Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer has come out of the pandemic strong, with the firm delivering its fifth consecutive year of growth in its latest financial results. Freshfields posted a 5% uptick in revenue climbing to £1.59 billion, whilst profit per equity partner (PEP) grew to an impressive £1.91 million – again a rise of 5%. This follows last year’s muted results that the firm put down to significant investment in a new City HQ and the launch of a new outpost in Silicon Valley, both of which seem to be paying off.
It’s probably accurate to characterise Freshfields as emerging from a period of transition, with a new leadership team taking over in January 2021. The seven-partner Silicon Valley office that should boost its tech, antitrust and life sciences practices, marks further investment in the US market following spurts of lateral hires over the past few years.
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. 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”.
That said, Freshfields rookies lamented the firm’s “tight-fistedness” in their £100 remote working budget. “No chair, no second monitor, laptops from the dark ages”, complains one, whilst another grumbles “the IT systems continue to waste hours each day with inefficiency”. The “pretty advanced” legal tech was treated less harshly by trainees, though one argues that the developments in the firm’s capabilities should be better communicated to its lawyers.
However, consensus suggests that the legal tech is doing its job. One newbie details their experience: “The automation has really lowered the workload of contract proofing etc. I have been here for 4 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”.
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 due diligence ad doc review like everywhere else, but if you’re good you get lots of responsibility”.
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 there are always going to be a couple of people with an agenda. One rookie offers us this contrasting take: “There is a lot of politics and manoeuvring to become best friends with the partners to increase secondment and qualification chances, which often means some of the quieter, hardest working trainees are ignored by the partners completely”.
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”.
And this is said to extend to building a team spirit at the firm. Another spy told Legal Cheek: “Beyond work, the partners across all departments have made a real effort especially during lockdown to reach out to junior members of the team, including trainees, to catch up on a more informal basis. Associates have also been very proactive organising a whole host of different social events. They’ve done as much as they possibly can to give trainees as true a sense of each team as possible during remote working”.
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). “When it comes to the really important stuff (family, life-events etc.), partners/associates are uncompromisingly supportive. On a more general basis, they are as supportive as can be up to the point that support interferes with client demands. In the event of a clash, they will always do their best to fashion a solution — but the client comes first and the work will fall on someone,” one trainee reveals.
But another rookie had this to say: “[The hours are] not as awful as you’d think, although I think I’ve gotten away with it slightly more than others. I’ve been here nearly a year now and worked only a handful of weekends, and even then that work hasn’t interfered with my plans — I’ve never missed a football game on a Saturday, for example. I generally don’t make weekday evening plans as we are busy, but on the odd occasion I have needed to get away, people have been really accommodating of this if you give them advance notice”.
However, many trainees told us that WFH had worsened the work/life balance. Here’s one rookies experience: “Department-specific but lockdown and WFH has made this a lot worse. There’s an expectation that you’ll be near your desk pretty much all the time (because there were so many restrictions) and that meant that people would send me requests throughout the weekend and very late into the evening. There was also no clarity on whether these tasks could wait until Monday/the next day so you felt obliged to turn to them then and there”.
There are, however, hopes that a return to office hour norms and the new agile working policy (up to 50% of the time away from the office) will help improve the situation going forward.
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. Around a third have spent time abroad with the firm in locations such as Hong Kong, Singapore, New York and Berlin. It is however worth noting that under normal circumstances (i.e. when there’s not a global pandemic) around 60% of rookies report spending time overseas.
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, 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, top of the line Hag Sofi chairs (“so comfortable”), so much designer furniture that you feel like you “walked into a showroom”. According to one rookie, the office is “so comfortable I’d rather be there than my own home!”.