210-year-old City outfit Travers Smith deftly traverses both transactional and contentious matters and shows that firms are never too old to move with the times.
Travers is “established and old, but always looking forward to the future,” said one trainee when summing up their firm of choice. We’d say that’s a pretty fair assessment, in the best possible way. Travers has long been viewed as a more traditional type of City firm with strength in all things corporate, but it has changed both its practice and image in recent years. “We move with the times and are a lot less conservative than we used to be in terms of outlook,” says finance partner and head of graduate recruitment, Danny Peel. On the practice front, Peel tells us how Travers has built up its disputes practice significantly over the last five to ten years. “We now have ten partners in our dispute resolution team, plus a specialist competition team who work on disputes in their area, and we work on some of the most high-profile cases in Europe. It’s been absolutely pumping for the last five years. We’re now coming up to the end of the HP trial, which is Europe’s biggest fraud case.”
A decade ago, Travers had a conservative image, with many associating the firm with a preference for Oxbridge candidates and a lack of diversity. We respectfully tip our cap to the work Travers has put in to overhaul this perception in recent years. The firm’s CSR & diversity director Chris Edwards got multiple shout-outs from trainees (“he really cares about the policies”), who also praised senior leadership for being “very vocal about their commitment to diversity.” Peel adds: “We’re doing a lot better from a D&I perspective than 15 years ago, but we’re on a journey and we acknowledge there’s a lot more we need to do. It’s a work in progress, but there is a strong will across the firm from senior leadership downwards to accelerate the pace of change over the next few years. We’re also focusing on our people and their mental health and general wellbeing, which links to a changing attitude in the new generations coming through in how they want to work and balance their work with other elements of their lives.” For more on diversity and inclusion at Travers, listen to our Chambers Student podcast online.
This emphasis on D&I was a pull factor for our sources, who highlighted “the number of initiatives that provide explanations for terms and identities, which makes for a diverse and welcoming environment.” Interviewees also didn’t pick up on a trad vibe, with one bluntly stating that “it doesn’t feel like a corporate machine compared to other firms.” Travers’ enduring reputation for corporate work appealed too, with this source highlighting how “we’re leaders in mid-market private equity.” Chambers UK rates Travers in the top group of firms for private equity buyout work in the UK, while in London the firm excels in areas such as banking & finance (borrower and lender side), mid-market corporate/M&A, and real estate.
Travers’ disputes work is climbing up the rankings too: its contentious regulatory work in the financial services space is praised UK-wide, while its banking, commercial and corporate, and general litigation expertise receive more than worthy nods in the capital. The other deal-clincher for our insiders was the firm’s size and scope: all operations are carried out from one UK office close to London’s Chancery Lane (there’s one other office in Paris, where trainees can spend a seat). “I didn’t want to be in a firm with multiple offices across the globe,” said one. “Here you have a single, unified culture in one place. You can bump into the senior partner in the lift!” From what Peel tells us about the firm’s plans, don’t expect changes to this setup any time soon: “We’ll still be fiercely independent. I cannot possibly see that we’ll merge.”
Travers trainees must do at least one seat in one of the corporate departments and one contentious stint (either dispute resolution or employment). The seat allocation process was agreed to be relatively “straightforward. When you join, you just put your preferences down in order and HR does the rest.”
Corporate is split into two main areas: private equity and financial sponsors and corporate M&A and equity capital markets. “Strictly speaking they’re not sub-seats, but you can indicate a preference,” a trainee informed us. Those who do make a preference tend to do so towards private equity as it’s a “huge part of the firm and operates at a very high level.” The team helps private equity houses with the acquisition and disposal of their portfolio companies. Lawyers here recently advised private equity company Bridgepoint and other selling shareholders on the sale of financial services company Estera to Inflexion-backed financial services company Ocorian; this required the team to coordinate legal advice to sellers across ten jurisdictions. “It’s a busy department, but you’re exposed to new things every day. It takes a lot of training!” remarked one source. The corporate finance sub-team was labelled as more of a ‘general corporate’ department that covers public and private M&A, IPOs and equity capital markets work. A lot of matters involve “liaising with local counsel all over the world.” The team recently advised Sharia-compliant bank BLME during its $212 million cash takeover by Kuwait-based Boubyan Bank. There’s also a small infrastructure group that covers renewable energy deals and private equity investments into utility companies. Insiders who’d sampled corporate finance had assisted on verification processes, prepared completion documents, drafted board minutes, and even prepared and submitted bundles for court sanctions on takeovers. Trainees were able to run with their designated workstreams, as a source explained: “The partner was quite hands-off. It was very intense, but a great learning opportunity and I was still supported in my work too.”
