Holman Fenwick Willan LLP - True Picture

These undisputed leaders in the shipping sector offer “adventurous and proactive” trainees a contentious-heavy experience and the opportunity to go far.

Confessions of a shipaholic

Holman Fenwick Willan is a fine example of why it pays to go international. In shipping this is more of a bog-standard requirement, but still, the firm has properly embraced it of late: by permanently relocating a senior partner to Asia, “we’re demonstrating great commitment to the Asia-Pacific region,” says training principal Toby Stephens. Across offices in London, Paris, Brussels, Piraeus, Dubai, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and São Paulo, the firm’s goal is to “have a truly global management,” Stephens tells us. “We always make sure that all our international offices feel empowered. They're not just satellites.”

Shipping has been the firm’s mainsail since Frank Holman, a mariner’s son, and shipping and insurance mogul John Holman set up a legal practice in London in 1873. Over the last few years, HFW has adopted a slightly different tack to its competitors: when the economy hit the poop deck many were forced to diversify, but Holman instead focused on its areas of expertise. As Stephens puts it, “we managed to stick very close to our roots and have concentrated on what we're good at. Other areas are definitely considered complementary to the main area in which we operate.”

No surprises, then, that the shipping team has been top ranked in Chambers UK since the dawn of time. The group’s expertise evolved over the years and spread into areas like commodities, aviation and logistics, which today also earn first prize in Chambers UK. A huge chunk of the firm's business therefore consists of shipping, from wet to dry, via shipping litigation and ship finance. Big clients include RSA, Barclays, Rolls-Royce and Eni.

Plenty of fish

Seat options include: energy and resources (split into commodities; construction; EU/competition, fraud and insolvency; and corporate); shipping (litigation and finance); insurance and reinsurance; aerospace; and international (the overseas seat). Before joining the firm, recruits indicate a preference for their first seat. “Usually this is a bit of a stab in the dark,” our sources commented, with one laughing it off: “I had absolutely no idea what to put down!” Sources agreed that the firm does its best to play fairly and accommodate trainees' preferences as much as possible, gauging willingness to travel and qualification hopes. We advise thinking carefully about which contentious seats you do, because options are more limited abroad. “The rule is that we have to do at least one transactional seat, and the other three will be litigious. Usually in other firms it's the other way around, but we're a heavily litigious firm.”

All trainees are expected go abroad for at least one seat, “and of course we all want to, or we wouldn't have applied to work here!” Decisions on when and where to send trainees on secondment depend on the overseas offices’ requirements. As one interviewee put it, “they do whatever makes commercial sense, so you don't always get your first choice, but it's the way it should be.” At the time of our calls, out of 31 trainees 24 were in London, two were in Hong Kong, and the rest were scattered between six overseas offices. A willingness to travel is a must at Holman Fenwick Willan; Toby Stephens describes ideal candidates as “proactive and adventurous.” Several sources had chosen to qualify abroad and were staying on as NQs in Asia and elsewhere in Europe.

International seats vary in focus. Options can include non-contentious versions of energy, shipping, EU/competition and insurance as well as contentious options including shipping, insurance and commodities. Whatever you end up doing, trainees promised “exciting work" such as "advising the Thai government on EU arbitrations to do with trade negotiations, which was cool!” Other topics we heard about included the import of rainbow trout and the cigarette trade. One source raved that “it was so interesting, I didn't expect to be doing any of this, and my own international background certainly came in handy – the firm values it a lot.” In the overseas offices the international seat involved “advising my foreign colleagues here on UK law and how it works, as well as liaising with clients since I'm the one who speaks English best.”

