Our survey says... A&O trainees get a shot at a magic circle jackpot, if they're up to the task.
'A chance to do the very best work' – similar lines are trotted out by many a puffed-up firm, but were Allen & Overy to make that claim, it would hold more than a grain of truth. A&O is simply legal royalty, with highly polished practices across 44 offices worldwide forming its very own set of crown jewels. But they shine brightest at home. Chambers UK gifts them a stonking 59 rankings in total, covering pretty much every area of law you could think of.
You'll find excellence in areas like corporate M&A, employment, litigation, and projects, but first and foremost, think Allen & Overy, and you should probably think banking. Though clients across the firm's global practices include McDonald's, eBay and Sony, its financial clout is demonstrated best by a list of financial institutions which includes Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, HSBC, Morgan Stanley and Bank of America. Nothing is too complex when it comes to borrowing or lending, nor too high-stakes when it comes to debt or equity capital markets. And, as is true of so much of Allen and Overy's work, it's highly international, criss-crossing jurisdictions with consummate ease. This banking prowess sets A&O apart from most its magic circle peers – only Clifford Chance can truly compete in banking.
Like any firm, A&O is subject to political caprice, and Brexit loomed large in 2017: A&O's lawyers were among those reportedly applying to the roll of solicitors in Ireland to continue practising EU law. Even before the decision though, A&O were on the front foot, running an initiative named BrexitLaw, offering comprehensive hand-holding for clients: releasing publications and holding conference calls. “There's the recognition of a huge amount of uncertainty,” says Claire Wright, graduate recruitment partner. “But we aren't reliant on any particular sector or discipline, we're strong across our practice areas and our offices outside of London, so we're pretty well hedged against the different possibilities as Brexit discussions progress.”
Another area where the firm hasn't waited for the starting gun is legal technology. It's recently announced the 'Fuse' initiative, in which it will house legal tech start-ups in the London office. (Read more about this in our interview with Claire Wright online.) Having racked up a turnover of £1.52 billion in 2016/17, A&O has the coffers to push the envelope, and despite the Brexit vote, the firm posted an increase in revenue of 16%.
Deal or no deal
Incoming first-years indicate preferences for their first seat, which is typically in one of the firm's core practices. “You have to do two seats in the core departments, which are banking, corporate and ICM [international capital markets],” explained one source. The dizzying choice of seats on offer sees the options presented to trainees via a “seat fair.” Then, part-way through their first seat, trainees are asked to name a 'priority' seat, which they're almost certain to do. In addition, trainees list a number of preferences. To round off the contract, trainees' final seat is usually spent in an overseas office or with a client.
A&O's banking team is a beast. It recently advised Asahi Group Holdings, the Japanese brewer, on a €7.3 billion financing to support its proposed acquisition of five businesses in Central and Eastern Europe formerly owned by fellow brewing giant SABMiller, to make Asahi Europe's third biggest beer group. Billion-pound deals are a regular feature; the team also advised RBS and a club of 20 lenders on a loan and revolving credit facility for AMEC Foster Wheeler that was worth £1.7 billion. One more? The team also represented the lenders in a £1.35 billion facilities agreement for Ladbrokes, which contributed towards its merger with its betting rival Coral.
Under the banking umbrella are a number of subgroups which trainees choose between. There's corporate lending and real estate finance (titled 'B1' by the firm), structured and asset finance (B2), leveraged finance (B3), restructuring (B4), projects, energy and infrastructure (B5), and regulatory, funds and consumer credit (B6). B1 and B3 are particularly common. “As a trainee in B3 you usually run the conditions precedent process.” That's true of many banking seats, a task described as “demanding” by many. “There are certain conditions a sponsor must meet before they can draw down on a loan,” and trainees hustle to get that sorted, chasing clients, “sometimes terrifying directors,” and chasing foreign counsel for outstanding documents. “It's quite nerve-wracking, but junior associates are supportive about giving you help to start with – they know how it feels to do your first one. Beyond your first time, it's formulaic.” Deals usually cross borders and one trainee recalled handling contacts in “15 jurisdictions. You have to be very organised and keep on top of all the correspondence.” Highlighting the internationalism of banking, a B2 trainee recalled the financing of an aircraft. “During closing we were monitoring where the plane was with everyone checking where the sale would take place according to what airspace it was in!” Another trainee described that subgroup as “an adrenaline junkie's place to be.”
“An adrenalin junkie's place to be.”
