DC-headquartered Akin's acquisition of fellow US expat Bingham McCutchen is no longer a merger mystery.
2 Become 1
It's been roughly two years since Akin swallowed Bingham's London operation, and the firm's trainees feel that things are coming together in all the right places. So what's behind their sunny assertions? It might be the recent physical symbiosis (the firm moved its London lawyers under one roof in June 2016) or the fall in oil prices that's created a surge of energy company restructurings: a “perfect storm” given Bingham's historically strong restructuring practice and Akin's well-regarded energy expertise. Whatever it is, their comments were backed up by the first full financial results since the combination: the London office's revenue jumped by a whopping 154% to £63.05 million, causing one enthusiastic source to declare: “The only way is up!”
“They treat you like an associate from day one,” another beamed. “Because the teams are so small, you'll find yourself playing a more prominent role on big matters.” This means Akin isn't the best place for retiring types: “There's not much hand-holding and you have to be pretty tough to climb here – there's an emphasis on initiative and independence, on getting stuck in and having a go.” Many of our sources had originally targeted Bingham (Akin didn't offer training contracts until the merger), but clearly weren't disappointed by the turn of events that brought them to Akin: “I picked Bingham because I really liked the firm, but the more I learned about Akin, the more I realised how similar it is, especially in terms of culture.”
A fair degree of informality is part of that culture, we hear. The trainee intake may have increased from two to four (and is set to stay that way), but the system governing seat allocation is still as informal as they come. The first seat is based on business need, so “HR and the supervisors have a look at what experience you might have and decide where you'd be best suited.” Subsequent seat allocations, however, are based on the preferences raised during trainees' “monthly catch-up meetings” with Akin's head of recruitment, Vicky Widdows. She and training principal Vance Chapman will then do “all the leg work to try and get you your preferred seats.” And they must be doing something right, as all of those we spoke to had got their top choice at least twice.
“You have to take on a lot.”
Akin's financial restructuring group mainly represents creditors like bondholders, noteholders, and senior and mezzanine lenders. In recent years, the debt bailouts and banking crisis across Europe have kept lawyers here on their toes: they were called upon to handle the $33 billion fallout from the failure of Iceland's three major banks, as well as the €1.2 billion one resulting from Dublin-based bank DEPFA's troubles. They're also known for their energy panache of course, and the group recently advised Nordic Trustee on the proposed restructuring of bonds issued by Iona Energy Company UK – a North Sea oil and gas producer – before it filed for administration. Restructuring deals tend to “go on for a really long time,” but the volume of matters means that “you'll be switching between ten documents in a day, ranging from security reviews to enforcements of share pledges to notices calling on guarantees.” On the whole, “the responsibility levels are similar to corporate, but there's less client contact – although you do make a lot of calls to instruct local counsel in various jurisdictions.”
The litigation department is divided into three teams: “legacy Bingham,” which mostly works with financial institutions; “legacy Akin,” which has a strong oil and gas practice; and a small construction team. Trainees split their time between all three teams. While each practice is thriving separately, trainees did have some questions about their future as an Akin litigator: “Do you qualify into a subgroup, or work across the board? Because they're such distinct groups, could you thrive across all three?” When they weren't pondering, our sources assumed “a range of responsibilities,” which included researching client memos (“which takes you back to your law degree days”), drafting witness statements and affidavits, and “lots of bundling – but this eventually translates into a fair amount of time spent in court.” Recent court time has seen Akin's lawyers represent a Russian oligarch during a $1 billion dispute over the ownership of Russia's largest power generation company, IES; they've also been acting for the joint administrators of an iron ore firm, African Minerals, in a series of cases covering fraud, personal injury, insolvency and security enforcement issues.
Much of the work in tax comes from Akin's restructuring and investment fund practices, but the team also picks up some standalone matters too. “You'll be reviewing transaction documents from a tax perspective to see if there are any issues that need to be addressed,” one source told us. “On one matter I had to make a big application to HMRC after something cropped up during the reviews.” Other key tasks included research, drafting documents to support deals and reviewing funds prospectuses. “I've been extremely happy, billing seven hours a day and enjoying a high level of responsibility. I'm dealing with clients every day; I'm picking up the phone and emailing them all the time, which was daunting at first, but in a small office like this there's a lot of opportunity to do that.”
If you wanna be my lawyer
A teeny intake plus international work plus a clientele covering major corporates and financial institutions generally equals some pretty demanding hours. “Of course you go in with your eyes open and you only sign up if you don't mind working late,” one warned, before qualifying: “It's a myth, however, that the hours at American firms are longer than they are in the magic circle.” Even so, Akin trainees (barring those in tax) can expect to stay past 9pm quite often and “past midnight on a bad day.” As darkness descends, trainees can tuck into a complimentary dinner after 7pm and catch a free ride home after 9pm. In addition, there's also the promise of a six-figure NQ salary to keep those motivation levels cranked up.
