A high threshold for pressure comes with great rewards at this magic circle giant.
Please note: Allen & Overy did not provide us with a full list of its trainees. The feature below is based on the experience of a select few.
The magic circle are a mysterious bunch and telling these grand firms apart can be tough, but with Allen & Overy we should begin with banking. The firm's towering reputation for finance draws in the likes of Goldman Sachs, HSBC, J.P. Morgan, Bank of America and a whole host of other major league banks. In fact, if you name a heavyweight of the financial world, chances are A&O will have given them a hand at some point. After all, this global firm has picked up a hefty assortment of high Chambers UK rankings in the finance field, covering sponsors, borrowers, lenders, debt, equity, high-yield – again, you name it. And while banking is a historical strength for A&O, its 59 UK-based rankings in areas like corporate/M&A, litigation, real estate and employment attest to the firm's undeniably broad skill set.
A&O showed that it meant business on the transactional side throughout the 2015/16 financial year, notching up over 1,500 deals across its global M&A, projects and debt and equity capital markets practices. By the end of the financial year A&O posted its sixth consecutive revenue rise – up 2.3% to £1.31 billion. Managing partner Andrew Ballheimer told the legal press that the dip in oil prices, slowdown in China, and (of course) Brexit, were behind this more modest revenue increase.
So how's A&O handling Brexit? “Our preparation for the possibility of Brexit was significant," Wright says. “In the six months leading up to the referendum we produced 19 different publications to prepare our clients, and held a conference call the day after the referendum with hundreds of participants.” And the firm's plans for this post-Brexit world? Wright continues: “We're used to operating and advising clients in an international context. Once we know the shape of the Brexit model and have assessed the challenges it poses, we'll just get on with the job. Like any major change it will provide us with opportunities to strengthen our business in certain places and take advantage of new opportunities.”
Considering that 73% of A&O's 2015/16 revenue came from cross-border work involving two or more offices, you can bank on the firm continuing to make the most of its extensive international network. It encompasses 44 offices across 31 countries (Antarctica is the only continent where you won't find an A&O branch, but hey, there's still time to establish one). The latest addition to the A&O family came in 2015 when the firm opened in Seoul to boost its energy and infrastructure work in particular. No surprise to see A&O ranked as the third most capable global firm in Chambers Global this year.
“The timelines are demanding and the deals can be manic.”
Incoming first-years indicate preferences for their first seat, which is typically in one of the firm's core practices: banking, corporate, or ICM (international capital markets). Trainees will spend twelve months of their training contract in at least two of these areas. Litigation is also a major practice area for trainees. Before their second and third seats, trainees name a 'priority seat' that they'd love to do and a 'request seat' as a backup. The sheer number of options available at A&O means that a “careers fair-style event” is put on to give new joiners an overview of all the seats shortly after they arrive. Once trainees have perused the selection and listed their preferences, they sit down for individual powwows with HR to find out the likelihood of scoring their top picks. For most trainees the final seat is spent in an overseas office or with a client.
The SABMiller's Tale
A&O's long-standing banking prowess sees it assisting mega clients with mega financing for mega deals. Let's start with this biggie, which turned out to be the largest commercial loan to date: the firm recently assisted a syndicate of banks (including Santander and BNP Paribas among others) as they lent an eye-watering $75 billion to the world's largest brewer – AB InBev – so it could make a takeover bid for fellow brewer SABMiller. A&O also assisted another syndicate of banks (this time including Barclays and Bank of America) on a short-term £3.025 billion loan to support Royal Dutch Shell's £47 billion takeover of BG Group.
Many trainees join global loans and real estate finance, (or 'B1' in A&O speak) on day one of their training contract. “As a first seat it's fast-moving,” sources told us. “The timelines are demanding and the deals can be manic. You see an awful lot in just six months.” The banking trainee role is “very defined. You follow a lot of processes and develop deal management skills – by the end of the seat I felt I could just pick things up and run a deal.” In particular, “you get really involved in the conditions precedent [CP] process” by leading calls, chasing clients for outstanding documents and communicating with foreign counsel. Most deals are likely to involve several jurisdictions and international companies, like African telecoms owner Eaton Towers, for instance, which A&O helped as it financed the expansion of its operations in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Kenya, Niger and Uganda.
"I was amazed to be granted that responsibility.”
