With its sizeable array of secondments and the chance to do eight seats, this elite global firm gives trainees an “à la carte” experience.
What'll it be?
When we asked trainees at Freshfields what attracted them to the firm, one was blunt: “Its reputation, of course! I wanted to work for the best firm possible, and that means magic circle.” But what makes Freshfields stand out from the other four outfits in this prestigious club? “Its flexibility,” our source replied. “Our training contract is very unusual.” Indeed, trainees here have the choice of undertaking as many three or six-month seats as they can fit into their two years, meaning it's possible to complete eight seats by the time they qualify. “It's à la carte," graduate recruitment partner Andrew Austin says. "Our development team bends over backwards to meet trainees' requests, so it's like a bespoke training contract. It allows them to see more of the practices they are interested in and fewer of those they aren't.” That said, things became a tad more fixed in 2014, when the firm deemed visits to corporate, finance and dispute resolution compulsory. According to Austin, "this is a reflection of how well balanced our practices are; we're not a firm where, say, dispute resolution is less important than corporate or finance. And because we are also so strong in finance and M&A, it's important trainees experience those areas too.” Our interviewees weren't fazed: “It just turns you into a well-rounded lawyer. The training contract is still really flexible – there are lots of subgroups to choose from within each of those categories.”
Freshfields has long been a corporate heavyweight: it earns a top-band Chambers UK ranking for its high-end M&A work and topped both the cross-border and UK M&A charts for 2014, reeling in a whopping $91 billion worth of transactions on the latter front. “If you want to work with the world's biggest corporations and institutions on their most complex issues, this is the firm for you." The firm recently advised the UK Government on the sale of its £757.1 million stake in Eurostar, helped Ryanair on its debut €850 million bond issue, and defended AstraZeneca against Pfizer's £69.4 billion takeover bid (which, had it gone through, would have been the largest takeover of a UK company in history).
But this is no one-trick pony. Chambers UK awards top marks in around 20 other areas, including in finance, capital markets, construction, litigation, product liability, restructuring and tax – see our website for the full list. “Unlike some firms, we don't want any one practice to dominate,” Austin reminds us. “We just want to do really complex, high-value work for our clients, wherever they are in the world and whatever their issues are.” The finance group regularly advises the Bank of England on regulatory issues; on the contentious side, meanwhile, lawyers spent much of 2014 defending Sotheby's against a headline-hitting professional negligence claim after it sold a painting it deemed a copy of Caravaggio which the buyer later declared an original.
The firm's 159 trainees are based in its swanky London headquarters on Fleet Street. “Inside we have access to a restaurant, coffee shop, doctor, dentist, nutritionist, physiotherapist – you name it!” Each sits in an office with a supervisor and sometimes a junior associate. Most of the undertakings in London have cross-border components, so trainees regularly find themselves working with one or some of the firm's 26 other offices. Many (46 in 2014) even head to one to complete one of the many overseas seats up for grabs (these are primarily reserved for trainees in their final six months). “The big four are New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Dubai – they're very popular.” Client secondments are also in demand: 39 trainees headed in-house in 2014. Recent destinations include the Bank of England, Liberty, Sony and the Tower Hamlets Law Centre. To apply for an overseas or client secondment, trainees write to HR stating why they would like to go; for overseas seats they also apply for which practice area they want to pursue.
Set Pfizers to stun
The corporate department has four main teams: 'Corporate A' tackles "regulatory, transactional and funds work;” 'B' leans towards private equity, “with experienced clients looking to buy or sell companies quickly;” 'C' “sees lots of energy work but is still quite general, with a mix of capital markets, public and private M&A;” and 'D' “usually does a lot of general corporate advisory work in the TMT, telecoms, and oil and gas sectors.” Trainees across all four reported managing the day-to-day running of transactions, drafting things like board minutes and SPAs, and researching “interesting niggly things like whether someone in a company would be regarded as a 'shadow director'.” There are “lots of documents to get to grips with, but many are bespoke, so it's a good learning experience,” we heard. Several sources highlighted the high level of client contact they'd encountered: some had “acted as a client's first port of call” while others had “attended meetings alone to take notes.”
