HSF proves that full-service magic can come from outside that circle.
All that glitters is not gold, so we’re told in Lord of the Rings. If any firm challenges the need for the term 'magic circle' (and makes it look somewhat outdated), it's Herbert Smith Freehills. It’s long been considered a quality rival to those big five, and in litigation the firm is a true leader. Along with the top US firms in London, a grouping within the global elite would be more fitting for HSF. Chambers Global identifies the firm as a worldwide leader in business & human rights law (where it is one of just two firms with this accolade) and dispute resolution and projects. In London, Chambers UK recognises the firm's prowess in various litigious areas, including banking disputes, commercial & corporate, financial crime, international arbitration (on the construction end of things), and employment. But disputes know-how isn’t HFS’s one ring to rule them all: projects & energy is a huge deal here, and HSF also gets top billing in Chambers UK for its construction, real estate, administrative & public law, employee share schemes & incentives, insurance, investment funds, and rail transport work.
“...genuine commitment to improve diversity.”
For some, the huge draw was the firm’s strong litigation and corporate practices, plus its global presence, which makes the work “international in nature.” For others, “the ability to get involved in pro bono as a trainee” and the firm’s “genuine commitment to improve diversity” were appealing. Others mentioned the firm’s culture, while, for others, “the firm has a good reputation, the work is interesting and the money is good.” All trainees are based in HSF’s London office, which can be found in Exchange House close to Liverpool Street station in the City.
As a disputes heavyweight, it should come as no surprise that HSF requires every trainee to complete a contentious stint. Two transactional seats are also compulsory. Before starting the training contract and towards the end of each subsequent seat, trainees put down six preferences from a list of seats within corporate; finance; real estate; disputes; employment, pensions & incentives; and competition, regulation & trade. “One thing that’s really good about the training contract is that you can really specialise in what you want,” one trainee explained. “If you absolutely loved real estate, for example, you could do real estate, real estate disputes, real estate finance and a real estate secondment.” That would depend, of course, on whether you got your top choices every time. Seat allocation at HSF involves an algorithm – a system that got mixed reviews. Some thought it “works quite well. Before it was someone’s full-time job in HR, and people would moan about it anyway!” With the current system, “the algorithm puts in all the rules, where you’re allowed to be and what your preferences are. Then HR step in and manually move people around.” From what we could ascertain, “most people get their preferences.” However, others thought the system was “opaque. People have put something down as a fifth option and others have put it as their first, and those in the former category have got it.” The training principal and HR recently met with trainees to provide them with a bit more clarity on how the algorithm system works.
As you might expect from a global outfit like HSF, the firm offers both international and client secondments. Most trainees embark on one of these options during their contract. Neither are available as first seat options, but trainees are asked to put at least one secondment preference for each remaining stint. We heard that most client secondments occupy the third seat (often with banks or consultancy companies), while “a lot of second-seaters have done an international secondment.” The latter are “competitive,” sources explained, “and the reason people get sent to certain locations is because that’s the best place for them; you get matched based on where you want to qualify and where you’ve sat.” For example, if you want to do the “dispute secondment in Tokyo, you probably would’ve had to have sat in disputes, expressed disputes as your qualification preference and then have been earmarked as someone the firm is likely to retain.”
Talking of disputes, the department is split into seven distinct groups. For example, Group 2 covers general commercial litigation, as well as energy (oil, gas, electricity, natural resources and utilities), media, competition and professional negligence disputes. Group 5, meanwhile, does specialist international arbitration work; investment treaty and international commercial arbitrations; public international law and boundary disputes. Clients include governments, state-owned entities, major international corporations and financial institutions. For a full run-down of the groups, go online. In addition to the seven groups, disputes also houses the firm’s IP team. Recent highlights for HSF’s disputes arm include representing Standard Chartered Bank and its Hong Kong subsidiary during a series of arbitrations over its investment into a power station based in Tanzania; defending Lloyds Banking Group during a group litigation brought against the bank that alleged breach of duty with regard to advising shareholders and sharing information; acting for three defendants (including two individuals) who were accused by online grocery shopping outfit Ocado of plotting to use the company’s confidential information in order to succeed in another similar business.
