Herbert Smith Freehills - True Picture

A global heavyweight doing top-level transactional and contentious work, it’s Herbie: Fully Loaded.

The Only Way Oz Up

It's hardly current to hark back to the 2012 merger between London's Herbert Smith with Australia's Freehills, but it was a watershed moment for the firm, culturally: the “breath of fresh air” it wafted in is perceptible even to the most junior members of the firm.  Training principal James Baily tells us: “We’ve both learnt from each other, so the combined culture after the merger has changed.” This is a culture that trainees told us is “incredibly inclusive. The main thing I’ve noticed is a variety of diversity networks: for instance, the LGBTQ network, women’s network and multiculturalism network.” And it's not just committees: in 2018 HSF became the first law firm to offer to pay for transgender employees’ surgery.

"The main thing I’ve noticed is a variety of diversity networks."

Some more up-to-date news from the firm is that's it's moving over 500 London employees to a new base in Canary Wharf, becoming one of just a few law firms with offices there. HSF's building-cum-bridge office above Liverpool Street station on Exchange Square will still be the UK HQ.

We'd identify Herbies in a bracket called 'global elite' a glance at the firm's salaries shows it's competing with the US firms. In days of yore Herbies was best known for housing London's most feared litigators, and Chambers UK and Chambers Global reflect this, giving the firm top-tier rankings for disputes in the UK and globally. But this is far from being a one-trick pony: Herbies wins 50 rankings in Chambers UK alone, plus loads more in other jurisdictions across the globe for internationally hot areas like energy and projects. Check out all the firm's Chambers rankings at chambersandpartners.com.

International Superhits!

Seats are allocated after trainees submit a preference form. “It’s a bit old school – but it’s a relatively easy one-page document,” said an interviewee. Trainees have to do at least one corporate and one disputes seat, as well as one “specialist seat like finance, real estate or employment.” The process then repeats at the halfway point of each seat. “You can add a couple of notes to explain – about 250 words – but HR also speaks to you in person or over the phone to get a feeling for how you’re doing.” As every trainee can state eight preferences, and Herbies has around 150 trainees, HR has a lot of words to sift through. Trainees advised that “where the justification really comes in is when you want to do an international or client secondment!”

“There are only one or two people who end up doing four seats in the London office.”

Herbies' international seats are a huge draw. Most interviewees had done corporate work in some form on client secondments or in an HSF office abroad. “There are only one or two people who end up doing four seats in the London office,” we heard. A popular client secondment is one with energy giant EDF, plus there are a handful to “companies you’ve maybe never heard of before.” Trainees rated client secondments for the chance to “run negotiations with suppliers – which you’d never get to do at the firm!”

Trainees can currently go abroad to Singapore, Dubai, Paris, Moscow, Tokyo and Australia, but James Baily tells us: “There’s always the opportunity to open up other jurisdictions.” Getting to go abroad is “not the most complicated process – you give 250 words of supporting comment on why they should send you.” However, the selection process “isn’t particularly transparent.” Those wanting to travel far afield need to take into account that “Singapore and Hong Kong are very popular – it’s hard to fight for those ones!” International travel outside of secondments is sometimes on the cards too. A trainee reported: “We recently got an email saying ‘URGENT: trainee needed to fly to Doha tomorrow to deliver a document.’” It's worth noting that there's the chance to qualify abroad as well. Baily tells us: “Qualifying English trainees into Australia was difficult in the past for regulatory reasons. But now we’re qualifying trainees into Sydney as well as Dubai, Singapore, Paris and Tokyo.”

I would walk 500 miles

Back in Blighty, the litigation seat offers trainees the chance to sit in one of eight sector-focused subgroups, which cover “things like energy, banking, insurance, construction, planning and general disputes.” The group also offers stints in media, international arbitration, corporate crime and IP. Trainees can’t sit here twice, so interviewees advised to “take advantage of your time here!” One trainee in the arbitration team told us: “We work on a lot of transactions gone wrong, usually for huge companies – especially in oil and gas.” Two of the sub-department’s biggest clients are BP and Chevron. “But we also give international law advice on investor-state arbitrations,” we heard, with the team recently representing oil and gas company JKX in an arbitration with Ukraine over changes to oil and gas rental fees. Meanwhile, the fraud team are defending former F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone against a claim of over $500 million brought by German bank BLB regarding corruption allegations in Formula One. The IP team recently advised shoemakers Geox in a trade mark infringement case against Gola.

