If the law is only as interesting as your clients, at Farrer you’re in for a treat…
In 1789, the Duke of York, peeved at The Times for suggesting that the royal princes were anything less than delighted that their father, George III, was getting better, instructed Farrer & Co to sue the publication. The editor spent a year in prison. Farrer & Co, meanwhile, became ‘the Queen’s solicitors’. The firm continues to cater to the uber-wealthy, old money and new – James and Pippa Matthews (née Middleton) are clients – and does it extremely well. The firm enjoys top rankings throughout the Chambers High Net Worth guide. “I think it’s very hard to beat the client list that we have, which gives rise to really interesting work. No two days are the same, particularly in private wealth,” trainees felt.
Centuries of getting viscounts out of scrapes will naturally conjure images of an antiquated firm: curmudgeonly men in tweed, their rank determined by moustache size, perhaps. But this firm defies expectations. This is a progressive place, with 35% female partners (including senior partner Anne-Marie Piper), sitting well above the London firm average of 20–25%. It's “a meritocracy," one trainee told us. "If you’re bright and good with clients, you’ll do really well.” FYI: our research shows a strong correlation between female senior partners and progressive firm cultures. Pro bono and CSR are strongly encouraged here, for example.
And if you needed any more convincing that Farrer is shedding its old-money vibe, we heard the firm is keeping up with the big international firms with tech investment: “There’sa firm-wide ‘4th Industrial Revolution’ group, which discusses disruptive legal technologies, and how the firm will harness these to attract new clients.” Although, conscious of not over-egging this image of a dynamic firm, one source added: “My experience is that the clients are very much the type of client you might associate with Farrer.” But experiences vary a lot: “If you did, say, employment, charity and commercial property, you’d be working with businesses, and you wouldn’t necessarily associate with private wealth clients. So, there’s a bit of a duality going on.”
"I think the firm is moving towards start-ups and social enterprises.”
“It’s very easy to focus on our representation of the uber-wealthy and blow it out of proportion,” considered one source. “Some is true, but I think that’s changing. I think the firm is moving towards start-ups and social enterprises.” This is reflected in the firm’s broad array of Chambers UK rankings, covering as much charity, commercial and public sector expertise as it does private client. In fact the firm is “more commercial than people realise,” thought trainees. A read through the firm’s caseload reveals as many large organisations as it does UHNWIs (Ultra High Net Worth Individuals). The Football Association, Deutsche Bank and The V&A all seek out the firm’s expertise.
Saving private clients
Farrer’s training contract is one of the less common six-seaters. Allocation of the first seat is “totally random;” for the 2nd, 3rd and 4th you submit preferences; the 5th seat is pretty much your choice; and the last seat is a repeat of a previous seat and is the one you qualify into. The system received widespread praise. The work is “very diverse. You try all different kinds of law.” And trainees aren’t treated like trainees for long. “The last four months of your training contract is a kind of training period between being a trainee and being an associate. The development goals are the ones you’d be expected to meet when you become an associate.”
There are four compulsory areas: commercial (employment, corporate, financial services, banking, charities and IP); private client (straight private client, tax and innovation); property (residential, rural and commercial); and contentious (disputes, family and reputation management). And while “you basically have to do a seat in the four pillars, within that you have a choice.” But some downplayed the power you have to choose your seats: “It makes you think that you have a lot of control over your choices, but later, they’re making your decisions for you, and don’t tell you where you’re going or why you’re going there. It can be a bit confusing.” But most were unvexed by this: “It’s difficult to place everyone as they might like. Teams are small. No one is going to be 100% happy.” Farrer’s practices stand out for their interesting subject matter. Chambers UK singles the firm out as a leader, for example, in art law, publishing, education and charities. If you believe the law is only as exciting as your clients – and you should – then Farrer has much to offer.
Sources found the technical nature of the corporate and commercial work to be “surprisingly fun.” The broad variety of clients also makes this a rewarding seat. It’s here that comparisons with classic City-esque firms crop up, and on one hand no one was deluding themselves that Farrer was doing the big-ticket global deals – it’s more lower-middle market transactions – but our sources felt convinced it was all the more rewarding for it. One day you might be representing the group of dim sum restaurants Ping Pong, the next you might be working for the Science Museum.
In commercial you’ll see a crossroads between the activities of the super-rich and the companies they interact with, and the Farrer commercial work has to a degree blossomed out from this. Through all the IP, litigious and transactional work it’s done in art over the years, for example, the firm has amassed quite the following of galleries and museums on its client roster – the Natural History Museum, the Art Fund, the Geffrye Museum and the Imperial War Museum are all there. Commercial banking, where Farrer represents Bauer Media, UK Athletics, The National Gallery and Telegraph Media, “felt a lot more like a City practice,” trainees thought. Sources reported “a lot of advisory work and a lot on the research side.”Employment, also under the commercial umbrella, was popular with our sources, who got to work on “discrimination and sexual harassment” cases. One commercial trainee we spoke to sought to distinguish her firm from the typical big London firm: “It’s a really dynamic, young team, with lots of women, and you’re givena lot of responsibility at times.”