“...a lot of responsibility given to us, as we drafted emergency documents.”
For trainees, disputes seats, whatever their flavour, “tend to be quite admin-heavy.” Sources explained that a lot of the complex strategising is done “at the senior levels,” so trainees can expect to do “lots of billing and bundling” alongside a fair bit of project management work on cases. “Doc review is a huge element of being in disputes,” said one source, “so you review thousands of documents to understand the root of the matter.” However, sources interviewees did say that “the firm tries to balance” the more administrative aspects with more substantive work. “Towards the end of the seat it got more interesting as people came to trust me a bit more,” recalled one. Trainees also mentioned “drafting notes and minutes, doing research, and being part of team and client meetings – either in a silent capacity or to take notes.”
Advising major names on their investments and developments is the name of the game in HSF’s real estate department. Clients include investment companies like Brookfield and Aberdeen Standard Investments, as well as developers like Chinese company Greenland. The team recently represented private equity outfit Blackstone and its partner M7 Real Estate on several UK acquisitions, including that of Hansteen, a London-listed warehouse landlord. They’ve also been advising developer and investor British Land and its joint venture partner on various big development sites in the City, including locations in and around Liverpool Street, Exchange Square and Finsbury Avenue. Like disputes, there’s a “shift from admin to drafting” as trainees progress in the seat. While our impression of disputes was of larger matters being the norm, “in real estate there are quite a few small matters, which you can handle by yourself.” Trainees added that during the Covid-19 crisis there was “a lot of responsibility given to us, as we drafted emergency documents.” Several trainees mentioned having “fantastic client contact,” with one explaining that they’d been “emailing clients directly and had good opportunities for exposure to the other side.” Sources admitted the work can be “quite dry in parts and document-heavy: creating transaction bibles and managing documents around completion can be both stressful and not massively fulfilling.” Despite that, sources were glad to run the smaller matters and said it was a “really supportive and friendly team; the partners aren't scary!” Good to hear. Trainees also enjoyed the “pace of the department.”
“...pro bono work builds so many skills as you manage the cases yourself.”
Chambers UK notes HSF’s corporate abilities in the technology, financial services and real estate sectors. Public M&A deals are a notable strength for the department; recent highlights on this front include acting for Virgin Atlantic on the set-up for its consortium bid (via an entity called Connect Airways) to acquire the airline Flybe, as well as representing telecoms equipment manufacturer ARRIS International on its mega acquisition by CommScope for $7.4 billion. The latter involved parties in the US, and many deals here have cross-border elements. Another international deal saw HSF representing Sky on its acquisition of a stake in video software provider Synamedia (which has a workforce spread across China, Canada, the US, the UK, India, Belgium and Israel). Sources here said they spent a fair amount of time reviewing contracts, conducting due diligence and drafting ancillary documents, alongside project managing deals. While the department is no stranger to huge deals like those mentioned above, there’s still scope for trainees to take on smaller transactions, which enabled one interviewee to run “a couple of signings by myself.”
For those looking for something different to supplement their work, pro bono was described as “one of the best things the firm does. Every trainee is required to volunteer for the Whitechapel Legal Advice Clinic.” The firm requires trainees to “go there once every six weeks to work on a case or two.” The clinic provides employment, housing and consumer advice to those who need it. For HSF trainees, doing this work led to “so much responsibility. You interview a client and take on their case.” Some attended employment tribunals, where they “stood and represented clients.” Overall, sources felt that “pro bono work builds so many skills as you manage the cases yourself.” Another commented that the clinic is where they “learnt the most. I want to qualify into disputes because of Whitechapel.” During the Covid-19 crisis, trainees said there was a lot of work “for people who have lost their jobs during the pandemic.”