A lot of firms throw around the word 'big' in regard to transactions, but know that Freshfields truly handles the biggest of the big on the corporate front. In recent months alone the department's advised Novartis on a $28.5 billion set of interconditional transactions, including the acquisition of oncology products from GlaxoSmithKline; worked with Heathrow Airport Holdings on a £1.048 billion agreement to sell its 100% interest in the Glasgow, Aberdeen and Southampton airports; and advised the London Stock Exchange Group on its $2.7 billion acquisition of Russell Investments. With a caseload like that, it's little wonder the department is known for its tough hours. “When deals are closing, you can expect a few very late nights. I remember working 100 hours a week during a particularly busy period,” one trainee reported. “But it is worthwhile, because it helps you learn to handle pressure, which is essential in this line of work.”
Finance seats include restructuring and insolvency; energy, transport and infrastructure; structured finance and debt capital markets; and banking. Like in corporate, hours here can be demanding: “Over the first few weeks of my seat there wasn't much to do and I'd leave around 6pm, but things picked up when we were closing this one deal and I didn't go home until after midnight for seven nights in a row,” a source in banking said. “It can be quite unpredictable – it's all down to what the client wants.” Those hours aren't for nothing, though: the team recently oversaw the £3.9 billion merger between Carphone Warehouse and Dixons, and advised Compass Group on a £1 billion bridge loan facility to fund its return of cash to shareholders. Other clients of late include Tesco, J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs.
Finance trainees are typically tasked with “keeping an eye on the overall picture,” which means keeping track of all of the documents needed for a transaction and liaising with the other side if anything is missing. “It's not as dull as it seems,” interviewees insisted. “It's actually a huge responsibility to make sure all of the documents are going where they're meant to between 14 different jurisdictions. You're able to run your own work-stream, and eventually you get a handle on what you're doing and begin to feel like a pro.” Other trainee tasks include researching precedent deals, drafting facility agreements and clauses in loan contracts, and handling Companies House filings.
Battle of the oligarchs
According to trainees, "the workload in dispute resolution is more predictable than in corporate or finance, meaning the hours are more predictable too. Often you're home by 7.30pm, unless there's a significant reason why not.” The firm has extensive experience with CIS mandates and has had a hand in some huge cases involving oligarchs: lawyers recently defended Igor Kolomoisky (the second-richest person in Ukraine) against a $2 billion clam brought by Victor Pinchuk (the richest), who alleged that Kolomoisky and a business associate had failed to transfer a Ukrainian ore processing company after he'd agreed to buy it. The department is also big on private equity disputes, and handles a lot of contentious work in emerging markets in Africa and Latin America. The international arbitration side is particularly noteworthy as it's the largest dedicated practice in the world. “We do some commercial arbitration, but there's also a hefty amount of investment treaty arbitration, which deals with things like if two governments want to enter into an agreement to protect their investors. It's quite an academic area and involves some pretty heavy research.”
Commercial disputes is one of the more popular dispute resolution seats (others include environment, planning and regulatory; financial institutions disputes; engineering, procurement and construction; EU competition; IP/IT; and international arbitration). Generally trainees here spend their seat on one or two large cases, from IP and audit disputes to large-scale investigations work. “We do such big litigation that trainees have to do a lot of admin, like bundling, writing up phone calls and booking partners' flights," said one. "I think that's fair – if you've got an investigation involving a huge team of partners and associates across the world, you can't expect to be the captain.” Still, most of our sources had some more substantive tasks to report too, like “drafting witness statements and summary notes for clients, researching case law to feed into arguments, and managing whole teams of paralegals.”
Life is a rollercoaster
You won't hear anyone gushing on about terrific work/life balances here. “It's a rollercoaster," one trainee said frankly. "There will be times when you're getting out at a reasonable hour, like 7 or 8pm, and others when you're closing a deal and being absolutely destroyed in the early hours of the morning. I've worked all night, gone home for a shower, and come back to the office." On the plus side, “you get time off in lieu if you've worked a series of horrible nights, which is basically free annual leave.” Free cabs home after 9.30pm and free dinner in the canteen after 7pm also sweeten the deal. Still, sources suggested "doing the vac scheme and trying to find out for sure whether this kind of lifestyle is right for you before you apply.”
