For law students who can tell their port from their starboard, traditional shipping specialist HFW is calling. Insiders say that this buccaneering international law firm offers solid training and peer support with less of the ‘always on’ working culture you’ll find elsewhere in the City.
“Extremely good,” one insider says of HFW’s training package. It’s an “excellent structured programme” blending trainee-specific and firm-wide sessions, with a “good mix of transactional and litigation work”. Insiders also praise the “regular training sessions” and “attention to feedback”, although one warns the level of support can often “depend on the supervisor you get” indicating that a few are letting the side down. On the whole though, one rookie on the cusp of making NQ summarises their reaction: “I am very satisfied and feel prepared to become an associate”.
HFW has branched out from maritime law in recent years, building its business in other sectors like energy, commodities and construction. The involvement of trainees at the sharp end of all this activity does vary depending on the seat. “I have done my fair share of preparing bundles,” one source tells us, “but I am also asked to do work that is genuinely interesting.”
At its best, the work is hands-on with lots of client exposure. “I have written a memo to a blue chip client which was sent off largely unedited, done my fair share of original drafting, and been heavily involved in intense contract negotiations lasting well into the night,” says one spy. However, there are still a lot of admin tasks like bundling, document production and document review. So it is a balance between the “very stimulating” and the “mind-dumbing document-based tasks”. Another rookie says they’re “given more responsibility and ownership over matters” compared to their peers at other firms, although administrative and document processing tasks are par for the course.
Budding lawyers keen to spread their wings are in for a treat, as international secondments are built into the training programme with nearly half of trainees we spoke to doing one. During the pandemic, the firm saw newbies support overseas offices such as the Dubai outpost remotely. But now back in full swing, trainees have recently jetted off to destinations such as Paris, Piraeus, Monaco, Geneva and Singapore.
Back at London HQ, the well-located, well-sized office is “somewhat unimpressive” by the admittedly high standards of the City. “There are rumours the landlord is going to knock the building down and rebuild on the site once we move out, which likely explains the state of the interior and why things are constantly breaking!” says one, although many respondents to the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey 2022-23 were quick to praise the “nice garden”. But never fear! By the start of 2023, HFW will have moved to 8 Bishopsgate, dubbed ‘London’s most sustainable tall office tower’, and already lauded by insiders who expect it to be “very impressive” and “a massive improvement”.
The IT is also “better after recent upgrades” which include “brand new, very expensive laptops which handle tasks very well”, a welcome from the old hardware that had a habit of “exploding just opening Outlook”. Similarly, HFW’s remote-working support also prompted mixed responses. This is a fair assessment of the current situation: “Nothing that makes it incredibly seamless or innovative but I have had to work from home a lot due to illness and it’s completely manageable.” Despite being a little slow off the mark, trainees are now provided with a second screen, mouse, keyboard and an office chair with the firm running a three-day-a-week in the office policy.
Unlike its maritime clients, though, equipment isn’t close to the most important thing to an outfit like HFW. In a classic service industry like law, people are what matter, and pretty much everyone at HFW is lovely. The 30 or so trainees are a close-knit bunch with nothing bad to say about one another (trust us, we asked). It’s “a thoroughly decent, down-to-earth atmosphere” with impressively high retention rates which minimise the scope for back-biting among competing trainees. “I genuinely couldn’t have been thrown in with a more lovely bunch of people. We are genuinely all friends,” one chuffed trainee concludes.
As for those further up the ladder, one newbie offers this experience: “All the senior members of the firm that I have come across have been very supportive and approachable when I had questions about the seat, work or anything, really! For those that have a ‘reputation’, it is usually the case that you just need to know how and when to approach them. There are very few like that at the firm in my experience though!” Shipping partners apparently have a particularly good rep for ensuring trainees are warmly welcomed aboard at HFW.
Generally great vibes spill outside the office, with regular trainee drinks making up for a perceived lack of organised fun. The firm’s trainee-run Instagram account gives a flavour of the sesh, as well as some seriously envy-inducing snaps from those exotic overseas postings. The London office’s best feature, the aforementioned courtyard garden, plays host to after-work events in summer, while another multi-lingual rookie gives the firm’s “remote Spanish and French classes” a big thumbs-up. That’s about it for perks, which are unusually scanty for a firm this size.
Following a reduction in headcount, HFW produced flat financial results with revenue dipping 1% to just below £200 million whilst profit per equity partner was down 2% from last year’s 30% jump that had brought the figure to a record £683,000. Besides the smaller headcount, the firm blamed a strong pound sterling for minimising its achievements – the firm gets 60% of its revenues from overseas.
Newly qualified pay sits at a very respectable £85,000, especially given that HFW newbies enjoy a decent work/life balance. This insider offered a candid view: “When it’s busy it’s busy and you have to stay late to get the work done, but on the whole, my work/life balance is pretty good. We also have a resource management team which helps to share out the workload which definitely helps you avoid too many late nights!” Others highlight how they are “mostly able to make weekday social plans” (a rarity in the City law game) and claim their work/life balance is “much better than friends at other law firms”. Ultimately it’s a pretty good deal: “As a general rule the work/life balance is absurdly good for the salary.”