City stalwart Travers Smith gives trainees a surprising volume of international work in their corporate-heavy training contracts.
Zen and the art of corporate law
Here at Chambers Student we like nothing more after a long day researching law firms than playing a game of word association. "Travers Smith," one researcher will pipe up. "Traditional!" the rest of us chorus. But perhaps we need to shout something else. Perhaps. A swanky office refurb and a new website are both signs of change, but it's more evolution than revolution. Co-head of grad recruitment Dan Reavill tells us: “We've had a top to bottom revamp which has given us all a real boost. As for the office: we could have moved, but we really like our location so chose to refurbish it – the Smithfield site feels important to the Travers Smith culture.” What do trainees think of that culture? Interviewees felt the vibes were more “relaxed” than expected. “People joke around all the time. Well, not when it's busy – you don't want to be that guy.”
Travers' busy lawyers can now capitalise on one new policy the firm has introduced: an agile working scheme which allows them to work from home (more on this below). In the office, lawyers can also get involved in a range of well-being initiatives. For example, one recent health week saw a Buddhist monk come in to talk about 'mindfulness' and there are yoga classes too (no doubt helping to relieve any City stress).
"We're moving away from that white middle-class image."
A trainee noted: “We've been quite a traditional firm, but we're moving away from that white middle-class image." The firm recently appointed a corporate social responsibility and diversity manager and "there's been a real push to raise awareness.” In the firm's 2017 partner promotions round it made up four women and no men. And as for trainees, at the time of our research 55% were women and 29% were from an ethnic minority background. “Even just five years ago there wouldn't have been such a range of people," a trainee rightly pointed out, "but now we have a broader mix of people from different backgrounds, so it's moving in the right directions.”
Some things aren't changing though: for instance, Travers remains strongly against any mergers. “We're happy bedding down in London with one smaller office in Paris," a source told us. "We're one of the oldest firms in London and this is what's best for us.” However, this doesn’t mean Travers has closed its borders to international work. Far from it. Close working relationships with over 100 firms around the globe mean it's anything but isolated. In the wake of Brexit we were told that “it might be good to be known as a firm in a distinct jurisdiction outside the EU, plus we're going to build on our relationships with New York firms in particular.”
Whatever Travers is doing it seems to be working, as the Chambers UK rankings show. The large corporate department is top-ranked for mid-market work, as well as being recognised for high-end work. Other rankings come for transactional and finance-related areas like capital markets, private equity, financial services, and banking and finance, and for non-corporate practices like litigation and real estate.
Prior to joining, incoming trainees attend an afternoon talk on each of the seats on offer. From there they rank their preferences – a corporate and a contentious stint (or a two-week litigation course) must be among them. When asked about the litigation course, one insider told us: “You get a complete overview of the litigation cycle and get to do some actual advocacy – usually in the family courts.” The firm told us that in future more trainees are likely to do a contentious seat rather than this course as the litigation department grows. Almost everyone gets their first preference and changes to preferences can be requested once trainees are through the door, “because no one can prepare you for what you'll actually like.”
“It doesn't sound exciting but it's a great way to work directly with clients.”
At any one time up to 12 trainees call Travers' corporate group home; they sit in either corporate finance or private equity sub-teams. Corporate junkies can even do a seat in one and then go on to do six months in the other. The private equity sub-team specialises in managing transactions for private equity houses.A perusal of the client list shows the firm acts for many mid-sized UK private equity houses like Bridgepoint (total assets over €20 billion) 3i (total assets £13.5 billion), Silverfleet (total assets €1.6 billion) and Lyceum Capital (total assets £800 million). In the 2015/16 financial year the firm advised on £8 billion of private equity-backed transactions, with one of the biggest being Bridgepoint's £835 million sale of Oasis Dental Care. The team also advised Parkdean Resorts (the largest holiday park business in Britain) on its £1.35 billion acquisition by Canadian private equity firm Onex. Typical trainee tasks include “reviewing certification notes and prospectuses, drafting ancillary documents and writing due diligence reports for acquisitions. It doesn't sound exciting but it's a great way to work directly with clients and get to know the company they're buying.”
