This US firm is right at home in its swanky new Spitalfields office, offering bespoke training programmes and meaty international deals for a select few trainees.
Gump n' Grind
Back in 2014, US firm Bingham was on the rocks until another US firm, Akin Gump, swooped in and took over the London office, leading to a surge in revenue over the following year – the kind of turnaround you might expect from one of the world's top restructuring firms. Akin Gump also brought its buzzing energy practice to the new firm, which, together with the restructuring team, bags high rankings in Chambers UK. The two offices have now merged into a single location in bustling Spitalfields Market. London is the hub for its international practice and handles work spanning multiple jurisdictions, with a notable focus on Russian corporate work. Chambers Global rates Akin Gump very highly for its worldwide strength in international trade, hedge funds and restructuring – the London office's work plays a pivotal role in the Akin global success story.
The firm's cross-border work appealed hugely to the trainees we interviewed. Its restructuring team, for example, has a record of dealing with complex international matters including the aftermath of the 2008 collapse of the three major Icelandic banks, as well as energy companies Expro Holdings, Premier Oil and Seadrill. The work at Akin Gump tends towards the heavyweight City sectors, but a few less traditional ones sneak in, like climate change.
Akin’s tiny trainee intake (four per year) means there’s no room to hide: “You’re treated as an associate from very early on; you have to be independent and self-managing.” Our interviewees weren’t complaining, however. They were all happy to get into the nitty-gritty from the start: “When you’re a trainee there’s always some admin but there’s a real focus on that not being your sole purpose as a trainee. They want you doing the good stuff!” The market-topping salaries here imply that these trainees aren't kidding about the responsibility; they also tell you something about the type of candidate Akin is hunting for...
When it comes to seat allocation, trainees had more good news. “HR is phenomenal,” they said. “They tailor everybody’s seats individually after the first one, which is more arbitrary. You have regular meetings to discuss preferences and it’s a discussion the whole way through.” Trainees can expect to do at least one corporate or litigation seat, and split seats and secondments are available. Because the yearly intake is so small, “there’s no overlap and there’s rarely competition for seats.”
“You develop incredibly quickly, and it makes everything so much more interesting.”
Recently Akin’s restructuring team advised Brunswick Rail, the Bermudan holding company of a Russian railcar business, on discussions to do with a $600 million bond restructuring. The team mainly represents creditors: usually bondholders, noteholders and senior and mezzanine lenders. “A lot of big names crop up in restructuring and a lot of deals are reported in debt market journals so it’s quite high responsibility.” The recent financial crisis in Greece has kept the team on its toes, as has the fact that oil and gas prices have tanked (geddit?) in recent years. “I dealt with bondholder interests, especially CVAs [company voluntary arrangements] and could be involved as much as I wanted from helping to draft ancillaries to helping on key restructuring documents," recalled a source. "It was fantastic because I got to see it from start to finish. It’s all about juggling clients’ interests and learning about the commercial background of the deal.”
The World's Greatest
“There are a huge number of different jurisdictions involved in litigation," a trainee told us of this popular seat. "A lot of our clients are in Russia and the Middle East.” After African Minerals (AML) went into administration in 2015, Akin Gump began working for the joint administrators over a multi-jurisdictional, $1 billion sale of a huge iron mine in Sierra Leone. The team continues to be split into 'legacy Bingham' which deals with more niche and private clients, 'legacy Akin', which focuses on oil and gas arbitration as well as telecommunications, and a small construction team. Since moving into a single-site office, trainees said, “There’s been a lot more cross-integration between the different teams.” In a litigation seat you can expect to be “involved in basically everything.”
Usually you’ll be working on pleadings, drafting witness statements, going to client and internal strategy meetings, dealing with affidavits, and making notes on points of law and how they apply to different elements of transactions and cases. This seat also involves a lot of court visits: “It’s the best kind of experience you can get, seeing it all come to a head.” Overall, it’s a demanding seat, but insiders weren’t put off: “You’re given what you can cope with, which means you develop incredibly quickly, and it makes everything so much more interesting.”
