Top dog in the world of private client, Charles Russell Speechlys is also a deft hand in the commercial sphere and has growing international ambitions.
If you've heard of Charles Russell Speechlys, the firm's name likely conjures up images of lawyers managing aristocratic estates, negotiating the divorces of bajillionaires, and helping oligarchs decide who gets which mansion when they kick the bucket. Yes, private client work is still this firm’s raison d’être, backed up by years of top rankings from Chambers UK and Chambers High Net Worth. However, it's certainly not all this firm is about. As one trainee was keen to emphasise: “I think a few years ago Charles Russell Speechlys was still very much marketed as a private client firm, but recently we’ve made efforts to change that and broaden our appeal – we are definitely not just a private client firm with other departments tacked on.” Another interviewee asserted: “We're full-service. I would feel just as comfortable qualifying into a corporate or commercial department as into private client.”
“I’ve been working on a share purchase agreement involving four African nations!”
A glance at the firm’s Chambers UK rankings backs up this assertion: the HQ in London is ranked for commercial areas including mid-market corporate M&A, construction, real estate and employment. The Guildford office is also ranked for these areas plus commercial litigation and restructuring, while the Cheltenham base picks up an additional tip of the hat for its banking capabilities. For those who fear that “going regional would mean selling cows for local farmers,” fear not: international matters can feature. “I’ve been working on a share purchase agreement involving four African nations!” said one regional source, while another put this exposure down to the fact that “we're frequently working with trainee and associate counterparts in London.” At the time of our calls 33 trainees were based in London, ten in Guildford and five in Cheltenham.
One regional resident did offer a word of warning: “You have to make it known to enough people where you want to sit and what work you want to do to make it happen. There’s no formal seat allocation system and I’ve only landed where I wanted through pestering people.” In London, things are a little more structured and trainees are required to submit three preferences “accompanied by a short explanation of why you want to sit there.” Most of our interviewees were content with the system, though they did highlight that the firm’s international secondment to either Geneva or Zürich (or three months in each) – is always in high demand. Secondments were also something of a sore point for some regional trainees – “it was something that we were made to believe would be available when we applied, but it hasn’t manifested itself on the grounds that the firm doesn’t have the capacity to send us away.”
From Russia Without Love
“I think some people have an image of private client as everyone sipping sherry, chatting with clients, and generally not getting done a lot done, but that is far from the truth. It’s a cerebral subject involving a lot of complex legislation.” While maybe not quite as fun as drinking sherry day in, day out, a stint in private client is nonetheless a popular choice among trainees, who have the chance to sample three distinct areas: family; private client; and property, tax and successions.
In family trainees are kept busy by the myriad of cases coming in from wealthy clients in the form of divorces, prenups, postnups and children matters. Trainees can expect plenty of international work, with recent cases involving Russia, France, Italy, Germany and Ukraine. Lawyers recently advised Russian oligarch Arkady Rotenberg – a close friend of President Putin's – on the financial claims in the London courts surrounding his £3 billion divorce. As one trainee put it diplomatically, “you’re not dealing with people at the best time in their lives. It’s all very personal, so most interaction is filtered through the partners.” That doesn’t mean trainees are sat twiddling their thumbs. One told us: “I was able to attend a lot of hearings with barristers and was often drafting the first statements for the court.” Another detailed their involvement in a child custody dispute concerning two parents living in two different countries: “It involved trying to establish the potential quality of life the child would have with our client, such as what schools and amenities were available – it’s not all super legal stuff.”
“It’s a cerebral subject involving a lot of complex legislation.”
In trusts, tax and succession, trainees get involved in advising on probate claims, wills, Inheritance Act claims, tax planning and inter-family disputes for a wide variety of clients, including charities, trust companies, property owners and – you guessed it – super wealthy individuals. “We do a lot of trust work involving landed estates,” a Cheltenham trainee told us. “It basically involves tracing the ownership of a piece of land through the years. I’ve spent a lot of time digging up deed packets for unregistered land. Some have been in storage for centuries and smell really bad! One trainee once found a letter addressed to Queen Victoria written in super swirly calligraphy – it looked like something out of Game of Thrones!” Of course “trawling though box after box looking for one document can get tedious,” but trainees also fill their plates with plenty of other tasks including “making notes of client meetings, drafting wills and keeping clients updated on amendments.” Things aren't all about dusty old documents either: while the firm recently acted for the trustees of the Bathurst estate in a dispute with the Dowager Countess Bathurst over her right to income from the estate, it also represented Alan Shearer in a £9 million claim against his former financial adviser over dodgy investments.
The work is “much more process-driven” in private property, so trainees can expect to be left more to their own devices. One explained: “You’re not having to give technical advice, so I had quite a few matters I was handling on my own – for instance, the day-to-day progression of a property purchase or sale.” Trainees in Guildford and Cheltenham told us about managing estates, while those in the capital tend to be dealing with “new developments of flats or individual purchases of multimillion-pound properties.” For example, the team recently advised a private investor on the £76 million sale of 5/7 Chancery Lane in London to Singaporean investors.
