With first-class rankings, a 24-carat reputation and multi-billion value cases, this firm is walking through Freshfields of gold.
Back at the turn of the millennium, while the rest of London was in party mood building oversized domes and ferris wheels, and rocking out to NSYNC, the legal community celebrated by creating a rare masterpiece called Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. Put simply, the firm is a world leader. Freshfields is one of just three that Chambers Global places at the top of the worldwide dispute resolution table, and among the five firms in the top tier of the global M&A market. We usually depict firm strength by listing other rankings, but we'd exceed the word count with Freshfields – if you can think of a commercial legal service, they've probably got a ranking somewhere in the world. The 'original' Freshfields is celebrating its 275th birthday in 2018, but trainee recruitment partner Andrew Austin tells us "the message isn’t that we’re really old! We’re moving forwards, we’re innovative. It’s much less traditional than you would think."
"If you don’t know what you want to do but want to do commercial law, Freshfields is great because you can see so much of it.”
The magic circle prestige was an obvious draw to our interviewees, but why did they pick Freshfields over the rest? The eight seat set-up, many agreed, was the "deal-clincher" giving trainees the chance to dip their toes in up to eight three-month seats during their contract. "If you don’t know what you want to do but want to do commercial law, Freshfields is great because you can see so much of it.” As well as dipping toes, Freshfields also has many fingers in a lot of pies: 28 offices across 17 jurisdictions means "almost everything has an international element.” The most recent expansion was closer to home, however: the firm opened a legal services centre in Manchester in 2015. The Manc team is in charge of “process-driven work – it takes a lot of work off trainees' hands to free them up to do more exciting stuff” – though we’ll get into whether the latter statement holds true later.
In theory, trainees can fit eight different seats into their training contracts, although in practice many double up on the seats they like – "sometimes the problem with just doing three-month seats is you can feel like you didn’t see much of the department.” Any corporate or financial sub-seat can be doubled in length, but disputes sub-seats are limited to one three-month stint. However, trainees are permitted to do two separate dispute resolution seats in a row. The firm expects its trainees to complete at least one seat in corporate, one in finance, and one in dispute resolution. First seats are allocated at random and for subsequent seats, trainees put their top three choices down. Starting your second seat, “you’re warned you’re the lowest in the pecking order. Whatever happens, happens. Then with each seat after that, you move up through the ranks in priority.” The process itself is partly based on appraisals, but we heard that it's often "about luck and trainee capacity.” Our sources were pretty understanding, though: “When trying to allocate 120 people every three months, it’s really hard to cater to every single person’s preference.”
Trainees can use their last six months to go on overseas or client secondment. Overseas options include Hong Kong, Singapore and New York, and the firm pays for flights and accommodation. “When we were applying, we were under the impression that everyone who wanted a secondment would get one. But that’s not true,” we were told. "One problem is the sense of competition that emerges from that.” Trainees are given a list of what secondments are available and trainees rank offices and can write a short reasoning. A deciding factor is the trainee's formal appraisals, which “makes it challenging – not everyone hits the ground running in the appraisals and not all departments treat it in the same way.”
"The responsibility is taken to a different level when you know the buck stops with you.”
The corporate seats are a big deal. Recent headline deals include advising Aberdeen Asset Management on its £11 billion merger with investment company Standard Life, and Tesco's £3.7 billion merger with food wholesaler Booker Group. The group covers both public and private M&A, private equity, reorganisation work, capital markets and corporate governance between its four teams: A, B, C and D. Corporate A does transactional and regulatory work which includes large-scale M&A for heavily regulated companies. Corporate B deals with "the private equity side of things” and was a popular choice for our interviewees. While "very fast paced and fairly intense,” we heard that, “the level of work means there’s a lot of scope for trainees to take charge of their own tasks. The responsibility is taken to a different level when you know the buck stops with you.” Our sources were responsible for things like collating local counsel opinions, updating documents, writing up board minutes, responding to client queries and completing work in progress reports. C does a mix of "general public M&A and private M&A, capital markets, IPOs, that kind of thing...”
Corporate D specialises in sectors including telecoms and oil and gas. It also houses a transactional IP/IT team, which covers the usual pharma and tech work and also recently acted for AB InBev (owners of Budweiser, Corona and Stella) in its transfer of brands such as Peroni, Grolsch and Tyskie to Asahi. Trainees here got their hands on "a mixture of work – some general advisory work and IP GDPR, but also a whole raft of transactional stuff.” The “very technical research” and the more “creative side helping draft presentations” meant that trainees overall felt they were “very lucky to get this seat.”
