Stephenson Harwood LLP - True Picture

Maritime law is a big rudder here, but it’s not all that steers the ship. From corporate and finance to litigation and real estate, trainees found plenty more seats in the sea.

Stephenson Harwood training contract review 2021

The Firm

If you track down a Stephenson Harwood trainee at a law fair (virtual or otherwise) and ask them why they joined their firm, it’s likely they’ll tell you that among its other draws, “I was really attracted to the firm’s strong international reach.” South-East Asia has long been a key region for Stephenson Harwood – around a quarter of its lawyers are based there. Despite closing doors in Beijing in May 2020, five offices remain including Singapore, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Other overseas bases include Paris, Dubai and Piraeus, Greece. And if you know your ship, you might have noticed that many of the cities listed above are key maritime hubs. It’s no coincidence that Stephenson Harwood decided to anchordown in these places: the firm is one of just three firms to be ranked best in the world for shipping finance by Chambers Global (it also gets a respectable rating for shipping litigation).

So shipping is a key practice here, but trainees in the London office were keen to point out that “Stephenson Harwood also has really well-rounded transactional and litigation practices.” We’re inclined to agree: the firm picks up no fewer than 38 Chambers UK rankings for its non-maritime practices, including top marks for rail and restructuring.

“I feel like one of the team, not just a replaceable trainee.”

This year insiders also wanted to give new chief executive Eifion Morris a special shout out for his “fantastic” handling of the coronavirus pandemic: “One of his goals is to make everyone feel involved.” As well as “weekly updates on the measures they took to safeguard us, he also sent us light-hearted emails about how he’s making a shed!” In other news, the firm recently hired Liz Cope as its first inclusion, diversity and CSR manager. Trainees praised the firm’s diversity and inclusion efforts, pointing to a career progression programme for women, which trainees felt had “reaped rewards” in the promotion of women at the firm. In 2020, half of Stephenson Harwood’s partner promotions went to women (three out of six). Trainees continued: “We also host amazing events where we invite people to speak about struggles they’ve had because of their background.” Past guests include Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas.

All of this amounted to what trainees called a “non-judgemental” firm culture. “The partners are what sets us apart,” one elaborated. “They really engaged with me when I was a vac schemer.” The combined annual intake of around 20trainees was another selling point: “I feel like one of the team, not just a replaceable trainee.”

The Seats

Trainees have regular catch-ups with HR, “so if you really want to do a specific seat you can tell them early on.” Beyond that, newbies submit three preferences per rotation. “It’s best to cast the net quite wide” when submitting seat choices, but trainees are allowed to put down specific subgroups. Most of our interviewees got their first or second choice each time, but some options (such as corporate projects) were particularly popular, “so inevitably some people get let down.” Trainees must do their litigious seat in either commercial litigation or marine and international trade (MIT).

“Regulations were changing daily so I sent out daily bulletins to clients!”

The commercial litigation group covers a swathe of corporate disputes in the energy, financial services, shipping, aviation, art and real estate sectors. Clients range from energy companies and large hotel companies to investment management firms and government bodies. The group recently represented building company ENGIE in a dispute concerning alleged defects in the refurbishment of 100 Parliament Street, where the Treasury and HMRC are based. Trainees might sit within a 'practice area seat' within the wider litigation group. Under the property litigation banner, “it’s standard for trainees to draft letters about high street occupants not paying arrears.” Trainees encountered fairly “academic” work in regulatory litigation, in that “a problem comes in and it takes three or four hours of research to answer the question!”  Trainees felt “invaluable to the team because wehandle the smaller things” like doc review, which didn’t always feel very small – “there are millions of documents!” Trainees also “spent a lot of time converting paper bundles to e-bundles” during lockdown. The coronavirus pandemic threw up a lot of work with airline clients. “I had to track what the EU was saying about grounded planes,” one told us, explaining that because airlines don’t usually own their vehicles, they’ll be expected to return aircrafts to whoever lent it. “Regulations were changing daily so I sent out daily bulletins to clients!” There’s also a fair amount of insolvency litigation in this seat “because of the state of the high street currently.”

