“You'll work harder here than you ever thought possible, but that's what we thrive on.”
Home to 2,600 lawyers across 20 countries, London-born Linklaters is one of the largest and most successful firms in the world. Corporate, banking and capital markets are the strongest links in this powerhouse's chain: Chambers UK deems each practice among the City's best. Of course, Linklaters' work is very wide-reaching both within these groups and beyond them, so we suggest you check out the full Chambers UK listings – which awards over 50 rankings, many of them top-tier – for a fuller idea of the firm's considerable might.
“It can be difficult to differentiate Links from its magic circle rivals, but when I first interviewed here I felt it was a more personable, team-oriented environment than other places I looked at,” one interviewee said of their decision to join up. “I think a lot of people come here because they see something of themselves in the way the firm as a whole operates.” Links is a great shout in particular for those who want a hand in matters that visibly impact the economies and sectors involved: the firm is one of the 100 British companies that generate 13% of the nation's GDP, and it handles deals that “regularly make the front page news.” Take Co-op Bank's £1.5bn recapitalisation, for example.
The chance to dabble in matters that reach beyond the UK shores also proves a big draw for candidates year upon year. “The international opportunities here are outstanding – they're above and beyond what a lot of other firms can offer.” Indeed, global names aren't sprinkled so much as splattered across the client roster – think Morgan Stanley, HSBC, Glencore – and big-hitting cross-border matters appear in the docket regularly, like European private equity firm Triton's £1bn purchase of French power giant Alstom's German-based components business. What's more, around two-thirds of trainees spend a full seat abroad, with Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo proving popular destinations of late.
As they approach the end of the Linklaters LPC at the University of Law, incoming trainees list four groups they'd be happy to undertake for their first seat. Midway through that seat, they draw up another list, comprising eight seats in total, which forms the basis for their remaining three seats. “HR has a pretty tough task trying to organise us all – I don't envy them that.” Fortunately, trainees are able to swap seats if the worst comes to the worst, provided there's space. This is a transaction-heavy firm, so you can count on around half of its 225 or so trainees sitting in a corporate, banking or capital markets-focused seat at any one time. Seats outside these realms can be particularly competitive, so sources advised getting your hat in the ring early if you're interested in a smaller group like IP or competition.
RBS, BP, Lloyds and Repsol are just a few of the big names on Links' corporate client roster. Lawyers recently advised Vodafone on its €7.7bn purchase of Kabel Deutschland, Germany's largest cable company, and oversaw Schneider Electric's £3.4bn bid for a London-based listed tech company. “The scale and scope of our deals is really exciting. I worked with a lot of FTSE 100 companies, plus colleagues in Europe, Africa and South America,” one insider said. Links divvies its corporate practice into sector-based groups like energy, private equity and insurance. Given the size of the matters at hand, “you can easily spend your whole six months on a single transaction,” though we did speak to a number of trainees who spent their seat balancing a handful of smallish matters instead. New recruits are often left to look after doc review, due diligence and data room management, though meatier tasks like drafting board minutes and confidentiality agreements are not out of reach.
Links' vast banking group is split between four floors of its Silk Street HQ, but we're told it still manages an “integrated” feel. “We've got distinct restructuring and insolvency, and mainstream borrowing/lending factions, but you'll be working with a lot of the same people.” The collapse of Lehman has proved a big money-spinner for the practice – one of the many developments the firm has advised on during the company's long-running insolvency is its distribution plan to return $9bn of assets to customers. Lawyers have also represented the likes of RBS, JP Morgan, Deutsche Bank, Citi, Barclays and Goldman Sachs in recent years. For trainees, proofreading and research are staple tasks, and there's “a whole lot of transaction management,” which sees them become well acquainted with checklists. We also heard from insiders who'd drafted deeds and securities documents, and headed up communications with overseas counsel. “You need to be keen and passionate to do well in this seat – partners really respond to that. If you don't get beyond the low-level work here, you really only have yourself to blame.”