Defender of the faith
Real estate and construction (or as the firm calls it, ReCon) is split into three areas: general real estate (the largest group); construction, engineering and projects; and property litigation. Within these areas you'll find further specialisms including regeneration, investment and development. Newbies can take on a mix of whatever takes their fancy. Clients include Berkeley Homes, Leicester City FC, the Stonegate Pub Company and the Church Commissioners (a body of the Church of England). In London, the team has been busy helping ITV obtain planning permission for the redevelopment of its HQ on the South Bank, while those in Guildford continue to manage the UK property portfolios of fashion and sportswear giants Nike and Converse. Trainees work on matters of all different sizes. For one this meant “dealing with a shed someone was leasing out to their friend in their back garden and also dealing with the refinancing of a multimillion-pound house in London that was being split into two properties for different uses.” Smaller deals naturally afford more responsibility and newbies are often given free rein over small licences to alter and licences to occupy.
“One trainee once found a letter addressed to Queen Victoria.”
Those with a contentious itch should prioritise a seat in property litigation, which also provides rookies with a good dose of responsibility. Here’s what one enthusiastic trainee had to say: “You get to spend a lot of time in court, mostly on possession hearings and boundary disputes. Normally I was just taking notes, but there were a couple of times when I was the only representative of the firm, and I had to manage the interaction between counsel and client.”
The corporate team has three core strengths: mid-market M&A, capital markets and private equity. The group operates over several sectors including retail, leisure, healthcare, real estate and TMT, the last of which, in addition to an increase in US inbound investment, has seen significant growth. The firm's private wealth strength also means a section of the work arrives by way of entrepreneurs and family-run businesses. “You’re free to sample all areas, but you can also get stuck in one area if you come in on a big deal,” trainees cautioned. “Transaction management is the key area where you add value,” sources told us, meaning newbies can expect to be taking on the usual slew of administrative tasks alongside opportunities to rack up some drafting experience on share purchase agreements, board minutes and stock transfer forms. Clients include care home operator CareTech, the International Tennis Federation, health data firm IQVIA, and home and pet sitting service Trusted Housesitters. The firm also recently advised service station operator MRH on its £1.2 billion sale to the private equity-backed Motor Fuel Group.
You know nothing, Jon Snow
As well as different work, different departments also offer rookies a different working environment. Private client was flagged as being particularly distinct and a contrast to the more “down to earth” commercially orientated departments. “Some of the partners tend to be a bit more old-school,” one source told us of private client, elaborating with a tad of jest that “when it comes to social events some of them go away hunting or golfing, and they tend to listen to classical music.” But sources also stressed that there were plenty of “young, dynamic partners” present – the takeaway being you don’t have to be an Eton-Oxbridge thoroughbred to fit in. Furthermore, though one source did highlight the high number of private school candidates among the trainee pool, mostly our interviewees felt that it wasn’t something “that's definitely obvious or jumps out of you.” The firm told us around half of its trainees are state-educated, which is typical for a London firm of this size.
Trainees also acknowledged efforts being made by the firm to boost diversity including collaborations with community project Black Girl Bloom and various outreach programmes to schools in disadvantaged areas. The firm also has a diversity and inclusion committee with a dedicated manager and a recently appointed partner to champion its initiatives. “From when I first started there have definitely been improvements,” one source told us. The smaller offices naturally tend to be less diverse but even here sources felt “there's a big push from London to improve things.”
More generally interviewees felt the firm does a good job of “using social events to drive integration.” These include a firm-wide pantomime and talent show which this year featured “a pretty good Oasis duet – I thought it was going to be cringeworthy, but I was pleasantly surprised.” In the two smaller offices “socialising tends to be more informal and ad hoc,” but we did hear of one trainee who still managed to weasel themselves into four different Christmas parties, one of which included mini-golf and a free bar courtesy of one partner’s credit card. We also heard that the Cheltenham office arranged an office-wide “Game of Thrones sweepstake. Whoever has the most characters living at the end wins!” Fingers crossed for Jon Snow. Game of Thrones fans will also be glad to know that they could've been home in time for the show’s weekly 9pm showing – at least most of the time. Most trainees we spoke to were clocking off around 7pm, with nights past 8pm “not unheard of but not routine either.” Plenty of our interviewees had experience of working until 10pm following a High Court trial or “late-night bundling job.”
Approaching qualification, trainee nerves are kept to a minimum as a result of the “structured approach to the whole process.” Following the release of available NQ positions trainees are required to submit a CV and cover letter, which is followed by a round of interviews. “It’s quite formal but it’s concrete and it doesn’t feel like you’re applying from scratch,” sources agreed. In 2019, 19 of 23 qualifiers stayed on.
Charles Russell Speechlys' London office has undergone some refurbishments: around half the building still uses offices, but it's on the way to having a more open-plan set-up.
How to get a Charles Russell Speechlys training contract
Training contract deadline (2022): 31 January 2020 (opens October)
Each year, 25 trainees are recruited across the offices in London, Guildford and Cheltenham. In London and Guildford, around half of future trainees are picked up from the summer scheme and half from the direct training contract route.
