Meet Herbert Smith Freehills at the Legal Cheek UK Virtual Law Fair on 4 November 2021
Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) is arguably the most prestigious UK-headquartered law firm outside the magic circle. Indeed, its elite litigation and arbitration practice — which includes an in-house advocacy unit staffed by a host of QCs — is one of the best dispute resolution departments on the planet.
Juniors commended the high level of training and good quality work throughout their training contract. You can expect “close monitoring from partners”, most of whom take “a real interest in your development and taking the time to explain things and provide useful feedback”, one insider tells us. Another explains how the “tailored training sessions” at the start of each seat really help rookies find their feet quickly in their new surroundings.
You can read all about the high calibre work, claim insiders, who have been fortunate to do “lots of work ending up in newspapers”. But insiders also admit that this can vary between departments, with finance and corporate tending to be more “administrative” and “process heavy”, but disputes offering an opportunity to get stuck into an array of “fascinating” cases and “interesting research tasks”. On the whole, it’s “a good balance” with HSF putting “a lot of thinking and care into delegating work to trainees so you get a feel for associate level work as well as doing your job as a trainee”. Dull tasks are apparently the exception not the norm and rookies report to have enjoyed getting “lots of responsibility early on”.
The firm’s merger with Australasian powerhouse Freehills in 2012 is still widely considered to be one of the more successful of recent times in corporate law, and has succeeded in adding scale while for the most part not disrupting one of the nicer cultures in the legal market. The firm’s recent appointment of its first female senior partner Rebecca Maslen-Stannage, who is an M&A lawyer based in Sydney, underlines the completeness of the firm’s Freehills tie-up and its commitment to change. HSF, which is “big on sustainability”, has also recently committed to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2030 and has been ranked as a top LGBT employer by Stonewall alongside several other City firms.
Now led by Hong Kong-based Justin D’Agostino, who was appointed CEO in May 2020, the firm’s strategy on cutting costs has proved particularly effective. Profit per equity partner (PEP) broke the million mark, rising 28% to £1.1 million, whilst revenues soared past £1 billion for the first time in the firm’s history. Agostino also highlighted that the firm’s London, Australian and Chinese offices had enjoyed a particularly impressive year of growth.
HSF again scored well for peer support in the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey, with trainees reporting a nice vibe in this year’s cohort. “Everyone in my intake is very friendly to each other — there’s no competition or underhand tricks,” according to one source. Trainees are “willing to help others” and are known to “arrange coffees before seat changes to discuss their seat experiences”. This supportiveness remained strong throughout lockdown too. Another rookie told Legal Cheek, “especially with WFH and longer hours, there is a sense of comradery of being in the same boat”.
Higher up the firm, partners, for the most part, are “very approachable and supportive”. One insider elaborates: “Like with trainees, there’s the odd partner who is perhaps not as approachable as the rest, but I think you’d get that anywhere. They’re really busy but are generally happy to take time out to speak to you. I’ve had a brilliant partner mentor who I’ve gone for coffee with a couple of times each seat, who’s been very open about her experiences at the firm, career progression, balancing work and home life etc. We all share an office with our supervisors and I’ve been able to have quite easy conversations with each one, discussing work but also what they’ve been up to at the weekend, what their kids are doing etc.”
Work/life balance at HSF is better than at most firms in its class, though this has apparently got worse during the pandemic with the advent of remote working. One junior describes their experience like this: “Trainees have been working extra hard and doing more hours recently. It seems the firm hasn’t really acknowledged that we worked more during lockdown because we didn’t have a commute and were locked in our flats with nothing better to do.”
In general though, “there is no expectation to stay if there’s non-urgent work, however, when things are urgent, your presence is appreciated and you get free dinner/taxi to compensate”. Another offers up this tale from the front line: “Of course it varies from seat to seat. I had to stay until 3am on my birthday but it was appreciated, and I was marched out of the office early the following day. Equally I have had seats where I’m consistently out by 7:30pm along with most of the rest of the team”.
The consensus among the junior ranks is the firm handled the lockdown pretty well. “Good support from IT and superiors”, one source explains, whilst another describes the firm’s response as “absolutely stellar, no complaints”.
Perks and international secondment levels are very respectable. When there’s not a pandemic on, around a quarter of trainees spend time in an overseas office, with Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Moscow, Dubai, Sydney, Singapore and Seoul among the locations. Secondees apparently receive lots of freebies, such as gratis language lessons, a generous accommodation allowance and even a firm apartment in some locations. There are also frequent client secondments, to the likes of Sky, UBS and BAE Systems. The working hours are said to be often lower for secondees.
Back in London, and when staff aren’t stuck working from home, the social life is apparently pretty good, with frequent “drinks trolleys”, table tennis tournaments and quizzes. It’s also worth noting that the firm is situated in one of the City’s more stylish offices — Exchange House, built in 1990, is a ‘building-bridge hybrid’ that sits above the trains coming in and out of Liverpool Street station. But there are apparently some major discrepancies between the floors, although further planned refurbishment should sort that out. While the upper levels have been refurbished and feature “whizzy desks” that move between standing and sitting (be sure to check them out over on our TikTok page), the lower floors of Exchange House are said to be “a bit outdated” — and apparently have the odd mouse. There is, however, a subsidised membership to a very snazzy Virgin Active next door, complete with Molton Brown products that will no doubt make all this extra handwashing much more enjoyable.
Rookies have also benefited from HSF’s investment in technology over recent years. Surface Pro laptops have been handed out liberally, alongside iPhones and HD curved monitors for static computers. However, the firm still has some way to go. “[It’s] really pushing innovation in areas such as automated contracts and blockchain, but some of the basic systems are a pain so it would probably be useful to sort that first,” one source says.