On the capital markets side, work falls into three groups: DSP (derivatives and structured products), EDM (equity and debt markets) and SFG (structured finance group). Each houses around ten trainees at any one time. Interviewees across these groups affectionately characterised the work as “a bit nerdy,” telling us “it's very technically challenging and thought-provoking, which suits a certain type of mind.” We're told SFG, which covers utilities and bond work, is “one of the busiest groups across the whole firm – you get a heck of a lot of client contact here. There's also a lot of drafting of ancillaries to be done.” The team is one of the largest dedicated structured finance practices in the world, and in 2013 its portfolio sales and purchases topped a whopping £10bn in worth.
A key figure in DSP is Chambers-ranked partner Simon Firth, who as one insider gleefully pointed out “wrote the textbook on derivatives – he knows everything there is to know!” (As it happens, 'Derivatives: Law and Practice' retails at a cool £925, so perhaps it's one to look out for in your university library.) Work here is “very bespoke, very challenging and very techy.” The team is big on the derivatives clearing front in particular, and regularly works in tandem with Links' tax, banking and M&A groups, among others. Trainees here reported regular client contact in addition to drafting prospectuses and working on advisory research tasks. “You're left to do a lot of the small repackagings on your own, which is great. These can become a little repetitive, but they go a long way in building your confidence.” EDM, meanwhile, advises on bond and equity issues, liability management and restructurings. The group has garnered attention recently for its role in Royal Mail's £3.3bn IPO following the government's controversial decision to float the postal service on the London Stock Exchange.
It's easy to get distracted by the top-tier work going down in the transactional teams, but Links' solid litigation arm is well worth a mention. “As a trainee you're a group resource, so you encounter all kinds of cases,” sources with experience here said, mentioning property, insolvency and regulatory matters. Back in 2012 News International brought the firm on board to advise on the fallout from News of the World's phone hacking-scandal, but that's not where the team's high-profile representations end. Unfortunately, the firm remains tight-lipped on its biggest cases, but we can mention the ongoing advice it's been providing Grant Thornton on its entanglement in a $9.2bn fraud case. “It's a very paper-heavy seat – litigators love their files and coloured paper in a way most of the transactional lawyers don't,” one insider revealed, telling us their role largely revolved around research tasks and doc review. “There were times I felt like a postman because such a big part of my job was delivering documents to people.” Other trainees mentioned drafting witness statements, disclosures and memos during their time with the team.
“I won't lie; the hours can be savage. But that's what life is like at a top City firm.” This was a view we heard from several interviewees. When it's busy in corporate and banking, trainees “can easily be there until midnight for weeks on end,” and that's to say nothing of the occasional overnighters required. “When it's quiet, you'll probably head out at 7.30pm, but it's very up and down.” Meanwhile, litigation schedules tend to be more predictable, though the days are still long here –“often 12 hours or so. Some groups have an element of facetime, while others are better at making sure that isn't the case.” On the bright side, “there can be great camaraderie here when everybody's in the trenches together,” trainees chirped, though they did agree that “the cheer goes away when you're working long hours under high pressure over a long period of time.” Fortunately, sleeping pods, days in lieu and taxis home go some way to alleviate the pain, though it's hard to imagine these were much comfort to the trainee who reported working “until 3am every night for three weeks in a row. That was brutal – it took a lot longer than my single day off in lieu to recover.”
All the same, our sources were keen to shatter any conceptions of the firm as “cold or calculated.” Said one: “This isn't the kind of place where people are screaming at you or giving you the cold shoulder. I'd characterise the atmosphere as a constructive one – people are easy to approach and care about your career.” Many put this down to the firm's efforts to “recruit people who are well-rounded. It's not just bookworms who live in the office here; you get all sorts, including people with some truly impressive quivers to their bows – someone I know recently revealed he's a grade-8 violinist, and I know others who speak four or five languages.” Sources also pointed out that “a good number of trainees here have grown up abroad, which increases the diversity of experience coming to the table.”
Links offers a staggering selection of overseas seats – recent destinations include Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Moscow, Madrid and Paris – and “almost everyone who wants to go abroad will go.” Typically the focus is on capital markets, banking or corporate work. Sources who'd jetsetted had plenty of praise for the experience, with one saying: “They put you up in a swish apartment and give you a generous stipend on top of your salary. There's even an allowance for language lessons if needed and books before you go. What's not to love?” The firm also sends trainees in-house fairly regularly to big banks and financial institutions.
