Want to do international work in a mid-sized firm? Fancy City law with a side serving of specialist practices? Step aboard Stephenson Harwood.
Stephenson Harwood likes to be beside the seaside – or at least its clients do. The marine and international trade department (“which is a posh way of saying shipping”) is a prominent part of this firm's work and snags a top ranking in Chambers UK. But that's far from the only area where this 900-strong firm has some prominence. Stephenson Harwood hauls in a slew of Chambers UK rankings for areas ranging from corporate M&A, financial services and asset finance to real estate, commercial litigation and transport. There's also a fleet of ten overseas offices, six of which are in South-East Asia.
This firm offers a dip into various specialist areas while providing a traditional City traineeship too. Trainees were also attracted to the mid-size trainee intake of 20 a year, which they felt makes you “a name rather than a number.” Equally alluring was the firm's “capability and willingness to send trainees on an international secondment” – most trainees end up doing a seat abroad at some point (this year 14 out of 20 packed their bags for an international sojourn). One source said they “could not believe there isn't a queue!” We'll have more to say on overseas seats later on.
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; they're informed of their next destination a few weeks before moving. While we heard that the reasons behind who gets what are not always clear, insiders were content. One trainee even said they got their “first choice every time, as have most people. I think some people didn't in one or two seats, but what you want is definitely considered.”
City trips and LEGO bricks
The commercial litigation department covers a lot, including fraud and asset tracing, regulation, construction, IP, engineering, insolvency, international arbitration and banking. Phew! In addition, the firm defended Nigeria's Emerald Energy in a $60 million spat with a Chinese state-owned insurer over the enforcement of a promissory note, represented the London Borough of Hackney in a dispute with housing association L&Q about the increase in the value of land after the granting of planning permission, and fired off a great number of IP takedown notices for LEGO. There are usually around ten trainees in commercial litigation, spread across subgroups like construction, IP and arbitration.
Responsibilities differ between subgroups. An IP source noted they “tended to work on smaller cases which I was largely given day-to-day responsibility for,” and a construction insider said they handled “a claim against the employer for unpaid invoices. I interviewed three individuals, prepared their witness statements and dealt with the expert.” Contrastingly there are more standard trainee tasks in international arbitration like “doing trial and bundle prep as well as liaising with counsel. That is very important but there wasn't much in the way of proper legal work.” However there is the occasional small-value dispute where “you can think of legal arguments and put them into witness statements.” International travel is also possible and we heard of one lucky trainee popping off to Amsterdam to sit in on an arbitration.
The 40-lawyer mid-market corporate M&A practice acts for clients ranging from Acadia Healthcare and Lloyds Bank to Norfolk malt supplier Anglia Maltings and power plant operator Welsh Power. RBS and HSBC have also recently sought the firm's counsel as have Hotel Chocolat and Escape Hunt, a global provider of escape rooms. The team recently advised on the £300 million acquisition of 122 care homes from Bupa by HC-One and on the £330 million acquisition of housebuilder Keepmoat by energy firm ENGIE. One trainee told us: “I got involved in a listing on the stock exchange, standard M&A deals, real estate acquisitions and private equity.” In 2017 the firm brought in three private equity partners from ex firm King & Wood Mallesons; one of the three recently led on a deal advising two private equity firms on the £340 million sale of Autodata, the multinational provider of technical car know-how. Trainees doing funds works said they could work on matters relating to “anything from a tech app business to an art gallery.” You get the idea: there's a lot going on. So perhaps it's no surprise that “you potentially get eight partners coming at you saying, 'This is urgent, why have you not done this!'” Trainees said they were lumped with “quite a lot of the standard trainee tasks like drafting board minutes and resolutions and figuring out what needs to be filed and when.”
“You read a contract here and it's almost like a foreign language!”
Marine and international trade covers contractual and insurance-related disputes, as well as non-contentious contractual issues. Lawyers recently appeared in the Supreme Court for a German shipowner trying to recoup part of a ransom paid after the seizure of the MV 'Longchamp' by Somali pirates. Piracy matters aren't the norm though: the firm also recently acted for Germany's Commerzbank in a knotty contractual case on the enforceability of so-called 'asymmetric' jurisdiction clauses in shipping loans. Upon arriving trainees have to hit the books. “You read a contract here and it's almost like a foreign language!” exclaimed one interviewee. "However, once you've got to grips with that it's really quite exciting.” Day to day “the trainee role involves drafting coverage advice, looking at the details of a claim and then applying insurance and contract law.” International work also crops up and one trainee “had the opportunity to travel to Rotterdam for a week and help with evidence gathering.” A few sources felt the department was noticeably “hierarchical.” This led one trainee to “act in a deferential way to my seniors. You are dealing with partners who have been at it for 40 years plus and acting like that is a positive; you need to earn respect.”