Those who think they can take the heat will be happy to hear our interviewees' claims that “the atmosphere always makes up for the bad hours." One elaborated: "Everyone comes into deals with good humour, and most people stay friendly and professional no matter what; you rarely come across someone who's lost their temper.” Trainees went on to insist that, despite its prestige, Freshfields isn't a stuffy place. “I visited lots of firms before making my decision, and at lots of them it seemed the partners didn't really speak to trainees," said one. "Here it's different. Yes, there is a hierarchy when you're working, but that's as far as it goes. I've done karaoke with partners. Most will happily sit with you on a canteen bench to share a pizza.”
When they're not working or warbling top-40 tunes into a microphone, trainees can typically be found a few doors down from the office at Hack & Hop or The Harrow. The highlight of Freshfields' social calendar is the lavish Christmas party. “They go all out. Last year they hired Supanova on the Embankment, which is basically a giant tent. Stavros Flatley from Britain's Got Talent performed and so did our firm band, Fleet Street Mac. Some of the partners became mixologists for the night and ran the cocktail bar, while others got stuck into the huge chocolate and cheese fountains. With over 2,000 people attending, it was quite an affair.” So come for the high-profile corporate work; stay for the lavish parties. In 2015, 81 of 96 qualifiers did.
As part of their induction, trainees help a Big Issue vendor sell the magazines on the streets: “It was eye-opening – the majority of people just ignore you!”
How to get a training contract at Freshfields
Vacation scheme deadline: 6 January 2016
Training contract deadline: 6 January 2016 (non-law) 31 July 2016 (law)
Quite a few of you might see a Freshfields 'campus ambassador' or two around your uni in the coming year – part of the firm's initiatives to reach out to students. If you're a penultimate-year student interested in commercial law and want to make a bit of cash, you may want to consider becoming an ambassador yourself when the firm invites its next round of applicants. And if you're applying for a Freshfields vacation scheme or training contract, it can't hurt to get to know some of the graduate recruitment team in this capacity and make a good impression.
Every single one of the 2,000-plus applications Freshfields receives each year is read from beginning to end by a member of the graduate recruitment team.
The firm tries to evaluate these applications in the round rather than in a mechanistic way, so those unexpected Bs in your A levels won’t automatically cut you from the running. You'll need to look pretty impressive academically, though.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the Freshfields application form is the big blank box. The firm basically says 'Tell us about yourself in 850 words' and leaves it up to you what to fill in. Graduate recruitment sources tell us they're distinctly unimpressed by those who write “with an element of routine or cliché or received wisdom.” Indeed, glib catchphrases like ‘cutting-edge deals’ rarely go down well, even when the sentiment behind them is genuine. The most successful applications are simply written in a direct and unaffected way, and for a good reason: why would anyone be impressed by a form that could have been written by five hundred other applicants?
There is also an online verbal reasoning test to complete.
The assessment day
About 12% of applicants are invited to the firm's assessment day, which involves three components that can take place in any order. Both vacation scheme and direct training contract applicants go through this.
There's a written assessment, which lasts 45 minutes and sees candidates asked to review draft documents, highlight the mistakes, discuss the ambiguous elements and redraft an extract so it is clear and correct. This does not require any knowledge of law and is designed to assess a candidate's ability to analyse the written word.
There's a general interview that also lasts an hour, and is usually done with a partner and associate. This interview centres on competency-based questions designed to draw out attributes like motivation, organisational skills, capacity for teamwork, degree of curiosity, level of common sense, and "stickability" – that is, the ability to act sensibly and cheerfully under pressure. "We always ask for evidence of these traits," new graduate recruitment partner Andrew Austin emphasizes. "And we always leave 15 minutes at the end for candidates to ask questions."
