Stephenson Harwood LLP - True Picture

Whether the work's from overseas or on the seas, this ship-shape City mid-sizer is happy to let trainees dive right in.

Let's get logical

The past couple of years have been very good for the firm,” training partner Neil Noble tells us, “both in terms of growth and financial performance, which is surprising considering what's happening in the world more broadly.” Indeed: the past three years have seen Stephenson Harwood post consecutive revenue increases, with the rise between 2016/17 up 11% to £176 million. The firm also recently bagged a heavyweight trio of private equity partners from the collapsed European arm of King & Wood Mallesons, and opted for continuity by extending its chief executive's – Sharon White – term for another two years. On the agenda is expanding client relationships and “boosting our profile, as client feedback has always suggested that we don't shout loud enough about the good things we do,” Noble explains.

I chose Stephenson Harwood because of its reputation in shipping law,” one trainee told us. “It's one of the top firms in the City for that area.” The buoyant marine department is a mainstay of SH's practice and picks up a nationwide nod from Chambers UK; other high rankings are also bestowed upon the firm's broader asset finance, projects, commodities and transport work. We put it to training partner Neil Noble that SH's great strength is logistics; “it is a definite strength of ours relative to other firms,” he replied, “and we tell potential future trainees that it is something unique about the firm, but we're also careful to say it's not the biggest part of what the firm does – if I had to put a label on that, I'd say it's financial services and banking.” And there's more to boot: SH has sturdy corporate, commercial litigation, employment and real estate departments, with the latter crowned as one of the best in London for its mid-market work.

SH's trainee intake is smaller than that of many of London's big players – the firm recruits around 20 a year – so “you don't just feel like a cog in the wheel and get a well-rounded experience.” Several sources also highlighted the firm's “friendly reputation” among its peers, telling us that SH consists of “good people getting to work on high profile deals and cases [for familiar names like HSBC, GlaxoSmithKline and American Airlines] without having to put in ridiculous hours.” There's also the tempting prospect of being shipped off to one of the firm's overseas offices for a secondment: stints are currently available in Hong Kong, Singapore, Paris, Dubai and Seoul, but SH also has offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Piraeus.

Newbies submit their top three seat preferences before they start each new seat; “after that it's all quiet on the Western front until you get an email telling you where you’re going.” It's also possible to specify preferred sub-teams within your department of choice. Most got their first or second choice each time, but those who didn't “generally had a good experience anyway,” with one telling us that “the seat I liked the most was the one I didn't expect to like at all!” As in previous years, some bemoaned that seat allocation “isn't a very transparent process; it's not clear what the considerations are when working out who goes where,” but most were satisfied that “HR really does listen and tries to put you where you want to go.”

Company floats and financing boats

Commercial litigation is the firm's biggest department, with cases that cover bankruptcy; fraud and asset tracing; regulation; construction; engineering; IP; banking; and international arbitration. While trainees generally sit in one subgroup, we heard that it's common to try out work in more than one area “to ensure you get a varied experience.” Clients include GAP Europe, PwC, and Vienna-headquartered bank RBI, which the firm recently acted for in an €18 million dispute arising from the collapse of an Icelandic bank in 2008. A “mix of big and small clients keeps the work varied,” said our sources. Bundling inevitably fell into trainees' laps, but one chipper source reported that they'd “only done one bundle during the whole six months.” Others were able to “draft advice, sort out claim forms and take witness statements.” Even at this early stage there was a chance for some to “advocate in the County Court on small cases without anybody else from the firm present. It was intimidating, but a great experience.” The sensitive nature of the work means that “everything is double checked by the supervisor,” and client contact can be limited, but regular lunchtime training and updates from counsel kept trainees in the group's loop.

“I only did one bundle during the whole six months.”

