US-founded Dechert continues to woo trainees with the chance to work on border-busting deals and cases in a more “independent” London office.
It's mostly sunny in Philadelphia
Hailing from the 'City of Brotherly Love', Dechert hit the London scene in the not-as-swinging 70s. By 2000, it had swelled its ranks by merging with a London-based outfit, making it stand out as one of the larger international players in the capital. This growth spurt, however, foreshadowed a much bigger one: since the millennium, Dechert's added 18 offices to its ranks, expanding its presence in the US, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. And it still hasn't lost its zeal for empire-building: over the past two years Dechert's opened in Singapore and formed an association with a Saudi firm following the state's liberalisation of its capital markets. And before we go any further, you ought to know Dechert is pronounced with a hard 'c'.
This latest tie-up should feed work to Dechert's London base, where lawyers have earned a Chambers UK nod for their debt capital markets know-how. However, Dechert's top-ranked stars are its white-collar crime and hedge fund expertise, while its corporate, real estate and litigation work also scores high points. There's been a bit of lateral toing and froing recently – most notably with US rivals in the litigation space, where one partner left for White & Case and a team of four lawyers opted to give Jenner & Block's new London office a try. Incoming traffic, meanwhile, has consisted of a new business restructuring and reorganisation team. “They'll be focusing on the contentious side of insolvencies,” training principal Jonathan Angell tells us: “We want to build up that practice and we're just about to have our first trainees complete a seat there.” Dechert's also beefed up its transactional arm by hiring an ex-Weil M&A lawyer with links to the energy and life sciences spaces.
For trainees, the chance to complete six seats instead of the usual four was a big pull-factor. “You'll have to specialise later on,” one source pointed out, “so it gives you a good opportunity to sample.” That may be so, but Jonathan Angell adds that trainees also have to “hit the ground running and make the most of every opportunity: in conventional six-month seats trainees may think that they have a couple of months to settle in – but there isn't that luxury here, and we think it's a benefit.” Three preferences are submitted before each rotation, with our interviewees typically “granted” something off their wish list every time.
First-year trainees are required to complete both a contentious and transactional seat. Financial services and corporate and securities are go-to options on the latter side, while complex commercial litigation and white-collar are popular on the former. From there, trainees are encouraged to try a 'niche' seat in a smaller department (like IP, real estate or tax) or a secondment. Overseas stints to Paris, Brussels, Dublin or Singapore are available, while client secondments crop up on a more ad hoc basis. Our sources were particularly thrilled with the current opportunity: a spell at the RCJ. “You get to sit with up to two judges in court. I don't think other firms can give you that!” We also heard that “it's quite common for second-years to repeat a seat, which is great for improving your skills.”
On the hedge of your seat
“It's one of the best areas you can be exposed to at Dechert,” said trainees, praising the firm's financial services department. Its focus is on asset management, and you'll find a number of fund managers – like Old Mutual Global Investors, Legg Mason and Cheyne Capital – on the client roster. Sources highlighted the team's strength in the hedge fund space, but also dealt with private equity funds. “We advise on setting them up in Europe and offshore,” an interviewee explained. “Once they're established, we provide general advisory work on day-to-day operations and regulatory matters.”
We have to keep schtum about the department's recent work highlights, but we can tell you about what trainees got up to. Fund formations send a lot of drafting work trainees' way: “I've drafted board minutes for transaction-approval meetings, as well as prospectuses and parts of partnership agreements.” During the launch of a private equity fund, one trainee took on a more project management role, “running local counsel correspondence concerning the marketing of the fund.” On the advisory side, “you often have to do a lot of research on elements of funds that clients won't be aware of – then you have a go at producing the first draft of advice for the client.”
The corporate & securities department is split into M&A, private equity and capital markets teams. Our sources had mostly picked up work on the M&A side, where Chambers UK singles out its mid-market work in particular. But that doesn't mean heftier matters aren't dealt with: the team recently advised US software company Kofax on its $1 billion sale to printer pros Lexmark. While financial services clients crop up a lot, the group also picks up work in the life sciences and TMT spheres, as well as matters tied to emerging markets. Mobile network Orange is a key client, and lawyers here recently helped it to sell one of its subsidiaries to an Armenian internet provider, and sell its stake in Nairobi-headquartered Telkom Kenya.
