A lot of firms dip their toes in cross-border work; magic circle firm Freshfields is positively drenched in an “international feel and culture.”
WHEN Freshfields opened shop in London 273 years ago, Midtown New York was British-owned scrub land. This is the oldest of the five elite UK magic circle firms, but it took until 1977 to set up in Manhattan and then DC in 1998. The firm has 26 offices spread across Europe, Asia and the US. Adam Siegel, US managing partner, tells us: "We're blessed to have an even balance in the world's financial centers, which is where clients see the biggest opportunities and also threats." If this firm qualified for the Am Law 100, its revenue posting would place it comfortably at the top end, next door to the likes of Gibson Dunn, Morgan Lewis and Sullivan & Cromwell.
An international rock star Freshfields may be –Chambers Global ranks the firm in 6th position in its ‘Global Top 30’ firms – but all magic circle firms’ attempts at cracking the US market have been more Britpop than Adele’s transatlantic splash. However, associates reminded us that "the firm is trying to tone down the magic circle thing here.” And in a bid to raise its US profile, the Freshfields New York office has made several smart lateral partner hires over the past two years – and from top names like Fried Frank, Skadden, Shearman & Sterling, Wachtell and Cleary.
But we shouldn’t overlook what the firm has already achieved. Between the New York and DC offices, Chambers USA ranks the firm for capital markets, tax, and antitrust. The lawyers we interviewed also did high-level work in trade finance, litigation and arbitration, corporate and projects. As is typical for Freshfields, clients are frequently huge banks like Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank and JPMorgan, and giant global companies like ConocoPhillips, Petrobas, Johnson & Johnson, GDF Suez, and Dubai Aerospace.
At the time of our calls juniors were stationed in tax, capital markets, finance, corporate and dispute resolution, with the latter being the most popular destination. Most join the NYC office, but a few join DC. Dispute resolution splits into three subgroups of international arbitration, investigations and white collar, but “most associates start with general work and then specialize later on.” One associate told us: “I don't think there is a specific day or year that demands you graduate to just one group. You do a little bit of everything when you start out.”
Juniors in disputes had handled cases with financial institutions, pharmaceutical companies, universities, airlines and publishers: “I'm currently working on a big investigation of a bank, a bankruptcy notification in NYC and an ICC arbitration,” told one source. Juniors did “a lot of legal research and analysis” with the expectation that “partners will ask you questions about something to do with the case.” Typical junior work also included “drafting submissions, organizing document production, preparing hearings, writing and preparing witness statements and cross examinations for witnesses.”
“Opportunity to develop client skills.”
Our sources in Freshfields’ world-class arbitration practice (worldwide ranking first tier, Chambers Global) had been busy “developing arguments and strategies with partners” on giant cases like a $1.4 billion expropriation claim by ConocoPhillips against Ecuador, and an ensuing $2.6 billion counterclaim. “You get a lot of client exposure in arbitration,” a junior told us. “There’s a lot of responsibility and opportunity to develop client skills.”
The corporate practice splits into capital markets, finance, IP and corporate, “which is basically M&A work.” Although this is a compact team it has benefited from the few big-name hires recently. Chambers Global also ranks Freshfields M&A department among the top four firms in the world, so deals are weighty and cosmopolitan, such as arranging a $5 billion acquisition for Japan Tobacco. “It's hard to specialize in anything in the early days,” associates said. “You have to be ready to do a lot of different things.”
Typical rookie work in any corporate subgroup comprises “reviewing contracts, identifying material issues, drafting agreements, preparing reports and,” when you're a little more senior, “being in charge of supervising whole projects.” The small size of team equals greater responsibility, but several grumbled that because of this, the more humdrum diligence tasks “didn’t go away” in the third year.
“Everything that we touch is cross-border”
Several juniors get to go on client secondments, which sources agreed, “was very, very, very useful once I was back at Freshfields.” Secondments out to the wider Freshfields network aren’t uncommon – we heard of associate postings to Dubai, Frankfurt, London and Hong Kong. “Everything that we touch is cross-border. All my cases have been cross-staffed – they bring in the London and Germany teams in more often than not,” said a litigator. “I was also in contact with my colleagues in Hong Kong on a daily basis; probably to their chagrin as it was me asking them to do things!”
