Each year one magic circle firm does slightly less well than the others and becomes the focus of the legal press. This year it’s the turn of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer to come bottom of the magic circle financial growth league table, having only managed to increase profit per equity partner (PEP) by 5% and raise revenue by 0.3%. The disappointing financial results were compounded by an uncharacteristically low 66% autumn 2017 trainee retention rate.
But before you write off the oldest of London’s elite law firms – Freshfields was founded way back in 1743, and more or less since then has been legal advisor to the Bank of England – remember that its turnover remains a massive £1.33 billion and it’s PEP a whopping £1.547 million. Such fundamentally sound businesses tend to bounce back strongly and quickly.
It’s probably most accurate to characterise Freshfields as being in a period of transition, with the firm sending ever more work to its Manchester support office 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 (which may account for that disappointing revenue figure) and is potentially disruptive of employee morale.
The firm’s foray into the north is largely a blessing for London trainees, with one telling us that the quality of work is helped by “the use of the Manchester Legal Services Centre, [which] is used on virtually every big deal which requires repetitive tasks”. But there remain some teething problems. Another trainee noted: “Some fee earners have a real reluctance to trust document support and word processing specialists so trainees are left, for example, formatting tables and getting bullet points to be consistent.”
Freshfields’ embrace of technology, meanwhile, still has some way to go. Despite making a lot of marketing noise about its interest in machine learning and the like, the firm only manages a ‘C’ in this category in the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey 2017-18. Those on the frontline tell us that “we’ve got the tools but we don’t use them”, while another Freshfields rookie reports that “there’s very little to assist fee earners”. The consensus within the firm’s London office is that the Manchester team “appears to be more tech savvy (having direct access to Kira etc.)”.
When it comes to training, quality of work and peer and partner support, it’s possible that Freshfields’ disappointing scores this year – it received Bs in each of these categories in our survey – are related to the effect on morale of that aforementioned unusually poor trainee retention rate. Insiders tell Legal Cheek that a previously very friendly trainee vibe got “more dog-eat-dog the closer we got to qualification” while there was some frustration with the “hierarchical” attitude of the partners during this period. Still, with Freshfields stacked with some of the best legal talent in the City, and its training programme highly resourced, there’s no doubt that this continues to be a great place to train. This is how one rookie describes it:
“The training varies widely from department to department. Associates in some departments are far too reluctant to hand down even the most basic tasks. Other departments do let you get involved a bit more. In terms of providing you with training from an academic basis, most departments are very good.”
Hours can be long and grinding, with late evening (or beyond) departures from the office common place. “The uncertainty is worse than the actual number of hours you work,” one trainee tells us. “For every rough/intense patch, there tends to be a quieter period when you can leave early regularly. Some supervisors will really try to protect important plans if you give them notice, others aren’t so flexible. Forget making regular evening plans however, as you never really know that you’re done until you’re out the door (and even then, work can come in at any time on your Blackberry).”
Still, you don’t get to be as profitable as Freshfields by clocking off early and the grind is “expected” by most. Much of this wedge comes from the firm’s vast overseas network (it has 28 offices in 16 countries) – to which Freshies’ youngsters have a pretty decent chance of being seconded. 40% have spent time abroad with the firm in locations such as Hong Kong, Singapore, New York and Berlin.
And finally… perks. If you want top freebies, look no further than Freshfields: there’s freshly made sushi every Tuesday and Thursday evening (by an expert chef, naturally), an in-house gym (free, of course), a winter ski trip (generously subsidised, you’ll be unsurprised to learn) and theatre tickets (half price, darling).