HFW is a titan in the shipping sector but is also a deft hand in the wider world of logistics.
Sovcomflot on the rocks
Entrepreneurial. Creative. Collaborative. HFW chose these words to describe it. We're not sure that reveals too much – it's nothing we haven't heard before. But wading through the marketing morass, our interviewees felt HFW's distinctiveness was obvious. “So many firms at law fairs were just talking about the same boring stuff such as how much revenue they made and how high-value their corporate deals were,” one trainee said. “HFW stood out when it started talking about all the different travel opportunities on offer and things like piracy.” Piracy? Yes, that kind of piracy – the one involving ships and kidnappings. It's not really a massive part of the firm's work, but HFW has worked on piracy-related cases, for instance helping to secure the release of 26 seafarers held by Somali pirates in 2016.
Another source relayed what attracted them to HFW: “I wanted a firm which excelled in shipping, because it’s such a quirky industry – there’s lots of personality to it and you get so many bizarre cases.” Such as? “There was one case that came about after an entire cargo of chocolate went bad because it was stored next to a cargo of blue cheese. Turns out you can't ever put them next to each other.” And then there's the extraordinary case in which the firm acted for Russian shipping company Sovcomflot after the capsizing of a tug killed the entire crew bar one person, who survived for two days in a small air pocket before being saved by divers. Annnd breathe...
“I wanted a firm which excelled in shipping because it’s such a quirky industry.”
However, “despite shipping being at the core of what we do, it would be a mistake to pigeonhole us,” interviewees emphasised. Check out the firm’s slick new promotional video and you’ll be treated to a series of impressive drone shots panning over airports, construction sites, motorways, solar farms, mines and wind farms, highlighting the firm’s broader sector-based expertise. “There are so many areas that overlap neatly,” sources pointed out. “Commodities, for example, is all about the cargo on the ship rather than the ship itself – the intersection is obvious.”Chambers UK also seems to agree, awarding the firm top marks for shipping, aviation, commodities and logistics, as well as giving high commendations to its insurance litigation and asset finance work.
While a love of all things nautical isn’t a prerequisite for joining HFW – and indeed we spoke to many trainees who hadn't completed a seat in shipping – a love of litigation is. Just over 70% of the firm’s fees are generated from contentious work, and most trainees tend to complete three contentious seats. In addition all trainees complete a seat abroad, and it's not unheard of for some to spend half their contract abroad. Trainees can jet off to Piraeus, Abu Dhabi, Melbourne, Paris, Geneva, Dubai, Hong Kong and Singapore; the last two of which were flagged as being most popular. “The firm looks after you very well” when you go overseas, and trainees are given centrally located apartments within walking distance of the office. Sources also said that “because the offices are smaller, you tend to be exposed to a greater variety of work.”
At the start of the training contract, all trainees submit three preferences for secondments and three preferences for seats in London. Corporate was noted as being particularly competitive while those who want a stint in shipping “can expect to have that pretty much guaranteed.”
Asleep at the wheel
Work in shipping litigation is split between ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ disputes: dry work involves contractual tiffs over ship building, carriage insurance and offshore construction agreements, while wet shipping covers major incidents that occur at sea, like vessel collisions, fires and explosions. Like us, you may wonder in what possible scenario two ships could crash in the great expanse of the ocean, so we asked one trainee to clarify: “It’s like that situation when you’re walking down the street and turn left to avoid a person in front of you, but they also turn that way; then you turn right, and they turn that way too, and so on. It’s the same thing, only it goes on for hours. Sometimes people also set a ship's course and then... go to bed, so nobody is at the wheel to correct its path.” Riiiight. Interviewees also enlightened us as to what a collision means for trainees: “There’s an overload of information coming in, so it’s your job to try and impose some order on the chaos. You must file photos, keep attendance notes and maintain an open line of communication with the insurers, clients and firm. I also helped draft an estimate of the potential claim as well as a summary of the incident for the team.” Our source added: "If the collision is relatively nearby, there've been cases when the firm has sent trainees to interview the witnesses." Recently the team headed up the legal response to the 4,500 containers damaged by Cyclone Mekuni at the container terminal at the largest port in Oman in May 2018, advising Maersk Line on what to do. The group also handles some international regulatory work related to trade, the nature of which is “largely dependent on what side of the bed Donald Trump wakes up on!” Trainees often get stuck into research, like “trying to work out the impact sanctions might have based on previous instances of them being rolled out.”
"There've been cases when the firm has sent trainees to interview the witnesses."