We came across myths like “I’m not sure you can get hired without a second language,” and observations like “most people have two or more languages" and "there are people here who have taught law at Chinese universities.” US MP Adam Siegel is quick to offer a more reasoned view: candidates must “have the passion to work in a cross border context. That doesn’t mean they have to speak six languages or have studied abroad.” And one associate reassured us: “If you’re a stellar candidate with impressive academic credentials, you’ll get hired even if you only speak English!”
“People make the decision to come to Freshfields; they don’t just end up here.”
Associates repeatedly told us how “intellectual and academic” their colleagues are. And again this year, a certain elitism came across when discussing the firm’s candidate search. Freshfields can afford to be picky, but to be a megabrain is not enough: associates agreed candidates should score highly in “emotional intelligence.” Pragmatism is also a must, insists Siegel: “We're not a hierarchical office and we don't have the room for people who don't want to roll up their sleeves, or people who are, quite frankly, difficult.” Associates also stressed how the firm isn’t just another BigLaw option: “People make the decision to come to Freshfields; they don't just end up here.”
The office’s cosmopolitan feel is no secret, and associates felt it sets Freshfields apart: “The other international firms in New York are still very New York-centric,” claimed one. “There’s a constant stream of British trainees and rotating German secondees, and there are Australian attorneys here permanently,” juniors explained. “It all adds to this international feel and culture that I really enjoy.”
“Everybody gets on the dance floor – even the partners!”
“People are generally very nice to each other,” our sources chimed. “Working relationships between the partners and the associates are great,” and “there are always people chit-chatting by the coffee machines.” This strays from the intimidating magic circle stereotype –“there is definitely a more independent vibe in the New York office.” Reports of Freshfields do sound more sociable than a lot of BigLaw, too: there are “frequent Friday drinks” and firm-funded outings like “an associate-only event where they took us to a Brooklyn brewery.” The summer party is a perennial hit: “Everybody gets on the dance floor – even the partners!” And on the summer program associates were treated to “sunset sailing, bowling nights, karaoke, Shakespeare in the park” and a 'design your own Converse' event.
Training & Development
With this size of office, practical on-the-job training works well. However, Freshfields uses a firmwide 'career milestones' training and assessment program, which wasn't so popular with interviewees. Opinions on this ranged from “pretty confusing and hard to understand” to “arbitrary and ridiculous.” In theory the system – which forces associates to “reflect on what you've concentrated on” and to “help you know where to aim” – should be supportive, but in practice “it's hard to evaluate yourself against eight different categories with ten sub-categories which all appear to overlap,” one associate grumbled. “I get why it exists in London. I know that it affects their compensation so they hate it! But it doesn't affect our compensation so it seems a little silly to have it at all.”
“In order to compete here you have to take pro bono seriously,” one associate said. “They have a running top list of associates who've done the most pro bono and some get rewards,” at special pro bono recognition events. However, “there are people who do astonishingly little pro bono – read that as none – which I find surprising. It's not because the firm isn't committed to pro bono, it's just that clearly client work comes first.” That said, we found the firm to be accommodating: “I'm on three pro bono cases right now and I think the firm has been very supportive of this decision.” Our associate interviewees found their work “pretty invaluable.” They had run employment discrimination, sexual assault, and asylum cases, and they relished the opportunity to “do your research, dig into the facts of the case and get your hands dirty.”
Pro bono hours
Hours & Compensation
The lockstep salary and bonus system was hailed as “fair and transparent.” However, there’s no billing target at Freshfields, which was a relief to some, but others found it “actually quite stressful” because expectations and transparency vary, partner-to-partner. “Some partners have taken me aside and told me what they expect – many expect about 2,000 – but it's difficult to understand whether meeting that target is a must,” said one interviewee. “And some associates are told the numbers they're billing aren't enough, which I know is frustrating.” Despite uncertainty on this front, associates reported hours in line with the Big Apple norm: “Usually I get home around 8 or 9pm,” was typical, together with “a few hours most weekends, and the occasional all-nighter” at deadlines. Freshfields “respects your personal life,” associates stressed. If you're lucky enough to get married, “they absolutely forbid you from doing any work on the days leading up to the wedding and then they let you take a long honeymoon!”