Banking litigation, the biggest and most common subgroup for trainees to sit in, works on three main areas: core litigation, financial regulation and white-collar crime. Clients include RBS, Lloyds and Morgan Stanley. Newbies told us that “in the last few years, most of our work has been coming out of the financial crisis – still!” This means working on “massive cases worth billions of pounds.” Unsurprisingly, on such high-stakes matters “there’s slightly less responsibility and there isn’t much opportunity to do much senior work.” Trainees still get to draft witness statements, prep questions for interviews and conduct research. The workload can be taxing: “I did so much bundle prep – at one point I had a huge bundle of over 400 lever arch files to get through!” The team recently defended Société Générale against a $1.5 billion claim brought by the Libyan Investment Authority. Trainees have been “preparing for hearings, attending hearings and submitting documents to court,” as well as “collating all the letters at the end of each day and producing a summary of where we are on each matter – and there’s a lot of correspondence!”

Dark Side of the Moon

HSF's corporate arm has a penchant for high-value, cross-border transactions, with a focus on M&A. There are four London corporate teams that all broadly focus on M&A: a general group, a projects group, a private equity group, and a funds group. We heard that the projects group feels “a little more separate to the other three – we do M&A but also a lot of contracts work.” For example, the team is advising the Bazalgette consortium of investors on the £4.2 billion Thames Tideway project to build a massive new sewer under the Thames to tackle pollution and blocked drains. Trainees “put together sale and purchase agreements” and do “a lot of very interesting research!”

The funds team works on IPOs and fund formations for big names like J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs. Here trainees rated the “more exciting work”– making changes to prospectuses and drafting contract clauses. A typical example of work here is advising BlackRock on its secondary listing on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. More eye-catching was advising album artwork design company Hipgnosis – the masterminds behind artwork for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Pink Floyd’s legendary Dark Side of the Moon cover – on its proposed £200 million listing on the London Stock Exchange. We heard that transaction size “isn’t massive,” so those wanting to qualify into corporate and who “want to do some big transactions,” may want to do a repeat seat elsewhere in corporate.

“You’re babysitting the deal!”

General M&A work sees trainees working on both private and public deals, plus “a lot of advising large PLCs with corporate governance concerns.” We heard that “there’s a lot of interest in developing expertise related to emerging technologies.” The team recently worked with Uber on combining its services in Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and other CIS countries with Yandex Taxi for $3.7 billion. That’s not the only mammoth name and number to come out of the department: the group is also advising Sky on its mahoosive takeover by 21st Century Fox for an estimated £18.5 billion. On “intense” deals like this, trainees managed to grab responsibilities such as drafting board minutes and shareholder investment agreements. However, more typical tasks involve “lots of due diligence” and project management – “you’re babysitting the deal!”

Finance is a bit smaller than the other departments, but there's a truckload of matters for trainees to get involved with. The department covers corporate, acquisition, real estate, energy and Islamic finance. Trainees broke it down for us: “It used to be that there were four groups called A, B, C and D,” but times have changed and things have been mixed up a bit – “they’re now called 1, 2, 3 and 4!” Exciting! Group one does acquisitions; two does project finance for the energy sector; three does real estate finance; and four is the derivatives and securitisation team, which is where Islamic finance sits. Partners across all sub-teams split their time between borrower and lender work for major financial institutions – clients include Barclays, Deutsche Bank, BNP Paribas and EDF Energy. Across all groups, trainees spend their time “drafting ancillary documents such as board minutes and managing checklists.” Many also get the opportunity to “talk to clients on the phone or via email.” The team's typical work includes helping Standard Chartered on a bridging loan for Ugandan energy company Umeme and advising Provident Financial on a multicurrency revolving loan agreement with RBS.