Corporate trainees who had previously sat in banking reflected that “it's very dynamic, there's a lot of crossover because it's not as demarcated as the banking teams.” Again, corporate has subgroups which trainees are assigned to, but they could do work for more than one, seeking out matters of interest. There's public M&A (C4), private equity, energy and utilities (C6), competition (C1), commercial (C2) and general M&A and financial institutions (C5). A constant is the quality of the clients, who are strewn across a number of industries. There's Virgin, 21st Century Fox, Aviva, GlaxoSmithKline, Visa Europe and Imperial Tobacco. Once again matters are often cross-border and quite pricey. The proposed acquisition by 21st Century Fox of the remaining stake in Sky is perhaps the best known deal of late – that clocks in at £11.7 billion, subject to approval. The firm is also advising VimpelCom, a Dutch based global telecommunications provider, on its €21.8 billion joint venture with CK Hutchinson Holdings, the parent company of Italian mobile operator 3 Italia, to create the largest operator in Italy.
On top of the unavoidable due diligence, trainees had drafted a number of documents: prospectuses, due diligence reports, reps and warranties, covenants, board minutes and articles of association. “And generally right at the outset you'll be getting the precedent SPA and adapting it, looking at what we need to change and going through that with an associate.” Trainees had also helped co-ordinate the DD process and assisted in transaction management. Of course, the seat is also strongly commercially focused: “my supervisor was very keen for me to read about the company and the client we were working for to understand what they do.”
A Question of Court
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. That doesn't mean there aren't solid contentious choices on offer, however. There are subgroups like employment, IP, banking and financial regulation, and arbitration providing a counterbalance to a transactional torpor. A common theme among the groups was increased client contact. “I was called in to interview the client to try and get as much information about the matter, and I would also be part of meetings. I'd be taking detailed notes which were used as the basis of the record – associates would look to me to be on top of what happened at the meeting.” Other trainees had been to court, attended hearings and helped draft documents – like pleadings, settlement agreements and witness statements – but more commonplace tasks include doc review, research, bundling and document management. One banking and financial regulation trainee told us you could end up “running part of the matter yourself. It may only be doc management but it's your thing and you're accountable. You have to report on that and make it work. You can progress things: get in touch with clients about documents, or speak to the team – you can be more autonomous. That is the good side, but in itself, doc management is only good once it's over.”
ICM is split into several subgroups, including: securitisation; derivatives and structured finance; general securities; and corporate trustee. The securitisation team recently advised the Royal Bank of Canada on a mobile handset securisation programme for Virgin Media Mobile worth £125 million. The same team also worked with Barclays, JP Morgan, and Nordea Markets on a securitisation referencing €8.4 billion worth of Nordea Bank's corporate and SME loan portfolio. The department also advised Goldman Sachs and BNP Paribas on two issues of Senior Resolution Notes by NyKredit RealKredit which they managed. Those issuances totalled €1 billion. A trainee in general securities told us: “The trainee role is more instrumental, things are very fast moving and there is always a quick turnaround in producing documents.” After assisting in drafting the prospectus, “you essentially help run the deal to completion. The associate takes the bulk of the client-facing work, but you will be helping them put all the elements in place.” Similarly, a securitisation trainee told us: “There's a lot of sending out documents for comment, monitoring outstanding documents: matter management.” They added: “Even if it's a little more dry, processing comments and putting them into documents, who has commented and why is important. It's definitely useful in terms of understanding the deal.”
Who wants to be a millionaire?
“This is something every A&O trainee goes on about, but the offices are amazing. It seems a fickle reason to choose the firm but if you're going to spend a lot of time there it makes sense. You can't beat a roof terrace with BBQs in the summer.” The office is fit to bursting with features, and trainees felt “well looked after.” There's a gym and a doctor on site, plus a restaurant and the firm's bar, Lavanda. Employees are even given flu jabs, but that's about as far as the apron strings stretch. “I was asked by a partner in my interview, 'do you really want to do this? Are you 100%?' They say that to all trainees. You have to be sure you want to be somewhere like this.” With long hours and exacting standards part of the magic circle brand, the deal is presented frankly, so that applicants can evaluate whether an office with sleeping pods is their bag. “I'm someone who likes to work,” was one trainee's unsurprising self-evaluation, while another told us “to be able to enjoy something I need to do it 100%. You need to be mentally strong to focus on this stuff for a long period of time.”
"Are you 100%?"
