Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer is officially back on track. After a challenging 2017, which saw the firm come bottom of the magic circle growth league table, it scored some impressive 2018 financial results. Profit per equity partner (PEP) leaped by 12% to a huge £1.734 million, while revenue increased by 5% to a whopping £1.403 billion.
A corresponding improvement has occurred with Freshfields’ trainee retention rate, which rebounded to a respectable 77% in autumn 2018 after dropping to a 66% low the year before.
It’s probably still accurate to characterise Freshfields as being in a period of transition, with the firm sending ever more work to its Manchester support office while, like the other magic circle firms, it ploughs money into new artificial intelligence-derived technology as it bids to boost efficiency. Such an approach requires substantial investment (which may account for last year’s disappointing revenue figure) and is potentially disruptive of employee morale. But the signs are that Freshfields – which was founded way back in 1743 – is through the worst of the upheaval from its latest reinvention.
The firm’s foray into the north is largely a blessing for London trainees, with one telling us that the quality of work is helped by “the use of the Manchester Legal Services Centre, [which] is used on virtually every big deal which requires repetitive tasks”. Last year there were reports of some fee earners being reluctant to trust document support and word processing specialists in Manchester, and so trainees being left to do these basics. But we hear that has become less of a problem, as traditional partners finally grasp new ways of working. One rookie sums up the 2018-19 mood:
“Challenging research and first-round drafting is fairly common, and trainees are expected to understand their matters inside out and be able to issue-spot rather than just being admin drones. It is generally understood (and put into practice) that trainees shouldn’t be used for pure processing capacity because the firm has services to facilitate process/quantity-heavy work, but inevitably when those services are overloaded by the many requests from fee-earners, or when those services fail to deliver, trainees pick up the slack.”
Freshfields’ embrace of legal technology products, meanwhile, still has some way to go. Despite making a lot of marketing noise about its interest in machine learning and the like, the firm only manages a ‘C’ in this category in the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey 2018-19 – for the second year in a row.
IT remains “shocking” even if “there are a lot of good innovative ideas on the horizon”, while questions are being raised about “the number of highly-paid business services staff with impossibly grand titles (‘Head of Tech”; “Head of Innovation; “Head of Disruptive Legal Tech”) that have little impact upon fee earners’ experience”. On a more positive note, the free iPads that all fee-earners including trainees will shortly receive look set to be well received.
When it comes to training, quality of work and peer and partner support, Freshfields has shrugged off some disappointing scores in last year’s Legal Cheek survey – which we think were related to the effect on morale of that aforementioned unusually poor trainee retention rate – and is back at the level you’d expect for an elite firm. This comment sums up the training:
“There is no question about the technical training being world class, and there is no shortage of opportunities to enhance your training if you were so inclined. The pastoral aspect has taken a lot of bad comments recently, some of which are deserved and some of which are not. It is vigorous, but if you can keep up with the pace, it’s a really good place to start a career.”
In terms of work, the magic circle covenant of earning trust to access stimulating tasks applies. One trainee puts it like this: “You have to do your time on DD and doc review like everywhere else, but if you’re good you get lots of responsibility.”
Last year at Freshfields there were some issues with a trainee intake that broke into different factions that didn’t particularly get on. Legal Cheek understands that the vibe has been much better this year. One rookie tells us: “Everyone is fairly supportive within my intake, although I hear that this may not be the case in others. Trainees generally work together well across intakes, even if they are not necessarily friends. It’s all been very civil so far.”
The firm has also taken seriously some complaints about tensions between the junior and senior end of the firm. Another Freshfields insider reports: “I have been lucky so far and on the whole supervisors are excellent. There are a few horror stories, however, Trainee Development are making a real effort to obtain feedback on difficult supervisors and trainees also now have the ability to contribute to a supervisor’s appraisal.”
Hours can be long and grinding, with late evening (or beyond) departures from the office common place – although it varies according to department (litigation is said to be OK, corporate less so). “The uncertainty is worse than the actual number of hours you work,” one trainee tells us. “For every rough/intense patch, there tends to be a quieter period when you can leave early regularly. Some supervisors will really try to protect important plans if you give them notice, others aren’t so flexible. Forget making regular evening plans however, as you never really know that you’re done until you’re out the door (and even then, work can come in at any time on your Blackberry).”
There does seem to have been an attempt this year to take the edge of it and it’s been noted that seniors are often apologising to trainees and junior associates when they pull them in for late night and weekend work.
Still, you don’t get to be as profitable as Freshfields by clocking off early and the grind is “expected” by most. Much of this wedge comes from the firm’s vast overseas network (it has 28 offices in 16 countries) – to which Freshies’ youngsters have a pretty decent chance of being seconded. Over 60% have spent time abroad with the firm in locations such as Hong Kong, Singapore, New York and Berlin.
And finally… perks. If you want top freebies, look no further than Freshfields: there’s an on-site doctor, dentist, masseuse and sushi chef, a free in-house gym, a generously subsidised winter ski trip, two for one National Theatre tickets, regular lavish socials and even free pensions and mortgage advice. A downside is the rather “tired” office, which apparently has a problem with mice. But fear not potential new recruits, Freshfields will shortly be moving to a brand new home, having signed a 20-year lease on 100 Bishopsgate, a new skyscraper currently under construction in the City.