US Law firms: Insights from a Future Trainee

For this week’s article, The Legal Line Up team spoke with Future Trainee Solicitor Joe Mallet about the so-called ‘US Law firms’. Joe breaks down who these firms are and what attracted him to them, as well as offering insight into the various benefits of training at US Law firms. Thanks to Joe for sharing his insights!

Introduction

I’m Joe, and I’m a future trainee at the US law firm, Vinson & Elkins. After graduating with a law degree from Bristol, I spent a year working in a legal recruitment firm in London, before securing a few vacation schemes and eventually my training contract offer earlier this year, commencing 2021. I’m now doing my LPC MSc at the University of Law, Moorgate, and run my mentorship page for aspiring lawyers on LinkedIn, creatively named, ‘Joe Mallet Resources’.

Who are the US firms?

The term ‘US firm’ is commonly used to refer to US headquartered law firms with offices in London, whether set up independently or via transatlantic merger. There are actually over a hundred US firms with London offices, with approximately half offering training contracts in small numbers. To name a few, popular names include big private equity players Kirkland & Ellis and Latham & Watkins, ‘white-shoe’ firms such as White & Case, Weil and Cleary Gottlieb, and Texas-based energy giants such as Akin Gump and my firm, Vinson & Elkins.

What initially attracted you to the US firms?

I was drawn to US firms specifically for a number of reasons. The first attraction was the dominance over the private equity sector many US firms enjoy in London. After attending a couple of debt finance workshops at city firm open days, I became very interested in the opportunities private equity offered in terms of working with clients across a wide spectrum of portfolio companies, as well as the chance to develop uniquely strong relationships with clients throughout the life cycle of their funds. A lot of US firms’ London offices leverage strong client relationships with US-based funds, sponsors and lenders to engage in some of the most exciting and pioneering global work within the sector.

I also like the entrepreneurial drive many US firms foster in their training programmes. Small trainee intakes and high partner:trainee ratios lead to more significant trainee responsibilities and client exposure, which I’m excited to engage with from an early stage.

How does the training differ between US firms and UK firms?

I should caveat my answer to this by mentioning I am only a ‘future trainee’ and can’t decorate my answer with any substantial first-hand experience! That being said, my impression is that training differs largely from say, Magic Circle firms, in that there tends to be less of formal structured approach. There often won’t be formal classes set in place and trainees would be expected to learn ‘on the job’ as it were. This is an approach I personally prefer, but one which won’t necessarily be suited for everyone. This also means a lot more client interaction and independent management of tasks which might require 2-3 UK trainees on the other side. Some US firms also operate on a non-rotational (or quasi-non-rotational) basis, enabling trainees to proactively seek out their own work from partners in accordance with their own career interests and ambitions. Feeling as though you are making a tangible difference to the task at hand was a differentiating factor often cited by US trainees I networked with, and helped them recognise their value within their firms.

Does training at a US firm mean you are also US qualified? If not, is there an option to become US qualified?

Training with a US firm in the UK won’t automatically make you US-qualified. This is a separate process which requires passing, for example, the New York bar. With US firms, there is often the option to take a secondment to one of the firm’s US offices and experience the US-application of the law in person, as well as assist with multijurisdictional matters within the remit of a UK-qualified lawyer.

How do the seat options differ at US firms? What are the advantages of this?

Seat options aren’t wildly different from those of a lot of UK firms, although the main difference observable is that many US firms gravitate around a particular niche e.g. private equity/debt finance. Another notable difference is that some US firms (e.g. Jones Day) offer non-rotational training contracts, meaning there are no seats as such. The power is effectively in your hands to tailor your training experiences to your particular career ambitions by carrying over matters beyond the six-month window afforded by the typical four-seat training programme.

What are the benefits of a smaller trainee intake? US Law firms generally have a smaller headcount in their London offices than UK rivals such as the magic circle. What are the benefits of working in a smaller office and in smaller teams?

The benefits of a smaller trainee intake include working in ‘leaner’ teams, experiencing more client interaction, and engaging with more significant responsibilities in impactful tasks at an earlier stage. Working more closely with US firm associates and partners, who are often headhunted as the best in their respective fields, provides a great opportunity to really learn from the best. I’d imagine this more personalised training experience is often a reason behind so many US firms’ high trainee retention rates at the moment.

Given that US firms are headquartered in the US, how does that affect the type of work that US lawyers do?

Something a lot of US firms are great at is playing to their strengths, meaning they invest their resources into generating a prestigious and leading reputation in a particular type of practice and apply this, as opposed to focusing on a full-service in their London office (with some exceptions of course). For example, a lot of US firms are powerful players in the private equity, finance and restructuring sectors, due to strong transatlantic relationships with client sponsors and lenders. Interestingly, a lot of global private equity work is governed by contracts influenced heavily by US law, so firms able to manipulate this expertise to their advantage (via their London offices and on a pan-European level) will secure work with some of the biggest players within the sector. Similarly, Houston headquartered firms are located where they are to service the wealth of oil & gas activity taking place there. London-based extensions of such firms provide a useful platform to broaden said firm’s geographical scope and service new oil & gas demands in emerging markets experiencing foreign investment. Some US firms work hand-in-hand with their US offices (often a reason for the later starts and finishes to work with time-differences) and some wield more established and autonomous London offices. The rubric ‘US firm’ actually encompasses a broad spectrum of different cultures, specialisms and ultimately training experiences between firms, so it’s definitely worth fine-tuning your research to really find what’s best for you!

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