Stephenson Harwood specialises in litigation (which tends to be counter cyclical, doing particularly well in downturns), mid-tier corporate work and shipping, and has a string of offices in Asia with unusually deep roots. They date back to co-founder William Harwood’s time in Hong Kong, where he built close ties with the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (which would later become HSBC). Harwood would surely be delighted to know that approximately half of the firm’s annual intake (around 20 trainees) spend time on secondment in locations including Hong Kong, Singapore and Seoul.
Rookies report a high quality of work that is carried out with a “healthy balance of on-the-job training and structured programmes”. One tells us that the training “has varied between departments but the exposure to high-octane litigation work has been the best experience of my training contract. I don’t think you can obtain the same level of responsibility and exposure without compromising the quality and level of work in any other top City firm”.
A friendly culture prevails within the Stephenson Harwood ranks. One rookie explains that their trainee intake “has a strong bond and support network” fostered through various WhatsApp groups, trainee lunches, which “have been a real highlight of returning to the office” and regular social events. This positive vibe extends to junior associates too, who are “more than happy to help with questions”. Most partners are friendly and approachable, with the odd grouchy one, and help never seems to be far away for juniors: “There’s an emphasis on asking questions whenever you’re in doubt, regardless of how busy people are”, an insider reports.
Work/life balance isn’t too bad for corporate law. According to data gathered in the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey 2021-22, Stephenson Harwood had an average start time of around 9am and trainees generally finish between 7pm and 8pm, though this is said to be “very dependent on which team you are in”. One tells us: “Hours are relatively steady and manageable for a mid-tier firm, so it doesn’t eat into your evenings and weekends too often. Obviously there are busier periods which can scupper social plans but overall the work/life balance is good.” Another explained that “late nights do exist but are uncommon and don’t go unnoticed by your peers”, whilst a 7pm finish “is a normal/low-intensity day”.
Console yourself, millennials, with the perks. Stephenson Harwood offers pretty good ones. They include “heavily subsidised canteen and gym membership”, free private health insurance, access to a private GP for £5 a month, a £300 WFH allowance and wellbeing services such as “meditation apps, yoga, or access to online development courses”. A particular highlight for trainees are the free tickets to the Royal Albert Hall. Any eco-conscious aspiring lawyers will be pleased to hear that Stephenson Harwood has issued keep cups and reusable water bottles across the firm to reduce waste, and sources tell us that there are ongoing improvements to make the firm even more environmentally friendly.
The office is also quite nice, with “gorgeous Lutyens architecture and pretty decent facilities” and delightful-sounding olive trees outside the building. Trainees express their pleasure at it being “not another glass box”, but rather “a building with history and elegance (from the outside at least)”. Inside is “the normal corporate affair, although the glass doors and walls make it feel very open and accessible”. Be wary of the coffee machine, though, and the canteen’s “adventurous menu”.
Despite the generous WFH allowances, trainees have reported that the IT can often affect their ability to work. One junior told us: “I would say the connection to our internal file system could be a lot better, working from home usually means slow connection to the network and filesite is always crashing. Definitely something for IT to work on.” Another commented: “The innovation team is working on incorporating some new technologies, but the firm still has a long way to go.”
Stephenson Harwood has plateaued in recent times with revenue dipping by 2% to £209 million and profit per equity partner (PEP) dropping from £727,000 in the last disclosed PEP figures in 2019 to £685,000. Newly qualified (NQ) salaries have, however, stayed put after rising to £75,000 in 2019.
In pre-pandemic times the question on Stephenson Harwood rookie lawyers’ lips was surely: ‘Will we get another raise this year?’. But like many firms, Stephenson Harwood has opted for cautious consolidation after the financial hit of Covid-19. Going back in time, Stephenson Harwood’s PEP soared by around a record 50% in 2015. The restraint the firm has been showing since then is emblematic of a prudence that has seen the firm through nearly 150 years of very profitable existence after being founded as Harwood & Stephenson in 1875. No one seems quite sure when or why the order of the names were swapped around.