CMS - True Picture

One year on from the UK's largest ever legal merger, CMS continues its quest for growth.

The power of three

A lot can happen in a year, especially the year following the largest ever merger in the UK legal sector: the one between CMS, Nabarro and Olswang in May 2017 that created the world's sixth largest law firm by headcount.  How did trainees feel about it? “When the news leaked, we all felt a bit blindsided,” trainees of all three legacy firms agreed. “We were concerned about being swallowed up, what it would mean for retention, and if there would be any unwelcome changes.”

And? Sources said that negative forecasts had generally not come to fruition and their experiences point to a speedy and frictionless merger. “Certainly there were teething issues but they were mostly IT-related and have all been resolved now,” said one interviewee. “The firm definitely feels more integrated than it was even six months ago, and in departments where there's a mix of CMS, Nabarro and Olswang lawyers, I can't tell who's from which firm.”

“I can't tell who's from which firm.”

Moving forward, trainees feel the firm is well positioned for its “goal of becoming a top five law firm,” with its not-so-secret plans for a US merger being a key step towards that end. Sources noted that “in our first week senior partner Penelope Warne really hammered home the point that any US merger would have to be with a firm that fits our culture well.” But even without any offices in Trumpland, CMS still has a presence in a hefty 42 countries worldwide, the latest office opening being an outpost in Monaco following a merger with local firm Pasquier Ciulla & Marquet in May 2017.

Back in Blighty, sources felt CMS has done well to wed its legacy firms' expertise: “Nabarro brought over some fantastic real estate clients; Olswang had expertise in the media and technology sectors; and CMS had the international reach and specialisms in energy and infrastructure. We have a much larger integrated product now, and the bench strength we have to tackle deals is much higher.” Stepping away from the jargon, one ex-Nabarro trainee offered us a more concrete example of the benefit of the firm's new muscle: “There was a case involving a contaminated product that had gone out to markets across Europe. Having an international reach meant that a partner and I were able to quickly co-ordinate a response across Europe, dealing with all the commercial and litigious aspects of the issue including product recall and customer compensation. That's something that Nabarro wouldn't have been able to do formerly without the numbers and reach we now have.” Even sources in the firm's offices outside London – which only take on a handful of trainees and are “more removed from the impact of the merger” – believed that “we are working with bigger clients and attracting higher-quality work.”

Financial services, real estate, technology, media and communications, energy, infrastructure and project finance, and life sciences are the London offices current 'priority sectors', all validated by Chambers UK rankings in these areas. Groups such as real estate also get a tip of the hat from Chambers, as do more niche areas such as pensions, professional negligence and defamation. All in all CMS rakes in 30 UK-wide Chambers rankings. 

Seat allocation follows a simple format: trainees submit up to five preferences at each rotation. They are then allocated their next seat based on their preferences and chat with the grad development team. Interviewees said they were happy with the system: “They do push departments to create more seats where they can.”

At the time of our research the overwhelming majority of trainees were in London with nine in Sheffield and ten in Bristol. The firm also recruits trainees in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Secondments and overseas seats are available to all trainees, including those in Sheffield, Bristol and Scotland. Recent destinations include Singapore, Rio de Janeiro, Dubai, Beijing, Prague and Bucharest. Client secondments may require an interview with the client or the completion of a certain seat beforehand.

Build me up

With over 250 lawyers, real estate is one of the firm's largest departments. For logistical purposes, it's divided into four separate groups though there's no distinction as to what each group handles. In any one of them trainees can find themselves tackling work related to hotels and leisure, development, energy, real estate finance, or even Islamic finance. Major clients include property investor M&G Real Estate, National Grid, Taylor Wimpey and Imperial College. The team also recently won a mandate as The Crown Estate's regional retail adviser, a contract worth £2.5 billion. There are plenty of drafting opportunities on offer here, principally in the form of wayleaves, licences and leases. “You always have to consider precedents and the restrictions in place on what clauses and sub-clauses might need to be added,” a trainee explained. Landlord tenant work provides opportunities for trainees to take ownership of matters. “A typical deal might be a commercial tenant applying for consent to carry out work such as installing a mezzanine floor. You have to conduct a cost undertaking, negotiate and draft the agreement and deal with all the billing.” Trainees, particularly first-years, don't escape the more menial work. “I've got a mountain of deeds packets on my desk to get through!” one source revealed.

