Have you got the travel bug? If so, hop on board the White & Case express, which guarantees overseas seats and international opportunities aplenty.
It's rumoured that it took New York lawyers Justin DuPratt White and George Case just $500 ($15,000 in today's money) to get White & Case up and running in 1901. Today that $500 nest egg has begotten a billion-dollar firm, which is one of the world's global heavyweights. W&C picks up over a dozen 'global-wide' rankings in Chambers Global, winning the highest plaudits for its finance, projects and arbitration work. At present the firm has offices in 41 locations, spanning the US, Latin America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. And it isn't easing its foot off the pedal: 2013 saw the opening of a Madrid office, the establishment of a second base in Kazakhstan, the forming of an association with Indonesian firm MD & Partners, and the firm receiving a licence to practise law in Dubai.
London is one of the sturdiest rocks in the W&C network and “its own centre of gravity,” according to trainees. W&C was one of the first US firms to hop across the pond, and today, with over 300 fee earners, London is the second largest office in the W&C web. In 2013 it contributed $207m to the worldwide revenue total of $1.4bn, making this the second largest US firm in London. The firm's core global strengths – notably finance, energy and projects – are also at the centre of operations here, but the office picks up an impressive total of 25 Chambers UK rankings. Besides top-tier recognition of the energy and projects practices, W&C also wins recognition for areas including capital markets, litigation, corporate M&A, arbitration, construction, asset finance and restructuring.
One element of White & Case's pitch to prospective trainees is its 'small intake'. Now we rarely call firms out in this way, but we're going to go on record as saying that W&C's intake of 30 trainees a year is not small. Got that? Sure, it isn't mega, but compared to other City firms it's mid-sized; and compared to other US firms it's big (remember that this is the second biggest American in London). One thing the firm does get absolutely right in its graduate recruitment materials is all the talk of a 'guaranteed overseas seat'. Spending six months abroad during your training contract is strongly encouraged. “If you said you didn't want to go abroad then that would be highly unusual,” said one trainee. And “unless there were personal circumstances that prevent you from going,” you are expected to pack your bags and head for Heathrow. Overseas seats are organised at the beginning of the training contract, so you know when and where you're going in advance, but “it is possible to change that later on – so there is some flexibility.” The most popular overseas destinations are Tokyo, Singapore and New York, while trainees can also head to Abu Dhabi, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Johannesburg, Moscow, Paris, Prague, Frankfurt, Beijing and Almaty.
Trainees told us their remaining three seats are allocated in “the fairest way possible,” with more senior trainees getting priority. First-years (and even those who are yet to join the firm) do get to express a preference though, which is taken into account. The majority of our interviewees said they'd got their top seat choices and “if you don't, HR will meet with you to explain why, and try to remedy it in the future.” Seats in smaller departments like employment, intellectual property and real estate can be hard to come by.
Capital markets is a common first seat. One trainee reported that “nine out of 15 of us started there when I joined,” while a majority of our interviewees had done time here first. Happily the department is known for being “the nicest and coolest” in the firm. Trainees can join one of several subteams: high-yield debt, trusts, debt capital markets, equity capital markets and financial regulation.
The high-yield debt team focuses on “companies below investment grade, which are usually high-risk, so the bonds will pay a high yield in order to attract investors.” Lawyers recently represented Sanitec – a Scandinavian bathware producer – as the issuer of US high-yield bonds worth €250m. Trainees reported working on “a lot of bonds governed by US law,” and told us that “the department is heavily Americanised – there are a lot of loud American lawyers here!” Trainees “help prepare the offering memorandum – a book about 400 pages long – as well as conducting due diligence on companies with international branches, collating financial statements and calculating yield rates – it can be quite mathematical!” The broader capital markets team acts for major banks like Standard Chartered, BNP Paribas, HSBC, Barclays, RBS and Morgan Stanley as well as advising issuers like Coca-Cola Turkey and the company which runs Rome's airports. Lawyers also recently helped the government of Rwanda issue its first $400m Eurobond.
White & Case is a global leader in energy, infrastructure, projects and asset finance, especially involving emerging economies. The deals and projects lawyers work on span the globe and many are stupendously massive. None more so than the Sadara project: W&C is currently advising Saudi Aramco (Saudi Arabia's state oil company) on this $20bn petrochemical development, having originally advised on the setting up of the joint venture to get the whole thing going. That matter has been running since 2009, so we weren't surprised to hear trainees say that “projects can take a really long time to complete – sometimes ten to 15 years.” Given this fact, trainees often “work only on a small short chunk of a deal,” and their tasks usually consist of “proof-reading, bibling and collating info for hundreds of pages’ worth of construction and finance documents.” Many matters are oil and gas-related, but there is infrastructure work too – the financing of railways and airports, for example. And some of the energy work is a little out of the ordinary: the firm recently advised Landsvirkjun, the Icelandic national power company, on a project which will channel geothermal power from Iceland’s volcanoes to supply electricity to the UK.