“You are told to approach work as though it's going directly to a client: there's not a lot of tolerance for small mistakes.” Those standards are put under strain as the high-stakes work inflicts some “quite hellish” hours on trainees. Experiences vary by seat (transactional being more cyclical, contentious more constant) but examples include a trainee telling us that “for six months I would get in around 8.30am, and didn't leave before 10.30pm with lots of finishes past midnight around Christmas too.” Another peek behind the curtain revealed clashing time zones inflicting peculiar hours: “On my birthday I stayed until three in the morning, and then had to be back again for 6am.” Though we've established trainees have a fairly high tolerance, they told us: “It is a high pressure environment, but you'd also burn out pretty quickly if it was a Hunger Games environment – everyone recognises that.” Ameliorative measures include “a TOIL system [time off in lieu] which monitors your hours. When it's quieter they're also good at saying 'have an evening off' or 'come in a bit later,' or even 'go to the gym for an hour if you want.' They keep an eye on you.” Importantly, trainees' seniors were, in general, not “unapproachable, anonymous characters.” Instead we heard: “I always felt that I was in good hands in terms of the amount of guidance and support I got. I never felt as though I was alone on an island, or that I had been asked to do something I wasn't capable of.”
Of course, there's much more on offer than being pushed to succeed. We heard about “a ton of formal training,” both legal and non-legal. “We had a day focused on negotiation with roleplay and discussion on how you use it in everyday life.” With a big intake “there are always people you can confide in if you're having a stressful day, always someone to have a beer with if you need to let you hair down. It's very sociable. Being near Shoreditch, it's very easy to escape and there's a lot you can get involved in.” There's tag rugby, netball and football teams, and a summer party which this year will play host to Corinne Bailey Rae. And, with a mass of trainees, some pitched the vibe as “an extension of university.” In 2017, 71 of 85 qualifiers were retained by the firm.
"I never felt as though I was alone on an island, or that I had been asked to do something I wasn't capable of.”
How to get an Allen & Overy training contract
Training contract deadline (2020): 31 December 2017 (law and non-law, opens 1 October 2017)
Open day deadline: 15 February 2018 (opens 15 January 2018)
A&O First deadline: 15 February 2018 (opens 15 January 2018)
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.” In addition, the firm offers students the opportunity to apply for an additional day of work experience at one of its international offices.
Separate to A&O First, the firm also runs an open day for anyone to attend, which include talks, workshops, and networking opportunities.
A&O runs vacation schemes at two 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.”
Interview with graduate recruitment partner Claire Wright
Chambers Student: How would you sum up the past year?
Claire Wright: It's been an unusual year. Starting with a referendum result the City wasn't expecting, it's been a year of uncertainty: for clients, for us as a business and importantly also for our staff. In a global firm, with as many people working outside the UK as in the UK, we have certainly been watching developments closely.
However, we have had a strong year financially. We approached the year determined to get on with the job and not let the continued geopolitical and economic uncertainty distract us from our core strategies. It's natural to feel the impact of external events a little, but we tried to focus on the needs of clients rather than getting caught up in debating what might have been.
Another thing that we’ve seen come to fruition this year is what we call our ‘Advanced delivery’ toolkit, essentially the technology and resourcing solutions we are developing to solve their challenges. One example of this is MarginMatrix, which we launched last year in response to new regulations governing derivatives. Banks were faced with an eye-watering number of contracts which needed to be re-papered, so we created this tool that essentially codifies laws and automates legal drafting, saving banks a huge amount of time.
CS: How much of an effect is the ongoing Brexit process having on the firm?
CW: We had been preparing for many months before the referendum: issuing various publications and guidance as the decision approached. On the day, we had a conference call with clients where we gave our first impressions of the issues they would face and what needed to be done in the short term. We continue to advise on numerous Brexit related matters.
For us and our clients, there remains a huge amount of uncertainty, but we aren't reliant on any particular sector or discipline; we're strong across our practice areas and our offices outside of London, so we're pretty well-hedged against the different possibilities as Brexit discussions progress. We're approaching this new financial year with a high degree of confidence, though that's not to say we aren't alive to the potential challenges we could face.
CS: We've heard about the 'Fuse' initiative which sees the firm house legal tech startups – could you tell us a bit more about this?
CW: It's a really exciting initiative and it works because here in London we're physically located in an emerging area for technology, with lots of tech companies – including legal tech – all around us. Rather than trying to match existing solutions with our clients' needs, we thought: 'Why not combine the thought process into a space in our offices where we can collaborate?’ We're getting tech companies involved now to collaborate directly on the problems clients are currently facing and will continue to face. Essentially it's a place where everyone can come together, so we called it Fuse.
Everyone is pursuing legal technology to some degree, but the more basic forms don't suit us. Everyone can go to a company to help them with existing legal business such as due diligence – we want to do much more than that and look at different ways of doing business. People talk about AI without necessarily grasping its potential: it can be much more disruptive to the way we do business and capitalising on this opportunity fits with our identity as an advanced organisation.
CS: What will that mean for trainees?