“I've got a mountain of deeds packets on my desk to get through!”

Trainees felt planning is “a good complement to a seat in real estate,” with one source estimating that “around half the work is supporting the real estate team on transactions, while the other half concerns discrete planning matters and bespoke planning advice.” Matters with a contentious bent were particularly favoured by trainees, for instance disputes over 'assets of community value'. “This basically involves arguing with the council over a decision to list something – such as a pub – as a community asset, which makes it harder for the client to sell. As such clients are typically smaller businesses, trainees can take the lead with the research, responses and application.” One bigger matter saw the team help property investor and developer Quintain with the planning applications for the £3 billion Wembley Park regeneration scheme.

Like real estate, corporate also has around 250 lawyers and covers everything from M&A and private equity to capital markets, funds and venture capital. “You're not restricted to one area,” trainees emphasised, adding that “heads of departments encourage you to do a broad a scope of work right up to when you're a mid-level associate.” Sources felt there was a “reasonable amount of client contact in the seat, especially in the later stage of transactions when trainees are in charge of bringing everything together.” This involves keeping on top of all the ancillary documents including stock transfers, non-disclosure agreements and directors' agreements. “It's fair to say you get a real feel for some of the major documents.” CMS recently advised the successful purchaser consortium on the acquisition from National Grid of a 61% stake in its UK gas distribution business for £13.8 billion.

The lengthily named corporate lending and leveraged finance team offers “essentially a broad banking seat,” which covers asset finance, infrastructure, projects, restructuring and acquisition finance. Trainees pointed out that “though we do frequently work with major banks, as this has become an increasingly regulated industry, we're working with an increasing number of private debt fund clients who are more fluid and growing in the market.” Bank clients include big names like HSBC, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs and RBS, and the firm has also recently acted for private equity firms like Inflexion and Mayfair. Many of the deals have an international element to them and allow the firm to bring its international presence to bear. We even heard of one trainee being sent to a European city as the sole representative of the firm. Not all the work is this glamorous however and more typical trainee tasks include “drafting board minutes, reviewing agreements on disclosure reports and creating conditions precedent checklists; you can progress to drafting more technical documents such as sections of venture and facility agreements.”

Before we move on from the work, we thought we would put in a few honourable mentions for the more “underrated seats” at CMS, which won praise from some particularly passionate trainees. Pensions was described as “one of the most friendly departments, with a fantastic support structure. There's advisory, litigious and corporate support work on offer, and it all allows you to build a steady and fantastic client base and is ideal for students who enjoy technical black letter law.” A seat in environment was similarly praised. The team is top-ranked by Chambers UK and recently advised HP on issues related to environmentally friendly printing ink during its $1 billion purchase of Samsung's printer business. “The work's very technical and research-heavy,” said a trainee. “It's an area that's increasingly important to businesses because the public and government care about it more and more.” Conversely the oil and gas team – “traditionally seen as the crown jewel of the firm” – was reported to be “very quiet” due to low oil prices. Both here and in the power group, trainees indicated their role currently skewed more towards business development.

See a mess?

So how have the three legacy firms gelled together post-merger? Well, someone who'd done the legacy CMS vac scheme said: “The dress code is a lot less formal and we have dress-down Fridays – that's an example of how Nabarro and Olswang have influenced things.” The firm also now has a “really positive attitude towards mental health awareness,” with a “full well-being programme in place to support trainees.”

"They will send trainees to loot Sainsbury's of its ice cream when it gets too hot.”

