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Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) is arguably the most prestigious UK-headquartered law firm outside the Magic Circle. Indeed, its elite litigation and arbitration practice — which includes an in-house advocacy unit staffed by a host of KCs — is one of the best dispute resolution departments on the planet.
Juniors commended the high level of training and good quality work on offer throughout their training contract. You can expect “close monitoring from partners”, who are “always keen to answer questions and provide support”, insiders tell us. Another explains that this can be very dependent on who your supervisor is: “Some are really thoughtful and encouraging, looping you into exciting work and providing meaningful opportunities, others can be a little more aloof.”
You can also read all about the high calibre work you’ve been up to, claim insiders, who have been fortunate to do “lots of work ending up in newspapers”. But, as one rookie reveals, “the market deals are exciting, and in disputes, it’s great to be working on some of the most complex cases. However, as a trainee, that can mean being stuck in endless document review and verification”. This varies between departments, with finance and corporate tending to be more “administrative” and ““process heavy”, but disputes offering an opportunity to get stuck into an array of “fascinating” and “cutting-edge” cases. On the whole, it’s “a good balance” and the firm makes “an effort to allocate work to me that matches my aspirations”. It’s perhaps little surprise, then, that trainees are eager to stick around upon qualification — HSF records consistently high retention rates, most recently keeping on 27 out of 29 trainees (93%).
The firm’s merger with Australasian powerhouse Freehills in 2012 is still widely considered to be one of the more successful in corporate law, and has succeeded in adding scale while for the most part not disrupting one of the nicer cultures in the legal market. The firm’s appointment of its first female senior partner, Rebecca Maslen-Stannage, who is an M&A lawyer based in Sydney, signals the completeness of the firm’s Freehills tie-up and its commitment to change. HSF juniors also recognise that the firm is “big on sustainability” and provides “great environment training”, and this is supported by the firm’s commitment to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. The launch of a new office in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia maintains HSF’s 24-office global spread, after the firm recently shuttered its office in Seoul, Korea earlier this year. The firm will instead operate a new Korea group similar to what it offers in locations like Kazakhstan and Israel.
Now led by Hong Kong-based Justin D’Agostino, who was appointed CEO in May 2020, the firm’s strategy of sustainable expansion has proved particularly effective. Having broken the million mark for profit per equity partner (PEP) and the billion barrier for revenue back in 2020-21, financial performance has continued on an upward trajectory: this year the firm hit £1.186 billion in revenue and PEP of £1.17 million. And it is the firm’s countercyclical litigation expertise that has fuelled this steady growth despite tricky market conditions over the past year — HSF was instructed by Google to defend a £13.6 billion class action, for example.
“HSF undeniably has the best people” is a big claim, but it is evidenced, to a certain extent, by the firm’s consistently strong scores for peer support in the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey down the years, with trainees reporting a nice vibe in this year’s cohort. Juniors are “keen to support” and are known to “arrange coffees before seat changes to discuss their seat experiences”. As one source puts it: “On the LPC we all bonded, and we have maintained a support network throughout the TC, regularly organising social outings… You are never without someone to sit with in the canteen. People are always on hand in the office or on Teams to share know-how and offer support from their experience”.
Higher up the firm, partners, for the most part, are “accessible and highly approachable”. One insider elaborates: “Like with trainees, there’s the odd partner who is perhaps not as approachable as the rest, but I think you’d get that anywhere. They’re really busy but are generally happy to take time out to speak to you. I’ve had a brilliant partner mentor who I’ve gone for coffee with a couple of times each seat, who’s been very open about her experiences at the firm, career progression, balancing work and home life etc. We all share an office with our supervisors and I’ve been able to have quite easy conversations with each one, discussing work but also what they’ve been up to at the weekend, what their kids are doing etc.”
Work/life balance at HSF is better than at most firms in its class, especially given NQ pay now sits at £120,000. Consensus is that it varies greatly between departments, but things like birthdays and sporting commitments are generally well-protected. “If it is busy, it is extremely busy but everyone recognises the need for down time which is respected. Some weeks it’s 70+ hours, but then it’ll be leaving at 4pm for a few nights after” explains one insider. In general though, “there is no expectation to stay if there’s non-urgent work, however, when things are urgent, your presence is appreciated and you get free dinner/taxi to compensate”.
Another details: “In my first two seats I regularly worked until 10-11pm, in my last two seats I have usually finished between 5.30-7pm. Consistently though, people are respectful of special occasions and would encourage me to log off early on a birthday or if I have friends visiting etc, and no-one misses team Christmas or summer parties. Being asked to work on a weekend has only happened on a handful of occasions, very apologetically and the work has always been appreciated. Annual leave is respected, you are not expected to be monitoring emails.”
Work/life balance is also helped by working from home which is now commonplace with trainees only going into the office three days per week under the firm’s “pretty flexible” work from home policy. HSF provides their rookies with a new iPhone, Surface Pro laptop, Bluetooth mouse, headset and a £200 budget for anything else. Though well appreciated, a number of those surveyed recognised that the spend limit for IT equipment is somewhat limited compared to peer firms.
When it comes to perks, the offering is very respectable. HSF recruits enjoy the subsidised canteen and café, free Deliveroo after 7pm, a mortgage broker, concierge service and a £750 wellbeing fund that can be used “on anything fitness related”. The automatic coffee machines on every floor and free fruit are also a plus. When it comes to international secondments, our results show that trainees have spent time in overseas offices including Paris, Tokyo and Brisbane. Secondees apparently receive lots of freebies, such as gratis language lessons, a generous accommodation allowance and even a firm apartment in some locations. There are also client secondments to the likes of Sky, UBS and Marsh McLennan. The working hours are said to be often lower for secondees.
Back in London, the social life is apparently pretty good, with frequent drinks, table tennis tournaments and quizzes. One junior enthusiastically noted a “team outing to watch the cricket!” It’s also worth noting the firm is situated in one of the City’s more stylish offices — Exchange House, built in 1990, is a ‘building-bridge hybrid’ that sits above the trains coming in and out of Liverpool Street station. But there are apparently some major discrepancies between the floors, although further planned refurbishment should sort that out. While the upper levels have been refurbished and feature “whizzy” standing desks (be sure to check them out over on our TikTok page), nice chairs and brand new kitchens, the lower floors of Exchange House are said to be “a bit outdated” — and apparently even have the odd mouse. There is, however, a subsidised membership to a very snazzy Virgin Active next door, complete with Molton Brown products, as well as lots of decent pubs and bars for a post-work drink.