“Whereas in litigation you’re working on up to 20 cases at time, in shipping finance you’re normally involved in only one or two deals,” trainees explained. “The work is nothing to do with the crew or cargo and all about what happens in the board room – it provides you with a well-rounded picture of how the industry works." Another source continued: "A lot of the work I did was acting for large European banks on ship financings.” One such bank is Investec which the firm acted for on the restructuring of a fleet financing of six offshore support vessels worth $44 million. “You’re often left with a bigger task to get on with independently,” sources reported. This includes “dealing with the reflagging of vessels, which involves registering a ship in a different country to its origin, drawing up checklists, and managing ship mortgages.” Work related to yachts and superyachts is also handled here and the firm is ranked by Chambers High Net Worth as one of the top four in the world for this niche area of work. “One trainee just got back from Tuscany after witnessing the delivery of a yacht,” a source reported.
The commodities department at HFW handles work related to hard commodities like metals and oils and soft commodities like grain and sugar. “There are lots of different parties involved in the cases,” sources explained, “such as the ICC [International Chamber of Commerce] and GAFTA [Grain and Feed Trade Association]. You also tend to work more with charterers whereas in shipping it’s mainly the owners." Another interviewee added: "Unlike the work in other seats like fraud and insolvency where everything is very process-driven, here it’s very law-heavy. We spend a lot of time ratifying arbitration awards with local courts.” We also heard of trainees attending management conferences, putting together exhibits for submissions, and in one case “drafting all the witness statements on a case involving a dispute related to the suitability of a vessel.” The team recently represented BP in a High Court claim against Nigerian conglomerate Sahara Energy Resources about alleged underpayment for an oil delivery following technical problems with oil being loaded into a tanker.
Not that Boris
Cases in HFW’s fraud and insolvency department are “huge” and are typically fraud cases in an insolvency context or restructurings with a fraudulent element to them – hence the pairing. The firm’s usual sector specialisms are covered here including shipping, transport, energy and aviation, but the team's also recently expanded into areas such as cyber fraud and cyber security. “Many of the clients are insolvency practitioners and accountancy firms,” trainees explained – the firm recently defended Grant Thornton, as trustees in bankruptcy of the estate of deceased oligarch Boris Berezovsky, against claims from Helena Gorbunova, his former partner, to a proprietary interest in several assets of the insolvent estate. Cases often span many jurisdictions. One source reported: “I was working on a huge case involving the SFO that spanned 19 countries – it was a nightmare to keep track of!”
HFW’s aviation group provides regulatory, litigation and transactional support for players across the market. "A typical case might involve a specific part of an aeroplane malfunctioning or falling off,” sources explained. For example, HFW was instructed by King Power and its insurer on liability matters related to the 2018 helicopter crash at Leicester City's King Power Stadium, which killed club owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. Our source continued: “You have to establish the chain of causation and work out what happened from a mechanical point of view. That means lots of conversations with experts to establish the technical background before you can even think about applying legal principles." We also heard of trainees managing disclosure processes, attending court hearings, conducting research on the Civil Aviation Authority and "investigating licences and whether people have the right to fly.” The team also handles transactional work, for example advising Israel's El Al on a loan to purchase a Boeing 787.
Salty tea dog
Among all the departments, shipping was unanimously said to be the “the most social and friendly – there are always drinks every Friday as well as monthly payday drinks.” Sources put this down to “the presence of ex-mariners in the group, which disrupts the traditional hierarchy – they’re normally quite junior but have captained ships and been responsible for the lives of lots of people, so they bring a different vibe to the group.” That’s not to say the rest of the firm is “stuffy or traditional,” sources maintained, adding that “there’s no sense of having to abide by a stuffy corporate attitude.” Interviewees did feel however, that more could be done to promote inter-departmental relations. “By virtue of being spread over three floors, the fact some groups have been brought over laterally, and not being in an open-plan office, things feel a bit siloed,” one source reported. “Some groups, like fraud and insolvency, don’t have much interaction with the other departments at all.” Trainees, however, actively organise socials among themselves and flagged up chances “to attend client events and join the yoga group to meet more people.”
“Time to stop and talk for a bit with colleagues over a cup of tea."
The average day for most trainees runs from 9am to 7pm. Within that there’s “time to stop and talk for a bit with colleagues over a cup of tea." However, sources made clear there are "days when you feel you need to quickly make a cuppa and run back to your desk!” And while some of our interviewees found themselves desk dining “more often than not,” others were confidently taking an hour for lunch. As is typical, transactional seats frequently added another hour or two to the working day, with “at least one really late night a month that takes you past midnight.” Most trainees felt partners had a good attitude towards their wellbeing. “I’ve had quite a few out-of-work commitments that have always been respected if I've told my supervisor in advance,” one confirmed, while another recalled “a partner sending me home early after working late one night.” Most said the firm puts no value on facetime, but we did hear reports of some trainees being “reluctant to leave before their supervising associate.” Moreover, all sources expressed some frustration with the firm's policy towards expensing late-night meals, "and the free sandwiches they provide aren't great." What's in them, we asked, to which one trainee sadly replied: "Not a lot."
At the time of our calls in late May, trainees were only in the preliminary stages of the NQ process, and some were getting impatient. "It's very late compared to most firms where some of my friends are already getting offers – we haven't even got a jobs list yet." Retention's usually over 80% though. In 2019 12 of 16 qualifiers stayed on.
