Herbert Smith Freehills (London)
Two things really irritate Herbert Smith, now Herbert Smith Freehills following its merger with the Australian firm. One is that it’s not in the Magic Circle. This irritates the firm so much a former senior partner banned the utterance of the words “Magic Circle” in his hearing. The other is that everyone bangs on about what a great litigation firm it is and forgets about the rest of its work.
Which is a little unfair, because although this is the best litigation firm in the City (if you go for that meat eating, red braces, aggression type thing), it also has serious corporate clout and a fast-growing finance department. Clients include BSkyB, Transport for London and UBS. Of course, big ticket corporate work means big profits. In the first financial results post-merger, Herbies announced revenue in 2013/14 of £800m and profit per equity partner of £741,000. That still a bunch of course, but down considerably on the £900k PEP in 2010/11.
It’s widely held to be one of the best players in development, planning and investment. Its pre-eminence in litigation makes for some interesting contentious work - Farrers must have been furious when Buckingham Palace instructed Herbert Smith in their spot of trouble with the Daily Mail. The firm’s litigators have worked on some bumper deals and some landmark litigation including a key role in the first ever self-reporting case to the SFO following corruption in Jamaica, Ghana and Iraq.
Herbert Smith Freehills has traditionally tended to look towards “best friends” alliances in countries where the legal markets are already mature rather than getting its own people on the ground. Which seemed like a lovely idea until it tried to take the relationship to the next level and floated the idea of a merger with European partners Gleiss Lutz and Stibbe only be to embarrassingly rebuffed.
But Herbies wasn't on the shelf for long, deciding to follow its rivals into Australia. On 1 October 2012 the firm officially entered into a fully-integrated merger (well, apart from partner remuneration which still needs some tweaking) with Freehills. HSF is now one of the largest law firms in the world with just over 2,200 fee-earner. It will be very interesting to see how one of the only full on Anglo-Australian mergers beds in over the next few years.
Pay and standard of work are all at Magic Circle levels, although there are some grumbles that the firm is slow to match competitors' rates. Interestingly, while the assistants’ up-to-30%-of-salary bonus is based mainly on chargeable hours, a fifth of it is awarded for business development and work in the community. Trainees are allocated a partner as mentor as soon as they start, and are appraised twice during each seat. After qualification, fee earners are appraised twice a year.
We’ve heard praise for the “diverse mix of people” – it was the first top ten firm to monitor the progress of ethnic minority staff, and it’s introduced flexible and part-time working to help retain more female solicitors. In 2006 it appointed a full time diversity manager - the first such position at a City firm. And a junior associate agrees that HSF "is committed to diversity", though "whether they hit their targets, and what will happen if they don't, is another question". In common with most (all?) firms, there's still a long way to go. A trainee claims it's "almost as white-boy as Slaughter and May" and, says asenior associate, "there is a tendency to pack women returning from maternity leave straight off on long client secondments. We get the hint - the firm suggests that we move in house..."
There is praise also for excellent cooperation and cross-selling between departments (although divisions are extremely disparate – “The corporate associates work twice as hard as the other areas of the firm and the bonus is not good enough to make up for the fact your real estate colleagues flounce out at 5.30pm”). The hours, while tough ("Corporate associates regularly expected to work 85 hour weeks"), are generally thought to be slightly down on the Magic Circle. There also seems to be a good “general buzz in the office”, so perhaps Herbies’ bizarre and tortuous training contract application form works after all.
An NQ says the associates "are fantastic - intelligent, driven, funny, out-going," while a trainee says the people are "decent", and another that fewer "than one in five are sociopaths". So that's good.
It is, says a senior associate, "a genuinely all-round firm. It doesn't pay the highest, it isn't the most prestigious, but it doesn't have the worst hours and the people are, on the whole, normal and actual quite nice. It is generally a supportive and happy place to work, and while there are nutters who pull punishing hours (mostly because they like it) there isn't a culture where that is expected, and once you get more senior, you are afforded a degree of freedom about what you take on."
On the negative side, the once glamorous offices in Exchange Square are looking very "drab" (“retro chic”, claims the firm...). And "the toilets are terrible" apparently (want too much information? "The fact that they don't flush properly seems to have been addressed by dimming the lights in the cubicles so you can't see that you are defecating on top of someone else's")
And perversely, it may not be the best firm at which to begin a career in litigation - junior assistants may find themselves doing endless disclosure as part of a vast team on cases that may run for years. Waiting until you have a couple of years’ experience under your belt may be a better tactic if you want to head for the Courts. And as for the merger, apparently "there have been attempts to erase some of the "quirkiness" by humourless Australian partners".
For more information on Herbert Smith Freehills click here.