HFW - True Picture

Years of international growth and broadening services mean this formerly “niche shipping firm” rules more than just the waves.

Jakarta be kidding me

“I think it looks a bit like the H&M logo,” said one trainee, commenting on HFW's recent rebrand and new marketing materials. We're inclined to agree, but also detect some of the 80s-inspired jauntiness of the title font used on the Call Me By Your Name poster. That's enough, however, on style – we admit it's unlikely that HFW's head honchos were directly inspired by a blend of high street retail and independent cinema when formulating the firm's latest logo. It is likely that they wanted to send the legal world a clear message about the firm. So what is it? “Historically we've been seen as a niche shipping firm,” sources explained, “but now we want to advertise our widening services and dispel the idea that we're just a shipping firm. We want to increase our appeal in the sectors that we operate in but aren't as well known for at the moment.” Those other key sectors are aerospace, commodities, construction, energy, and insurance and reinsurance.

If you look at the firm's Chambers UK rankings, you'll find that HFW is certainly rated in these areas; top UK-wide marks go to HFW's aviation, shipping,  logistics and commodities expertise, while respectable nods go to the firm's construction, insurance and energy trading know-how.

"You get direct access to the international market for six months.”

It would be remiss of us not to point out HFW's collection of international rankings in Chambers Global too, which span Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and Latin America. Boosting its presence overseas has been high on HFW's agenda in recent years: since early 2016, the firm has entered into three formal associations with local outfits in China, Brazil and Indonesia, acquired a US firm in Houston, and hired laterals in Singapore, Dubai and Brussels to strengthen its disputes, energy, finance and corporate practices.

This international scope attracted our trainee sources, who highlighted the fact that an overseas seat is guaranteed at HFW: “It’s a completely invaluable experience because you get direct access to the international market for six months,” they enthused. “We've gone through a big period of expansion,” one trainee reflected, “and I don't think we're quite finished yet. There's always talk of growing internationally, but only where it's sensible to do so.” That overseas seat looks set to stay then, but one thing future trainees should also note is that “we're primarily a litigation firm, so if you get a training contract here you’re likely to complete three litigious seats.”

All abroad!

Trainees submit their top three seat preferences before each rotation (and their top three preferred overseas seats if they haven't been abroad yet). “It’s a balancing act with 30 or so trainees,” sources explained, “but if you don’t get your first choice at one rotation then HR will bear that in mind when allocating your seat next time around. You’re guaranteed at least one of your first choices.” When it came to the international seats, we heard that “there can be a bit of a fight because everyone wants to go to Asia or Geneva, but we’re told at the beginning that allocation is subject to business need, so you can’t expect to always get your first choice.” The international sojourn usually takes up the second or third seat in the training contract, and interviewees told us that their time abroad was “amazingly well organised. I just got on a plane and turned up! The firm sorted my visa, flights and apartment.”

All of the trainees we spoke to had done a stint in shipping litigation. “As a department it's by far the biggest, and covers a broad spectrum of expertise,” trainees revealed, adding: “The clients pretty much cover every type of company or organisation involved in international trade, insurance and energy – international P&I clubs, shipowners and managers, salvage companies, major oil entities... everything!” The work is split between 'wet' and 'dry' disputes: the wet work covers major incidents that occur at sea, like vessel collisions, fires and explosions, while dry work involves contractual disputes over the likes of shipbuilding, carriage, insurance and offshore construction agreements. A recent $10 million matter saw the team act for Russian shipping company Sovcomflot in relation to the capsizing of a tug and the death of its entire crew barring one member, who remarkably survived in an air pocket for just over two days before being rescued by divers.

On the dry side, HFW represented shipowner TMI as it pursued a multi-million breach of contract dispute over the sale of a vessel. Trainees here praised the department's “good team ethic and quality work,” which enabled them to take witness statements, draft briefs to counsel, put together claims schedules and form views on liability and quantum: “The partners are very keen to get trainees involved.”

“...we want to advertise our widening services and dispel the idea that we're just a shipping firm.”