The ever-growing dispute resolution department covers a multitude of litigation types, including competition, civil fraud, commercial fraud, commercial and financial disputes. “We have a new system where each trainee has a big case and a small case at any one time,” a trainee highlighted. “It’s great because you get a lot of responsibility on the smaller cases and learn very important lessons on the big cases.” As mentioned by Danny Peel above, the team’s largest case recently has involved counselling computer company Hewlett-Packard Enterprise (HPE) on a $5 billion case resulting from its $11 billion acquisition of big-data software company Autonomy. HPE alleges that the value of Autonomy was inflated by $5 billion. Trainees can go through stints of being in court “two out of five days a week, supporting barristers and sitting with witnesses. It’s awesome but also terrifying.” When not in court, newbies can be found supporting the “enormous trial processes,” which involves drafting letters and calling clients: “It was daunting to update them on progress. I was thinking ‘Oh my, do I even know what’s going on here?’ But it makes you read up on every little piece of the case to understand exactly what’s happening.” A very wise tactic.
“It’s awesome but also terrifying.”
The other contentious option is a stint in employment, which handles litigious and regulatory work, as well as transactional employment matters arising out of M&A deals. Trainees tend to be staffed on “lots of smaller matters, so there’s a lot to juggle.” Clients vary from household company names to “more traditional Travers clients like asset managers.” The department was unsurprisingly busy during lockdown, with employers calling upon the team for advice on furlough and redundancy-related issues. The team recently conducted an investigation for a FTSE 100 company into bullying and harassment claims made against a key senior employee, which resulted in the termination of the accused’s employment. The team continues to advise the company on the wider cultural issues connected to the investigation. Trainees here get involved in court bundling, research and drafting agreements. “The seat’s unique because you get to work across all three transactional, contentious and advisory areas,” concluded one source. “The variety makes you grow a lot faster in all areas at once.”
The firm’s finance department used to house a derivatives sub-team that was not formally demarcated. Now, however, derivatives is its own entity (and seat) though still “closely connected with the general finance team – we still have our meetings together.” The team does a lot of cross-departmental work with the pensions team on pensions covenant work, as well as a lot of credit valuation adjustments. There’s also a hefty amount of general advisory work, including post-deal and long-term financial planning advice. The group recently helped annuity insurer Rothesay Life with the structuring of its £3.8 billion buy-in of the Asda Group Pension Scheme. Trainees in derivatives were able to draft loan agreements and help liaise with banks on proposed agreements (“I’d raise red flags for review so the client could see what they should be concerned about, for example”). General finance covers a lot of sponsor-led acquisition finance on both the borrower and lender sides. The team represents “a wide variety of clients ranging from private equity houses to corporate borrowers, from investee companies to banks.” The team recently advised the lender Paragon Bank on a £12.5 million loan to specialist car lender Go Car Credit. Our interviewees with experience here had helped to draft facilities agreements and clauses of bigger documents. They'd also written board minutes and helped to liaise with the client to secure the loan. “On the other side, you’re often working with their associate, not a trainee. It shows that Travers trusts trainees to negotiate and gets you comfortable talking to external solicitors and clients early on.”
Our sources detected a streak of ‘giving back’ in Travers’ culture. This has been boosted recently by the appointment of the firm’s first pro bono director, former senior counsel Sam Cotman: “We’ve seen our pro bono ramp up massively since!” Trainees told us about their involvement in local legal clinics and highlighted the opportunity to get involved in research projects that examine human rights issues. In addition, “people who feel strongly about certain topics can ask the firm if they can adopt them into their pro bono practice.”