By dint of intake size the trainees are close, but aside from “a couple of client parties each year” and the firm's annual summer and Christmas bashes, there's not much fodder for party animals. The summer party is a hoot though: it's held in the sleek surroundings of Akin's Ten Bishops Square digs, where the firm's “nicked a few more floors” to accommodate those extra Bingham lawyers. The complex is also home to magic circle bigwigs Allen & Overy, so it's a “death star of sorts,” joked trainees, but one that's conveniently located opposite Liverpool Street station and within spitting distance of Spitalfields Market. Akin's qualification process also brings a measure of cheer to its trainees. “Like the seat allocation process it's quite casual: by your second year you discuss your preferences during the monthly meetings, and then you start putting feelers out to the team heads.” Unlike at bigger firms “there's no set timetable,” so people tend to find out whether they've nabbed an NQ place as and when. In 2016, one of two qualifiers were retained.
Akin trainees receive fortnightly associate-led training on current legal issues, called 'training, education and development', or 'TED', talks.
How to get an Akin Gump training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2017): 31 January 2017
Training contract deadline (2019): 15 July 2017
University visits and work placements
Akin Gump doesn't currently send representatives to any law fairs, but instead aims to host invitation-only dinners at some universities. Those who attend a dinner can meet representatives and register their interest in a work placement with the firm. “The idea came about because we only have a small programme and we don't spread ourselves too widely,” says director of international recruiting & development, Vicky Widdows.
Candidates interested in the firm can also apply for a two-week summer work placement via the firm's careers website. Akin usually offers eight places, and vac schemers spend each week in a different department. Everybody's allocated a trainee buddy and they spend their visit working alongside associates. “We aim for them to see how commercially focused our work is, experience a mixture of contentious and transactional work, and get exposure to an area most don't get a chance to study – for example, restructuring or energy transactions,” says Widdows.
The firm will also soon begin providing in-house seminars each autumn to give more people interested to learn about the firm’s work.
Trainee hopefuls at Akin Gump need a minimum AAB at A level and a 2:1 degree. Legal work experience is a plus, but mostly if it's relevant to the firm's scope. “If you have employment law or property experience, that's great, but it doesn’t lend itself so well to what we do,” Widdows says. “However, if you've got previous experience in a firm with a financial institutions or energy focus, then that is good for us as the work will be more familiar to you.”
Alongside questions about an applicant's commercial awareness and attraction to Akin Gump are ones asking about challenging experiences they've tackled and what they hope to gain from their career. On that note, Widdows has this to say: “We're not looking for someone who wants to disappear into a large programme in a full-service firm; we want people who are interested in collaborative working within a fast-paced, business law environment – that's what we service, and applicants need to show that they understand the demands of our very commercially focused client base.” She adds: “Applicants should be sincere and give us a sense of how they genuinely see themselves working and thriving here.”
Those the firm chooses to interview attend two separate meetings: an introductory meeting with Widdows and a partner from the graduate recruitment panel. Successful candidates then meet two further partners, one of whom is likely to be graduate recruitment principal, Vance Chapman, where they will be given a commercially focused topical article to debate and also undertake some written questions.
Widdows tells us that the interviews are “are very conversation-based – if a candidate can offer up interesting insights, solid commercial awareness and demonstrate an entrepreneurial and intellectually curious approach, then they tend to do well.” Interviewees can expect to be asked about their application form and their reasons for pursuing a career at Akin Gump. Those who impress are invited back for a one-on-one discussion with a partner about a topical commercial issue or current affairs article, with time to prepare beforehand.Showing that you have a cool head and can not only handle but enjoy the pressure is key to securing a training contract here. As Widdows explains: “That's what our programme is all about – enjoying the early responsibility and the intellectual challenges that arise with this level of interesting and high-profile work.”
Trends in the energy sector
Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld
10 Bishops Square,
- Partners 37
- Assistant solicitors 54
- Total trainees 8
- Contact Vicky Widdows, (020) 7012 9600
- Method of application Online application via firm website at www.akingump.com/en/careers/ukstudents/application-process.html
- Selection procedure Face-to-face interview and topical debate or written question with graduate recruitment panel
- Closing date for 2019 16 July 2017
- Training contracts pa Up to 4
- Required degree grade Minimum 2:1 and excellent A levels
- Training salary
- First-year: £43,000
- Second year: £48,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- NQ salary (2016) $180,000
- Offices Abu Dhabi, Austin, Beijing, Dallas, Dubai, Fort Worth, Frankfurt, Geneva, Hong Kong, Houston, Irvine, London, Longview, Los Angeles, Moscow, New York, Philadelphia, San Antonio, San Francisco, Singapore, Washington DC
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