Analysts suggest that the 21st century will be an 'Asian Century'. It certainly looks that way for the formidable City force that is KWM.
China is fast becoming the world's dominant economic power, a fact that's now had a direct impact on the fortunes of one major UK law firm. On 1st November 2013 King & Wood Mallesons became the first Asia-Pacific firm to merge with a City outfit, shacking up with private equity pro SJ Berwin to form a $1bn firm. KWM was already the result of a 2012 tie-up between top Australian shop Mallesons and Hong Kong-headquartered King & Wood (which, rather oddly, never had any partners called either King or Wood – the name was chosen because it sounded reliable to Western ears). All of this left the UK firm with the rather clunky name King & Wood Mallesons SJ Berwin, or KWMSJB for short, but as of November 2014 the firm is to be called King & Wood Mallesons.
Before KWM came on the scene, there'd been rumblings of an SJB tie-up with a heavy-hitting American firm, but nothing came of them – the Chinese swooped first. So what were London's reasons for going East rather than West? “It was a completely unique proposition. The growth potential in the Asian market is incredible,” says UK graduate recruitment partner Nicola Bridge. “We wanted to connect the world to Asia and connect Asia to the world.” This grandiose vision explains the thinking behind the firm's (somewhat ungrammatical) new slogan, 'The Power of Together'.
So what's it like on the inside now that SJB has joined forces with KWM? “It would have been awful if we'd applied to work at one firm and ended up at another as a result of the combination, but that hasn't been the case at all,” trainees agreed. “The firm hasn't lost the feel of SJB.” So what was it that sold our insiders on SJB in the first place? “I wanted to work for an ambitious and forward-thinking firm with an international reach and a great client list,” said one source, “and when I saw the roof terrace and the views of London, I couldn't say no.”
Chambers UK ranks KWM for both its mid-market and high-end corporate/M&A work, while the private equity, investment funds, litigation, banking and finance, and competition practices (among others) are also roundly respected. But it's corporate and private equity work for which the firm is most noted: it recently advised music moguls Universal on the £487m sale of the Parlophone label to Warner Music, and acted for US private equity giant Warburg Pincus as the leader of a consortium providing up to $600m worth of funding to Delonex, a new Africa-focused oil and gas explorer.
Two corporate and one contentious seat are compulsory. But then again, as one trainee queried, “why would you come here if you weren't really interested in corporate law?” Beyond this requirement, trainees are free to choose where they go. “The allocation process is handled very well and people tend to get their first choice for most seats,” insiders agreed. We hear seats in commercial and employment are the most competitive to get, by virtue of the smaller size of those departments.
The corporate practice is split into three core teams: team A deals predominantly with public M&A and real estate finance; team B is concerned with private equity transactions; and the third, the incongruously entitled international funds, works on fund formation. “These are big teams – the real lifeblood of the business,” one source told us. In team A, “you get the chance to work on some really huge transactions – so big that you often don't see the whole picture.” Recent clients include Westfield, Ladbrokes and Lion Capital. One recent real estate transaction saw lawyers advise British Land on the £470m purchase of Paddington Central, a mixed-use estate close to Paddington station. The size of the deals means trainees usually take charge of managing documents, but we also heard there are opportunities to draft ancillaries, and on smaller matters you might get to draft a whole suite of documents.
Trainees in team B work on the purchase and sale of portfolios of companies for private equity houses. “Quite a bit of the work involves household names and high-street brands, but there's more niche work going on too.” The firm recently advised Duke Street on its £185m sale of Oasis Healthcare to the owners of Pret A Manger and Virgin Active. “We also do a lot of work in emerging markets like Russia and Africa, so trainees get stuck into some really interesting international work,” one source said. As in team A, there's a lot of document management and drafting of ancillary documents like board minutes, but we also heard “once you've proved yourself they give you the good stuff, like drafting sale and purchase agreements.” One source reported: “I managed to meet most of the clients we had during the course of my seat, which was a great experience.”
