CMS - True Picture

With the power of a fab three firms under its hood, the turbocharged CMS engine shows no signs of slowing down.

Twist and shout

It’s tricky enough to pull off a combination of two law firms – when three become one it’s a landmark accomplishment. The 2017 union between CMS, Nabarro and Olswang was even more impressive as it created the world’s sixth-largest firm by headcount and set a new record for the biggest merger in the history of UK law. CMS as it stands today is a 70+ office behemoth whose network spreads over Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South America. Adding one more city to its list of conquests, the firm set up shop in Liverpool in 2019. “It really establishes our presence in the North West, and Manchester is so busy right now,” insiders revealed – as proof, Sheffield trainees can now spend some of their training contract in Manchester. At the time of our research the overwhelming majority of trainees (111) were based in London. There were another eight in Sheffield, seven in Bristol and 24 in Scotland.

Given the size of CMS’s network, it’s no surprise that scrolling through their Chambers UK rankings is quite the task. We’ll give you the highlight reel – the firm earns top marks nationwide for energy, hotels and leisure, infrastructure, real estate investment funds and pensions litigation. It’s also ranked top in London for construction, environment, pensions, professional negligence, real estate and property litigation; and earns national leader status outside the capital for employment law. CMS is also a big deal in Scotland and got good reviews from trainees there: “I knew I wanted to stay in Scotland, but I didn’t want to only be doing Scottish work it was the international scope I was attracted to.” Speaking of international, overseas seats are available to all CMS trainees. At the time of our calls there were trainees spending six months in Beijing, Bucharest, Dubai, Prague and Rio. Secondments to clients are more common, though they may require an interview with the client in question or the completion of a particular seat beforehand. Those who'd undertaken a secondment told us their time added “a lot of confidence in my ability and I have a broader commercial mindset now.”

"It was the international scope I was attracted to.”

Mega-mergers inevitably come with some teething issues. “For the intakes who had to deal with that transition, it was tricky,” admitted one interviewee – “but it’s no problem for us now.” Many felt that one of the biggest cultural benefits of the merger is the broader range of backgrounds within the team at CMS: “You see the variety when you talk to people. Everyone’s getting up to different stuff in the evenings or at weekends, and everyone’s got interesting opinions so conversation is fun and going to work isn’t dull!”

The long and winding road

Seat allocation begins with a two-day seat fair – each practice group has a stall and trainees can ask “all the questions you want.” A month before seat rotation, the 'early talent team' sends out information about the seats available and what they involve from a trainee perspective; everybody can then submit their preferences. Interviewees said that CMS “doesn’t shoehorn you into doing certain seats, it’s quite common for trainees to return to seats they like and do them again.”

With over 250 lawyers, real estate is one of the firm's largest departments. For logistical purposes it's divided into four separate groups, but there are no distinctions between what each one does. “We handle all sorts of transactions, standard landlord-tenant work and a lot of acquisitions and sales,” a source in one group said. “On the retail side, we do a lot more disposals than acquisitions.” Portfolio management is another key aspect of the real estate practice. Trainees found real estate supervisors “really good at gauging a trainee’s skill level and letting you take as much autonomy as you want.” Typical experiences in this seat include doing research, negotiating directly with landlords and clients and drafting commercial agreements and licences. “You’re able to run your own small files,” according to our interviewees. “There are also regular training sessions from clients and barristers.” In London, CMS handles big-ticket work for developers, overseas investors and private equity funds – the firm recently advised AXA Investment Managers on its agreement with joint venture clients from three different countries to sell an office building in the City for £650 million. Up in the North West, CMS acts on a global and local scale, advising Manchester City Council on the development of a £111 million arts and theatre venue.

Planning is “technically part of real estate” but the team works in sectors such as infrastructure, energy and retail in a transactional, advisory and sometimes even contentious capacity. CMS advised Imperial College London on its new 23-acre campus in White City – student accommodation work is one of the firm’s calling cards along with transport, hotels, renewable energy and housing developments. Trainees in the planning department told us that “from day one you really get involved in everything from simple due diligence to running your own projects and being the main point of contact for clients.” Regeneration is another niche to be explored here – National Grid instructed CMS for plans to regenerate surplus land across the UK.

Come together

Within banking and finance you’ll find a mix of “real estate finance, corporate and leveraged finance, restructuring and insolvency, project finance, asset finance, banking and banking litigation.” Trainees sit within a specific subgroup but “inter-group working isn’t unheard of” so there’s scope to explore your interests. Corporate leveraged finance covers “the everyday loans businesses seek from the main banks.” The team often represents syndicated groups of banks lending to big PLCs or group companies and works with the main corporate group to “deal with the financing of matters.” Financings can get as large as a recent £438 million debt facilities offering by long-term clients Lloyds and NatWest. The firm acts more often than not for lenders, but “there’s a good balance of borrower work too – it’s great to see both sides.” Trainees in the seat start off handling ancillary documents and conditions precedent and work towards drafting security documents and liaising with the other side.

Adistinct real estate finance group was formed out of the 2017 merger, “half from CMS and half of what was the Nabarro finance team. It means that there’s a real big mix of clients.” The team appears on panels for the likes of HSBC and Lloyds and again represents a mix of lenders and borrowers; Nabarro lawyers brought in specialist expertise in leisure and Islamic finance. CMS advised the Bank of Ireland on its £104 million part-funding of Hana Property’s acquisition of the One Poultry building in London. Real estate finance trainees can expect to manage conditions precedent, carry out research and draft board minutes and shareholder resolutions: “I even got to draft more complex finance documents like security agreements.” Across finance seats, some were looking for “more complex tasks to do more often.”