Subgroups in finance include shipping, rail, aviation, restructuring and banking. The latter consists of “work with major financial institutions” like RBS and Wells Fargo, which recently called upon the firm to advise it on a £185 million loan facility that it was preparing to issue. Newbies were “allowed to manage transaction documents early on, as the trainee's job is to ensure that everything is executed at the right time and that all the meetings go to plan.” Some in aviation finance struggled to find their wings and found the work “difficult to start with, as we're often working in multiple jurisdictions.” This, however, meant “a lot of liaising with foreign counsel, which was more interesting than collating all of the documents.” There's scope to get work from outside your assigned subgroup; one source had worked on asset leases involving everything from “anaerobic digestion plants to industrial washing machines.” Those in rail finance told us that “it's a peculiar seat as there's a mix of finance and corporate work, but you get to draft ancillary documents and conduct lots of research.”

Work in the corporate department itself spans projects and infrastructure; tax; corporate funds and commercial; outsourcing; and technology. M&A work necessitated “a lot of diligence,” but trainees also got to grips with “reviewing contracts, working on IPOs and drawing up agreements for commercial entities.” Sticklers for tradition will be pleased to hear that the tax side of things is “super black letter law-heavy,” but the major plus here was deemed to be “getting the responsibility to take on more ownership of your work as you build trust within the department – by the end I got to draft large chunks of a prospectus for an IPO.” The firm hit the headlines when it advised Hotel Chocolat on its £167 million flotation on AIM; other highlights of late have seen the team advise equipment rental outfit Lavendon Group on its £600 million (plus) contested takeover, as well as healthcare company BTG on its $110 million acquisition of US outfit Galil Medical.

SH’s marine and international trade department covers contractual and insurance-related disputes, as well as non-contentious contractual issues. Given the firm’s pedigree in the area, “everyone's very switched on and more is expected of you; you're striving to do better every time something new comes up.” Client Vitol – a Swiss energy and commodity trading companyrecently called upon the department to assist it withan $18 million cargo claim tied to the grounding of a vessel on the coast of Nigeria. Sources spent “most of their time working on claims with a cross-border element, which meant collaborating with counsel across the world, adjusting to different time zones and understanding legal requirements in other countries.” In the run up to a hearing there can be “a lot of bundling,” but interviewees praised the “very exciting” nature of the work. “I’m involved in matters that are taking shape in Chile and Australia,” said one, while another explained: “General litigation matters tend to involve a contract that has gone wrong a couple of years ago, but in shipping the cases are far more immediate and fast-paced, so you’re really thrown into it.”

The real estate department is sub-divided into three groups: general real estate; real estate finance; and environment and planning. The group is known for its investment and development work, but also handles a range of landlord and tenant matters. Clients include asset manager Schroders, LaSalle Investment Management and private equity firm Starwood Capital, and recent matters have seen the team advise on the £240 million purchase of a shopping centre in Bromley and the £150 million redevelopment of the Natwest Tower in Birmingham's city centre. “It’s a really good seat to cut your teeth in,” trainees felt, “as you get on the phone to clients from the first morning. It's a steep learning curve, but a good one to be on.” Sources split their time between assisting partners on larger matters and running their own small files: “I’m talking leases and licences – small fixed-fee matters that are ideal for trainees. I had a lot of responsibility as I was the point of contact for clients and did all the drafting and sourcing comments from others. Looking back now it was quite scary but I built up a lot of confidence and always felt there was support for me.”

“You get on the phone to clients from the first morning.”

Trainees submit their secondment applications before they log their preferences for their next seat at the firm. All require a CV and a 'business case' submission, and potential candidates for client secondments are interviewed. Trainees who'd spent time working in a client's office got “a good insight into a very different environment.You assist with a lot of external commercial matters, review tender documents and tackle internal issues.” Those who’d ventured overseas were just as happy: “The firm is brilliant in that everything is sorted out for you – they make it a treat rather than a chore!” Among the options, “Singapore has always had a reputation for being the nicest office to go to, and they've just relocated the trainee accommodation so we've got a fancy upgrade!”

Banquet while you're ahead

SH's advertised office hours are 9.30am to 6.30pm, but trainees reported that on average days ran an hour longer, with “some variation by department.” Large deal closings called for later finishes but “there are no crazy all-nighters – you only work late when it's necessary and you’re never left working by yourself.” Many interviewees described the firm's culture as “friendly,” but what exactly does that mean? “If you're an unpleasant character you're known for it,” sources explained. “Most see City firms as being full of hard-nosed people, but Stephenson Harwood isn't like that. The people here are nice and approachable while also being good at their jobs.”