Travers’ room system was also isolated as a key influence on the firm’s close-knit culture. Trainees sit in rooms with one junior associate, one senior associate and one partner. “You have all levels of lawyer working in one room. I can see what my life will be like in two years, three years and ten years!” This setup allowed interviewees to “learn by osmosis – you’re constantly seeing how your seniors deal with clients and tricky situations. You can swivel around and ask any question you want to.” The rooms were also viewed as “great for pastoral care – it gives you strong and open relationships. I still go for coffee with some of the people I used to sit with.”
“It humanises people and makes people comfortable talking about themselves.”
Returning to diversity and inclusion as another culture-shaper, sources highlighted how the office had been refurbished to include gender-neutral toilets on each floor, on top of other inclusion initiatives like the listing of pronouns in email signatures. We were told that Travers has gender, faith and LGBTQ+ committees, which organise workshops, events and holiday celebrations. There’s also a D&I book club and a mentoring scheme available. The most popular inclusion initiative cited was a campaign on the firm’s intranet where “various people throughout Travers – diverse or not – write about their lives and experiences. It humanises people and makes people comfortable talking about themselves.” We also heard that the firm has started mandatory anti-racism and effective allyship training.
Ultimately, all these factors were felt to support a culture of “openness. No one’s in competition or trying to pretend they know everything. We’re humble and genuine.” Upon arriving, HR publishes a short profile of each trainee, which features “both your professional and personal interests. Everyone gets to know each other well from the outset.” We heard that trainee classes are “very close. We really do all get on well.” There are plenty of social outlets to get involved in including football, hockey and running teams, as well as a book club and a choir. “I genuinely enjoy spending time with people after work!” exclaimed one particularly social source.
Trainees tend to work a nine or ten-hour day and usually finish before 8pm. “I’m not going to lie, there have been times when it’s bad hours-wise, but I did know that it would happen occasionally at a City firm,” one source admitted. Those bad times can see trainees working until midnight, but we heard that “you get rewarded after a busy period with time off in lieu. Partners really appreciate it and they give you a break for a bit afterwards.” To sweeten the deal further, trainee and NQ salaries were recently bumped up to “really competitive” amounts, although we heard that the NQ salary (£85,000) was under review at the time we went to press.
Sources anticipated that the qualification process would be “exactly the same as usual, despite the pandemic,” though it was brought forward “purely for trainees’ comfort.” Qualifying trainees rank their top three or four choices for HR. Departments are then asked on a blind basis (without knowing who's applied) who they would like to come back. The training principals then look at where the preferences match. This process means that neither department or trainee know where they came in terms of a preference list. The result is that trainees found qualification to be a “fairly calm and relaxed” process. The firm “tries hard to keep everyone on,” and those who don’t stay are usually looking to “qualify into a different area of law.” Interviewees noted that “a lot of the partnership trained at Travers. It’s certainly somewhere you can have longevity.” In 2020, 21 of 25 qualifiers were kept on.
Lockdown, summer in the City
During lockdown, people across the firm (including members of management) sent “light-hearted daily emails – they let us know what’s going on and keep us going together as a whole.”
How to get into Travers Smith
Vacation scheme deadline (2021): 17 January 2021; rolling (winter)
Training contract deadline (2023): 31 July 2021
Applications and vacation scheme
Travers Smith has 25 training contracts on offer and typically recruits just over 50% of its trainees through its vacation schemes. The firm runs three two-week placements during the summer, and one two-week scheme in the winter, offering 15 places on each.
The application for the vac scheme begins with a CV and covering letter, and the firm generally receives around 1,000 of these each year. “There are no psychometric tests or any of that rubbish,” one interviewee told us, but prospective trainees do need a minimum of AAB at A level and a 2:1 degree (or 2:1 grades to date) to get a look in. The majority of trainees tend to come from a Russell Group institution, though the firm visits between 25 and 30 university law fairs each year.
Those whose applications impress – generally around 180 – are invited to a one-on-one partner interview. According to our sources, the aim here is to get “a flavour of your character; we don't go for a long-form interview where we ask about all the different times you overcame a problem in the workplace.”
From here, the firm chooses its vac schemers, who split their time between two departments. Alongside shadowing trainees, participants attend workshops on skills like negotiations and drafting, and also get to socialise with Travers lawyers at various working lunches and evening events.