Trainees said the formal training on offer at HSF is “very structured,” but it’s so comprehensive that “it’s sometimes hard to attend everything!” Not to be missed are the fortnightly lectures on basics that are compulsory for trainees, and which interviewees said reflects the “importance the firm places on development.” There are also departmental trainings and lectures which trainees find “the most interesting – they help you not get lost in the details.” Also part of the programme is mentoring from a 'trainee review partner', who “meets with you at least twice every seat and mediates your review with your supervisors to ensure the consistency of grades.” The mentor stays with the trainee through all four seats – “they make you feel comfortable and they’re always approachable and supportive.”

Bridge Over Troubled Water

This support extends into the wider culture of HSF. “We have a focus on wellbeing,” we heard – there’s recently been a series of lectures and seminars on mental health and wellbeing in general. Trainees found this “creates a general sense that you can talk to people if you’re struggling. There’s a culture of openness about sensitive issues – it’s not taboo to be stressed and overwhelmed.” Also on offer is a service which lets employees arrange a phone discussion with a counsellor; and there are specially trained ‘mental health mentors’ in each team. “There’s always somebody to talk to,” a trainee said, “and they’re all super-approachable if you feel under too much pressure or have anything going on in your personal life.” The most important thing to trainees were videos made by partners about their own struggles with mental health. “It speaks volumes,” said one source. “They spoke about taking leave and how it helped them come back in a better state of mind.”

“It's nice to stay up late because you get to see how we reach a deal and put it on paper.”

Such support is helpful and stress a possibility, because the hours at HSF are demanding. “They say you need work/life balance, but then you’ll be there till 3am!” was one interviewee's frank assessment. Disputes trainees have “pretty predictable hours, mostly going home at 7pm or 7.30pm unless there’s a court deadline when you maybe stay till midnight.” Newbies in transactional seats generally put in the longest hours. “The baseline is 12 hours a day and it just goes up from there,” we heard. The mindset among trainees is that “it's nice to stay up late because you get to see how we reach a deal and put it on paper.” It’s worth noting that HSF pays very well, especially at NQ level where its salary is the highest of any English law firm, above the rate at magic circle firms.

HSF releases a list of NQ vacancies about a month into the final seat. Trainees can apply to qualify into all available departments or offices, even if they haven't sat there. We hear that the process is “all very stressful – you submit everything and there’s an interview and technical test.” Despite this, trainees were “pretty positive” – in 2018 HSF kept on 65 of its 75 qualifiers.


You may also be interested in...

These major City firms with a strong international presence:


Clyde & Co



Hogan Lovells

Norton Rose Fulbright

Simmons & Simmons

These firms which also have a strong energy practice:



Vinson & Elkins

White & Case

>> A-Z of firms

How to get a Herbert Smith Freehills training contract


Vacation scheme deadline (2019): 15 October 2018 (winter); 4 January 2019 (spring and summer)

First-year workshop deadline (2019): 15 February 2019 (opens 1 January 2019)

Apply for 2021 training contracts via the firm's 2018/19 vac schemes.

Training contract applications

The firm receives a total of around 4,000 applications each year. As of 2018/19 the firm is recruiting trainees only through its vac scheme. So to start a training contract with the firm in 2021 you'll need to apply by January 2019 for the summer 2019 vac scheme. Applications come from both law and non-law students with the balance tilting slightly towards the former.

A mercifully short form asks for qualifications and uni grades, as well as evidence of prior work experience. Though some form of legal experience is desirable, Veronica Roberts makes it clear that “it doesn't need to be at a huge firm. What matters is that the effort has been made to do something, which doesn't have to be weeks and weeks of work.” The other meaty section of the form is dedicated to the achievements of the applicant, and asks not for a long list but the ones that they are most proud of, and an explanation of why. “Students often move on a step and say how the skills they learnt could help with their future job, though this isn't a requirement,” says Roberts. “We do like to see one example of an academic accomplishment, which can be with a society rather than in a classroom, and also something more extracurricular.”


