Herbert Smith Freehills LLP
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University: University of East Anglia
Position: Trainee solicitor
Department: Commercial (currently on secondment)
What attracted you to a career in law?
As a child I was christened ‘pocket lawyer’ because I had a response for almost everything! Over time this ‘quality’ developed into an interest in debating, critical thinking and public speaking, which made a career in law a natural fit.
Why solicitor not barrister?
I considered both routes initially and gravitated towards the solicitor’s route because of the team-oriented nature of the work and the chance to be intimately involved with the entire life cycle of a business as its trusted advisor.
How much work experience had you had? Why is it so important?
I was fortunate to have gained extensive legal work experience including two formal vacation schemes, several informal internships and a swathe of open days and insight programmes. Upon receipt of my training contract offer, I had also completed a year-long scheme with a social mobility charity.
The benefit of legal work experience is the insight it provides into the profession. The perception people have of what lawyers do and the reality can often be quite disparate. Legal work experience helps to bridge the gap so you can have an accurate picture of the career you are pursuing.
Other work experience can make the initial transition from studying to work less daunting and, in particular, experience in commercial settings can help to develop commercial awareness – a quality especially desired in trainees at Herbert Smith Freehills.
What do you think made your application successful?
To reflect too deeply on this question is a sure path to either excessive pride or imposter syndrome. In seeking to remain on the tightrope between the two, I would say that my application was successful because I managed to successfully convey my commitment to a career in commercial law and in particular, to one at Herbert Smith Freehills. A good application demonstrates a clear understanding of how a firm wishes to market itself both to clients and future employees, and how that intersects with who the applicant is as an individual and what the applicant wishes to achieve in their career.
Which departments did you train in?
I am currently on client secondment to Sky UK, after spending my first year at the firm rotating in the disputes and corporate (energy, infrastructure and projects) teams. My experience to date has been fantastic – early responsibility, regular feedback and interesting work have been prominent features of my training contract.
What do you wish you’d known about being a trainee before you started that you now do?
Glue a notepad and pen to your hand.
Please discuss a specific deal/case that you were involved with, outlining your role in the matter.
When I was in corporate, I was involved in the disposal of a participating interest and the assignment of the operatorship in onshore and offshore contractual areas in a North African country. Owing to the complexity and multijurisdictional nature of the deal, numerous sets of lawyers and financial advisors were involved. I oversaw the diligence exercise, which involved managing the disclosure process, responding to the buyer’s queries and attending calls and negotiations with the client and the buyer’s team. Seeing the deal announcement reported in the FT was very rewarding and justified the late nights in the run up to closing.
What do you most/least enjoy about your career and why?
Our clients and their legal challenges are increasingly sophisticated. I derive great satisfaction from helping to deliver our clients’ aims on complex disputes and market-leading deals. Inevitably in a client-facing role, there can be times where your envisioned earliest finish is replaced by a late night as you work on an urgent client request. While this occurrence is far from rare, it is a trade-off I am happy to make considering the exposure and quality of work on offer.
How involved are you with business development and promoting the firm?
Trainees are expected to engage in business development right from the beginning. Assisting partners and other fee earners with client pitches and presentations are part and parcel of a standard day in the office. Through my involvement with one of Herbert Smith Freehills’ unique ventures, the 'Trainee Business Development Committee', I have also had the opportunity to begin building relationships with prospective clients through a variety of initiatives. The committee regularly hosts themed events throughout the year where junior professionals from a number of organisations are invited to our offices to network with trainees. There is also a firm-wide Integrated Client Programme. Trainees may be allocated to a client of interest for the duration of their training contract where they then work closely with the rest of the client relationship team on such areas as client team objectives, research and events.
It would be remiss of me not to mention that promoting the firm also includes supporting graduate recruitment efforts. At the time of writing this – and probably in a subconscious attempt to relive my student days – I have attended three events in the past three weeks at my alma mater. The firm puts on a number of interview/assessment centre-focused events at universities to ensure candidates are well informed about what to expect and what is expected of them when applying to the firm.
What makes your firm stand out from the rest?
The culture of the firm is incredibly progressive. In a time where there is an increased focus on reforming organisational culture, Herbert Smith Freehills works hard to ensure its rhetoric transmits to the lived experience of its employees.
Herbert Smith Freehills has set ambitious gender targets for the partnership. At the top end, in 2018, 14 of the 17 newly promoted partners were women. In terms of the junior end, the firm is the only one out of its competitors that has an established women trainee lawyers’ network.
Its Ability Network regularly promotes initiatives and hosts workshops on mental health, many of which have significant contributions from partners and other senior staff.
As a demonstration of its desire to widen participation, Herbert Smith Freehills has partnered with Rare Recruitment to use its contextual data tool which places applicants’ grades in a fairer and more comparable setting. The firm also partners with Aspiring Solicitors and PRIME to engage a wider pool of diverse candidates and to facilitate greater social mobility. The firm’s commitment to the wider community also extends to providing free legal advice at the Whitechapel Legal Advice Clinic.
Herbert Smith Freehills also has a growing social finance and sustainable investment practice which advises various stakeholders on how to maximise the positive social and environmental impact of their investments.
In truth, this is only a small part of what is happening at the firm but hopefully goes some way to demonstrating why it is such an exciting organisation to be a part of!
What advice do you have for budding solicitors who are contemplating a career in law?
Be creative with gaining exposure to the profession. Use platforms such as LinkedIn to interact with lawyers at firms of interest. People are often happy to break up their working day with a short coffee to answer the questions of an aspiring lawyer.
Take the time to decide what you want from your career and what type of firm may facilitate that. A few targeted applications that demonstrate great specificity are likely to be more successful than many generic applications to several different firms.
What skills/strengths do you need to be a successful solicitor?
Marrying strong technical expertise with a deep understanding of the client’s commercial context is key to delivering practical advice. Outside of that, stamina to keep going during busy periods, emotional intelligence to build relationships with clients and colleagues and confidence in your abilities are some of the traits I associate with many of the firm’s seasoned lawyers.
What is the work-life balance like at your firm? How often do you have late nights/work at weekends?
Naturally, this will depend on the status of the deal or dispute. There are greater ebbs and flows with transactional groups. Advisory and contentious teams generally tend to have steadier (or more predictable) finish times. Importantly, there is no obligation to come in early or work late if there is no pressure to meet a deadline. In fact, supervisors work hard to discourage any face-time culture during quieter periods on the understanding that the hours are put in when required.
What is the wider culture like – eg, are there sports teams/trips out? Is there a LGBT group or women’s group?
It is honestly impossible to exhaustively list the committees, affinity groups, sports teams and networks on offer. Since joining I have been involved in some capacity with several, most notably the Multiculturalism Network, Trainee Business Development Committee and Family Network. I am also on the mailing list for the firm-wide rugby team; hopefully next year, I will take the next step of actually responding to a request for players!
Describe the firm in three words.
Ambitious. Global. Progressive.
What’s been the highlight of the last month at the firm?
Securing tickets to watch the Washington Wizards and New York Knicks at the O2 Arena as part of a staff performance reward scheme in the second month of my client secondment.
What’re you reading at the moment?
Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging by Afua Hirsch. Rarely have I come across a perspective on the experiences discussed in this book that I could resonate with so clearly. Such is my esteem for the book that providing any further comments would give rise to suspicions of this being a sponsored review!
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