Shipping titan HFW equips trainees “with a strong industry focus” in global sectors.
HFW training contract review 2024
Across all the trainees we spoke with at HFW, each shared at least one reason for joining the firm, best encapsulated by this interviewee: “I wanted to feel part of a global community, and I’ve definitely felt that in terms of the cross-border work and collaboration.” Indeed, HFW prides itself on an international web of 17 offices, many of which are either in big port cities, like Shanghai and Singapore, or in the world’s major energy hubs, including Houston and Dubai. That should give you a good clue as to what this firm is all about…
“… what you can see in real life.”
Global industries such as shipping, energy and insurance sit at the heart of HFW, and it’s mostly disputes-focused. “The work is what you can see in real life,” one reflected, whether that’s “the construction of wind farms” and tangible projects in energy and transport, or headline matters such as “the Malaysian Airlines situation” –the firm advised on insurance issues arising from the disappearance of Malaysian Airways flight MH370 in 2014.
Chambers Global marks HFW out as a leader on the world stage in shipping litigation and shipping finance – and you can’t get much better than that. Insurance, energy, construction and aerospace are also key for the firm, along with commodities and transport logistics (Chambers UK ranks HFW top in both of these areas).
Interviewees were also “impressed with how friendly and down to earth everyone is – there’s no snootiness here.” One thing that stood out in our interviews was that the trainee cohort was made up of “a surprisingly pleasant mix of ages.” Of the 32-strong group (that’s first- and second-year trainees), many had joined the firm off the back of other work experience, from teaching, paralegalling, and sales, to internships with banks or companies in the industries that HFW operates in. As one savvy interviewee attested, “I looked at firms with a strong industry focus and areas that dovetailed with my previous work experience.”
For trainees at HFW, the firm’s international secondment opportunities were a key draw for anyone looking to set sail across the globe, as an international seat is guaranteed to all trainees. As such, it’s understandable that the firm “really loves people who speak languages and dual nationalities as it makes going abroad easier.” But although “it’s really handy if you can translate,” it’s by no means a prerequisite for applicants. Of course, COVID restrictions and Brexit impacted international secondments a little in recent years, but trainees told us seats in Melbourne and Hong Kong have been reopened, and mentioned previous opportunities in Dubai, Singapore, Piraeus, Paris, Geneva, Abu Dhabi and Monaco.
Following SRA requirements, trainees must spend at least one seat in a contentious practice and one in a transactional group, but with HFW’s contentious-leaning practices, most trainees will spend three of their four seats in a disputes department. The most popular seats typically shift between cohorts, but we were told the shipping, corporate and aerospace groups are usually steadily popular across the years. Overall, trainees usually get their preferences – “every few months you get an email from graduate recruitment to see how you’re doing, and you choose three departments you most want to work in. They do try to fit everyone in.”
“There is a lot of collaboration between the two sides because the claims spring out of the same scenario.”
HFW’s biggest department, shipping, was a hit with newbies, with one trainee even telling us they “adored” the practice’s intense workflow – high praise indeed! There’s contentious and transactional work to be found here, and as is the norm in shipping jargon, the contentious matters are split into ‘dry’ and ‘wet’. Dry concerns contractual disputes, while wet pertains to the spats around incidents that take place on the water – if a ship was grounded, there might be questions of negligence, for example. Amongst the 50 or so lawyers in the shipping practice, everyone works together, so “although trainees allocated to wet lawyers tend to do wet work and vice versa, there is a lot of collaboration between the two sides because the claims spring out of the same scenario – they often happen in parallel. It gives you a very rounded view of the kind of claims we cover.” Trainees found themselves helping on cases as high as the Court of Appeal, working on bundles, liaising, and research, which we were told is “very hands-on.” HFW was recently instructed to handle 25 vessels stranded in Ukrainian ports with a combined value of $500 million, and the firm currently represents the owner of the ‘Ever Given’ – the container ship that was grounded in the Suez Canal and blocked it for six days, causing quite the stir back in 2021, you may recall.
The contentious commodities litigation seat, by contrast, is “very different to shipping. There, you’re working with the principal relationship between the owner of the boat and the charterer. Here, you’re working lower down the train with the traders.” The work “tends to look at sales contracts and disputes concerning financing and banks.” HFW works for big clients like Goldman Sachs and Vitol, an energy and commodities company, usually on the buy-side of a transaction gone awry, rather than on the sell-side. One example would be its recent representation of BP in its $12 million claim against Glencore Energy concerning the supply to BP of contaminated oil – so, juicy stuff. Given the size of cases like these, it’s common for trainees to sit here as a first or second seat “because it’s quite admin-heavy,” and they’re often tasked with prepping for arbitrations, drafting notices and readying bundles. There’s also some sanctions work here, and with the sanctions imposed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, HSF has been kept very busy in this area. Trainees can work in the practice from the firm’s office in Geneva.
“It’s what I thought I would do when I thought about being a lawyer.”
Within shipping, trainees can also work on transactional matters in the shipping financesub-group, which handles the financing of vessels and other shipping-related projects. In a recent matter, the firm advised Northern Offshore Services in connection with the financing of a ship constructed in northern Norway. In the beginning, trainees were prepping transactional bibles, taking attendance notes and “filing documents that haven’t been filed correctly,” one fastidious source shared. “You’re also going through many rounds of exchanging documents and incorporating comments.” But they found more responsibility as the seat went on, as this interviewee attested: “Drafting advice is quite a big responsibility – it’s what I thought I would do when I thought about being a lawyer. People will send you back a draft and not rewrite it!” That sounds like a win to us. Trainees also told us they got direct client contact on a regular basis alongside the document review, and got to correspond with ship registries and government bodies, so “you see the contractual ecosystem from beginning to end.”