The finance department also has a few subgroups. Trainees we spoke to had mainly gravitated towards general corporate finance and restructuring and insolvency, but the wider team also covers infrastructure finance, capital markets, real estate finance, and securitisation among other areas. As well as doing "bits and bobs of due diligence,” trainees have a go at prospectus updates, drafting board minutes, signing processes and a bit of research. “It’s not just plugging in figures or updating a spreadsheet,” trainees insisted, “you run with it – it can be scary though!” Recent work includes advising Morgan Stanley in connection with the partial return (€12 billion) of Allied Irish Banks to private ownership following a bail-out by the Irish government during the financial crisis. The firm also advised the Republic of Lebanon on the update of its $28 billion note programme. Work in restructuring “stands apart – it’s a mix of transactional and disputes-y, litigious stuff. It should really be its own thing.”
Both in London and in the worldwide rankings, Chambers Global puts Freshfields in the top rank for dispute resolution. Trainees can do stints in subgroups such as IP, commercial, arbitration, environment, financial and competition, as well as the option to do three months as a generalist. Finance litigation trainees have the chance to work with global finance institutions and large multinational countries, as well as private clients. The competition group just helped out the transactional groups on Tesco's Booker merger to make sure Tesco aren't getting too big for their boots.
"Some of the coolest work available at Freshfields.”
The Commercial Disputes Group (CDG) houses one of the most revered litigation teams in London. It is popular with trainees and the types of cases in this group are extremely international – a recent case saw the group acting for a Singapore-based entity of agriculture company Cargill (the largest privately held corporation in the US) in a claim brought against Uttam Galva Steels India over alleged breach of supply contract arrangements. International arbitration does a mix of commercial and investor-state arbitration, which interviewees hailed as "some of the coolest work available at Freshfields.” Cases are headline-making: the firm recently represented three huge petroleum companies in their $26 billion (plus $40 billion in counterclaims) dispute with the government of Iraqi Kurdistan over the delayed development of some petroleum fields. Over on the investor-state side, the team is representing Deutsche Telekom in an arbitration against the Republic of India over DT’s investment in a satellite-terrestrial communications business in India. Trainees here found it “cool" communicating with government bodies and “did really interesting stuff, like drafting a 60-page memo of advice to a client considering suing a government – there’s a lot of juicy research!”
Trainee tasks in the other subgroups tend not to vary too much – "what matters more is when you join – your experience will vary depending on when you join the case." In the beginning, "you can basically be sat in the department for three months and mainly do doc review. It really can be boring!” The middle stages are “when you’d get to do drafting – I drafted a witness statement.” When the case is at trial, trainees are mainly bundling – “I spent all my entire weekend bundling… it’s not so fascinating.” Tasks that run throughout include research and drafting advice notes. Although our sources imparted a definite sense of hierarchy, the idea that this was an immensely valuable training ground was not disputed.
It’s coming home
Interviewees rated their training as "well structured and formal – the content and frequency is very comprehensive,” which is the expectation from magic circle firms, known for offering the beefiest training around. Trainees have to juggle their work with two types of mentor training (partner and junior associate), weekly generic training, weekly seat-specific training, formal introductory processes every seat change, and mid-seat and end-of-seat reviews. On top of this, in some seats trainees are then paired up to give a 45-minute presentation on a specific piece of knowledge to their peers: “It’s a very easy way of people judging your work – a direct exposure to the kind of person you are. It’s easy to build up pressure in your head, like the school play but for grown-ups!”
Life at a magic circle firm is hard work and Freshfields is no exception – the hours are "consistently long." Typical hours we heard were 9am to 8pm, but there are “horrific periods,” which typically came during trial in DR seats and deal-closing in transactional seats: “At worst it’s a 2am or 3am for a month – getting in at 9.30am the next day.” Getting our beauty sleep is important to us on the Chambers Student team, so we wondered how those at Freshfields fit this in: “We sleep on the weekends!” was the response. “It’s not actually that unreasonable,” trainees were quick to remind us. “If you have plans and you make it clear in advance, then you can get to them.” Those looking for some plain sailing should get themselves into IP or tax, where “you’re often done at 6pm!”
“Our reaction was like England had won the whole World Cup!”