Our interviewees called the training they'd received “fantastic,” pointing to both the three-week induction upon arrival and the ongoing practice-specific, partner-led seminars. They also praised the willingness of senior lawyers across the firm to help out junior colleagues in need. “You never feel ill-equipped to deal with the things they throw at you because there are resources all around you.” Indeed, each trainee shares an office with a 'principal' designated to “look out for you, get you interesting work and shield you if too many tasks are coming your way.” Appraisals take place midway through and at the end of each seat. According to our sources, the quality of the former “depends on who your principal is – some skip it because they're just so busy, which can be frustrating.” Luckily the end of seat review is “generally pretty thorough,” and sees trainees graded across a range of criteria and given formal feedback from those they've worked alongside on major matters.
Forget about roof gardens, beehives and fatuous notions of urban bliss; Links' Silk Street HQ goes for the gut when it comes to amenities. There's a GP, dentist, physio and manicurist on hand (bundling is not so kind on the hands, don't you know), plus a gym that runs yoga and Zumba classes, a canteen that serves up “excellent” grub, a few 24-hour shops, and even an on-site dry cleaner. “You really feel the benefits when you realise it's your sister's birthday tomorrow, the last post is being collected in 20 minutes, and you're still able to buy a card and get it off to her in time. In that respect, the work/life balance swings back in your favour.” Trainees also had rave reviews of Links' document production and review services, which run 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Insiders agreed that “one of the benefits of doing the LPC together is that those bonds last in a professional context.” When they're not busy beavering away in the office, lawyers have plenty of forums to flex those bonds, whether it's playing on the firm's cricket, football, hockey or netball teams, or just commandeering the drinks trolley as it rolls round the office each Friday. There are also two trainee parties a year, summer and Christmas dos for every practice, and regular departmental city-breaks and ski trips too.
Retention is generally high at Links, and trainees appreciated the firm's “efforts to keep us in the loop qualification-wise.” In 2014 the firm retained 103 of its 115 new qualifiers.
In honour of its 175th birthday in 2013, Links commissioned a pomp-tastic history called Passing The Flame, available for download on the firm's website.
Vacation scheme deadline: 28 November 2014 (spring); 4 January 2015 (summer)
Training contract deadline: 4 January 2015 (grads, postgrads and final-year undergrads); 31 July 2015 (penultimate-year law grads, final-year students, postgrads and grads)
Linklaters looks at a wide range of universities, so don't be deterred from applying if you didn't go to one of the more obvious ones. Links visits around 26 UK unis over the course of the year, and also sends recruiters to India and Australia to interview overseas candidates.
Of course, there's no denying the advantage of an Oxbridge credential on your CV – a good chunk of trainees have historically come from one or the other. Likewise, a law degree has given candidates a slight up in years past, with the proportion of law/non-law graduates somewhere around 60/40.
The application form for a vac scheme is the same as the one for the training contract. “There are around 1,000 applicants, so you need to put in some effort with the application form,” our sources in recruitment sources stress. “Don’t just regurgitate the firm’s own marketing material – we wrote it, and we will recognise it!” Extracurricular activities, work experience and languages (especially those spoken in the BRIC countries) are all particularly valued in applicants.
If recruiters like the look of your application form, you're asked to complete an online Watson Glaser critical thinking test. The actual questions are a closely guarded secret, but you can find a practice test on Linklaters' grad recruitment website.
Assessments and interviews
Those who make it past the first stage – training contract and vac scheme applicants alike – attend one of several assessment days held each year. The day involves a critical thinking test, a work simulation exercise and two interviews. The work simulation sees candidates contend with emails pinging into a fake inbox, then draft a written response to one.
The first interview takes place with HR and is designed to test “key competencies like teamwork, leadership, motivation, desire for commercial law and the ability to organise,” say recruiters. “We try to gauge applicants’ communication skills and their commitment to both commercial law and Linklaters in particular.”
Then there’s a partner/managing associate interview, which is focused on business and the law. It involves discussion of the written exercise from the work simulation, plus questions testing commercial awareness. “In recent years questions have been on current affairs like the takeover of Cadbury by Kraft, the Eurozone crisis, the phone-hacking scandal and so on,” we're told. Insiders advise applicants to “make sure you limit the discussion to the legal side, not politics.”