The international funds group works mostly on fund formation – for instance, “negotiating limited partnership agreements” – for private equity houses, hedge funds and occasionally the investors themselves. “We go through the process of negotiating with all the new investors that come on board to form a fund,” one trainee told us. “New deals are closing all the time – the work goes at a phenomenal rate.” Recent partner departures have had an adverse effect on the firm's standing in the private equity and investment funds market, but trainees nonetheless hyped up the “impressive academic credentials” of the partners on this team. It seems they impart their knowledge on trainees too: “The funds market is really diversifying,” observed one well-informed young gun. “For instance, there are more and more funds investing in infrastructure debt.” Funds is a specialist area, and this is recognised by the firm, which lays on “really in-depth training sessions” once a week. The rest of the learning curve is provided through involvement in negotiations and the answering of ad hoc queries from fund managers and investors.
A seat in litigation means working on “a really broad range of matters – you could be staffed on a banking dispute, an arbitration, a fraud case or a general commercial matter. It's a real smorgasbord.” Morgan Stanley, Hilton, Universal and the Crown Estate are all clients, and the firm recently successfully defended BSkyB in a trade mark battle with a Hong Kong telecoms group over the name of its internet TV service, Now TV. Several of our sources spoke of going to court during their time in the seat, and trainees also draft witness statements, do research and – inevitably – get stuck into bits of bundling. “The team is home to some brilliant personalities, and they're great to work with. That really lightens the load when there's a lot of pressure on,” one insider told us.
The popular EU, competition and regulatory seat gives trainees the chance to get involved in everything from anti-cartel work and international merger control to regulatory matters. Major clients include the BBC, Dixons and Diageo, among others. It's not unusual for trainees to be despatched to the European Commission in Brussels, and one insider called the seat "a genuine intellectual challenge. The work is very engaging.” Typical tasks for trainees here include drafting witness statements and consent orders, attending conferences with counsel, and doing black-letter law research. Interviewees cooed appreciatively about the department “winning some incredible work” – this includes advising RBS on the competition aspects of the European Commission's Libor fraud investigation.
Speaking of transnational issues, we should also mention the overseas seats the firm offers. The current options are Paris, Madrid, Frankfurt and Dubai. “There are some fantastic opportunities out there, particularly if you speak foreign languages,” insiders agreed. The KWM combination is set to open up new opportunities too. Graduate recruitment partner Nicola Bridge told us: “We want to get people moving between the offices as much as possible at all levels. For trainees, there'll hopefully be a posting to Australia before too long.” The firm also seconds trainees to big-name multinationals.
When we asked about working hours, our sources shrugged off the suggestion that KWM is any more punishing than its rivals. “The bottom line is that if you're working at a City law firm, there will be long hours and late nights,” said one. “We've got a bit of a reputation for bad hours, but I don't think I'm putting in any more time than my friends at other City firms.” We were pleasantly surprised to hear that an average day looks something like 9am to 7.30pm and that weekend work is relatively rare. That said, there can be late nights back to back in some of the transactional teams when a deal is closing, so don't forget your energy tablets.
“In the past we've had a bit of a reputation for being aggressive, but that's more to do with our approach to winning work rather than our attitude towards each other in the office,” one trainee was quick to tell us. “For such a young firm [SJB was founded in 1982] we've done a great job of expanding rapidly and muscling in on others' turf, but that doesn't mean people are forceful or difficult to work with in the office – there are a lot of laughs here.” Another insider said: “When the work needs to get done we're very focused and driven, but there are times when it feels relaxed too – it's a healthy balance. I'd say your typical trainee here is confident, sociable and resilient. It's not the kind of place that attracts wallflowers.”
Our sources spewed superlatives when we asked about the newly formed KWM's growing international activities. “I've already worked with Chinese investors and Australian clients,” one source said. “There's only going to be more of that to come – increased chances to work on global mega-deals and some amazing opportunities to travel too!” Another interviewee added: “I really came to appreciate just how international the firm is when they flew our team out to Europe and I randomly bumped into a Spanish associate I'd been working closely with for months!” So what should we expect from the firm in the future? “We want to grow and develop across Asia – that's the priority,” says Nicola Bridge. At the same time, our trainee sources believed, a US merger could still happen too. “Management considered it seriously before joining up with King & Wood Mallesons, even entering merger talks with US firm Proskauer, and I don't think they've dropped the idea of an American alliance just yet.”
