Lawrence Graham is one of London's older firms, dating back to the early 1700s, but its recent history really dates from 2007. That was the year when it spruced itself up, rebranding itself as LG and moving to spiffy new offices in More London, the fancy business development on the South Bank of the Thames next to Tower Bridge. Two assertive moves, and a real statement of intent of the firm's future ambitions.
What success has been achieved since then? It's fair to say the record is mixed. Given the firm's heavy focus on real estate work, you might have been forgiven for fearing the worst, and LG was perhaps unfortunate in that it revved up for a big push forward just before the economy collapsed, which naturally hampered its plans somewhat. Revenue fell and two redundancy rounds dampened the mood in the office. Trainees still hear rumblings of “cutbacks and making sure you stay within the budget, and everyone is quite aware of that,” but “at the same time people are optimistic.”
There have been achievements in this period as well. The firm has opened two new overseas offices to add to an existing one in Monaco serving high net worth individuals. It launched in Dubai in 2007 and Moscow in 2009, while in February 2012 it announced it would be forming an alliance with a local firm in Singapore. Despite not having an extensive international network, LG has worked hard to generate business from abroad, and 40% of its revenue comes from international clients. It still gets big instructions, too, recently being appointed to lead an independent investigation into Libor for the British Banking Association.
What we have, then, is pretty much what we had before the recession – a fairly solid mid-sized, mid-market firm, with core strengths in property and AIM-related capital markets work.
LG requires trainees to complete a contentious, transactional and property seat. There is little leeway for those wishing to pass over the property seat: “One person in my intake of 19 skipped it; you'd be very lucky if you could.” Although three-quarters of the training contract seems predetermined, there are a variety of subsections within the litigation, corporate and real estate department so there is more choice than there first appears to be. But with only one completely 'free' seat, “you need to really think about what department you want to be in and plan it out in advance – you don’t want to get to your fourth seat and realise you didn’t get it.”
Before each seat change, trainees fill out a form, “setting out your first, second and third choice, which departments and which supervisors you want.” The HR team also recommends trainees have a chat with their preferred supervisor for “a bit of background schmoozing;” however, our sources weren't sure if that carried much weight when factors like department needs and other trainee preferences were taken into account. “The second-years get preference – the first-years sort of flop around the seats that are left.” Most of our interviewees appreciated that seat allocation is a delicate balancing act and that the HR team tries their best to accommodate everyone. “No one has got stuck where they desperately didn’t want to go.”
Our Graham with a quick recapitalisation
LG has an especially long list of clients listed on the Alternative Investment Market (the sub-market of the London Stock Exchange which allows smaller companies to float shares). In fact, as of May 2012, the firm had more AIM-listed clients than all but three other firms and it regularly acts for Indian plcs that have raised capital on AIM – such as cleantech company Greenko. The firm's M&A practice shouldn't be forgotten: in 2012 it advised Cove Energy, an oil and gas exploration company (and an existing AIM client of LG), on billion-pound takeover bids from Shell and then PTTEP.
Due to the large monetary value of deals in the corporate department, trainees found themselves with relatively low levels of client contact in comparison to other seats. The upside: “I was given lots of responsibility and was very rarely given menial tasks like photocopying,” said one source. “On some really big transactions I helped with document reviews and due diligence but on smaller acquisitions I helped an associate run a smaller sub-team.”
The corporate tax group is “very good for black-letter law” as trainees spend substantial amounts of time researching “specific laws for specific scenarios.” As part of a small group, trainees work for everyone in the team. Corporate recovery is another “technical seat, with a lot of research.” The department mostly acts for “the big banks or the accountancy firms that are putting a company into administration.”
Trainees can sample from a smorgasbord of property seats. LG has a place on Sainsbury's legal panel and has been advising the supermarket chain on the purchase and development of numerous stores, including the regeneration project in Bicester town centre. It also acted for the Crown Real Estate Commissioners on the funding and purchase of Stadium MK retail park, a matter worth £60m. Other clients include global insurance conglomerate AXA and Whitbread, owner of the Premier Inn and Costa Coffee chains.
Trainees in the general real estate group enjoyed the responsibility that came with this seat: “You have your own files, like rent reviews, that you are responsible for from the opening to when you close the files. Partners won't chase you up to see if you've done the work.” On their own files, trainees had liaised with managing agents or the opposing side. Other tasks include drafting and negotiating aspects of contracts. The department is divided into teams focusing on different clients and each has its own ropes to learn. “I worked for more than one team and no one briefed me on how procedures worked, what the teams did, said one source. As a result, some came away from this seat with mixed reviews – “I felt a bit isolated initially; there wasn't too much of a team or collegiate feeling.”
