CMS - True Picture

A triple merger is always big news – when it’s formed a firm with the size and practice variety of CMS, it’s essential reading.

CMS training contract review 2021

The Firm

Pub quiz time: what was the largest ever merger in the history of the UK legal industry? The 2017 triple tie-up between CMS, Nabarro and Olswang is the rather obvious correct answer. With 70+ offices spanning Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and South America, this is the world’s sixth-largest law firm by headcount and a UK top 10 outfit by revenue. Adding to an already impressive network of domestic bases in London, Bristol, Sheffield, Manchester, Reading and Scotland, CMS pursued its 'One North' strategy by setting up shop in Liverpool in 2019.

Prospective trainees who knocked on the doors of CMS were keen to explore its international reach and large array of departments. “The next-generation vacation scheme” also proved popular: the CMS Academy offers exposure not just within the firm, but also with clients. A graduate of the Academy sang its praises: “The experience was more valuable than I could have imagined. It not only confirmed to me that I wanted to be a commercial lawyer – but more specifically a lawyer at CMS.” Others felt welcomed to the firm by its inclusive hiring. “I got the impression that most firms wanted Oxbridge and Russell Group candidates,” one recalled. “I sincerely felt CMS just wanted me to be myself.”

“I sincerely felt CMS just wanted me to be myself.”

As a full account of the firm’s Chambers UK rankings would take all day, we’ll give you the highlights – CMS shines nationwide for energy, hotels and infrastructure, pensions litigation, capital markets, construction, financial services, insurance, life sciences, media and retail; it’s also a national leader outside London for employment law. The firm’s largest UK base is in the capital and it houses the vast majority of its trainees – more than 100 when we came calling – while earning its own top Chambers UK accolades in construction, environment, pensions, professional negligence and real estate litigation. Bristol and Sheffield house somewhere around ten trainees at any one time. CMS also recruits a sizeable cohort in Scotland.

The seat allocation process kickstarts with a seat fair: each department has its own stall which trainees can visit to gain an insight into that seat. A month before rotations, the firm’s talent team announces which seats are available and trainees submit preferences. Trainees told us: “Do either a corporate or real estate transactional seat first.” Split seats are fairly common in various offices, as is repeating a seat. There are client secondments available for trainees:“I think a client secondment adds great value as it accelerates your development,” one insider suggested. “Seeing how industry leaders operate can give you valuable insight into the legal market.” All trainees can apply for an international secondment; secondees have previously spent time in Beijing, Bucharest, Dubai, Prague and Rio.

The Seats

Now 300 lawyers strong, the firm’s real estate department is one of the largest in its operation. Each subgroup deals with different aspects of property law: the trainees we spoke to either worked on transactions, finance or disputes. The team advises clients from sectors including student accommodation, hotels, healthcare and retail as well as household-name tech conglomerates. “We do a mix of large corporate transactions and landlord/tenant work,” trainees said. Clients here include office space giant WeWork, whom the firm advised on deals across the UK, Belgium, Hungary and Romania, as well as real estate investment trust NewRiver and investment firm Aberdeen Standard. “Within my first four weeks in real estate I drafted a lease, and I’d written up important ancillary documents like licences and rent deposit deeds prior to that,” a source recalled. “There’s always high-level work to do because it’s such a big team.”

Formed from legacy CMS and Nabarro’s teams, real estate finance is now a distinct seat in its own right. The group advises both borrowers and lenders on transactions including development finance and restructurings. “I started by trying to figure out how to work the computer,” a new arrival here chuckled, before tucking into research, drafting board minutes and shareholder resolutions, and managing conditions precedent. Big banks like Lloyds, HSBC and Santander are clients; CMS recently advised Global Student Accommodation on the £60 million financing of a 350-bed premises in Whitechapel. One source here worked on a renewable wind project: “I reviewed all the documentation involved with the registry and drafted the ancillary documents.”

“This seat showed me that litigation isn’t all about bundling.”