Contentious work is, on one hand, “what you’d expect” from Farrer, such as acting for Edward Magan, son of Lord Magan, contending the sale of various assets from the family’s c.£100 million estate, spanning multiple offshore locations, a castle and a £36 million art collection. But it’s not all trusts and estates. International child abduction cases, retrieving works of art across borders, managing the reputations of royals and England players, handling high-stakes divorces; the contentious seats are demanding but never dull. “I took the lead running a case,” recalled one trainee. “I was putting together the defence and witness statements, interviewing witnesses and going to court and employment tribunals, which was brilliant!” Another revealed: “I did a lot of work on prenups. It was fascinating, interesting and difficult.” These ain't no run-of-the-mill prenups: last year Farrer drafted a $6 billion prenuptial contract for an unnamed European national. Contentious trainees were involved in “anything from going to court to assisting with whatever is needed, including bundling, which is the worst, and due diligence.” But as per Farrer’s training ethos, there was “lots of responsibility. I ran a small case, under supervision. Basically, they let you run the case and make suggestions. I also helped out on larger cases.”
“Sometimes you’re covering highly technical points and sometimes you’re just covering life admin for these clients.”
With so much work at Farrer, “you need to be incredibly discreet,” not least in private property. While most of the transactions remain confidential, a glance at the caseload shows the firm typically acting for ‘high-profile personality X’ on the purchase of ‘Y eye-wateringly expensive property’ in ‘Z chi-chi neighbourhood on the Monopoly board’. Some trainees reported doing “standard stuff, form filling, Land Registry, due diligence, that sort of thing”; while others thought “it’s one of the seats where you get a lot of responsibility. There is an expectation that you’d be running matters, with supervision, but you’d be the point person. That felt like a bit of a leap, but the supervision is brilliant.”
The private client seat is “hugely diverse. Your clients are private individuals, with assets around the world and complicated lives, who are subject to multiple jurisdictions.” At one of the top HNW practices in London, the work is “really interesting, but can be stressful.” Again, the firm can’t reveal client names, but most cases fall under trusts, estates and succession planning for international entrepreneurs with interests in countries across the world. “It’s really interesting work, with some difficult legal points and rather particular clients. Sometimes you’re covering highly technical points and sometimes you’re just covering life admin for these clients. You have to be good at spinning lots of plates at the same time.”
Those who expect trainee lawyers to have not seen the sun in months might be pleasantly surprised by Farrer. “The work/life balance is key. The very few times that I’ve worked past 7.30pm, someone asks, ‘Why are you still here?’” For London that’s a good deal. Private clients can be very demanding, but as individuals they are more sympathetic to their lawyers' lives than a global organisation – occasionally they might call you at midnight from Cayman to remind you you're a London lawyer.
Farrer from the madding crowd
“I would be surprised if anyone looks after its trainees as well as these guys do.” Suspecting this euphoric source had just returned from a client’s yacht party, we asked around for more acerbic comments and found very few. “There are layers of support everywhere. There are individual supervisors for each seat. There is also a partner who acts as a mentor. On top of that, there’s the partner responsible for the trainees, who checks in with the trainees as a group.”
“Because it’s smaller at Farrer you’re working directly with the partners.” The Farrer set-up makes it more likely that you’ll have daily exposure to partners and clients, but they go further to give you early responsibility. “It’s not just trainee tasks. We do do some of that, but we also do the type of work you’d associate with being a junior associate.” So can the firm do no wrong? “It’s quite Oxbridgey,” mused one trainee, highlighting a certain social vibe at the firm, which some decided was in part determined by the clients, traditionally: “In terms of how you present yourself, it does help if your manner appeals to clients, which isn’t really a reflection of how good you are at law.”
“In terms of how you present yourself, it does help if your manner appeals to clients."
Earlier we mentioned that the firm does very well by women joining the ranks, but otherwise our sources felt that “the firm could do more in recruitment to tackle diversity.” Comparing to equivalent firms in London in Farrer’s specialist sectors, it does fall behind the pack on recruiting and retaining BAME lawyers. But our sources were quick to defend their firm too: “Farrer is aware of that and is trying very hard to change that,” citing the firm’s partnership with Aspiring Solicitors. And again, defending the firm in an imperfect market, sources said “diversity is a massive issue everywhere.”
