Deals in the billions, enormous disputes and colossal clients. For many, magic circle member Freshfields needs no introduction.
Freshfields of plenty
If you weren’t familiar with this magic circle firm, the name ‘Freshfields’ might conjure up images of bright flowery meadows, the sort of well-scented pastures you could skip through in a gentle breeze. It's nothing of the sort. Back in the real world “the name carries a lot of weight,” anchored firmly by top Chambers UK rankings for high-end corporate M&A, capital markets, private equity buyouts, banking and finance, financial regulation, competition and corporate litigation. Freshfields wins a ton more rankings in the UK and around the world, chiefly for transactional areas but also for things like international arbitration and civil fraud. It all adds up to make Freshfields one of the major international law firms. Such accolades left trainees feeling they were in “one of the best places to train, wherever your career is going.”
“One of the best places to train, wherever your career is going.”
Telling the magic circle firms apart isn’t always easy, but a factor that distinguishes Freshfields from its competitors is the “controversial but unique” eight-seat training contract.Some might argue three months is too short for a seat, but Freshfields trainees felt it was “enough time to get a flavour of what a department does and whether you’re interested in pursuing it on qualification.” Sources also pointed out “it means you’re never stuck anywhere you don’t enjoy.” Plus, rookies can double up on certain seats if they want to get six months' experience in a specific department. They are limited to three months in commercial litigation and specialist teams, but can sit in up to three different disputes sub-teams.
With up to 160 trainees changing seats every three months, interviewees spared a thought for the trainee development team. The chances of getting your top seat choice increases with each rotation, and sources recommended doing the seats you're interested in qualifying into towards the end of the traineeship and getting the compulsory ‘core’ seats (two in 'global transactions' – corporate, finance or real estate – and one in disputes) out of the way early. Freshfields opened a Manchester office in 2015 – the only magic circle firm with a domestic base outside the capital – but the firm does not recruit trainees here.
Early morning matters
From confectionery colossus Mars to private equity behemoth CVC, trainees said the corporate group’s “client list is amazing.” Deals are often worth billions – the team recently advised Comcast on its £30.6 billion bid against 21st Century Fox for control of Sky. It also advised BP on its $10.5 billion acquisition of oil and gas assets from BHP Billiton.Trainees sit in subgroups labelled A to D, which are “organisational” more than anything; the type of work they handle depends on what partners do. Corporate B for example does “buyer and seller-side M&A almost exclusively for private equity clients.” Corporate C does public M&A as well as capital markets work.Across groups, project management is “a recurring theme” for trainees.Rookies are also given “quite tough drafting tasks,” such as “assisting with a share purchase agreement.” Some trainees “had the experience of doing due diligence for weeks,” but there is client contact too – “it’s quite scary at times! This afternoon I have a call with a client, which will just be me and another trainee.” Before the announcement of a deal, one trainee “was asked to keep track of comments and make sure everything was perfect – that was daunting to be doing at 6.15am when the announcement was going out at 7am.”
“I helped a start-up and was emailing the two co-founders directly.”
Like corporate, there are subgroups in finance such as leveraged finance, corporate finance and restructuring/insolvency – the team advised House of Fraser during its administration and eventual £90 million pre-pack sale to Sports Direct. Trainees said that in the seat they encountered “a mix of banking, capital markets and derivatives.” The firm has advised clients like Nestlé and Airbus on derivatives matters, and helped Heathrow Airport raise almost £2.3 billion of debt financing. On one matter, a trainee reported, “an associate was negotiating with the other side and I was in charge of putting in or rejecting comments as per our position.” There's client contact too. “I helped a start-up and was emailing the two co-founders directly,” one source reported.
Dispute resolution subgroups include commercial disputes, international arbitration, financial institutions disputes, and environment planning and regulatory. International arbitration handles investor-state mandates, “normally representing a company as they sue a country, so it really is international law.” For example, the firm represented phone company Sabafon in a $500 million UNCITRAL arbitration with the government of Yemen over the operation of a mobile phone network in the war-torn Middle Eastern nation. Trainees do a lot of research, sometimes into “the arbitrators we're up against” and “spend time interviewing witnesses and helping to draft responses together with seniors. We also have weekly calls with expert witnesses to make sure everything's correct – a lot of the time events happened ten years ago, and we’re presenting complicated financial models as evidence.”