The firm's housed in a listed building on Finsbury Circus – the City's largest public open space – and “the exterior of the office is very impressive and stately, but when you come inside it's all glass interiors and everything's pretty much brand new.” Each office sits up to three lawyers, and trainees always sit with their seat supervisor. Those we spoke to felt that the arrangement “works well as you're constantly exposed to the bigger picture, plus it makes it easier to ask questions.” A less popular feature of office life was the canteen's 4pm closing time, which left those working late at risk of developing rumbling tummies.

Watching the firm's growth (“it's taking on more associates in every department”), trainees' only concern was that “we’re almost getting too big for the office! But the firm has a good strategy and knows its strengths, particularly when it comes to shipping and commercial litigation.” With an eye on their own progress, trainees have review meetings with their supervisor every three months, “so if there's anything to address mid-seat, you can.” Coupled with informal feedback, it made for “a good system; the work and effort I put in was reciprocated by my supervisor.” One chuffed trainee dubbed their experience as “no more stressful than that at any other professional outfit in London.” Stress was partly kept at bay thanks to a “never-ending agenda of social events,” which included tag rugby, Friday yoga sessions, after-work drinks, the “very popular” SH quiz, and a three-course trainee banquet every six months. Even those outside of the firm can get in on the fun – trainees can invite friends to annual networking evenings “as long as they don't work at a competitor! There's a free bar and a really nice, relaxed environment; it’s as much about socialising as it is networking.”

Part way through trainees' fourth seat, HR sends out an NQ jobs list. Those who'd like to stay on at the firm (all we spoke to did) can specify two departments/sub-teams to interview with. Some sources grumbled that “the qualification process can be quite opaque, as there's not much transparency about how vacancies are determined and how successful candidates are subsequently selected,” but the vast majority were “fairly optimistic” about securing a place. In 2017, 13 of 17qualifiers were retained.

After ending an alliance with a local firm, Stephenson Harwood announced its intention to open its own office in Myanmar in 2017.


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How to get a training contract at Stephenson Harwood


Vacation scheme deadline (2018): 12 November 2017 (winter); 31 January 2018 (spring and summer) (opens 1 October 2017)

Training contract deadline (2020): 31 July 2018 (opens 1 October 2017)


Stephenson Harwood receives around 900 applications for its vacation placement scheme and another 600 direct training contract applications.

Both types of application begin with the same online form, which asks candidates to list their academic credentials and work experience. According to graduate recruitment manager Sarah Jackson, “non-legal work experience can be useful as well as legal experience – roles in a different industry can allow people to develop transferable skills and provide a valuable insight into a commercial organisation.” Sarah goes on to say that “applicants must be able to explain their interest in a career as a solicitor, and Stephenson Harwood specifically. We want to see that they've done their research and have thought about what life as a lawyer involves.”

Tests and assessment day

Around 250 applicants make it past the screening stage, and are asked to take an online critical reasoning test.

The next stage is a 45-minute interview with a member of HR that involves a mix of competency-based questions and enquiries into a candidate's background and experience. This is the final step for placement scheme hopefuls; meanwhile, for those who applied directly for a training contract, after the interview with HR, around 30 applicants are invited to an assessment day. This kicks off with presentations from each candidate on a commercial issue, followed by a Q&A with assessors. Then there's a 45-minute to one-hour partner interview plus a case study.

Sarah Jackson tells us: “We're looking for applicants who demonstrate intellect, good analytical skills and sound judgement, good verbal and written communications skills, drive and determination, and have an appreciation of the bigger picture.”

The vacation scheme

Stephenson Harwood runs five placement schemes: a week-long placement in the winter, a two-week scheme in the spring, and three two-week placements over June and July. There's room for eight candidates on each (so 40 in total), and participants are automatically considered for a training contract.

Each attendee is allocated a partner or associate supervisor, plus a trainee buddy they can approach for help or with questions. Alongside their assigned responsibilities, placement scheme students attend practice area presentations and strategy talks and take part in the aforementioned assessment day tasks. Attendees are also invited to various social events.