A current trainee had this advice for impressing during the vac scheme: “Relax into the atmosphere and try to be enthusiastic. Another said: “Show that you're bright, ambitious and calm under pressure, but don't take yourself too seriously.”
Those who still want to pursue a training contract after their scheme can resubmit their application for consideration. They are evaluated on their performance during their placement rather than through any further interviews.
Training contract applications
Travers Smith receives another 1,000 direct training contract applications each year. The application process is broadly similar to that of the vac scheme: applicants submit an initial form; attend a partner interview; then another, this time with co-heads of graduate recruitment Emily Clark and Danny Peel. The first lasts around 45 minutes, while the second is an hour long.
There's no cap on the number of people the firm invites to interview. Insiders tell us “the firm is big on compare-and-contrast questions” in both interviews – for example, the moral debate of a drunk driver who kills someone as opposed to someone who falls asleep at the wheel and does the same –“but isn't looking to catch anyone out.” Interviewees can also expect questions about current business stories to test their commercial awareness.
The second interview is followed up with a trainee-led tour around the office, during which candidates can ask additional questions, and meet other members of the firm.
Interview with Danny Peel (partner in finance and co-head of grad recruitment) and Hannah Manning (partner in tax and co-head of grad recruitment).
Chambers Student: Are there any highlights from the last year you think are important to mention (eg big cases/deals, notable lateral hires, office openings, etc)?
Danny Peel: We're not looking to make significant changes in the training contract. We’re still looking for similar number of trainees and we don't intend to increase the numbers radically at this stage. We still require all trainees to do one seat in corporate. The only other compulsory seat is one of either disputes or employment. We used to allow people to do the litigation course, but we stopped that because we felt that with the growth of the disputes team, It would benefit both the trainees and us to have them do their training within the team.
From the wider business perspective, we have the mantra that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ and our model has served us well over many years now. Having said that, we move with the times and are a lot less conservative than we used to be in terms of outlook. The last five to ten years has seen heavy growth in the disputes team. It was a positive decision on our part – in 2009 after the financial crash, we realised that an overreliance on transactional M&A work could leave us exposed if market conditions resulted in that work dropping off, so we looked to hedge our position by further broadening the range of work that we do. One thing that helped massively in that time was the strength of our advisory practices – regulatory and pensions. They produced great numbers in both good times and bad and remain extremely strong today. But one area that we sought to grow in and to bolster was disputes. We now have ten partners in our dispute resolution team, plus a specialist competition team who work on disputes in their area, and we work on some of the most high-profile cases in Europe. It’s been absolutely pumping for the last five years. We’re now coming up to the end of the HP trial, which is Europe’s biggest fraud case.
Overall, our performance over the last few years has been fantastic, with record year after record year. We’re increasingly known now as being not only a corporate powerhouse but a disputes powerhouse as well, and many of our other practices are leaders in the market. Undoubtedly, there are challenging times ahead, but we are in a strong position to respond to those challenges.
CS: You recently upped trainee and qualification salaries – what’s the thinking behind that?
Hannah Manning: The salary increase is in part a response to the market. We are always mindful of what’s happening in the market, and clearly there’s been a lot of press devoted to NQ and trainee salary as it's one of the most visible markers in terms of comparison. We always need to be on market as much as we think is right in the circumstances to attract and retain the best junior lawyers, without being led into a price war with other firms. I think our approach has always been that we recognise that salary and remuneration is important, and it’s a factor that affects people’s decision to join us and impacts their satisfaction once they do join.
Having said all that, salary and benefits are part of a much larger picture. Competing on salary alone ignores many other things that make for a satisfying career longer-term. We compensate people fairly, but also try and achieve a balance between that and other factors that make people want to stay with us in the longer term.
DP: We’re not going to compete with US firms on pay. But we genuinely believe that we are at all levels a credible alternative to the magic circle and other top City firms.
HM: In practice, we don’t lose many people to firms that pay extremely high salaries. It’s interesting because it suggests that most people at Travers are motivated by a variety of things that go beyond purely achieving the highest possible salary. I think that the training, the ability to make an impact in a firm where people are recognised individually and the culture all play a part in that.
