The Freehills are alive with the sound of global elite-level contentious and transactional work.
Don’t label me
Hot take incoming – the magic circle isn’t the be-all and end-all of legal brilliance in the City. Sure, many enthusiastic wannabe lawyers make a beeline for those traditional status symbols, and our sources at HSF suggested that “the idea of the magic circle is really drilled into you, even by your university. But Herbert Smith is proudly not part of that – we focus on doing the best work in the areas we excel in, rather than the label of belonging to a particular group.” Another proud HSF trainee went further: “I think not considering us in line with the magic circle is misleading given our pre-eminence in dispute resolution.”
Enough about other firms – Herbert Smith is indeed a litigation powerhouse that picks up Chambers UK rankings in litigious practices including corporate and commercial, patents, banking and real estate disputes. It’s no one-trick pony either: HSF also earns top rankings in construction, financial crime, oil and gas, public law, big-ticket real estate and employment. The firm also boasts 27 offices overseas and is one of just six ranked in the worldwide top-tier for dispute resolution by Chambers Global.
“We focus on doing the best work in the areas we excel in.”
Herbies stands out from the crowd in other respects – the firm’s NQ pay package, recently hiked to £100,000 (including bonuses), exceeds what most of its UK-headquartered rivals pay out and hovers close to the levels of some of its splash-the-cash US competition. Firm finances are looking healthy all round with revenue reaching £965.7 million in 2019. “Future prospects were very important to me when I was applying,” one of our sources told us. “You do pick up on a sense of expansion in lots of practice areas despite market uncertainty.” The firm is also leading the charge on setting a progressive agenda for the legal industry: in 2018 it became the first law firm to offer to pay for transgender employees’ surgery, and a year later it set a 35% female partnership target for May 2023.
HSF offers 60 or so training contracts each year. Though the firm has two London offices, trainees all work from Exchange House; the Canary Wharf base houses more than 500 support staff including the billing team.
Algorithm of the night
Trainees can rank six seat preferences before each rotation by filling in an online form. Traditionally, seats were allocated manually by HR, but the firm has since switched to using an algorithm. At the time of our calls, the seemingly futuristic new approach was yet to convince trainees: “They call it an algorithm but it’s just a Google document with some code attached to it,” one explained derisively. “I think many of us feel like there’s less transparency now surrounding how exactly it works.” Despite some “teething issues” following the algorithm’s roll-out, most of our interviewees had no difficult securing their preferences.
There was however more confusion over exactly how the firm’s coveted international secondments get allocated. Again, the algorithm is used to allocate seats, but trainees speculated that there was merit to “talking to the right partners to put a good word in.” Sources also suggested that trainees’ grades – which are awarded in appraisals at the end of each seat – might play a role too. The firm offers spots abroad in locations including Singapore, Dubai, Paris, Moscow, Tokyo and Australia. “You’re not guaranteed one, but there about half as many international secondments as trainees in each intake and the same number of client secondments as well.” May the odds be ever in your favour.
As for London, HSF’s corporate team is one of its busiest and divides into subgroups including general M&A, energy, private equity, funds, and TMT (technology, media, and telecommunications). Big money cross-border deals are the order of the day: the firm recently advised telecommunications giant ARRIS on its $7.4 billion proposed acquisition by network infrastructure provider CommScope. Long-term client Hammerson, a UK property development and investment company, called on the HSF team’s services when French rival Klépierre made a hostile takeover bid. “An intense seat,” by all accounts, corporate comes with “work that is very procedural and the trainee role is very much administrative. Day-to-day there isn’t much law.” Due diligence takes up a lot of trainees’ time in this department, but they also get to draft standard form agreements, “contribute to the TMT blog” and attend commercial negotiations. “There was a call every day at 8.30am between the firm, banks and clients discussing the status of the deal and I was always invited to listen in on it,” one source recalled.
“You tend to be operating more like a junior associate.”
