Please note: the features below were researched in summer 2014 prior to the Speechlys-Charles Russell merger. After the introduction, the first half of this True Picture covers the legacy Speechlys part of the firm, followed by legacy Charles Russell.
On 1 November 2014 the legal world gathered to witness the union of Speechly Bircham and Charles Russell.
Post-merger Charles Russell Speechlys can boast of being the world's largest private client-focused firm, with an annual turnover of £135m. The merger is quite a shake-up for Charles Russell which had achieved the rather unusual feat of operating under the same name since its establishment in 1891. For Speechlys this wasn't the first time the firm had gone for a high-profile hook-up – in 2013 talks with Withers fell through, perhaps because the fellow Londoner's finances looked less than healthy compared to Speechlys' £37m in the kitty. Both legacy firms were roughly equal in size meaning all of CRS's employees now work in an organisation double the size of the one they did pre-merger with a lawyer headcount approaching 500. The newly beefed-up shop sits comfortably in the UK's top 30.
For Charles Russell, the union will, among other things, help it economise on its expensive London premises; meanwhile Speechlys benefits from the new-found ability to offer lower rates for certain types of work through Charles Russell's well-established offices in Guildford and Cheltenham. This merger is a meeting of minds as well as pockets. Both firms are best known for servicing well-heeled private clients – each has a long track record of Chambers UK rankings in this area – though they're keen to consolidate their other practice areas. The new firm is organised into four primary divisions: business services; litigation and dispute resolution; private client; and real estate and construction. Post-merger seat options haven't yet been confirmed yet; our list is based on the legacy CR and Speechlys offerings.
James Carter, Speechlys' legacy managing partner who has now taken up that role with the new merged firm, had this to say in summer 2014 about the reasons behind the merger: “The two firms have very complementary practice areas. As well as a very strong private wealth practice, together we will end up with significant practices in a number of commercial areas and increased international reach.” Both Charles Russell and Speechlys had an office in Geneva, while the latter's European presence also comprised bases in Zürich, Luxembourg and Paris; meanwhile Charles Russell brought some Middle Eastern coverage to the table, recently launching a construction and real estate-focused office in Doha to complement its existing outpost in Bahrain. According to our sources, further international expansion will be a priority post-merger.
Because of their wealthy clientele – including the landed gentry and celebrities alike – private client shops often attract a reputation for being traditional in their dealings. In previous years trainees at Charles Russell have told of “a certain charm” echoed by the firm's wood-panelled meeting rooms and ever so polite partners; Speechlys, on the other hand, has long favoured some slightly more modern touches – including open-plan offices and an elaborate recycling scheme – and has made no bones about its desire to grow on the corporate finance and IP sides. With the latter's managing partner at the helm of the new firm, we wouldn't be surprised if these ways of working prevail under the new Charles Russell Speechlys banner.
Legacy Speechly Bircham
Our interviewees told us they chose Speechlys for its “relaxed and friendly atmosphere” and “good reputation in areas outside corporate.” One added: “I wanted somewhere mid-size with a broad range of opportunities – Speechlys was big enough to have a lot of practice areas, but small enough that you can get stuck into them.” Speechlys trainees usually gained experience in all three of the firm's divisions (business services, private client and real estate), though only business services was compulsory. That said, “HR steer you in a certain direction if they don't think you've had a rounded experience.”
Speechly Bircham spent its 137 years in practice building up its reputation for private client work, and enjoyed Chambers UK rankings for its nationwide contentious trusts capabilities as well as its London services. The group collaborates closely with the teams in Zürich and Geneva, and works for a roughly equal mix of onshore and offshore high net worth individuals. “A lot of it's fairly tax-heavy work – for example, helping clients domiciled abroad understand what their tax position would be if they moved here permanently.” According to interviewees with experience here, it's “a big department, but there's scope work with pretty much everyone. They make the effort to get you involved with lots of different issues.” The firm's super-rich client base can make for some glamorous matters –“I went around to a fairly big TV celebrity's house to get a will signed” – and we also heard about more unusual undertakings like “going to the Westminster archive to look at the adopted children's registry.” More common trainee fare includes grappling with probate matters and drafting wills and lasting powers of attorney. “You're often invited along to meetings, and sometimes you can even talk through the part of the matter you've handled. It's great to play that kind of active role.” Still, trainees are closely supervised, “and rightly so – you need years of experience to deal with some of the emotional situations at hand.”
