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.
Trainees rave about the quality of training and work in HSF’s flagship division, where, alongside the junior level admin-based tasks, there is exposure to some huge cases and “a fair bit of direct client contact”. One reports: “The firm’s market-leading position in disputes allowed me to work on cutting edge, high profile cases which I found rewarding. Definitely felt like I was at the ‘top of my game’, which was great for an aspiring disputes lawyer. Obviously had to do my share of bundling tasks (you do anywhere) but also got to carry out substantive research, discuss with more senior colleagues, draft letters to opposing counsel and attend client meetings and court (in my first and second seats). Don’t think I could have got better disputes training elsewhere.”
However, since merging with Australasian powerhouse Freehills in 2012 – to assume true megafirm status, serving 20 countries across 27 offices – HSF has become increasingly known for the range of its practice, which these days spans every area of corporate law you can imagine. Priorities at the moment reportedly include energy, banks, financial buyers, fintech, real estate, TMT, infrastructure and transport, mining, consumer products, pharma and healthcare.
The merger is seen as 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. And there could be more growth on the cards, with news emerging this year that HSF is in the market for a US tie-up. To that end, the firm has been strengthening its New York office as, according to HSF CEO Mark Rigotti, it positions for “sensible strategic combination opportunities”.
HSF scored an A* for peer support in the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey 2018-19, with trainees reporting a nice vibe in this year’s intake. “Embarrassingly so or not, I spend most weekends with the other trainees in my cohort – some of which have become some of my closest friends!” one tells us.
Higher up the firm most people are “friendly and down to earth”. One insider elaborates: “Like with trainees, there’s the odd partner who’s 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.”
An example of the long-term ethos among the partners is their decision to take a 2.5% pay cut last year despite boosting revenue by nearly 11%. There has been a pay-off for the move this year as HSF profit per equity partner (PEP) bounced back by 12%, rising from £760,000 to £852,000. Newly qualified solicitor remuneration has enjoyed a corresponding jump, reaching £93,000 with bonuses.
Work/life balance at HSF is better than at most firms in its class, with an average arrive time of 9:17am and an average leave time of 8:05pm. Here is one fairly typical dispatch from the frontline: “I think the worst week I ever had was one where I had consistent 1-2am finishes, but that was in the run up to a hearing — it didn’t last long and isn’t representative of the hours I’ve worked over the rest of my TC. I’d say on a normal week I’d be out by 7-30pm most nights and on the odd occasion I’ve had to work later, people have appreciated it. Trainees missing one-off events like weddings or holidays is virtually unheard of — if you tell your supervisor far enough in advance, they’ll usually make sure you get to go.”
Perks and international secondment levels are very respectable. Around a third 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 in some locations a firm apartment. There are also frequent client secondments, to the likes of Sky, IBM and human rights group Liberty. The working hours are said to be often lower for secondees.
Back in London, HSF’s young lawyers benefit from a wide range of societies (including the City’s only trainee solicitor women lawyer’s network) and an in-house Benugos. 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 floor six is apparently “lovely and new”, and features motorised adjustable desks that move between standing and sitting, other levels of the building are rather more ordinary. There is however a subsidised membership to a very snazzy Virgin Active next door, complete with Molton Brown products.
Rookies have also benefitted from HSF’s investment in technology this year. 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. “Finding emails from 2014 on our system is worse than the archival research I did for my medieval history degree,” quips one trainee.