HFW’s ship finance team works for both lenders and borrowers, and “all the matters have an international aspect – there are no pure English matters.” Recent work highlights certainly demonstrate this: HFW advised HSBC on its involvement in the €295 million financing of Saga Cruises' acquisition of a new passenger vessel under construction in Germany; specialist shipping lender Svenska Skeppshypotekskassan (just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?) on a tanker financing involving parties in Sweden, the Bahamas, China and Denmark; and Dubai-based shipowner/operator Eships on the $30 million part-financing of two Korean-built tankers.

It’s really common here for trainees to run entire matters,” sources were pleased to report. These matters tended to be more basic, like “name-change amendments to vessels or re-flaggings, where a particular vessel changes its registered flag from one country to another. These things are not complicated and we can draft the documents involved.” On the larger cases, trainees “helped to draft documents like corporate authorities and conditions precedent reports to enable borrowers to finance the transactions. We have to make sure that we have all the documents that are required, and get to liaise with counsel and insurers.” Our sources especially enjoyed the “really interesting” yacht construction, sales and purchasing deals up for grabs – HFW picks up a top global-wide nod in Chambers High Net Worth for this line of work.

Can't take my eyes off EU

The commodities department at HFW is split into hard commodities like metals and oils and soft commodities like grains and sugar. Those on the soft side had encountered some “quite niche” disputes involving “soybean shipments that have fungus and things that have burst into flames...” If this sounds like your calling in life, you’ll need to know your GAFTA from your FOSFA (these are the associations in charge of grain and feed and oils, seeds and fats respectively). Trainees also noted that “the work is very arbitration heavy and is conducted through these bodies. The interesting thing here is that the arbitrators are trade representatives rather than lawyers.” Other sources highlighted their work on “a number of freezing order injunctions, some of which were applicable on a worldwide basis.” Clients here include BP and Swiss oil company SOCAR; the team represented the latter during a $1.5 million claim centred on the contamination of a cargo of vacuum gas oil, and the former throughout a $900,000 case against a Nigerian trading company that arose from an alleged underpayment for a supply of crude oil.

"It took me most of the seat to understand one case!”

The fraud and insolvency department is “relatively small and offers specialised matters.” A lot of the group's fraud work emerges from the aftermath of large, international insolvencies; the team have been busy of late advising the liquidators (Quantuma) of a group of companies on a series of fraud-related spin-off claims that cover allegations of bribery, knowing receipt and conspiracy. On the client roster you'll also find accounting company Grant Thornton and Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank. Our sources found that their work was more on the insolvency side throughout the seat, which taught them “a lot about client etiquette and case management.” The “interesting” and international nature of the cases was deemed a big plus, but on the whole interviewees felt that they didn't “get a huge amount of responsibility: there are quite a few junior associates, and usually just a couple of really massive and complex cases going on at one time. It took me most of the seat to understand one case!” Typical trainee tasks include preparing bundles, attending client meetings and mediations, and drafting the likes of witness statements.

The EU, competition and regulatory department may also be smaller, but it covers a broad range of work. Our sources listed data protection compliance (especially with regard to the General Data Protection Regulation), financial and trading regulations, sanctions, state aid, cartels and merger control as just some of the subject areas that crop up here. Some of our sources had started their seat just as the MiFID II [Markets in Financial Instruments Directive 2] financial regulatory reforms “came into force, which was a bit of a curse but good because you felt like you were conversant in what was going on!” Elsewhere, interviewees found “advising on a response to an Advertising Standards investigation really interesting,” and also described spending their time analysing “potential mergers to see if some aspect of the deal may be in breach of EU trading standards” and “responding to sanctions queries – there was usually a shipping connection, and I'd explore the scope of the sanction and provide solid advice.” A high-profile matter recently required the team to advise the European Parliament on the planned EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (FTA); HFW's lawyers wrote a detailed study of the agreement to help MEPs vote on the FTA. The Republic of Cyprus, Morgan Stanley and Danish conglomerate Maersk have all called upon this department for advice too.

