Fright & Case?
White & Case appears to have built up quite a fearsome reputation among the law school masses. The current crop of trainees certainly didn't sign up expecting a two-year stint of feet-on-desk, thumb-twiddling. "If I'm honest, I was partially fearing coming here because at law school the reaction was always that I was going to be worked into the ground," commented one second-year. From another trainee: "I had this idea it would be a cold, corporate environment. They say you won't see the light of day, but that's just scaremongering. When you say you work at a US firm, people pull a face and say it must be terrible, but it's nowhere near as bad as people think." With all these horror stories bandied about, you may wonder just what it is that attracts so many applicants. Simple really: "The international work, the focus on emerging markets and the guaranteed overseas seat."
White & Case was founded in New York back in 1901 but now has a global footprint comprising 40 offices across five continents. The international trailblazing started back in 1926, when it opened in Paris; its London office has been in operation since 1971. The most recent addition came in March 2013, when the firm opened in Madrid – the first international firm launch in Spain for several years. "The international offices aren't just outposts, and that's especially true of the London branch," one trainee commented. Having expanded very rapidly in the noughties, the London office has nearly as many lawyers as the New York one, and "because it's so large, it's almost like a standalone law firm in some respects. It's not like we bang the American drum or anything like that." Having achieved near-global coverage, the firm is now focused on filling in what gaps still remain. Until this year, Spain was one of those, and there are still some emerging markets that W&C has yet to tap. Likewise, the firm hasn't seen the right opportunity in Australia yet, but the situation is constantly being monitored. W&C is also keen to ensure a degree of uniformity across its offices rather than having them operate independently from one another (as is the case at some other global firms). This has been a stated aim for several years now, but talking to higher-ups at the firm, it's clear this is seen as vital to the firm's continued success.
While the firm is perhaps best known for its expertise in banking and finance, recent years have seen the energy and projects teams pick up more recognition, with both awarded top rankings by Chambers UK and Chambers Global. Advising on deals such as Saudi Aramco's $20bn Sadara Petrochemical Project joint venture with the Dow Chemical Company serves to illustrate the firm's capabilities in these areas. Chambers UK isn't shy in handing out rankings to a wealth of White & Case's practices – everything from capital markets to construction gets a mention.
Trainees generally don't get the choice of their first seat; thereafter, they submit three preferences, and most are allocated their top choice. "When we give our seat choices, we often put down our preferred supervisor as well," a source revealed. "The best way to decide is just to talk to previous trainees. If someone has sat with someone they've really liked, then it's probably a good sign." At least one finance seat must be completed during the training contract, but "there are so many to choose from." Seats like construction, employment and real estate accommodate far fewer trainees, but are also less in demand. "If you want to go into corporate, finance or banking then White & Case is great, but for the more niche departments – especially ones you want to qualify in – it might not be the best place."
The finance practice has three strands: banking; capital markets; and energy, infrastructure, project and asset finance (EIPAF). Within those, seats in project finance, asset finance, capital markets, bank finance and restructuring are available. These house the majority of trainees at any one time, while most of the rest reside in corporate or litigation/arbitration. Day-to-day work in EIPAF allows you to "get a sense of White & Case as an international firm." One source elaborated: "I've worked on projects involving jurisdictions like Mozambique, Kazakhstan and Malawi – the work consistently has that global element." Aside from the Saudi Aramco deal, White & Case advised Enerjisa in connection with the €1.1bn development, construction and financing of the 450 MW Tufanbeyli Thermal Power Plant in Turkey, as well as Qatar Petroleum and Exxon Mobil on the $10.3bn Barzan Gas Project in Qatar. Those in project finance said that "on bigger deals the majority of work is creating tables and proofreading, but on smaller deals where there is one associate and a partner you get a bit more exposure." In asset finance, "deals come and close very quickly – they only have a lifespan of about three weeks." This brings both positive and negative elements to the trainee experience. One interviewee said: "During my time there there were about 15 closings, and by the end of the seat I had been given four cases to run by myself with partner and associate guidance. On the flip side, I got a lot of post-closing work such as biblingas because there were only two trainees, and the deals closes so quickly. In that sense, you get a lot of responsibility, but also a lot of boring tasks you don’t really want to do." Various trainees noted that W&C employs relatively few legal support staff, so it does often fall to trainees to take on lower-level tasks. The firm told us it is aiming to recruit more paralegals in future.
On the Case
The deal flow in bank finance increased by roughly 50% this year, with both the size and number of high-end deals jumping sharply. For example, the team represented Deutsche Bank and HSBC Securities in connection with the $2.1bn senior secured credit facility provided to Colfax Corporation. "I got exposed to some good, high-quality and fairly demanding work," a source said of their time here. "I was on the team for a really complex deal, but I wasn't merely there assisting my supervisor; you are part of the team and expected to contribute. It's a bit daunting, but a very good learning experience."
Sources agreed it's common for first seaters to be packed off to capital markets. "Nine out of 16 people from my intake went there first," said one, "probably because it has a reputation for slamming its trainees." Is that fair? "They work you hard but they are very nice and most supervisors go about it the right way." The team recently represented the Republic of Zambia in a ten-year, US-denominated bond offering which raised $750m from a global investor base. A seat here involves "a lot of transaction management. I was keeping things in check, doing lots of bibles and proofreading. That's really part and parcel of being a trainee in that department." However, despite the fair share of "mundane" tasks, there is also scope to expand your repertoire of skills. "I got recognition for doing well, and then I was given some junior associate-type work, with a lot of client contact – maybe sometimes too much, but I prefer to be pushed and challenged," one source said. Another "liaised with foreign counsel in 13 different jurisdictions, giving advice on key securities law memos. I actually had to call a founding partner at one of South America's leading law firms and tell him his memo was wrong."