Probates of the Caribbean

“I could talk for ten hours about everything I've done in six months,” gushed a trainee about the shipping seat, which all sources named their favourite, “for obvious reasons! It's so alive as a subject and a really hot topic. It's a very commercial field where people are constantly trading.” Across the ‘wet' and ‘dry’ disciplines, “the tasks vary massively.” In the shipping litigation and admiralty departments the emphasis is on wet work, particularly in the overseas offices, including “high-profile” vessel collisions, groundings and salvage. Trainees find themselves on the front line: “Clients ring up for quick advice – for example, about trying to arrest their opponent's assets.” SMIT, a leading salvage firm, is a huge client, as are BP and COSCO Bulk Carrier, and HFW also works for P&I clubs and shipowners. In the Piraeus office, “you have very good clients who throw everything your way: finance work, charter party work, or if things go bad at sea they'd instruct you to proceed with salvage,” said one overseas trainee. Another reported that “a Supreme Court case is coming, so we're doing a lot of prep work for that, assembling witness statement exhibits.”

Dry shipping work for one source included “charter party disputes and two arbitrations, for which they flew me home for from my secondment!” Another reported: “They let me have a crack at drafting witness statements for the High Court, and sometimes clients even came to me first to find out what was going on.” In the overseas offices “you always get more responsibility because they're all smaller than London, so trainees are naturally given more of their own work,” sources agreed. “When I was in Shanghai,” a trainee explained, “there was a High Court matter, and I had to liaise with partners in the London office entirely on my own.”

The newly created energy and resources seat (“part of the firm's effort to show we're cradle to grave when it comes to commodities”) sees trainees join an internationally operated team, which recently brought an Australasian group on board. It handles matters relating to oil and gas at all stages of production, energy trading and offshore work, energy dispute resolution, and energy insurance, as well as EU/competition law. Sources in commodities felt they were working in an expanding department, acting for “some big clients – mostly commodities houses.” As a trainee involved in high-level shipbuilding or energy arbitrations, “you do a lot of bundling, but I also got to go to attend a very heated dispute.” In EU/competition interviewees found the work “really rewarding.” One gave an example: “I was working on sanctions, and I had a couple of small advisory cases by myself. It all gets checked of course.” The firm's major clients still include global energy beast Eni, Australia's largest independent oil and gas company Woodside, and UK leader EnQuest. A recent case involves acting for Hellas Gold in a dispute over the terms of acquisition of a gold mine.

The recently opened aerospace department offers trainees a predominantly contentious seat option, where work includes large PI claims following accidents, convention claims, and research into contractual and insurance matters. “In this seat you have to be able to synthesise facts quickly,” one observed, while another remarked: “I had lots of responsibility, and was able to run one small file by myself and bigger ones almost singlehandedly!” One source got at least one of their five-a-day working on “the transportation of a large batch of asparagus,” while another “investigated the rules of remoteness” and “went to court once with a barrister. In the end the judge threw the case away, which was great for our client.” Finally, one interviewee “worked on a few high-profile helicopter crashes you would have heard of in the media recently,” such as the 2013 Vauxhall helicopter crash.

You've got bail

The atmosphere in the London office is “generally friendly if a bit old-fashioned,” sources told us. In the past we've reported that the firm could be more nurturing towards trainees. Our sources didn't deny this, confirming that there isn't really a formal mentoring system in place, but they ultimately agreed that “you're never abandoned. If it's not your official mentor, there will always be your direct supervisor in that particular seat who is ready to listen and help out.” And is there any truth in the legends of the terrifying partners? The consensus was that while “generally, all the partners are lovely and approachable, there are those three or four you know to avoid,” with one source stoically confessing: “I had to work for one in particular who was a total ball-buster. But it didn't take away anything from the seat.” Our interviewees were realistic about their lot: “It's all based on business needs – no one forces you to stay late, but if there's something to finish you'll want to get it done.” Our research continues to show that HFW is suited to resilient types who are ready to accept every challenge a partner might throw at them.

It isn’t all work, though. The firm hosts regular parties at Christmas and in the summer, with events like the office-wide boat party on the river. Every department has its own social scene too, and shipping is rumoured to be particularly keen for a pARRRty (sorry). Sources agreed that overall the social side of things probably isn't as structured at HFW as it is in other firms, but this is part of the firm's overall policy of hiring and growing proactive, independent individuals who can easily be left to their own devices. As put by Toby Stephens, “the kinds of people we hire aren't those who need their social life organised by the firm.” Fair enough.

