With a longer heritage than some magic circle firms and an international presence to rival them, Ashurst is one of the City's biggest players.
Wizards of Aus
It may be nearing its 200th birthday, but Ashurst is looking pretty damn good for its age. The firm pulls in more than £500 million revenue each year and boasts 26 offices in 16 countries. Once upon a time Ashurst was pursuing an American suitor to tie the knot with, but in 2012 it ventured Down Under instead via a merger with Blake Dawson (now Ashurst Australia). “When I joined there was a lot of conversation about integrating,” trainee interviewees reported; “we've seen that happening and everything's come together in the last few years.” As well as its international heft, sources were drawn to the firm by its reputation as one of the City's gentler giants: “I sense many people choose Ashurst because they think it will be friendlier than peers and so that culture self-perpetuates.”
The firm earns top Chambers UK rankings for energy, projects and transport; it also fares well in banking, capital markets, competition and real estate. Chambers Global gives Ashurst six top spots (four are in Australia) and ranks it the 16th best firm for international work, situating it on a similar level with a gaggle of US giants.
"The biggest change will be consolidating into a single building.”
Mosey down to London's Old Spitalfields Market – for vintage trousers or a falafel wrap perhaps – and you might notice a construction site emblazoned with Ashurst's logo, soon to become the new HQ. Sources revealed that “everyone's had a lot more input in the layout; the biggest change will be consolidating into a single building.” The firm plans to up sticks in summer 2019 in what insiders see as “a milestone. Ashurst talks a lot about being an exceptional place to work and having a cool new office space will really underpin that.” Other signs of progress include a 58% female round of partner promotions for 2018, bringing the firmwide partnership up to 17% women, and a revamped bonus structure to include all staff. It's not all unicorns and rainbows however – a redundancy consultation put 80 secretarial jobs at risk – but trainees were largely optimistic that “the future looks exciting. The new office will really boost morale and we're growing well in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Ashurst takes 40 or so trainees a year, and HR sends these newcomers a list of all available seat options to clue them in on what's available. Trainees must complete a compulsory finance seat in either banking, global markets or restructuring. Ahead of each rotation they submit two or three preferences to HR, who are “good at making sure you get one of your choices – if you don't it'll be taken into account next time around.” There were a few grumbles about transparency, but the vast majority of interviewees got their first or second pick almost every rotation.
Scream if you wanna be first drafter
Public and private M&A both fall under the banner of corporate transactions – a team whose expertise spans the infrastructure, financial institutions, real estate and natural resources sectors. Alongside a bevy of big bank clientèle, the firm also has Sports Direct, National Express and theme park operators Merlin on its books. A seat here can be something of a thrill ride – some sources were “definitely thrown in at the deep end: my supervisor told me I was doing a lot of work that would normally be reserved for associates.” Pressed for examples, they listed drafting transfer agreements, fund documents and liaising directly with investors. Ashurst advises on cross-border acquisitions, like textile maintenance business Berendsen’s £2 billion acquisition by French company Elis; on the home front, the firm represented Ladbrokes Coral during its £3.9 billion takeover by GVC Holdings. Massive matters like this require “a huge amount of verification.” Essentially, it’s a process of meticulous checking and cross-referencing of documents, and it's trainees that take this up. “If you're working on a big IPO you might do it for the prospectus, then for various investor presentations one after the other,” they said. Some grumbled that “verification can be all-consuming and quite boring,” but others countered: “You're trusted with your own work stream and the long hours are really good for your development.”
“You’re also responsible for communicating with the regulator.”
Ashurst previously offered a seat called securities and derivatives – but the firm now calls this area 'global markets'. Here “things are a lot more fast-moving because deals will typically only last one or two weeks.” Sub-teams within the group include structured products, derivatives and debt capital markets, but supervisors “encourage you to move between teams for projects, the only challenge is possibly having a knowledge gap.” Newcomers get an “intense” series of lunchtime talks to bring them up to speed. Once you're up and running the “department as a whole is excellent for client contact as a trainee. You're also responsible for communicating with the regulator.” Again, most of the recognisable investment banks have used the firm. In addition the debt capital markets squad recently acted for insurers Allianz during their £128 million financing of index-linked bonds to fund the construction of 1,750 student rooms at the University of Hull. Structured products meanwhile has “seen a lot of legislation changes recently. It's a very technical area but you get a lot of responsibility, including drafting contracts and listing documents.” Trainees across the team were happy to sink their teeth into early drafts of prospectus updates which “commonly go on to a senior associate who will show you how to do it better.”
