Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer
The Legal Cheek View
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer has taken the turbulent economic environment in its stride, with the firm delivering its sixth consecutive year of growth in its latest financial results. Freshfields posted a 10% uptick in revenue climbing to £1.7 billion, whilst profit per equity partner (PEP) grew to an impressive £2.07 million.
Following a period of transition with a new leadership team taking over in January 2021 and the launch of a seven-partner Silicon Valley office that aimed to boost the firm’s tech, antitrust and life sciences practices, Freshfields is looking strong. The firm has now doubled the headcount of its Silicon Valley office which now boasts six major practice areas with Band 1 Chambers Global rankings.
The firm is also sending ever more work to its Manchester support office (where headcount keeps growing) 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 and is potentially disruptive to employee morale. But the signs are that Freshfields — which was founded way back in 1743 — is handling its latest reinvention well.
The firm’s continued expansion into the North is largely a blessing for London rookies, with one telling us that “most of the admin-style work is now sent to the Manchester hub, leaving trainees to help out on more stimulating tasks”. Indeed, so closely do they work together that a visit to the Manchester office is now included as part of London trainees’ induction. There’s also the Freshfields Lab based in Berlin’s tech start-up hub that is focused on developing new technology-based solutions. This all leaves “challenging research and first-round drafting” to be done in London, with “trainees expected to understand their matters inside out and be able to issue-spot rather than just being admin drones”.
As Freshfields rookies embrace hybrid working, the firm offers home office equipment (monitor, keyboard, mouse, USB connector) with most using a separate screen and a laptop. Office chairs can be requested.
Consensus suggests that the legal tech is doing its job. “There’s tech to help you with pretty much everything and the firm is constantly looking to improve”, says one, whilst another praises how “the automation has really lowered the workload of contract proofing etc. I have been here for four months and spent most of my time doing actual legal/commercial analysis rather than just proofing and cross referencing”.
When it comes to training, quality of work and peer and partner support, Freshfields hits the level you’d expect for an elite firm. This comment sums up the training:
“The formal training is regular and of the highest quality and spans a vast array of topics at the forefront of the market. This alone would justify training at Freshfields. But it is the more informal training on the job by top-class associates (mostly your supervisor) that really makes the training contract. It gives you the confidence to hit the ground running as an NQ. You feel that no legal problem is beyond you and you are safe in the knowledge that if you get stuck there is the best support around you to help.”
This all means that the work can be “incredibly tough and complex, but rewarding”. Insiders laud the “fantastic range of work” that consists of “mostly high-profile deals with companies you have heard of” where “you are actually given tasks where you have to think a bit”. Despite the fact rookies are “consistently trusted with associate level work”, there are unavoidable bits and pieces which are “deathly dull”.
Another offers this insight: “My department (corporate) is always keen to give you work that is very challenging without putting you completely out of your comfort zone. From speaking to my friends at other firms, I typically get given a lot more responsibility. I also find that I am often liaising with associates that are a lot more senior than me at other firms — the team member in the opposing firm with an equivalent PQE level to me will often be less involved/less visible on external calls/emails. The matters I work on are also really complex, which keeps things interesting.”
Legal Cheek understands that the vibe among the current cohort of trainees is generally good. Fellow trainees are known to be “extremely supportive of each other, lending a helping hand whenever required”. There is also apparently no sense of competition, even around qualification, which is testament to the “great characters” that regularly fill the intakes.
One rookie sums up the mood: “We have a great intake of trainees here who generally eat together at lunch (and tea most nights!) and help each other out with work, which is particularly useful at the start of a new seat when you have no idea what you’re doing!”. Although of course as with any elite firm there can be times, particularly in the lead up to qualification, when peoples’ competitiveness shows.
The firm has also taken seriously some complaints from a couple of years ago about tensions between the junior and senior end of the firm. A Freshfields insider reports that “they actively encourage trainees to give their views during internal calls, even on more strategic points of discussion in addition to the traditional tasks for which trainees are responsible, and trainees are almost always invited to client calls”.
Whilst most are fans of grabbing a coffee with their supervisors and greatly value the guidance and feedback they are given, some supervisors “see themselves as an assessor”. This means partner approachability can sometimes be a bit “hit and miss”.
Hours can be long and grinding, with late evening (or beyond) departures from the office being commonplace — although it varies according to department (litigation is said to be OK, corporate less so). “I have not had to sacrifice anything major for the job — the occasional evening or weekend, but I’ve never had to sacrifice anything I really wanted to do or go to. In every case my superiors have respected any boundaries I have set around my personal life”, one trainee reveals.
But another rookie had this to say on the work/life balance: “Not bad! There is an effort made by associates to protect your weekends to the extent that they are able to. There have been weeks where I have worked late hours but people seem to be very conscious of the need for people to pursue their hobbies and passions outside of work. I have been able to regularly go to the gym 5 times a week before work (with the exception of closing week on a deal when I was working past 2am every day) and have also been able play football/go for drinks with friends/colleagues after work.”
The firm’s vast overseas network (Freshfields has nearly 30 offices in 16 countries) also means that Freshies’ youngsters have a pretty decent chance of being seconded. Around a third have spent time abroad with the firm in locations such as Dubai, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, New York and Berlin. Normally (when there’s no lockdown disruption) around 60% of rookies report spending time overseas. Client secondments are equally popular with destinations including Meta, Barclays, HSBC and the Bank of England (one of Freshfields’ oldest clients).
It also helps that the firm has a very flexible work from home policy, with many doing just three days a week in the office. “very flexible to come and go from the office… WFH in the morning for early calls and come in during the afternoon, leaving the office for dinner and logging back on at home,” details one. You are also handsomely rewarded: first and second year pay is £50k and £55k plus bonuses. And if you stay on as an NQ, which the majority typically do, you can expect to take home £125,000.
And if you want top freebies, look no further than Freshfields: there’s an on-site doctor, dentist, beautician, masseuse and pastry chef, gym subsidies, a generously subsidised winter ski trip, two for one National Theatre tickets, regular lavish socials and even free pensions and mortgage advice. On top of all that, the newly kitted out office is “phenomenal” and is fitted out with standing desks, a moss wall in the canteen, top of the line Hag Sofi chairs (“so comfortable”), so much designer furniture that you feel like you “walked into a showroom”. There’s also “lots of cultural food in the kitchen” that offers trainees a fine dining menu at £5 a plate! In short it’s “like a 5-star hotel”.