Post-merger integration was no doubt helped by everyone moving into new offices above Cannon Street station just after the merger. Interviewees were appreciative of the office's open-plan layout, which they felt helped remove some of the “unnecessary stuffiness and excessive formality that exists for the sake of it.” Another believed: “Partners like interacting with trainees. One of them even took the piss out of me for drinking too many espresso martinis on a social once, and two others have created an 'Ice Cream Act' where they will send trainees to loot Sainsbury's of its ice cream when it gets too hot.” CMS also continues to hold an annual football 'world cup' between all offices which includes an all-expenses paid weekend to a European city for the competing teams. 

But readers shouldn't take these frivolities as evidence that trainees don't work hard, because they do – though we did hear of varying experiences. For example, while one trainee said: “I've only stayed past 9pm twice in the last three months, with the latest being midnight,” another revealed: “I've been finishing between 10pm and midnight for the past two weeks.” One trainee offered a more balanced account: “It's very unusual to be in later than 2am. You will be in the office until midnight or 1am in transactional seats, but when it's quiet you can leave. There have been just as many times that I've left late as that I've felt comfortable leaving at 6pm with no negative comeback.” All trainees are also provided with a Surface Pro which makes remote working easier. 

The first post-merger retention rate in 2017 was so-so (72%), and both CMS and Olswang had a recent history of low retention. Nabarro did better. In 2018 the trend of below-average retention continued with 85 of 112 qualifiers retained.

CMS's offices are particularly flashy – the sleek white interior looks more like the bridge of a spaceship than a corporate reception.


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How to get a CMS training contract


Vacation scheme deadline (2019): 4 January 2019

Apply for 2021 training contracts via the firm's 2019 vac scheme (the 'CMS Academy')

Recruitment process

The recruitment process at CMS begins with an online application form. Applicants must give written answers to three questions about how the business of law is changing. The Graduate Recruitment team’s best advice is to do your research. “We will clearly know if someone has just googled the question and copied and pasted. We are looking for candidates who have really thought about the issues and who have a view on the challenges facing the legal industry.” Get specific too: “If we can substitute CMS in any of your sentences with another law firm then it's too generic.” Next, applicants complete an online critical reasoning test. Having reviewed and scored applications along with the critical reasoning test, successful candidates will progress to a video interview. “It’s an opportunity to really show us why you would be the right candidate for CMS and the questions are designed to be challenging. Make sure you have done your research and ensure that you will not be disturbed when you are doing the video interview. Take a deep breath and think about the question in the time you have before answering.”

Next, there's an assessment day, with a competency and strengths-based interview, a case study exercise, group exercise, and speed networking. “We want to see how people think, it’s not just about what you know, it’s about how you are able to demonstrate your skills. We are not looking for an in-depth knowledge of the law, but for individuals who are highly motivated, with good problem-solving skills and who have good learning agility.” Needless to say, throughout all stages an in-depth knowledge of the firm will prove invaluable especially in light of the 2017 merger.

Vacation scheme

“The vac scheme, known as the CMS Academy, is the main pipeline for training contracts and takes place in July for 3 weeks,” the Graduate Recruitment team explains. All CMS Academy participants across the UK offices spend a week in London; the firm pays for accommodation and the week's activities are “dedicated to learning the business of law.” This includes a client visit, a work simulation exercise and panel discussions. The second and third weeks are more conventional in that vac schemers work in a particular department and attend social events along with finding out more about the firm’s Diversity & Inclusion activities. The Graduate Recruitment team tells us that candidates have a strong chance of being offered one of the firm's 65 training contracts “as long as they maintain a standard consistent with what we've seen at their assessment day, and perform well in all 3 weeks of the CMS Academy.”

Trainee profile

Typically CMS requires ABB at A Level and a 2:1 degree, plus all the normal qualities law firms ask for, but CMS has its eyes peeled for something more: the Graduate Recruitment team believes that “CMS is ambitious in what it wants to achieve, and has already taken bold steps – so people need the ability to get on board. We are looking for people who can be agile in their thinking and can react to, accept and embrace change.” Applicants should demonstrate “how they've handled a situation where a spanner has been thrown in the works. Life isn't all plain sailing – if something happened which altered how they had to think about a situation and they reacted well, that shows courageousness and agility.”


