You might know a hundred finance-heavy international firms, but if you don’t know City-kid Stephenson Harwood, you don’t know ship.
Have you ever had the pleasure of discovering that one of your dazzling circle of friends harbours a niche and surprising talent? The rugby lad who crochets; the make-up vlogger who rules at Magic the Gathering; the frazzled law student who was a onetime Swiss national yodelling champion – well, London-based Stephenson Harwood thrills in a similar way. It’s a City firm with a broad practice offering, but it also sparkles with niche talents. If we had to pick out one particular area of expertise it would probably be its shipping work. Stephenson Harwood is ranked by Chambers Global for both its shipping finance and shipping litigation teams – and that’s something the vast majority of huge international firms can’t offer.
The firm gains this standing in part through its ten overseas offices, six of which are in South-East Asia. SH’s lucky trainees get a shot at visiting many of those offices for a six-month seat. But our sources found more to like: since the firm takes only 20 newbies per year, new recruits told us they were drawn to “the combination of the level of work and the fact that it’s small enough to ensure you’re heavily involved as a trainee.” Others reflected on conversations they’d had with trainees as students: “The high level of responsibility piqued my interest, then, when I did my research, I liked that this was a balanced practice with strengths in litigation and transactional work.”
Chambers UK shows off that balance by awarding the firm good marks for its skill in AIM capital markets and investment funds, mid-market real estate and corporate work, as well as various strands of litigation. And Stephenson Harwood’s knack for a niche continues beyond shipping: financial crime, rail franchising, art and individuals’ bankruptcies are all areas where the firm has legal expertise. Seats are available across six broad umbrella groups – finance, litigation, corporate, marine and international trade, real estate, and employment and pensions – with trainees selecting a specific subgroup to join. A few months before a seat ends trainees submit their top three preferences, and they're informed of their next destination a few weeks before moving. Many interviewees told us they’d got their top preferences, with some able to repeat seats they hoped to qualify into.
New bills please
Finance subgroups include shipping, rail, aviation, restructuring and banking. The rail group is currently advising Equitix and SMBC as the two investors sponsor the $1.2 billion financing of new trains for the Wales and Borders rail franchise. Aviation lawyers also advised Gulf Air on the sale and leaseback of six new Airbus planes worth $330 million. Asset finance seats, like aviation and shipping, add some colour to what can otherwise be a rather grey practice. “You need to quickly become an expert in aircraft; there’s a lot of vocabulary you need to learn.” Those in shipping finance had worked on “conditions precedent checklists, checking that they’re filled. It’s almost invariably a trainee task. Other than that you draft various final documents and attend closing meetings to make sure they’re executed properly.” Sources added that it’s “an international seat; ships are registered around the world which means you get used to working with counsel in places like the Bahamas or Rotterdam, for example.” Over in banking finance, newbies experienced, among other things, lots of leveraged acquisition work. “I had some autonomy on smaller deals,” recalled one. “I managed the renewal of two facility agreements, where I worked on board minutes, did fast drafts of debentures and negotiated over some of the documents.” And that personal insolvency practice we mentioned earlier threw up some very cool work: lawyers have been heavily involved in the bankruptcy of German tennis icon Boris Becker, helping his trustees to identify his assets. The firm’s work even included convincing Becker not to pursue his novel evasive strategy of claiming diplomatic immunity, which he claimed he had earned representing the Central African Republic!
“You get used to working with counsel in places like the Bahamas or Rotterdam.”
Real estate is divided into three subgroups: general real estate, real estate finance, and environment and planning. Stephenson Harwood recently advised easyHotel on the acquisition of three new sites across the UK, and also advised Firethorn Trust on its £30 million purchase of an office building in Canary Wharf. The properties lawyers deal with in this department include shopping centres and retail parks, but also less common constructions, such as care homes and data centres. Development and investment are two of the firm’s strongest work strands: the finance subgroup recently advised GRIT Real Estate, an investment fund with an Africa focus, on the £15 million financing it sought from Barclays Bank of Ghana to snap up some property in Accra. Trainees’ own experience of the general real estate subgroup included “sales, acquisitions and a lot of landlord and tenant work, as well as more random jobs which entailed a lot of legal research.” One described being “in charge of portfolios, picking up the phone, speaking with the client, phoning the solicitor on the other side.” They added that because of the teams’ small size, they were able “to speak with partners at other firms rather than trainees.”