If you're feeling insecure about securities, banking’s an alternative option for the compulsory finance seat. The banking department works for borrowers, lenders and most of the banks you'll see on the high street – the team recently worked on a £100 million corporate facility provided by Santander and Barclays to support the £3 billion AVEVA–Schneider Electric combination. Running conditions precedent checklists is “quite a big trainee job” along with creating transaction bibles and liaising with local counsel “either in the UK or European countries. The work is quite difficult, but in a good way.”
We’d be remiss not to talk about the firm’s projects team too. The firm advised the European Investment bank on its €2 billion financing of the Trans Adriatic Pipeline; it is also advising Transport for London on the procurement process for the Silvertown Tunnel project, a PPP which will develop a road tunnel under the Thames; and, in a demonstration of its international reach, the firm is advising the Kuwaiti Petroleum company on the Duqm Refinery project, its joint venture with the Oman Oil Company. The team’s expertise is a mix of transport and social infrastructure, and oil, gas and other energy projects. Unsurprisingly, trainees told us the relevant corporate projects seat, which provides a mix of financing and projects work, was extremely popular, and places were competitive.
The disputes department covers international arbitration, property litigation and financial, energy and infrastructure disputes. They've even helped settle arguments between other firms, representing City neighbour Pinsent Masons after collapsed merger talks with Ramón y Cajal caused the Spanish firm to sue for a minimum €3 million in lost earnings. Where trainees fit into all this “depends on what you want. If you're interested in a particular area you can absolutely focus on that; if you make it clear you want to do a bit of everything that's also an option.” No matter sources' choice, bundling reared its much-maligned head – one arbitration required “ten or 12 trainees” to muck in on “60 or so lever-arch files of documents. Cases like that will pull together trainees from throughout the department.” But sources weren't just shuffling paper: they also worked on particulars of claim, took early stabs at drafting ancillary documents and reviewed or sometimes drafted witness statements. “Overall it was probably lower responsibility than other seats,” judged one trainee; “there's less client exposure but some nice opportunities for cross-office collaboration.”
“It’s called a transactional seat for a reason, you’re always busy.”
Real estate offers unique opportunities by putting trainees “on ten to 30 projects at a time. It's called a transactional seat for a reason, you're always busy.” Juggling these smaller matters with “a lot of independence,” our sources saw a mix of acquisitions, landlord/tenant disputes, development projects and “everything in between.” Land registry applications and reviews, stamp duty returns, data room management and drafting of leases and licences are all common trainee tasks. There's also a small construction sub-group where “it's less land law and a lot more contract work. You're negotiating documents and setting out various contractual terms. It felt like more of a normal job without law's constant ups and downs.” Ashurst recently advised London shopping centre Westfield on its £3.5 billion 'Phase 2' expansion; Morrisons and Samsung are also real estate clients.
Banks and financial institutions are common destinations for client secondments. The handful of international secondments available are usually given to either third or fourth-seaters. “It would always be nice to have more overseas opportunities,” trainees reflected. “They ebb and flow with business and it does look like there will be more in the future.” The current overseas seat options are Abu Dhabi, Brussels, Dubai, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Madrid, Singapore and Tokyo. Applying involves trainees filling out an application form, explaining why they'd be right for the spot, and submitting a CV. “Normally they stipulate a preference for people who've done a seat in the area advertised,” but that's not a hard and fast rule.
Comma get it
Each seat comes with its own training modules. “There's a big focus on making sure you've got the right skills,” trainees said. “Most sessions are good, but sometimes you're left thinking 'yay we learned about commas'.” On balance, most we spoke to found formal modules “really useful at the start especially” but noted: “What's key is getting on-the-job training and decent feedback.” After “quite informal” mid-seat reviews, the end-of-seat review is “a fuller appraisal. You grade yourself on certain competencies, then your supervisor grades you.” Some pointed out that subjective numerical scoring can lead to discrepancies between supervisors, but most appreciated the system and “being able to refer to your past reviews each time.” Come qualification time these reviews circulate to every department a trainee applies to.
Trainees submit at least two choices for where they'd like to qualify and submit a CV. Some departments – including disputes and real estate – interview candidates, but others don't. Sources had complaints: “We don't find out how many NQs each department will take, nor how many people have applied for jobs.” Still, “most get at least some kind of offer.” In 2018, 38 of 41 qualifiers joined the firm's ranks.
“If I'm lucky I'll go home at 6pm, if not the nights can get very long.”
“The people here work very hard, but they wouldn't come to Ashurst if they wanted to work all hours,” according to one trainee. That doesn't mean everybody's shooting off at 5pm. Disputes and real estate are “more consistent” with typical 7.30pm or 8pm finishes, whereas “corporate is very varied. If I'm lucky I'll go home at 6pm, if not the nights can get very long. The most difficult thing is not knowing which it will be.” The worst case we heard was one trainee “having to work until 6am in two different instances. I did get to go home afterwards both times!” Newbies' “supervisors let you go early if there's nothing to do” but don't expect such happy occasions on the regular.