“80% of my work was doc review!”
When it comes to big clients, you can’t get much bigger than Cargill, the largest privately owned company in the world. The commercial disputes team acted for the US agricultural giant in an $80 million claim against Indian steel manufacturer Uttam Galva over payments for the supply of steel. The team also defended Tesco against claims brought by over 60 shareholders after the retailer overstated its profits in 2014 and is representing Volkswagen in connection with the emissions scandal. An SFO investigation was keeping some of our interviewees busy. “My role was quite doc review heavy,” one source shared, “but because the matter was interesting it was exciting – especially when I found something and decided with the associates how it fit into the wider picture.” Doc review is a staple (“80% of my work was doc review!”) and not everyone we spoke to was as enamoured with it. “I’ve been sitting here on my own at 3am doing doc review,” one shared. “It might be useful for the firm, but as a trainee it’s not useful at all.” Another interviewee disagreed: “You think, ‘Oh my God, this is so dull!’ But it’s a good way to learn about the case.”
Some said that because of the difference in responsibilities, there was a different feel to the transactional versus the disputes teams, hypothesising that “maybe because you’re more important in transactional teams, there’s more buy-in with trainees.” In dispute resolution, “you almost feel like you’re a guest. Associates will have dinners and you won’t be invited.” In corporate, “everyone goes for lunch when we make a deal announcement,” and in project finance “the first five people down for drinks will be the partners.”
The most international work can be found in competition and trade, with interviewees reporting regularly being on the phone with colleagues abroad.The team advises clients on merger control – like helping Mars on its acquisition of vet clinic operator AniCura – as well as market investigations. For example, the firm advised Visa during an investigation by the European Commission into the fees it charges for card transactions. Ahead of mergers, trainees research and draft submissions for regulators: “I was researching the client’s competitors and drafting their profiles in a way that would show the Commission how strong these competitors are.” Trainees also get a shot at practising written advocacy, “trying to persuade the regulator to see your side, whether it’s the European Commission or the Competition and Markets Authority.”
“The pressure is on to get everything right all the time.”
Training comes thick and fast at Freshfields with a two-week induction for everyone, seat induction training at every rotation, team-specific training “for every sub-area you can think of,” as well as general workshops that trainees can attend if they have time. “It never stops!” one dazed source exclaimed. Every six weeks or so, trainees touch base for an informal mid-seat check-in, which is followed by a formal end-of-seat appraisal. Some criticised the system as “not being the most comfortable experience – you can have three months of perfect work and make one mistake and that becomes the focus.” Trainees reckoned “the pressure is on to get everything right all the time.” Others agreed “it can be a high-pressure environment – it’s a lesson in how to handle pressure.” Appraisal partners dish out a score at the end of each seat, but trainees reckoned “some partners give better grades more easily than others, so people make tactical seat choices.”
Appraisal scores also matter because they “feed quite heavily into how secondments are allocated.” About 85% of trainees get to go on a client secondment or overseas seat, with New York and Hong Kong among the most popular destinations abroad. Client secondments are usually with corporate clients, but there are also pro bono secondments to Save The Children and human rights charity Liberty. Speaking of pro bono, we heard that it's “taken seriously,” and that the firm for example handles exceptional case funding applications “for refugees and asylum seekers with vulnerabilities like disability.”
Interviewees said the qualification process basically works as follows: “You make a list of preferences, the teams make a list of theirs, and then it’s a matching process.” Sources said you aren’t meant to lobby anyone, “but everyone knows what’s gonna happen before anyone writes anything on a piece of paper!” One successful qualifier told us: “I tried to get a vague feel for what chance I had from partners. If you push a little, most partners will let you know.” Others described it as “an odd political process, and there’s definitely scope for people to miss out.” Fortunately, Freshfields' reputation is strong enough that those moving on “didn’t have a problem getting interviews.” In 2019, 70 out of 82 stayed at the firm.