The application process
All candidates – whether they're applying for the summer scheme or directly for a training contract – complete the same application form. When reviewing the forms, recruiters are looking for “well-rounded people with a real passion for the law, plenty of team spirit and a drive to make their own mark,” says graduate recruitment manager Hayley Halvatzis. How much work experience is necessary? “Applicants don't have to have loads, but it helps to have some legal work experience. Work experience outside of law is also good if they can demonstrate skills they've learned and show how they're useful for legal practice – customer-service skills, for instance, help with developing client relationships.”
Following the application form, around 80 candidates are shortlisted to complete a situational judgement test and video interview. For those that have applied for a place on the summer scheme, successful candidates will then be offered a place on the scheme. During the scheme candidates are required to take part in the assessment centre that ascertains their suitability for a training contract.
For those that have applied directly for a training contract, an invitation to attend an assessment centre is offered upon successful completion of the video interview. All candidates – whether they have come through the summer scheme or applied directly – will experience the same assessment centre, which is made up of a mix of group and individual tasks.
The vacation scheme
Vac schemes take place in all UK offices – London, Cheltenham and Guildford across June and July. Those who make it through to the scheme spend each week in a different practice area. Students can list preferences on a form and HR will “do their best” to accommodate their choices. According to Hayley, the scheme is like “a very mini-training contract. We try and give candidates as much exposure as possible: they'll attend client meetings and do real fee earning work, like research on a case or checking through a document.” Candidates have a supervisor, though “they might not be the only person giving them work. They also have a trainee mentor for the whole period.” There's also a social event every week, with the firm’s summer party taking place during the first week. “We are lucky that the summer party coincides with the summer scheme as it means students can get a real feel for the firm and mix with different people.” During the second week “we do a more low-key event for scheme participants and trainees, like going to Bounce for table tennis.” Finally, there are leaving drinks with partners.
At the end of the scheme all candidates receive detailed feedback on how they have performed both during scheme and on the assessment centre. “It’s a two-way process,” says Hayley; “we also like to receive feedback from the students so we can continually work to improve the summer scheme.”
Private client law explained
Charles Russell Speechlys
5 Fleet Place,
- Partners 168
- Associates 300
- Total trainees 43
- UK offices London, Guildford, Cheltenham
- Overseas offices Doha, Geneva, Luxembourg, Manama, Paris, Zurich
- Graduate recruiter: Emma Hawken, [email protected]
- Application criteria
- Training contract and vacation scheme applications: Open October each year
- Training contract and Vacation scheme deadline: 31st January 2020
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant: Yes
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London, Guildford, Cheltenham
It has made us a leader in the world of dynamic growth and family businesses, and among the world’s leading creators and owners of private wealth and their families. Major corporates and institutions find our more considered and personal approach a refreshing alternative to conventional business law firms.
Main areas of work
These practice areas are focused on the following sector areas: charities and not for profit, construction and infrastructure, energy and natural resources, financial services, healthcare, private wealth, real estate, retail and leisure, sport and technology, media and telecommunications.
University law careers fairs 2019
• Kings College London
• Royal Holloway University of Law
• The University of Law
We also host events at our London office through Aspiring Solicitors.
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2019
Cheltenham and surrounds
- Agriculture & Rural Affairs (Band 1)
Guildford and surrounds
- Family/Matrimonial (Band 1)
- Agriculture & Rural Affairs (Band 3)
- Construction: Purchaser (Band 3)
- Construction: Supplier (Band 4)
- Corporate/M&A: Lower Mid-Market (Band 1)
- Employment: Employer (Band 4)
- Family/Matrimonial (Band 2)
- Information Technology (Band 4)
- Intellectual Property (Band 4)
- Intellectual Property: Law Firms With Patent & Trade Mark Attorneys Spotlight Table
- Planning (Band 5)
- Real Estate Litigation (Band 3)
- Real Estate: Mainly Mid-Market (Band 2)
National Leaders (outside London)
- Real Estate Litigation (Band 3)
- Banking & Finance (Band 2)
- Corporate/M&A: Mid-Market and Private Equity (Band 2)
- Employment (Band 3)
- Litigation (Band 3)
- Real Estate (Band 3)
- Real Estate Litigation (Band 4)
- Corporate/M&A: Lower Mid-Market (Band 1)
- Construction (Band 1)
- Employment (Band 2)
- Litigation (Band 2)
- Professional Negligence (Band 2)
- Real Estate (Band 3)
- Real Estate Litigation (Band 1)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 1)
- Art and Cultural Property Law (Band 1)
- Capital Markets: AIM (Band 3)
- Charities (Band 3)
- Commercial Contracts (Band 4)
- Court of Protection: Property & Affairs (Band 3)
- Defamation/Reputation Management (Band 5)
- Education: Institutions (Schools) (Band 3)
- Fraud: Civil (Band 4)
- Healthcare (Band 4)
- Investment Funds: Closed-ended Listed Funds (Band 4)
- Partnership Recognised Practitioner
- Professional Discipline (Band 4)
- Retail (Band 3)
- Sport (Band 2)
- Telecommunications (Band 3)