There are five other banking sub-groups to potentially join: structured and asset finance (B2), leveraged finance (B3), restructuring (B4), projects, energy and infrastructure (B5), and regulatory, funds and financial products (B6). Trainees in restructuring can either serve “the 'dark side' – where we deal with insolvency and administration matters – or work on the 'light side' and help companies to restructure by taking advantage of good interest rates.” Sources in this seat had drafted settlement agreements and deeds of release, amended facilities agreements, conducted legal research and run CP checklists. Lately A&O's restructuring bods have been helping to recover $700 million worth of assets from the insolvent Danish marine fuel company O.W. Bunker, which had subsidiaries operating out of 13 jurisdictions.
ICM is split into several subgroups, including: securitisation; derivatives and structured finance (DSF); the general securities group (GSG); and corporate trustee. Financial crises in Europe have kept DSF lawyers busy lately. Most recently it advised a syndicate of 16 financial institutions – the likes of Lloyds, Morgan Stanley and Société Générale were among them – on adhering and adapting to the extension of capital controls implemented by the Greek government. DSF trainees park their bums on either the derivatives or structured finance side of the metaphorical DSF sofa. One derivatives source told of drafting sections of swap agreements (where two parties exchange financial instruments), commenting on agreements drafted by the other party and negotiating with opposing counsel. “I worked directly with partners so I was given quite a bit of room to make my own mark on matters and use my initiative.”
Of mice and men
A&O trainees can avoid a contentious stint by taking a litigation course and completing 40 hours of voluntary work at either Battersea Legal Advice Clinic or the charity Toynbee Hall. Those that love a good wrangle, however, can hone their contentious skills in subgroups such as banking and financial regulation, corporate and commercial, IP, international arbitration and employment. The latter has proved popular in recent intakes thanks to some pretty juicy matters involving unfair dismissals of senior company figures and high-profile whistle-blowing claims. Most of the team's matters are closely guarded secrets, but lawyers here did work alongside their corporate and data protection colleagues to advise supermarket chain Morrisons after its employees' personal details ended up splashed across the internet. Other clients here tend to be (as you may have guessed) large financial institutions but also insurance companies. Interviewees told of preparing bundles for court and attending tribunals, where they were tasked with being chief note-taker: “I was literally trying to record everything verbatim. I was exhausted; there was so much pressure but I was amazed to be granted that responsibility.” In international arbitration – where the team handles both investment treaty and commercial arbitration – rookies carried out extensive research into international law. “It's a difficult seat where you're given lots of responsibility to research and draft, but everything you write is scrutinised by at least two more senior lawyers.”
A&O's corporate teams assist global hotshots from many different industries, like Imperial Tobacco, Thomson Reuters, Virgin, GlaxoSmithKline and 21st Century Fox. Deals are often cross-border and high-value; recently the team advised Spanish bank Banco Sabadell on its £1.7 billion acquisition of TSB from Lloyds. But other work highlights of late have rolled even further into the billions: one saw the group advise on the $11 billion three-way merger which created Coca-Cola European Partners, which involved the coming together of entities in Spain, Germany and the US; they also acted for Visa Europe as it was bought back by its old parent company (Visa) for a colossal €21.2 billion.
“As a corporate trainee you're generally in a project management role."
When a firm has its own sleeping pods, it's a pretty sure sign its lawyers are pulling some gruelling hours – a point the firm makes no secret of. We didn't come across any trainees who'd made use of said pods, as they preferred to seek out the (brief) comfort of their own bed after early morning finishes. Sources in the transactional departments were at the mercy of cyclical deals. For instance in corporate “there were a few weeks where it was quite slow so we would go home by 6pm,” while in banking another source said that “for a couple of months I'd get in at 9am and seldom left before 10.30pm.” Contentious seats were described as “consistently busy,” with hours that can be just as tough as those in the deal-driven departments. “In the run up to a hearing in international arbitration I spent three intense weeks leaving between midnight and 1am, but it then slows down to 8pm finishes for a while.” Fortunately, A&O honours time off in lieu, or TOIL: “The system monitors your hours. If they think you're working too hard you'll get an email telling you to take time off.”
So, how do trainees cope with the demanding hours? “You need a hard-working ethos and a lot of enthusiasm as the standards are very high here,” one trainee stressed, but, as another added, “you wouldn't apply here if you weren't ambitious and didn't set yourself high standards.” Many trainees felt that the “people are relaxed and approachable on a personal level, which makes it easier to work the hours with them,” but a few did admit to finding the “expectations intimidating.” Hence why another interviewee told us that “being able to handle stress and a high-pressure environment is important.” Self-selection is key here, but A&O also hosts soft skills sessions on “prioritising workloads, as well as how to manage projects, time and people's expectations.” Another meeting focused on resilience: “I thought it would be crap but it was a brilliant session!”