“You’re able to get a lot more involved because of the smaller scale.”

Corporate covers everything from M&A and private equity to capital markets, funds and venture capital. CMS acts primarily in the mid-market and works on a fair number of smaller investments which are “good to get your teeth into as a trainee – you’re able to get a lot more involved because of the smaller scale.” At the other end of the spectrum, the team advised Standard Life Aberdeen on the £3.2 billion sale of its insurance business to rival provider Phoenix; other corporate clients include Global Radio and Mainstream Renewable Power. When deal values inflate past the millions, trainees are more likely to take board minutes, draft resolutions, organise companies house filings and deal with post-completion tasks. “There was a large infrastructure project going on and I got to do some drafting here and there,” a source revealed.

One of the less frequented seats is technology, media and telecommunications. The team spends its time on data protection, telecoms contracts, outsourcing and intellectual property for clients including the BBC, Spotify and Microsoft. CMS advised Comcast on specialist regulation aspects of its £30.6 billion and £71.3 billion bids for Sky and 21st Century Fox respectively; and Immediate Media on its acquisition of the BBC’s Good Food magazine. Trainees told us this seat allows for more cross-office communication “as well as with the corporate team on deal support.” Due diligence, contract reviews and smaller contract drafting are on the cards here. “The department generally only takes on a few trainees each seat so they can get more hands-on.”

With a little help from my friends

When trainees-to-be found out about the CMS–Olswang–Nabarro merger during their GDL or LPC in 2017, some were apprehensive: “I specifically applied for a smaller firm. I didn’t want to work for a huge operation and I was scared of possibly being treated like a number.” They were pleased to find upon arrival that “everyone is very warm and welcoming, they made us feel at ease from the start.” Londoners noted that even though “the office is huge and you don’t get to know everybody, you do know everyone within your team. It’s like a mini-firm within the firm!” Trainees elsewhere were similarly pleased: “It’s obviously a much smaller office than London but the work is still the same quality. There are only a few trainees here so we become very close-knit.”

Cricket and barbecues in London, rounders in Bristol, group trips to Edinburgh Fringe… all were put forward as evidence that “the firm is stellar for social life.” The “main event” is an annual CMS World Cup, a three-day event where each office forms a football team and they meet in a clash for sporting supremacy. “This year it was in Bordeaux and it was perfect. It’s a proper professional affair, they rent out the pitches, coaches, referees, paramedics and stadium! Those experiences are just priceless.” We heard that the football extravaganza and other socials are “a great chance to make friends from international offices that you wouldn’t usually get to meet.”

“Supervisors and partners are eager to help me learn and develop. They’re there to celebrate with you!”

Interviewees told us that their supervisors are typically “hands-on. They want to know what you’re working on, if you’re enjoying it, and if there’s anything you’re struggling with.” One interview expanded: “Supervisors and partners in general are eager to help me learn and develop, they take an active interest and are pleased with all your successes. They’re there to celebrate with you!” Trainees were also vocal and positive about the firm’s diversity and inclusion initiatives including LGBT parental leave, BAME and disability-focused events and celebrations on religious holidays. “Looking at our intake, they still have a pretty long way to go on diversity,” but sources agreed that “you can come to CMS from any background, it doesn’t matter who you are or what your interests are. There’s no need to edit your personality or conform to corporate assumptions.”

Our interviewees generally clocked off between 6pm and 8pm each night, though Londoners tend to work an hour or two later on average than their regional counterparts. That's no piece of cake, we'd warn, but it's in line with many other high-performing City firms. “Remote working is available," though we mostly heard of it happening outside of core hours, and during quieter periods. "You can log back in at 8pm and that’s totally okay.” The future's not quite here yet though: “When there is loads of work there’s an expectation you’ll muck in and stay late.” Trainees assured us that CMS sticks to a High School Musical mentality: “We’re all in this together. Whenever I’m ever in late, my colleagues are too.” Taking into account their sometimes strenuous hours, some felt that “CMS should review the compensation policy at qualification level,” but others explained that they don’t mind “taking the slight pay cut to love what I do and love the people I work with.” The firm went on to bump its qualification salaryin 2019, ranging from £42,000 in Sheffield and Manchester to £73,000 in London.

Qualification kicks off soon into trainees’ final seat – “within the first week we had a meeting, then chats with the partners of groups we wanted to qualify into to get an idea of what the situation was.” Hopefuls submit CVs to early talent for up to two positions, along with all their appraisal documents so far. The majority of trainees are guaranteed an interview. "It’s always a very fair process, everyone gets the same treatment and it didn’t feel too stressful or competitive.” In 2019 CMS retained 54 out of 71qualifiers.

Trainees tend to not jump between domestic offices – if you don’t do a secondment, you’ll probably do your whole training contract in one place.

How to get a CMS training contract


Vacation scheme deadline (2020): 6 January 2020

Apply for 2022 training contracts via the firm's 2020 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.”



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: 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 (5 days).

Social media


This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2019

Ranked Departments

    • Capital Markets: 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 2)
    • Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 4)
    • Tax (Band 5)
    • 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 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 3)
    • Infrastructure: PFI/PPP (Band 1)
    • Insurance: Contentious Claims (Band 2)
    • Insurance: Non-contentious (Band 2)
    • Insurance: Reinsurance (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 2)
    • Retail: Corporate & Competition (Band 2)
    • Telecommunications (Band 2)
    • Transport: Rail: Projects & Infrastructure (Band 3)