HFW - True Picture

If shipping and logistics float your boat, then set a course for the shining shores of HFW. 

HFW training contract review 2021

The Firm

Yo ho, me hearties! Raise anchor and pipe up the crew, we’re entering the stormy waters of maritime law. “HFW is one of the first names to pop up when you Google ‘shipping law’,”trainees recalled of their time researching potential employers. “Before arriving, I knew the reputation of the firm, particularly the piracy stuff…”That doesn’t mean HFW’s lawyers are swigging rum and talking to parrots: the firm’s one of the pre-eminent names in piracy law, even though it’s a fairly small chunk of its practice. Recent cases include helping to secure the release of 37 hostages from seven different vessels in the Gulf of Guinea area in 2019, and working pro bono to secure the release of Mohammad Sharif Panahandeh after his kidnapping by pirates and four-year captivity.

Casting eyes over the seven seas, HFW boasts 20 offices worldwide. Shipping is one of the firm’s strongest suits, earning it a top national Chambers UKranking, but it’s far from the whole story: since 2003, HFW’s self-described six major areas of business have included shipping; energy and resources; aerospace; insurance and reinsurance; construction; and commodities. It also picks up top prizes in Chambers UKfor aviation, commodities and transport logistics. HFW opened a new office in Monaco last year. The Middle East has been a recent focus for growth – the firm expanded its construction practice there and now has specialists in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Kuwait City. Latin America has been another focus in recent years: the firm has a cooperation arrangement with Brazilian firm CAL, which has offices in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.

“I only applied for law firms that provided the option of an overseas seat. HFW went one better: the overseas seat is guaranteed for all trainees.”

HFW typically recruits around 15 trainees a year. “I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to be a litigator, a corporate lawyer or a finance lawyer when I first applied,” one told us. Keeping an open mind is great, but it’s hard to avoid litigation work at HFW, and trainees are likely to do three of their four seats in contentious departments. If a trainee is particularly interested in transactional work, the firm tells us it will try to accommodate their preferences.

Applicants should also prepare for some travel: “I really wanted to work abroad so I only applied for firms that provided the option of an overseas seat,” a source said. “HFW went one better: the overseas seat is guaranteed for all trainees.” The firm expects this will resume as normal once government guidelines allow. The mandatory trip was a big hook for many of our interviewees, alongside the firm’s niche practices.

The Seats

We also heard that “most people do a shipping seat” (finance and litigation options are available), and everyone will sit in at least one transactional department to meet SRA requirements. Before starting, trainees put down “three preferences, and the firm tries to guarantee one first preference across the training contract. It usually works out and most people get their second or third choices each time.” Litigious seat options include shipping; insurance and reinsurance; energy and resources; commodities; construction; and aerospace, though several of these departments also have a transactional component.

Shipping at HFW comes in wet and dry forms. Wet shipping deals with issues that arise at sea – “collisions, salvages, groundings” – while the dry work involves contractual disputes, “mostly cargo stuff: bills of lading, loss of cargo, non-delivery of goods, etc.” In contrast to some of the more “lawyerly” departments of the firm, interviewees described shipping as “really open door: people just walk into each other’s offices and you feel free to speak your mind.” The firm’s shipping finance practice involves advising on offshore contracts, as well as cybersecurity (to stop a different kind of piracy!) and shipping technology concerns. HFW acted for Riverside Resource Recovery on construction negotiations for multiple barges in Europe, and the associated security arrangements. “I don’t think there’s a more international area of law than shipping, as goods are moving all around the world,” a trainee reasoned.

Insiders said the shipping litigation department “gives you responsibility straight away. You’re not treated as a first-seater, but as someone who wants to get to work.” HFW has recently acted for shipping giant DFDS Seaways during the dispute between Eurotunnel and the UK government after the tendering process for extra ferry capacity in case of a no-deal Brexit; and the wonderfully-named Norwegian insurance firm Den Norske Krigsforsikring for Skib, after a vessel was attacked in Fujairah anchorage in May 2019 by hostile forces using explosives. One of our sources recalled working on a “grounding case where a ship hit a reef, and the cargo owner sued the ship owner for the delay.” They helped deal with salvaging issues and “the subsequent arbitration, as there was a dispute over the cost.” Another trainee outlined the course of their seat: “Over the first few days you’ll ask supervisors to check work, but one said: ‘I don’t think you’re going to write anything out of this world, so feel free to draft and send it.’” Tough love? Day-to-day tasks for trainees include bundling; liaising with counsel; drafting settlement agreements, instructions for experts and advice notes; and legal research.

“‘I don’t think you’re going to write anything out of this world, so feel free to draft and send it.’”

