This Californian colossus has A-list credentials bulging out of its briefcase. Now it's offering its mighty blend of deals and cases to a select group of London-based trainees.
From LA to London
If there was ever a legal walk of fame then Gibson Dunn's coral-pink star would shine bright amongst the concrete. It's taken on billion-busting deals for major companies like Kraft and Hewlett-Packard, and helped the likes of Apple and energy giant Chevron navigate their way through some costly wrangles. Born in LA back in 1890, Gibson's now an experienced jetsetter: around 1,200 lawyers power its nine domestic offices and nine overseas bases across Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.
It's been in London since the days of flares and fax machines, and insiders were keen to point out that it's more than just a City satellite. “You sense that they're investing heavily in London. New York is the largest office but they're putting a lot of resources into growing London. The focus is on the transactional group, and that practice has expanded a lot since I've been here,” noted an interviewee. Indeed, over the past couple of years, the firm's boosted its capital markets, private equity and M&A presence by nabbing five partners from Ashurst, two from Herbert Smith Freehills and one from US rival Kirkland & Ellis. That doesn't mean the litigation practice is waning though: “That practice has always been strong in London and continues to propel the office,” trainees told us.
Gibson took on its first ever trainee cohort in 2015. So why did these new recruits choose this tenderfoot training contract, rather than a tried-and-tested option? Of course, prestige is part of it. “I wanted to train at Gibson Dunn because of the big-ticket work it does. Clients come to the firm with their most interesting and complex matters.” And while “the work is amazing and the people are extremely bright,” trainees felt this was the most important factor determining their workplace happiness: “The people here are personable and have a sense of humour – they're the kind you want to be around when you're slogging away in the office at 3am.”
The scale of the intake also appealed: “I didn't feel like being part of a factory,” sniffed one. Four trainees started in September 2015, but six will join in 2016, followed by seven in 2017 and eight in 2018. Small numbers mean that “we get a lot of contact with graduate recruitment and they take on board what we're saying about where we'd like to go in terms of seats and when we'd like to do them.” Some things are for certain, though: trainees will complete a stint in the disputes group and one within a transactional team (stints in corporate, finance and real estate should do the trick). Many trainees tick these boxes during their first year, leaving their second free for a tour in “a more niche area like employment, competition or tax, or an overseas seat in the Dubai office.” There are also corporate client secondment opportunities – one source recently did a stint at a major banking client.
What you talkin bout Willis?
What with the lack of “pigeonholing,” a stint in disputes offers rookies the chance to sample “everything from arbitration through to Commercial Court trials as well as white-collar investigations.” Unsurprisingly, there's a distinct international flavour to matters here. Lawyers here are known for their effectiveness in the financial sector, and have been acting for UBS as various government authorities investigate the alleged rigging of foreign exchange markets by six banks. Other key clients include Chevron, Debenhams, ASDA and Investcorp Bank.
“I was attending the board meetings with the clients, and going to the social events with them after the matter had closed.”
“I spent time in the Commercial Court on cases,” one disputes source reported. “Generally I was the person responsible for handing all the documentary evidence out to the witnesses when they were cross-examined.” Other interviewees had worked on arbitrations involving “high net worth individuals from Moscow,” which required them to take notes at hearings and review drafts of pleadings. In addition, there's quite a lot of research to get stuck into, “which you then feed back to the associate or partner,” but cases involving the big banks also gave newbies a chance to attend client interviews: “We were trying to understand a technical financial issue in order to write a response to the other side, so I had to make sure I wrote really good attendance notes.”
Gibson's corporate department often handles cross-border transactions for private equity funds, plcs, financial institutions and US conglomerates across a range of sectors, including technology, healthcare, energy and real estate. High-profile names on the client roster include Amazon, German airline Lufthansa and Intel; recently, lawyers advised professional services firm Towers Watson on its $18 billion merger with insurance broker Willis. “The deal teams are small here, so once you're put on a matter you're very much a part of that team and work through it.” One source estimated that “the first three months of the seat were taken up by a private equity M&A deal. I came in just as it was kicking off, so I got to draft contracts, disclosure letters and deeds of novation.” Another added: “There can be a lot of due diligence to begin with, but trust grows over time, and you can always catch up with your supervisor to request more drafting or attendance at negotiations.”