Alongside Speechlys' Chambers-ranked agriculture and rural affairs practice comes a significant commercial real estate offering. Clients range from big property developers to investment companies to businesses in the leisure and hospitality sectors. Lawyers recently represented Caring Homes on its £300m sale of 44 care homes to American health group Griffin, and advised Derwent on its £8.8m lease of two London office developments to Publicis Groupe, which owns advertising mavericks Saatchi & Saatchi. “The team works on multimillion-pound deals on a day-to-day basis. Those kinds of transactions see trainees take an administrative role, but you also get small files to handle yourself, like leases and licences for institutional landlords such as pension funds. You also draft a lot of land registry forms. It's all supervised, but you do actually run the file from start to finish, dealing with the clients involved whenever necessary.” Within real estate is a regeneration subgroup that takes on “development work – essentially it's all about acquiring sites and then making it possible for them to be built on.” As a trainee this might entail negotiating terms of the agreement with a service provider in order to get gas or electricity hooked up to a site.
Sent to Coventry?
Speechly's corporate team is top-ranked in Chambers UK for its lower mid-market M&A work, and is big in the financial services, natural resources, construction and healthcare sectors, among others. The team works closely with the private client faction, advising high net worth individuals and family businesses on corporate services, and also shares a number of the firm's real estate clients, including Countryside Properties and Northacre. Other noteworthy clients include the Ecclesiastical Insurance Office (insurers to the Anglican Church) and Sisu Capital, the hedge fund that owns the struggling Coventry City FC. Sources here told of drafting board minutes and shareholders' resolutions.
The technology and data team mixes contentious and non-contentious matters, and offers trainees various client secondment opportunities, including a stint in-house with a leading investment bank. The IP part of the team's name proved largely theoretical for our interviewees, who'd ended up doing “about half and half data and technology work.” Tech lawyers advise on licensing and contract negotiations for pharmaceutical companies, technology start-ups and high-profile media clients, while the “well-known” data protection arm has carved out a niche assisting multinationals with privacy issues in the social media, outsourcing and cloud computing spheres. Trainees here reported drafting commercial contracts like non-disclosure agreements, licences and distribution agreements, telling us: “There's quite a lot of crossover with the corporate team.” For one source, “the highlight of my seat was helping with the webinars we run every fortnight on various general data protection topics. There are some pretty big clients listening in, so it can be quite daunting to be up there talking for 15 minutes.” Another fondly recalled “the fantastic experience I got advising a client on a security policy during my second week with the team,” while a third spoke of the time “I went on-site with a major client for two weeks to renew some contacts. It was really challenging, but luckily some of the solicitors there were ex-Speechlys, so I felt very well looked after. I felt really glad they trusted me with that – the partners really aren't afraid to rely on trainees.”
Indeed, trainees across the firm reported high levels of responsibility and mentioned the office's open-plan format “means people are immediately there to offer help.” This set-up lends itself to a bustling work environment, we're told: “There's a lot of banter flying around, and everyone gets involved in discussions, which makes it quite fun. People here don't just stick on ear defenders and get on with it.” According to our sources, “work/life balance is a big thing here – the aircon turns off at 7pm, so expectations are judged accordingly.” That said, a training contract at Speechlys is not without its late nights, especially as teams like real estate and restructuring gain traction. Fortunately, “you get fed and taxied home if you stay late.”
Lean mean green machine
Trainees receive reviews halfway through and at the end of each seat. The first is a “relatively informal” meeting with their supervisor to set objectives, while the latter sees them talk through a feedback form with their supervisor and a member of HR. “It's a really thorough process, and they give you solid feedback.” In 2014, the firm retained nine of its 13 qualifiers, just like it did in 2013.
Plans are afoot to get the respective Charles Russell and Speechlys bunches under one roof soon after the merger. In any case, Speechlys' office in New Street Square is “modern and sleek,” and, perhaps more importantly, “located near lots of bars, which makes for a good social scene after work.” The sleek edifice also contains showers, an underground bike garage and an in-house cafe. “There's not much variety to the food, but it's all healthy and subsidised.”
Private client firms have a reputation for maintaining a somewhat conservative atmosphere, but sources tell us this only holds partly true at Speechlys. “The private client department is kind of formal and traditional in the way they approach things – there's some very flowery, polite language going on, but that's dictated by what clients want. We do take on a lot of commercial work, and to that end I'd say we're not really reserved or old-school at all.” They also mentioned the firm's eco focus as evidence of its modern leanings. “There's a huge recycling drive – we don't have any landfill waste, and lights aren't left on all night.”