So what kind of person do they hire? While the firm does value second languages, these are by no means required. They are, however, looking for candidates with an interest in international business, a degree of commercial awareness, and the desire to know more. At the time of our interviews, not all trainees had come straight out of uni; several had prior legal work experience, and a few had come from different careers altogether. The firm hires from across the country, from London to St Andrews, with the current trainee list encompassing 21 different institutions.

And finally...

HFW is seeking to “feed its fast-growing network with clever young people,” with the encouraging (provisional) retention rate of 16 out of 18 trainees in 2014 to prove it.

You may also be interested in:

Our practice area feature on Shipping

These firms with a strong shipping practice: 

- Clyde & Co
- Hill Dickinson
- Ince & Co
- Reed Smith
- Stephenson Harwood
- Thomas Cooper
- Watson, Farley & Williams

How to get a Holman Fenwick Willan training contract


Vacation scheme deadline: 14 February 2015

Training contract deadline: 31 July 2015

Vacation scheme 

Holman Fenwick Willan runs a week-long vacation scheme in April, as well as two two-week schemes over June and July.

Vac schemers spend time in one department each week. Our HR sources tell us “the work is hands-on and is set to them by fee earners, and there are a couple of assessed exercises throughout.” Participants, who are assigned a trainee buddy to help them settle in, also attend a handful of practice area presentations and workshops. At the end of the scheme, which includes several organised social dos, attendees have a interview with a partner.

Our sources encouraged prospective HFW trainees to try to get a spot on the scheme if possible. “We're very interested in candidates with legal experience, and the vac scheme is a great opportunity to get some. Plus it's a good way for people to get to know the firm.”

The application process 

HFW offers 15 training contracts each year. Applying for the vac scheme means you're automatically considered for the training contract too. The firm typically receives 600 vac scheme applications and 500 or so direct training contract applications. Candidates from both contingents who impress on paper are invited to a half-day assessment centre. This involves a written exercise, a group exercise and an interview, typically with an associate and a member of HR.

The group exercise sees candidates discuss a topical commercial issue, while the written one asks them to read a document and write a letter of advice. The interview lasts about 45 minutes and “questions might include what drew them to Holmans, why they chose an international firm, and a few commercial questions,” HR tells us. “People should know they don't have to be knowledgeable about shipping in particular; they just need to demonstrate an understanding of what it means to provide a service, in any context. It's also important candidates show they understand our scope of work, and that it's something they're interested in.”

From here, vac scheme spots are allocated, while direct applicants who pass go on to complete a second interview, this time with two partners. Vac schemers undergo this interview during their placement.

Who is the firm interested in?  

HFW is after candidates with a minimum 2:1 degree and AAB at A level. The firm attends ten law fairs each year, but this isn't the limit of its recruiting scope. “This year we've got trainees from 21 different institutions,” HR tells us.

We're told the firm seeks out “intellectual, proactive, ambitious and globally minded individuals – someone who want to make a mark on things rather than blend into the background.” Legal experience is always a plus in applicants, but the firm values all types of exposure to business –“even working in a bar and cashing in every night.”

Applicants should be aware that a seat abroad is compulsory at HFW. As such, “they're definitely keen on languages,” current trainees told us. That said, training principal Toby Stephens is quick to clarify that while “languages are always a useful additional string to your bow," they are "not compulsory in any way."

Interview with training principal Toby Stephens

Student Guide: In 2014 Holman Fenwick Willan moved senior partner Richard Crump to Singapore, making it the first non-merged firm to relocate a team leader there on a permanent basis. What was the motivation for this?

Toby Stephens: We're demonstrating great commitment to the Asia-Pacific region. The purpose was to strengthen that bond and show we have a truly global management. We're not just centralised in London, and we always make sure all our international offices feel empowered and have very good representation. They're not just satellites, and people who take jobs in international offices aren't made to feel like they're being posted to some faraway place.