“First-years get the most hands-on experience here,” said one source, recounting their experience on a hotel sale: “I worked directly with a senior associate and partner and had direct contact with the client. I drafted the peripheral documents and researched insolvency-based registering at Companies House.” Those who thrive on adrenaline will no doubt feel at home here, as some deals can get a little heated: “On one I left at 5.30am as we were under a lot of pressure to meet a deadline – the amounts to be transferred had already been fixed by the foreign exchange, so missing the deadline would mean that we'd have to start all over again!”
“You become the master of Google!”
Dechert's complex commercial litigation team's no stranger to international disputes. Recent cases have seen the department represent NML Capital after Argentina – to whom it had issued bonds – defaulted on its payments; an individual who brought a breach of contract claim against a Russian oligarch; and Bahrain-based Ithmaar Bank after a real estate fund in Turkey collapsed. In short: Expect to work on a range of cross-border disputes on behalf of big companies, financial institutions, sovereign states and individuals. Trainees had encountered a few fraud-related cases during their time here: “Our client had been defrauded during a transaction, so we were trying to secure an injunction that would freeze the fraudster's assets in Hong Kong. We only had two days to do it so it was intense but really exciting.” Trainee tasks on this type of case included doc review (“looking for relevant info that can be used in the case”); drafting witness statements; collating evidence for exhibits; and attending client meetings with the police. Overall, “you have to be an organisational monster: you've got to be on top of the facts, otherwise you're not doing a good job!”
Some of these fraud cases overlap with the work conducted in the white-collar and securities team, which also handles bribery, corruption, international trade and sanctions matters. The details here are too sensitive to divulge, but trainees told us that “you'll be working for a mix of companies, CEOs and states.” Interviewees kept their research caps on for much of this seat, prompting them to joke: “You become the master of Google!” Legal research can cover “a point of law, Serious Fraud Office rules, deferred prosecution agreements – anything, really.” And that's just one branch of it. The other is more commercially oriented, “so you'll be looking into what a company does, where it's based, who its clients are etc...” Sources warned students not to get too carried away with visions of being on the front line during corporate raids: “As a trainee, you get the slightly less interesting work, like going through all the documents from the client – the majority of which aren't interesting.” But then again, there are some moments to cherish: “When you do find a scandalous, hot document you wanna run around and hold it above your head, because it's like you've found gold!”
"It's like you've found gold!”
Those with a preference for smaller teams should consider real estate or employment. Our real estate sources had worked on a mix of “residential and commercial matters, as well as corporate support issues.” Residential landlord/tenant work offered up the most responsibility: “I was running these files on my own, drafting leases and tenancy agreements, and negotiating terms with the other side.” Employment trainees “work closely with the partners and feel like part of the team.” Interviewees experienced a split between contentious and non-contentious work in a “fast-moving seat – there are so many discrete tasks to get done each day!” Tasks here included drafting slides for client presentations and redundancy packs. While you're never too far away from a financial services client at Dechert, this department also draws its work from the worlds of advertising (JCDecaux), publishing (The Folio Society) and insurance (SAGA).
During each seat trainees get a sense of how they're doing via mid and end-of-seat reviews. The former tend to involve a more informal discussion with the seat supervisor, while the latter require trainees to fill out a form beforehand: “It's more focused on looking forward and finding ways to develop, rather than past mistakes. If there's a problem with your work they tend to tell you at the time instead of saving it until the end of the seat.” Trainees then sit down with their supervisor and a panel partner, “who's assigned to you at the beginning of your training contract – they're independent and you can go to them if you ever have any problems.”
With a hefty Stateside presence (13 of the firm's 27 offices are dotted across the US) we wondered how 'American' Dechert's London base feels. “I don't feel much of an American influence here” was the common response we received. Instead, sources broadly agreed that “London operates quite independently – we have our own practice group leaders here, for example.” Even so, “the crucial management decisions are driven by the US, and there are a few initiatives that have 'American' written all over them.” That Yankee stamp was especially felt when it came to pro bono efforts. Trainees regularly surpass the 25-hour requirement set for fee earners, and are expected to attend at least three advice clinics during their training. “It's great for us,” interviewees enthused, “as you get the opportunity to advise people yourself.”
“When you think American, you think long hours and face time.” Yes indeedy – most people do, much to the annoyance of US firms, who persistently put the message out there that the hours are no worse than they are at other City shops. But what do Dechert's trainees think? “All those stereotypes – that's not the case here at all.” But don't go thinking nine till five just yet, as trainees still put in some hard graft. An average working day lasts nine hours, but some seats can come with challenging stretches: “Financial services matters involve parties all over the world, so there are times when you could be working from 9am until, well, whenever really...” The thing to bear in mind is that the hours – especially in those transactional seats – can be inconsistent, as this trainee testified: “I've spent the past month regularly leaving at 10pm, but even within a week it's so changeable.”