The finance team works for a mix of borrowers, lenders, issuers and underwriters on acquisition finance deals, as well as restructurings and refinancings. In particular, the team stands out for its real estate expertise; the group's helped Deutsche Bank acquire several distressed loan portfolios worth over €5 billion, and advised alternative investment management firm Highbridge on the financing of The Atlas Building, which will be the tallest in London's 'Silicon Roundabout' area. “I was able to work on an IPO in conjunction with the corporate department,” one interviewee revealed: “I was attending the board meetings with the clients, and going to the social events with them after the matter had closed.” On top of getting to grips “with all the technical language involved,” trainees also got to “mark up documents from the bidders, and negotiate with their legal counsel – it was obviously quite nerve-racking but really great!”
“You tend to leave your BlackBerry on.”
When asked about the hours, one source declared: “I can't think of what a typical day would look like. It can switch between getting out of the door at 7.30pm and exiting during the early hours of the morning. But the hours aren't horrendous. Yes, they're going to ramp up when there's a hearing or a deadline, but providing you manage your time properly it's absolutely fine.” Another informed us that “my latest night has been 12.30am, which is very good for an American firm!” If it's quiet, “you can go at 6pm, but you tend to leave your BlackBerry on as you're always conscious that something might come in.”
Unpredictable hours can't prevent this firm's London contingent from having a little fun. Trainees were eager to tell us about their attendance at Gibson's New Lawyers' Retreat in Tucson, Arizona, which combines panel events with social activities. “It's great fun – I went on a cattle drive! You get to meet lawyers from across the globe, and the American enthusiasm that we Brits lack is definitely apparent.” In London, other events in the calendar include a summer party on the office's roof terrace and a Christmas bash, plus “quarterly outings: we've played table tennis at Bounce, gone bowling and hosted a themed night in the firm's social area.” Plus, “if it's quiet on a Friday a few of us will get together and go to the pub.”
Gibson's London home is spread “across two connected buildings. One is a former telephone exchange and it's beautiful – really old-school, with marble tables, a spiral staircase, a fireplace in most offices and wood panelling.” Meanwhile, “the other building is new and swanky, with glass walls. We share it with a publishing house – the people who work there are very trendy and it puts us to shame!” The office is also amassing quite the eclectic modern art collection.
The firm's first batch of qualifiers will join the NQ ranks in 2017. “There's no precedent to go by, which is slightly scary but also strangely exciting...”
Gibson Dunn's Ted Olson, the man who helped to spearhead the overturning of California's Proposition 8 – a ballot that made same-sex marriage illegal in the state – was portrayed by Martin Sheen in the hit Broadway play 8.
How to get a Gibson Dunn training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2017): 10 February 2017
Training contract deadline (2019): 31 July 2017
Gibson Dunn's London office welcomed its first batch of trainees in 2015. Graduate recruitment manager Kathryn Edwards says that “to date, we've recruited 100% of our trainees from the vacation scheme – it's a vital part of the recruitment process. That's not to say it always will be, but I always encourage those interested in training with us to get onto the scheme.”
The firm uses the same application form for the vac scheme and training contract. It covers academic and work experience and there's a cover letter section, “which is the key part of the application,” says Kathryn Edwards. “We don’t break it down much for them as we want to assess how they approach the exercise of writing the letter. It's an opportunity for candidates to tell us anything they'd like to about themselves, including noteworthy achievements or interests. From this we can get a real feel for the person, because the relatively free structure of the letter allows an applicant's personality to shine through.”
The firm receives about 500 initial applications and the top 10% are invited in for an hour-long interview with a partner and an associate. During this interview, “generally, half the time is spent exploring the application form and the other half going through a topical news article that we ask candidates to read quite quickly before the interview starts and discuss. The emphasis is very much on how candidates marshal the information in the article, express themselves and formulate their arguments, particularly when challenged. Their level of knowledge of the topic and their personal opinion are irrelevant.”