Trainees who opt for a secondment in Melbourne "can additionally spend a few days working in the Sydney and Perth offices."
How to get a HFW training contract
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2020 (opens 1 October 2019)
HFW runs a week-long vacation scheme in the spring, as well as various summer schemes during June, July and August.
Vac schemers spend time in one department each week. Our HR sources tell us “the work is hands-on and is set to them by fee earners, and there are a couple of assessed exercises throughout.” Participants, who are assigned a trainee buddy to help them settle in, also attend a handful of practice area presentations and workshops. At the end of the scheme, which includes several organised socials, attendees have an interview with two partners.
Our sources encouraged prospective HFW trainees to apply for a vacation scheme if possible. “Many of our training contract offers are made to individuals who have completed a vacation scheme with us. It's a good way for us to get to know you, and for you to get to know our firm and our sectors.”
The application process
HFW offers around 15 training contracts each year. Applying for the vac scheme means you're automatically considered for the training contract too. The firm typically receives 700 vac scheme applications and 500 or so direct training contract applications. Candidates – from both avenues – who impress on paper are invited to a half-day assessment centre. This involves a written exercise, a critical reasoning test, a group exercise and an interview, typically with an associate and a member of HR, or two associates.
The group exercise sees candidates discuss a topical commercial issue, while the written one asks them to read a document and write a letter of advice. The interview lasts about 45 minutes and “questions might include: what drew them to HFW, why they chose an international firm, and a few commercial questions,” HR tells us. “People should know they don't have to be knowledgeable about shipping – or indeed any of our industry sectors – in particular; they just need to demonstrate an understanding of what it means to provide a service, in any context. It's also important candidates show they understand our scope of work, and that it's something they're interested in.” Trainees added: “The firm doesn’t want someone who’s blanket-bombed their applications. You need to demonstrate a genuine interest in the firm.”
From here, vac scheme spots are allocated, while direct applicants who pass go on to complete a second interview, this time with two partners. Vac schemers undergo this interview during their placement.
HFW is after candidates with a minimum 2:1 degree and AAB at A level, HFW look for candidates with a strong academic background, but have moved away from having fixed academic requirements. HR are keen to stress that extenuating circumstances are considered, and that the firm takes a holistic approach to areas such as transferable skills as well as academics. The firm attends around 14 law fairs each year, but this isn't the limit of its recruiting scope. “This year we've got trainees from 18 different institutions,” HR tells us.
We're told the firm seeks out “bright, pragmatic and globally minded individuals – someone who wants to make a mark on things rather than blend into the background.” Legal experience is always a plus, but the firm values all types of exposure to business – “even working in a bar and cashing up every night.” Current trainees added: “Looking back on the recruitment process I think they’re looking for someone who’s happy being dropped into a situation.”
Applicants should be aware that a seat abroad is compulsory at HFW. As such, “they're definitely keen on languages,” current trainees told us. That said, training principal Nigel Wick is quick to clarify that while “languages are always a useful additional string to your bow," they are "not compulsory in any way."
65 Crutched Friars,
- Partners 185
- Associates 300
- Total trainees 35
- UK offices London
- Overseas offices 18
- Graduate recruiter: Sarah Burson, [email protected], 0207 264 8293
- Training partner: Nigel Wick
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 15
- Applications pa: 1,000
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 (mitigating circumstances considered)
- Vacation scheme places pa: 35
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 October 2019
- Training contract deadline 2021 start: 31 July 2020
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 October 2019
- Vacation scheme 2019 deadline: 31 January 2020
- [NOTE - 2020 spring vacation scheme postponed due to COVID-19 outbreak]
- Open day deadline: Rolling
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £41,000
- Second-year salary: £43,000
- Post-qualification salary: £66,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £7,000
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London and Hong Kong
- Overseas seats: Paris, Geneva, Piraeus, Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Abu Dhabi
- Client secondments: Vary
Main areas of work
Each year we run a one week spring vacation scheme and two — three summer vacation schemes (varying between one and two weeks in duration).
We typically recruit around 85% of our trainees from our vacation schemes.
Open days and first-year opportunities
University law careers fairs 2019
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2019
- Commercial and Corporate Litigation (Band 5)
- Construction: Supplier (Band 3)
- Litigation (Band 5)
- Asset Finance: Shipping Finance (Band 2)
- Aviation (Band 1)
- Commodities: Derivatives & Energy Trading (Band 3)
- Commodities: Physicals (Band 1)
- Fraud: Civil (Band 4)
- Insurance: Contentious Claims (Band 2)
- Insurance: Non-contentious (Band 4)
- Insurance: Reinsurance (Band 2)
- Shipping (Band 1)
- Transport: Logistics (Band 1)
- Travel: Regulatory & Commercial (Band 2)