The firm takes these assessments into account when deciding who gets a training contract offer, as well as feedback from candidates' supervisors and buddies. “We ask about their input into tasks especially,” Sarah Jackson says. “I think enthusiasm goes a long way – we always remember the people who get stuck in and were offering to help out with things. We're impressed by those who ask thoughtful and considered questions.”

The number of placement scheme students who receive training contract offers “really varies year by year,” Sarah Jackson says, adding that the firm doesn't prioritise those who have taken part in a placement over other applicants. “We will make an offer to an outstanding candidate whether he or she has completed a placement or not.”

Interview with training partner Neil Noble

Chambers Student: What have been the most exciting things happening at the firm in 2016/17?

Neil Noble: The last couple of years have been very good for Stephenson Harwood in terms of growth and financial performance – surprisingly so considering what's happening in the world more broadly – and the next year seems set to continue that trend. One specific thing is that over the past 18 months we've reviewed the firm's long-term strategy, a process of looking at the firm's global platform and carrying out a health check on what we think we want to be and where we want to go. The new strategy is built around a five-year growth plan focusing on three things: firstly, making sure we recruit and retain good people, helping them become good senior lawyers who will stay on as partners; secondly, expanding our client relationships – we've felt for a long time that we've had a great client roster, and we're not doing as much for them as we could, while also seeking out new clients; the final thing is boosting our profile, as client feedback has always suggested we don't shout enough about the good things we do and the breadth of our practice. We want to make a more concerted effort to raise the profile of the firm and individuals within it.

Looking internationally, two years ago we started trainee secondments to our Dubai office, and two trainees who'd sat with me before going out there qualified into that office. In 2016 we talked about the Guangzhou office closing, and what came out of that was the forming of a new Chinese firm called Wei Tu with whom we now have a close association. Because of that, we can do China-oriented work that's not in-house but controlled by collaborating with former colleagues. That relationship is now properly up and running. We've also been developing and enhancing our associate development programs, identifying lawyers with exceptional potential and putting them on a direct path to partnership. What's interesting is that the last two rounds of partner promotions have come out of that program. We also have a female career progression program to help women lawyers overcome potential obstacles to obtaining partnership and reaching their full potential.

CS: How has the Brexit vote affected the firm? How do you think it will going forward?

NN: Article 50 is only about to be triggered now [our interview was conducted in March 2017 – ed.] and the effects of any kind of deal probably won't be felt for a while; we haven’t yet seen any tangible changes forced upon us. The Brexit referendum fell on the day of our last partners' meeting in June 2016, and at the time everyone assumed it would go in a different direction! There was a fairly immediate response in practice groups to gauge what effect there'd be even if we don't know yet what exactly Brexit means. The message coming back from our UK-centric practices was there could be an impact, particularly in sensitive markets like real estate and, to an extent, corporate.

Our practice is international in the broadest sense, and much of our London work is outwardly facing, but that's often beyond Europe – for example, looking at our maritime practice, shipping and aviation are not particularly Europe-focused. Anything that might have a negative impact on a UK sector will, we hope, be balanced out because so much of what we do is outside of Europe. At the moment, we're cautiously optimistic that large parts of the practice – transactional banking and commercial litigation – won't see a great deal of impact for the foreseeable future. Beyond that, we're a well-balanced firm with strong historical financial performance, and that puts us in a strong position to weather the current uncertainties.

CS: We've previously summarised the firm's practice as having a leaning towards logistics. Do you think that's accurate?

NN: On the one hand, it is a definite strength of ours relative to other firms. I struggle to think of any competitors with the breadth and depth of our shipping, aviation and rail practices – some may be bigger in one area, but I can't think of one who could compete in all three. We tell potential future trainees that it is something unique about the firm, but we're also careful to say it's not the biggest part of what the firm does – if I had to put a label on what we do, I'd say it would be financial services and banking. When we drill down into each practice group, they all work for those clients, and there's plenty more of that going on that transportation work – but of course relatively speaking we're not a 'banking firm'.