In the corporate and commercial seat, trainees work on “anything transactional, both buyer and seller side.” M&A makes up the main portion of work in this seat: trainees were tasked with reviewing the suite of documents going into deals, looking at the steps going into completion, and helping with due diligence. There’s a big projects element too – “I looked at a port construction, where a government will advertise it, go to the market, and get lots of people to bid for the port” i.e. to win the construction contract. “Millions of contracts that go into that!” In another matter, the firm advised the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo on entering a joint venture with Primera Group to create two companies for trading valuable metals.
Trainees we spoke with had mixed feelings about the firm’s old office, but were positive about the firm's move to a brand spanking new office by Liverpool Street Station. “The plans look amazing!” one newbie beamed. “It’s much more representative of the firm, with a communal café and a nice balcony with views of the city.”
“I’ve only had a handful of late nights.”
With the unveiling of the firm’s new office, trainees might be more inclined to go in, but currently the three-days-in-the-office policy “isn’t enforced, and senior members typically don’t come in that often – I find it more challenging to ask questions in the same way from home though.” Different teams do have different expectations when it comes to remoteworking though. “There’s no pressure, but you sometimes get the feeling you should come in – corporate tends to have a little more of a facetime culture.” The general consensus was that the emphasis on in-office working would change with the move to the new location too. On the topic of hours more generally, “I’ve only had a handful of late nights.” And although there’s a variety of working methods, “it is a really friendly firm,” where trainees felt comfortable to reach out to fellow trainees, associates and partners alike.
Supervision and training got the thumbs up from our interviewees, who praised supervisors for their feedback alongside mid- and end-of-seat appraisals. If they had one criticism, it was that “it’s not completely uniform – some supervisors are a little more alert in giving feedback, so it really depends on who you have.” Luckily, trainees have plenty of online resources to supplement their learning when supervisors are a mite busy, particularly when it comes to formal shipping training. “There’s quite a lot online,” one interview exclaimed. “In shipping finance, the transactions are very specific, so there’s a lot of training – and it’s super helpful to have that all in person too.” Trainings cover both disputes and transactional aspects of the practice and are mandatory for trainees in those seats. “They’re keen for you to do as much as you can,” and “if people want training in something specific, they will organise for that.”
“We’re a social cohort.”
While “there isn’t a huge emphasis on celebrating everything together,” the firm does put on formal social events for people to hop into if they’re interested, and trainee cohorts are fairly small – fewer than 20 a year. “It’s not very dog-eat-dog,” one confirmed. “We’re a social cohort, so we have drinks every Thursday and at lunch you’ll have someone to go with.” Teams also make an effort to socialise, with some bringing cakes in every week and others dishing up cheese platters – foodies rejoice! There are also a few external client-facing events trainees can attend. We consistently heard that shipping tends to be particularly social, with shipping finance having a team dinner every month, and shipping litigation doing lots of events with clients, alongside a team retreat in Kent with a formal dinner and teambuilding exercises.
“There are also a lot of events put on through our corporate and social responsibility (CSR) groups,” one trainee informed us, including sports events. “We had a row-a-thon to raise money for charities, participated in the Santa run [Santa in the City], and ran an environmental-focused event helping support companies in Sub-Saharan Africa to achieve their sustainability goals.” HFW also gives trainees opportunities to volunteer at the Whitechapel homeless shelter; help mentor kids from underprivileged backgrounds; and attend a weekly legal advice clinic at Toynbee Hall.
Trainees were just about to set sail on their qualification journey when we interviewed them, and they were a little disgruntled by the timeline. “The process started quite late,” we heard, but everyone was keen to stay on with the firm. In the end, 15 of 22 qualifiers remained at HFW as NQs with a beefy salary of £95,000. “I’d say it’s fair,” one commented. “We get subsidised lunches here too!”
Choppy waters: HFW partners with a data analytics firm, CyberOwl, to advise on risk management for shipping clients.
How to get into HFW
Vacation scheme deadline: 14 January 2024
Training contract deadline: 21 July 2024
HFW typically runs a vacation scheme in the spring, as well as two summer schemes during the summer.
Vac schemers spend time in one department each week. Our HR sources tell us: “The work is hands-on and is set for them by fee earners, and there are a couple of assessed exercises as well.” 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 organised socials, attendees have an interview with two partners. Prospective HFW trainees are encouraged 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 600 vac scheme applications and 200 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 two associates.
The group exercise sees candidates discuss a topical commercial issue, while the written one asks them to read a document and prepare a written response. 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 have an in-depth knowledge about our industry sectors, but some understanding and interest is helpful; 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 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 12 law fairs each year, but this isn't the limit of its recruiting scope. “This year we've got trainees from many 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 – “including things like 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 (circumstances permitting e.g. COVID). 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."
Main areas of work
We typically recruit around 80% of our trainees from our vacation schemes.
Open days and first-year opportunities
University law careers fairs 2023
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2023
- Commercial and Corporate Litigation (Band 5)
- Construction: Contentious (Band 3)
- Construction: Non-contentious (Band 4)
- Asset Finance: Aviation Finance (Band 4)
- Asset Finance: Shipping Finance (Band 2)
- Aviation (Band 2)
- Commodities: Derivatives & Energy Trading (Band 2)
- Commodities: Physicals (Band 1)
- Construction: International Arbitration (Band 3)
- Fraud: Civil (Band 4)
- Insurance: Contentious Claims & Reinsurance (Band 2)
- Insurance: Mainly Policyholders (Band 3)
- Insurance: Non-contentious (Band 4)
- Shipping (Band 1)
- Transport: Logistics (Band 1)
- Travel: Regulatory & Commercial (Band 2)