CW: Advances in how we deliver services to clients potentially means fewer of the more mundane tasks that trainees typically did. There will always be enough jobs for trainees to cut their teeth on: due diligence to be done, contracts to be drafted and reviewed, and risk analyses to be completed prior to closing, but with many more challenges presented by increased regulation and uncertainty, trainees will be involved in more original and creative work. We're always very inclusive, so trainees can carve out interesting roles for themselves. They're welcome to get involved with Fuse as well, just as anyone else in the firm is.
CS: A number of trainees mentioned a lack of diversity among partners in the firm, and we've read it's something the firm is looking to tackle – what is the firm doing about it?
CW: It's a good question and it's something which is both disappointing and puzzling for me, especially when it comes to the number of women. Our aim has been to have 20% female partners by 2020. We have achieved that in some offices, but in London so far we have fallen short, and we’ve realised we need to do a lot more to address this imbalance.
We recruit as many women as men at trainee level, and at least half of the junior associate population are women too. But the ratio drops as you work your way up the organisation. Therefore, we have set new targets (e.g. 30% of leadership positions to be held by women) and various initiatives to ensure women are reaching the pool from which we promote partners. There is mentoring for mid-to-senior level women and we have introduced more targeted coaching, training and networking opportunities for women in recognition that we may need to make some structural changes to give women the right support.
We don't just want female mentors mentoring women, but men too. It's important that this is not seen as 'women's stuff,' as opposed to a concerted effort to tackle the issues somehow preventing women from reaching the top.
The thing to stress is that we are absolutely aware of the issues and there is clear acknowledgement and commitment to do something about it. Now we have that openness and dialogue people are more prepared to act on it.
CS: If you had to pick one thing that sets A&O's training contract apart, what would it be?
CW: I'd go back to inclusiveness. The inclusive nature of our culture means that from the minute you walk in as a trainee you can carve out a role in the way that suits you, that plays to your strengths and enables you to fulfil your potential. As a trainee, you can start doing that from day one and you will get enormous amounts of support; I'm not sure you get that freedom at other firms.
When I started I felt that if I wanted to join a practice or go for training, I could do that – as long as it wasn't implausible, I would get support. When I was a senior associate, I set up the TMT (technology, media and telecommunications) group with a partner, and was supported by colleagues and management. That support has continued throughout my career. If a trainee is determined to work in Asia, they can register their interest from their first seat and have opportunities directed to them... I could go on, there are so many examples. If someone wants to be passive and go with the flow they can do that, but I suspect they won't be that successful as a lawyer here. Those who are successful have taken the initiative to shape their career.
The magic circle uncovered
Allen & Overy LLP
One Bishops Square,
- Partners 554
- Associates 2,768 worldwide
- Total trainees 174
- UK offices London, Belfast
- Overseas offices 42
- Contact [email protected]
- Application criteria
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Minimum UCAS points or A levels: 340 UCAS points (AAB)
- Vacation scheme places pa: 50
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 October 2017
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: 31 December 2017
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 October 2017
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 31 October 2017 (winter); 31 December 2017 (summer)
- Open day deadline: 15 February 2018
- A&O First deadline: 15 February 2018
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £44,000
- Second-year salary: £49,000
- Post-qualification salary: £81,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days + bank holidays
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £8,000
- International and regional
- Overseas seats: 30 available
- Client secondments: 9
Our trainees can expect a rewarding experience that will prepare them for a career at the very pinnacle of the profession. In each of their seats they’ll support a senior associate or partner, with exposure to work that crosses departments and borders – in fact, 73% of the firm’s work involves two or more jurisdictions. Around 80% of trainees have the chance to spend six months in one of our 44 overseas offices, or on secondment to one of our various clientele – who include 87% of Forbes’ top 100 public companies.
The legal industry is changing fast, and we’re working to equip our people with the skills and knowledge they will need to operate in the legal landscape of the future. For trainees, this means an in-house training programme characterised by flexibility and choice – like the chance to take a litigation course alongside their rotations.
Built on the work of talented and motivated people, in a supportive and collaborative environment, we’re dedicated to challenging the status quo and leading the way in commercial law. So whatever you’ve studied – and around half our trainees have a degree in a subject other than law – we will help you develop into an exceptional lawyer and learn to do work of the highest possible standard.
Main areas of work
Candidates must have a genuine interest in law. Commercially aware and quick to adapt; our well-organised trainees need to be effective team players with an eagerness to learn.
Open days and first-year opportunities
We also have 80 vacancies for an open day on 14 March 2018, open to anyone in the second year of their undergraduate degree and onwards, as well as graduates from any degree discipline, who want to get greater insight into a career in commercial law.
University law careers fairs 2017