For law students who can tell their port from their starboard, traditional shipping specialists HFW are calling. Insiders say that this buccaneering international law firm offers good training and peer support with less of the 24/7 working hours culture you’ll see elsewhere in the City.
“Honestly don’t think it could have been any better,” 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”. The saltiest seadogs might even get to “visit a ship with a master mariner which was a real highlight”.
In fairness, 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. Those in litigation, which the firm is known for, do lend themselves to preparing bundles of paperwork for trial. “Obviously get my fair share of disclosure, proofreading etc. but a lot of drafting pleadings and advices, attending client meetings, going to court,” runs one typical comment. “Generally trusted with the first draft of correspondence and court papers. Occasionally hit with disclosure exercises,” says another trainee.
Budding lawyers keen to spread their wings are in for a treat, as international secondments are built into the training programme. The only possible downside is that you’re going whether you like it or not: “Everyone in the firm has to do a secondment abroad, even if you don’t want to”, we’re told, and there’s “very little in the way of listening to where you actually want to go”. It’s a tough life, honestly, not being able to take your pick between Dubai, Melbourne, Paris, Singapore or Shanghai… pre-corona, of course.
Back at the ranch, the “functional, comfortable but not particularly impressive” facilities are nothing to write home about by the admittedly high standards of the City. We hear the word “dated” thrown around a lot, and that applies in spades to the office IT: “Microsoft 2007. Need I say more?” Another adds: “Let’s not even talk about it.” But improvements are in the offing, so by the time the current crop of LPC-ers get through the door things might be up to scratch.
Yet, the firm adjusted well to remote-working in the wake of COVID-19. Initial teething problems were sorted within the first few weeks of the lockdown being imposed. “It was more or less ‘business as usual’ and I did not expect that,” a trainee tells us. Another tells us it can be tricky to “get anything beyond a USB headset and monitor for your WFH set-up”.
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 “good collegiate culture with minimal politics”, thanks in part to an impressively high retention rate which minimises the scope for backbiting among competing trainees. “Couldn’t have trained with a more fun bunch of people,” one chuffed trainee concludes. With a few exceptions, most HFW partners are included in the love-in: they’re generally seen as an approachable bunch. Though one trainee tells it how it is: “Most partners are great. The aloof, arrogant douchebags though… those really bring the score down.”
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, its own courtyard garden, plays host to after-work events in summer. That’s about it for perks, which are unusually scanty for a firm this size.
The firm has taken a tumble in terms of turnover and profit per equity partner (PEP) in recent years but its most recently disclosed financials show it has bounced back. Revenue has soared 10% to £195 million and PEP is back above the half a million mark from £481,000 to £526,000. The firm had put recent drops down to awaiting return on costly investments: HFW recently set up shop in Abu Dhabi and yacht-haven Monaco, for example. It’s now looking like those investments are yielding good results.
Working hours at HFW are seen as tough but fair. Trainees can get a softer deal at a regional firm, for example, but it’s not as bad as the 12-hour days and email-filled nights notorious at some US firms. One HFW new boy says the work/life balance is “generally good. A few nightmarish patches here and there, but often out by 7/8. We’re lucky”. That’s echoed by others: “Generally really good, although hours can fluctuate wildly, and some departments are known for very long hours”.