It's one of the oldest and most famous law firms in the world, and the fresh prince of the magic circle is still writing its story…
Freshfields training contract review 2022
Ten different monarchs of the United Kingdom have witnessed Freshfields’ reign as a leader among law firms. It’s long since established its place in British history and assumed its even more impressive current form in 2000 by merging with German outfits Bruckhaus and Deringer – but it’s not unreasonable to suggest Freshfields’ most exciting days are ahead. For a glimpse to the future, look across the Atlantic: the firm has almost doubled its US partner headcount in recent years, and in 2020 opened new digs in Silicon Valley. It’s the first of the ‘magic circle’ of elite UK law firms to set up shop in this most exciting of legal hotspots.
"Welcoming and buzzy."
You’d be hard pressed to find a major financial institution or company that this firm hasn’t done “big-ticket work” with at some point. Trainees saw “a lot of the matters we’re working on in the front pages of the news.” Only those with a taste for hard work need apply, but interviewees were pleased that their future colleagues, “while hard-working and intelligent, were also human.” These living, breathing lawyers make Freshfields “welcoming and buzzy. It's a very sociable place, with people always willing to talk to you and have a laugh.”
Coupled with a three-month seat model that offers trainees more variety, and international secondments by the bucketload, it’s no wonder that Freshfields receives thousands of applications per year. London graduate recruitment partner Cyrus Pocha tells us the Covid-19 pandemic “gave the firm a challenge,” but reinventing the campus strategy for a virtual audience provided “lots of opportunities to reach people we couldn’t before.” Of course, there’s a “magic trainee experience that’s so hard to replicate virtually,” but Pocha confirms “the intake and qualification numbers aren’t affected. We’re still taking an annual cohort of 80 and the intention is that every trainee will become an associate.”
Freshfields has continued to grow even through the global crisis, especially in the tech space. “Increasingly our trainees and lawyers are grappling with applying the law to new technologies like crypto assets and developments in life sciences, energy transition, sustainable finance, and new data uses,” Pocha tells us. “We as a firm are putting ourselves at the centre of that conversation.” Among the firm’s dozens of Chambers Global and Chambers UK rankings you’ll find strong showings in energy, telecommunications and IP alongside top spots for more ‘traditional’ practices like banking, capital markets, corporate M&A and litigation.
Trainees do six three-month seats, followed by a six-month secondment. “You can request to stay on another three months in a seat if you’re enjoying it,” but many enjoy the “opportunity to do as many as possible. It allows you to dip your toe in a lot of different areas and find somewhere that fits.” Some went in worrying “that three months in a seat wouldn’t be enough time – I’ve not found that at all. I’ve never felt like I haven’t got a good sense of what the teams do.” Long hours mean trainees spend more time working in a seat than at face value: “We get more experience in those three months than you’d think.”
“Dip your toe in a lot of different areas and find somewhere that fits.”
There are six seats available in dispute resolution: commercial, EU, global projects, environment, international arbitration and finance. Commercial disputes covers high-value litigation and internal investigations as well as some alternate dispute resolution work. Freshfields recently helped Sotheby’s in litigation over a painting they sold for £10 million+ that has since been proven to be a fake. These matters “can take years, so you only get a snapshot of the case,” trainees told us. Global projects means litigation coming out of energy, construction, infrastructure and other projects; some of the largest disputes involve clients based in Russia or Dubai.
Financial disputes can include contract claims, unpaid loans and investigative matters, with the team conducting their “financial wizardry.” Recent matters include representing Tesco in a claim brought by shareholders linked to alleged overstatement of profit and expected trading profit; and WEX over the cancelled $1.72 billion purchase of travel payment companies eNett and Optal due to the pandemic. Trainees get into the weeds of “matching pieces of financial information up – it’s like putting a really complicated puzzle together.” On investigations across the litigation subgroups, responsibilities include “putting together chronologies, info packs, timelines and responses to governing bodies.” Trainees can also expect to conduct research, write articles, file court documents and attend virtual hearings.
The firm’s corporate department is made up of three teams: general corporate, private equity and financial services. M&A for major “banks, stock exchanges, payment providers, loans companies, funds and investment managers” is the name of the game in financial services – the team recently advised insurance broker the Hastings Group on its recommended £1.66 billion purchase offer by a consortium. Trainees here “analyse the gaps for what we’re missing and request the needed documents from the client.” A seat in private equity can be “a gruelling three months” made up of “classic private equity work,” i.e. sales and acquisitions for PE houses. Freshfields recently helped Blackstone in the £2.1 billion sale of its 36% holding in pensions insurer Rothesay Life. Sources described the private equity department as “great for training because so it’s busy and you’re thrown in at the deep end. You have to be ready to swim.” Common tasks including filing enquiries and conducting lots of due diligence, “picking out red flags and writing diligence reports.”
“If you want front page deals, you want to be on this team.”
