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 is steaming ahead with a remarkably strong financial performance, year after year.
Such success hasn’t been easy. During the recession the firm booted out nearly a hundred partners and was 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.
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.
All in all, cash and benefits are some of the best in the City (barring those mega-paying US firms, of course), and whilst the London offices are showing their age they are at least (in an era when the Magic Circle is deserting to Canary Wharf and Spitalfields) well-located. Even if the gym is "like a solitary confinement chamber". In the RollOnFriday Firm of the Year 2021 survey, pay was described as "Excellent", although a few pointed to US firms. "We work US hours in exchange for top English pay", said one. Still, said others, "The pay is better than many U.K. firms - hard to complain really".
The firm also scores points for "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 who "put Myra Hindley to shame") are a good bunch and seem happy to muck in when the hours start to fly. "People are genuinely lovely", said several lawyers. Although a couple feared the more social aspects were dead forever after "The Beckwith scandal", which "is why every post-deal drinks or ski trip or party is now heavy with the fetid scent of fearful partners and every three days we are all ritually chained up and dragged to another woke Being Freshfields flagellation-fest".
Although there may not be any official targets, hours are as tough as at any Magic Circle firm. Assistants lamented a "presenteeism culture" and the "long, long hours" which meant "I don’t even attempt to make weekday plans". "9 - 11 in the week with weekends generally safe", said a junior lawyer. But, experiences varied depending on where in the firm you work. "Don't often work weekends and partners always grateful", said one lawyer. Others, as might be expected in a top City firm, said there were "Horrible hours". "I struggle to believe the idea that the American firms are managing to work their associates harder than ours...", said a solicitor.
So sure, you'll get superb experience, but you'll get worked to the bone whilst gaining it. "The stuff in the careers marketing material about the wide range of work in is actually true, in my experience", said a junior solicitor. "The associates are also so continually shafted that they are desperate to give as much responsibility out as soon as they find a half-competent trainee, so you can end up with a fair amount of varied work". Others said it was "exceptional", 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.
What made people stay? The people, the money and the "gold plated rep", said Firm of the Year 2021 respondents. There's not 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. To be fair many of these problems affect every large firm, and grumbles about prospects can be heard throughout the Magic Circle. With the lure of decent money, superb work and a glittering name on a CV will be enough to ensure that they will be able to attract the best. As one associate puts it - "Great people, great clients, great work".