W&C’s corporate practice has particular sector strengths in areas such as healthcare, energy and financial institutions, which help keep the M&A deals coming in thick and fast. While the team services a roster of UK clients, “none of the deals are solely UK-focused,” meaning that trainees might need to get to grips with “stock and purchase rules in Indonesia,” as well as helping to advise “companies in Kurdistan active in the oil and gas sector.” The firm lured over Chambers-ranked private equity partners Richard Youle and Ian Bagshaw from Linklaters in January 2014, so a few interviewees had been able to work on some private equity matters too (although they suggested the new laterals still needed to bed in a bit).
The disputes department is known for its finance, energy, white-collar crime and cartel work. The department does both litigation and arbitration, and as there are “some people who do mainly litigation, some who focus on arbitration, and some who do a mix,” trainees tend to get a taste of both. Sources reported that “some people work predominantly with their supervisors, while others have been able to get different types of work – although it can be difficult to escape your supervisor!” A lot of cases relate to activities in emerging markets, and when we took a look into the firm's case files we spotted ongoing matters related to Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Turkey. For example, the team is representing Turkish conglomerate Çukurova in a $2bn shareholder dispute with Russia's Alfa Group over the ownership of Turkcell, Turkey's largest mobile phone company. Trainees told us the department is “always busy – the busiest in the whole office by some distance.” As a result the hours can be tough, as there’s “always a hearing or a last-minute filing to prepare for, so trainees often need to stay until 2am to get all the bundles ready in time.” Sources linked these long hours to the fact the department has quite a competitive atmosphere. “If you want to qualify here then you have to do something special,” said one source, circumspectly.
Disputes isn't the only department known for the tough time demands it places on trainees. “You have to warn your readers about the hours,” one trainee implored us. Others agreed: “At uni you have no idea what it's going to be like physically and mentally to work until 3am and then have to come back to work a few hours later. You have to ask yourself whether that’s what you really want.” The attitude towards hours varies by department – some will “give you days or half days off” to recover after a tough stretch, while others, like dispute resolution and banking, are home to “some very enthusiastic people who think that you’re lazy if you don’t want to come in and work at the weekend.”
Construction is one department which is noted for the fact that “the hours aren’t so bad.” The department is quite small and offers both a contentious and a non-contentious seat. “There are only a handful of lawyers who do non-contentious construction work,” but like their colleagues in projects these lawyers work on some major international building schemes, including what will eventually be a $37bn construction project to build four new metro lines and 510 kilometres of long-distance railway in Qatar in preparation for the 2022 World Cup. The department is a good introduction to commercial contracts: “You encounter a lot of them!” said one trainee. “And you get to see how the key clauses are negotiated by attending client meetings.”
We've talked a lot about international work above – a real hallmark of a W&C training contract – and this involves plenty of interaction with overseas offices too, even at trainee level. Just after they joint, first-years get together in Belgium for introductory training alongside their colleagues from the rest of Europe, the Middle East and Africa. “It's great to have that networking opportunity,” said one interviewee. “And when you get back to London that's followed up on with regular cross-office training via video conference.” Trainees described interoffice interaction as “seamless,” telling us that “if you have a question for another office then you just go on a recommendation and send an email or pick up the phone.” One (presumably Europhile) trainee went so far as to compare W&C to the European Union: “All of the offices/countries operate independently but at the end of the day we’re still one firm/entity.” And perhaps this 'European Union' metaphor applies within the London office too: “All the departments have an incredibly different feel,” said one trainee, echoing the opinions of others. For example, we hope you picked up on the difference between capital markets (approachable, nice) and litigation (more hard-nosed) above. As one trainee pointed out, “you'll have a very different experience of the firm depending on your selection of seats.”
To add to this mixed and mingled state of affairs, our interviewees commented that the trainees themselves are quite a diverse bunch. “A large number of us are not exclusively from the UK,” said one interviewee. At the time of our calls the trainee cohort contained individuals from Canada, Nigeria, Italy, Germany, Singapore, China and Saudi Arabia, however, almost all have a long-term association with the UK. With this shared international background, most W&C trainees also share a burning desire to “go abroad and explore new cultures,” and many also speak a second (or third) language.
Qualifiers receive a list of which departments are recruiting trainees (although not how many). There are no interviews, and the “very efficient” NQ process is usually wrapped up three months before qualification. In 2014, 26 out of 28 qualifiers were kept on.
