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 Asian offices 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 around half of the firm’s annual intake of around 20 trainees each year spend time on secondment in locations including Hong Kong, Singapore and Seoul.
Rookies report very good levels of training and quality of work. One tells us: “It 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. Among the trainees there are various WhatsApp groups and regular social events (when there isn’t a pandemic going on), although a few report feeling that “an ‘SH type’” of trainee dominates slightly and can leave those on the fringes a bit left out. Most partners are friendly and approachable, with the odd grouchy one (perhaps miffed by their reduced PEP coming at a time of rising junior lawyer salaries!).
Work/life balance isn’t too bad for corporate law. According to data gathered in the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey 2020-21, in pre-COVID times, Stephenson Harwood had an average arrival time of around 9am and trainees generally left between 7pm and 8pm. The fortunes of trainees can vary. One tells us: “In all honesty [work/life balance] is not as great as I was led to believe. Some trainees appear to have coasted through their TCs, but I’ve had several stretches where I haven’t seen my housemates for weeks on end.” Another says that a 7pm finish “is a normal/low-intensity day”.
Console yourself, millennials, with the perks. Stephenson Harwood offers pretty good ones. They include “a huge discount on gym membership”, a subsidised dental plan and 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 tells 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 machine coffee, though, and the canteen’s “adventurous menu”.
Trainees have reported positively in terms of the firm’s response to COVID-19. Insiders tell us that “each person has been given a tech fund of £150 for buying equipment such as a new screen, desk etc” and fee-earners already had firm-issued laptops pre-lockdown which “made the shift to working from home much easier” another insider adds. On the social side trainees “try to make the best out of the situation with Zoom coffee meetings and Friday evening drinks” and we’re told that there are regular quizzes and team catch ups.
In recent years Stephenson Harwood has shown solid growth with revenue hitting £213 million and profit per equity partner (PEP) up to £727,000 in the firm’s most recently disclosed financial results released in 2019. The move to increase partner pay came after the firm surprisingly cut PEP in previous years to £664,000 (despite posting a 6% revenue rise) while simultaneously increasing newly qualified (NQ) salaries from £66,000 to £75,000. 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 may take a financial hit during the COVID-19 affected financial year.
The context to recent anti-fat cat behaviour is that Stephenson Harwood’s PEP soared by around 50% in 2015, which was a record year for the firm. The restraint it 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.