Given the firm’s shipping strengths, trainees “learned an awful lot about how the firm works” in a marine and international trade seat. The team handles contractual and insurance-related disputes, as well as non-contentious contractual issues – for example the firm often advises shipyards and buyers on negotiating shipbuilding contracts. Clients include major shipping players like financier Commerzbank and Brazilian multinational energy company Petrobras. The group covers commodities, wet and dry shipping, energy companies and offshore work. It recently represented DVB Bank (which specialises in international transport finance) in its claim to recover $12 million from two ship-owning companies and the guarantor. “Trainees have a more admin-heavy role in this seat,” one told us. Typical tasks were preparing court bundles, helping associates proofread court submissions, and taking the first crack at drafting witness statements.

“We liaise a lot with ship registries.”

Finance subgroups include shipping, rail, aviation, restructuring and banking. The shipping team recently advised an international financial institution on a $533 million revolving credit facility given to Teekay Tankers for the refinancing of 31 vessels. “Trainees are the first port of call for clients, so we liaise a lot with ship registries” – these could be government or private agencies. It’s an “email-heavy seat” for trainees, who also highlighted getting responsibilities such as attending meetings solo. “I spent a lot of time taking folders of documents to other firms for closing ship purchases,” one shared.On the rail side, the firm advises buyers and financiers on transactions. The team has several train operator clients: “We review their operating contracts which are 500 pages long and quite specialist!” The firm advised financier Lombard North Central (part of RBS) on the manufacture and supply by Vivarail of five train units as part of a £26 million network upgrade on the Isle of Wight. “I had a lot of contact with manufacturers’ in-house legal teams or the financier’s lawyers on the other side,” trainees told us.Rookies also handled “fiddly” director certificates for banks: “They certify various facts and have loads of appendices.” Trainees didn’t always find it smooth sailing in this seat: “It was a bit manic,” one recalled.

The firm recently boosted its private equity practice with the addition of three partners from Charles Russell Speechlys. The team recently advised Elysian Capital on its £16 million acquisition of Aspirations Care, a specialist care provider. Although “there will always be classic trainee tasks like bundling” in this seat, trainees also reported “a good amount of rewarding work” such as organising deal flow, getting signatures, client contact, and communicating developments and changes in documents to senior lawyers.

Under the wider corporate umbrella, trainees can sit in funds and equity capital markets. Sources told us work in this group had recently been shaped by political uncertainties. “Investment funds were holding off on raises because of Brexit,” one explained, “so there was an 18-month stretch when nothing was happening, but by summer 2019 we got really busy again." The team recently acted for investment bank N+1 Singer on a secondary fund-raising of £231 million, as well as its move into the Main Market of the London Stock Exchange. Trainees reported working on similar kinds of matters, with investment funds launching or doing secondary raises on the Stock Exchange.A big chunk of trainees’ time went into the verification process for initial public offerings or investment fund-raising. In other words, “whenever a company issues on the Stock Exchange, we have to prepare a document that’s hundreds of pages long setting out their financial position and make sure every statement has evidence to verify it’s true.” Cuea lot of back and forth with clients to get said evidence.

Development and investment are two key work strands for the real estate team, which often deals with shopping centres, office buildings, retail parks and hotels. The firm recently advised investment management firm LaSalle on the £32 million purchase of a shopping centre in Bristol city centre. In this seat, trainees “get to do a lot of drafting” of leases and licences. Interviewees said the team was particularly “good at giving trainees a lot of responsibility.” As one elaborated, “I was negotiating documents, plus I negotiated with partners at other firms, which was cool!”

Each rotation, trainees can apply for clientsecondments and international secondments to Dubai, Paris, Hong Kong, Seoul or Singapore. One source who’d spent time in an Asian office “found the work similar” to what they did in London, but with “a lot of correspondence with local counsel on deals in India and Chile.” Lockdown might have thwarted secondees due to fly overseas this time round, but trainees weren’t left stranded. “The overseas team put a lot of effort into doing regular video calls,” one told us, “so I didn’t feel out of my depth.”