Trainees described real estate as a “challenging seat, especially if it’s your first one. The flip side is that you get lots of responsibility and opportunities to excel, you tend to be operating more like a junior associate.” Herbies is a market leader in high-end real estate law, earning instructions from clients including British Land, Goldman Sachs and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board. The team advised Madison Square Garden on their new London Sphere project, designed to be one of the UK’s largest indoor concert venues; and worked for Argent Related on its regeneration scheme for Tottenham Hale in the capital. Multi-tasking is a key skill here as trainees are expected to work on ten to 15 matters at any one time. “From day one, you’re drafting licences for clients and receiving instructions from them on the phone.” There’s also a fairly steep learning curve in a real estate seat as trainees get more independence on smaller landlord/tenant matters. “Everything is very procedural, so you are getting better quite quickly but have to be able to shift your mental energies to another client, with another agreement and another sets of plans, at a moment’s notice.”
Bone of contention
Given Herbert Smith’s legacy as a litigation titan, a dispute resolution seatwas a must for our interviewees – there are eight different sub-teams to choose from. “My group covered banking disputes, corporate crime and investigations, public law and tax,” one trainee explained. Other options include energy, construction, planning and commercial disputes. The last of those involves acting for household-name clients ranging from Sky and the Financial Times to Uber and Volvo. HSF was lead disputes counsel for the liquidated Sea Trucks Group when Nigeria-based West African Ventures claimed ownership and possession of a fleet of vessels secured against a $450 million bond debt. The firm also represents individuals, defending a member of the Bahraini royal family in a High Court claim over alleged breach of two oral contracts. Sources were appreciative of the opportunities “to have such a unique spread of different work at a commercial firm.” Disclosure exercises often fall on trainees’ plates, for which “you will be trawling through millions of documents trying to find statements to support an argument,” and taking charge of redactions for confidentiality reasons. Sources also produced research notes after delving into points of law, “helped to prepare arguments for mediation,” and took the first stab at drafting settlement agreements. “It’s definitely not just bundling all day,” trainees agreed.
"It’s definitely not just bundling all day.”
Banking litigationspans the worlds of retail, corporate and investment banking and the HSF team takes on disputes which often reach bet-the-company stakes. J.P. Morgan called on the firm when the Libyan Investment Authority issued proceedings against the bank, alleging fraud and corruption surrounding a $200 million investment. Other big names on the firm’s client roster include UBS, RBS and Lloyds. “I was doing research tasks and drafting notes on discrete points of law surrounding misrepresentation,” one trainee recalled of their experience in the banking end of disputes.
Trainees can also get their contentious fix elsewhere in the firm, including within the IP team. “The trainees here tend to be doing either big pharma litigation, cybersecurity or soft IP,” sources explained. Those without a technical background shouldn’t be deterred from picking IP as a seat choice: “Some of the cases are very complicated but you end up picking it up one way or another. People also take the time to explain things to you – on my first day an associate sat me down to talk about molecular structures. You just need enthusiasm to learn!” The firm acts for Unilever, Roche and American biotech company Gilead Sciences on IP-related matters; the last of those required advice on a new drug related to HIV therapeutics and for a trial to defend against a revocation action aimed at a supplementary protection certificate.
Mind over matters
It’s not easy to differentiate between the feel at City firms – our sources at Herbert Smiths focused on the hot topic of wellbeing. “The firm’s efforts aren’t tokenistic,” one declared. “They’ve invested genuine energies into their approach to mental health.” One of the most prominent initiatives is a course run by the firm’s Trainee Development Centre halfway through trainees’ second seat. “The first day is all about your USP and professional development as a trainee, but the second is devoted entirely to discussing mental health. We’ve had presentations on everything from the importance of sleep hygiene to the detrimental effects of alcohol.” Trainees were very impressed with the scheme: “They’ve really nailed it. You come away feeling as though they really invest in you.” Others highlighted the strength of other initiatives at the firm including a well-established diversity programme.
This includes a “very active women’s network. The events are always well thought out and considered and the group makes the effort to include men in some talks to raise awareness about some of the issues women face in the workplace.” Herbies has also made strides towards inclusion with the introduction of an Ability Network. "We have a system called passporting so if you have a disability or any other requirements, that’s disclosed to your supervisors in advance from the start of your employment. You aren’t obliged to keep having to explain yourself to everyone new person you meet.”