Trainees felt positive about the level of support they’d received from senior lawyers and felt nurtured by the partners. Across the seats, interviewees commented on the good training they’d had on interesting work. For the 60-odd first-year trainees, a big plus was that the firm requires them to all do their LPC at BPP. With the introduction of the SQE, HSF will continue its relationship with BPP, and expects its trainees will begin coming through that route from November 2022. “There’s a nice camaraderie that comes out of it,” the BPP grads said. “Trainees are social and keen to stay connected.” On top of this historical link, the firm “does quite a lengthy induction process,” which trainees said instilled a “sense of helping each other out.” Trainees are my “first port of call for questions on new tasks,” one added. This is not to say that those higher up were unavailable to trainees, as several sources also highlighted the “approachability of partners” and the “supportive” culture at the firm. HSF has a “reputation for having a more compassionate work environment,” and our interviewees’ comments go some way to back this up. One trainee cheerfully admitted that they’d “made some mistakes, and it was good to feel like I could admit that freely without being yelled at!”
Sources added that “when you start, the importance of mental health is hammered into you. You know where the mental health champions are on your floor.” We also heard that the firm leans “heavily into mental health week.” While respect for mental wellbeing runs throughout the firm, several sources mentioned that the culture was often “completely different in different teams,” especially when it came to the social life: “Some leaders are great managers of the teams and are good at putting on social events. And then there are other teams where nothing happens.” Despite around half of our respondents saying they were stressed, they also overwhelmingly said they were happy, which leads us to speculate that the stress reported is hopefully that of the good, motivational kind.
“Trainees are social and keen to stay connected.”
In terms of hours, interviewees felt that HSF is better in comparison to its competitors, with most sources reporting working between eight and ten hours a day. However, we were warned that when cases got busy, “that’s… yeah… very intense, with very late nights.” How late? “Usually 10pm to midnight, with a week of 2am finishes.” Brace yourselves for some late nights when deals heat up too. However, we heard that holidays are “well respected,” irrespective of where you are in a matter. Our sources admitted that “you work incredibly hard on a consistent basis,” but most felt that both the workload and the hours were manageable.
For those looking to stay on at the firm, sources explained that HR “calls you to find out where you want to qualify and what your second preference is.” Meanwhile, practice groups meet to figure out how many NQs they need. HR “then approach the teams to tell them how many want to qualify into that team and find out how many the department can take.” Once HR has had those conversations, “it publishes a vacancies list, normally around May.” Trainees then submit written applications for NQ roles that interest them, with each one consisting of a “cover letter, your performance reviews in a pack and a mini CV, which you then send to the team you want to qualify into.” After that there are interviews and trainees usually find out what their destiny will be in June each year. In 2020, 49 of 64qualifiers took up NQ roles with HSF, with one fixed-term contract.
Round up, round up!
At the time of writing, HSF had its biggest promotion round since its merger with Australian firm Freehills in 2012, electing 26 new partners, half of whom were women.
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How to get into Herbert Smith Freehills
Vacation scheme deadline (2020/21): 2 October 2020 (winter); 4 December 2020 (spring and summer)
Apply for 2023 training contracts via the firm's 2020/21 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.
Breakdown of disputes groups at HSF
- Group 1 focuses on the telecoms, manufacturing, industrial and retail sectors. Also works on matters coming in from India and Russia, as well as its neighbouring states. The team does general commercial litigation, corporate fraud and asset recovery, professional negligence, finance-related litigation, tax litigation, trusts and charities work.
- Group 2 handles general commercial litigation, as well as energy (oil, gas, electricity, natural resources and utilities), media, competition and professional negligence disputes.
- Group 3 does general commercial litigation, as well as professional negligence, insolvency and restructuring, defamation and entertainment/media cases.