Trainee Life

In 2019, Stephenson Harwood upped first-year pay to £43,000, second-year salary to £47,000 and NQ salary to £75,000. This is in line with and slightly above some other mid-sized commercial firms in London, though trainees pointed out: “We work opposite firms which pay our counterparts more.” Typical hours among our inside sources were 9am to 7pm: “I could count the number of times I worked until midnight on one hand.” Late finishes are most common in litigation and finance: “I finished around 9.30pm maybe once a fortnight.” Anyone working on client matters past 8pm gets a £10 dinner allowance, and after 9pm the firm foots the taxi bill.

“The firm encourages us to make things happen for ourselves – we're not just lawyers, we're entrepreneurs."

It isn’t stingy on social events either. The “highlight” for interviewees was the biannual trainee dinner, which the firm puts on to welcome new intakes: “They turn one of the boardroom tables into a massive dining table and everyone goes out after.” The firm also hosts an annual young professionals networking evening to which trainees invite their friends and peers from other industries: “It’s a testament to how the firm encourages us to make things happen for ourselves – we're not just lawyers, we're entrepreneurs." But when they do need a helping hand, they’ve got “fantastic”supervisors nearby. During lockdown, “the head of litigation sent me textbooks and old bundles so I could do a mock letter.” We heard similar stories from our interviewees, and this trainee summed it up: “Nobody is too busy to explain why what you’re doing is important. Whether you’re a lawyer or secretary, everyone is valued.”

We heard the firm’s pretty hot on CSR initiatives. We heard tales of trainees rising at dawn “to cook bacon and eggs for about 200 homeless people,” through the Whitechapel Mission, which is one of the firm’s former sponsored charities of the year. This year the firm is sponsoring Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM). “We also do workshops on professional skills for schoolchildren in east London,” and trainees pointed out the firm “played a key role” in the establishment of a legal career programme with theStephen Lawrence Charitable Trust.

When the qualification process rolls around, sources told us they don’t find out which jobs are available until ten days before the application deadline, “so you have to get all your ducks in a row before you know which groups you can join.” The firm assists trainees with CV prep before the jobs list is released, and “we’ve got a very high retention rate, which is very reassuring.” In 2020, 20 of 24 qualifiers stayed at the firm, with three on fixed-term contracts.

Welcome aboard

Students doing their LPC through Stephenson Harwood “get a lot of interaction with the firm” before they join. “We were invited to the Christmas party, networking events and presentations. It made my first day a lot less daunting!”


How to get a Stephenson Harwood training contract


Vacation scheme deadline (2021): 31 January 2021 (opens 1 October 2020) 

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


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 other achievements. According to future talent manager Sarah Murray, “we’re looking for future trainees who will be enthusiastic, willing to learn and full of potential. We’re keen to hear about what interests you and excites you, where your passions lie and how you can use this in your career as a lawyer.” 

Tests and assessment day 

Around 300 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 and a case study. This is the final step for placement scheme hopefuls.  The next step for those who applied directly for a training contract is an assessment day, which includes a presentation on a commercial issue, followed by a 45-minute to one-hour partner interview. 

Murray tells us: “We're looking for applicants who demonstrate strong analytical skills and sound judgement, good communications skills, a resourceful and determined approach, and 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. Virtual open days are taking place in November and December, with open days in the London office planned for January and March. 

Each placement scheme 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 in particular,” Murray 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,” Murray 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 8
  • Overseas offices 9
  • Contacts  
  • Graduate recruiter: Sarah Murray
  • Application criteria  
  • Training contracts pa: 20
  • Applications pa: 1,500
  • Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 or other
  • Minimum UCAS points or A levels: 320 or equivalent
  • Vacation scheme places pa: 40
  • Dates and deadlines  
  • Training contract applications open: 1st October 2020
  • Training contract deadline, 2023 start: 31st July 2021
  • Placement scheme applications open: 1st October 2020
  • Placement scheme 2021 deadline: 31st January 2021
  • Open day deadline: 31st January 2021
  • 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
  • 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: Dubai, Hong Kong, Paris, Singapore, Seoul
  • Client secondments: Yes

Firm profile

Stephenson Harwood is a law firm of over 1,100 people worldwide, including more than 180 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. 

Main areas of work

Commercial litigation; corporate; employment, pensions and private wealth; finance; marine and international trade; real estate and projects.