There’s a strong sense of community at Farrer. “We meet up a lot. We support each other. There are always really interesting conversations to be had.” The firm binds itself to the community with various enterprising schemes, putting trainees centre-stage: “as trainees, we’re expected to run CSR events.” The qualifying process is informal: it's based around a meeting with the training principal rather than submitting applications. Some wanted something more official, as they felt “not everyone was held to the same standards. It left some of us feeling disgruntled – not me personally.” Farrer retained nine of the ten trainees last year, with some of the trainees taking “their second-choice seat here, rather than leaving,” which, our sources deduced, spoke highly of the firm’s general appeal as an NQ regardless of where you end up.
“I don’t think doing the vac scheme gives you a huge advantage. The current group is about half and half vac-schemers and non-.”
How to get a Farrer training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2020): 31 January 2020 (opens 1 November 2019)
Training contract deadline (2022): 31 July 2020 (opens 1 November 2019)
Applications and interviews
Both those applying for the vac scheme and those applying directly for a training contract are asked to answer a set of questions and send a cover letter.
Graduate recruitment consultant Donna Davies tells us the content and structure of the covering letter play an important part in the assessment process. “Ideally we want the letter to be well constructed, matching their skills to our specific requirements and outlining what attracts them to us in terms of our practice areas and training programme." From here, the top 100 vac scheme applicants who impress are invited to an open day that involves a Q&A, plus group and written exercises.
Meanwhile, the lucky 40 training contract applicants who make it through the first round are invited to an interview with a partner, which generally lasts around an hour. Current trainees recalled the experience as “interesting and free-flowing,” with one telling us “it felt like they were really trying to get to know me and were prepared to challenge me on certain points to see if I could back up my opinions.”
Around 30 go on to a second interview, which takes place with two partners. Candidates are given a brief scenario to read through and comment on at the beginning of the interview, before moving on to a more general discussion about their application. Second interviews usually last around an hour and a half.
Farrer holds three two-week vacation schemes one at Easter and two in summer, taking on ten candidates at a time. Each vac schemer is assigned a trainee buddy and sits with a different team each week. Our sources recalled that they’d been treated “just like trainees,” having drafted board minutes, conducted research and been taken to client meetings. Alongside such tasks, vac schemers are given a case study to work on over the course of their visit. This exercise culminates in them pitching for fictitious clients.
To make the most of their vac scheme, Davies advises candidates to “show a real interest in the firm and a desire to work here. At the same time, remember that it’s also a chance for you to find out about us.”
Completing the vac scheme doesn’t automatically entitle candidates to a training contract interview, but those who are granted one skip straight to the second interview round, as outlined above.
How to wow
The firm asks for a minimum 2:1 degree and ABB at A levels (or equivalent). Beyond that, “we are looking for applicants who display good judgment, are engaging, can work within a team and who, perhaps above all, are resilient,” according to Davies.
Given the firm's abundance of private client work, as well as family and employment law, “applicants need to have a certain sensitivity and be sympathetic towards individuals,” partner Jonathan Eley points out. “Our clients expect confidentiality and discretion at all times, so candidates who recognise the importance of that will certainly get a tick in the box.”
Farrer & Co LLP
66 Lincoln's Inn Fields,
- Partners 80
- Assistant solicitors 204
- Total trainees 20
- UK offices London
- Graduate recruiter: Claire Roche [email protected]
- Graduate recruitment partner: Claire Gordon
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 10
- Applications pa: 800
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Minimum A levels: ABB or equivalent
- Vacation scheme places pa: 30
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 November 2019
- Training contract deadline, 2022 start: 31 July 2020
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 November 2019
- Vacation scheme 2020 deadline: 31 January 2020
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £39,000
- Second-year salary: £42,500
- Post-qualification salary: £67,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant: £7,000 per year of study
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London
- Client secondments: There are a number of opportunites for secondments on qualification.
Main areas of work
Open days and first-year opportunities
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2019
- Agriculture & Rural Affairs (Band 1)
- Corporate/M&A: Lower Mid-Market (Band 3)
- Employment: Employer (Band 4)
- Employment: Senior Executive (Band 2)
- Family/Matrimonial (Band 2)
- Real Estate Finance (Band 6)
- Real Estate Litigation (Band 5)
- Real Estate: Mainly Mid-Market (Band 2)
- Art and Cultural Property Law (Band 1)
- Charities (Band 1)
- Commercial Contracts (Band 4)
- Data Protection & Information Law (Band 4)
- Defamation/Reputation Management (Band 4)
- Education: Institutions (Higher & Further Education) (Band 1)
- Education: Institutions (Schools) (Band 1)
- Fraud: Civil (Band 3)
- Media & Entertainment: Publishing (Band 1)
- Partnership (Band 2)
- Sport (Band 4)