping hotspots like Singapore and Piraeus, TC is a relatively small operation – its London hub was home to 33 lawyers at the time of our calls. That doesn't mean it can't attract some big fish: on the books you'll find P&I provider American Club; Russian transport operator Fesco; and Beijing-headquartered Cosco Bulk, which controls the world's largest bulk cargo fleet.
But let's come back to TC's fleet, which contains a few practices that aren't so maritime-focused. Areas like corporate, employment and sport bring in clients from the realms of manufacturing, aviation and (guess which one this relates to) the English Premier League. However, trainees made it clear that newbies should expect nautical work to overflow into most groups. What's more, the training contract has traditionally had a heavy shipping bent: the standard seat plan consists of two stints in shipping, one in finance and one in marine and commercial litigation. The ropes were slackened slightly in 2016 though, when a trainee was allowed to complete an employment seat instead of a finance one.
"We're talking minor crashes all the way up to the total loss of a vessel.”
Given the (relatively) pre-determined seat plan, trainees don't have too much input in the allocation process. “You can express a preference on the order of seats, and that is taken into account to some extent, but HR will make the final decision.” Trainees are encouraged to spend one of their shipping seats in an overseas office; they often head to either Singapore or Piraeus, but Spanish speakers can also complete a stint in Madrid. When it comes to these overseas sojourns, we heard that trainees have more scope to express preferences as to where they'd like to go.
Wet behind the ears
In shipping, it's not yin and yang: it's wet and dry. These terms divide the matters lawyers deal with and TC works on both. With dry shipping, think of land-based issues like “contractual disputes over shipbuilding agreements or delayed loading/unloading times.” The firm's ongoing work with Norwegian shipowner Spar Shipping gives us a handy example: the team is currently navigating the fallout from three collapsed time charters (essentially ship-hiring contracts) with Hong Kong-based Grand China Shipping.
With wet shipping, simply think of issues that could occur at sea. “Here we're talking minor crashes all the way up to the total loss of a vessel,” one trainee explained. On this side of the shipping equation, TC recently acted for the Iranian owners of an offshore gas production platform, which was damaged after the 'Alpine Eternity' – a pretty hefty tanker – rammed right into it at full speed.
In London, trainees can sample work from both areas, but it does depend on what their supervisor specialises in. Larger shipping matters can involve some admin-heavy tasks. “A box of documents was dropped off to us,” one trainee recalled, “and it was my job to rifle through them to find any discrepancies.” However, there are smaller matters for trainees to wade into, and these offer up more responsibility: “There's a lot more drafting of things like witness statements and advice for clients and counsel. I also got to read through evidence and expert reports.”
“I was there an extra month in order to see an arbitration through to the end."
A marine and commercial litigation seat “is very varied.” On the marine side, P&I clubs bring in quite a lot of personal injury work, while commercial matters can span finance, energy and non-shipping related insurance cases. Here's what one interviewee's seat diary looked like: “I worked on a case involving a port closure; an insurance claim concerning a fire in a nightclub; a case of mis-selling against a bank; and a fraud matter.” Work-wise, some did get bogged down with “back-room printing and photocopying,” but others enjoyed disclosure tasks and were able to draft “standard court forms, as well as letters to the other side.” Sources were also taken along to hearings, and during a personal injury case one trainee got to speak in front of a master at court.
Ship finance deals tend to dominate a trainees' finance seat, but the department is also well regarded for its skill in the trade and commodities sphere. The UK branch of Middle Eastern banking group Emirates NBD is an active client; the team recently advised it on a $100 million loan facility for a company wishing to import titanium dioxide into the UK from Australia, South Africa and Canada. Trainees gained drafting experience on weighty documents like facility agreements, and also got to attend “big networking events where you meet clients.”
“Everyone's in the same boat.”
Shipping “is very technical,” sources reiterated, “but at least that means everyone's in the same boat when they start.” Luckily, TC pairs close supervision with plenty of lectures to help trainees on their way. “New joiners attend a series of partner-led talks about the different aspects of shipping, and after that go to regular lunchtime sessions delivered by partners or external speakers.” On the supervision front, the set-up is quite traditional. “You're in a room with just one partner, which means that you learn from the very best. It's all very civilised: my supervisor explained how demurrage works over a nice cup of tea!”
A more traditional feel is also created by TC's “very smart” dress code, but overall sources agreed that the atmosphere is “friendly and sociable.” This close-knit vibe stems from the fact that many of the partners are TC born and bred: “They have known each other for a long time and are very loyal,” one source commented. “As a result they are keen on hiring people who they feel will retain the culture we have here.” So what are they looking for in future trainees? “They aren't looking for corporate-y work-till-you-drop types. They want people with a bit of character – outgoing people who they can have a chat with after work.” Another put it more bluntly: “You don't want to be stuck in a small space with boring people!”