CMS also has a dedicated energy seat, where the team helps clients on projects for onshore and offshore wind, hydro and power infrastructure. With lawyers in 31 countries contributing to this team and projects all over the globe, it’s a good pick for international matters. The firm was appointed by the Oman Power and Water Procurement Company to advise on its procurement of a waste-to-energy power project; and counselled SSE on a north Scotland wind farm and the related land agreements. Energy disputes fall in here too. A trainee involved in international arbitration outlined an example: “There was an incident at a biomass energy power plant – it was interesting as the dispute was going on in Europe and the Middle East, but the mediation took place in London.” Trainees expend their own energy on drafting security documentation, taking board minutes and helping with expert reports. One interviewee gave a glowing review of their time here: “This seat showed me that litigation isn’t all about bundling.”

Whether it’s a supplier, contractor or funder, the construction team is prepped to help clients get building off the ground; there’s a fair degree of overlap with the projects-focused energy team. The 2017 merger has only boosted CMS’ international reach: the London team has recently worked on matters in Abu Dhabi, Iraq, Turkey, Slovakia, Qatar, Singapore and Saudi Arabia. Other matters are closer to home: the Sheffield squad recently helped Austrian contractor BUG on three disputes linked to one of Europe’s tallest residential buildings, the Manchester Beetham Tower. Trainees’ main role is to help prep documents, complete due diligence reports and draft collateral agreements and warranties. One got stuck into a hotel construction project: “I went to the building site with advisers and two CMS associates and got to meet the client in person.” We also heard of trainees providing “the latest coronavirus guidance” to clients.

“I was advising across a dozen jurisdictions.”

Contentious and advisory employment work is on offer to trainees in the eponymous seat. CMS largely advises employers like Marks & Spencer, Samsung and Royal Mail. In a project that may well be replicated as attitudes to working shift, the firm advised the Wellcome Trust on planning for a shift to a four-day working week. Sticking to a busy five-day week for now, trainees helped employers defend unfair dismissal claims or deductions from wages. An interviewee reflected on the first case they got their hands on: “I was advising across a dozen jurisdictions. We were representing ten claimants in a redundancy.” Employment tribunals are another prominent part of the practice: CMS represented Royal Dutch Shell in a clash over the privilege considerations of lawyer-client communications. In the midst of Covid-19, trainees shifted towards advising employers about furlough and job retention schemes. “I was entrusted with a lot of research and providing advice to clients on settlement agreements,” one said.

Better known as the much catchier IRG, the insurance and reinsurance group is the port of call for brokers, carriers or corporate risk managers with insurance issues. A trainee described the seat as revolving around “all things litigation,” which for them typically meant “creating bundles, reviewing evidence, organising data, drafting letters or motions and a lot of note-taking in court.” Big names in this department include AXA XL, QBE and Liberty; in an international case example the firm represented AXIS and Navigators Underwriting on coverage for $60 million Illinois state court proceedings brought by former minority unitholders in an ethanol plant against former directors. Across all seats, trainees jumped at opportunities for client contact: “They often pop into the office to talk through matters.”

Trainee Life

“We have a culture of hard work and encourage one another at CMS; success is always celebrated,” trainee sources declared. They struggled to pick out culture differences between offices, but we heard “London has the latest gizmos.” Sheffield is upgrading to new space at 1 Charter Square in the heart of the city, with additional space for up to 350 people. “Our current office is a bit outdated – the new site is much more fitting of our status, it’s a huge upgrade,” trainees declared. Sources in Bristol were less chuffed: “We have a car park, that’s as good as it gets!” The Bristol office has recently undergone an extensive refurbishment, improving facilities and optimising space for around 150 staff.

“The new site is much more fitting of our status, it’s a huge upgrade.”

Wherever they’re based, trainees can get in on the nationwide WhatsApp chat with associates – the perfect platform to exchange outfit pics before firm social events. One of the most popular (for which dressing up is of course not required) is the CMS World Cup football tournament. Lawyers and staff from all levels of seniority and countries come together for a weekend of sporting activities: “We all come to play together and literally hundreds of people attend.” Other socials include quizzes, pizza nights and the infamous trainee ball (including a fancy weekend stay in London with a three-course meal and DJ night).

