Farrer & Co LLP:
Best Trainer - Medium City Firm
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Fabergé, Rolls Royce, Chateau Latour… certain names have become synonymous in their fields with a sense of history, quality and class. And when it comes to City law firms, few can match the credentials of Farrer & Co. The firm can trace its history back over 300 years and over the centuries has continually handled top-end work for the highest echelons of British society, from Charles Dickens to members of the royal family.
Today that reputation continues, but the firm has expanded its repertoire to include a broad spectrum of corporate and commercial disciplines and now boasts a staff of over 400. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, since its lawyers cater to top-class clients, it is also seeking top-class recruits.
"We act for a lot of significant clients, do a lot of complicated high-value work and like to think of ourselves as complex problem solvers," explains graduate recruitment partner Kate Allass. "It almost goes without saying, therefore, that everyone who walks through the door is extremely capable. We like to give our trainees a high level of responsibility and we expect them to be able to pick up and run with a potentially difficult case or difficult client from an early stage, albeit that their supervisors are always there in the background to lend support. Not only that, but although we now have a very broad range of practice areas, our underlying private client ethos - of really looking after the client and being that trusted adviser - is still absolutely key, so a good bedside manner is also important."
Kate is quick to point out, that while those external-facing characteristics are vital, it is perhaps even more important for prospective Farrer & Co lawyers to fit into the team, whose reputation for quality of service is surpassed only by that for its welcoming working environment and friendly atmosphere. "What probably makes Farrers different from other firms doing similar calibre work is that there's a real culture of fun and approachability," she suggests. "We all spend a lot of time with each other. We socialise with each other and we are looking for people who will fit in with that - people who are interesting and entertaining. So, we're looking for people who are highly personable, with a great sense of humour, who have the highest technical standards and are equipped to deliver the highest level of personal service as well. No pressure!"
While that might sound slightly daunting to some applicants, others will relish the challenge and will be glad to hear that while a great deal is expected of the trainees at the firm, there is an extensive support network in place to ensure that no one is overwhelmed.
"When you join the firm, you are given a trainee mentor," explains Oliver Lock, a first-year trainee. "They tend to be a one-to-two-year qualified solicitor who has been through the process that you're currently going through and is there to help with things you may not want to ask someone more senior at the firm. In addition, each trainee is allocated their own training principal - a partner who will take them out every few months for a drink or lunch, to catch up and see how they are getting on. There are also two training partners who are there to see the trainees through as a group and help them decide on their seats and the department into which they will qualify - and you can go and chat to them about any problems you may have. There's an incredible amount of pastoral care and of course there's also the amazing Donna and Claire in human resources, who will see you through your training contract here."
The Farrers training contract is modelled on the less common six-seat format rather than the usual four. Trainees must sit in each of the firm's practice area groups for four of those seats; the fifth is generally of their own choosing before they return to the department in which they intend to qualify for their sixth and final seat.
"At the start, we ask the trainee which two seats they would most like to do," explains Paul Krafft, one of the firm's two training partners. "We have four departments: private client, contentious, commercial and property. All trainees have to experience at least one seat in each of those four areas. Then the fifth area is generally one of the trainee's choices. I will work with the training team to do all we can to get that to happen and work out. Seat six is then for the trainees to go back into the seat in which they will qualify, so that hopefully they can hit the ground running come mid-September."
Paul goes on to point out that Farrer & Co is not the sort of firm that is able - or inclined - to use trainees as photocopiers or tea makers, but prefers them to learn by doing. In each seat, trainees will find themselves doing very real work straight away and there are plenty of opportunities for client contact, as Oliver has discovered.
I came out of my interview perfectly relaxed - not stressed and anxious, as had happened elsewhere.
"My experience, particularly when new matters arise, is that I am always invited to client meetings and I will be encouraged to get involved in them," he confirms. "The clients know who the trainees are and you are expected to interact with them. I think the sort of people who come to Farrers thrive on that. Following the initial meeting, the partner may then ask the trainee to have a first stab at drafting the document or whatever it is that needs to be done. You are taking things forward with a huge support system behind you. In my first month, for example, I was asked to go to court to get an order signed. I'd been working as a lawyer for three weeks before being asked to appear in front of a master. I don't think that's something you'd find at many other firms."
There are two routes onto a training contract at Farrers, both of which begin with an application form. Candidates who obtain a place on its vacation scheme will be lucky enough to have a chance to impress over two weeks, sitting in two different departments and attending various talks, a tour of the courts and numerous social events. They will also have to complete a case study and then present on it.
As an alternative, applicants may be called in for an initial interview, which usually takes place with a partner and is designed to assess character and personality. This stage also includes a written exercise. Those who shine will join those chosen from the vacation schemes in a second indepth interview process.
This final interview is much more detailed and tries to get an idea of how candidates will deal with the difficult circumstances that can occur in the daily life of a lawyer at a top-level firm. That said, all those involved go out of their way to put the interviewees at ease.
"I really enjoyed the interview," recalls Oliver. "It wasn't the grilling I'd had at a couple of other firms, but more of an open discourse between you and a group of interested people who want to see if they get on with you and if you get on with them. It was a really friendly, comfortable atmosphere. Not only do I think that's the best way for you to decide if it's the firm which you want to work for, but it also allows the interviewers to get the best out of you. I really enjoyed it. I came out of my interview perfectly relaxed - not stressed and anxious, as had happened elsewhere."
The firm only takes on 10 trainees each year and has excellent retention rates, with trainees usually able to qualify into their preferred areas; although as Kate points out, this might not be where they thought they were headed when they started their training contract.
"I would say the majority of people end up in a seat that is a natural fit," she explains. "People who find they are very good at something tend to enjoy it and want to end up there. However, we do try to encourage people who come to the firm with a closed mind about where they want to qualify to open it. You get a really great breadth of experience here and there is no point coming to Farrers and not trying things out with an open mind. I can say that with hand on heart, because I started training here saying I never wanted to be a litigator, as I had hated it on the LPC. Predictably, I then fell in love with it. So I would try everything and then, when you're a little bit further down the line, make your decision."
While Oliver has not yet decided which department he wants to qualify into, he is absolutely certain about where he sees he future unfolding. "I was pretty sure after I started my research into firms that Farrers was where I wanted to end up and the process confirmed that. I want to become a partner here and I think the majority of the people who work here do too. It's that sort of place and they nurture that instinct from the very beginning."
Such comments go a long way towards explaining the firm's continued success at the Training Recruitment Awards (this is the firm's sixth successive gong); and while the basic ethos of offering bright, engaging and friendly trainees the opportunity to work with high-profile clients on high-quality matters will doubtless continue to serve the firm well when it comes round to handing out prizes, a firm with Farrer & Co's history knows there is far more at stake than that.
"We attach a great deal of importance to our trainees," says Paul. "We know that a lot of the more senior members of the firm have been trainees here and we recognise the value of the training process in moulding our future leaders. It's a long game. We've been around for over 300 years and with that sort of past behind you, you have to think in terms of keeping people for the long term."