CMS Cameron McKenna Nabarro Olswang LLP,
Cannon Place,

  • Partners 1,000 (globally)
  • Associates 4,500 (globally)
  • Total trainees 130 (UK)
  • UK offices Aberdeen, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, Manchester, Reading, Sheffield
  • Overseas offices 66
  • Contacts 
  • Graduate recruiter: Katherine Sharp, 020 7367 3000
  • Graduate recruitment partners: Simone Ketchell, Marie Scott
  • Application criteria 
  • Training contract pa: 65
  • Applications pa: 3000
  • Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
  • Minimum A levels: ABB
  • Vacation scheme places pa: 80
  • Dates and deadlines 
  • Closing date for applications: 4 January 2019
  • Salary and benefits  
  • First year salary: £43,000 (London), £38,000 (Bristol), £25,000 (Scotland), £27,000 (Sheffield)
  • Second year salary: £48,000 (London), £40,000 (Bristol), £28,000 (Scotland), £30,000 (Sheffield)
  • Post qualification salary: £70,000 (London), £50,000 (Bristol), £40,000 (Scotland), £41,000 (Sheffield)
  • Holiday entitlement: 25 days
  • Sponsorship 
  • LPC and GDL fees: Yes
  • Maintenance grant pa: £7,500 (London), £5,000 (outside of London)
  • Scottish Diploma of Professional Practice fees: Yes
  • Maintenance grant pa: £5,000
  • International and regional 
  • Offices with training contracts: London, Bristol, Sheffield, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow
  • Trainee secondments: Beijing, Bucharest, Dubai, Mexico, Rio de Janeiro

Firm profile

CMS is a future-facing law firm combining top quality sector expertise with international scale and a strategy to become a progressive technology-driven firm. The firm focuses on delivering rewarding futures for its clients, its communities and its people.

Across its six core sectors of energy, financial services, infrastructure and project finance, life sciences and healthcare, real estate and technology, media and communications, CMS has some of the most creative legal minds. Its lawyers are immersed in the clients’ worlds, are genuine experts in their fields and are knowledgeable about business issues faced daily by organisations.

Main areas of work

CMS always strives to put their clients at the centre of what they do. As well as their industry sector focus, they are also a full service law firm working across banking and finance, commercial, competition and EU, consumer products, corporate, dispute resolution, employment and pensions, hotels and leisure, infrastructure and project finance, insurance and funds, intellectual property, private equity, real estate and construction and tax.

Trainee opportunities

CMS welcomes applications from both non-law and law graduates who can contribute fresh thinking, an international outlook and who possess excellent personal skills alongside a deep understanding of the business of law. The culture at CMS is open, honest and approachable, valuing innovation, collaboration and inclusivity.

CMS offers two-year training contracts in London, Bristol, Sheffield, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Upon starting, trainees complete a comprehensive induction programme. During the training contract, trainees undertake four six-month seats across various practice areas. There may be an opportunity to be seconded to one of the firm’s clients or to a UK or international office. The CMS Academy is currently the main route to securing a training contract. 

Vacation scheme: CMS Academy

The CMS Academy is CMS’s next generation vacation scheme. It starts with a one week ‘business of law’ training programme in London. This includes panel discussions with clients, case studies, work simulation exercises and client visits amongst others. It is an intense but rewarding week; students will experience first-hand the firm’s commitment to make them the best lawyer for the future. The second part of the programme includes a two-week internship in one of the UK offices. Participants gain real experience in a commercial environment and develop skills needed to succeed as a trainee solicitor.

Eligibility criteria for programmes can be found on the website:

First-year opportunities: First Steps

CMS also offers a First Steps programme, providing an introduction to commercial law and what it is like to work in a global law firm. This one-week programme offers an introduction to CMS, skills sessions and an opportunity to shadow our fee earners. A presentation and social events will both enhance your technical skills, interpersonal skills and networking skills.

