International work, early responsibility and a cosy London culture, all brought to you Curtis-y of this NYC-born arbitration powerhouse.
Curtis training contract review 2024
With no more than two trainees typically allowed to peek behind the Curtain each year, a training contract offer from Curtis is about as exclusive as you can get. But it’s precisely this intimate training environment that was the draw for our interviewees, with many keen to jump right into the deep end from the get-go. “I wanted that sort of environment,” one told us, “with a better chance to interact with partners and clients.” Rather than opting for the standard seat rotation structure, Curtis has held onto the more American junior associate-style introduction to legal life. Seats aren’t assigned; instead, trainees have two years to meet as many people in the firm as possible and jump on any matters that tickle their fancy. As training principal and corporate partner Marc Hammerson clarifies, “Trainees can go around the firm, speak to people and get to know them in a far less structured environment.” It means you’ve got to be bold, but an insider boasted, “One of the best things about Curtis is that you can get closure on your matters. You’re not dragged away kicking and screaming when things get interesting.”
“You’re not dragged away kicking and screaming when things get interesting.”
Despite the London office housing fewer than 40 qualified lawyers, its work is anything but small. Massive international matters are commonplace at Curtis, and clients include sovereign states and governments: “We have a different position in the London market, and we’re relatively unique in the work we do,” adds Hammerson. “We are an incredibly international firm, but international isn’t always how many offices a law firm has. It’s also a mindset, and Curtis acts as one partnership.” That’s not to say that Curtis has a modest footprint at all, as it's set up 19 offices in its almost 200 years of operation. The firm has a weighty reputation in the Chambers Global rankings too. Its WTO international trade practice in the Asia-Pacific region earns top recognition from the guide. The firm is also considered a global market leader in public international law, with an elite American international arbitration practice to boot.
With no structured seat rotations, there’s no one size fits all approach when it comes to work assignment. However, a trainee assured us that “the firm is conscious that there’s a steep learning curve, a lot of processes to learn, and people to meet.” It’s a more casual free market system, meaning that work might be assigned in the lifts and corridors rather than over email. Ultimately, as one interviewee summarised, “as long as you’re willing to put yourself out there, there are plenty of opportunities.”
“I really enjoy the drama of hearings…”
Arbitrationis one of Curtis’s key focuses, with opportunities for trainees in both investor-state and commercial arbitration. On the investor-state side, Curtis is well known for representing both the states themselves and state-owned entities, meaning clients include Cyprus, Kuwait, Kazakhstan, India and Argentina. The matters are large-scale, but trainees can attend arbitration hearings in person. “I really enjoy the drama of hearings,” a trainee spilled. “You can meet the other side, watch the tribunal and see how everything works. You also get to help logistically.” More specifically, trainees on an investor-state arbitration might find themselves in the trenches when it comes to document management, managing citation reviews, researching case law, sorting out evidence and perhaps drafting small sections of pleadings. One insider mentioned, “The substance is what I enjoy the most because the law is just so fascinating! I’ve really felt like I’m part of the team and doing similar tasks as others.”
On the commercial arbitration side, Curtis has recently represented the Republic of Uganda on a number of disputes, including a $2 billion matter relating to railway concessions. Trainees especially valued the level of client contact on commercial arbitrations, with one adding, “I’ve had the chance to speak to clients and they know who I am.” Research tasks are a crucial part of the role – and “a gateway to doing bigger tasks on any given matter” – but trainees can expect to be kept busy with bundling, managing documents, collating legal sources and precedents and some decent drafting. We also heard newbies can take part in strategy discussions where “you’re sometimes working on cases with partners who are experts in their field but not necessarily English law. They treat you as an equal and value working with you.”
Where trainees were able to jump in on the firm’s litigationwork, we heard that the department’s been doing plenty relating to sanctions. Newbies on matters such as these raved about the early responsibility, explaining how “work I was doing from my second week helped the team figure out how to proceed.” Rookie litigators might be asked to take on some research tasks but, in the lead up to a trial, there’s plenty of court prep to be done. One interviewee recalled organising witness statements and exhibits, discussing strategy and drafting skeleton arguments: “I’d do the first draft and an associate or partner would amend my work. It’s a great learning technique and helped me consolidate.” What’s more, trainees don’t have to be stuck in the office 24/7 as there are opportunities to watch trials in the commercial courts.
“You take on what needs to be drafted, when it’s needed.”