While it’s no doubt refreshing to hear such positive – and frankly overdue – feelings around a firm’s approach to mental health, readers shouldn’t think of HSF as a stress-free utopia. “At the end of the day we’re a top international law firm, so you’re not going to have an amazing work/life balance,” interviewees conceded. Most trainees were able to head home by 7pm on a good day but we heard plenty of stories about later nights. “In my first seat, there were times when I was consistently leaving at midnight,” one source told us; others were no strangers to all-nighters and weekend working. There were some accusations of hypocrisy as a result, given the argument “that ultimately it’s the ‘work long hours’ culture which is the main source of burnout” and need for mental health initiatives. On the other hand, help was at hand in the hard times: "If I went to my supervisor and told them I was struggling, they would be very responsive to that and would look at ways of helping me.” It’s safest to conclude that “if you want to practise law at a top level, you need to some have good mental resilience.”
“The efforts aren’t tokenistic – the firm has invested genuine energies into its approach to mental health.”
The good news is that our sources agreed their colleagues were the sort of people they didn’t mind staying late with. “It’s an office full of smart people who are assured of their abilities, but who aren’t stuck up,” one said.Another chimed in: “It’s a friendly environment and I like that it’s a firm which spends money on its social events,” citing the recent trainee ball as one of the year’s highlights. There are some differences between teams and we heard that “corporate isn’t as social, they did some events but there wasn’t as much of a team spirit. In disputes there were a lot more socials including welcome drinks and pizza.”
Given the size of HSF’s intake, it’s no surprise that “the qualification process is very structured. It starts in earnest in May when you start listing your preferences with HR and write a report bigging up your own strengths.” Trainees also submit a report of all their appraisals from each of their seats. Interviews occur where there is competition for jobs. Some departments, including disputes, conduct interviews based around “a case study and questions about how you would approach a particular scenario.”
The firm retained 59 out of 75 qualifiers in 2019.
How to get a Herbert Smith Freehills training contract
Apply for 2022 training contracts via the firm's 2019 vac schemes.
Training contract applications
The firm recruits all future trainees from its vacation schemes and every candidate has the opportunity to interview for a training contract. It’s a three step process. Step one – complete an online application form, this is your opportunity to tell the firm about your academic credentials, the skills you’ve gained from extra-curricular activities and work experience, and why you have the motivation and potential to become a great Herbert Smith Freehills lawyer. Step two – take an online test, the online test comprises of three types of question: situational-judgment, verbal reasoning and personality / behavioural questions. Step three – attend an assessment day.
Those whose forms impress and pass a 30-35 minute online test (for which there's a practice run first), are invited to an assessment centre. These are split into three sections: a case study interview in which candidates get a set of facts and have to make a short presentation that conveys their powers of analysis; a scenario-based interview where candidates are presented with a real-life commercial scenario and are asked to think on their feet; and a competency interview that tests the basic skills necessary to make it as a Herbert Smith Freehills lawyer. Students also get some time to speak with current trainees confidentially, and partners give a talk about where the firm is now and where it is going.
Herbert Smith Freehills runs four vacation schemes throughout the year. Students in their second and third years, as well as graduates, have the opportunity to apply for the spring or summer programme – the former is two weeks, while the latter is split into two intakes lasts three weeks. A winter scheme is available to those in the final year of their degree and graduates, and is a two-week programme. All schemes take around 30 students.
Vacation scheme participants get a week each with two different supervisors (summer participants do an extra week with one of them), and provide a helping hand with whatever their supervisor happens to be doing. This can include writing research notes or sections for client advice, preparing cases for court, or even attending client meetings.
As vacation scheme students only sit in two different groups in the firm, Herbert Smith Freehills also lays on a series of interactive talks from different practice areas.
On the first night of the vacation scheme, the cohort of aspiring lawyers is sent off for a group dinner, which firm representatives steer clear of so that the vacation schemers can relax and get to know each other. One of the firm's current trainees who attended a vacation scheme liked that when they joined the firm they “knew people from the vac scheme.” Our sources suggested that Herbert Smith Freehills does a great job at building a sense of community: “It was very easy to settle in and see yourself working here.”