Vacation scheme deadline: 31 January 2015
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2015
In 2014 White & Case representatives attended law fairs at eleven universities: Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin, Durham, Oxford, Cambridge, Exeter, Bristol, Warwick, King's College London, LSE, and Nottingham.
The firm holds two open days per year, with 30 spaces available on each. The first takes place in November, and is for penultimate-year law students, final-year non-law students, and graduates. The day is designed for those with a specific interest in White & Case, and involves a business-related exercise, plus talks on how to apply for a vacation scheme or training contract at the firm.
The second open day is held in May, and is reserved for first year law students and second year non-law students. This day offers a more general insight into what law firms do with the aim of helping to confirm whether law and life as a trainee is the right path to take.
Students apply with an online form, a condensed version of the one used for training contract and vacation applications.
The application process
Aspiring trainees need a high 2:1 degree, and are usually expected to have straight As in their A levels and GCSEs.
Applicants are asked to provide details of extracurricular activities and work experience on their application. Both are important for demonstrating you're well rounded. Open day and vac scheme applicants can get away with general commercial work experience, though training contract applicants need to demonstrate specific legal experience. As graduate resourcing and development manager Christina Churchman explains: “If we haven't already had the opportunity to meet an applicant on one of our vacation schemes, then we expect to see evidence that they have taken steps to find out what it is like to work in a law firm. This can be demonstrated by work experience or vacation schemes undertaken at either similar firms or with an in-house legal team at a large corporate or financial institution.”
Recruiters pay a lot of attention to the accompanying cover letter, which should “detail why applicants want to work at White & Case, and highlight the specific characteristics of the firm that attracted them to us such as our training programme, our clients, or the type of work that we do,” Churchman says. “It's an opportunity for them to show they've done their research and understand where we sit in the market.”
White & Case receives 1,200 applications for its vac schemes each year, and a similar number for training contracts. The firm recently introduced a video-interview assessment to pre-screen candidates. Those who impress on the application form are asked to respond to a few questions and record their responses on video. “We're excited about it,” says Churchman, “as it gives candidates an opportunity to bring their application to life and show us more of their personality.”
The interview process for training contracts
Following the video interview, the firm makes vac scheme offers; meanwhile training contract applicants who impress go on to attend an interview at the firm. The first round takes place with Churchman and two associates. “We're looking to challenge applicants,” says Churchman, “so we'll ask questions that gauge whether they understand what type of firm White & Case is and what the trainee role involves. We'll also be asking them about their application form and their commercial interests.”
Around 50% of candidates then make it through to a second interview, which takes place with the graduate recruitment partner and another partner. Churchman tells us candidates should expect to be “challenged a little more in this interview and questioned on a broader scope of areas, especially when it comes to gauging their commercial knowledge and interest in White & Case.”
The firm offers between 35 and 40 training contracts each year. Trainees start in either February or August.
It's worth bearing in mind that between 60% and 70% of each trainee cohort completes a vac scheme with the firm before starting as trainees. W&C runs three two-week vacation schemes over the summer, plus another over Easter. Each has space for up to 20 students. We're told the 2015 Easter scheme will only last for one and a half weeks instead of the usual two, so consequently attendees will sit in a single department; meanwhile, summer vac schemers will split their time between in two. All vac schemers can submit departmental preferences before arriving.
During their placement vac schemers sit with an associate or a partner. “They can take on as much as they are willing to,” says Churchman, adding: “We are looking for participants to be proactive and to seek out work from as many people as possible so that they have the best chance of understanding the work we do and integrating themselves within the team.” She goes on to tell us that W&C is “looking for people who have a deep understanding of the firm – it's impressive when a vac schemer already has an idea of the type of work the department does and the deals it's working on.”
On the social side are welcome drinks, a vac scheme social and the firm's summer party, which in 2014 was held at the London Zoo, complete with a string quartet and a barbecue.
Once the scheme is complete, students have to submit another application for a training contract.
Kazakhstan is increasingly attracting the interest of international law firms eager to set up in the next lucrative destination. It became an independent country in 1991 (the last of the Soviet republics to break free from Moscow's rule), and Western law firms began to set up shop almost immediately. White & Case, Baker & McKenzie, Dewey & LeBoeuf and Canada's Macleod Dixon all opened their doors in the then-capital Almaty in 1995. They were followed by Dentons (1999), Chadbourne & Parke (2005), Curtis Mallet-Prevost (2008) and Reed Smith (2012).
These law firms appeared on the scene hot on the heels of international oil and gas companies, which were pursuing growth opportunities in this resource-rich country – BP estimates Kazakhstan's oil reserves at a tidy 30 billion barrels, the world's 11th largest stockpile.