Hours are pretty fluid across offices: if we were to pin down an average working day, it would run 9am to 6pm. Though trainees in regional offices may not get paid the same as their London counterparts, they do have slightly shorter average hours; a source in Bristol told us that “if you are still in at 7pm you will be one of the only people here. It’s very rare to leave after 6pm.” Londoners are more likely to still be going at it by 9pm, though even that’s quite rare. Upon qualification they’re compensated with just over £20k more than their Bristol colleagues, who themselves earn a little more than Sheffield NQs. A source there was not impressed, noting that “qualification salaries in London are almost double what we get in Sheffield. I think people can forget this is still a fairly expensive place to live.”To kick off the NQ process, trainees can apply to advertised vacancies six weeks into their fourth seat. Applicants submit their CVs and a cover letter before interviews take place. CMS had not disclosed its 2020 retention figures by the time we went to press.

"If you are still in at 7pm you will be one of the only people here.”

Throughout the training contract, the graduate recruitment team is on hand to address any concerns. It makes sense that they’re based in London given so many trainees are there, but regional voices noted that “sometimes we have to shout a bit louder to be heard.” During induction, all trainees head to the capital for two full weeks of training. Most were impressed with the introductory programme; each department then offers training at the start of each seat. “Both of my seats have had excellent training resources,”a first-year confirmed. “Most of the team leaders care about your training and development and invest their time in trainee career progression, taking the time to ensure we understand the wider legal or sector issues surrounding a matter.”Three years on from the newly massive CMS’ formative merger, insiders noticed no growing pains or reported any culture clash.

They were also largely impressed with the firm’s approach to wellbeing: “The support given to our mental health is second to none,” one gushed. Newcomers get access to mental health resources even before starting their training contract; upon arrival, they can consult a wellbeing ambassador in each department. Other CMS internal networks include gender equality, LGBT+ and ethnicity groups. Despite the firm’s efforts, some trainees felt their teams could be more diverse and were unsure of the firm’s overall commitment to D&I: “There are entire departments that are white female, I felt quite excluded,”one said. Others were more impressed with CMS’ CSR initiatives, “from tree planting to working at food banks and taking part in the Big Sleep Out.” The firm also puts on dress-down Fridays: colleagues pay a pound to dress casually on the given day, and in 2020 the money went towards a children's hospice.

Quali-fly with me 

Once qualified, associates can visit overseas offices for extended stretches – they’ll need to submit a short piece of writing explaining why they want to go and, as with trainee secondments, may need to interview.

How to get a CMS training contract


Vacation scheme deadline (2021): 4 January 2021

Apply for 2021 introductory programme First Steps

Apply for training contracts via the firm's 2021 vacation scheme, the CMS Academy.

Recruitment process

The recruitment process at CMS is designed to get to know you better as an individual. They receive around 2000+ applications for their undergraduate programmes and recruit on a rolling basis, so early applications are strongly encouraged. The application form is straight-forward - as well as providing basic information such as academic qualifications and work experience, applicants must also give written answers to three questions about the business of law, and how it is changing. These essay questions are imperative in distinguishing between strong candidates who have a genuine interest in the firm, and the early talent team advise “Look at our core competencies and what we’re looking for in our people and consider these in your answers, and indeed throughout the application form.  This is your chance to stand out – whilst we are of course looking at academic achievements, we’re also looking at future potential. We’re looking for innovative thinkers, for candidates that align to our core values, for candidates that understand the business and are commercially aware. We want candidates to have done their research on the firm, to have a passion for what we do and how we can do it better.”

Next, applicants complete an online critical reasoning test. There’s a practice test available on the CMS website for candidates to utilize as many times as they wish, with the aim being that is helps them become familiar with the types of questions that are asked in a timed environment. However, it is important for candidates to practice from a broad range of sources and really try to familiarize themselves with the process. The aim of the exercise is to test the innate critical thinking skills required as a lawyer, and whilst it’s true these can’t be learned, learning how to think in the test environment is key, and this can make all the difference between passing the test and falling below their benchmark.