Luckily, if it all gets too much you don't have to go far to blow off steam. We hear there's usually someone to have a drink with in the on-site café and bar Lavanda, which puts on a BBQ on its “lush roof terrace” throughout the summer. “If only the sun would shine!” The trainee social committee runs several sports teams – hockey, netball, tag rugby and water sports are just a few of those on offer – and hosts an annual trainee ball; this year's Monte Carlo-themed extravaganza was held at the Merchant Taylors' Hall in London. Of course, the real reason to celebrate should be qualification: 75 of 85 qualifiers (spring and autumn second-years combined) were retained by the firm in 2016.
Foreign postings include New York, Dubai, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Frankfurt, Paris, Rome, Milan and Moscow.
How to get an Allen & Overy training contract
Vacation schemes deadline (2016/17): 31 October 2016 (winter); 31 December 2016 (spring and summer)
Training contract deadline (2019/20) : 31 December 2016 (law and non-law)
Open day deadline: 15 February 2017 (opens 15 January 2017)
A&O First deadline: 15 February 2017 (opens 15 January 2017)
A&O First and open day
A&O First is an initiative for first-year undergrads (both law and non-law), providing ongoing contact with the firm. Students come in for a two-day workshop during the Easter break and then return for a day before they start their second year. “If it works for the students and us it's the start of our relationship with them,” says graduate recruitment partner Claire Wright. “Many go on to do a vacation scheme and then the training contact.” The application involves “a shortened version of our application form and a short telephone interview with a member of the graduate recruitment team.” Separate to A&O First, the firm run an open day for anyone to attend, which include talks, workshops, and networking opportunities.
A&O runs vacation schemes at three different points in the year, so you can opt to apply for the one that works best for you. Screening of the completed online application forms is done manually, and recruiters look for evidence of a clear interest in the law, commercial awareness, and why a candidate is applying to A&O. Be sure to tailor your application: many people still send in standardised applications that could equally be sent to other firms. Take our word for it: even though A&O is a big firm recruiters absolutely hate this and are guaranteed not to send your application to the next stage if you send them a generic boilerplate.
The assessment centre
The interview and assessment process is the same for both the training contract and the vacation scheme route. After the initial online application, candidates who make the cut progress to an assessment centre consisting of two interviews, a case study interview (with a partner) followed by a competency interview. Each lasts for about an hour. For the case study, you're given a folder of information containing a range of documents. These could be a short legal document, a meeting note, an email or a press cutting. A scenario might be that your partner has been called into a meeting so you've got to take over and meet the client on your own. You've got about half an hour to identify the issues then give a short presentation to the 'client' (the partner-interviewer) on the issues you've spotted followed by a discussion.
“It's not a legal test,” recruiting partner Claire Wright points out. “We're testing the ability to assimilate a lot of information and order your thoughts, presentation skills to a client/partner, and commercial awareness. We don't expect you to know legal and technical language like 'indemnity' or 'conditions precedent'. Your solutions don't need to be couched in legal or technical terms, and therefore candidates with a non-law background are certainly not at a disadvantage.”
How to wow
In recent years our interviewees have been split roughly 50/50 between those with a law degree and those who did not do law. Our interviewee pool has also contained individuals who went to non-redbrick and non-Russell Group universities.
How can a candidate really impress at interview? “Show vigour, enthusiasm and attack the subject matter. Offer a solution, even if it's not feasible! Clients need to know how to solve the issue. Be prepared to address all issues. Clients face all sorts of issues – for example, commercial, financial, reputational and political – not just legal. There are hints in the case study notes about this. Also, show you're calm under pressure, can order your thoughts in a coherent fashion, and can absorb lots of information.”
We talk Brexit, business strategy and commercial awareness with graduate recruitment partner Claire Wright
Student Guide: This year Allen & Overy gained a new managing partner and a new senior partner. How has the transition been and will it herald any major changes?
Claire Wright: I think beginning their tenancy in the run up to the EU referendum has been an extraordinary start for both of them, but the transition has been very easy. Wim Dejonghe has transferred from the role of managing partner to senior partner while our new managing partner Andew Ballheimer was our global head of corporate so he was already heavily involved in the firm's management decisions. The transition will just happen naturally but at the moment we're focusing on navigating Brexit; we've been preparing for the possibility for six months prior to the referendum date and a change in management will not make a difference to our plans.
SG: What has the firm done with regards to preparing for Brexit?
