The increased globalisation of trade and state of the world economy means UK law firms are going east in search of clients and revenue.
On Monday, Herbert Smith, or Herbies as the city law firm is affectionately known, merges with Australian firm Freehills. Herbert Smith Freehills comprises 20 worldwide offices with 2,800 lawyers. The union will form the eighth largest law firm in the world and the largest law firm in Asia Pacific — one of the fastest growing legal markets in the world.
So, if you see yourself working on multi-jurisdictional corporate deals, energy projects or international arbitrations in the region how might you persuade firms such as Herbert Smith Freehills that you’re the right person for the job? “As well as being an absolutely first rate lawyer, you need a sort of cultural affinity. You’ve got to enjoy working with people from different cultural backgrounds,” says David Willis, managing partner at the firm.
Applicants with international backgrounds who have lived in the region and have knowledge of the cultures and languages, and who have been educated to the same standard as students in the UK will, naturally, be attractive to the firm says Willis. But that does not rule out home grown students who do not have that background. What you do need, he suggests, is an international outlook.
There’s no two ways about it, you will face stiff competition if you want to work at a world-class law firm. Herbert Smith received more than 2,000 applications for the 70 — 80 training contracts it offered in previous years.
It is essential to shine, both academically and through extra-curricular activities. The firm says that whether you attended a state school or were privately educated should not matter, provided that you get the right grades, though it has no data on the educational background of its current trainees. Herbies requires a minimum of AAB at A-level for application to its vacation placements or for a training contract, and most candidates have straight As.
The firm demands at least a 2:1 degree, but whether that is in law or in another subject does not matter. Generally around two thirds of those looking to become lawyers have a law degree, while the other third have studied another subject. “I wouldn’t know whether a lawyer working for me has done a law degree or something else and I don’t really mind, provided it is a rigorous degree that teaches analytical skills,” says Willis. What is important, he says, is that students have developed the ability to “take great mounds of material and distil it down to coherent principles.”
If you haven’t studied languages, it will not jeopardise your chances but, suggests Willis, applicants will have to demonstrate and show tangible evidence that they are internationally minded. What you have done with any gap year will be of interest.
Willis is keen to point out that while the firm demands the highest academic standards, that does not mean that students must have attended Oxbridge: it recruits from a range of universities, although 36% of its 158 current trainees are Oxbridge graduates.
To show what it would be like to be a trainee at the firm, Herbert Smith offers vacation schemes at its London and other international offices. Done in the penultimate or final year at university, or after graduation, students sit with a partner or associate and are given work to do for clients, as well as taking part in workshops and presentations and attending social events. Vacation students are paid £350 a week.
Applications are open for the winter scheme from 1 – 31 October and for the summer schemes from 1 December – 15 January. If you spent your gap year in east Asia, you could consider applying to do a vacation placement at the firm’s Hong Kong office.
Those who have not done studied law at undergraduate level must undertake the year long graduate diploma in law. The next stage on the journey to becoming a lawyer, for all students, is the legal practice course (LPC). Herbert Smith took the decision to move away from the generic LPC and, with four other leading City firms, created a bespoke course designed to prepare for life in a city law firm.
Run by BPP Law School, the course focuses on learning how to handle corporate and finance transactions, real estate transactions, and commercial dispute resolution matters – the firm’s core practice areas. Willis accepts that the move may be seen as elitist, but defends the firm’s position:
“The trouble is that if you go to law school and you’re trained how to do family law, conveyancing and criminal law, we don’t do those things. We need to focus on civil litigation and company law, on business law.”
The selection process for those elusive training contracts is rigorous. Candidates are put through a situational judgment test, a verbal and logical reasoning test, and an assessment day during which they undertake a range of exercises.
In common with many large firms, the split between the number of male and female trainees is almost even – 45% of the current cohort are men and 55% are women. But that shifts as careers progress. By associate level, the ratio is 48% male to 52% female. By partnership level the ration is distorted, with 83% male and only 17% female.
During the training contract, which is split into four six-month slots, most recruits spend time working in-house with a client or in an international office. Willis recommends that anyone looking to work in Asia Pacific should get out to one of the region’s offices during their training contract.
After that, he advises junior lawyers to be open-minded about where their career takes them. When it comes to promotion criteria, he says working overseas will not harm your chances. In fact the position is quite the reverse. There is by and large an expectation that lawyers will have worked in more than one of the firm’s international offices. Willis says: “If you haven’t, the question will be asked, why not.”
Prospective students often ask about the opportunity to do pro bono, or voluntary work. Partners and staff at Herbert Smith are encouraged to do 24 hours of pro bono work a year, which includes getting involved in volunteering at Whitechapel Legal Advice Centre or the Royal Courts of Justice Citizens Advice Bureau, and advocacy through the Free Representation Unit, as well as support for work on behalf of people on death row in the Caribbean.
The pay isn’t too shoddy either: first year trainees receive £38,000, which rises to £61,500 for newly qualified lawyers – and at the other end of the scale equity partners can earn in the region of a million pounds a year.