Fly the Coop'
The hours do let trainees show off their more outgoing side. “Typically you get in around 9.30am, and you can expect to leave by 6pm – there's not much variation between the seats.” In keeping with the sociable vibe, trainees and NQs get together for lunch and after-work drinks, but our sources looked forward to broader gatherings the most: “It's widely accepted that the more senior people buy the drinks!” Trainees can therefore save their pennies during the Christmas do and a summer boat party (“it's just a normal boat, not a cargo vessel,” one helpfully clarified).
Like seat allocation, the qualification process doesn't allow for much trainee involvement. “The firm is small, so you qualify where they need you – there's not much of a discussion about it.” Despite wanting a more structured process, trainees did feel confident that NQ jobs would be available: TC boasted 100% retention rates from 2013 to 2015. Alas it didn't manage to pull this off in 2016 keeping just one of four qualifiers.
At the time of our calls, just over two-thirds of TC's London lawyers were men. However, five out of seven trainees were female.
How to get a Thomas Cooper training contract
Training contract deadline: 29 July 2017
Thomas Cooper receives around 100 applications a year for its four training contracts. The firm doesn't run a vacation scheme, but in previous years we've heard that a placement at a similar specialist firm – like Ince & Co, Watson, Farley & Williams or Holman Fenwick Willan – can offer an adequate idea of what it's like to work at TC.
Trainee hopefuls apply with an online application form, which is screened by the senior partner Tim Kelleher. Personnel administrator & executive assistant Cheryl Robinson urges applicants to “check your application form for any spelling or grammar mistakes – then double-check it!”
A 2:1 degree is preferable. “We do not really take mitigating circumstances into consideration, because there are just so many people striving to get training contracts,” Robinson admits. That said, the firm doesn't favour any particular universities, so don't be put off if you haven't come from one of the top institutions.
Although work experience is part of the grading criteria for the initial application, this doesn't have to be law-related or span the industries Thomas Cooper is known for. "I think it's more about demonstrating curiosity in what we do than having a lot of experience or knowledge of it already," speculated a current trainee. "You've also got to show you have an idea of the direction you want your career to head in."
Interviews and assessments
This typically takes place in August with a solicitor/partner and the senior partner. The interview process involves one assessment and a competency-based question, which together take up one hour and 15 minutes. “They are designed to allow both law and non-law graduates demonstrate their knowledge and relevant skills,” says Robinson of these assessments. The specifics are kept under wraps, but a current trainee told us “they're based around tasks lawyers can expect to face daily.”
Second-stage interviews take place in September, this time with two senior partners. Anywhere between six and 12 candidates might be invited back for this. “It's primarily a discussion-based interview centred on your skills, experience and why you have made an application to us in particular,” Robinson reveals. As one trainee recalled: “Some of the questions were intended to see how I'd cope if I was out of my depth. I think they wanted to get an idea of my personality.” From here, the firm makes its decision and offers are made in the autumn.
Weathering stormy seas: the shipping market
Thomas Cooper LLP
- Partners 29
- Assistant solicitors 31
- Total trainees 8
- Contact Cheryl Robinson, personnel administrator
- Method of application Online application form
- Selection procedure Interviews and assessments
- Closing date for 2019 29 July 2017
- Application Required degree grade 2:1
- Training salary (2014)
- First year: £34,000
- Second year £37,500
- 25 days holiday
- Overseas/regional offices Athens, Madrid, Paris, Sao Paulo and Singapore
Thomas Cooper has experience of dealing with the law in key jurisdictions around the world, with offices in London, Athens, Madrid, Paris, Sao Paulo and Singapore. The firm takes a pragmatic approach, providing clear advice that helps clients navigate through the complexity of international commerce.
The firm is recommended by and recognised by the major legal directories for its expertise.
The firm’s clients operate globally and range from shipowners to charterers and traders, from banks and other financial institutions to underwriters and P&I clubs, from blue chip companies to small businesses and private individuals.
The firm gives insightful and pragmatic advice to clients and allows them to manage their exposure to risk more effectively.
Main areas of work
Thomas Cooper values its trainees because they are vital for the future of the business. If you are bright, confident and a self starter who has a keen interest in maritime then the firm would encourage you to apply to its trainee programme.
Thomas Cooper recruits a maximum of four trainees per year.