Many came to Ashurst having heard the culture was a bit cuddlier than at many City firms. Those who hadn't heard this found it “much friendlier than expected. I don't feel scared to ask questions and nobody would make me feel stupid for doing so.” Though many described “a very familiar firm-wide culture,” others argued “it can differ quite a bit by department.” They singled out real estate for a “particularly positive atmosphere,” while corporate and banking are busier, and funds “really embraces the work hard/play hard mentality.” Socialising is also largely department-based: disputes hosts a Friday night drinks trolley, securities sponsor a winter ski trip and private equity are “always going out for lunches.” There's also a firm-wide summer party and though the annual trainee ball was put on ice for 2018 (they weren't skating, it just didn't happen), newcomers still enjoyed a traditional game of Ashopoly, “running round London trying to find different famous places!”
One of Ashurst's corporate social responsibility initiatives is a partnership with Breaking Barriers, running employment workshops for clients from refugee communities.
How to get an Ashurst training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: 4 November 2018 (winter); 6 January 2019 (summer)
Training contract deadline (2021): 6 January 2019 (first cycle); 30 June 2019 (second cycle)
Applications and interviews
Around 1,200 applicants gun for the 40 to 45 training contracts Ashurst offers each year. The first step to landing the job is completing an online application form. This is the same for both vacation scheme and straight-to-training-contract applicants, and is accompanied by a cover letter that serves as a chance for applicants to demonstrate key competencies and really sell themselves.
Those who impress are invited to an interview day, which takes place in the London office and lasts between three and four hours. First up is an interview with someone from the graduate recruitment team that involves competency-based questions, plus a chat through the candidate's application form. For training contract applicants, an interview with two partners focusing on behavioural and scenario-based questions follows this.
The day also involves, for both vac scheme and training contract applicants alike, an hour-long written case study exercise. The candidates are given documents to read through and have to respond to a scenario. It is said that there is a lot to read, but part of the task is to see how well people manage their time.
Ashurst runs two vac schemes: a week-long placement that takes place in December; and one three-week placement over the summer. The winter scheme is designed for finalists and graduates from all degree disciplines; the summer scheme is aimed at penultimate year law students.
The only major difference between the winter and summer scheme is that participants on the former only sample one department during their visit, while summer schemers try out two. Each placement includes presentations from lawyers across various practice areas, networking sessions with trainees and a dinner with partners.
Vac schemers undergo a training contract interview at the end or following their placement. This is conducted by two partners and takes the same format as the final one training contract applicants complete on their interview day.
Ashurst also runs a first-year programme – Ahead with Ashurst – for a week in April. This involves a blend of work experience, mentoring, support, and training. Those who secure a spot on the first-year programme will be given priority if being considered for a vacation scheme and/or a campus ambassador role. The programme is open to first year law students and those in their second year of a four-year course.
How to wow
Ashurst requests a minimum of AAB at A-Level (or equivalent) and a 2:1 degree (predicted or already achieved) from prospective trainees. The firm also uses a contextual recruitment plug-in, which enables it to analyse every applicant's social mobility characteristics. If you're confident you can demonstrate and satisfy all the firm's competencies, you should certainly look to apply. FYI, those competencies are analytical ability, academic ability, commercial instinct, communication skills, teamwork/interpersonal skills, flexibility, determination and drive.
Prior work experience tends to stand candidates in good stead, and this doesn't necessarily have to be in the legal sector. Any type of experience that has helped someone develop the skills needed to be an effective lawyer will be appreciated.
The silver circle explained
Interview with London managing partner Simon Beddow
Chambers Student:Are there any highlights from the last year you think are important to mention?
Simon Beddow: We've worked on some really significant, market-leading deals. We advised EnQuest, the largest independent UK oil producer in the UK North Sea, on its financial restructuring, which was the largest and most complex recent European oil company restructuring. We also acted for China General Nuclear on its investment in Hinkley Point C – the largest ever Chinese investment into the UK. We went on to advise Berendsen (a textile, hygiene and safety solutions business) on its recommended £2.17 billion acquisition by Elis, a French public company with operations in Europe and Latin America. We regularly do big headline deals that appear on the front pages of the Financial Times.
CS: What should students know about the firm's strategy going forward?
SB: About five years ago we recognised that we needed to be stronger in the Asia Pacific region and build a stronger global natural resources practice. That's why we merged with Blake Dawson of Australia, and that merger has been enormously successful. This occurred in part to create a stronger global platform that could serve clients from a range of industries, especially those within the financial services, energy and transport sectors.