SH’s corporate practice mops up plenty of mid-market work, with clients like property investor SEA Holdings, HSBC and pharmaceutical company Piramal Enterprises on its books. The team does particularly well on work from the transport, energy, consumer goods, real estate, financial services and healthcare industries. It recently advised UAE healthcare provider NMC Health on its £10 million acquisition of UK healthcare company Aspen Healthcare. But a seat here provides more than just M&A: trainees described working on “equity capital markets, private acquisitions and restructuring.” So they certainly hadn’t been pigeonholed: one had worked with partners “specialising in different areas, meaning I worked with clients in energy, real estate and the social care sector.” Another added: “I got exposure to larger matters that would be covered in the press, and partners kept a checklist to make sure I was getting a good variety of experience.” Trainee tasks included due diligence and some drafting of board minutes and resolutions.
Come file with me
The commercial litigation department covers a swathe of areas including fraud and asset tracing, regulation, construction, IP, engineering, insolvency, international arbitration and banking. Clients range from airlines to energy companies and investment management firms. The team recently acted for Ryanair as it sued car hire company Hertz for breach of contract. The €70 million dispute centred on Hertz’s former role as Ryanair’s exclusive supplier of hire cars. In the impressive regulatory litigation team meanwhile, lawyers recently took on a case for the Tchenguiz Family Trust (linked to prominent Iranian-British businessman Vincent Tchenguiz) challenging the Serious Fraud Office’s investigation into Iceland’s banking system’s collapse. Those in property litigation enjoyed taking responsibility for smaller matters, describing being “the first port of call for clients, being in charge of deadlines and dealing with queries from the other side.” Clients in that group included “big institutional landlords and property investment companies. Matters can be anything from dilapidation cases to boundary disputes and nuisance claims.”
"Stephenson Harwood has a special elective on the LPC that all trainees have to do."
Marine and international trade (the firm’s name for its shipping seat) covers contractual and insurance-related disputes, as well as non-contentious contractual issues. Clients include major shipping financier Commerzbank, Brazilian multinational energy company Petrobras and more major shipping players that we’re not allowed to name. The team has recently been advising new yacht brokerage Ahoy Club on matters including IT regulations and producing charter party forms (which are probably less fun than they sound). The group covers commodities, wet and dry shipping, energy companies and offshore work. Lawyers also advised the Norwegian Eureka Shipping as it successfully proved it wasn’t infringing a patent for a cement unloading system held by shipowner KGJS. Trainees found there was “a lot of new terminology to learn, but because Stephenson Harwood has a special elective on the LPC that all trainees have to do, you’re not just chucked into the deep end.” Unsurprisingly, the work is “highly international.” Potential trainee tasks include drafting coverage advice, legal research and, if a case goes to trial during their seat, some bundling.
Overseas seats are available in Dubai, Paris, Hong Kong, Seoul and Singapore. To apply for a place abroad, trainees hand in a CV and a business case putting forward their reasons for applying. In Singapore there’s work available with the aviation team: trainees described it as “the same as doing aviation in London, just in a different time zone.” Also, “the food was incredible.” Paris is the only seat where language skills are required, and trainees here told us: “The Paris office is a lot smaller so there’s a very different atmosphere. It’s more informal.” Globetrotting trainees also ensured that they’d had little reason to stress over logistics: “The firm rents an apartment for you, arranges a taxi at the airport and pays for your travel expenses.”
Both overseas and London seats start with an induction to get juniors up to speed. “The firm’s always trying to help you be the best you can be and that’s because they see a future for you here,” one second-year reflected. Others agreed: “I feel like a valued team member and every one of my supervisors has really inspired me. Because you don’t get many menial tasks, you’re often able to take on more of a leading role, which really builds your confidence.” In addition, trainees praised the fact that “you’re encouraged to work for more than one person rather than belonging to one supervisor. It’s a great approach because when you come to qualify you won’t be working for just one person, and it’s important to avoid specialising too early and try new things.” As well as appraisals during and after each seat, juniors told us there are also opportunities for upward feedback, and that “supervisors make a real effort to get constructive feedback from different people.”
“The firm’s always trying to help you be the best you can be.”
There are plenty of opportunities for socialising for trainees, with a dinner thrown every six months, a “young persons networking event where you can invite your non-lawyer friends,” and sports teams to get involved in. Others added: “You’re really encouraged to attend external seminars and events, and the firm is happy to pay for them.” If you like your extra-curricular activities with added moral purpose you’ll be glad to hear about SH’s “active CSR drive.” An initiative with The Whitechapel Mission saw trainees whipping up a breakfast for homeless people, while the firm teamed up with mobility charity Whizz Kidz to provide work placements for young wheelchair users. SH provides similar insight into the life of a lawyer to year nine students from BAME and less advantaged backgrounds through its partnership with the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust.