CS: Where will the firm be in three or four years' time, when our readers will be ready to join?
HM: I would say that in five years’ time, Travers Smith as a business will not look radically different from the outside than the Travers Smith we have today. I’d like to think that although we may make some changes and, in particular, we will make further progress towards a more diverse partnership, we will continue to follow our current model and grow in the way we have been growing.
We’ve got interesting times ahead, but I believe that we will continue to do what we’ve always done, which is seek out opportunities to really engage with difficult law and complex commercial issues. Our strength lies in having very high-quality entrepreneurial lawyers all the way through the firm who are creative in looking for opportunities to grow and reach a larger client base, as well as meeting the changing needs of our existing clients.
We have a great strength in financial services at the moment; it’s where many of our clients are and will continue to be. I think that we will continue to find new ways of working with them that may lead to new specialisms and new projects. The clients in this area are highly sophisticated and agile in pursuing new opportunities, so as legal advisers we need to keep pace with them.
DP: We’ll still be fiercely independent. I cannot possibly see that we’ll merge. From a people perspective, the focus will continue to be on diversity and inclusion and on our people. We’re doing a lot better from a D&I perspective than 15 years ago, but we’re on a journey and we acknowledge there’s a lot more we need to do. It’s a work in progress, but there is a strong will across the firm from senior leadership downwards to accelerate the pace of change over the next few years. We’re also focusing on our people and their mental health and general wellbeing, which links to a changing attitude in the new generations coming through in how they want to work and balance their work with other elements of their lives. Not everyone wants to make partner, so we’re working on providing alternative career paths, alternative ways of working, and offering people what they need to keep motivated and happy, whatever career path they follow.
CS: How has Covid-19 affected your practices?
DP: On the business front, we’re holding up very well and better than expected. It’s too soon to see what the short to medium-term impact is going to be. Transactional activity in general did initially slow down when the pandemic took hold but is increasing again, and the fact that we are now well hedged, with a number of teams whose work has remained at pre-Covid levels or even increased (for example, our employment team with furlough and longer-term restructuring enquiries), has meant that we've weathered the last few months pretty well, although conditions over the next few months still remain very uncertain and the wider economic climate is extremely challenging.
The situation has been challenging in terms of the training contract experience too. Working remotely as a trainee can be difficult because key to the experience here is the room sharing, and all of us including the trainees have found it very different to do all of our work from home. Sitting in a room on my own at work is something I’ve never done! We try to stay connected with our teams and people have been very creative in doing this, but at times it can be a lonely experience. So one of the things we’re looking forward to is getting back to the office to rediscover the easy interaction with the team that we all really miss.
CS: What measures are you taking to protect jobs and your staff during the Covid-19 pandemic?
DP: Despite our hedging, we aren’t naive enough to think we won't be affected and we have to take sensible decisions to protect the business longer-term. So we’ve deferred partner distributions and reduced partner drawings for the time being. It embodies the response of the partner group to what’s happened. Our determination is to not lose anyone if we can avoid it. We want to protect people and protect jobs and then bounce back. There’s some pain to be taken – but partners get the upside when times are great, especially over the last few years, so it’s the partners that have to take a big chunk of the downside too. And this has the support of all the partners at the firm.
HM: I completely agree with all that. The decisions have been motivated by a feeling that we as a partner group want to do the right thing by each other and by our people. It’s been the motivating factor. We’ve tried to make sure that is the priority. I think the other thing that we do recognise is that hopefully this is a short-term crisis, and that we will soon find ways of working around the changes and will need our teams to be as strong as ever to meet the challenge. It’s dangerous to react in an extreme way if you don’t have to. We’re always thinking about the long term, especially in our graduate recruitment and incoming trainees. We are very much trying to balance the long-term wish to bring on board the best people with the immediate challenges of this situation. All being well, we want to continue as we normally would. None of us can predict in these uncertain times whether circumstances may ultimately lead us to re-evaluate that, but at the moment we’re hoping we can proceed with all of our normal recruitment processes as we usually would.
CS: How is the firm approaching the hiring process this year?
