One of the grandest of the Magic Circle firms, a stellar financial machine, a fortress on Fleet Street and a bastion of legal excellence - Freshfields offers a lot. A brief blip now long behind it, the firm has to have put its recent woes behind it and is steaming ahead, with a remarkably strong financial performance, year after year. Turnover for 2010/11 puts the firm amongst the billionaires club and the boys (and they are mainly boys) at the top pull in millions.
Such success hasn’t been easy. Over the past few years the firm has booted out nearly a hundred partners and has been pretty stingy making up new ones, too. Although - as plenty of firms found out - the downturn came with its own opportunities, and Freshies found itself advising plenty of banks and financial institutions - including the Bank of England (a client since 1743, dontchaknow), the German Ministry of Finance and central banks in Italy and the UAE.
Talking of big-ticket clients, we recommend - should you ever meet a Freshfields partner - that you steer clear of mentioning the London Olympics. They'll take your ear off (what with the firm having been "official provider of legal services" to the 2012 games). Plenty of lawyers - from trainee up - were involved in the bid and delivery of the highly-successful games, so it's been an exciting few years on that front (for those in London, at least - lawyers outside the UK were a bit less engaged with all the excitement, free tickets and so on). As a result of all the work (all done pro bono, of course), the firm is involved in Rio 2016 already, which has the potential for even better secondments.
There are clear advantages to working at Freshfields as an assistant. You will get experience of work that only a handful of firms can match and none can better. Associates who complained loudly about salary freezing will have been delighted after a notable thaw in 2010, and there were only a handful of (official) redundancies. And in 2012, the firm moved to a "career milestones" system which promises hardworking associates pretty stellar wages (the amounts on the right-hand side are indicative of what can be expected).
All in all, cash and benefits are some of the best in the City, and whilst the London offices are showing their age they are at least (in an age when the Magic Circle is deserting to Canary Wharf and Spitalfields) well located. Even if the gym is "like a solitary confinement chamber" (although there's lots of building work going on at the moment).
The firm also scores points for recently "genuinely trying really hard to get associates engaged and involved". And there are plenty of friendly faces - "the people here are human, and can be a good laugh - when they're not so shafted that they've lost the ability to have a conversation, that is." It seems that partners (apart from the ones which "put Myra Hindley to shame") are a good bunch and seem happy to muck in when the hours start to fly.
Which is lucky, because a a good beasting is the order of the day. Although there may not be any official targets, hours are as tough as at any Magic Circle firm. Assistants lament a "presenteeism culture" and the "long, long hours" which mean "I don’t even attempt to make weekday plans". One trainee said "clients pay for dinner after 7, and taxis after 9. Both of which are handy, considering you make use of these perks every night of the week. And most weekends." It's no real surprise that the big US firms can easily temp associates away - you can get another £30k at NQ level without working any harder.
So sure, you'll get superb experience, but you'll get worked to the bone whilst gaining it. Freshfields is a place where "the clients are the big-ticket folks...but when you're working at 4am it doesn't really make up for the life you're losing". Welcome to the Magic Circle.
And there's not even a guarantee of a pot of gold at the end - the up-or-out policy means that if you don't make partnership you'll find yourself without a job. And let's face it, the odds aren't in your favour, particularly if you are female. Although a respectable 20 associates were made up this year, only eight were in London: and only two of the global promotions were women. For all the firm's talk of bringing in alternatives to partnership, for now it's lagging behind pretty much every major firm in the City. Many assistants (especially those outside the core corporate department) feel marginalised and undervalued.
To be fair many of these problems affect every large firm, and grumbles about prospects can be heard throughout the Magic Circle. Freshfields offers excellent training, takes career development seriously and keeps on nearly all its newly qualified lawyers. This, coupled with the lure of decent money, superb work and a glittering name on a CV will be enough to ensure that they will always be able to attract the best. As one associate puts it - "Great people, great clients, great work". And you can't really put a price on the Olympic lapel pins they all wore. All the time. And are probably still wearing.
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