Fresh as a daisy
We can see why you’d want to stay. NQs at Freshfields just joined the six-figure club after the firm upped their salariesto £100,000– “thank God!” one trainee cried.It was the first magic circle firm to make the move to six figures, and trainees agreed “it was a long time coming. It alleviated some grumpiness.” Of course there’s always room for improvement: “Am I extra happy? No. It could be more in line with top American firms. It’s sometimes difficult thinking of staying and being paid £50,000 less.”
“I slept in the office one night.”
Freshfields trainees and NQs certainly put in the hours to earn their keep. “Finishing at 8pm is early,” one source said. “Finishing at 9pm or 10pm is not unusual.” On the plus side, “finishing at 2am is normally met with a lot of appreciation,” and you’ll get some downtime now and then: “I had three weeks of leaving at 5.30pm.” But a word of caution to anyone eager to prove themselves: “If you offer your capacity as a 24-hour resource, someone might take it.” One trainee told us: “I slept in the office one night – they have these rooms with a nice little bed space and en-suite bathroom.” But we won’t say much about the firm’s “ageing” premises on Fleet Street, as everyone is set to relocate to 100 Bishopsgate, a brand new skyscraper in the heart of the City, in 2020. Don’t worry, apparently it will have sleeping pods too.
Being up in the wee hours isn’t confined to work. During one team dinner, “we went to this really nice French restaurant and went home at 4am – most people worked from home the next day.” The firm runs a Christmas and summer party each year, and every Friday “people encourage you to have a few drinks.” While this is quite a sociable firm, trainees said: “There’s a clear hierarchy – the seniors aren’t your best mates, but they’re supportive.” Further up the ranks, “there are many partners I rarely speak to. That said, there are some you can chat with in the kitchen about anything.”
“I imagine there are more diverse workforces in the City,” one trainee acknowledged, “but it’s definitely something the firm is trying to promote.” For one interviewee, Freshfields “stood out among City firms as making a real difference in opportunities for black professionals to make their mark in the industry.” The firm’s Stephen Lawrence scholarship supports black male students, and Freshfields also has several social mobility scholarships.
Sporty trainees are “made welcome” in Freshfields’ football, rugby, hockey, netball and sailing clubs.
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How to get a Freshfields training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2020): 6 January 2020 (opens 1 October 2019)
Training contract deadline (2022): 6 January 2020 (opens 1 October 2018) 16 July 2020 (opens 1 June 2020)
First-year spring scheme deadline (2019): 21 February 2019
April open day deadline (2019): 21 February 2019
September open day deadline (2019): 17 July 2019
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 'B's 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 sees candidates 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. “We always ask for evidence of these traits," graduate recruitment partner Andrew Austin emphasises. “And we always leave ten minutes at the end for candidates to ask questions."
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.”
Austin adds: "We want people to stay with us. We want interesting people who will keep work in proportion to everything else in their lives. We always ask, 'What do you do for fun'?"
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.
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP
65 Fleet Street,
- Partners 139
- Associates 400
- Total trainees 157
- UKoffices London, Manchester
- Overseas offices 26
- Contacts [email protected]
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: up to 80
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Minimum UCAS points or A levels: None
- Vacation scheme places pa: 60
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: Tuesday 1st October 2019 (Winter); Monday 1st June 2020 (Summer)
- Training contract deadline, 2022 start: Monday 6th January 2020 (Winter); Thursday 16th July 2020 (Summer)
- Vacation scheme applications open: Tuesday 1st October 2019
- Vacation scheme 2020 deadline date: Monday 6th January
- NOTE - 2020 first year programme postponed due to COVID-19 outbreak
- 2020 Workshop deadline: Various throughout the year
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £45,000
- Second-year salary: £51,000
- Post-qualification salary: £100,000
- Holiday entitlement: 26 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £10,000 for the GDL and £10,000 for the LPC
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer helps some of the world’s biggest companies to grow, strengthen and defend their operations. If you’re keen to pursue a career in commercial law, we can offer you some of the most interesting — and challenging — work around.