Homing back in on KWM's London office on Queen Street Place (by Southwark Bridge), pretty much all of our sources singled out the firm's roof terrace as one of the major perks of the workplace. “There was a great party on the terrace when they announced the KWM combination, and there are often drinks and networking events up there too.” Another nice bonus is Stanley's, the in-house restaurant named for the firm's founder Stanley Berwin, where trainees can enjoy a complimentary meal every day. (Is there such a thing as a free lunch?) And watering holes such as The Banker, The Anchor and The Oyster Shed are favourites among trainees looking for a drink after work on a Friday.
The qualification process has been a bit of a sore spot for trainees here over the past couple of years. “If they published a list of jobs it would all be a lot clearer,” our sources implored. In 2014 the firm kept on 28 of 39 qualifiers.
Vacation scheme deadline: 31 January 2015
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2015
When we asked our graduate recruitment sources at the newly merged King & Wood Mallesons and SJ Berwin what the firm is looking for in future trainees, this is what we heard: “We want commercially minded candidates who are looking to get real responsibility right from the start of their career here.” An insider added: “You need to be proactive and ambitious, but not to the extent that you'll trample on people to get to where you want to be.”
The firm offers 30 training contracts a year, and is on the lookout for a minimum 2:1 degree and three As at A level, although we're told lower scores aren't necessarily a deal-breaker if the circumstances are right. Look out for KWM at law fairs up and down the country – they typically attend around 20 (in addition to the presentations they give at eight or so universities each year). The firm also holds a few open days each year for law and non-law students at its Queen Street Place headquarters in London.
The vacation scheme
KWM runs three vacation schemes a year: a week-long placement in Easter and two two-week placements in the summer. Each scheme takes on around 25 students who typically spend their time in a single department. The pay is £270 per week, and it's worth noting that around 80% of each trainee intake is generally made up of vac schemers.
Vac scheme hopefuls apply through an online form that covers a candidate's academic history and work experience, and asks by a few questions on why they want a career in the law and what skills they can bring to the firm. The application also tests commercial awareness by asking about a recent news story.
“The form needs to be free from errors and well written,” says a source in graduate recruitment, adding “we like to see that candidates have held a position of responsibility or a leadership role, or that they've been part of a team that has functioned well.” It's also important to make your reasons for applying to firm clear. Between 1,000 and 1,200 people apply for the vacation scheme each year, and around 200 are invited to an interview with a member of the graduate recruitment team and a managing associate. From here, the firm chooses who gets a place.
During the vac scheme attendees are mentored by three supervisors: a partner, an associate and a trainee. Typical tasks include basic drafting and research, and participants often have the chance to observe client meetings and even go to court. “We offer real work in a real office, so be professional,” HR advises. “Show us who you are – the different departments will be looking to see if you're someone who will work well within the team.” Vac schemers also attend several 'Know How' training sessions, and on their final day they undergo a training contract interview.
The firm arranges a number of merry social jamborees over the course of the vac scheme. In recent years these have included sushi making, cocktail making, bowling and dragon boat racing.
The training contract application process
On top of those who apply for the vacation scheme, the firm receives another 1,000 or so direct applications for its training contract. The application form is exactly the same as that for the vac scheme, and between 50 and 100 candidates are asked to a first interview, which takes place with a member of the grad recruitment team and a managing associate. Applicants are also given a tour of the building by a trainee.
Those invited back for a second interview are given a case study and asked to give a ten-minute presentation on it to two partners. Interviewees face questions on their presentation, as well as some competency-based inquiries meant to test their commercial and analytical skills. Lunch with the trainees follows.
King & Wood Mallesons SJ Berwin
10 Queen Street Place,