The vacation scheme has 20 places and runs for three weeks in July. Students who successfully bag a spot on the “jam-packed programme” spend a week and a half with a supervisor in the firm's transactional group and the same amount of time within the disputes group. “We try to ensure they're getting involved in live work and gain a realistic understanding of what it's like to train at GD,” explains Edwards. Assessed exercises include a group presentation which “allows students to showcase their team-working skills. We want to see whether they thrive in a group, how they divide up tasks and support one another.” This year the presentation was “related to Brexit – advising an investment bank and a corporate about the implications of Brexit for them. The actual presentation is scheduled in the final week, which means the students have three weeks to research the scenario and produce a two-page memo before they're up on their feet for a ten-minute presentation.”
There are also written exercises to contend with. One “has a corporate slant, while the other requires the students to consider the elements of a settlement agreement. In each case the students attend an information session to learn about the task set, as well as receiving feedback so they know what they did right and where there might be room for improvement. We think it’s really important for students to learn and develop while here.” Vac schemers also get involved in a mock negotiation, which “isn't formally assessed. We split the group into teams and run three concurrent negotiations – people enjoy being out of their comfort zone and taking on a different persona. We talk to them beforehand about tactics and they put that theory into practice. Students often report that it’s a favourite part of the scheme.”
'Coffee conversations' are also on the itinerary – “these are informal chats over coffee and biscuits with partners and senior associates from each of the firm’s practice areas, with the opportunity to ask questions about life as a trainee and the day-to-day work of each team.”
Kathryn Edwards notes that “one of the highlights” of the vac scheme is a discussion with Lord Falconer QC, who's a partner at the firm. Falconer talks to the group about his career, which included working alongside Tony Blair as Lord Chancellor. Edwards tells us: “He encourages the students to examine what it is they want from a legal career, what their goals and aspirations are, and how they can use their skills for good in the future. The session is extremely inspirational and the students really look forward to it!”
On the social side of things, there's a legal treasure hunt around the City, a curry night in East London, a ping pong championship at Bounce (including medal ceremony!), plenty of impromptu drinks, the JP Morgan Corporate Challenge, a ride on the London Eye complete with Champagne and canapés, plus a farewell summer party on the firm’s roof terrace overlooking the Thames.
How much work experience do successful candidates need? “There's no set amount. We review each application individually and expect to see different paths. I might want a little more legal work experience from someone who's a non-law student in order to evidence their commitment to a legal career, and to show they've investigated whether commercial law is for them. It doesn't have to be weeks of vac schemes but valuable experiences like attending court or working in a commercial institution in the City or in the service industry. We also understand that it is easier for some students to get relevant and interesting work experience than others. The key thing is that, whatever level of experience a candidate has, he or she has thought a little outside the parameters of their particular role, for example, considering the commercial aspects of the organisation for which they have worked. We like curious individuals!”
Any final tips for candidates? Edwards says: “Be yourself! When reviewing application after application we find that the way to stand out is to reflect your genuine personality in the cover letter. Don’t just repeat things at length which you’ve read on our website or tell us what you think we want to hear.”
US firms in London
Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP
2-4 Temple Avenue,
- Partners 25 (London), 367 (worldwide)
- Associates 63 (London), 913 (worldwide)
- Total fee earners 114
- Trainees 10
- Contact Kathryn Edwards, London graduate recruitment and development manager
- Method of Application Online
- Selection Procedure Interviews
- Closing date for 2019 31 July 2017
- Training contracts pa 8
- Applications pa 450
- % Interviewed 10%
- Required degree grade 2:1
- Training salary (2016)
- First year: £45,000
- Second year: £50,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- % of trainees with a non-law degree 50%
- Number of seats abroad available pa Currently 1
- Post-qualification salary £112,500
- Offices London, Beijing, Brussels, Century City, Dallas, Denver, Dubai, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Munich, New York, Orange County, Palo Alto, Paris, San Francisco, São Paulo, Singapore, Washington DC
Main areas of work
Trainees share a room with a partner or senior associate, and work with them on their matters, whilst also having the opportunity to work with the other lawyers in the firm. Trainees are encouraged to work on the London office’s growing number of local and international pro bono activities. Gibson Dunn is proud to have a strong, sustained commitment to pro bono work, and our trainees are encouraged to participate in this tradition.