Participants gain real experience in a commercial environment and develop skills needed to succeed as a trainee solicitor at a future-facing law firm. Eligibility criteria for programmes can be found on the website:

Other benefits

Gym membership/subsidiary of up to 50% of gym fees, life insurance, pension scheme, private medical insurance, season ticket loan, cycle scheme, eye and dental care and 25 days holiday plus holiday purchase scheme (five days).

Social media


This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2018

Ranked Departments

    • Banking & Finance: Borrowers (Band 5)
    • Banking & Finance: Lenders (Band 4)
    • Capital Markets: Structured Finance & Derivatives (Band 4)
    • Commercial and Corporate Litigation (Band 3)
    • Competition Law (Band 5)
    • Construction: Purchaser (Band 1)
    • Construction: Supplier (Band 3)
    • Corporate/M&A: Mid-Market (Band 2)
    • Environment (Band 1)
    • Gaming (Band 3)
    • Information Technology (Band 2)
    • Intellectual Property (Band 2)
    • Intellectual Property: Law Firms With Patent & Trade Mark Attorneys Spotlight Table
    • Litigation (Band 3)
    • Pensions (Band 1)
    • Planning (Band 2)
    • Professional Negligence: Financial (Band 2)
    • Professional Negligence: Insurance (Band 2)
    • Professional Negligence: Legal (Band 4)
    • Professional Negligence: Technology & Construction (Band 1)
    • Real Estate Finance (Band 4)
    • Real Estate Litigation (Band 1)
    • Real Estate: Big-Ticket (Band 1)
    • Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 3)
    • Tax (Band 5)
    • Construction (Band 2)
    • Administrative & Public Law (Band 4)
    • Capital Markets: AIM (Band 2)
    • Commercial Contracts (Band 3)
    • Construction: International Arbitration (Band 3)
    • Data Protection & Information Law (Band 4)
    • Defamation/Reputation Management (Band 2)
    • Employee Share Schemes & Incentives (Band 3)
    • Energy & Natural Resources: Oil & Gas (Band 1)
    • Energy & Natural Resources: Power (Band 1)
    • Energy & Natural Resources: Renewables & Alternative Energy (Band 2)
    • Financial Services: Contentious Regulatory (Corporates) (Band 3)
    • Financial Services: Non-contentious Regulatory (Band 3)
    • Financial Services: Payments Law (Band 2)
    • Fraud: Civil (Band 5)
    • Healthcare (Band 4)
    • Hotels & Leisure (Band 1)
    • Infrastructure (Band 2)
    • Infrastructure: PFI/PPP (Band 1)
    • Insurance: Contentious Claims (Band 3)
    • Insurance: Non-contentious (Band 3)
    • Insurance: Reinsurance (Band 3)
    • International Arbitration: Commercial Arbitration (Band 4)
    • Life Sciences (Band 2)
    • Life Sciences: IP/Patent Litigation (Band 3)
    • Life Sciences: Regulatory (Band 2)
    • Life Sciences: Transactional (Band 2)
    • Media & Entertainment: Advertising & Marketing (Band 2)
    • Media & Entertainment: Film & Television (Band 2)
    • Media & Entertainment: Gaming, Social Media & Interactive Content (Band 2)
    • Media & Entertainment: Music (Band 3)
    • Outsourcing (Band 2)
    • Pensions Litigation (Band 1)
    • Private Equity: Buyouts: Mid-Market (Band 2)
    • Private Equity: Venture Capital Investment (Band 3)
    • Professional Discipline (Band 2)
    • Projects: PFI/PPP (Band 2)
    • Public Procurement (Band 3)
    • Retail (Band 2)
    • Retail: Corporate & Competition (Band 2)
    • Telecommunications (Band 2)
    • Transport: Rail: Projects & Infrastructure (Band 3)