Work in general corporate“straddles capital markets, private M&A and public M&A.” Trainees told us that “if you want front page deals, you want to be on this team.” In one mega money example, Freshfields advised AstraZeneca in its $39 billion acquisition of Alexion Pharmaceuticals. Around 11 trainees join this massive department at a time – “you get to work for a lot of different people and partners, with exposure to lots of types of work.” That doesn’t mean getting lost in the drudgery of admin: our sources did a “fair amount of drafting” of board minutes, various offer documents and forms. Trainees also liaise with specialists and deal with the verification process.
There’s a mix of cartel conduct cases and public law work in antitrust. Freshfields also does pro bono and judicial review – “it’s a small aspect but when a matter comes in, it takes up a lot of time.” Cartel work is the “bread and butter of the team,” defending on anti-competition claims at the European Commission level. The team handled the competition aspects of Aon’s $30 billion combination with Willis Towers Watson – a union of two of the world’s biggest insurance brokers. Trainees are “kept busy with process management and admin, keeping track of correspondence with a bunch of different defendants.” Sources also got to prepare witness statements, liaise with counsel and barristers and conduct lots of research – “it’s not bog-standard but super interesting, novel stuff.”
International secondments were done remotely in 2020 “whilst working London hours. If you did Hong Kong or New York, the communication was very difficult!” By 2021, trainees were back on planes, with sources telling us they “can’t wait to finally get out of the UK.” On home soil, Freshfielders can get involved in pro bono for the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, the Tower Hamlets Law Centre and on charity and human rights cases. “It’s up to you how much you get involved,” and of course “paid work is the priority, but unless you’re on a critical deal, everyone’s very happy for you to do pro bono. You just need to work later to finish everything.”
Unable to appreciate the sheer scale of the firm while working from home, trainees were still impressed by the “astounding support network. Whatever seat you’re in, there’s always another trainee – it makes you feel less alone, especially working from home.” With so many fellow trainees it’s “easy to find those people you genuinely like to make friends and go for coffee with.” Most did the LPC together, and pre-Covid trainees “socialised regularly. Everyone’s just waiting to get back on the beers.”
“People will have a five-minute chat about what you did on the weekend – it reminds you that everyone is human and makes you keener to work hard for them.”
It’s no secret the magic circle attracts “a lot of Oxbridge-y, type-A people – it lends itself to a natural competitiveness.” That might sound daunting, but sources reckoned “it’s just the nature of the training contract here, it’s not necessarily a negative. People are open about tactics when choosing seats.” Agreeing that Freshfields is “not a chilled environment,” trainees noted of firm culture that “there’s a huge generosity of spirit” from top to bottom of the hierarchy. “It’s nice to see that people are cordial, get together and stop for coffees to have a chit-chat.” Trainees also liked that even when working remotely “people will have a five-minute chat about what you did on the weekend – it reminds you that everyone is human and makes you keener to work hard for them.”
Speaking of working hard, trainees “still get a lot of responsibility” in spite of the huge intake “because you’re the only trainee on most matters.” Freshfielders get the whole first week of each seat to “do structured training sessions that provide a great foundation.” When remote working started the firm assigned a partner supervisor and a deputy associate supervisor to each trainee. “If one is busy, you’ll always have the other to go to,” a source explained. “I talk to a supervisor every single day.” Across the board, we heard “the partners are sociable and approachable” and there’s an “active effort to ensure trainees feel supported and in the loop whilst working remotely.”
Freshfields has seen a “a lot more diversity in trainee intakes” over the last few years, with the firm “doing a lot of target setting.” That said, “the upper levels of the firm are not as diverse as they could be – this won’t be a quick change.” The firm's relatively new social mobility committee “recognises there’s more to be done to get more state school-educated people into the firm.” The Stephen Lawrence Scholarship Scheme offers work experience, sponsorship and career mentorship to “black men from less socially mobile backgrounds.” Trainees said there are “more committees and initiatives than you might expect, so it’s quite normal to get involved.” Some reported that some teams “struggle with being a bit of an old boys’ club,” and certain recent ‘innovations’ leave something to be desired… “We just changed our letters to say ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ – most firms just say ‘Sirs’.” Baby steps!
When it comes to hours, trainees here work long and hard. “You know what you’re getting yourself in for coming to Freshfields.” Survey respondents billed an average of 51 hours in a week; sources told us they’ll bill around “12 to 14 hours Monday to Thursday and a little less on a Friday.” We heard “there’s the expectation that if you’re called up, you’ll work.” As is true across many firms, "working from home has made this harder – it can be exhausting always being ‘on’.” Another said “we work really hard to make sure we don’t have to work on Christmas Day.” The trainee development team will check in if your hours are too high and “tell you to take breaks,” but trainees felt that “doesn’t change anything” in practice.
Looking long-term, some will of course gun for partner status but it’s also “normal to leave Freshfields after a bit.” Sources put this down to two opposing reasons: “Some people don’t want the lifestyle; some just want more money at a US firm.” We should point out here that those at US firms work similar hours to their counterparts in the magic circle, if not more.