Commodities is another HFW specialism. The firm represents four of the six supermajors (aka the largest privately-owned oil and gas companies) and 14 of the 16 largest commodities trading businesses. HFW represented Turkish bank Garanti in a High Court case brought against Drum Risk Management, alleging the ‘misappropriation’ of millions of dollars’ worth of coal. Five trainees sit in this big group, usually within partner-led subgroups, which may focus on a certain type of commodity such as sugar, grain or general shipping commodities. A word of caution: this can be an intense seat as the teams deal with different time zones. As such, we heard that some partner supervisors in the department have a bit of a reputation for their high expectations of trainees. Drafting opportunities include “contractual terms, claims submissions and letters. It feels good to get that responsibility.” Many rounded things off with public-facing work, “writing client alerts and promotional materials.” Most trainees enjoyed their seat here, though a few complained of boredom in their work tasks. These included “managing disclosure and document handling,” as well as “going to visit client offices. It’s a very document management-heavy seat, with some research and client interaction.”

HFW's dedicated energy and resources seat scored unanimously good reports from trainees. It handles a lot of corporate work, but this ain’t your average City practice – deals involve transport, ports, terminals and related infrastructure. “All the training sessions are mandatory in transactional seats,” interviewees revealed. “We get generalist training about financial instruments like guarantees, bonds and indemnities.” Advising funds makes up a sizeable chunk of the firm’s transactional wing: clients include Thomas Miller Investments, Markerstudy and the Underwriter Group. HFW recently represented the founder of WH Ireland on the establishment of a dry bulk freight operator based in Singapore, financed by a $105 million fund-raising; and the AIM-listed Regal Petroleum during its $40 million acquisition of oil and gas production assets in Ukraine.

“Getting to grapple with a different legal system was very interesting.”

The majority of our sources enjoyed their international secondment. “We were really well taken care of in our seat abroad,” they explained. HFW organises accommodation close to their office for travelling trainees and gets them settled in quickly; most that we spoke to agreed they got “so much more responsibility abroad,” which they were happy to receive, though there were drawbacks. “The hours have been crazy, to be honest with you,”a trainee confided. “I’ve regularly worked 55-to-60-hour weeks.” Others had a very different take: “The secondment has been too relaxed for me. It got to be mind-numbing at times.”Weighing up respective pros and cons, everyone “had a pretty good experience overall. Getting to grapple with a different legal system was very interesting.” Scoring the international seat of your dreams can require some clever negotiation: “You have an initial chat with HR about preferences and they help you piece together what you want. As you’re guaranteed one first-choice seat, you can try to offer to sit in a London department you didn’t want in exchange for choice of the international seat.”Very crafty.

Trainee Life

“The general trend is that there a lots of explorers here – if you don’t like to travel, you’re a bit buggered, actually.”Trainees described the folks at HFW as “generally friendly, approachable and down to earth,”and found they fit right in. As befits a firm of adventurers, seafarers and explorers, we heard tales of colourful language tickling trainees: “One of the quotes I remember from a senior associate was ‘Arses are for sitting, not kissing. If you don’t have work, go home.’”The hours at HFW are fairly forgiving by City firm standards – “8.45am to 6 or 6.30pm in the office is normal,”and most trainees worked eight-to-ten-hour days on average. “If you’ve got something urgent to do, stay, but if you’ve got something that can be done tomorrow, then you can do it tomorrow.” This general attitude might be why HFW doesn’t fork out for “after-hours food or taxis”for trainees who dohave to work late. Interviewees had plenty of time to enjoy a “pretty good social culture. There are usually midweek drinks down at the Habit wine bar downstairs.”

“‘Arses are for sitting, not for kissing. Go home.’”

Hours and social life got a thumbs up, but trainees gave more mixed reviews on training and supervision at HFW. “I spent a lot of time in my current seat twiddling my thumbs, and then went out and got work from other departments,” a frustrated source said. “I have been disappointed by my supervisors. The first was a brilliant lawyer at the top of their game but they gave me no feedback for six months; I didn’t understand why you’d take a trainee but not take time to train them.” Around one in three trainees were unhappy with the initial levels of training; for the majority, “the supervision was fantastic”overall. “When I was super busy my team would be checking to see if I could leave my tasks until the next day or get help from another trainee.”In addition, the firm runs two trainee technical training programmes throughout the training contract: one focusing on transactional law and the other on dispute resolution. HFW fared well at keeping trainees in the loop during the 2020 coronavirus lockdown: “We’re on Zoom every bloody day!”They took that as a good thing, to be clear! “The firm has run quizzes and team meetings every week; everyone is making sure that trainees are okay and even bad news has been given to us transparently and clearly.”

Our interviewees were happy to concede what they didn’t know – “as a first-seater you’re still trying to find your arse from your mouth”– but all agreed that the firm’s diversity efforts “could be better. I’m afraid it reflects that of the clients, and shipping is a male-dominated industry.”Gender diversity levels are “fine at trainee level but there are fewer and fewer women as you look up the ranks.”In 2015, HFW set itself a target to hit 30% female partners by 2020; today women partnership stands at 14%. “It makes a huge difference for a junior woman to see role models, and more could definitely be done to encourage women into senior legal roles.” The picture isn’t much better in terms of ethnic or LGBTQ+ diversity, “which makes you wonder how diverse candidates feel about coming into the firm.” While there’s plenty of work to be done here, the firm earned more positive feedback on its approach to mental health: “We're part of the mindful business charter, and HFW does seem to care about the wellbeing of trainees, even if some partners still have old-fashioned views.”