The balance we strike between contentious and transactional work is relatively 50/50, and I think the firm has grown gradually across all areas to reach that stage. Commercial litigation has perhaps grown faster than other areas, but not enormously so. Another thing I like to get across to candidates for training contracts is that we don't have one dominant area of practice, which is very helpful when things go wrong in the market.

CS: How should a candidate prepare for an interview at Stephenson Harwood?

NN: We ask a lot of very varied questions. I like to see people who've prepared for the obvious topics like why you want to be a lawyer and what attracts you to the firm, and I'm surprised how many fail to give good answers to those questions. One thing that really stands out is when people can talk about their experiences and how they've grown as a person dealing with difficulties and obstacles. Lastly, because of the international nature of the firm, we like people with views and knowledge of what's going on around the world. We assume people want to come here because of the international opportunities on offer and probably also do a seat in one of our overseas offices.

CS: Do you have any advice for our readers who are about to enter the legal profession?

NN: The legal world is growing ever more competitive, and young graduates looking to get into the profession have to bear in mind that they're competing with peers from all over the world, especially if they're looking to work in the City. We're seeing an increasing number of lawyers coming from overseas to qualify here, and they're bringing their own cultures, languages and skills with them. You can no longer assume that you'll go through school, university and law school, and then fall into a job, because the world is becoming more global and firms like us are looking for people with a global outlook and a diverse range of interests and skills – it's not just about knowing multiple languages, it's about being able to view and interpret what's going on in the world as a whole.

CS: Is there anything else we haven't already talked about that our readers should know about Stephenson Harwood?

NN: I'd repeat what I've said in previous interviews with Chambers Student: I always mention at open days that this isn't just a law firm; practising law isn’t all that the people here do. There's a range of pro bono work, we support charities, and organise lots of events involving everything from sports to baking to concerts. Outside of billable hours, Stephenson Harwood is a nice place for people to come together and do the things that they enjoy. We encourage that not to tick boxes, but because it's part of the firm's culture, and we're very keen to attract the kind of people who are entrepreneurial, dive in and are proactive, both in work and outside it.

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Stephenson Harwood LLP

1 Finsbury Circus,

  • Partners 150
  • Associates 400+
  • Total trainees 37
  • UK offices London
  • Overseas offices Paris, Piraeus, Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai, Seoul, Dubai, Deijing
  • Contacts  
  • Graduate recruiter: Sarah Jackson, [email protected]
  • Training partner: Neil Noble
  • Application criteria  
  • Training contracts pa: 20
  • Applications pa: 1,500
  • Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
  • Minimum UCAS points or A levels: 320 or equivalent
  • Vacation scheme places pa: 40
  • Dates and deadlines  
  • Training contract applications open: 1 October 2017
  • Training contract deadline, 2020 start: 31 July 2018
  • Vacation scheme applications open: 1 October 2017
  • Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 12 November 2017 (winter), 31 January 2018 (spring/summer)
  • Open day deadline: 31 January 2018
  • Salary and benefits 
  • First-year salary: £40,000
  • Second-year salary: £44,000
  • Post-qualification salary: £66,000
  • Holiday entitlement: 25 days
  • Sponsorship 
  • LPC fees: Yes
  • GDL fees: Yes
  • Maintenance grant pa: £6,000
  • International and regional 
  • Offices with training contracts: Dubai and Hong Kong
  • Overseas seats: Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai, Seoul, Paris
  • Client secondments: Yes

Firm profile

Stephenson Harwood is a law firm of over 1,000 people worldwide, including more than 150 partners. Our people are committed to achieving the goals of our clients – listed and private companies, institutions and individuals. We assemble teams of bright thinkers to match our clients' needs and give the right advice from the right person at the right time. Dedicating the highest calibre of legal talent to overcome the most complex issues, we deliver pragmatic, expert advice that is set squarely in the real world. Our headquarters are in London, with nine offices across Asia, Europe and the Middle East. In addition we have forged close ties with other high quality law firms. This diverse mix of expertise and culture results in a combination of deep local insight and the capability to provide a seamless international service.

Main areas of work

Commercial litigation and arbitration; corporate; employment and pensions; finance; marine and international trade; and real estate.