Those whose forms impress, and get through a short verbal reasoning test (for which there's a practice run first), are invited to an assessment morning, each of which takes eight students. These are split into three sections: a group case study, assessing applicants' ability to work in a team; an individual case study, doubling up as a partner interview in which candidates get a set of facts and have to make a short presentation that conveys their powers of analysis; and a competency interview that tests the basic skills necessary to make it as a Herbert Smith Freehills lawyer. Students also get some time to chat with current trainees confidentially, and senior partners give a talk about where the firm is and where it is going.

For interviews – either on the assessment morning or at the end of the vac scheme – Veronica Roberts advises: “It's important to build a rapport with your interviewer. We understand the process can be nerve-wracking and we appreciate that, but moving past your nerves is an important part of our day jobs.” It's also essential to have some questions for interviewing partners, and to listen to the answers carefully – “we always leave time for this, and interviewees are welcome to build a discussion around the questions they ask.”

Vacation scheme

Herbert Smith Freehills runs vac schemes throughout the year. Students in their second and third years, as well as graduates, have the opportunity to apply for the spring or summer programme – the former takes 20 applicants for two weeks, while the latter is split into two intakes of 30 and lasts three weeks. A winter scheme is available to those in the final year of their degree and graduates, and takes around 20 for a two-week programme.

Vac schemers get a week each with two different supervisors (summer participants do an extra week with one of them), and provide a helping hand with whatever their supervisor happens to be doing. This can include writing research notes or sections for client advice, preparing cases for court, or even attending client meetings. “We don't put on a show,” graduate recruitment partner Veronica Roberts assures us. “We don't set academic tasks but make sure everything is real work.” As vac schemers only sit in two different groups in the firm, HSF also lays on a series of interactive talks from different practice areas.

The firm goes to town on the social side. On the first night of the vac scheme, the cohort of wannabe lawyers is sent off for a group dinner, which firm representatives steer clear of so that the vac schemers can relax and get to know each other. One of the firm's current trainees who went through the programme liked that when they joined they “knew people from the vac scheme.” Our sources suggested that HSF does a great job at building a sense of community: “It was very easy to settle in and see yourself working here.”

Trainee profile

“We're not looking for the finished product – we're looking for potential,” says Roberts. A trainee should be able to display “technical ability, but at the application stage that means the ability to think things through logically, and think on your feet to solve a problem.” Herbert Smith Freehills also prizes communication skills, and the ability to be able to build trusting relationships with clients and colleagues. Roberts likes applicants to be “well-rounded – clients are real people too, and often want to get to know you as a person at the same time as talking legal advice.” In terms of academic accomplishment, there's no specific A-level or UCAS-point requirement, but an earned or predicted 2:1 degree or above is the norm.

Interview with training principal James Baily

Chambers Student: How has the culture shifted over the past few years following the merger between Herbert Smith and Freehills?

James Baily: There were certainly strong parallels in our cultures pre-merger – it’s one of the reasons it was so successful! We’ve both learnt from each other, so the combined culture after the merger has changed.

Freehills brought in a breath of fresh air, which was really great and helpful.

Overall, the culture feels strong. We have an emphasis on support in training and support generally for all our employees. On mental health, we’re much better than we used to be, we’re much more conscious in ensuring everyone gets proper support in relation to mental health and has mental health monitors. Another thing I’d say is I think the recruitment process is much more consciously making an effort to ensure we’re recruiting from as diverse, inclusive backgrounds as possible.

CS: Tell us a little bit about the mental health videos produced internally at the firm

JB: They were incredibly powerful – we made a number of testimonial videos of partners speaking frankly about mental health issues they faced. They did an incredible job of removing the stigma that might be attached to those issues. The culture is very supportive, and anybody can speak out without fear of reproach or being seen as being weak.