Get set for the jet set
Finance subgroups include shipping, rail, aviation, restructuring and banking. Recently the firm advised the third largest bank in India on lending money to engineering company Enzen Global, and Gulf Air got a helping hand in the sale and leaseback of five new Boeing 787s. The restructuring subgroup acts for individuals and organisations like KPMG and the board of the Pension Protection Fund. Trainees here “reply to all the emails and collate amendments to all the documents: essentially getting everything ready for the closing meeting, which trainees always attend.” Like other practice groups the international nature of the work spiced things up a bit as “deals almost always involve another type of law. It's interesting to see how all these jurisdictions work together to make the optimum structure.” Trainees "have the opportunity to travel a lot" although the international work means “dealing with people in different time zones and staying up till 4am. I know it sounds awful but sometimes it's exciting to get up early or stay late to work on a transaction!”
Real estate is divided into three subgroups: 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. The firm counts a lot of investors as clients like Orion Capital, London Metric Property and Schroders and recently helped LaSalle Investment Management purchase the intu Bromley shopping centre for £240 million. It also aided asset manager Rockspring with the £150 million demolition and redevelopment of the NatWest Tower in Birmingham city centre. One trainee recalled: “You get client contact all the time, predominantly over the phone and by email, and a number of your own files to run, which is very good for getting comfortable with legal work.”
“You definitely have to be proactive."
Overseas seats are available in Dubai, Paris, Hong Kong, Seoul and Singapore. Trainees submit an application to go abroad consisting of a CV and a business case. Once you jet off, the firm is “absolutely brilliant! They sort out your visa and flights, accommodation is provided, and when you arrive you are shown around the flat and area. You're made to feel incredibly welcome from minute one.” Each location offers something slightly different. Those in Dubai noticed the “smaller size of the office means there's greater emphasis on business development and scope to attend events and presentations,” while those in Hong Kong experienced “clients who expect a lot more facetime and calls.” Working in a foreign jurisdiction does have its drawbacks, as one insider noted: “I wasn't familiar with the local court rules and could not jump straight into matters.“
Bebop on top
Both overseas and London seats start with an induction – “some departments do it in just three days while others draw it out for six weeks [over lunchtime sessions].” Some sources felt mid-seat and end-of-seat reviews were “less useful than having a frank discussion with your supervisor,” but the criteria against which trainees are judged are clear “so there is no surprise when someone says, 'Have you thought of this?'” Trainees share an office with their supervisor and sometimes another lawyer too, and one interviewee reflected: “In each of my seats I've sat with people at the top of the industry who take the time to focus on my professional development.” Another added a caveat: “You definitely have to be proactive; no one tells you to seek feedback out.”
Sources found the firm quite a social place where “you can often find an event. And there are always people in the canteen so you never have to organise to have lunch with somebody.” We also heard of a trainee mid-seat dinner, summer and Christmas parties, group drinks in real estate, a pub quiz hosted by commercial litigation, a firm rugby team and a young professionals networking event with a jazz pianist where “you invite all your non-lawyer friends like investment bankers or consultants.” Generally within the firm trainees said that “everyone is very personable and there's quite a friendly atmosphere.” Trainees are often the glue between groups: “My team came up against some data protection issues and rather than just emailing the data protection team I was encouraged to pop down and explain what we were doing.”
“I leave at 6.30pm sometimes and 2am at other times.”
Like at many City firms the hours can be hefty. In corporate, trainees “leave at 6.30pm sometimes and 2am at other times,” while in litigation newbies usually leave around 8pm and do late spells too; one source said that in litigation they'd “worked pretty much all weekends in January.” Finance was similar, while marine and international trade seemed to have the least taxing hours: sources here reported a consistent working day of 9am to 6pm or 7pm. Real estate was equally steady but with the day usually ending between 7pm and 8.30pm. We wondered how the daily grind affected trainees' ability to socialise outside work. It's not unmanageable, we heard, with one source asserting: “If you tell your department that you have a particular plan or event one evening they work around it.”
When it comes to the NQ process, 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. From there things “vary quite a lot between departments: some might give you a case study, and some might just interview you.” The firm makes sure confirmation of success (or failure) for each intake arrives by the middle of December or June respectively. Generally insiders felt “the process was quite smooth and easy,” though a source noted that not specifying the number of jobs available in each department had caused “previous intakes to get quite nervous." We heard that one reason behind this is that "the firm does try to make space for you and that's why they're not forthcoming initially.” That's quite nice then. In the end Stephenson Harwood retained 16 of 21 qualifiers in 2018.
Stephenson Harwood's newest office is an outpost in Myanmar which opened in 2017.
How to get a training contract at Stephenson Harwood
Training contract deadline (2021): 31 July 2019 (opens 1 October 2018)
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 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 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 for those who applied directly for a training contract, around 30 applicants are invited to an assessment day after the interview with HR. 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.
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. 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,” 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 Neil Noble
Trade sanctions in international law
Stephenson Harwood LLP
1 Finsbury Circus,
- Partners 170+
- 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: 1 October 2018
- Training contract deadline, 2021 start: 31 July 2019
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 October 2018
- Vacation scheme 2019 deadline: 31t January 2019
- Open day deadline: 31 January 2019
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £41,000
- Second-year salary: £45,000
- Post-qualification salary: £73,000
- 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
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..
Our open days take place on the 16 January, 13 February, 20 March and 24 April 2019.
University law careers fairs 2018
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2018
- 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)