There are plenty of corporatematters for trainees to get involved with, particularly within the energy sector. The department represents state-owned entities including Brazil’s Petrobras, the UAE’s RAK Gas, and First Hydrocarbon Nigeria on a variety of multimillion-dollar transactions. Trainees’ main role on corporate matters is due diligence but, more broadly, “the trainee needs to know the overview of what happens and organise it.” Although there’s a lot of admin work and document management, “you take on what needs to be drafted, when it’s needed.” Insiders explained that newbies on corporate matters often coordinate with Curtis’s international offices to collate any necessary documents and information. We heard there’s a good level of client contact, too, and “if you’ve been on a matter for a longer period of time you get more and more involved in client correspondence.”
For trainees at Curtis, having control over matters and workload means that work-life balance is possible, but takes some practice. Newbies who did get into a groove found that a 9am to 7pm workday was standard. “That’s something I definitely appreciate,” a trainee said; “I’ve heard the horror stories of other American firms where you’re chained to your desk well into the evening. It’s not like that here.” However, while trainees might occasionally work into the small hours when there’s an urgent deadline, sources assured us that partners won’t leave trainees to hold down the fort themselves. To summarise, “trainees work really hard, but Curtis also wants us to have a weekend and evenings off if we can.” This balance meant that our interviewees were satisfied with the salary.
“There are so many languages spoken here.”
“I always look forward to going into the office in the morning,” one trainee enthused, “the people are relaxed and easy-going. The first thing you do in the morning is go around the office to see who’s in, have a quick chat and catch up.” In such a small office where trainees need to communicate with more senior lawyers to get work, this welcoming culture made all the difference. “Lawyers here really enjoy taking the time to talk you through a case or transaction from an all-round perspective,” an interviewee added. “It’s very human,” another summarised, “it’s also extremely international. There are so many languages spoken here.”
Trainees appreciated how the international culture added to inclusivity at the firm: “Having so many different cultures in the same office means people respect cultural differences when communicating with each other.” More broadly, the initiatives of the diversity committee in the firm’s New York HQ have been spreading to the firm’s other global offices. One trainee highlighted how the LGBTQ+ society recently expanded firmwide, and “that’s been bleeding into the London office. Anyone can join so we’re starting to do a few more celebrations and bring awareness to it.” The firm has monthly cheers events; the firm recently hosted a Pride celebration. Sources were also inspired by the impressive women partners and associates and, although there could still be better representation at the higher levels, many appreciated the Women’s Initiative: “You can get to know other women in a more informal way and through topical discussions. It helps me feel part of the firm and know my concerns matter.”
Newbies get further support from the training principal, who supervises the small group of trainees on anything that’s not specific to a matter. “We meet as a group at least two or three times a month,” an interviewee explained, “it’s a round table discussion where we can have a chat about how we are, what we’re doing and what we’ve learned.” Appraisals every six months help trainees stay on track with their development, while official training sessions can be scheduled during the more regular group meetings. Alongside the typical IT sessions, there have been opportunities to access library services and learn from legal research providers.
“They tell us to advertise narrowly and practise broadly so we can still enjoy a variety of work.”
One interviewee explained that qualification at Curtis is as simple as “signing off on SRA and a contract renewal, and that was it. The only formality was that my email signature changed.” Sources were confident that the firm is keen to keep its trainees, who understood that “if you’re a good fit and enjoy working here, there’s no reason you can’t qualify here.” Trainees generally get responsibility beyond their experience from the start, so NQs felt that there’s not much of a drastic change in the work post-qualification: “You don’t specialise straightaway. They tell us to advertise narrowly and practise broadly so we can still enjoy a variety of work.”
Keep it 100: The firm kept on all three qualifiers in 2023.
How to get a Curtis training contract
- Opening dates for training contract applications (2024): 1 September 2023
- Training contract deadline (2024): 31 December 2023
In order to apply, please send your CV and a covering letter to firstname.lastname@example.org for the attention of Sophie Joy Zoghbi.
Curtis receives around 250 applications for its training contract each year, with prospective trainees submitting a CV and covering letter to the firm’s recruitment email address. For those candidates that stand out, there are what the firm describes as ‘several rounds’ of interviews, which include interviews with both associates and partners. But what is it that candidates who want to stand out should look to demonstrate?
The firm seeks applicants with consistently strong academic records, and expect at least an AAB at A-Level and a 2:1 or higher at degree level. This is not to say that intellect alone will secure you a training contract however, as the team at Curtis look for candidates with people skills, energy, and an ability to get on with others. Given the firm’s reputation for international work, prospective trainees would benefit from having a multinational outlook, and speaking another language is an advantage.
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