Stephenson Harwood LLP - True Picture

An international outlook steers this ship, with stellar trade and finance work as well as “quirky" practices par for the course.

Stephenson Harwood training contract review 2024

The Firm  

In addition to its London HQ, Stephenson Harwood has offices in Dubai, Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore, Shanghai, Paris and Piraeus (Greece). This spread was a major selling point for trainees looking for cross-border work. And eagle-eyed readers might notice that quite a few of these bases are in major maritime cities. But that's hardly a surprise for a firm that's a global market leader in shipping finance, shipping litigation and asset finance according to Chambers Global. On home soil, its transport, civil fraud and restructuring work is absolutely top-notch according to Chambers UK, and the firm has also earned recognition in Chambers High Net Worth for a whole host of “quirky” practices, including art and cultural property law, private wealth disputes, yachts & superyachts, private aircraft, private wealth law and family offices & funds restructuring. Niche.  

"It was great for my training, as this was something I had a keen interest in pursuing.”

You might also be interested to know that decarbonisation is a key area of focus for the firm. It's put on a flurry of events, seminars and panels in recent times on topics including hydrogen, nuclear energy and advanced nuclear technology, maritime decarbonisation, offshore wind, alternative fuels and solar. Trainees found events like these had provided them with quite interesting professional development opportunities. One who'd been to a decarbonisation event said, “It was great for my training, as this was something I had a keen interest in pursuing.”

The Seats  

Seat allocation is plain sailing (we’ll stop the puns now), and based on one-to-one conversations the firm has with every trainee. According to our sources, “the only rule is you have to do a contentious seat at one point.” Once allocated to a seat, “you write a bio about yourself for your supervisor... it’s super chill and means they know something about you when you join!” Client secondments are also common: current opportunities include a stint with major energy companies. Depending very much on business need, there might also be international secondment opportunities with offices like Dubai, Singapore and Seoul.

Most trainees had sat in the marine and international trade(MIT) group, which they chalked up as “80% disputes and 20% transactional.” While there are no concrete distinctions, the group is split into four parts: offshore, shipping, commodities and insurance. “There is overlap between teams,” according to one of our sources. You could say trainees aren’t anchored down to one thing... Moving on, matters typically concern shipping-based disputes. Issues can include vessel breakdowns and detentions. For example, the firm advised war insurers Axis on a $20 million claim stemming from the detention of a carrier in Indonesia, following a major casualty that killed five fishermen and damaged a subsea pipeline. On the transactional side, a recent matter saw the firm advise green shipping company Hoegh Autoliners on a series of zero carbon ships (there's more of that decarbonisation focus!). The firm also has continued client relations with Axis Insurance Company and Commerzbank, a major ship finance bank. Trainees found that, day to day, they encounter “lots of research tasks, drafting for pleadings and arbitrations and getting witness statements.” In this seat, “the matters last for years, which means it’s a great seat to start with – nothing has to be rushed, and everything you do is checked before it progresses.”  

The finance group is split into six groups: real estate, shipping, aviation, rail, banking and asset finance. In shipping finance, for example, trainees reckoned they had more responsibility than other seats: “You jump right in! I got involved with clients really early on.” We also heard of trainees “doing a lot of CP reports and updating and drafting documents.” Similarly, those in the banking subgroup were trusted to “manage processes like signings, and take on substantive drafting tasks.” The banking folks recently acted for Hotel Chocolat on its £30 million loan provided by Lloyd's bank. For the uninitiated, revolving credit is a type of finance that enables businesses to quickly withdraw, repay, and withdraw funds again, like a bank overdraft. For those interested in finance, trainees provided a word of warning: “There is a focus on technical knowledge, so you have to be on it!”

“I enjoy being invited to client events and networking opportunities.”  

