Beyond the realms of the Magic Circle, Norton Rose Fulbright is one of the biggest UK-headquartered law firms in the world, with global revenues just shy of $2 billion (£1.77 billion). The firm’s UK arm saw pre-tax profits rise from £131 million to £152 million, according to the latest financial results available, while turnover increased 2% to £483 million.
The sheer scale and internationalism of the operation, with nearly 60 offices across five continents, is a major draw to would-be lawyers; as is the quality of the work at a firm that is particularly well thought of for its finance, energy, property, high-end insurance and transport practices. And the pay isn’t half bad either ― despite cutting NQ pay in response to the pandemic, the latest increase to £105,000 takes NQs at the firm back to a playing field almost level to that of other large international firms such as Mayer Brown, Ashurst and Baker McKenzie.
A “strong emphasis on training” is something you’d expect from an international mega firm. Current trainees speak highly of the “vast wealth of materials, resources and manpower dedicated to training, in addition to a fantastic culture that is conducive to education”. However, some note that they would like to have more structured training sessions across every department, as opposed to the more “sink or swim approach” taken in some teams. One rookie more generously puts it like this: “The firm offers a very good blend of training modules, and then practical application of this training in actual work. Partners and supervisors are very keen to put trainees on the front line (with the necessary support and guidance) to get practical experience alongside the training”. Another point to note is the lack of training post-qualification ― “there is no formal programme once you qualify. Compared to other firms it is really lacking,” one spy tells Legal Cheek.
Tech-wise, the frustration of trainees is palpable. While there are “lots of specialist products” available to the trainees, “the day-to-day IT is terrible and constantly breaking”, which “makes work all the more frustrating when it does not need to be”. The uptake of new tech internally also could do with improvement, though this appears to be slowly happening: “The area where the firm needs to improve is the adoption of the legal tech internally. Often times partners insist on doing things the ‘old-fashioned way’ despite the firm having specific software available, which makes the process much more efficient when it comes to certain tasks. This is not too major an issue as more mid-level and senior lawyers have now started adopting the legal tech anyway,” one rookie explains.
The firm’s approach to WFH also seems to be a bit hit-and-miss with trainees. One trainee called the WFH set-up budget ― which is between £240-£300 ― “stingy”, while another called it “generous”. Likewise, different teams appear to feel differently about trainees opting to work from home rather than at the office: “Some teams are very supportive of hybrid working, and completely understand that some people work better at home and others work better at the office, leaving it very much as your choice. However, there are still some corporate teams who are known to get angry with employees if they don’t attend the office four days a week, with certain partners making comments about lazy employees or similar.”
But the quality of work makes up for this. “It’s top of the market work,” one rookie told Legal Cheek, adding that “many of the deals we are involved in are high profile, high value and really interesting subject matter”. While the calibre of work given to trainees is “department-specific”, this is not unexpected: “Of course there are typical trainee tasks, such as bundling and cross-referencing, but if you can prove you are able to do the simple tasks well associates and partners are happy to let you take responsibility and run work streams yourself and engage with the client directly.” Another insider reports: “The more contentious or regulatory teams have a lot of interesting research tasks [so] that the work trainees do will go on to form the backbone of the advice being given to clients, and transactional seats are involved in a plethora of international transactions to sink your teeth into”.
NRF offers a veritable smorgasbord of international secondment opportunities, with just under 20% (a figure that without pandemic disruption normally sits at around 50%) reporting spending time overseas with work. Far-flung destinations include *deep breath* Japan, Paris, Australia, Singapore, Milan, Moscow, New York, Dubai and Athens. Meanwhile, nearly a fifth of trainees have done client secondments, spending time at, among other big names, ExxonMobil, BP and HSBC.
The pandemic has clearly impacted the “trainee social scene” at the firm, but with this pressure easing, there is light on the horizon. “It’s been harder to build a rapport when working from home, but everyone is very supportive and happy to answer questions,” one insider reports, with another calling the environment at the firm “very supportive”.
Meanwhile, the approachability of superiors seems to be a case of picking your moment, and superior, carefully. One rookie explains: “Many partners and more senior lawyers make time to have a teams catch up, although this tends to be a moving target during busy times as client calls can easily dominate a partner’s calendar,” while another reflects that “some associates and partners are approachable but others not so much”.
One source also praises the firm’s Europe and Middle East managing partner Peter Scott, appointed in early 2020, “who has made a real effort to engage with all levels of fee earners and non-fee earners to understand the issues important to them”. More recently, the firm has seen a slew of new appointments globally, including Shelley Chapelski becoming the new Head of the Transport Division in Canada, Carter Crow becoming Global Head of Employment and Labor, and Saskia Blokland taking on the role of managing partner of the firm’s Amsterdam office. This follows a change of personnel further up NRF’s chain of command, with Peter Martyr ending his 18-year stint at the firm’s global helm, one of the longest-serving leadership tenures in BigLaw. Martyr is credited with transforming the firm from a magic circle pretender to becoming a global giant in its own right. The firm is now headed by the Texas-based former head of disputes Gerry Pecht.
Juniors spend a fair chunk of their time at the office, according to our findings. Hours can fluctuate from department to department, with one respondent offering up this personal experience: “There is not facetime culture at NRF, so I have genuinely been able to clock off at 17:00 a few times. With that said, that was usually in teams whose work is naturally more steady, and during quieter times. Sitting in a transactional seat, you can make evening plans during weekdays, but always be prepared to have to reschedule. Weekends are almost always sacred, with a few rare exceptions, often approaching a challenging closing.” The general consensus seems to be that, for a City firm, life isn’t too bad ― “For a big city law firm, I have been pleasantly surprised but having said that I would never make week night plans,” one trainee summarised. Another commented: “Whilst the role of a junior lawyer isn’t one that pairs up well with a healthy work/life balance, I think that NRF has one of the better balances of the large City law firms.”
Perks are a bit of a sore point for trainees. While they include the standard private medical insurance and discounted gym membership, one rookie notes that beyond this, “a lot of the perks currently available are tailored to a pre-Covid world, and have not yet been properly transitioned to the reality of hybrid working”. The juniors aren’t quite so understanding about the canteen on offer ― “[it] closes at 4pm now which is ridiculous” and “is quite expensive for what it is”. Ouch.
But the views from the office certainly help. The firm’s London office — sitting prettily on the South Bank of the Thames in all its glass and steel splendour — is widely heralded among trainees as “the best office out of all the UK law firms”. One insider enthuses: “When you look up from your desk, you have incredible views of the Thames, the Shard, the Tower of London and Tower bridge, all directly out of your window. Walking into work makes you feel like it’s all worth [it] and like you are in an episode of Suits, with an impressive glass building and beautiful views across Tower Bridge, the Shard and the City of London.” Another tells us: “Certainly the best view in London! Wouldn’t swap it for any others!” Rookies also praise the renovated office floors which boast “very modern” interiors.
If being eco-conscious ranks high on your priorities, the rookies also have ample praise for the firm here: “Our firm is very environmentally friendly and eco-conscious! Caroline May, a partner from our Environmental law team, does a lot to keep the firm updated on methods to become greener. There are also regular initiatives and charity events!”