Fortunately, Dechert's 'Uncorked Committee' is on hand to help trainees squeeze in some downtime. Beyond popping open a few bottles at regular intervals, the committee members – a mixture of trainees and NQs – organise socials and networking events on the firm's dollar. “The emphasis is on mixing with other young lawyers and people in different industries,” sources informed us; “we organised a Brexit-themed one in May 2016.” On an office-wide level, the Christmas party is a calendar highlight. “Everyone looks forward to it. Last year there was a casino theme and we gambled with fake tokens – whoever got the most won a box of champagne!” Those with sportier ambitions will be pleased to hear that there are thriving netball, football and softball teams to join, but why muck around with balls when there's a chance to don some snazzy yachting gear? Each year Dechert enters the Legal Cup – a yacht-racing tournament between a mix of firms. “We never win,” trainees admitted, “but we don't play to win!” Yeah, right...
Our second-year sources were under no illusions as they steered themselves towards qualification. Like most law firms, there's rarely room for everyone (2015 saw 11 of 13 qualifiers retained, while 2014 saw seven of ten) but felt well prepared for the process: “Every year graduate recruitment has a meeting with us and each department releases how many jobs are available. We know pretty early on, and we all understand that each department has its own way of doing things.” Some might get qualifiers to “write a note about our long-term goals,” while others might require “a piece about an interesting legal development and how we can present it to our clients.” In the end, eight out of 11 second-years joined Dechert's NQ ranks in 2016.
Dechert has just substantially increased its NQ salary to £90,000.
How to get a Dechert training contract
Vacation scheme deadlines (2017): 31 December 2016 (spring); 31 January 2017 (summer)
Apply for training contract via vac scheme
Dechert generally receives around 350 applications for its spring and summer vacation schemes, which are two-week placements each open to ten candidates.
Following an initial application short-listing stage, successful candidates are invited to undertake a video or telephone interview with someone on the grad recruitment team. Once through that stage, candidates are then asked into the office for a face-to-face interview with a member of the grad recruitment team and the grad recruitment partner. At this stage, the firm now operates a 'blind interviewing' system, which means that interviewers have no information on the candidate before they see them, ensuring that everyone is in the same position. Rather than focusing on candidates' CV, there is more of a focus on commercial scenarios and the strategy the candidate employed when applying for the role. Candidates are evaluated on style, presentation and the judgement they demonstrate. Following the interview, candidates are asked to complete a written exercise and given a trainee-led tour around the office.
Vac schemers visit two departments during their placement and can state up to four seat preferences beforehand. Alongside live pieces of work there are skills workshops, and training and practice area sessions. Attendees also participate in a group project over the course of their placement. Various networking lunches, sporting events, barbecues and evening drinks keep things ticking over on the social front.
Applications and assessments
In 2017 Dechert aims to recruit most of its future trainees from its vac schemes. However, it will open up direct applications for training contracts in the spring, if vacancies are still available. The firm usually has ten training contracts on offer in total. So if you want a better chance of nabbing one, get on a vac scheme. The firm tells us that each two-week vac scheme “acts as a two-week training contract interview.”
For those who go for the direct route, candidates are asked for their academic history, work experience and firm-specific questions. When it comes to listing work experience, “we want to see candidates draw upon their experiences and tell us how they've cemented their interest in becoming a commercial solicitor,” we're told. “For example, if you worked at a financial institution, how did that influence your decision to apply here?”
Much like the vac scheme application, after a paper sift, there's a video or telephone interview with grad recruitment. Successful candidates then face the blind interview, but this time in front of an interview panel made up of associates, partners and the graduate recruitment partner. Commercial scenarios are a key focus again. “Here we're looking for candidates to present their answers in a logical, structured way,” says grad recruitment. “They don't necessarily have to get the answer right, in fact there isn't a right answer; it's more about how candidates reason an argument and analyse the scenario. Like a maths exam, usually a lot of the marks you get are for your working out. It's more about how you arrived at your answer, than the answer itself.”
Finally, there's a written test and a trainee-led tour of the office. “Trainees often take the interviewees to have a coffee and share their experiences at the firm,” a source tells us. Candidates are rarely brought back for follow-up interviews, but if successful they are given an opportunity to return to talk through any remaining questions or concerns they might have.
Interview with training principal Jonathan Angell
Student Guide: What would you say were the main highlights or developments from the past 12 months at the firm?