We're not big on the cliché ‘work hard, play hard’ but it's acceptable, given that Freshfields could have invented the phrase. “We have the mixed rugby tour, mixed netball tour, mixed hockey tour, football tour, casual cricket and tennis,” and if there’s anything you’re interested in, “then they’ll consider a budget for indulging your interest.” Needless to say, the Freshfields gang are a sporty bunch – to wind down between all that sport, trainees did “skiing trips,”“mini-golf,”“yoga,” and “we did an axe throw once.” The global transaction team’s summer party this year was held at the beautiful Temple Gardens, and even had a big screen showing England’s World Cup match against Colombia where they brought it home on penalties: “Our reaction was like England had won the whole World Cup!” Maybe next time... The combination of the hours expectation and the social events means that “it’s an immersive lifestyle here – you have a lot on for work even if it’s not work related.”
The prospect of retention was a source of some uncertainty and created a "sense of competition" for some of our interviewees, following a dip in 2017 from the firm's usual 80-85% retention rate. In 2018, the firm kept on 66 of 83 qualifiers.
How to get a Freshfields training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2019): 3 January 2019 (opens 1 October 2018)
Training contract deadline (2021): 3 January 2019 (non law and law; opens 1 October 2018) 18 July 2019 (law; opens 3 June 2019)
First-year spring scheme deadline (2018): 22 February 2018
April open day deadline (2018): 22 February 2018
September open day deadline (2018): 17 July 2018
Every single one of the 3,000-plus applications Freshfields receives each year is read from beginning to end by a member of the graduate recruitment team.
The firm tries to evaluate these applications in the round rather than in a mechanistic way, so those unexpected 'B's in your A levels won’t automatically cut you from the running. The firm also uses Rare’s Contextual Recruitment System, which (among other things) rates candidates’ exam performance against the average for their school, recognising that getting a B from a less well performing school may demonstrate just as much graft and potential as getting an A* from another.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the Freshfields application form is the big blank box. The firm basically says 'Tell us about yourself in 850 words' and leaves it up to you what to fill in. Graduate recruitment sources tell us they're distinctly unimpressed by those who write “with an element of routine or cliché or received wisdom.” Indeed, glib catchphrases like ‘cutting-edge deals’ rarely go down well, even when the sentiment behind them is genuine. The most successful applications are simply written in a direct and unaffected way, and explain why the candidate is interested in commercial law at an international firm like Freshfields. And for a good reason: why would anyone be impressed by a form that could have been written by 500 other applicants?
There is also a Watson Glaser test to complete.
The assessment day
About 12% of applicants are invited to the firm's assessment stage, which involves three components that last half a day in total. Both vacation scheme and direct training contract applicants go through this.
There's a written assessment, which lasts 45 minutes and sees candidates asked to review draft documents, highlight the mistakes, discuss the ambiguous elements and redraft an extract so it is clear and correct. This does not require any knowledge of law and is designed to assess a candidate's ability to analyse the written word.
There's a general interview that also lasts an hour, and is usually done with a partner and associate. This interview centres on competency-based questions designed to draw out attributes like motivation, organisational skills, capacity for teamwork, degree of curiosity, level of common sense, openness to change, and “stickability” – that is, the ability to demonstrate your understanding of what being a Freshfields trainee entails. “We always ask for evidence of these traits," graduate recruitment partner Andrew Austin emphasises. “And we always leave ten minutes at the end for candidates to ask questions."
Finally, there's also what the firm calls an ‘analytical interview’ during which applicants’ analytical skills are assessed. This lasts an hour and takes place with a different partner and an associate. Candidates are given 20 minutes to read a business-based article, usually from The Economist or Financial Times, and are then quizzed on it. “You could be asked how the subject of the article could bring work into the firm, or what parts of the firm could be involved,” recalled a trainee of the process. “Mine was an article about Airbus – we ended up talking about the price of oil, the merits or otherwise of cheap airlines and new markets the firm could move into. They didn’t expect me to know that Freshfields had just done a huge Airbus deal, although obviously it would have been great if I had.”
Austin adds: "We want people to stay with us. We want interesting people who will keep work in proportion to everything else in their lives. We always ask, 'What do you do for fun'?"
The vacation scheme
Insiders tell us the firm's “very structured” three-week vacation scheme is “focused on commercial awareness and thinking about things from a business perspective.” It includes a day spent on a mock transaction with some of the partners – "quite rushed obviously, but quite useful nonetheless” – plus lunchtime departmental talks that allow candidates to get to know more about different parts of the firm and find out more about the mechanics of how law firms operate and make money.
On the social side, there are plenty of lunches with trainees and partners, plus outings like curries in Brick Lane, a Thames rib (speedboat) experience, and a night at The Comedy Store.