SG: How well has the firm managed to achieve the strategic goals it set out five years ago?

TS: The firm is being extremely well managed, and during the global downturn we were able to invest and grow the business, so we took advantage of some really good opportunities like taking on Geneva and expanding our Australian office into Sydney and Perth. That's going to set us up nicely for the next ten years.

Those offices are going to grow much more organically – they're only going to increase our turnover – and we want to feed this fast-growing network with clever, ambitious junior lawyers . You only have to look at our competitors who have really struggled and have had to diversify immensely. Instead, we've managed to stick very true to our roots and have concentrated on what we're good at. Other areas are definitely considered complementary to the main area in which we operate. We're fairly nimble, and we can take opportunities when they present themselves. Senior management has done us proud.

SG: How are you managing your recruitment criteria? Are you looking to grow your trainees intake in the future?

TS: Trainee intake is remaining steady. We're recruiting people who seize opportunities internationally, and we want to provide them with an international legal focus. Our trainees can expect to be very, very multi-dimensional by the time we've trained them up, both commercially and multi-jurisdictionally. We're focusing on our international legal flavour. English-qualified solicitors have a lot to offer internationally, and of course we're always looking for more and more people who want to work abroad at some stage during their careers. We take people with very diverse backgrounds, and I think as long as we are presented with candidates who are willing to actively develop something overseas, we'll probably look to grow our intake.  

SG: What sort of person thrives at HFW? How important are a candidate's international background and knowledge of foreign languages?

TS: Languages are always useful, but they're not the be all and end all. We look for an interest in international commerce and not quite a frontier spirit, but certainly a sense of adventure! Ultimately, if you're a bright, entrepreneurial, sociable team player, you'll do well.

SG: How would you describe HFW's working culture? Trainees described the firm as “friendly” but didn't mention much in the way of social activities. Is anything organised for trainees, or is it up to them to set that kind of thing up?

TS: The firm does do bits and pieces throughout the year, but that's more when it's a case of involving everyone. I always think the kinds of people we hire aren't those who need their social life organised by the firm. Last year's qualifiers all really got on with one another and with their own teams. I knew this anecdotally; this year I only hear after the event!

In terms of the working culture, the firm has its own character. We're very different to our competitors, and the way we're organised contributes to this. Each individual department has its own personality that fits under the umbrella of HFW. You have to come and experience the character of the firm: I've been interviewing people, and they have almost universally said: “When I got here, I just felt at home.”

SG: Is there a formal mentoring system in place? 

TS: I wouldn't really call it formal. It's very much an open door policy here – I think people just find somebody they're comfortable with, and then they'll talk to that person if there's an issue. It's informal mentoring. I think perhaps if we grow we might need to have something more formal in place, and it's something we do keep under review.

Life as an expat in Singapore

HFW is one of many firm that sends its trainees to Singapore on the regular. Jetting off to the city-state by yourself for six months sounds simultaneously thrilling and petrifying. You don't speak the language, you don't know your way around, and you have to wake up at awkward times if you want to Skype your mum. Don't panic! Below is a rough guide to some of the more recreational activities out in Lion City.

The social side 

While the cost of eating out can be extremely low in Singapore, and accommodation is usually sorted by one's firm, visiting trainees will find alcohol can be shockingly pricey. This doesn't mean every outing will break the bank, though. The city is rife with happy hour deals, and many head out straight from the office to take advantage of these generally time-restricted discounts. Riverside Clarke Quay is lined with bars and clubs and is very popular among tourists, while working locals often make a night of it closer to the business district – at Marina Bay, for example, which is home to many rooftop bars. Among them, there's Lantern, which has a pool and view of the bay; Halo, which gets its name from the bagel-shaped wraparound terrace; La Terrazza, popular with expats; and Kinki, which features graffiti art and is called Kinki (what more do you need?). Taxis, like bowls of spicy noodles, come cheap in Singapore, so you can indulge in one more cocktail without worrying about the cost of getting back.