In June, Freshfields was the first Magic Circle firm to match Cravath's associate pay increases (to $180,000 for first-years and $190,000 for second-years).
“It's beautiful sitting here right now overlooking Central Park.”
The “light and airy” 56th floor of the New York office made a very comfortable home to our interviewees. “It's beautiful sitting here right now overlooking Central Park,” rhapsodized one source, and another told of “incredible 360 views of Central Park, the Chrysler Building, Long Island and Brooklyn.” The drawback of these exquisite views is “it's very expensive, so we're stuck for floorspace.” All our sources shared an office, but none viewed this as a problem, because “I like having an office mate,” they concurred. It “adds to the social vibe” and gives you someone to “bounce ideas off.” Within this limited floorplan the firm does set aside space for ‘wellness rooms’, which are “generally used for mothers who are breastfeeding.”
“That's an area I think every law firm wishes it could do better in,” US MP Adam Siegel muses. But "to make sure nobody slips through the cracks,” the firm has in place a mentorship program. Siegel gives an example: “Research shows that male associates are more likely to find informal mentors and forge close working relationships; we want our female associates to be given the same opportunities to succeed.” As a result the firm has “a formal female mentorship program in place.” And according to associates, Freshfields is “really trying to keep women associates here. On the junior level I can see that culture working – our latest batch of associates are overwhelmingly female.”
Learn more about the other three magic circle firms in the US:
Interview with US managing partner Adam Siegel
Chambers Associate: What are the firm's highlights for 2015?
Adam Siegel: Last year was a big year of investment for us; we brought in a number of new partners, especially on the transactional side in M&A, capital markets and finance. The story is that those investments are providing opportunities to undertake the cross border work that we've always wanted to do.
We've had a number of wonderful M&A deals this year one example being the major acquisition for Honeywell which was principally led out of the US. We've also worked for clients like Dubai Airspace and assisted on a nice acquisition for Japan Tobacco. Essentially, we were trying to build up a practice with the ability to do more US-led M&A transactions, because most transactions don't happen in the US as we work primarily with offices in Europe and Asia. However, this year, we're seeing the fruits of our labor. On the antitrust front we're world-leaders and we've worked with clients in the US such as United Airlines. We're looking through the airline industry through a number of antitrust prisms and helping with issues that affect the industry as a whole.
We also continue to be asked to help leading institutions with their problems and threats in cartle, financial regulatory space, corruption and a tremendous amount of work in tax. We're trying to bring in high level practitioners in practices clients care about.
CA: Given the firm's prestigious background, would you say that London is at the center of firm culture?
AS: That's a common misconception but one that I can't fault law students for having. In reality Freshfields is an extraordinarily international firm and less than a quarter of our lawyers are based in London. We've got lawyers throughout Europe and Asia and 200 lawyers in the US. I work as frequently with Hong Kong and Shanghai offices as much, or if not more, than the London office. Although London remains our oldest – we're never going to be able to trace our history back to 1743– and our most symbolic office, it now makes up less than a quarter four firmwide headcount.
CA: What's the firm strategy for 2016 and beyond?
AS: I think the reality is that we're never going to be all things to all people but that's not what we want to be. In the US, we'll never have the hundreds of thousands lawyers that you need to be able to cover everything. We want to fully understand what Freshfields is good at in the UK, Europe and Asia and see how the US practices can truly fit into those cross border matters and to be respected. Interesting areas we're looking at are cross border M&A, high-ticket civil litigation, antitrust, and complicated tax issues because those are what clients think of when they think of Freshfields. The strategy for the US is to make sure that the lawyers we have here can work to this high level of cross border work. What I want to make sure of is that when clients have complicated M&A, civil litigation and tax issues is that they know the US Freshfields team is just as good as the team they've been using in the UK and Asia. We've got to be as good and better than any other firm – we've got to focus on being at the top of our game.