Over the past five years in the UK we've been acting for Crossrail and doing all the work in relation to the new line. We took the expertise we gained and marketed it to the city of Sydney, which is looking to build something similar to the Crossrail project. As a result, we won the mandate to do all the work related to the new Sydney Metro. Last year we recruited a projects partner in the New York office, so we're looking to develop our profile for infrastructure work in the US as well. We see the Trump administration as an opportunity, as it has a focus on investing in infrastructure.
In the coming years we expect our market position to develop even further in areas such as digital economy, infrastructure, energy and resources, real estate and funds and financial institutions.
CS: How is Brexit affecting the firm and the firm's clients? What challenges and opportunities do you think Brexit will pose for the firm?
SB: It is difficult to say at the moment. I suspect, like many thought, that Brexit will put the brakes on things a bit. But the last 12 months have been very busy, partly because of the weaker pound. There's been more inbound investment in real estate, for example; we've done work for Asian investors buying up flagship real estate in the UK, which is easier for them now as it's cheaper. There's also been more inbound M&A for the same reason.
What sort of Brexit we have is the real concern for most City firms. If we cannot secure access to the European financial market it could have an impact on UK law firms. I suspect that the impact for us would be less than that experienced by firms that are more exposed to the banking sectors. We've been trying to make sure we position ourselves so that we aren't completely dependent on what happens with Brexit.
CS: Does the firm have plans to grow trainee numbers?
SB: I think like many firms our trainee numbers will remain pretty stable. We are seeing clients taking a keener interest in how much is charged for work conducted by junior members of staff. The market is becoming more sensitive to what it is fair to pay for and we have to make sure that the work our trainees are undertaking is of value to our clients. There are artificial intelligence products developing and clients are looking at those too – some of the work that trainees currently do may potentially be automated.
CS: How can a candidate really impress Ashurst's trainee recruiters?
SB: Time and time again we see applications where there's no mention of our name, and if there is, it could easily be taken out and replaced with the name of any other law firm. The sort of person who writes that kind of application does not impress at interview. We want people who really understand the firm they're applying to, and can show us that they know what we do and how we do it. We don't expect them to know the job inside out because they're not here yet, but we want them to at least have some idea. Essentially, we want candidates to show us that they really want to be here and that we're not just any old law firm. It sounds surprisingly easy, but so many people don't do it.
We look for people who are intelligent and excited by the prospect of working in a high performance culture and on high quality, complex deals – people who are up for a challenge. An affinity for team work is also essential; candidates have to demonstrate that they have that high performance ability, but also that they can work collaboratively.
CS: What advice do you have for readers who are about to enter the legal profession?
SB: If you come to a firm like Ashurst you'll find that it is demanding and hard work, but it can also be a lot of fun and massively rewarding. If you don't like it the money will never be enough to keep you happy. My advice to students is that they should make sure that this is what they want to do and that they go to a firm where they're going to be happy.
In all big firms, the likelihood of trainees staying in one place throughout their careers and becoming partners is diminishing. People entering the profession now should think more broadly about the possibility of having a career that starts somewhere and ends up somewhere else. You can go to a firm and get fabulous training, be really happy, and if you choose at some point to go elsewhere, you'll have a great foundation for those future positions.
5 Appold Street,
- Partners 395
- Total trainees 84
- UK offices London
- Overseas offices 26 including two associates offices and one support office.
- Contacts Sarah Donoghue, early careers HR consultant, [email protected]
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 40-45
- Applications pa: 1,500
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 or other
- Minimum UCAS points or A levels: 340 or equivalent
- Vacation scheme places pa: 80
- Dates and deadlines
- Vacation schemes and Ahead with Ashurst applications open: 1 September 2018
- Winter vacation scheme deadline: 4 November 2018
- Summer vacation scheme deadline: 6 January 2019
- Ahead with Ashurst deadline: 6 January 2019
- Training contract applications open: 1 October 2018 / 1 May 2019
- Training contract deadline, 2021 start: 6 January 2018 / 30 June 2019
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £44,000
- Second-year salary: £48,000
- Post-qualification salary: £76,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £8,000
- Overseas seats
- Abu Dhabi, Brussels, Dubai, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Singapore Tokyo
Main areas of work
We will be accepting training contract applications to start in September 2021/March 2022 from 1 October 2018. There will be two windows to apply for training contracts with the firm. These will be from 1 October 2018 to 6 January 2019 and then again from 1 May 2019 to 30 June 2019.
Summer vacation scheme: A three-week scheme designed for penultimate-year law students. Applications open on 1 September 2018 and close on 6 January 2019. .
Open days and first-year opportunities
University law careers fairs 2018
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2018
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