We understand there are incredibly valuable people who have a huge contribution to make to the firm – it’d be madness to not foster a culture where we have the best approach to mental health issues.

CS: The firm’s retention rate is consistently high – tell us a bit about this decision

JB: It’s been a very good year this year, which is reflected in our trainee retention rates. We retained 92%, which is 34/37. Only 35 ended up applying so only one candidate was unsuccessful.

The firm has a strong commitment to bringing through home-grown talent. We believe strongly in using the recruitment process to make sure we retain the best trainees and bring them through as partners of the future.

CS: What can future trainees expect in terms of international opportunities?

JB: We have trainees sitting all around the world, usually supervised by an England and Wales qualified lawyer. Over the last couple of years, we’ve found the opportunity to house UK trainees in our global network. Our UK trainees have qualified in a number of our international offices, including Dubai, Singapore and Tokyo.

We’re expanding the way in which we give international secondment for trainees. There’s no promises for New York, but we currently second to Paris, Dubai, Moscow, Singapore, Tokyo, Australia; all around our network. There’s always the opportunity to open up in other jurisdictions.

Herbert Smith Freehills

Exchange House,
Primrose Street,
Website www.herbertsmithfreehills.com

  • Partners 468 (global), 165 (London)
  • Associates 1,453 (global), 487 (London)
  • Total trainees 132 (UK) 
  • UK offices London, Belfast 
  • Overseas offices 27
  • Contacts 
  • Graduate recruiter: [email protected], 020 7374 8000
  • Application criteria 
  • Training contracts pa: 60
  • Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
  • Vacation scheme places pa: 80
  • Dates and deadlines 
  • Winter vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 15 October 2018
  • Spring and summer vacation scheme 2019 deadline: 4 January 2019
  • Salary and benefits 
  • First-year salary: £44,000
  • Second-year salary: £48,000
  • Total cash potential: £93,000
  •  Holiday entitlement: 25 days
  • Sponsorship 
  • LPC fees: Yes
  • GDL fees: Yes
  • International and regional 
  • UK Offices with training contracts: London, Belfast
  • Graduate opportunities also available in: Europe, USA, Asia, Australia and Africa.

Firm profile

Look at Law differently.

We are Herbert Smith Freehills, a leading, full-service, global law firm working on some of the world’s biggest cases and deals. With award-winning depth of expertise across a wide variety of sectors, geographies and legal specialisms, our progressive approach sets us apart.

Inclusivity is our defining characteristic: here, you will be a part of everything. By combining different perspectives and potential from diverse backgrounds, we’re able to view and practice law differently. This allows us to break new ground, whether it’s a complex international dispute or a billion-pound, cross-border deal. Now, we want to add your expertise to the mix..

Main areas of work

Look at Law differently. We are Herbert Smith Freehills, a leading, full-service, global law firm working on some of the world’s biggest cases and deals. With award-winning depth of expertise across a wide variety of sectors, geographies and legal specialisms, our progressive approach sets us apart. Inclusivity is our defining characteristic: here, you will be a part of everything. By combining different perspectives and potential from diverse backgrounds, we’re able to view and practice law differently. This allows us to break new ground, whether it’s a complex international dispute or a billion-pound, cross-border deal. Now, we want to add your expertise to the mix.

Trainee opportunities

Herbert Smith Freehills’ trainees can be a part of it all. The training contract balances contentious and non-contentious work with pro bono opportunities and real responsibility. Trainees rotate around four, six-month seats with the opportunity to go on secondment either to a client or to one of the firm’s international offices. This year, we will only be recruiting future trainees from our vacation schemes and all candidates will have the opportunity at the end of their vacation scheme to interview for a training contract. These schemes have been specifically designed to build and test the unique skills and knowledge required to succeed at the firm.

Vacation scheme

We provide paid vacation schemes in winter, spring and summer.

Application deadlines:
– Winter vacation scheme: 15 October 2018
– Spring and summer vacation schemes: 4 January 2019

Other benefits

Herbert Smith Freehills provide a number of employee benefits which include: Bonus/profit share scheme; pension contributions; private medical insurance; life assurance; gym membership; cycle to work scheme; travel insurance; season ticket loan; access to a mortgage broker; retail and childcare vouchers and many more.