Becoming a corporate lawyer
Interview with graduate recruitment partner Andrew Austin
Chambers Student: What’s it like working inside a firm that is simultaneously very old (London Freshfields was born in 1743) and very young (Bruckhaus and Deringer merger in 2000)?
Andrew Austin: Freshfields has been around for 275 years this year. That’s a long history, but we’re not looking backwards. We’re moving forwards, we’re innovative, we’re supporting many of our clients with the digital transformation of their businesses, and our own model is changing too. You might think that because we’re such an established firm, we’re inaccessible – but we are a genuinely nice and supportive place to work. It’s much less traditional than you might think.
CS: Could you tell us a bit about the new earn-while-you-learn training contract route in Manchester?
AA: We’ve had a Global Centre in Manchester since 2015. It is made up of high quality business support services and a 100 strong Legal Services Centre, which supports our fee earners on matters globally. Our Legal Support Assistants in Manchester have completed the LPC, but for the most part aren’t yet legally qualified. We also have some fabulous apprentices working towards their paralegal apprenticeship and supporting the firm on a range of transactions.
Our Global Centre is expanding – we will opening a further Legal Services Centre in Berlin, for example. We’ll still keep taking on up to 80 trainees a year in London, but the incoming SQE (change in qualification regime for solicitors) offers lots of opportunities to help us also make sure that we’re getting the best people, keeping those people for a longer term and providing those people with the right skill set (including across technology) for their future careers. We can offer our legal support assistants the opportunity to complete qualifying work experience while they are working with us and, in the future, I expect there to be people qualifying in Manchester as associates. They will probably have slightly more of a technology/innovation focus than our London associates. For example, they would, take responsibility for delivering various of our tech enabled solutions to the wider firm.
CS: How does the eight seat training contract give the trainee an edge over the more traditional four seat set-up?
AA: It allows all our trainees to get exposure to all the major practice areas. The four seats that most firms offer can do that too, but we think not as well. What eight seats allows above that is for our people to better tailor the training contract to their interests and focus in on areas where they want to qualify and practice for the rest of their career.
By moving around more, you also meet more people and build a better internal network. Having 150+ trainees at any one time means it’s an enormous amount of effort matching seats with what people want, but it’s an investment that we think is worth making to give our trainees the best training.
As an aside: if you hate a seat, then you’re only there for three months!
CS: Recent retention rates have been different to years gone by – what’s the thinking behind that and is this something potential trainees should be worrying about?
AA: The last couple of rounds ofretention rates were disappointing for everyone. There were lots of reasons for why not everyone matched with the seats they wanted: for example, disputes has been very popular in recent rounds, but that’s only one practice group and it can only take on so many people each year.
This year there has been a firm commitment from our management to meet our long-term average 85%. I can’t tell you the numbers for the latest intake quite yet, but let’s just say that I am a lot happier with them. We’ve had a really successful year as a firm, the business is doing very well, and overall I would say that the future is very bright for anyone joining us today, either in London or Manchester.
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP
65 Fleet Street,
- Partners 123
- Associates 401
- Total trainees 143
- UKoffices London, Manchester
- Overseas offices 26
- Contacts [email protected]
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 80
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Minimum UCAS points or A levels: None
- Vacation scheme places pa: 60
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: Monday 1 October 2018 (winter); 3 June 2019 (summer)
- Training contract deadline, 2021 start: Thursday 3 January 2019 (winter); 18 July 2019 (summer)
- Vacation scheme applications open: Monday 1 October 2018
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline date: Thursday 3 January 2019
- Workshop deadline: Thursday 3 January 2019
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £45,000
- Second-year salary: £51,000
- Post-qualification salary: £85,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £7,250 for the GDL and £10,000 for the LPC
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London
Because we support clients wherever in the world they operate, we must deliver a consistent highquality service across the globe. You will play an important part in this process.
Main areas of work
You and your team will need to come up with solutions that work in the real, commercial world, not just the ones that reflect what’s right or wrong in law. We’ll show you how.
Our lawyers focus on at least one industry sector and work in one of five practice groups: global transactions; dispute resolution; anti-trust, competition and trade; people and reward and tax.
We’ll show you what life as an international commercial lawyer is like, and what sets us apart from other firms, so you can make a confident decision on whether to apply for a vacation scheme or training contract.
You’ll also meet trainees, associates and partners, and learn about improving your application from our graduate recruitment team.
We’ll also pay your travel expenses to the office, and for accommodation if you need it.
University law careers fairs 2018
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2018
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- Litigation (Band 1)
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- International Arbitration: Commercial Arbitration (Band 2)
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- Transport: Rail: Rolling Stock (Band 3)