CA: Are there any practices you'd like to see grow in the next few years?
AS: All of them. The legal system in the US will remain an important part of the legal landscape even if China continues to grow. If we were going to be proportionate to legal spend in the US we'd have to have thousands of lawyers but that's not realistic to what we are as a firm. That said, we're too small in antitrust, transactional practices, litigation and tax. In my opinion we aren't big enough; we're proud of breaking the 200 lawyer-count in the US but that's not big enough to compete in the EU, UK and Asian markets.
CA: How important is cross-border work to the US offices?
AS: It's essential although I want to be very clear about one thing: this is a practice made up of US lawyers. Our first move when we came to the US was to send non-US lawyers over to New York to build up a presence, but in the last 20 years that vision has changed. The secret of succeeding in New York and DC is having people who are recognized members of their community whether that's through senior lateral partners or midlevel associates. These are lawyers who want to practice cross border work and are able to think about how different cultures, languages and legal traditions can change decisions. I think we're blessed to have an even balance in the world's financial centers which is where clients see the biggest opportunities and also threats.
CA: What measures is the firm taking to ensure it's as diverse and inclusive as possible?
AS: That's an area I think every law firm wishes it could do better in; we do a lot of things to improve our diversity but it's a long journey and we're not there yet. I'm acutely aware of diversity issues and the whole firm tires to be open-minded during the OCIs as it's an opportunity for candidates to present his or herself. Law firm life is challenging to anyone whether you're from a family of lawyers of from a family where you're the first person to go to college. We understand that it's a difficult transition to go from law school to life in a firm. The reality is that most young lawyers will need a mentor and we want to make sure nobody slips through the cracks. Research shows that male associates are more likely to find informal mentors and forge close working relationships – we want our female associates to be given the same opportunities to succeed in the working environment so we've got a formal female mentorship program in place.
CA: Moving on to hiring, what's your ideal candidate? Is having a second language advantageous given the firm's global culture?
AS: There are a couple of things that appeal to me when I'm speaking to junior lawyers. One important thing is that they have the passion to work in a cross border context. That doesn't mean they have to speak six languages or have studied abroad, although we do see a disproportionate of candidates who've worked or been educated abroad and who have multiple languages. People who are interested in the commercial practice of law are also needed. It can be difficult to understand that the law is a tool to help clients accomplish objectives and avoid various pitfalls. They need to want to help large institutions and to understand their business needs and the challenges they may face. Team work is another thing that's important because we're still a relatively small operation.
The US practice is still growing and every lawyer we bring in changes us in some way and that's important when trying to build up the Freshfields presence. The people who want to be part of building something bigger rather than going into something that's already fully formed are going to be the people who are happy here. We're not a hierarchical office and we don't have the room for people who don't want to roll up their sleeves, or people who are, quite frankly, difficult. Collegiality is a phrase that's overused, but I can't tell you how important it is to bring in lawyers who are easy to work with but also fun. It's all about the three Cs here: cross border, commercial and collegial; lawyers who start here need to how those three things.
CA: Does the firm focus on any particular law schools?
AS: Harvard, Yale, NYU, Georgetown, Penn, Columbia, Chicago and Michigan are the US schools we typically recruit from. This year we've gone to fairs at Boston University, DC and Saint Louis University along with affinity group job fairs like the Lavender Law Fair for LGBT students.
CA: How important is prior experience on a resume?
AS: It's extremely helpful but it's not a deal breaker or a litmus test. However, most jobs will give students skills that they can talk about in interviews. At the minimum level it's about team work but most jobs will provide some insight into the commercial reality of businesses and jobs. I think it helps candidates explain why they're interested in the firm because it gives them the experiences to draw from and to explain why they want to work for us.
CA: Finally, do you have any advice for our readers?
AS: There are a couple of things I wish that I'd understood at law school. I wish I’d thought more about the world outside the US as a law student. The current crop of US students are more likely to have worked abroad but not all of them have and it's it's important to understand that it's a big world out there. Although the US will remain big in the legal and global economy, the marketplace is huge and many places do things differently to us. Another thing I'd say is that it's easy to get stuck in the law school mindset of only thinking about theoretical situations. One of the luxuries of law school is being able to think about the theoretical and academic outcomes but it's important to remember that the law exists outside of your education and exists to govern relations not just deep thought.