Interviewees told us: “The firm looks for gregarious, outgoing trainees. This is the kind of place where people all have lunch together and get on really well, so you'd need to fit into that. It's a pretty collaborative, relaxed environment – people make a lot of time for each other.” There's a fair bit of socialising too, with departmental outings, quarterly staff drinks and various events organised by the sports and social committee. Recent excursions include an afternoon shopping at Lille's Christmas market, a jaunt to see The Book of Mormon and a World Cup social: “When England played, they commandeered the TVs upstairs and brought in food and drinks for everyone.” Trainees also spoke of heading en masse on Friday nights to various nearby watering holes in search of a destination for the unofficial “Speechlys' local boozer competition. We haven't settled on one yet, but I'm determined to make it happen.”
Legacy Charles Russell
At the time of our calls, Charles Russell had 25 trainees in London, eight in Guildford and four in Cheltenham. Seat allocation sees trainees list three preferences at the start of each seat. There's a smaller choice of seats in the regional offices, with secondments and the Geneva seat reserved for Londoners.
Charles Russell is one of five firms in London that earns top rankings in Chambers UK for private client work, and post-merger the firm dominates the market in reputation as well as size. A seat with the private client team is a popular choice. Interviewees reported working with landed estates, super-rich foreign clients and even royalty. “I got to visit an estate owner at their beautiful house in West London to take instructions, but with overseas clients it's mostly by telephone or Skype.” Work here ranges far and wide: on the advisory side there's tax and trust structuring, probate and estate administration, Court of Protection and immigration advice; meanwhile the contentious trusts side of the practice handles trust, probate, charity litigation, and Court of Protection and property ownership disputes. “It's the most traditional department in the firm, with a clear hierarchy, though that works well – there's very much a teacher/pupil structure, which is good for learning. You're always invited to meetings to talk through clients' needs, and once you understand the nature of the department, there's a lot of responsibility.” Trainees with experience here had completed first drafts of wills and trusts and assisted with powers of attorney. The latter task “is the kind you oversee yourself, dealing with the clients from the off. Having to take accurate instructions and translate them into a final document really hones your skills. By the end of my seat I was contributing to meetings.”
The firm also runs a private client seat in Geneva, where lawyers help expats manage their finances, investments and tax responsibilities. It's not uncommon for trainees here to get involved in calculation-heavy Liechtenstein disclosures, part of a taxpayer compliance programme under which people who haven't paid tax to HMRC on offshore assets can escape criminal proceedings. “It's very rare that you meet such clients – they tend to stay as far removed from the process as they can.” Among the spoils of residing abroad is “a very posh flat in a massive old terrace of houses, ten minutes' walk from Lake Geneva. There's a good social life in the office, plus lots of cultural festivals in the summer.”
At the time of our calls Charles Russell's corporate/commercial department was split into three subgroups – corporate M&A, banking and capital markets, and commercial contracts – with trainees able to do a split seat between two of these areas. The commercial group works with an impressive range of clients, including Nike, ITV, Wagamama, Tesco and Sotheby's. The team recently assisted the Barbados government with endeavours to grant licences for offshore oil and gas exploration, and defended Paddy Power against objections to “cheeky” publicity stunts like the high-street bookie's 2014 'money back if he walks' campaign aired during the Oscar Pistorius trial. Over in corporate, lawyers have kept busy advising Travelzest on its administration following its failure to take naturist holidays mainstream, a matter which involved the sale of two (clothes on, thankfully) Canadian subsidiaries. “It's pretty low responsibility at first – you're mostly doing research and helping out on secretarial stuff,” said a source with experience on the M&A side. “But eventually there's a chance to draft ancillary documents. Partners keep a close supervisory role, but there's enough responsibility to keep things interesting.” Elsewhere, a trainee who'd focused on finance described their role in a mezzanine financing of a property development: “There were lots of parties involved, which made it complicated. I gathered conditions precedent, did the fact checking, drafted the first draft of our opinion and attended the completion. It was a good level of experience.”