A corporate finance seat provides work on IPOs, public M&A and private M&A. Insiders told us the work you do “really depends on the partner you sit with because what they each do is different.” One source said they'd been “mostly working on M&A deals ranging in value from a few million to the billions.” For example the firm recently advised South African retail holding company Steinhoff on its £1.2 billlion approach to take over the Home Retail Group (parent company of Argos and Habitat). But Travers' lawyers also advised Zoopla on its £75 million acquisition of a property software company. On these deals trainees “do lots of reviewing and coordinating due diligence on the target entity, but also get a hand in drafting the bigger documents like sale and purchase agreements.” Others described “working on big corporate reorganisations, which is quite cool because you use all the basic principles you learnt in law school.” Trainees told us that most of the work has an international flavour and while that does have its perks, it isn't short of pitfalls either. “Americans aren't really aware of times zones," noted one interviewee. "They think an 11pm call is nothing.” But staying on the line into the wee hours is the price you pay for working on big international deals. One recent matter saw the firm advise UK-based multinational software company Micro Focus on its $8.8 billion merger with HPE, the software arm of Hewlett-Packard.
“It felt quite weird drafting a letter to a politician on what they'd done wrong.”
The international buck doesn’t stop at the corporate finance group. It also seeps into the dispute resolution team, which has recently worked on matters spanning Kenya, South Africa, the BVI, Germany, Italy, France, Iceland, Russia, Morocco and Guernsey. “I loved this seat,” gushed trainees. “The team is really good at keeping you involved in everything that's going on. We mainly do commercial, fraud, cartel and misrepresentation cases, plus mediations and arbitrations.” The team represented Hewlett-Packard in a $5 billion fraud claim against the former directors of Autonomy, which was acquired by HP in 2011. It also represented Hans Ekstrom and Stefan Peterson, directors of the Cayman Islands fund Weavering, when they were accused of breaching directors' duties after the fund's 2009 collapse. An interviewee said trainees had recently “been involved in a matter where a senior foreign politician reneged on a deal with a company that had provided services to their country. It felt quite weird drafting a letter to a politician on what they'd done wrong and having to look up how to address them.” When not explaining to politicians why it's wrong to go back on your word in a business deal, trainees can be found prepping mediations, presiding over case management conferences, and drafting ancillaries. "I won't lie, I did do bundling, but it wasn't too painful," said one source.
Most trainees in real estate immerse themselves in non-contentious work, though there's also room for one trainee in real estate litigation. The department chiefly advises investment funds on the acquisition and management of properties. Real estate funds like Ancala Partners and Greenacre Capital make up the bulk of the client list. The latter recently came to Travers for advice on the acquisition of a 90-acre site in Thanet, Kent. Many matters revolve around purchasing hotels, student accommodation and care homes. A recent doozy saw the firm help Qatari project developer BTC acquire Bow Street Magistrates' Court and police station in Covent Garden (the plan is to turn it into a swanky £130 million boutique hotel). One insider described "working on the development of a shopping centre which will have shops ranging from John Lewis to Millie's Cookies – each needs a lease and I've done the first draft of those and been to meetings with the developer.”
The finance department is divided into acquisition finance; derivatives and structured products; and restructuring and insolvency sub-teams. Most of our sources had done an acquisition seat. One explained: “When corporate or private equity deals come in and the buyer wants to borrow money to buy the asset, we help by identifying banks or lenders and negotiating the terms of the loans so that on completion of the transaction the funds immediately flow where they're supposed to.” The firm recently advised corner-shop chain McColl's on the financing of its purchase of 298 shops worth £117 million from the Co-operative Group. The firm acts for both borrowers like this and for lenders like RBS, HSBC and California's Silicon Valley Bank (which is known for supporting start-ups). Due diligence, drafting corporate authorisations and co-ordinating transactions are all on the cards for trainees here, as are “liaising with lenders' counsel, drafting board minutes and producing director's certificates." The hours can be pretty long. "There have been numerous night-time signings and everyone gets really knackered, but it feels really good,” said one energised source.