Various music festivals take place in and around Singapore each year, catering to everyone from Hoxton heroes to jazz cats. Head to the popular Laneway in late January for a mix of pop and mainstream indie, to the Singapore Rock Festival in March for something a bit heavier, or to Baybeats in June for a free taste of the new talent in Asia.

For the arty, edgy, cultured or just curious, the Singapore International Festival of Arts (August-September) also offers music, along with performance art, theatre, dance and live installations.

'Pore decisions 

Singapore is infamous for its harsh punishment of seemingly minor transgressions. Gum-chewing is perhaps the most discussed. For the record, it's not forbidden as long as you don't throw your gum on the ground afterwards; that said, it is illegal to sell or import the stuff.

Singapore's smoking ban is currently confined to restaurants and bars, though it might come to include some open-air public spaces as well. The minimum fine for a smoking-related infraction is S$200. And don't forget you're not allowed to carry durians on public transport. The large and very powerfully scented fruit, encased in a thorny armour, emits a potent and lingering smell that could be deemed the Marmite of Southeast Asia: it divides the population into inebriated adorers and repulsed, gagging haters (hence the ban).  

Piracy: an international issue

For many, piracy is the first thing that grabs their attention about firms like Holman Fenwick Willan and Ince & Co, both of which are top-ranked for shipping in Chambers UK. Reed Smith, Hill Dickinson and Stephenson Harwood also make a good showing. Although the last of the shanties have faded into the fresh sea air, the romance of old piracy has been replaced by a horde of fascinating political, economic and moral questions.

Piracy is an emotive subject. For instance, there's been a lot of debate about how to manage ransom demands, with some governments and maritime organisations calling for a total ban on paying them. According to an article Holman Fenwick Willan published on the topic a few years back, the firm feels quite differently: “If the international community is to continue to sit by and allow pirates to hijack vessels it would be unconscionable for lawmakers to take away a shipowner’s only prospect of rescuing its personnel and assets.”

Indeed, the dire consequences of not paying ransoms include the humiliation, torture and murder of the crew; the loss of ship and cargo; and for crude oil carriers, the threat of environmental disaster. While big shipping firms have plenty of capital behind them and can take out ransom insurance packages, holidaymakers aren't quite in the same boat. In fact, several horrific cases involving civilians have led to calls for the British government to change its policy of never paying ransoms. In 2012 Holman represented the Chandlers, whose kidnap in Somalia in 2010 made international headlines. Their plight eventually forced family and friends to find £500,000 to save them. Fortunately the couple made it home safely and even set off in the same boat to finish the 'round-the-world tour they'd started. Not everybody is so lucky, however. In 2012 Briton Judith Tebbutt's husband David was murdered by Somali pirates who seized the couple from a seaside resort in Kenya; she was only freed by ransom a grueling six months later.

Somalia has been in the grip of civil war since 1991 following the dissolution of its central military dictatorship. However, things are looking up: a new federal government is making progress beating back rival factions of Islamist militants and has even won back the capital city Mogadishu. Still, piracy remains an attractive option for those living a war-torn country with lots of weapons circulating and few legal ways to get rich.

Despite its strides, the Somali government is nearly powerless to tackle the bands of pirates terrorizing the coast and Gulf of Aden. Forget black-sailed galleons; today's pirates prefer small skiffs or speedboats, with just two or three crew members. The Somali name for pirate means 'ocean robber', but many call themselves 'saviours of the sea'. As pirate leader Sugule Ali is quoted to have said: “We don't consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits [to be] those who illegally fish and dump in our seas." Indeed, many spokespirates claim that ransom money is meant to be used to clean up the Somali coastline, which has been near destroyed thanks to chronic dumping of toxic wastes by private companies. Apparently the Italian mafia is also a big offender. Many Somali and Kenyan fishermen have credited piracy and its ability to scare away foreign trawlers with contributing to record catches in recent years.