Litigation is one of the firm's biggest departments, with disputes spanning the sport, IP, property, pharmaceutical, fraud and commercial spheres. High-profile representations of late include acting for Baker Tilly as liquidators in a $9.2bn fraud case against Awal Bank, and defending The FA against an appeal made in light of its decision to relegate the Doncaster Rovers Belles from the top tier of the Women's Super League. Debt recovery cases are typical trainee fare –“essentially you issue proceedings against old clients who haven't paid, which gives you really valuable experience going back and forth with them”– and though advocacy isn't terribly common among new recruits, one did report “going to court on a case for a cost-conscious client. It was just me and the barrister, which was a great experience.” Others told of taking notes, attending meetings with counsel and taking a crack at first drafts of letters to clients, claims and cost schedules “where possible.”
Sources tell us a major priority post-merger is “getting everyone in London under one roof as quickly as possible,” most likely in one of the legacy firm's existing offices. Charles Russell's City branch, “right in the thick of things, near St Paul's,” is no doubt a tempting choice. The modern edifice has marble floors and ”glass everywhere,” plus a subsidised canteen dubbed Charlie's. “It's a nice place to get chatting to people around the firm.” Still, the lower rents in Speechlys' New Street Square premises make it a more likely destination for the economically minded new firm. Over in Guildford, interviewees were excitedly awaiting a move, telling us “the current office is quite tired, but the new one is very modern and spacious.” The roomier the better, seeing as this branch might well play host to outsourced support staff post-merger. Cheltenham, on the other hand, remains still a bastion of tradition for now. “It's old and designed like a rabbit warren, with a big wooden Georgian staircase straight out of a Jane Austen novel.”
Among our interviewees, the consensus was that “we're a traditional firm, and that's by no account a bad thing. It's a testament to the standard of quality we've perpetuated over the years and simply means we have a reputation to uphold.” It helps that “there are lots of Russells still running around,” including recently retired senior partner Patrick Russell, who “still pops in now and again. It's nice to have that family atmosphere.” Trainees told of certain steadfastly old-school elements of life at the firm –“hard-copy memos are returned formally, for instance”– and even mentioned a few downright old-fashioned customs like the way “certain people rely on Dictaphones rather than more computer-savvy methods of note-taking.” The Cheltenham office, as its rich interiors suggest, “particularly likes to cater to our heritage. We have wood-panelled meeting rooms, and partners prefer you to use a fountain pen when you meet a client.”
As you might expect, “Charles Russell attracts a certain type of person – there's a fairly strong South East, Oxbridge contingent here.” Still, sources were keen to say: “People shouldn't be put off by that; we're not all twin-set and pearls Oxford grads.” In any case, this distinctive demographic is likely to be diluted after the merger. The firm doesn't run many trainee-specific socials, “but we do meet up for lunch whenever we can, and people often pile into the pub next door after work, especially when the weather's nice.” As far as firm-wide events go, there's a sports dinner held each year in a fancy London restaurant, though couch potatoes need not fear – “it only has a very loose reference to sports.” There's also a summer boat party and a well-received Christmas carol concert. “Last year we listened to a couple of partners and associates who'd formed a string quartet, then we all choked back mince pies and mulled wine.”
With merger plans simmering away, it's little surprise qualification proved a tricky process in 2014. Our interviewees – who were in the middle of applying at the time of our calls – revealed that several commercial and litigation roles were retracted after appearing on the jobs list. “It all feels slightly chaotic and up in the air. We haven't got much information.” In the end the firm managed to keep on 12 of its 19 qualifiers.
Given the merger, it's wise to heed the trainee who advised applicants to “show flexibility and willingness to move with the times – recruiters will be on the lookout for people who want to try a range of practice areas rather than just private client.” The firm's growing international ambitions suggest foreign language skills will be at a premium in years to come.
Charles Russell Speechlys
5 Fleet Place,
- Partners 172
- Other fee earners 473
- Total trainees 55
- Total staff 1031
- Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
- Method of application Online application via www.charlesrussellspeechlys.com
- Selection procedure Assessment days includes an interview and other exercises designed to assess identified performance criteria.
Main areas of work
At the heart of the new firm is our commitment to Private Wealth. The merger reinforces our ability to provide a seamless service for wealthy individuals, family offices, private banks, trustees and wealth managers and large, privately held businesses, combining advisory skills, developed in the world of Private Wealth, with our business law expertise.
We require candidates to achieve a minimum of a 2(1) in their degree and be able to demonstrate other key attributes outside of academia, such as teamwork, leadership, communication skills and initiative. People come to us from all backgrounds and degree disciplines, with a range of views that combine to give us our distinctive perspective on the law.