"It's gone from bunker to bistro!”
We promised you more on the firm's new agile working policy, so here it is: Travers now allows its qualified lawyers to work when and where they want – within reason. The policy does not automatically apply to trainees: they have to show “a compelling reason for it.” Our interviewees didn't mind: “It's fair because we're here to train, so it wouldn't make sense if I was at home every Friday.” A typical working day for a trainee runs from 9am to 7pm, although in corporate it can be "swings and roundabouts" and trainees can work till 9pm or 10pm at times. In one extreme case, a trainee reported “leaving at 10am the next morning." But: weekend working is rare and there's time off in lieu. Plus, if you stay after 8pm you can order in with Deliveroo and there are taxis home if you work till after 9pm.
Another point we already touched on: the office refurb. “Before there was dark wood and green carpet everywhere," said one trainee. "Now it's all white and glass and there's a new canteen downstairs, which is great as used to be a dank room in the basement. It's gone from bunker to bistro!” There's one sacred aspect of the set-up that will remain the same: the room-sharing system. Each trainee sits in a room with a junior associate, a senior associate and a partner. An interviewee said: “It fosters a friendly atmosphere. You get to have banter and enjoy yourself.” Speaking of which: Travers has a lively social scene. On Thursday and Friday evenings people can be found in The Bishops Finger, Travers' perennial haunt. There are also small lunchtime concerts thanks to a new firm initiative called 'Sound Smith' –“students from the Guildhall School of Music come in and play every few months.” There's also a themed Christmas party. "A few years ago it was masquerade and there were prizes for the best dressed,” one interviewee recalled. We were pleased to hear a touch of tradition remains: at the event first-year trainees are presented with personalised leather briefcases as a rite of passage.
NQ retention is usually good at Travers and this year was no different with 22 of 24 qualifiers kept on.
How to get a Travers Smith training contract
Training contract deadline (2020): 31 July 2018 (opens 1 October 2017)
Applications and vacation scheme
Travers Smith has 25 training contracts on offer and typically recruits around 50% of its trainees through its vacation scheme. The firm runs three two-week placements during the summer, and one two-week scheme in the winter, offering 15 places on each.
The application for the vac scheme begins with a CV and covering letter, and the firm generally receives around 1,000 of these each year. “There are no psychometric tests or any of that rubbish,” one interviewee told us, but prospective trainees do need a minimum AAB at A level and a 2:1 degree to get a look in. The majority of trainees tend to come from Oxbridge or a Russell Group institution, though the firm visits between 25 and 30 university law fairs each year.
Those whose applications impress – generally around 180 – are invited to a one-on-one partner interview. According to our sources, the aim here is to get “a flavour of your character; we don't go for a long-form interview where we ask about all the different times you overcame a problem in the workplace.”
From here, the firm chooses its vac schemers, who split their time between two departments. Alongside shadowing trainees, participants attend workshops on skills like negotiations and drafting, and also get to socialise with Travers lawyers at various drinks events.
A current trainee had this advice for impressing during the vac scheme: “Relax into the atmosphere and try to be enthusiastic. We're all quite outgoing and extroverted, though the line is drawn at being loud and brash – that won't go down well.” Another said: “Show that you're bright, ambitious and calm under pressure, but don't take yourself too seriously.”
Those who still want to pursue a training contract after their scheme can resubmit their application for consideration. They are evaluated on their performance during their placement rather than through any further interviews.
Training contract applications
Travers receives another 1,000 direct training contract applications each year. The application process is broadly similar to that of the vac scheme: applicants submit an initial form, attend a partner interview, then another, this time with co-heads of graduate recruitment Emily Clark and Dan Reavill. The first lasts around 45 minutes, while the second is an hour long.
There's no cap on the number of people the firm invites to interview. Insiders tell us “the firm is big on compare-and-contrast questions” in both interviews – for example, the moral debate of a drunk driver who kills someone as opposed to someone who falls asleep at the wheel and does the same –“but isn't looking to catch anyone out.” Interviewees can also expect questions about current business stories to test their commercial awareness.
