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. Corporate accounts for 39% of global income compared to litigation’s 41% and finance's 10%. Clients include BSkyB, Transport for London and UBS. Of course, big ticket corporate work means big profits. Revenue has been gradually on the up. After a surprising dip in 2007, revenue grew in by 26% in 2008 and has been climbing steadily ever since. In 2011/12 it increased by 3% to £480m, although partner profits dipped from £900k to £840k.
Before the real estate market went through the floor, from an assistant’s point of view the firm was also an increasingly good bet for property work: way back in 2000 it poached the head of real estate at what was then Berwin Leighton, and the department hasn't looked back.
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 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. The new HSF is now the eighth largest law firm in the world with over 2,800 lawyers. 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’s the only 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 Carolyn Lee was appointed as full time diversity manager - the first such appointment at a City firm.
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 partners “really don't take themselves too seriously” and the hours, while tough, 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. And as a heavyweight litigation firm, Herbies is one of the few City outfits that was best placed to do pretty well out of the recession. Not that you'd know it from the firm's belated decision to make some 84 staff redundant in spring 2009. The firm called the decision, which was months behind its competitors, market related. Others might call it opportunistic...
On the negative side, the once glamorous offices in Exchange Square are looking very Eighties and a bit faded (“retro chic”, claims the firm...). And "the toilets are terrible" apparently. IT and round the clock secretarial support are not as good as they should be. 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.
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