CW: Our preparation for the possibility of Brexit was significant. In the six months leading up to the referendum we produced 19 different publications to prepare our clients, and held a conference call the day after the referendum with hundreds of participants. We are continuing to focus on Brexit related issues and produce further publications on key issues as things become clearer.
SG: Do you get a sense of how Brexit will affect the firm's operations and the work you're seeing?
CW: With the risk of sounding like a politician, it really is too early to tell. We're used to operating and advising clients in an international context. Once we know the shape of the Brexit model and have assessed the challenges it poses, we'll just get on with the job. Like any major change it will provide us with opportunities to strengthen our business in certain places and take advantage of new opportunities.
SG: What should students know about the future and strategy at Allen & Overy?
CW: One thing of note is that we're increasingly using technology to foster more innovative and efficient ways of working. There are opportunities for everyone – whether they be a partner or working in our finance, HR or IT teams – to help shape more efficient ways of working. It's completely possible for a trainee to suggest an idea to our panel, which then selects those proposals which they think should be funded and rolled out. The ideas generally tend to focus on finding different ways to service our clients such as using our Peerpoint business to call on the assistance of A&O alumni.
SG: What sort of person thrives at the firm?
CW: Someone with high intellectual calibre, a healthy approach to problem solving and a drive to work things out. Equally we look for people who demonstrate resilience; when I applied to firms the focus was very much on working hard for the benefit of clients whereas now we place an emphasis on people being able to do that in a healthy and controlled way. We want people who appreciate they will be faced with challenges and who can demonstrate resilience and be able to pick themselves up from knocks and challenges and learn from them rather than feeling demoralised and defeated.
SG: The firm's graduate recruitment website states that nowadays “there is a much stronger focus on business and commercial sense” among lawyers than there used to be in the past. How can candidates demonstrate business and commercial awareness during the application process?
CW: It's hard and the term commercial awareness is bandied around a lot; we're not looking for people to attend an interview and display a perfect knowledge of the way a company is run, how it's structured around the world or how its accounts are prepared. What we are looking for is someone who can show they appreciate being a lawyer is not only about knowing the law, it's about being able to interpret the law and document a transaction in the context of a client's business.
During the application process candidates need to demonstrate that they are aware of this aspect of being a lawyer and start looking at the ways a company does business. Ask yourself what are their products? Who is their competition? What kind of organisation are they? Where are they expanding? What are the risks they face and how do they mitigate them? It's about having an interest in and an understanding that this will be a part of a lawyer's role and that's what commercial awareness is.
SG: What advice do you have for students who are about to enter the legal profession?
CW: It's a fantastic platform whether you end up being a lawyer in a firm, move on to become an in-house lawyer or do something completely different because the training you receive holds you in good stead. It's such a brilliant discipline as you learn how to interpret, project manage and structure arrangements between parties who want to make a success of business. It's also very focused on how to advise and manage risks. All the transferable skills it teaches you are invaluable and I would encourage anyone to look hard at training to be a lawyer as you will have a brilliant, exciting and energising time.
People think lawyers work incredibly hard and it's incredibly stressful; it's hard work but it will provide an enormous amount of personal satisfaction, both in terms of winning business or being part of a winning team. It's very exciting and energetic. Being part of a transaction, helping someone reach a decent conclusion and knowing you have progressed someone's business is hugely satisfying.
The magic circle uncovered
Allen & Overy LLP
One Bishops Square,
- Partners 530 worldwide
- Associates 2,700 worldwide
- London trainees 180
- Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
- Facebook www.facebook.com/AllenOveryGrads
- Twitter @allenoverygrads
- Method of application Online application form
- Selection procedure Two interviews
- Closing date for 2018 31 August 2017
- Training contracts pa 90
- Required degree grade 2:1 (or equivalent)
- Training salary
- First year: £42,000
- Second year: £47,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- % of trainees with a non-law degree pa 48%
- No. of seats available in international offices 36 seats twice a year; 9 client secondments
- Post-qualification salary £78,500 (2016)
- % of trainees offered job on qualification 89% (2016)
- International offices Abu Dhabi, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Bangkok, Barcelona, Beijing, Belfast, Bratislava, Brussels, Budapest, Bucharest*, Casablanca, Doha, Dubai, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Jakarta*, Johannesburg, London, Luxembourg, Madrid, Milan, Moscow, Munich, New York, Paris, Perth, Prague, Riyadh*, Rome, Sao Paulo, Seoul, Shanghai,Singapore, Sydney, Tokyo, Warsaw, Washington DC, Yangon.
- *associated office
Main areas of work