Training opportunities

Here at Stephenson Harwood, we take on just 20 trainees per year. Join us and not only will you be a valued member of our diverse, global team, you'll have a real opportunity to make your mark on the future of our firm. There's a lot to look forward to as a trainee at Stephenson Harwood: top quality global work across a range of sectors, an environment that balances cutting edge work with a respectful, friendly culture, and the chance to prove yourself on an international secondment. We work in small teams, so every person is critical – that's why we'll expect you to work to the best of your ability every day.

Our training is not only structured and practical but highly personalised, so you'll have everything you need to develop along a career path that's absolutely right for you. Following a week's intensive induction and a comprehensive post induction programme you'll complete four seats – each six months long – across different practice areas. We ask for your preferred choices so we can accommodate them wherever possible.

Whatever the practice, you can expect extensive exposure to our clients and stimulating, cutting edge projects. You could find yourself working on anything from a high-profile £multi-million financial litigation case to a ground breaking M&A deal. You could even spend time on secondment at a client's office, absorbing a totally different business culture first hand. We also encourage our trainees to apply to gain experience overseas in our Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul, Dubai or Paris offices.

Placement schemes

Places for 2017/18: 40
Duration: one week (winter); two weeks (spring and summer)
Remuneration:£350 pw
Closing date: 12 November 2017 (winter); 31 January 2018 (spring and summer)

Other benefits

These include subsidised health club membership, private health insurance and screening, pension, life assurance, private GP services, critical illness cover, dental insurance, retail vouchers, subsidised cafe, season ticket loan, 25 days’ paid holiday a year and language tuition where appropriate.

Open days

Dates:7 January 2018, 14 February 2018, 21 March 2018, 25 April 2018 
Closing date: 31 January 2018

University law careers fairs 2017

Nottingham University Kings College London Bristol University Cambridge University Durham University Manchester University London Law Fair Oxford University Exeter University Southampton University.

Social media

Twitter @SHLegal

This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2017

Ranked Departments

    • Banking Litigation (Band 3)
    • Construction: Purchaser (Band 3)
    • Corporate/M&A: Mid-Market (Band 2)
    • Employment: Employer (Band 3)
    • Environment (Band 5)
    • Financial Crime: Corporates (Band 2)
    • Financial Crime: Individuals (Band 3)
    • Information Technology (Band 4)
    • Intellectual Property (Band 4)
    • Litigation (Band 3)
    • Pensions (Band 4)
    • Planning Recognised Practitioner
    • Professional Negligence: Financial (Band 2)
    • Professional Negligence: Legal (Band 3)
    • Real Estate Finance (Band 3)
    • Real Estate Litigation (Band 4)
    • Real Estate: Mainly Mid-Market (Band 1)
    • Restructuring/Insolvency Recognised Practitioner
    • Tax (Band 6)
    • Art and Cultural Property Law (Band 2)
    • Asset Finance: Aviation Finance (Band 3)
    • Asset Finance: Rail Finance (Band 2)
    • Asset Finance: Shipping Finance (Band 2)
    • Aviation (Band 2)
    • Capital Markets: AIM (Band 2)
    • Commercial Contracts (Band 3)
    • Commodities: Physicals (Band 2)
    • Employee Share Schemes & Incentives Recognised Practitioner
    • Financial Services: Contentious Regulatory (Corporates) (Band 4)
    • Financial Services: Contentious Regulatory (Individuals) (Band 1)
    • Fraud: Civil (Band 2)
    • Hotels & Leisure (Band 3)
    • Insurance: Contentious Claims (Band 5)
    • International Arbitration: Commercial Arbitration (Band 4)
    • Investment Funds: Closed-ended Listed Funds (Band 2)
    • Pensions Litigation (Band 3)
    • Projects: PFI/PPP (Band 4)
    • Restructuring/Insolvency: Personal Insolvency (Band 2)
    • Shipping (Band 2)
    • Transport: Rail: Franchising (Band 1)
    • Transport: Rail: Projects & Infrastructure (Band 3)
    • Transport: Rail: Rolling Stock (Band 2)