Farrer & Co LLP:
Best Trainer – Medium City Firm
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Prestigious City firm and now eight-time TARA winner Farrers & Co has always played the long game – and with over 300 years of history and a prestigious client list featuring everything from the Natural History Museum to the house of Windsor, it has a wealth of tradition to draw upon. While this illustrious heritage might tempt some organisations to live in the past, Farrers is resolutely forward looking and future focused. Nowhere is this more apparent than in its attitude to training. “We are the custodians of the firm,” explains training principal Paul Krafft. “We are handing it over to the next generation and we want to hand it over in a better state. To do that, you have to look after your trainees.”
The first step in doing this is to find the right people to train, making recruitment a key priority. Training recruitment partner Kate Allass joined the firm as a trainee in 1999. “I’ve been through the system, so I know all its quirks,” she jokes. She became involved in graduate recruitment three years ago and oversees the whole process, as well as being personally involved in all first-round interviews. “We’re not just recruiting future trainees, but future partners,” she insists. “It’s something the firm takes very seriously. And there’s something really enjoyable about putting aside your daily business – even when it’s really busy – and hearing about someone’s life.”
The recruitment team uses a scoring system to filter applications in the first instance, based on academic excellence, interesting work experience and how candidates have approached the application form itself. However, the proof of the pudding is in the interview. “I start judging as soon as I shake hands with them outside the interview room,” says Kate. “The thing I’m asking myself is, ‘What would I think of them if I were a client?’”
Third-seat trainee Alyson Challoner certainly managed to impress. Originally from the west coast of the United States, she read English literature at the University of California, Los Angeles, before completing her law degree at Pepperdine University in Malibu, taking the California bar exam and practising family law there for two years. However, she always felt she would end up in the United Kingdom, having fallen in love with the country while on an Erasmus year at University of York as part of her undergraduate degree; so she made the move to cross-qualify. “All in, it took me nine years to dual qualify,” she laughs. “But it was worth it.”
She was always inclined towards private client work, which put Farrers on her radar straight away: “I knew I wanted somewhere friendly, with a real work/life balance; not just somewhere that simply claimed to have a good work/life balance.”
Her first stop was a written application and then the open day. “It sounds really mad, but I had fun!” she recalls. “The people I met were all friendly and gregarious, and I really enjoyed the exercises. I just instantly got a good vibe. I felt I could ask real questions and get intelligent, meaningful answers. It struck me that people were happy to be at Farrers and excited and energised about the work they were doing. People stay here – they don’t just bounce around between firms, they put down roots. My final interview was with two partners; it was two and a half hours, but it flew by – it felt like a conversation and like they were trying to get the best out of me. They asked me about my English literature degree, which was right back in 2006, so I was really having to stretch to remember. But it was nice not to be asked, ‘So why do you want to do law?’ It felt a lot more wide ranging and personal.”
As training principal, Paul is responsible for trainees from day one – he shares the role with Anthony Turner, with each of them taking alternating years. As an example, Paul took the intake starting September 2014 and will oversee them until they qualify. “It gives them great continuity, having someone overseeing the whole of their training contract,” he explains.
“It struck me that people were happy to be at Farrers and excited and energised about the work they were doing.”
Paul is also the point of contact between trainees and departments when it comes to the delicate negotiation of where they will qualify. Farrers’ training contract has six seats, rather than the usual four. Trainees must spend a seat in each of the firm’s four practice areas: private client, contentious, commercial and property. In most cases they get to choose their fifth seat, while the sixth is in the department into which they intend to qualify. “It’s a time of great uncertainty for trainees,” Paul points out of the months leading up to qualification. “Which is not much fun for them.” He thinks it fair to describe his role as a matchmaker – managing expectations between what the firm needs and what trainees want. But he is clear that when push comes to shove, he is on the side of the trainees, considering it his job to help them end up where they want.
Qualifying department aside, what trainees tend to want above all is real work that matters; and at Farrers, they are not disappointed. “The firm really focuses on throwing people in at the deep end,” Kate explains. “But we give them a life jacket too.”
“It’s not about photocopying or making cups of tea,” Paul agrees. “It’s proper work right from the start. In property we have trainees doing sales contracts and transfers, preparing reports on title, carrying out searches. Supervised, of course; but these are all aspects of the job they will do once they qualify – it’s real work. We’re not big enough to recruit trainees for mundane jobs, so they play a vital role in making transactions work. In a big sale, trainees will help coordinate responses. “
“It’s all about early responsibility,” Kate continues. “We let them run their own cases, make their own mistakes – hopefully not too many – but it’s the only way to learn. We have interesting and diverse work for high-profile clients. We make our trainees contact these clients directly and get involved. There’s nothing like that for learning.”
And learning is just what happens in practice. Alyson describes how she was in court by the third day of her first seat, learning how to bundle. “You get stuck in really quickly,” she enthuses. “There were just two trainees in the family law team, so there was no room to coast. One day towards the end of the seat, I was in court from nine until nine, working through a settlement. I was sitting with the solicitor and the client, helping to prepare paperwork and write the settlement – I knew I was really part of the team. And the client expects this – if the solicitor is in court, then I’m the person they’re going to contact. In my residential property seat, I was managing my own case files, in charge of whole transactions from beginning to end. It was very intimidating at the beginning and very empowering towards the end.”
Given this fast pace, it makes sense that the firm has layers of support in place. As well as their training principal, trainees can turn to their seat supervisors, Donna and Claire in the graduate recruitment team or their ‘buddy’ – a solicitor who is a couple of years qualified and can appreciate what the trainees are going through. In addition, each trainee is paired with a partner who acts as a mentor throughout the whole training contract. “It’s supervision at a higher level,” Alyson explains; “someone who’s seeing the big picture, over and above the individual seat. We have coffee every couple of weeks, email check-ins, breakfast meetings – my supervisor also gets involved in mid-seat and final seat assessments. It’s great to have that; it’s almost like pastoral care.”
As a result of this concerted support effort, most issues are identified and addressed at an early stage. “We don’t tend to let things stay bottled up,” Paul confirms. “It can happen, but it doesn’t last – word gets out. And the supervisors are generally very good at spotting when trouble’s brewing.” Kate agrees wholeheartedly: “I expect and know that trainees don’t hesitate to approach people in the team. Everyone knows that trainees are our investment in the future.”
Given that Farrers has only a small intake – 10 a year – this is a significant investment of resources. But then again, this is a firm with the experience to know what works. Kate notes that when it comes to recruiting, it is not just about obtaining the best individuals, but how they fit together as a unit. “We believe in organic growth,” she explains. “The strategy is to take a core bunch of people who get on well and then invest in them. It helps to build a strong horizontal network, which provides glue throughout the firm. So 10 years down the line, a partner in the corporate department might know they have a good friend in the property department, because they were trainees together.”
Those bonds certainly seem to be working in Alyson’s case. “My intake socialises together all the time; there’s no competition, everyone has your back.” Certainly a promising basis – not only for proactive, experienced lawyers, but also for a group of partners who trust one another and can rely on one another. Looking to the past, looking to the future: truly the Farrers’ way.