Along with Ince & Co and Clyde & Co, Holman Fenwick Willan is one of the leading shipping firms in the City. Shipping isn't its only area of expertise - the firm has strong trade, commercial, insurance and energy departments - but it still dominates the practice and perhaps it shows, as one insider commented, there "appears to be one rule for the shipping department and one for everyone else".
HFW has a rather different culture from the traditional corporate firms as a result. An assistant noted that HFW "benefits from being a relaxed environment in which to work", and that it had "a non-hierarchical vibe".
The firm has been expanding its international footprint, with 17 offices including three in Australia, plus associations including in Singapore and China. In 2016 it opened offices in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. All of which means "good opportunities for working abroad/secondments". A junior responding to RollOnFriday's annual satisfaction survey agreed that there were "great opportunities to work abroad as a trainee or a NQ".
There has been praise from staff in the surveys for "good quality of work" and "big clients". However, pay is not in the top tier. One lawyer said "salaries are on the low end of average" whilst another complained that the firm does "all the work and hours of a big hitting corporate firm" but has "small pay for it". However, several lawyers credited HFW with a decent work/life balance. Hours "are decent", said one, while even a critic conceded, "We get to get away from the place and the shocking atmosphere pretty much every weekend".
And for those specialising in shipping, the hours tend to be pretty civilised by City standards.
There is a mixed response on morale at the firm. At the dissatisfied end, one lawyer said a recent 'engagement' survey revealed that "25% of staff are disengaged", but since conducting the survey "absolutely nothing has changed". One associate reported that "there are some knobs (not the delicious oat biscuit kind) in positions of power". Also, a worried lawyer noted that there is an "exodus of people at the moment".
A senior lawyer said the firm "seems to be in the middle of a generational shift from some of the older dinosaurs to some of the more business minded people. Whilst this means that a number of the more 'senior' but lower billing partners have left, it has resulted in a lot of politics and constantly changing procedures as a management merry go round takes place".
Also, "There's now no point in getting in early for the chocolate hob nobs - they don't exist any more at HFW Towers".
However, others were more positive, highlighting that partners are approachable, which is very sporting of them, and maintaining that there there is a "Brilliant atmosphere (very collegiate)".
And there is a place to wig out: "About two years ago we got a prayer room", one lawyer said. "It wasn't getting much use, so now it doubles up as a music room".
A few moans persist about IT support, which is "good when it happens, but takes a long time to get there". And there were complaints about the "lack of 24 hour secretarial support", but that's the rub when you work for a smaller firm.
In the RollOnFriday survey, lawyers said the maritime specialist offered "interesting work". "I often get to see the cases I am working on on TV", said a senior solicitor, citing the team that deals with kidnappings and hijackings. Although the nature of the work meant that "everything's urgent or on fire or sinking or being hijacked", which "can take its toll".
In the RollOnFriday Best Firms to Work At 2022 survey, lawyers said management lacked vision, but they also praised its Covid response: "They were very open about the steps we were taking as a business and why they were necessary, and there was lots of open communication and even a vote on a temporary pay cut (that was repaid in full ahead of schedule, along with a ‘thank you’ bonus)".
The firm's main strength was its work/life balance. "I don’t suppose anyone gets into the law expecting to be out the door at 5:30pm everyday, but there really isn’t a long-hours culture here and I’d say the balance is really good on the whole", said a senior lawyer. "The attraction of HFW is good work-life balance but still getting good quality of work", agreed a junior colleague.
But there is also "early exposure to a lot of responsibility", said juniors. "If you show you're capable you can run with matters with minimal supervision", plus "Junior associates get good opportunities to go client secondment".
Although career progression was an issue for some: "I feel that career development at HFW is based upon offering the slowest progression possible without leading to a mass exodus", said one junior solicitor. "Associates are made to work very hard so the partners can do... I don't know what."
However, there's always the work. "I do a lot of global 'crisis management' work and, inevitably, cases can require unsocial hours, but the quality of the work and exposure to high profile work and 'real time' problems is pretty energising", said a senior HFW solicitor, citing the EVER GIVEN stuck in the Suez Canal and hijackings by pirates.
Overall, despite grumbles, there is interesting work, and if shipping floats your boat, the firm remains a solid choice.