The areas involved in Somali piracy are vast and hard to police. At the moment, 25 military vessels from EU and NATO countries are patrolling an area of ocean about the size of Western Europe. In their 2011 heyday, pirates earned an average of $4.87m per ship, and experts estimate the effects of Somali piracy cost the world economy around $18bn a year. Fortunately, according to the International Maritime Bureau, attacks are now at a six-year low thanks to international interventions like air-strikes.

Other waters still troubled by pirates include the increasingly dangerous West African Gulf of Guinea, the Strait of Malacca between Singapore and Malaysia and drug-smuggling hotspot Falcon Lake on the border between the United States and Mexico. The trend towards mega-ships with multi-million pound cargoes means that the shipping industry will likely remain a temptation for opportunists in little boats, however deadly the risks.

Holman Fenwick Willan LLP

Friary Court,
Website www.hfw.com

  • Partners 145
  • Associates 214
  • Total Trainees 30
  • Contact Sarah Burson
  • Email grad.recruitment@hfw.com
  • Method of application Online application form
  • Selection procedure Online application form, assessment centre, vacation scheme (if applied for), final round interview with 2 partners
  • Closing date for September 2017 / March 2018 31 July 2015
  • Application  
  • Trainingcontracts p.a.  15
  • Required degree grade 2:1
  • Training 
  • Salary (2014) 
  • 1st year £36,000
  • 2nd year £38,000
  • Holiday entitlement 25 days
  • Number of seats available abroad  9 (2014)
  • Post-qualification 
  • Salary £58,000 (2014)
  • Overseas offices Paris, Brussels, Geneva, Piraeus, Dubai, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Perth, Melbourne, Sydney, Sao Paulo

Firm profile

 We are an international law firm with over 475 lawyers worldwide and a market-leading reputation for advising businesses on the legal aspects of international commerce. We have developed our transactional, regulatory and dispute resolution services across a number of core sectors, including aviation, commodities, energy, offshore mining, insurance, and shipping and transport. We offer our trainees an environment where they will be working alongside some of the most respected and talented lawyers in their field, embracing opportunities that include international seats and client secondments. If you are driven, enjoy challenges and are motivated by the idea of completing a training contract in a global environment, then we would like to hear from you.

Main areas of work

 Aviation, commodities, construction, energy, financial institutions, insurance and reinsurance, logistics, mining, ports and terminals, shipping, space, superyachts, travel, cruise and leisure.

Trainee profile

 We look for trainees with sharp minds, common sense, enthusiasm, ingenuity and a good sense of humour. We look for team players and good communicators who work hard and are client focused. As our training contract is truly international, we look for individuals who have a global perspective and an interest in completing international work. We accept applications from all disciplines and backgrounds; from students and experienced graduates alike.

Training environment

 Trainees are involved in a combination of trainee workshops, departmental know-how discussions, mentoring by experienced lawyers and on-the-job training. All our trainees are also encouraged to spend time on our numerous worldwide pro bono and CSR initiatives. Each year we recruit only a small number of trainees – 15 per year split across a September and a March intake. This enables us to give every trainee our full attention, and means that your individual contribution makes a big difference. You will do interesting, stretching work, very often with an international element. During your training you will have four six-month seats, sitting with a partner or a senior associate. Most trainees have the opportunity to work in one of our overseas offices (recently trainees have completed seats in Brussels, Dubai, Geneva, Hong Kong, Paris, Perth, Piraeus, Singapore and Shanghai), or to be seconded to a client.


 Our salaries are competitive. Trainees receive an annual salary of £36,000, increasing to £38,000 after the first year of the training contract. On top of that, we offer additional benefits, which include: study assistance and grants; generous contributory pension; subsidised gym membership; season ticket loan; life assurance; non-contributory medical insurance; cycle to work scheme, dental insurance, free GP service.

Vacation placements

 We run a 1 week spring vacation scheme and 2 x 2 week summer vacation schemes. We have up to 10 places on each scheme (30 in total). Vacation scheme participants gain practical experience and exposure, as well as attending a final round interview for a training contract as part of the scheme. The closing date for 2015 vacation schemes will be 14 February 2015.