Traditionally, two things have really irritated Herbert Smith Freehills. One is that it’s not in the Magic Circle, despite its undeniable quality. 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 well-regarded finance department. Clients include BSkyB, Transport for London and UBS.
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, and 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 to be 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 needed some tweaking) with Freehills. HSF is now one of the largest law firms in the world.
Standard of work is at Magic Circle levels, with pay at similar levels, too.
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. 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 a senior 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 actually 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"). "As a trainee", jokes a junior, "I was given instructions on a matter whilst in the gents. Which proves you can't even go for a dump without being shat on at HSF". But although the hours "can be long", says another lawyer, "you are always genuinely thanked for putting in the effort".
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".
In the RollOnFriday Firm of the Year survey, Herbies' lawyers said the firm offered "top work" and "oodles of training". As for promotion, it was "highly dependent on the team". Some partners "are well-known for the fact that no senior associate has ever been made up to partner in their team on their watch". Some supervisors, said a trainee, "care more about their PA booking them an aisle seat on their next flight than your professional development. Others take time to review your objectives and any holes in your training". Phrasing.
As for work/life balance, said a senior associate, "Given the type of work (genuinely the best litigation cases in the City by a country mile), there are inevitably long hours". But "compared with peers (in particular, Freshfields) the work/life balance is not too bad at all". There was some dissent. "Regular shaftings are expected and often for no other reason than it is the whim of the partner", said a junior solicitor. "No client deadline, no external deadline, just a f**k you to the team." "I was given a good flexible working arrangement", said a senior solicitor, although, she said, "friends of mine in other departments have been told that flexible working 'just doesn't work for fee earners'".
The firm scored well with its staff for its culture. To give it credit, said a senior solicitor, "the firm is very LGBTQ and BME friendly". That was "not to say that it couldn't do with more prominent role models in those areas, but it's better than many other firms". Another senior solicitor said it had "lost some of its collegiality post-merger, and the firm has been relentless in adopting a more 'corporate' management style", but "overall it's healthy". (Although a partner offered up that "Anyone who uses the word 'collegiate' is a sharp-elbowed, self-serving sociopath". Which wasn't very collegiate.)
It's worth emphasising the numbers who said that the work and clients are "top quality". Trainees - and associates - also highlighted "amazing" international and client secondment options and "fantastic" pro bono opportunities, as well as the "great supervision".