Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer is on a decent run. After a challenging 2017, it bounced back with some impressive 2018 financial results and this year has again delivered. Profit per equity partner (PEP) has risen by 6% to a huge £1.84 million, while revenue increased by 5% to a whopping £1.47 billion. To celebrate, Freshfields became the first and so far only magic circle firm to go truly MoneyLaw, upping salaries for its newly qualified solicitors to six figures: £100,000 plus bonus.
It’s probably accurate to characterise Freshfields as emerging from a period of transition, with the firm 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 of employee morale. But the signs are that Freshfields — which was founded way back in 1743 — is handling its latest reinvention well.
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”. Indeed, so closely do they work together that a visit to the Manchester office is now included as part of London trainees’ induction.
This 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.” Our insider continues: “It is generally understood (and put into practice) that trainees shouldn’t be used for pure processing capacity because the firm has services to facilitate process/quantity-heavy work, but inevitably when those services are overloaded by the many requests from fee-earners, or when those services fail to deliver, trainees pick up the slack.”
Freshfields’ embrace of legal technology products, meanwhile, still has some way to go. Despite making a lot of marketing noise about its interest in machine learning and the like, the reality on the ground can be a bit disappointing.
“An iPad rollout is not going to hide the fact that our IT is appalling,” groans one rookie.
Another adds: “IT needs a revamp. Yet to see the AI and legal tech which everyone talks about in the press actually come through into day-to-day work.”
While this one was a bit more upbeat: “Atrocious, work-hampering IT currently, but rapid improvements are being made.”
Freshfields’ young are pinning their hopes on improvements when the firm moves into its new home at 100 Bishopsgate, a new skyscraper currently under construction in the City, next year.
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:
“Genuinely excellent training. Sector-specific, practice-group specific, department-specific, sub-team specific. Some teams involve trainees in associate training. Ad-hoc training. Partners often deliver training. K[knowledge] lawyers are outstanding. Big focus on firm-wide digital training.”
In terms of work, the magic circle covenant of earning trust to access stimulating tasks applies. One trainee puts it like this: “You have to do your time on DD [due diligence] and doc review like everywhere else, but if you’re good you get lots of responsibility.”
Legal Cheek understands that the vibe among the current cohorts of trainees is really good. One rookie sums up the mood: “A large number of my intake still have lunch together every day, there is a standing 12.30 appointment for anyone who can make it (even for a two-minute chat before running back up to their desk). The trainee WhatsApp is constantly filled with people asking for help, and it is always forthcoming. The intake as a whole would not be impressed at all if word of snakey behaviour got round.”
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. Another Freshfields insider reports: “[P]artners are very willing to take the time to explain anything difficult, once asked. There are naturally a few bad eggs, but in general any lack of instruction is down to mistakenly assuming that everyone knows as much as they do, and once reminded of the fact that trainees don’t, most are very happy to teach.”
Hours can be long and grinding, with late evening (or beyond) departures from the office common place — although it varies according to department (litigation is said to be OK, corporate less so). “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).”
There does seem to have been an attempt this year to take the edge of it and it’s been noted that seniors are often apologising to trainees and junior associates when they pull them in for late night and weekend work.
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 nearly 30 offices in 16 countries) — to which Freshies’ youngsters have a pretty decent chance of being seconded. Almost 60% 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 an on-site doctor, dentist, beautician, masseuse and pastry chef, a free in-house gym (with personal trainers), a generously subsidised winter ski trip, two for one National Theatre tickets, regular lavish socials and even free pensions and mortgage advice. There’s even apparently a piano stashed away in the basement “which is an amazing thing to de-stress with when you have a spare 15-30 minutes”. A downside is the rather “tired” office, which apparently has a problem with mice. Freshfields’ move to the aforementioned 100 Bishopsgate skyscraper is eagerly anticipated.