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 taking “a real interest in your development and taking the time to explain things and provide useful feedback,” one insider tells us. Another explains that this can be very dependent on who your supervisor is: “Some are really thoughtful and encouraging, looping you into exciting work and providing meaningful opportunities, others can be a little more aloof.”
You can also read all about the high calibre work you’ve been up to, claim insiders, who have been fortunate to do “lots of work ending up in newspapers”. But, as one rookie reveals, “the market deals are exciting, and in disputes, it’s great to be working on some of the most complex cases. However, as a trainee, that can mean being stuck in endless document review and verification”. This varies 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”.
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 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. After breaking the million mark for profit per equity partner (PEP) and the billion barrier for revenue last year, PEP rose 6% to £1.16 million, while revenues also grew a respectable 6% to £1.1 billion. A key focus for the future looks likely to be the US where the firm enjoyed double digit growth this year and several major lateral hires.
“It’s no secret that HSF has the best people” is a claim that is well backed up by HSF’s consistently strong scores for peer support in the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey down the years, with trainees reporting a nice vibe in this year’s cohort. “Most supportive and fun trainee cohort I could’ve wished for,” according to one source. Trainees are “willing to help others” and are known to “arrange coffees before seat changes to discuss their seat experiences”.
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, especially given the new NQ pay now sits at £120k. Consensus is that it varies greatly between departments, but things like birthdays and sporting commitments are generally well-protected. “If it is busy, it is extremely busy but everyone recognises the need for down time which is respected. Some weeks it’s 70+ hours, but then it’ll be leaving at 4pm for a few nights after” explains one insider. 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 details: “In my first two seats I regularly worked until 10-11pm, in my last two seats I have usually finished between 5.30-7pm. Consistently though, people are respectful of special occasions and would encourage me to log off early on a birthday or if I have friends visiting etc, and no-one misses team Christmas or summer parties. Being asked to work on a weekend has only happened on a handful of occasions, very apologetically and the work has always been appreciated. Annual leave is respected, you are not expected to be monitoring emails.”
Work/life balance is also helped by working from home which is now commonplace with trainees only going into the office three days per week. HSF provides their rookies with a Surface laptop, Bluetooth mouse, headset and a £200 budget for anything else.
Perks and international secondment levels are very respectable. HSF recruits enjoy the subsidised canteen and café, a concierge service and a £500 wellbeing fund that can be used “on anything fitness related”. The automatic coffee machines on every floor and free fruit are also a plus. Normally 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, the social life is apparently pretty good, with frequent “drinks trolleys”, table tennis tournaments and quizzes. It’s also worth noting 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 even 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.