Because we support clients wherever in the world they operate, we must deliver a consistent highquality service across the globe. You will play an important part in this process.
Main areas of work
As a trainee, you will work in a team, usually with an associate and a partner. It’s the team’s job to work out how we can help clients achieve their ambitions. Is it possible? What’s the best way to structure the deal or tackle the problem? What are the risks?
You and your team will need to come up with solutions that work in the real, commercial world, not just the ones that reflect what’s right or wrong in law. We’ll show you how.
Our lawyers focus on at least one industry sector and work in one of five practice groups: global transactions; dispute resolution; anti-trust, competition and trade; people and reward and tax.
Our unique eight-seat training contract offers you the opportunity to see a wide variety of practice groups across the two years. You will spend at least one in dispute resolution, as well as at least two in our global transactions group (across corporate, finance and real estate). You can submit preferences for where you want to spend each seat, and you can decide as you go through your training contract. During the final six months of your training contract, there is also the opportunity to apply for international, client and pro bono secondments.
We offer a full range of benefits in our central London office including an on-site gym, and private medical and dental care. You will also get the opportunity to take part in our thriving pro bono programme and the many social networks that connect people firm wide.
You need to be in your penultimate year of an undergraduate degree to join a scheme. Apply online for 2020 schemes between 22nd June - 10th July and 13th July - 31st July 2020.
Our three week vacation schemes are an exciting way to find out more about life at Freshfields.
You’ll meet and work with trainees, associates and partners and learn about the market-leading work that we do on a day-to-day basis.
Students and graduates can apply for workshops from 1st October 2019, with various deadlines throughout the year. Workshop opportunities are open to first year, penultimate year, final year and graduates.
We’ll show you what life as an international commercial lawyer is like, and what sets us apart from other firms, so you can make a confident decision on whether to apply for a vacation scheme or training contract.
University law careers fairs 2019
We will also be running a number of events and presentations across the UK throughout the year.
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2019
- Banking & Finance: Borrowers: High-end Capabilities (Band 1)
- Banking & Finance: Lenders: High-end Capabilities (Band 3)
- Banking & Finance: Sponsors (Band 2)
- Banking Litigation (Band 1)
- Capital Markets: Debt (Band 2)
- Capital Markets: Equity (Band 1)
- Capital Markets: High-Yield Products (Band 4)
- Capital Markets: Securitisation (Band 4)
- Commercial and Corporate Litigation (Band 1)
- Competition Law (Band 1)
- Construction: Purchaser (Band 3)
- Corporate/M&A: High-end Capability (Band 1)
- Employment: Employer (Band 3)
- Environment (Band 4)
- Financial Crime: Corporates (Band 1)
- Intellectual Property (Band 3)
- Litigation (Band 1)
- Pensions (Band 3)
- Public International Law (Band 1)
- Real Estate Finance (Band 4)
- Real Estate: Big-Ticket (Band 4)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 1)
- Tax (Band 1)
- Administrative & Public Law (Band 3)
- Construction: International Arbitration (Band 1)
- Data Protection & Information Law Recognised Practitioner
- Employee Share Schemes & Incentives (Band 2)
- Energy & Natural Resources: Oil & Gas (Band 2)
- Energy & Natural Resources: Power (Band 4)
- Financial Services: Contentious Regulatory (Corporates) (Band 1)
- Financial Services: Non-contentious Regulatory (Band 1)
- Fraud: Civil (Band 3)
- Hotels & Leisure (Band 3)
- Infrastructure (Band 2)
- Insurance: Non-contentious (Band 3)
- International Arbitration: Commercial Arbitration (Band 1)
- International Arbitration: Investor-State Arbitration (Band 1)
- Private Equity: Buyouts: High-end Capability (Band 1)
- Product Liability: Mainly Defendant (Band 1)
- Projects (Band 3)
- Projects: PFI/PPP (Band 2)
- Public Procurement (Band 1)
- Retail: Corporate & Competition (Band 1)
- Tax: Contentious (Band 2)
- Telecommunications (Band 2)