The magic circle explained
You can be forgiven as a law student for not being an expert on this magical collection of London-headquartered firms. Even current Freshfields juniors didn't really know what the magic circle was when they were aspiring attorneys in law school, with one saying: “I had a vague impression of Freshfields being part of this obscure 'magic circle,' but I didn't have a full understanding of what it was exactly. Those firms seemed to exist more in their own category.”
The very term 'magic circle' can easily evoke connotations of witchcraft or occult practices, but rest assured it's not quite as dark and sinister as all that. Instead, the term simply applies to the quintet of leading UK-headquartered firms: Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Linklaters, Slaughter and May, and, of course, Freshfields. The term is also applicable to a selection of London's leading commercial sets of barristers' chambers.
Most of the magic circle firms were founded in the 19th century, but Freshfields is the oldest bird among them, established as it was all the way back in 1743. It took a while for these firms to make that brave leap across the pond though, with the majority opening up shop in New York during the seventies and eighties. Linklaters was the first to do so, establishing a base in 1972, but Freshfields was hot on its heels and decided to settle in the Big Apple a few years later, in 1977.
The next stepping stone for these firms was Washington, DC, but none of them dived into the capital too soon, waiting until the late nineties – and in the case of Linklaters, not until 2012 – before attempting to build up a second US office. Slaughter and May is the only magic circle firm to opt out of the process, preferring instead to maintain connections with the US via alliances with New York top-dogs Cravath and Wachtell.
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP
601 Lexington Avenue,
- Head Office: New York, NY
- Number of domestic offices: 2
- Number of international offices: 24
- Worldwide revenue: $1.91 billion
- Partners (US): 36
- Counsel (US): 11
- Associates (US): 128
- Summer Salary 2016
- 1Ls: $3,077/week
- 2Ls: $3,077/week
- Post 3Ls: $3,077/week
- 1Ls hired? Yes
- Split summers offered? No
- Can summers spend time in overseas office? Yes
- Summers 2016: 25
- Offers/acceptances 2015: 22 offers (100%), 18 acceptances
Main areas of work
Freshfields’ US offices concentrate on corporate and finance transactions, antitrust, tax, litigation and international arbitration, while the firm’s US attorneys based in Europe and Asia focus on corporate and securities transactions.
With over 2,500 lawyers in 26 key business centers around the world, Freshfields combines an unrivalled breadth of expertise across practice areas and borders with tremendous growth opportunities within the US practices. This unique balance defines the firm’s work style and culture. On one side, there’s the friendliness, personal attention and lack of hierarchy one finds in a small firm; on the other, the comprehensive network, breadth of work and resources of an international organization. Freshfields prides itself on being a collegial firm, working and learning together in a cutting edge, global environment.
• Number of 1st year associates: 16
• Number of 2nd year associates: 16
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $180,000
• 2nd year: $190,000
• Clerking policy: Yes
Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2016:
University of Chicago Law School, Columbia University Law School, Cornell Law School, Duke Law School, Emory University School of Law, Fordham University School of Law, George Washington University Law School, Georgetown University Law Center, Harvard Law School, University of Michigan Law School, New York University School of Law, Northwestern University School of Law, University of Pennsylvania Law School, Stanford Law School, Tulane/Vanderbilt/Washington University Job Fair, UC Berkeley School of Law, University of Virginia, Yale Law School
Summer associate profile:
Freshfields recruits lawyers with many different talents and values individuality. The firm’s ability to offer diverse skills locally and across international borders ensures clients have the very best advice possible. Freshfields operates a summer program for US law students in its New York, Washington, DC, Hong Kong, and London offices.
Summer program components:
Freshfields’ 11 week summer program provides summer associates with exposure to several practice areas. Summer associates get substantive work supported by both formal and informal mentors. Most summer associates spend part of their summer in other Freshfields overseas offices such as London or Hong Kong.