Open days and first-year opportunities

Each spring, we run two, two-day workshops at our London office. Designed for first year students to have the chance to meet some of our lawyers and take part in interactive projects. Applications for our 2019 workshops will be open to first year students from any discipline and second years on a four year course from 1 January to 15 February 2019. The workshops will be held on 1 and 2 April 2019 and 15 and 16 April 2019.

University law careers fairs 2018

We will be attending 34 law fairs in the UK and Ireland. Details of these can be found on our website.

Social media

Twitter @HSFgraduatesUK

Facebook HSFgraduatesUK

This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2018

Ranked Departments

    • Banking & Finance: Borrowers (Band 3)
    • Banking & Finance: Lenders (Band 3)
    • Banking Litigation (Band 1)
    • Capital Markets: Debt (Band 4)
    • Capital Markets: Equity (Band 3)
    • Capital Markets: Securitisation (Band 3)
    • Capital Markets: Structured Finance & Derivatives (Band 4)
    • Commercial and Corporate Litigation (Band 2)
    • Competition Law (Band 2)
    • Construction: Purchaser (Band 1)
    • Corporate/M&A: High-end Capability (Band 2)
    • Employment: Employer (Band 2)
    • Environment (Band 4)
    • Financial Crime: Corporates (Band 1)
    • Financial Crime: Individuals (Band 4)
    • Information Technology (Band 2)
    • Intellectual Property (Band 2)
    • Intellectual Property: Patent Litigation (Band 2)
    • Litigation (Band 1)
    • Pensions (Band 3)
    • Planning (Band 2)
    • Professional Negligence: Financial (Band 3)
    • Professional Negligence: Insurance (Band 2)
    • Professional Negligence: Legal (Band 2)
    • Professional Negligence: Technology & Construction (Band 4)
    • Public International Law (Band 3)
    • Real Estate Finance (Band 2)
    • Real Estate Litigation (Band 3)
    • Real Estate: Big-Ticket (Band 1)
    • Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 3)
    • Tax (Band 2)
    • Administrative & Public Law (Band 1)
    • Aviation (Band 4)
    • Construction: International Arbitration (Band 1)
    • Data Protection & Information Law (Band 5)
    • Employee Share Schemes & Incentives (Band 1)
    • Energy & Natural Resources: Mining (Band 2)
    • Energy & Natural Resources: Oil & Gas (Band 1)
    • Energy & Natural Resources: Power (Band 1)
    • Energy & Natural Resources: Renewables & Alternative Energy (Band 4)
    • Financial Services: Contentious Regulatory (Corporates) (Band 2)
    • Financial Services: Non-contentious Regulatory (Band 4)
    • Fraud: Civil (Band 1)
    • Health & Safety (Band 3)
    • Infrastructure (Band 2)
    • Insurance: Contentious Claims (Band 3)
    • Insurance: Mainly Policyholders (Band 1)
    • Insurance: Non-contentious (Band 3)
    • Insurance: Reinsurance (Band 4)
    • International Arbitration: Commercial Arbitration (Band 3)
    • International Arbitration: Investor-State Arbitration (Band 3)
    • Investment Funds: Closed-ended Listed Funds (Band 1)
    • Life Sciences: IP/Patent Litigation (Band 2)
    • Outsourcing (Band 3)
    • Partnership (Band 2)
    • Partnership: Large International Structures (Band 1)
    • Pensions Litigation (Band 3)
    • Product Liability: Mainly Defendant (Band 2)
    • Professional Discipline (Band 2)
    • Projects (Band 2)
    • Projects: PFI/PPP (Band 2)
    • Public Procurement (Band 2)
    • Tax: Contentious (Band 3)
    • Telecommunications (Band 2)
    • Transport: Rail: Franchising (Band 2)
    • Transport: Rail: Projects & Infrastructure (Band 1)