“You might get to run your own matters in other real estate groups, but in construction all the deals are big” and so this is less likely. Trainees receive work from the contentious and non-contentious side of the team, and are able to handle disclosure-related tasks and get involved with drafting. Although it's a busy team, “they have been very good at explaining how things work.” The firm has recently launched its first overseas secondment, a construction-heavy seat in Dubai.
The real estate finance team works on financing acquisitions, restructurings and distressed loan sales for “some very big companies,” alongside fee earners and associates from the finance department. Clients include RBS, Deutsche Hypo, La Selle Investment Group and Nationwide.
Those not wanting to go down the corporate or real estate path will find some variety at LG. “We used to be based around old-school clients from England,” said a trainee of the top-ranked private client practice, “but now we have partners who specialise in the Middle East and East Asia.” Clients could be from “big wealthy Middle Eastern families or international bankers from Hong Kong or Singapore – international wealth is an area we are pushing into.” Trainees work on drafting simple documents “like appointment of trustees or straightforward wills.” Junior associates and trainees are encouraged to get involved in marketing and networking to “start up their own career – I enjoyed that aspect,” said one source.
To fulfil the contentious seat requirement, trainees can pick from dispute resolution, employment, real estate litigation or restructuring and insolvency. Dispute resolution trainees see some fascinating work – for instance, LG is acting for the Federal Republic of Brazil and the Municipality of São Paulo in a corruption case that has been brought against the former mayor of São Paulo in the Royal Court of Jersey. It's all to do with kickbacks from a large construction project. “It’s a very big step for democracy,” one excited source exclaimed, with the significance of the matter more than making up for having to take on bundling and admin tasks. Other seats include banking, insurance and employment/pensions.
Putting in the L(e)G work
“There’s no need to work late to impress.” Hours tend to be good in most departments, averaging about 9am to 6pm, and some of our sources “never had to work a weekend.” But it wouldn’t be a City firm without someone burning the midnight oil – “I had a lot of late nights in corporate,” said one source, “although none past midnight,” while another in banking had experienced a stretch of “non-stop 11pm or midnight finishes and a few all-nighters.”
While most trainees found their supervisors “love having trainees and love nurturing them,” we did hear reports, particularly from sources in real estate, of “supervisors who, for lack of a better word, couldn’t give a sh*t,” or “have no communication skills whatsoever.” In times of need, trainees find the HR team to be a good first port of call and if they’ve “formed good relationships with a past supervisor, could always go back and talk to them.” Of course, the trainees themselves “get along quite well,” and form a good informal support network.
“It's hard to sum up LG without regurgitating the spiel that's already out there,” one source mused. “It's a medium-sized firm – that was the attraction for me – and it's got some great clients.” Another source summed up the consensus, saying: “The partners are nice, like ... normal people. They are not what you would imagine a partner in a large firm would be like, which would be scary and bossy.”
LG trainees have “solid academics” but come from a wide range of universities. “The one thing that I did note about us,” said one source, “is that everyone is around my age, in the 26 to 28 bracket. The firm likes people with a little bit of life experience – most of us have travelled or worked before.”
Happy as Larry
There is more of a departmental focus than a firmwide one when it comes to the social calendar. Each department hosts joining and leaving drinks for trainees at the beginning of each seat rotation. Some also host their own summer and Halloween parties and instead of a firmwide Christmas do, each department has its own bash. Tightened purse strings in 2011 saw the end of the trainee Christmas party budget: they were asked to foot their own bill. In the end, not only did the resourceful LG trainees throw their own bash, they even invited the partners.
One firmwide event is the annual pub quiz, the proceeds from which go to charity. The firm also looks ahead with “Next Generation” drinks sessions, a networking event for everyone from trainees to 2PQE level to bring guests from other businesses. On Friday evenings, trainees send round messages to see who’s up for a drink. The Brigade on Tooley Street, a converted fire station, is a popular destination. Trainees are good at heading out spontaneously and often get together on weekends.
What next for Lawrence Graham? “The firm should be okay as the economy picks up,” thought one interviewee. “The only thing I wonder is if the firm might merge, perhaps with a similar mid-sized city firm like Field Fisher or Mishcon or Nabarro.” Clearly that trainee was either particularly insightful or well connected on LG's gossip grapevine, because less than a month after we spoke to them news broke in the legal press that the firm was indeed in talks with Field Fisher Waterhouse about a potential tie-up. Nothing came of the discussions in the end, but of course there are plenty of other potential suitors out there. With a merger or without one, some further international expansion is a probability.
At qualification time, “you have to go behind the scenes, talk to the partners and find out if there are jobs in the place where you want to qualify.” Due to a cycle of deferrals, the qualifying class of 2012 is one of the larger ones in recent years and second-years feared that as many of half of them might be leaving. In the end, 12 out of 19 stayed on.
There's no doubt LG will beef itself up in one way or another over the next few years. For now, its trainees enjoy a proper City experience that's not too hardcore.