Jonathan Angell: The most obvious development is the big refurbishment of the London office. We've extended our lease, staying where we are near St Paul’s because it's so central, so we decided to refurbish the office. It's now really modern and it looks like we're set here for the next ten years. For example, we have three floors here, so we've built this huge internal staircase to open the whole space up and promote greater interconnectivity between all departments. We always felt like 'one office, one firm', but this really has made a big difference as it promotes more collaboration. It's just one tangible example of the refurb, but the overall effect has fostered a more cohesive culture.
Other than that, we recently recruited a team that we now call business restructuring, reorganisation and insolvency. It sits part way between the litigation, corporate and finance practices. It deals with a lot of contentious insolvency matters as well as working a lot with banks and creditors. Other groups are progressing equally successfully. IP recently had cases in both the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. On the corporate and transactional side of things there’s also been some innovative work. There isn't just a narrow disciplined focus in corporate, but rather a broad range which we hope will make our trainees better corporate lawyers.
More specifically focussing on the trainee experience, we had our first trainee go to the Singapore office in May. We're very excited about what this means now for new secondments and opportunities. Singapore is a very varied seat, so you're not losing out being away for six months – instead you're gaining so much more. Two partners out there head the office and are very involved in international arbitration and financial services. Trainees can expect to do a bit of everything. When trainees come back to London after their six-month stint, they come back into a domestic seat halfway through, but they all pick it up. We like our six four-month seat system – we think it's a distinctive selling point. It ensures that trainees make the most of every day and every opportunity. Sometimes in the traditional four six-month rotation model, trainees think that they have a month or two to settle in. Trainees don't have that luxury here, so that you can make the most of your time from the get go.
SG: What are some of the things that trainees can expect to experience on the training contract?
JA: Because of the six-seat system we want to offer the best experiences to trainees over the two year contract. So what normally happens is that trainees do their required core transactional and contentious seats in their first year. It's likely that by the end of the first year they know where they want to focus the rest of their training contract. The great thing about Dechert is that there is such a range available: anything from huge teams to smaller niche seats as well as secondments. They all give you a different perspective on work and an opportunity for learning. As long as you've done your required stints as set by the SRA, then in the second year you're pretty free to go wherever you want. It's exciting to see how everyone turns out. Some trainees come in on day one and are adamant that they are going to be a transactional lawyer. That's fine, but sometimes they do a contentious rotation, absolutely love it and completely change their minds. This is why we have the six-seat system.
In December 2015 we welcomed a new director of legal learning and development. She is responsible for not only the London office, but for bringing in more innovative ideas for training across the broader platform. We have been taking advantage of the Critical Skills Institute at Dechert already, which helps lawyers at all levels with a variety of skills training. We're looking to develop this to focus further training specifically at trainees across the network. We already supplement their mandatory PSC training with specific, writing, drafting, negotiation and networking skills. We look for trainees to develop to become contributing NQs. Before, we were very dependent on the Critical Skills Institute, which seemed a bit one size fits all. Now this is more tailored to the needs of London trainees, finding what works for them to help them to grow.
SG: What advice do you have for people wanting to do well at interview?
JA: In applications you have to be the best version of yourself, but still you. It's an opportunity to sell yourself to a firm, but also to find out about the firm. Try putting yourself in a law firm's shoes and think why should they recruit you as opposed to someone else. Don't over-rehearse your answers. Also, there is a fine line between confidence in your abilities and arrogance.
160 Queen Victoria Street,
- Partners 40*
- Associates 78*
- Total trainees 20*
- *denotes London figure
- Contact [email protected]
- Method of application Online
- Selection procedure Online application form, video interview, assessment morning/ afternoon, interviews with partners, associates, recruiters and a written test.
- Closing date for 2019 Please see website
- Training contracts pa 10
- Applications pa 500
- % interviewed pa 5-10%
- Required degree grade 2:1 (or capability of attaining a 2:1)
- Training salary (as of September 2016)
- First year: £45,000
- Second year: £50,000
- Reviewed annually
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- % of trainees with a non-law degree pa Varies
- No of seats available abroad pa Varies
- Post qualification salary£90,000
- % of trainees offered a job on qualification (2016) (82%).
- Overseas offices Almaty, Austin, Beijing, Boston, Brussels, Charlotte, Chicago, Dubai, Dublin, Frankfurt, Hartford, Hong Kong, Los Angales, Luxembourg, Moscow, Munich, New York, Orange County, Paris, Philadelphia, Princeton, San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Singapore, Tbilisi, Washington.
Main areas of work