Having reviewed and scored applications along with the critical reasoning test, successful candidates will progress to a video interview. “Think of this and prepare for it like it is a face to face interview. Unlike the earlier stages of the process, this gives us a chance to get to know you and get a feel for your interpersonal skills’. Again, practice is key, so make sure you have recorded yourself answering set questions and are comfortable in that environment. When the time comes to record, 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.”

Assessment Day

Candidates that are successful will be invited to an assessment day, with a competency and strengths-based interview, a case study exercise, group exercise, and an opportunity to network with trainees. Research and knowledge of the firm and the broader commercial landscape, as well as an understanding of a candidates own skillset will prove invaluable throughout the assessment process.  “We want to see how candidates think in practice, how they interact in an assessed environment and how they are able to demonstrate their skills. We are not looking for an in-depth knowledge of the law, but for individuals who are adaptable and can flex their skills across multiple problem-solving tasks and who have good learning agility.” It’s not just a one-way street, however, as they explain “We want candidates to get a feel for the culture of the firm and walk away feeling like this is the firm for them.”

Vacation scheme

The CMS Academy, the next generation vacation scheme is the main route to a training contract at CMS. “Taking place in July, the CMS Academy is an innovative and varied three-week programme, and the only route to securing a training contract with the firm”. CMS Academy participants across the UK offices spend one week in London; and the week's activities are dedicated to learning the business of law. This includes a client visit, a work simulation exercise, panel discussions and plenty of networking opportunities. The second and third weeks are similar to traditional vacation schemes, where participants are placed in a particular department and are assigned work from a supervisor. They are also appointed a trainee buddy who acts as an informal point of contact. There are numerous social events on offer, along with the opportunity to find out more about the firm’s Diversity & Inclusion and Corporate Responsibility initiatives. After completing the programme, successful candidates will be offered one of the firm’s 79 training contracts.

Trainee profile

Typically, CMS requires ABB at A Level and a 2:1 degree. However, contextual recruitment and mitigating circumstances are taken into consideration. Whilst academics and the core competencies of a lawyer are important in recruiting future talent, the early talent acquisition team emphasizes that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ lawyer at CMS. Instead, they are looking for people who are aligned to their culture: “CMS is an ambitious firm 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 are innovative and have a future facing outlook. We want people who will not only embrace change but create change, present ideas and see them through.”


Cannon Place,
78 Cannon Street,

  • 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: 4th January 2021
  • 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.

Training 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 (5 days).

This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2020

Ranked Departments

    • Capital Markets: Derivatives (Band 3)
    • Commercial and Corporate Litigation (Band 3)
    • Competition Law (Band 5)
    • Corporate/M&A: Mid-Market (Band 2)
    • Environment (Band 1)
    • 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 3)
    • Real Estate Litigation (Band 1)
    • Real Estate: Big-Ticket (Band 2)
    • Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 4)
    • Tax (Band 4)
    • Construction (Band 2)
    • Administrative & Public Law (Band 4)
    • Capital Markets: AIM (Band 2)
    • Commercial Contracts (Band 3)
    • Construction: International Arbitration (Band 2)
    • Data Protection & Information Law (Band 4)
    • Defamation/Reputation Management (Band 3)
    • Employee Share Schemes & Incentives (Band 3)
    • Energy & Natural Resources: Oil & Gas (Band 2)
    • Energy & Natural Resources: Power (Band 1)
    • Energy & Natural Resources: Renewables & Alternative Energy (Band 2)
    • Financial Services: Contentious Regulatory (Corporates) (Band 2)
    • Financial Services: Non-contentious Regulatory (Band 3)
    • Financial Services: Payments Law (Band 2)
    • Fraud: Civil (Band 4)
    • Gaming (Band 3)
    • Healthcare (Band 4)
    • Hotels & Leisure (Band 1)
    • Infrastructure (Band 3)
    • Infrastructure: PFI/PPP (Band 1)
    • Insurance: Contentious Claims & Reinsurance (Band 2)
    • Insurance: Non-contentious (Band 2)
    • International Arbitration: Commercial Arbitration (Band 3)
    • 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 3)
    • 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 1)
    • Retail: Corporate & Competition (Band 2)
    • Telecommunications (Band 2)
    • Transport: Rail: Projects & Infrastructure (Band 3)