In recent years law firms have been showing renewed levels of interest in this Central Asia republic. Several firm offices have changed hands: Macleod Dixon became part of Norton Rose in 2012 giving the City firm a foot in the Kazakh door, while Dewey & LeBoeuf's Kazakh office became part of Morgan Lewis after the former's demise; finally, Dechert swooped in and nabbed Chadbourne's entire Almaty office in 2012. Meanwhile established firms like Dentons and White & Case have invested in a second office besides their base in Almaty, this time in Astana, a newly-built city in the steppes which became the country's capital in 1997. Almaty remains Kazakhstan's largest city and its prime business hub.
Why this renewed interest? In short, Kazakhstan's growing economy has proved attractive to both law firms and their clients. Since 2000 the country's economic growth has averaged 8%, and while GDP did dip slightly during the global recession, it soon picked up again from 2010 onwards. Kazakhstan's economy is the strongest in Central Asia, and its GDP per capita has grown tenfold since the mid-1990s. In 2012 KPMG and the Overseas Development Institute ranked Kazakhstan fifth on a list of 60 countries assessed for their ability to adapt to a shifting global economy and capitalise on new opportunities. That same year foreign investors were spurred on by a GDP growth rate of 7%, and in 2012 Kazakhstan attracted $14bn in foreign direct investment.
Authoritarian president Nursultan Nazarbayev (who has ruled the country with an iron fist since independence) used his 2012 state of the nation address to announce the 'Kazakhstan 2050 Strategy'. This bold vision involves a number of strategic fiscal and economic targets, including the goal of making Kazakhstan one of the world's top 30 global economies by 2050. Given the jump experienced in GDP per capita since the 1990s this is no impossible feat, even if the country currently languishes in 70th position in the IMF's per capita GDP rankings.
Much of Kazakhstan's economic potential stems from its plentiful supply of natural resources. Rising oil prices have boosted the country's economic performance. In the 2000s Kazakhstan began utilising oil pipelines connecting it with Russia, China, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Fossil fuel production is purring along nicely: a not-so-shabby 79.2 million tonnes of crude oil and natural gas were produced in 2012. Kazakhstan also lays claim to some of the world's largest chromium, lead, zinc, copper, coal and iron reserves, and is the world's biggest producer of uranium.
This ample stockpile of raw material goodies is a big hit with foreign investors, and is the reason why numerous oil, gas and mining businesses have built operations in Kazakhstan. In addition, the country's strategic position makes it a hub for oil and gas transportation across Europe and Asia.
Businesses operating in the energy and natural resources sector are often big beasts requiring legal advice on everything from supplier contracts and bank financing to joint ventures and government approvals. International law firms like White & Case haven't let the opportunity slip by. W&C's 18-lawyer team in Kazakhstan recently advised China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) on its proposed $5bn acquisition of ConocoPhillips' interest in the Kashagan offshore oil field in the Caspian Sea. (In the end, the holding was snapped up by KazMuniaGaz, Kazakhstan's national oil and gas company.) W&C also advised major Kazakh zinc producer Kazzinc and international mining company Glencore on a $7bn joint venture with a subsidiary of the country's Samruk-Kazyna sovereign wealth fund, and counselled German oil company RWE Dea on its proposed acquisition of Total's interest in the North Ustyurt oil and gas field. Matters like these often bring together energy, corporate and finance lawyers, as well as individuals based in W&C's London and Moscow offices.
Alongside energy and natural resources, Kazakhstan's financial services sector is also producing work for international firms. The country's banking system has been expanding in recent years, and international banks like HSBC, Citi and RBS have all established branches in the country. As a consequence, some legal work can be precedent setting: back in 2010, White & Case advised on the £10.8bn restructuring of Kazakhstan's BTA Bank, the largest such operation to occur in the region. More recently, the firm represented Alliance Bank on plans for the first ever merger in the Kazakh banking sector, and also advised private equity group Verny Capital on its acquisition of stakes in two of Kazakhstan's largest domestic banks.
In light of its rising economic success, Kazakhstan's government has ramped up the resources dedicated to developing the country's professions, including law. Kazakh lawyer Arnur Amirgaliyev told The Lawyer in 2012: “Competitiveness is growing every year in Kazakhstan and although at the beginning of the 1990s international clients hardly ever came to Kazakhstan to do a big deal – and if they did, they only trusted international law firms to do it – now, they are also trusting Kazakh lawyers in Kazakh law firms and these are indications of good things to come.”
The opportunities for international firms remain, however, and we heard that one Russian-speaking White & Case trainee was recently flown out to Kazakhstan to work on a deal. And as the Kazakh legal market matures and develops it's likely that more international firms will choose to plant their flags in the country's resource-rich soil.
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