Training opportunities

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. 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 or do an international seat in our Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul, Dubai or Paris offices.

Placement schemes

Our winter, spring and summer placement schemes will give you a real taste of life at the firm. We’ll make sure you’re involved in quality work and will try to help you experience any areas of law you’re particularly interested in. Typically you’ll spend one or two weeks in our offices, sitting with qualified lawyers and tackling some case work. You’ll also benefit from an organised programme of interactive sessions, talks and social events.

On your first day, we’ll assign you a buddy — a current trainee who’ll help you settle in, answer your questions and give you an honest overview of what it’s like to work for us.

A placement gives you a great opportunity to talk informally to existing trainees, lawyers, partners and support teams to find out just why the law and Stephenson Harwood are such attractive career options. What’s more, we’ll pay you £380 a week.

Other benefits

We want you to feel valued so we’ll offer you a range of flexible benefits including: critical illness cover, cycle2work loan, dental health scheme, subsidised gym membership, private health insurance and screening, life assurance, pension, private GP services, subsidised café, and a travel to work loan.

Open days and first-year opportunities

Come along to a virtual open day in November or December, and an in-house open day in January or March to get a good feel for what a career at a mid-sized international law firm is really like. You’ll meet partners, associates and trainees as well as the future talent team.

Our virtual open days take place on the 26th November 2020 and 9th December 2020. Our in-house open days take place on 20th January 2021 and 17th March 2021.  

Social media

Twitter @SHLegal

Diversity, inclusion and wellbeing:
Our vision is to be known as an inclusive and diverse firm, where all our people feel they can be themselves and thrive at work.

Our people are our biggest asset. We want Stephenson Harwood to be a place where you can do your best work in a team that values who you are and the unique perspectives and contributions that you bring. That is how we unlock our entrepreneurial spirit.

Our strategy focuses on culture, leadership and talent management, and recruitment. To deliver our strategy, we work with a range of organisations including Stonewall, The Business Disability Forum, Aspiring Solicitors, Rare Recruitment, City Parents and many more.

Our employee networks are for, and run by, our people. They create a sense of belonging by celebrating diversity, connecting people across the business, and working with the community. Whatever your role, you can contribute to fostering our inclusive and healthy culture by joining our employee networks: SHARED (Stephenson Harwood advancing racial and ethnic diversity), Disability and neurodiversity, Gender equality, Mental health and wellbeing, SHout (LGBT+) and Social mobility.

In addition to hiring a diverse group of employees, we know we need to foster a culture of inclusion, where all of our people can be themselves and thrive at work. It’s about equality and opportunity, making sure that talented people can thrive and progress at Stephenson Harwood. All of our trainees and associates have a dedicated supervisor or development partner, who has responsibility for supporting their development and career progression, with support from other partners in their group. We are focused on fair work allocation for all. We currently have structured work allocation pilots in two of our practice groups, with the aim of ensuring that the distribution of work is equitable; we are looking to extend this programme across our business.

This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2020

Ranked Departments

    • Banking & Finance: Borrowers: Lower Mid-Market (Band 2)
    • Banking & Finance: Lenders: Lower Mid-Market (Band 2)
    • Banking Litigation (Band 3)
    • Commercial and Corporate Litigation (Band 4)
    • Construction: Contentious (Band 3)
    • Corporate/M&A: Mid-Market (Band 4)
    • Employment: Employer (Band 3)
    • Financial Crime: Corporates (Band 3)
    • Financial Crime: Individuals (Band 3)
    • Information Technology (Band 4)
    • Intellectual Property (Band 4)
    • Litigation (Band 3)
    • 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)
    • Energy & Natural Resources: Oil & Gas (Band 4)
    • Financial Services: Contentious Regulatory (Individuals) (Band 1)
    • Fraud: Civil (Band 2)
    • Insurance: Contentious Claims & Reinsurance (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 1)
    • Shipping (Band 1)
    • Transport: Rail: Franchising (Band 1)
    • Transport: Rail: Projects & Infrastructure (Band 3)
    • Transport: Rail: Rolling Stock (Band 2)

More from Stephenson Harwood:

Visit the firm's graduate recruitment page.

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