After interviewing, candidates get a chance to tour the building and ask questions to current trainees – a good chance to settle any lingering doubts.
From here the firm makes its offers.
The vacation scheme
Around 70% of Linklaters' vac schemers generally go on to train with the firm. The firm runs three summer schemes – these are open to law and non-law students in their penultimate year of study and last three weeks each, with around 75 spots available in total. As of 2015 there will also be a spring scheme, aimed at final-year students, grad and postgrads.
Vac schemers visit two practice groups during their visit and can state preferences for these beforehand. Each attendee works alongside an associate who acts as a formal mentor and provides both guidance and feedback. A buddy from the trainee group stands in as a more informal point of contact.
Over the course of the vac scheme are lectures on core practice areas, a talk from the managing partner about the firm’s strategy, a video conference with international secondees and an advice session on how to conduct yourself at an interview. Vac schemers also participate in a hypothetical client pitch and a negotiation exercise.
Those who complete the scheme are are automatically allotted a final interview for the training contract. This takes place with a partner and lasts an hour.
The privatisation of Royal Mail in 2013 saw banks and law firms slated for the role they played in undervaluing the business. The share offer, pitched at £3.30 a pop, was 24 times oversubscribed. Within hours it had soared to £4.55 and at its peak crossed the £6 mark. Papers reported that the taxpayer had been royally screwed, and Vince Cable was heralded a laughing stock.
Still, it was a deal that paid the involved firms well –Freshfields reportedly earned £1.8m for its role advising the government. Meanwhile, Slaughter and May advised Royal Mail on the restructuring, Herbert Smith Freehills acted as principal competition and regulatory advisers to the company, and Linklaters advised underwriting banks Goldman Sachs and UBS on the IPO. The deal was a complex one: £37.5bn of Royal Mail’s legacy pensions liabilities had to be transferred to the state (including around £9.5bn deficit), and the company’s balance sheet had to be restructured before it could float on the London Stock Exchange. It was hoped that this restructuring and subsequent floating would help relieve Royal Mail of its excessive pension costs and cut the company’s debt by around £1.08bn.
The general public did not view the initial decision to privatise Royal Mail favourably, and the revelation that it had been undervalued simply added further fuel to an already-smouldering fire. But why was the deal so controversial in the first place? Well, a mere mention of the word privatisation inevitably throws people’s minds back to the days of Margaret Thatcher, who privatised British Airways, BP, British Gas, British Steel and British Telecom. Her successor John Major then capped this off with the privatisation of British Rail – the sale of Royal Mail has been touted as the most significant privatisation since that event in 1993.
Critics of such privatisations argue that public services should remain state-owned to ensure they are operated in the public’s best interest at all times, though there is certainly an argument to be made that privatisation encourages services to be delivered more effectively as a result free-market competition. Whether this will be the case with Royal Mail remains to be seen, but the fact that the company is now trialling a Sunday delivery service in London suggests it is at least keen to embrace change.
If Royal Mail’s privatisation was considered controversial, then the privatisation of the NHS is a noose by which politicians can easily hang themselves. An estimate in 2014 suggested the number of private contracts already being advertised amounted to a value of nearly £6bn. While some argue that the privatisation of the NHS would necessitate the service being dismantled altogether, others hold that tendering for any work is a way of subtly privatising the NHS through the back door. In Bedfordshire, for example, the NHS has asked various NHS hospitals, charities and private companies to suggest the best way to deliver all its musculo-skeletal healthcare services for the next five years – the bidder who can offer the best services at the lowest cost will inevitably win the deal.
Opening up the NHS to competition in this way has provided new work for firms with strong healthcare practices –Capsticks, for example. In 2013 the firm assisted Circle Healthcare (a private healthcare provider) with its successful bid to provide clinical services at the Nottingham Treatment Centre – the first hospital franchised to an independent provider in this way. Capsticks advised the company on its contract with the Rushcliffe Clinical Commissioning Group, along with the staffing arrangements and transfer agreements for the project. Again, whether this increased competition will pay off for the taxpayer, or simply mean that integral services become profit rather than patient or customer-led, cannot really be foreseen at this stage. For law firms, though, privatisation can only mean one thing: more work.
One Silk Street,