Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer seems to be navigating the pandemic reasonably well. In the firm’s latest financial results it posted a 3% uptick in revenue to £1.52 billion and held net profit stable at £685 million despite what the firm says is significant investment to support future growth. This includes a new City HQ, an ultra-modern skyscraper at 100 Bishopsgate, which it moves into later this year. But splashing the cash has seen profit per equity partner (PEP) fall slightly from £1.84 million to a still rather impressive £1.82 million.
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 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.” 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’ tech system, meanwhile, seems to have survived lockdown. “The IT has fared remarkably well with everyone working from home,” one source tells us, adding: “I would say that this has been the catalyst that Freshfields needed to upgrade its technology.” Another source says the firm is “constantly progressing [the] capabilities” of its tech, while its “innovation lab often do talks and encourage those with ideas to come forward.”
One insider documents the home-working support on offer: “We have been offered all the equipment we could want to make our home working comfortable. There have been regular all-London update calls in which we’ve felt supported and informed and every effort has been made by teams to keep up social events virtually to make the trainee experience as normal as possible.”
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. 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 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 cohort of trainees is generally good. 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 one trainee 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. Another Freshfields insider reports: “Partners 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). “Whilst you can’t make regular evening plans, if you have a special event, your superiors will make every effort to get you there if you let them know,” 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.”
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, including a new outpost in the world’s biggest tech hub Silicon Valley) — 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, 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”.