The firm looks for a “unique combination of skills and potential. That means more than a great academic record; it takes confidence, empathy, diligence, drive, and an international mind-set.” Graduate recruitment also informed us that the firm takes on a roughly equal split of law and non-law students.
Herbert Smith Freehills
- Partners 470(global), 158(London)
- Associates 1,757(global), 502(London)
- Total trainees 134(UK)
- UK offices London, Belfast
- Overseas offices 27
- Graduate recruiter: [email protected], 020 7374 8000
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 60
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Vacation scheme places pa: 100
- Dates and deadlines
- Winter vacation scheme 2022 start: 18th December 2019
- Winter vacation scheme 2019 deadline: 14th October 2019
- Spring and summer vacation scheme 2020 deadline: 18th December 2019
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £45,000
- Second-year salary: £50,000
- Total cash potential: £100,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- International and regional
- UK Offices with training contracts: London, Belfast
- Graduate opportunities also available in: Europe, USA, Asia, Australia and Africa.
We are Herbert Smith Freehills, a leading, full-service, global law firm working on some of the world’s biggest cases and deals at the forefront of the world’s most exciting sectors. With an awardwinning depth of expertise across a wide variety of sectors, geographies and legal specialisms, we’re the firm where you can build your future in law.
Main areas of work
– Winter vacation scheme: 14 October 2019
– Spring and summer vacation schemes: 18 December 2019
Open days and first-year opportunities
University law careers fairs 2019
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2019
- Banking & Finance: Borrowers: High-end Capabilities (Band 4)
- Banking & Finance: Lenders: High-end Capabilities (Band 3)
- Banking Litigation (Band 1)
- Capital Markets: Debt (Band 2)
- Capital Markets: Equity (Band 3)
- Capital Markets: Securitisation (Band 3)
- Capital Markets: Structured Finance (Band 4)
- Commercial and Corporate Litigation (Band 1)
- Competition Law (Band 2)
- Construction: Purchaser (Band 1)
- Corporate/M&A: High-end Capability (Band 2)
- Employment: Employer (Band 1)
- Environment (Band 4)
- Financial Crime: Corporates (Band 1)
- Financial Crime: Individuals (Band 3)
- Information Technology (Band 2)
- Intellectual Property (Band 2)
- Intellectual Property: Patent Litigation (Band 2)
- Litigation (Band 1)
- Pensions (Band 3)
- Planning (Band 2)
- Professional Negligence: Financial (Band 2)
- Professional Negligence: Insurance (Band 2)
- Professional Negligence: Legal (Band 2)
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- Public International Law (Band 2)
- Real Estate Finance (Band 2)
- Real Estate Litigation (Band 3)
- Real Estate: Big-Ticket (Band 1)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 3)
- Tax (Band 3)
- Administrative & Public Law (Band 1)
- Aviation (Band 4)
- Construction: International Arbitration (Band 1)
- Data Protection & Information Law (Band 5)
- Employee Share Schemes & Incentives (Band 1)
- Energy & Natural Resources: Mining (Band 2)
- Energy & Natural Resources: Oil & Gas (Band 2)
- Energy & Natural Resources: Power (Band 2)
- Energy & Natural Resources: Renewables & Alternative Energy (Band 4)
- Financial Services: Contentious Regulatory (Corporates) (Band 2)
- Financial Services: Non-contentious Regulatory (Band 4)
- Fraud: Civil (Band 2)
- Health & Safety (Band 4)
- Infrastructure (Band 2)
- Insurance: Contentious Claims (Band 3)
- Insurance: Mainly Policyholders (Band 1)
- Insurance: Non-contentious (Band 3)
- Insurance: Reinsurance (Band 4)
- International Arbitration: Commercial Arbitration (Band 2)
- International Arbitration: Investor-State Arbitration (Band 3)
- Investment Funds: Closed-ended Listed Funds (Band 1)
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- Professional Discipline (Band 2)
- Projects (Band 2)
- Projects: PFI/PPP (Band 2)
- Public Procurement (Band 2)
- Tax: Contentious (Band 2)
- Telecommunications (Band 2)
- Transport: Rail: Franchising (Band 2)
- Transport: Rail: Projects & Infrastructure (Band 1)