The Legal Cheek View

Three years on from the 2017 three-way merger between CMS Cameron McKenna, Nabarro, and Olswang, the combined mega-firm CMS seems to be developing nicely. The biggest ever UK legal tie-up by lawyer numbers brings together the scale and quality of CMS Cameron McKenna, the real estate strength of Nabarro, and the media law cool of Olswang. Together, it oozes potential.

The feedback from this year’s Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey is encouraging, with the firm consolidating on its scores last year to achieve strong grades again, including for tech savviness — a key element of its new combined identity. Notably, the wide variations between the legacy firms are becoming less conspicuous — although the legacy CMS and Nabarro partners still dress much more smartly than their former Olswang counterparts, we are told!

On the financial side, CMS saw a modest uptick in revenues over 2019-20. Global turnover was up 5% to €1.426 billion (£1.287 billion) while the UK figure underwent a smaller 4% rise to £566 million. Meanwhile, in January 2020, the firm opted for stability by re-electing senior partner Penelope Warne for another four-year term. January also saw the firm announce a 20% rise in operating profits in its LLP accounts following a restructuring of its Hong Kong and Turkish offices.

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In terms of training, the firm has scored well in this year’s survey. One rookie reports: “Excellent training by specialist PSLs and involving experienced lawyers who you will work with each day. Those giving training have seemed very invested in my development. Feedback is given frequently and is constructive. Regular check-ins with supervisor and appraisals have also helped.”

However, despite strong training in the fundamentals, as with most firms at a junior level the work won’t always be the most stimulating. “It varied enormously between seats,” says one rookie. Another goes into more detail: “Most tasks are stimulating and allow you to get involved in very interesting work. However, as a trainee you need to be realistic that not all tasks are going to be exciting, but I also think this carries throughout your career.”

In terms of culture for trainees, CMS is like many other firms. Beware of “competitive” peers who sometimes behave “in a passive aggressive manner”. Partners are the usual mix of friendly and frosty (depending on how stressed they are), with “most of them very approachable”. Overall this is a place with a nice vibe, as reflected in the buoyant trainee social scene. There are “lots of drinks” and the popular ‘CMS Football World Cup’ (for boys and girls) is “on a different level — incredible fun and best thing about the firm.”

Key planks of CMS’ new common identity are tech-savviness, anti-traditional lawyer stuffiness, and internationalism. On the former, the firm has scored particularly well in light of the COVID-19 crisis, with CMS leveraging its tech to overcome some initial challenges and adapt well to working from home. “This has really been a standout,” enthuses one insider. “As we all have tablet PCs the transition from an IT perspective was barely noticeable.”

Others report that, while the hours can be unpredictable, there is “absolutely no face-time culture here” and it’s normal to “take Surface Pro home to work in the evenings” when necessary. This in turn has eased the strain on CMS’ flagship London office, which in the past has been considered crowded at times amid a considerable increase in post-merger headcount. Said office, located in a very fancy new building above Cannon Street station in the City, is totally open plan, with “first class” facilities and a rather un-law firm-like appearance that seems to draw inspiration from airport first class departure lounges and tech companies in equal measure. But be warned about the coffee, dubbed by one connoisseur as “Nescafe coffee-flavoured hot water”.

With over 70 offices in over 40 countries, CMS is the very definition of global. This is reflected in the secondments: a quarter of trainees and junior lawyers spend time abroad, according to our figures. Some of the destinations, such as Rio, Mexico and Beijing, are particularly exotic. CMS is big on client secondments too — over half of rookies surveyed have done one at companies including Mercedes-Benz, GSK and BP.

The firm also has one of the largest reaches across the UK, with seven regional offices in England and Scotland. Trainees are split between them, although the majority are in London. Sheffield has particular significance to the firm, as it was Nabarro’s original base, while CMS’ Scottish offices come from its 2014 takeover of Dundas & Wilson, previously one of the biggest firms in the country. Bristol, Reading, Manchester and a second London office in Mayfair that focuses on private client work form a total of nine UK offices.

There can be a fair bit of travel between them, which is where some of CMS’ best perks kick in. They include business class travel for certain journeys, mostly on flights to London City rather than harder to reach airports, and regular five-star hotel stays with breakfasts and lunches.

Insider Scorecard

Quality of work
Peer support
Partner approach-ability
Work/life balance
Legal tech

Insider Scorecard grades range from A* to D and are derived from the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey 2020–21 of over 2,000 trainees and junior associates at the leading law firms in the UK.


First year trainee salary £44,500
Second year trainee salary £49,750
Newly qualified salary £82,000
Profit per equity partner Undisclosed
GDL grant £7,500
LPC grant £7,500

The figures above are for London. First year trainees in Bristol earn £38,500, rising to £40,500 in their second year. First year trainees in Manchester and Sheffield receive £28,500, rising to £31,500 in their second year. First year trainees in Scotland get £25,500, rising to £28,500 in their second year. NQ solicitors in Bristol are paid £50,500. NQs in Manchester and Sheffield earn £42,500, while those in Scotland have a salary of £41,500. The GDL and LPC grant are £5,000 each outside of London.


Average arrival time 08:54
Average leave time 19:22
Annual target hours Undisclosed
Annual leave 25 days

Average arrive and leave times are derived from the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey 2020-21 of over 2,000 trainees and junior associates at the leading law firms in the UK. Trainee target hours are 1,200.


Chances of secondment abroad 19%
Chances of client secondment 34%

Secondment probabilities are derived from the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey 2020–21 of over 2,000 trainees and junior associates at the leading law firms in the UK. Please note that due to COVID-19 secondment probabilities are lower than in usual years.

General Info

Training contracts 79
Latest trainee retention rate 72%
Offices 74
Countries 42
Minimum A-level requirement ABB
Minimum degree requirement 2:1


UK female associates 64%
UK female partners 33%
UK BME associates 11%
UK BME partners 2%

Universities Current Trainees Attended

The breakdown for trainees’ school backgrounds are as follows: 58% state funded, 25% privately funded and 18% overseas.

The Firm In Its Own Words