The second interview is followed up with a trainee-led tour around the office, during which candidates can ask additional questions, and meet some partners and associates.
Interview with co-heads of graduate recruitment Dan Reavill and Emily Clark
Chambers Student: What have been the highlights at the firm in 2016/17?
Dan Reavill and Emily Clark: We carried out a very large scale refurbishment and reconfiguration of the office. It's been a huge project that's taken a number of years but we've moved back into a really sleek space, with fantastic meeting rooms and a great new canteen. It's really exciting because we've had a top to bottom revamp which has given us all a real boost. We could have moved, but we really like our location so chose to refurbish it – the Smithfield site feels important to the Travers Smith culture.
Also, as part of our commitment to diversity, we've really pushed to have a workforce that is reflective of that - now there are more female lawyers than men. The issue obviously is still in terms of the partnership, but in 2017 it's been great that our latest partner promotions were all female. Plus, we've been very keen to roll out flexible and agile working schemes. We trialled the agile working initiative for a while, and now that we've finally gone live it's been embraced by fee earners across the board. It gives lawyers the opportunity to work at home or elsewhere other than the office. You get to police yourself, which really shows that we trust our people. Associates and partners have just run with it. With trainees there is a slight difference, as it's available to them if they have a very valid reason. Trainees are here to train, and that can't really happen if you're just sitting at home by yourself.
CS: What are the firm's plans for the future?
DR & EC: We're happy in London with one smaller office in Paris. It's a bold approach but one that we think will stand the test of time for the future. We still do the very best international work, just based right out of London.
CS: Brexit is the big unknown at the moment. How is it going to affect the firm?
DR & EC: Being an independent UK firm has many advantages in the current market, and it will be important to continue to build and maintain our relationships with US firms, which will be a key focus for us.
CS: Finally, what do you look for in candidates and what advice would you give our readers?
DR & EC: We're impressed by individuals who are comfortable in their own skin and who aren’t putting on a show for us. You have to trust that our interviewers will buy into you as you. Part and parcel of that is showing us that you're passionate about something – this can be anything, even 1970s disaster films. We're looking for that energy that will translate into work. We want people with a willingness to learn and who will soak up the experiences they are given.
We don't try and test students on legal knowledge in our interviews. Instead we're more likely to focus on current events, so keep abreast of what's happening in the news and form an opinion on it. There's no right or wrong answer, instead we're looking at how you form arguments and how you follow through.
Travers Smith LLP
10 Snow Hill,
- Partners 77
- Associates 204
- Total trainees 50
- UKoffices London
- Overseasoffices Paris and close ties with carefully chosen quality overseas independent law firms
- Graduate recruiter: Germaine VanGeyzel, [email protected], 020 7295 3546
- Training partners: Dan Reavill and Emily Clark
- Application criteria
- Training contract pa: 25
- Applications pa: 1,000
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Minimum UCAS points or A Level: AAB
- Vacation scheme places: pa 60
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 October 2017
- Training contract deadline 2020: 31 July 2018
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 October 2017
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: rolling (winter), 31 January 2018 (summer)
- Salary and benefits
- First year salary: £43,500
- Second year salary: £49,000
- Post qualification salary: £75,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £7,000 in London (£6,500 if outside of London)
- International and regional
- Overseas seats: One seat in Paris
- Client secondments: Following qualification, there are numerous opportunities for secondments to overseas law firms with whom we have a close relationship and client secondments. In recent years, our associates have worked on secondment in places such as New York, Hong Kong and India.
Main areas of work
We’ll give you responsibility from day one – you will quickly find yourself on the phone to clients, in meetings and handling your own work with all the guidance you need. As such the firm looks for people who can combine academic excellence with plain common sense; who are determined, articulate and able to think on their feet, and who take their work but not themselves seriously. A law degree is not a necessity – around half the trainees who joined last year came from a non-law background.