As qualification approached, most of our interviewees were, however, hoping to stay on with the firm long-term, noting that “as there’s a relatively small trainee cohort, we’re all very close,”so competitive spirit was nowhere to be found. “Although a law firm is hierarchical by nature, HFW doesn't always feel like that.”HFW retained 12of 17 qualifiers in 2020, but the firm usually holds on to at least 80% of its trainees.

No filter 

For a more visual take on trainee life at HFW, check out the life_at_hfw Instagram account; it’s run by the trainees themselves, and they’ve given us some real food envy during our research process.

How to get a HFW training contract


Vacation scheme deadline (2021): 31 January 2021 (opens 1 October 220)

Training contract deadline (2023/24): 31 July 2021 (opens 1 October 2020)

Vacation scheme

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.

Trainee profile

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."


Friary Court,
65 Crutched Friars,
Website www.hfw.com

  • Partners 182
  • Associates 302
  • Total trainees 35
  • UK offices London
  • Overseas offices 19
  • Contacts 
  • Graduate recruiter: Sarah Burson, sarah.burson@hfw.com, 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 2020
  • Training contract deadline 2023/24 start: 31 July 2021
  • Vacation scheme applications open: 1 October 2020
  • Vacation scheme 2021 deadline: 31 January 2021
  • [NOTE - 2020 spring vacation scheme postponed due to COVID-19 outbreak]  
  • Salary and benefits 
  • First-year salary: £41,000
  • Post-qualification salary: £66,000
  • Holiday entitlement: 25
  • Sponsorship 
  • LPC fees: Yes
  • GDL fees: Yes
  • Maintenance grant pa: £7,000
  • International and regional 
  • Offices with training contracts: London and Hong Kong
  • Overseas seats: Varies – recent secondment locations have included Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Geneva, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Monaco, Piraeus, Singapore
  • Client secondments: Vary

Firm profile

We are a sector-focused, entrepreneurial law firm. But there’s more to us than that. We have a passion for the sectors we work in — whether we are solving complex issues across construction, aviation and shipping, or providing advice across insurance, commodities and energy. We’re people who like to get things done. Our clients say‘less traditional’‘progressive’, even. We say we’re specialist lawyers here to add value to our clients.

Main areas of work

Aerospace, commodities, construction, energy, financial institutions, insurance and reinsurance, logistics, mining, ports and terminals, shipping, space, yachts, travel, cruise and leisure. 

Training opportunities

Every year we recruit only a small number of trainees — around 15 per year split across a September and a March intake. This enables us to give every trainee our full attention, and means that your individual contribution makes a real difference. A training contract at HFW consists of four six month seats — very often three contentious seats and one transactional seat. Typically trainees spend at least one seat outside of London in an international office. Overall, we aim to provide you with a dynamic, supportive and varied environment in which you are challenged to become the best lawyer you can be and encouraged to contribute to the success of our global business.

Vacation schemes

Our vacation schemes are a key part of our recruitment process for trainees and we interview all of our vacation scheme participants for a training contract. Completing a vacation scheme provides you with a valuable insight into our industry sectors, our global reach and our culture.
We typically recruit around 85% of our trainees from our vacation schemes. 

Other benefits

Study assistance and grants; generous contributory pension; optional season ticket loan; group life cover, personal accident insurance and income protection; non-contributory medical insurance; private GP scheme; other voluntary benefits including gym membership, cycle to work scheme, dental insurance, dining card, home insurance, travel insurance, Give as You Earn. Music lessons and on-site massage.

Open days and first-year opportunities

We run an open day for individuals who are in at least their penultimate year of a law degree/final year of a non-law degree in the winter of each year. We run an insight day aimed at first year students in the spring.

University law careers fairs 2020

We will be attending a number of virtual law fairs and events in 2020. Please see our website for details.

Social media

Twitter @HFWGrads

This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2020

Ranked Departments

    • Commercial and Corporate Litigation (Band 5)
    • Construction: Contentious (Band 3)
    • Construction: Non-contentious (Band 4)
    • Litigation (Band 5)
    • Asset Finance: Shipping Finance (Band 2)
    • Aviation (Band 2)
    • Commodities: Derivatives & Energy Trading (Band 3)
    • Commodities: Physicals (Band 1)
    • Fraud: Civil (Band 4)
    • Insurance: Contentious Claims & Reinsurance (Band 2)
    • Insurance: Non-contentious (Band 4)
    • Shipping (Band 1)
    • Transport: Logistics (Band 1)
    • Travel: Regulatory & Commercial (Band 2)