- Group 4 is focused on contentious financial services regulatory work, finance-related and banking litigation, corporate fraud, internal investigations and asset recovery matters, and public and administrative law (across all industry sectors).
- Group 5 does specialist international arbitration work, investment treaty and international commercial arbitrations, public international law, and boundary disputes. Clients include governments, state-owned entities, major international corporations and financial institutions.
- Group 6 covers contentious insurance/reinsurance work concerning insurers, reinsurers and brokers. Matters span professional negligence, property, product liability, health and safety, and personal injury issues.
- Group 7, meanwhile, handles contentious construction and engineering work.
Herbert Smith Freehills
- Partners 160 (London) 495 (Global)
- Associates 476 (London)
- Total trainees 121 (UK)
- UK offices 2
- Overseas offices 24
- 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
- Training contract deadline, 2022 start: 4th December 2020
- Winter vacation scheme applications open: 14th September 2020
- Winter vacation scheme 2021 deadline: 2nd October 2020
- Spring and Summer vacation scheme applications open: 14th September 2020
- Spring and Summer vacation scheme 2021 deadline: 4th December 2020
- [NOTE - 2020 spring vacation scheme postponed due to COVID-19 outbreak]
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £45,000
- Second-year salary: £50,000
- Total cash potential: £105,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- International and regional
- UK Offices with training contracts: London
- Graduate opportunities also available in: Europe, USA, Asia, Australia and South 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 award winning 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 September - 2 October 2020
– Spring and summer vacation schemes: 14 September - 4 December 2020
Open days and first-year opportunities
Intellectual Property, Cyber and Technology Open Day: 18 November 2020. Applications open 14 September - 25 October 2020.
Disputes Open Day: 25 November 2020. Applications open 14 September - 11 October 2020.
Innovation Open Day: 11 November 2020. Applications open 14 September – 11 October 2020.
University law careers fairs 2020
Diversity, inclusion & wellbeing
“At Herbert Smith Freehills, we don’t expect our people to be or think the same – indeed, diversity and inclusion drive our success and the innovative solutions we deliver with our clients. That is why fostering an inclusive culture where our people can be themselves, contribute their perspectives and perform roles which are meaningful and aligned to our shared values is a core business priority”– Justin D’Agostino, CEO.
Our vision is to be the leading global law firm for diversity and inclusion. From bold and ambitious targets to drive gender diversity across our leadership and launching market-leading parental policies in Asia; to improving ethnic minority representation across our offices and developing a truly global approach to mental health and wellbeing and leadership on LGBT+ advocacy.
Our vision is ambitious and global. We recognise the power of diversity and inclusion to drive innovation, collaboration and business outcomes. By enabling our people to be their unique selves every day - we are Leading for Inclusion
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2020
- Banking & Finance: Borrowers: Big-Ticket (Band 3)
- Banking & Finance: Lenders: Big-Ticket (Band 3)
- Banking Litigation (Band 1)
- Capital Markets: Debt (Band 2)
- Capital Markets: Equity (Band 3)
- Capital Markets: Securitisation (Band 3)
- Commercial and Corporate Litigation (Band 1)
- Competition Law (Band 2)
- Construction: Contentious (Band 3)
- Construction: Non-contentious (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 3)
- Professional Negligence: Technology & Construction (Band 4)
- 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 4)
- 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 & Reinsurance (Band 3)
- Insurance: Mainly Policyholders (Band 1)
- Insurance: Non-contentious (Band 3)
- International Arbitration: Commercial Arbitration (Band 2)
- International Arbitration: Investor-State Arbitration (Band 2)
- Investment Funds: Closed-ended Listed Funds (Band 1)
- Life Sciences: IP/Patent Litigation (Band 2)
- Outsourcing (Band 2)
- Partnership (Band 2)
- Partnership: Large International Structures (Band 2)
- Pensions Litigation (Band 3)
- Product Liability: Mainly Defendant (Band 2)
- Professional Discipline (Band 3)
- 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)