Finally, there's also what the firm calls an ‘analytical interview’ during with applicants’ analytical skills are assessed. This lasts an hour and usually takes place with a different partner and an associate. Candidates are given 20 minutes to read a business-based article, usually from The Economist or FT, and are then quizzed on it. “You could be asked how the subject of the article could bring work into the firm, or what parts of the firm could be involved,” recalled a trainee of the process. “Mine was an article about Airbus – we ended up talking about the price of oil, the merits or otherwise of cheap airlines and new markets the firm could move into. They didn’t expect me to know that Freshfields had just done a huge Airbus deal, although obviously it would have been great if I had.”
Austin adds: "We want people to stay with us. We want interesting people who will keep work in proportion to everything else in their lives. We always ask, 'What do you do for fun'?"
The vacation scheme
Insiders tell us the firm's “very structured” three-week vacation scheme is “focused on commercial awareness and thinking about things from a business perspective.” It includes a day spent on a mock transaction with some of the partners –"quite rushed obviously, but quite useful nonetheless” – plus lunchtime departmental talks that allow candidates to get to know more about different parts of the firm.
On the social side, there are plenty of lunches with trainees and partners, plus outings like curries in Brick Lane, a Thames rib (speedboat) experience, and a night at The Comedy Store.
Since 2010, Freshfields has also opened up some of its international offices to vac schemers. Successful candidates can submit an application on why they should spend an extra week in an overseas office. Past destinations have included Amsterdam, Brussels, Frankfurt, Dubai, Hong Kong, New York, Paris, Singapore and Washington.
Interview with graduate recruitment partner Andrew Austin
Halo (Freshfields' LGBT network)
Andrew Austin, graduate recruitment partner since June 2014, is also a leading sponsor of Halo, Freshfields' global affinity group for lesbian, gay, bi and trans employees. Halo currently has around 100 members from 15 offices. The group recently launched a 'Champions' programme for non-LGBT allies. As Austin tells us, you don't have to be gay to show your support at Halo's various social events and activities throughout the year. These include talks, external networking events, quizzes and drinks parties.
In December 2012, Halo held its first international conference in London, and its second took place in Frankfurt in May 2014 over two days. Momentum is really building: in 2014 Freshfields joined the ranks of gay campaigning charity Stonewall's annual list of the country's top 100 gay-friendly employers for the first time. In 2015, it jumped from 66th to joint 9th place alongside Pinsent Masons. Freshfields is the only magic circle firm to make the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index 2015.
The Stephen Lawrence Scholarship Scheme
In March 2014 Freshfields announced the first six scholars in its Stephen Lawrence Scholarship programme, launched initially for three years to promote access to the profession for young black men from underprivileged backgrounds. It has the backing of Baroness Doreen Lawrence, whose 18-year-old son Stephen was murdered in an unprovoked attack in Eltham in 1993.
Scholars get careers advice, mentoring and other support from Freshfields, including opportunities to visit the firm and an alternative route to interview for a training contract. They also receive £3,500 towards the cost of their studies. Clients including the Bank of England and Goldman Sachs are helping Freshfields deliver some aspects of the scheme.
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP
65 Fleet Street,
- Partners 426
- Associates 1,649
- Total trainees 167*
- (* London based)
- Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
- Website www.freshfields.com/ukgraduates
- Method of application Online application form
- Selection procedure Online verbal reasoning test, two interviews and a written test
- Closing date for 2018 6 January 2016 (law and non-law) 31 July 2016 (law)
- Training contracts p.a. up to 80
- Applications p.a. c. 2,000
- % interviewed p.a. c.18%
- Training salary
- 1st year £41,000
- 2nd year £46,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- % of trainees with a non-Law degree p.a. c. 40%
- No. of seats available abroad p.a. c. 42
- Post-qualification salary £67,500
- % of trainees offered job on qualification 85% (as at Spring 2015)
- Overseas offices Abu Dhabi, Amsterdam, Bahrain, Beijing, Berlin, Brussels, Cologne, Dubai, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong, Madrid, Milan, Moscow, Munich, New York, Paris, Rome, Shanghai, Singapore, Tokyo, Vienna, Washington DC
Main areas of work