Time in the corporate department is a bit of a mixed bag. "If you prove you're good, then they're prepared to give you decent work, but there is a ceiling to what you can do as a trainee," a source commented. With the team largely handling "very high-value cases with big corporations" – such as representing Morgan Stanley as financial adviser to advertising agency Dentsu on its £3.2bn offer for Aegis Group – trainees are often clearly at the bottom rung of the ladder. "There’s a lot of document pushing," an interviewee moaned. "Honestly, I’ve been in very late just printing, scanning and stapling. It's very boring stuff but someone has to do it." One source took a more positive stance on their time in the seat: "We've got a very good position in M&A in emerging markets, and I don't think I've done a single UK-only deal. It's all under UK law, so I feel I get the English training I need, but then I also get the international elements and see a different way of approaching these matters."
Outside of White & Case's most well-known practice areas, there's still good work to be found. The dispute resolution group picks up a top ranking from Chambers Global and is acting for Russian mobile telecoms provider Mobile TeleSystems in a dispute with various Turkmen State entities and the State of Turkmenistan in a case worth in excess of $900m. "I've done a lot of interesting tasks like drafting a memo that formed a key component of our strategy," said one trainee in this seat. "It's not all glamorous, though. One time I had to stay till 2am putting folders together and checking that 114 documents for a structured finance transaction were all the same. People do depend on you, though, and you get to see some exciting, funky stuff." Even niche areas such as construction get involved in some incredibly meaty deals. The team is currently providing advice for the Qatar Integrated Railway Project, a $37bn infrastructure development for when the World Cup comes to Qatar in 2022.
A guaranteed overseas seat "is a massive plus point about White & Case. It makes us stand out above other firms and really does appeal to people." Trainees give their destination preferences a few months after starting, before venturing abroad – usually in their fourth seat – to places like Paris, Hong Kong, Singapore, Abu Dhabi, New York, Moscow, Tokyo and Johannesburg. Singapore generally takes the most trainees, while New York hosts just one and is often oversubscribed (as it's the most popular choice). "Trainees receive a spreadsheet outlining everyone's preferences," a source explained of the selection process. "When there are clashes it's a case of drawing names out of a hat. Everyone realises that's the fairest method as no one has more validity than anyone else." It almost goes without saying that trainees have a fantastic time once overseas. Read more about their experience here.
A Case of identity
There's no denying that White & Case is a demanding place. "It's hard-working, and a lot is expected of you at any level," said one trainee of the firm's work culture. With the partnership operating on an 'eat-what-you-kill' remuneration system, some felt that a "clear hierarchy" and "dog-eat-dog mentality" are evident. "Some partners would shoot themselves in the foot to complete a deal," commented a second-year. In all fairness, other sources spoke of "no hierarchy" and an "incredibly friendly and down-to-earth" atmosphere. We think the trainee who pointed out that "every department is like its own organisation" probably hit the nail on the head. "It's hard to generalise about the firm as every team has a very different vibe or way of working."
Sources were in agreement that schedules are often gruelling: "In my first seat I was doing no less than a 60-hour week for four months," said one source, while another chimed in to report "in my last two months in asset finance it went crazy, and I was doing 16 or 17 hours days, every day." Broadly speaking, "the nature of the work means you can go home at 8pm every day in some departments, but finishes generally range from 6.30pm to very late at night. 8.30pm is about average," one source concluded. While our sources didn't have a problem with working hard, they did flag up "some work distribution issues." One informed us: "I feel that work just isn't allocated efficiently," while another cited "big problems when I was drawn into a corporate deal. I was doing stupid hours quite regularly, but nobody said I shouldn't be doing it. I wasn't even in that department. Meanwhile, some other corporate trainees were leaving at 6pm!" Other sources expressed similar concerns: "There are people who take a two-hour lunch and leave at 6pm, and others who stay until midnight every night." Frustration came from the perception that "the departments make no attempt to make it fairer." When we talked to partners Philip Stopford and Justin Benson about this, they said they were aware of the issue and that steps have already been taken to address trainees' concerns and improve supervision. In addition to keeping detailed hours reports showing how hard people are working, Stopford and Benson are personally meeting with trainees more frequently.
Our considered conclusion is that this is a training contract of extremes. Hours, responsibility and departments can all vary wildly. "You just have to take the rough with the smooth," advised sources, and it's clear trainees who can do so reap rewards as they progress. One such reward we is the salary. White & Case outpays the magic circle by some margin.
Open and shut Case
White & Case is extremely diverse, with "a wide range of nationalities and cultural backgrounds" represented. "In my intake there are only two fully 'British' people," one source asserted (though many trainees from overseas did study in the UK). Many people here have the travel bug, and sources said that applicants should demonstrate an international outlook to improve their chances.
Despite the tough schedule, there are occasional chances for White & Case trainees to get away from their desks after hours. "We work extremely hard all the time, but we have had some absolutely cracking parties involving very large bottles of booze in big nightclubs. One partner went in and ordered all of one club's Sambuca – there weren't even that many of us." All new starters head to Brussels for a three-day training programme, and every year a White & Case World Cup is held, with lawyers from all corners of the firm's global network gathering in one office (Berlin for 2013) to compete in events like volleyball and football.
Another big selling point of White & Case is its high retention rate. The firm kept on 23 of 28 qualifiers in 2013.
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