Over in real estate, clients range from institutional investors to public sector companies. SH recently advised The Royal Bank of Scotland, as lender, on the restructuring of a multimillion investment facility following regulatory changes brought about by Brexit. Newbies regularly get involved in asset management work concerning the leasing of real estate, plus large purchase matters. Compared to other teams in the firm, real estate is “more English client-heavy, rather than international,” but one trainee highlighted the “high level of client contact.” Sources also drew oue attention to the social side of the seat: “I enjoy being invited to client events and networking opportunities." We heard the team is generally very sociable "and they’re lovely people to spend time with.”  

Steering away from transactional work, trainees can get involved in some contentious matters in employment. The group is split between employment pensions and private wealth, covering elements of employment tribunals, immigration, and employee incentives, all of which have an international element. Trainees “loved working around the world,” but pointed out that “the hours are a little bit tougher when you’re dealing with different time zones.” The client roster is filled with various household names, like Amazon, StubHub, Arriva and luxury goods conglomerate LVMH – its subsidiaries include Tiffany, Dior and Bulgari. The department recently defended Lacoste against allegations of sexual discrimination. A typical day for rookies involves “a lot of research, with support on ad hoc bits of work.” One skill a trainee took from this seat was the ability to “touch type really well!”  

Trainee Life 

Each practice group provides formal training: “Whenever we rotate seats, we have month-long training.” Newbies did highlight “some repetition from the LPC, but it’s always great to get that refresher before a seat begins.” For example, in MIT, “we had weekly breakfast seminars; people come in from barristers’ chambers and firms.” Supervisorswere also a source of support. Our interviewees were able to navigate teething problems by simply interacting with partners and senior associates: “They’re happy to answer basic questions, like IT systems, which can be hard to get your head around!”  

Trainees were quick to tell us that the working hours depend on the seat. “Transactional seats can be quite intense for longer periods compared to the other teams where the workload is steadier,” said one trainee. During quieter periods, trainees typically work from 9am to 7pm, though midnight finishes aren’t unheard of during busier times. Interviewees were slightly disappointed at the lack of bonuses, but pointed out that “salary is on market, so I can’t complain!” Even better, the firm recently upped its trainee salariesby £2,500 and its NQ pay has gone up by £5,000. See the Firm Facts in the top right for full details.

“I love coming into work to chat about the work I’m doing.” 

Trainees found that “the firm hires people they know will work hard” so, to put it bluntly, “as long as you don’t take the mick, people respect the fact that you have a life outside of work.” The firm’s “collaborativenature has often resulted in trainees “becoming very good friends with colleagues,” whilst the lack of hierarchy meant, for one trainee, “I love coming into work to chat about the work I’m doing. It doesn’t feel like I’m just ticking boxes for partners.” 

The firm’s culture filters through to the social life. “Each team has its own thing, but the firm holds drinks after work whenever business is hot,” explained one trainee. To get everyone together post-COVID, the firm has put together clubs for things like football, netball and a choir. The main source of socialising identified to us by newbies was through networking events: “There is a young professionals networking event where you can invite two friends outside the legal world to the firm for food, drink and conversation.” On the diversity front, SH has held LGBTQ+, solicitor apprentice, women in work and Black History Month events.

The qualification process isn’t a mystery,” one trainee was pleased to report. The future talent team meets with trainees before releasing the list of available seats. “The list can be released late so reach out to teams you want to join,” warned one insider. Trainees then put forward as many departments as they’d like to express an interest in qualifying in (interviewees suggested a couple was the norm), and take part in interviews for each: “The interviews were very transparent, and every question was fair.” In 2023, Stephenson Harwood retained eight of its ten qualifiers. 


Choppy Waters: The firm provides therapy sessions for all employees, “which is great. Your friend or partner can use the service if they want too!" 