The corporate department has the usual international client base of oil companies, industrial blue chips and leading financial institutions – including several Russian ones. “What’s unique about corporate is the variety of what’s on offer, from the type of deal to the different jurisdictions involved, from Russia to the Middle East to Asia and Africa.” Work covers public and private transactions, LBOs, advice to hedge funds, and acting on distressed M&A deals – leaning on the firm's restructuring expertise. Typical to the firm's style of work, it recently represented Global Telecom Holding SAE in selling its 60% stake in a mobile operator in Zimbabwe.
The breadth of work in corporate is a real plus, said interviewees: “As a trainee you get a good view of what the firm as a whole deals with and how different lawyers work.” In M&A, clients often require regulatory updates, which means you’ll need to do a fair amount of researching, usually different directives and regulations. Key tasks include drafting, transaction management and due diligence.
I believe I can apply
As with any City firm, hours at Akin Gump can be long and unpredictable. However, trainees were keen to dispel the myth that US firms have worse hours than the magic circle, telling us: “You don’t have to sit around if there’s no work to do. You’re never staying just to keep up appearances, it’s all completely work-driven and you’re never left by yourself.” On average, trainees left the office around 7 or 8pm, with the occasional report of an early morning finish in seats like corporate.
"I’ve always felt like I’m only judged on merit instead of competing with other people.”
Being relatively small in comparison to other City firms, “everybody here knows each other. Because there’s such a tiny trainee intake, I’ve always felt like I’m only judged on merit instead of competing with other people.” In addition: “Every individual makes their own contribution, there’s quite a non-hierarchical structure.” While the firm is very sociable in the office, Akin Gump isn’t the place if you’re looking for a wild time after hours. Aside from the usual summer and Christmas parties, there aren’t many firm-wide events. Being a US firm, however, the trainees do get to enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. One thing on everybody’s lips was the roof terrace on the eighth floor, the perfect spot for summer drinks in the city.
Although most of the training programme at Akin Gump is “a very hands-on style of learning,” there are also compulsory seminars and training sessions held by partners and associates. There are also department-wide meetings every month to discuss different work streams as well as strategy and goals for the future, which trainees are encouraged to attend. Sources were positive about the appraisal system: “You have a mid-seat and an end of seat review with a supervisor, a partner and someone from HR. It’s really collaborative and helpful.” Although intake is still relatively small, the qualification process is undergoing some formalisation as a result of increasing the number of trainees per year: “Now you submit three top choices, followed by a fairly informal discussion. It’s based more on business need than before, but ultimately it still comes down to merit.” In 2017 three out of four trainees stayed at the firm, although four places were offered.
Trainees told us: “Sometimes with US firms you feel like it’s an American firm with a London office. At Akin it’s very much an office in its own right.”
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How to get an Akin Gump training contract
Training contract deadline (2020): 15 July 2018 (opens 1 October 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 an opportunity 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. Applicants also 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.”
Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld
10 Bishops Square,
- Partners 39
- Associates 59
- Total trainees 9
- Graduate recruiter: Vicky Widdows, [email protected], 020 7012 9600
- Training partner: Vance Chapman, [email protected]
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 4
- Applications pa: 300
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Minimum UCAS points or A Levels: AAA or equivalent
- Vacation scheme places pa: 8
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 October 2017
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: 15 July 2018
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 October 2017
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 31 January 2018
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £48,000
- Second-year salary: £52,000
- Post-qualification salary: $180,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £8,000
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London, Hong Kong (via PCLL route)
- Overseas seats: Ad hoc
- Client secondments: Ad hoc
Main areas of work
We welcome applications from law students in their penultimate year of study, non-law students in their final year and graduates looking to commence a training path in two years’ time. Participants are offered a training contract interview at the end of the programme.
Participants are paid at the London Living Wage.