Four 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.
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 legal tech — 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 2020-21. Global turnover was up 3% €1.475 billion (£1.264 billion), while the UK figure underwent a smaller rise, adding just another million to previous year’s revenue of £566 million. In January 2020, the firm opted for stability by re-electing senior partner Penelope Warne for another four-year term.
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 north of the border. It has further outposts in Bristol, Reading and Manchester, but took the strategic decision in early 2020 to shutter its second funds-focused London hub in Mayfair.
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 some five-star hotel stays with breakfasts and lunches.
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 supervisors and appraisals have also helped.” And we are told that these high training standards haven’t dropped during the pandemic, with training “on all levels” thanks to weekly training sessions and regular feedback meetings with a partner, senior associate and junior associate.
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 some seats, more stimulating work is a right earned, not gifted, with rookies remarking, “it depends on how trusted you are as a trainee”.
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. “We were sent all the phones, laptops, monitors etc that we needed. The teams have calls twice a week and I catch up with most of the team each day at some point so there’s constant communication”. One particularly content newbie told Legal Cheek, “I’ve even had my mobile data limit on my work phone removed when I had problems with my internet at home so that I could get on with my work without a problem”.
Others report that, while the hours can be unpredictable, “there is an ethos of work hard play hard and there’s definitely not a face-time culture. If you’ve done your work then they encourage you to enjoy life outside of work”. Trainees don’t normally encounter problems “carving out time for social plans” and “rarely work weekends”. For a starting salary of £46,725 and newly qualified pay of £95,000 that’s a pretty good deal. Outside of London, however, a couple of trainees grumbled about “getting paid significantly less to do London hours” on occasion.
The London office, located in a very fancy 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”. Beyond London, rookies’ reviews deem the new Sheffield office yet to be looking “great”, whilst the high standard of the London office is yet to reach CMS’s Bristol and Manchester outfits, the latter of which is due to be refurbished soon.
With over 70 offices in over 40 countries, CMS is the very definition of global. This is reflected in the secondments: in non-pandemic times 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 a third of rookies surveyed have done one at companies including GSK and BP.