City limits

On an average day, most trainees found themselves working between 9am and 7pm. Of course, “that's subject to change” depending on what's going on in the departments at the time. In insurance, for example, trainees reported a “very hectic” schedule that on occasion saw them working until midnight. Some found their ship finance seat to be the one that came with “consistently long hours – it can be a lot sometimes, but it's manageable.” Overall, sources found their training contract to be “stressful at times, with long hours and a lot of deadlines,” butpraised HFW for offering “a support network,” with one trainee noting that “one of our senior partners has led a wellness initiative at the firm, so if you're stressed there are designated people to speak to.”

Trainees work these hours in the firm's Aldgate base, which is “on the edge of the City, but close to Brick Lane and some good pubs and restaurants.” Some sources were kinder than others about the office itself – one described it as “really dated, with a canteen that's gone hugely downhill,” while another gave a more measured response: “It's not high tech but it doesn't look old fashioned.” The consensus? “If the firm wanted to do an upgrade it would be welcomed.” Still, one interviewee pointed out that although the office “isn't as swanky, it does kind of fit with the style of the firm, which is very homely and comforting.” Trainees did agree that “this is one of the friendlier firms. There are exceptions, but on the whole people are very approachable. It's rare to feel that you're not able to ask a question or chat to someone. It's nice to be at a place where you feel like there's team spirit.”

“This is a firm full of smart people who get on with their work.”

This doesn't necessarily translate into the buzzing social life you might expect. “This is a firm full of smart people who get on with their work,” trainees pointed out, so the extent of socialising at a departmental level can be hit and miss: “The shipping litigation team is very sociable, for example, but on the other floors people tend to go home at the end of the day.” There is, however, “some social stuff that happens around more informal client events and personal occasions like birthdays, plus the departments do usually organise monthly drinks, which people gather at.” The trainees in particular are a sociable lot, and the bonds between them are formed early on as they complete their LPC electives together.“We usually do monthly drinks on payday, as well as a lot of other things like quiz nights, a Christmas party, sporty stuff like touch rugby, etc... We've also got a big dinner coming up which we've organised.”

At the time of our calls in late April, HFW's official qualification process was yet to start. “We've started having conversations about it,” trainees commented, but “we're not expecting a jobs list for over a month. Other firms are well into their qualification process and making offers.” Still, “nobody bothers complaining because we have high retention. Everyone says that although we find out late, we're probably going to get a job.” In 2018 15 of 18 qualifiers were retained.

The Houston-based law firm HFW acquired was called Legge, Farrow, Kimmitt, McGrath & Brown – focuses here include clients in the oil and gas, marine and aviation industries.


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How to get a HFW training contract


Vacation scheme deadline (2019): 31 January 2019 (opens 1 October 2018)

Training contract deadline (2021): 31 July 2019 (opens 1 October 2018)

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, although 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 12 law fairs each year, but this isn't the limit of its recruiting scope. “This year we've got trainees from 17 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."

International trade explained

Several of HFW's practice areas work on matters related to international trade. Here's the lowdown on the sector.


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

  • Partners 175
  • Associates 300
  • Total trainees 33
  • UK offices London
  • Overseas offices 18
  • Contacts 
  • 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 2018
  • Training contract deadline 2021 start: 31 July 2019
  • Vacation scheme applications open: 1 October 2018
  • Vacation scheme 2019 deadline: 31 January 2019
  • Open day deadline: Rolling
  • Salary and benefits 
  • First-year salary: £38,000
  • Second-year salary: £40,000
  • 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 Paris, Geneva, Piraeus, Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Perth and Melbourne
  • Client secondments: Variable

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 – 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 – typically three contentious seats and one transactional seat, with at least one seat spent 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 enables you to experience our work first hand, and also provides you with valuable insight into our industry sectors, our global reach and our culture.

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 80% of our trainees from our vacation schemes. 

Other benefits

Study assistance and grants; generous contributory pension; subsidised gym membership; season ticket loan; life assurance; non-contributory medical insurance; cycle to work scheme, dental insurance, free GP service.

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 2018

Bristol, Nottingham, Cambridge, Queen Mary, Warwick, KCL, LSE, UCL, Oxford, Exeter, Durham, Southampton, London Law Fair.

Social media

Twitter @HFWGrads

This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2018

Ranked Departments

    • Commercial and Corporate Litigation (Band 4)
    • Construction: Supplier (Band 3)
    • Litigation (Band 4)
    • 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)