HM: We have anticipated not being able to have a physical vacation scheme this year, by taking our schemes online, having a virtual vacation scheme. It's taken a huge amount of work from a team of people across the firm to make it happen, but we've had great feedback from the students who have attended, and it does seem that we have been able to give them a flavour of something that’s authentically Travers Smith from their living rooms, which we're really pleased about. We expect to be attending many of the law fairs in the autumn virtually, and we're continuing to work hard to adapt to this and show Travers to best advantage in this format. It's different from what we're used to and we're learning as we go, but we think that it's absolutely the right decision to engage fully with the new formats for events, and we're finding out a lot in the process that may enable us to make beneficial changes to what we do in the future.
Travers Smith LLP
10 Snow Hill,
- Partners 85
- Associates 288
- Total trainees 54
- UKoffices London
- Overseasoffices Paris, close ties with carefully chosen quality overseas independent law firms
- Graduate recruiter: Germaine VanGeyzel, [email protected], 020 7295 3546
- Co-Heads of Graduate Recruitment: Hannah Manning, Danny Peel and Asma Rashid
- Application criteria
- Training contract pa: 25
- Applications pa: 1,000
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 or equivalent
- Minimum UCAS points or A Level: AAB or equivalent
- Vacation scheme places: 72
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open:1st June 2021
- Training contract deadline 2023: 31st July 2021
- Vacation scheme 2021 deadline:
- Winter: Rolling basis
- Summer: 17th January 2021
- Salary and benefits
- First year salary: £46,500
- Second year salary: £52,000
- Post qualification salary: Please visit website
- Holiday entitlement: 27 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £8,500
- International and regional
- Offices with training contract: London
- Overseas seats: one seat in Paris
- Client secondments: Following qualification, there are numerous opportunities for secondments to overseas law firms with whom we have a close relationship. In recent years, our associates have worked on secondment in places such as the Netherlands, Germany and Spain.
Diversity and independence of thought are key to our success. We know each other well and we know that we get the best results when we act as a team – not just within our legal teams, but right across our firm where we welcome diversity of thought and views from everyone. This is our difference and we are proud of it.
Main areas of work
We’ll give you responsibility from day one – you will quickly find yourself on the phone to clients, in meetings and handling your own work with all the guidance you need. As such the firm looks for people who can combine academic excellence with plain common sense; who are determined, articulate and able to think on their feet; who are self-motivated and have a healthy sense of humour. A law degree is not a necessity – just over half the trainees who joined last year came from a non-law background.
The work will include attending meetings, drafting documents and letters and carrying out research. We extend our internal seminar programme to include a number of talks, case studies and negotiating exercises specifically for students to give an authentic taste of a City lawyer’s work. The timetable also includes a City tour, plenty of social activities including softball and the option to be involved in sporting activities such as mixed hockey, netball and football. There are also working lunches and informal evening events.
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2020
- Banking & Finance: Borrowers: Mid-Market (Band 1)
- Banking & Finance: Lenders: Mid-Market (Band 2)
- Banking & Finance: Sponsors (Band 3)
- Banking Litigation (Band 4)
- Capital Markets: Equity (Band 4)
- Commercial and Corporate Litigation (Band 3)
- Competition Law (Band 4)
- Corporate/M&A: High-end Capability (Band 4)
- Corporate/M&A: Mid-Market (Band 1)
- Employment: Employer (Band 3)
- Environment (Band 3)
- Information Technology (Band 4)
- Litigation (Band 3)
- Pensions (Band 2)
- Real Estate: Mainly Mid-Market (Band 2)
- Tax (Band 3)
- Capital Markets: AIM (Band 1)
- Commercial Contracts (Band 1)
- Employee Share Schemes & Incentives (Band 2)
- Financial Services: Non-contentious Regulatory (Band 1)
- Financial Services: Payments Law (Band 2)
- Fraud: Civil (Band 3)
- Investment Funds: Closed-ended Listed Funds (Band 3)
- Investment Funds: Private Equity (Band 4)
- Outsourcing (Band 4)
- Private Equity: Buyouts: High-end Capability (Band 3)
- Private Equity: Buyouts: Mid-Market (Band 1)
- Retail (Band 3)
- Retail: Corporate & Competition (Band 2)