How to get a Stephenson Harwood training contract


  • Vacation scheme deadline (2023/24): 23 October 2023 (Winter), 23 January 2024 (Spring), 23rd February 2024 (Summer)
  • Training contract deadline (2026): 31 July 2024 (opens 2 October 2023) 


Stephenson Harwood receives around 1,250 applications for its placement scheme and another 500 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 chief people and talent officer Jeff Marlow, “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 

The first stage is an online application form. Applicants will be asked about their education, any previous work experience and some longer answer questions that will delve into the motivations for applying and the skills they will bring to the role.

If the applicant passes the application form stage, they will be invited to complete the firm’s Future Potential Assessment. The Future Potential Assessment involves some numerical and verbal questions, as well as scenario-based reasoning. It is noted that these are not testing specific legal knowledge as applicants can have any degree background and level of prior legal experience. Instead, applicants are given scenarios that look at respondents' intellect and creativity to typical trainee scenarios.

If successful, the third stage is a virtual interview with a member of the future talent team. There will be a mixture of motivational and skills questions.

The final stage is the assessment centre which consists of a half-day spent at the firm. The day’s agenda consists of a presentation, interview and a commercial awareness exercise – all of which is assessed by a partner and a member of HR.

Marlow 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 placement scheme 

Stephenson Harwood runs four placement schemes: a week-long placement in the winter, a two-week scheme in the spring, and two two-week placements over June and July. There's room for twelve candidates on each, 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,” Marlow 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,” Marlow 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.

Other key deadlines (2024):

  • HKG Internship: 23 February 2024
  • Dubai placement: 23 February 2024

Stephenson Harwood LLP

1 Finsbury Circus,

Firm profile

Stephenson Harwood is a law firm of over 1,300 people worldwide, including more than 190 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 Seoul, Singapore, 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 £420 a week.

Other benefits

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

Open days and first-year opportunities

Come along to one of our virtual or in-house open days in November, December, January, February 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 22 November 2023 and 6 December 2023. Our in-house open days take place on 17 January 2024 and 13 March 2024. Our disability open day takes place on 7 February 2024.

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, 2023

Ranked Departments

    • Banking & Finance: Borrowers: Lower Mid-Market (Band 2)
    • Banking & Finance: Lenders: Lower Mid-Market (Band 2)
    • Commercial and Corporate Litigation (Band 3)
    • Construction: Contentious (Band 3)
    • Corporate/M&A: £10-100 million (Band 1)
    • Employment: Employer (Band 3)
    • Financial Crime: Corporates (Band 4)
    • Information Technology & Outsourcing (Band 4)
    • Intellectual Property (Band 4)
    • Pensions (Band 4)
    • Professional Negligence (Band 3)
    • Real Estate Litigation (Band 3)
    • Real Estate: £50-150 million (Band 3)
    • Restructuring/Insolvency: Disputes Spotlight
    • Art and Cultural Property Law (Band 2)
    • Asset Finance: Aviation Finance (Band 3)
    • Asset Finance: Rail Finance (Band 3)
    • Asset Finance: Shipping Finance (Band 2)
    • Aviation (Band 2)
    • Banking Litigation (Band 3)
    • Capital Markets: AIM (Band 2)
    • Commercial Contracts (Band 5)
    • Commodities: Physicals (Band 3)
    • Employee Share Schemes & Incentives (Band 3)
    • Financial Services: Contentious Regulatory (Individuals) (Band 1)
    • Fraud: Civil (Band 1)
    • Insurance: Contentious Claims & Reinsurance (Band 4)
    • International Arbitration: Commercial Arbitration (Band 5)
    • Investment Funds: Closed-ended Listed Funds (Band 1)
    • Investment Funds: Private Equity: Secondaries (Band 2)
    • Investment Funds: Real Estate (Band 4)
    • Pensions Litigation (Band 2)
    • Private Equity: Buyouts: Up to £500 million (Band 4)
    • Real Estate Finance (Band 4)
    • Restructuring/Insolvency: Personal Insolvency (Band 1)
    • Sanctions (Band 2)
    • Shipping (Band 2)
    • 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.

Follow the firm on InstaLinkedIn and Twitter.