For those who want to stay as an NQ, the first step involves submitting a list of qualification preferences. Teams also rank applicants, but the preferences of trainees themselves take priority; interviews then take place. We heard trainees “talk openly about qualification among themselves,” which helps as there are “unwritten rules – for example, doing six months in a seat improves your chances." Freshfields retained 32of 34qualifiers in its spring retention round in 2021 and 81% of its qualifiers in autumn.
Tank of England
The Bank of England has been a client of the firm for almost 280 years. Now that’s what we call loyalty.
How to get into Freshfields
Training contract deadline (2024): 6 January 2022 (opens 4 October 2021), 14 July 2022 (opens 1 June 2022)
Every single one of the 3,000-plus applications Freshfields receives each year is read from beginning to end by a member of the graduate recruitment team.
The firm tries to evaluate these applications in the round rather than in a mechanistic way, so those unexpected Bs in your A-levels won’t automatically cut you from the running. The firm also uses Rare’s Contextual Recruitment System, which (among other things) rates candidates’ exam performance against the average for their school, recognising that getting a B from a less well-performing school may demonstrate just as much graft and potential as getting an A* from another.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the Freshfields application form is the big blank box. The firm basically says: ‘Tell us about yourself in 850 words,’ and leaves it up to you what to fill in. Graduate recruitment sources tell us they're distinctly unimpressed by those who write “with an element of routine or cliché or received wisdom.” Indeed, glib catchphrases like ‘cutting-edge deals’ rarely go down well, even when the sentiment behind them is genuine. The most successful applications are simply written in a direct and unaffected way and explain why the candidate is interested in commercial law at an international firm like Freshfields. And for a good reason: why would anyone be impressed by a form that could have been written by 500 other applicants?
There is also a Watson Glaser test to complete.
The assessment day
About 12% of applicants are invited to the firm's assessment stage, which involves three components that last half a day in total. Both vacation scheme and direct training contract applicants go through this.
There's a written assessment, which lasts 45 minutes and candidates are asked to review draft documents, highlight the mistakes, discuss the ambiguous elements and redraft an extract so it is clear and correct. This does not require any knowledge of law and is designed to assess a candidate's ability to analyse the written word.
There's a general interview that also lasts an hour and is usually done with a partner and associate. This interview centres on competency-based questions designed to draw out attributes like motivation, organisational skills, capacity for teamwork, degree of curiosity, level of common sense, openness to change, and “stickability” – that is, the ability to demonstrate your understanding of what being a Freshfields trainee entails. There is also a chance for candidates to ask questions at the end of the interview.
Finally, there's also what the firm calls an ‘analytical interview’ during which applicants’ analytical skills are assessed. This lasts an hour and takes place with a different partner and an associate. Candidates are given 20 minutes to read a business-based article, usually from The Economist or Financial Times, and are then quizzed on it. “You could be asked how the subject of the article could bring work into the firm, or what parts of the firm could be involved,” recalled a trainee of the process. “Mine was an article about Airbus – we ended up talking about the price of oil, the merits or otherwise of cheap airlines and new markets the firm could move into. They didn’t expect me to know that Freshfields had just done a huge Airbus deal, although obviously it would have been great if I had.”
The vacation scheme
Insiders tell us the firm's “very structured” three-week vacation scheme is “focused on commercial awareness and thinking about things from a business perspective.” It includes a day spent on a mock transaction with some of the partners – "quite rushed obviously, but quite useful nonetheless” – plus lunchtime departmental talks that allow candidates to get to know more about different parts of the firm and find out more about the mechanics of how law firms operate and make money.
On the social side, there are plenty of lunches with trainees and partners, plus outings like curries in Brick Lane, a Thames RIB (speedboat) experience, and a night at The Comedy Store.
Pro bono at Freshfields
“There are always pro bono projects you can get involved in,”we heard. “When we joined, we had induction sessions with the pro bono partner and the pro bono organisations we partner with. It was a great way of showing the firm's commitment to pro bono work.” The firm has partnered with organisations such as the AIRE Centre (Advice on Individual Rights in Europe), who it acted for in relation to a human trafficking case against the Secretary of State for the Home Department. The Supreme Court found in favour of the AIRE Centre. Our sources said that pro bono work was “definitely encouraged” and “is treated no different to client work. If you’ve got a matter going on, it’s not something you have to do on top of what you’re doing. It’s part of your overall picture of your capacity.” Sources said that the “work has not been limited to one seat. I started one pro bono matter in my first seat and when I moved I wanted to keep it on. I spoke to both teams and the firm was actively encouraging of that.” However, some said: “I don't think the motto of ‘we value this as much chargeable work’ is respected in all teams.” The firm also works with several “large charities like Save the Children.”One interviewee enthused: “I'm encouraged to spend days at the various charities that we support, and I can charge this time as if it were a normal working day.”
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UK Guide, 2021
- Banking & Finance: Borrowers: Big-Ticket (Band 1)
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