The firm might need some of those kids to start work sharpish: it’s targeting a partner headcount of 200 by 2021. The firm already has a track record of growth, doubling both its revenue and headcount over the ten years from 2008. “We’ve had discussions about the firm’s direction when it comes to Brexit specifically and how we can overcome future challenges,” said one trainee. “There’s an effort to make sure the wider workforce knows about strategy.” But trainees at SH do have to deal with some uncertainty. Like any international law firm in London, working hours can be… changeable. When trainees said they’d been “busy” in a seat they defined that as “working until 8pm or 9pm most evenings.” When trainees told us they were “now less busy,” they quantified it as “leaving around 7pm.” Real estate seemed to be the most chill seat, whereas corporate finance threw up more late nights. “I’ve not worked past 1.30am,” said one interviewee. “But I do know some people have done longer days.” On the bright side, “the firm is quite flexible – as long as they can see you’re working hard to get things done, they’re respectful of your personal commitments.”
Our interviewees were obviously coping, as they told us: “The real focus on developing people means I see myself staying here for the foreseeable future.” In 2019 20 of 21 qualifiers were retained by the firm. To gain those places, spring and autumn qualifiers are told at the beginning of November or May respectively which departments are recruiting and are asked to submit a CV. “Quite early on we had a call with HR where all the trainees could dial in, and they explained the whole process for us.” The process involves formal interviews with HR and some of the department’s partners. Most called it “quite rigorous,” and we certainly agree. Nevertheless we were assured that “the interview is nice and friendly. You get the idea they’re really rooting for you.” Awww.
Stephenson Harwood wasn’t immune to the NQ pay battle that broke out in the summer of 2019: NQs’ salaries increased by £2,000.
How to get a Stephenson Harwood training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2020): 31 January 2020 (opens 1 October 2019)
Training contract deadline (2022): 31 July 2020 (opens 1 October 2019)
Stephenson Harwood receives around 900 applications for its 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.” Jackson goes on to say that “applicants must be able to explain their interest both 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. This is the final step for placement scheme hopefuls for those who applied directly for a training contract. The day 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.
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. Open days are also sprinkled through January to April.
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,” 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,” 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.”
Stephenson Harwood LLP
1 Finsbury Circus,
- Partners 180+
- Associates 400+
- Total trainees 40
- UK offices London
- Overseas offices 9
- Graduate recruiter: Sarah Jackson, [email protected]
- 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: 1st October 2019
- Training contract deadline, 2022 start: 31st July 2020
- Vacation scheme: [NOTE - 2020 spring vacation scheme postponed due to COVID-19 outbreak]
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £43,000
- Second-year salary: £47,000
- Post-qualification salary: £75,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £6,000
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: Dubai and Hong Kong
- Overseas seats: Dubai, Hong Kong, Paris, Singapore, Seoul
- Client secondments: Yes
Main areas of work
University law careers fairs 2019
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2019
- Banking Litigation (Band 3)
- Commercial and Corporate Litigation (Band 5)
- Construction: Purchaser (Band 3)
- Corporate/M&A: Mid-Market (Band 3)
- Employment: Employer (Band 3)
- Financial Crime: Corporates (Band 3)
- Financial Crime: Individuals (Band 3)
- Information Technology (Band 4)
- Intellectual Property (Band 4)
- Litigation (Band 2)
- Pensions (Band 4)
- Professional Negligence: Financial (Band 2)
- Professional Negligence: Legal (Band 3)
- Real Estate Finance (Band 4)
- Real Estate Litigation (Band 5)
- Real Estate: Mainly Mid-Market (Band 2)
- Tax (Band 6)
- Art and Cultural Property Law (Band 2)
- Asset Finance: Aviation Finance (Band 4)
- Asset Finance: Rail Finance (Band 3)
- Asset Finance: Shipping Finance (Band 2)
- Aviation (Band 3)
- Capital Markets: AIM (Band 2)
- Commercial Contracts (Band 5)
- Commodities: Physicals (Band 3)
- Employee Share Schemes & Incentives (Band 4)
- 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 3)
- Investment Funds: Closed-ended Listed Funds (Band 2)
- Pensions Litigation (Band 3)
- Projects: PFI/PPP (Band 4)
- Restructuring/Insolvency: Personal Insolvency (Band 1)
- Shipping (Band 2)
- Transport: Rail: Franchising (Band 1)
- Transport: Rail: Projects & Infrastructure (Band 3)
- Transport: Rail: Rolling Stock (Band 2)