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 QCs — is one of the best dispute resolution departments on the planet.
Juniors commended the high level of training and good quality work throughout their training contract. “Supervisors are generally very good and take time to give proper feedback,” one insider tells us, while another explains how the “tailored training sessions” at the start of each seat really help rookies find their feet quickly in their new surroundings. But insiders also say the quality of work can vary 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” cases and “interesting research tasks”.
The firm’s merger with Australasian powerhouse Freehills in 2012 is still widely considered to be one of the more successful of recent times 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. But City whispers last year of further growth through a possible transatlantic tie-up appear to have come to nothing.
HSF again scored well for peer support in the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey, with trainees reporting a nice vibe in this year’s cohort. “Everyone in my intake is very friendly to each other — there’s no competition or underhand tricks,” according to one source. This “great camaraderie” is said to have continued throughout lockdown too.
Higher up the firm, partners, for the most part, are “very approachable and supportive”. 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.”
HSF did, however, fail to replicate last year’s impressive double digit profit per equity partner (PEP) growth. This year PEP slipped 9.7% to £857,000, having previously jumped 11% to £949,000 the year before, whiles revenues hit £989.9 million, a modest uptick of 2.5%. The firm’s recently appointed CEO, Justin D’Agostin, contended revenue growth would have been stronger but for the onset of COVID-19, which saw it temporarily reduce partner profit distributions, suspend salary reviews and delay the start dates of some of its future trainee solicitors.
Work/life balance at HSF is better than at most firms in its class, with an average arrival time towards 9:30am and an average leave time of around 8pm. “There is no expectation to stay if there’s non-urgent work,” one trainee explains, “however, when things are urgent, your presence is appreciated and you get free dinner/taxi to compensate.” Another offers up this tale from the front line: “Of course it varies from seat to seat. I had to stay until 3am on my birthday but it was appreciated, and I was marched out of the office early the following day. Equally I have had seats where I’m consistently out by 7:30pm along with most of the rest of the team.”
The consensus among the junior ranks is the firm handled the lockdown pretty well. “Good support from IT and superiors”, one source explains, with supervisors checking in regularly with trainees to ensure they are getting as well rounded an experience as possible. Weekly virtual catch-ups between team members appear to have gone well too.
Perks and international secondment levels are very respectable. Around a quarter of trainees have spent time in an overseas office, with Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Moscow, Dubai, Sydney, Singapore and Seoul among the locations. Secondees apparently receive lots of freebies, such as gratis languages lessons, a generous accommodation allowance and even a firm apartment in some locations. There are also frequent client secondments, to the likes of Sky, UBS and BAE Systems. The working hours are said to be often lower for secondees.
Back in London, and when staff aren’t stuck working from home, the social life is apparently pretty good, with frequent “drinks trolleys”, table tennis tournaments and quizzes. It’s also worth noting that 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. While the upper levels have been refurbished and feature “whizzy desks” that move between standing and sitting (be sure to check them out over on our TikTok page), the lower floors of Exchange House are said to be “a bit outdated” — and apparently have the odd mouse. There is, however, a subsidised membership to a very snazzy Virgin Active next door, complete with Molton Brown products that will no doubt make all this extra handwashing much more enjoyable.
Rookies have also benefitted from HSF’s investment in technology over recent years. Surface Pro laptops have been handed out liberally, alongside iPhones and HD curved monitors for static computers. However, the firm still has some way to go. “[It’s] really pushing innovation in areas such as automated contracts and blockchain, but some of the basic systems are a pain so it would probably be useful to sort that first,” one source says.