American HQ, English culture and a global network? What else lies behind the Gates?
To understand K&L Gates you must first take a historical tour through its patchwork of mergers. Let's start by returning to 2005, when jeans became leggings and it was still acceptable to like Coldplay. Elsewhere, the partners of well-established City firm Nicholson Graham & Jones decided to join forces with their American cousins, Pittsburgh-headquartered Kirkpatrick & Lockhart. Did they know they were on the path to creating a global behemoth? 12 years and five mergers later, K&L Gates is one of the world's largest firms, with 46 offices across five continents.
The London office is no stranger to expansion itself – an aviation finance team flew in from legacy Kaye Scholer at the start of 2017, bringing in “lots of interesting work,” according to trainees, who were “excited to see the team bed-in; the firm kept us in the loop about it and the additions reflect K&L's ambition in London.” The firm also beefed up its finance offering by luring over two partners from US rivals Shearman & Sterling and Mayer Brown in 2016. Areas of expertise recognised in Chambers UK include insurance, capital markets, real estate and litigation.
Most trainees we spoke to “really wanted international work but in a friendlier environment. K&L's intake is quite small so didn't feel so overwhelming.” London administrative partner Tony Griffiths tells us that the cohort's size won't change any time soon: "We wouldn't want to dilute trainees' current experience by ramping up numbers." Like many big US firms in London, small trainee numbers are inversely proportional to hefty pay packets. NQ salaries recently jumped to £71,000, but a few months later K&L also upped its hours target to 2,088 a year. Griffiths explains: "The new target is universal across the firm, but we recognise market nuances so we still base associate compensation and bonuses in London on a 1,600 hours threshold." Our interviewees were quite relaxed about the change, pointing out that “as trainees we're not judged by any hours target.”
Newbies don't have a say in where they sit first to ensure second-years get their top choices. From then on, trainees have a catch-up with HR before the next rotation to discuss their preferences – the vast majority we spoke to had “had a good run, getting everything asked for,” andidentified corporate and finance as the most popular seats. Overseas secondments are not offered – “a common complaint” among trainees, but “given the small intake we kind of understand why they're not available.” NQ vacancies are released in May during the final seat: you apply with a CV and a cover letter, and after that there's an interview. Almost all our sources wished to stay on at K&L Gates; in 2017, the firm kept on five of eight qualifiers.
Trainees in finance saw “a fair mix of banking work, debt capital markets matters and now aviation finance deals as well.” Clients include Sri Lankan Airlines, specialist banking group Investec and debt management maestros Mount Street. The department has also opened its floodgates to the booming Islamic finance market – the team recently advised Citibank on the $2.5 billion mixed financing of a leisure and hospitality resort in Dubai. “The responsibility racks up significantly over the first month,” sources recalled, “and you end up getting a lot of client contact and experience dealing with issues in different jurisdictions.”
A cross-border scope is a given in K&L's commercial litigation team too: one trainee “got to work with lawyers in Chicago, Pittsburgh and Warsaw as well as every member of the team in London.” The “research-heavy” nature of the seat means “it's for people who actually like 'law' law – you get to immerse yourself in a broad range of legal areas and topics.” Pharmaceutical, construction and energy wrangles are among the specialities here. You may even find yourself called on by a whole country if you dabble in the firm's arbitration practice: the governments of Spain and France called upon the group to help resolve a $1 billion dispute over a major oil spill in 2002. The work on this front “was really great: from the get-go I was taken to meetings with the client and was invited back after the seat ended to watch the hearing.”
“We're given the opportunity to test our limits.”
There's a mix of M&A and capital markets work for trainees to tackle over in corporate. The department recently represented the shareholders of Cypriot pharmaceutical company Remedica during its €335 million sale to a South African buyer. Closer to home, K&L counselled a subsidiary of global investment company Aser Group as it snapped up a 50% stake in Leeds United FC. Newcomers are “really expected to get stuck in from the word go. You're not just photocopying, you're treated as a real lawyer.” On top of the standard due diligence and review tasks, sources relayed that “we're given the opportunity to test our limits by drafting ancillaries, marking up sale and purchase agreements and negotiating with the other side.”
K&L's real estate department is mostly known for its mid-market work for investors – like Aberdeen Asset Management – and on behalf of public sector clients like Portsmouth City Council and Barking and Dagenham Borough Council. The group advised the latter on a £150 million loan facility to finance an urban renewal scheme; at the other end of the spectrum the team have been advising investor TIAA Henderson Real Estate on the £1 billion development of a shiny new City skyscraper, 40 Leadenhall Street. Sources found this to be “a good seat for honing your organisational skills as you're managing ten smaller things at once instead of assisting with two big things.” Interviewees often handled “standard licence agreements and rent reviews, which you can run yourself with supervision.”
Madison 'av a few
K&L's own London real estate – at One New Change – is “stunning. I've seen a lot of law firm offices, and this is by far the most impressive,” boasted one trainee. Sunny days are particularly special as attorneys can lunch on the roof terrace with a view of St Paul's, and there's evena VIP entrance to the building's cocktail bar and restaurant, Madison: “It's all very civilised!” The firm itself is “good at organising quarterly department drinks, and you get invited to all of them. There's also a lot going on at Christmas.” Particularly thirsty trainees “often get after-work beers; we try and organise stuff semi-regularly and socialise with junior associates as well.”
“I've seen a lot of law firm offices, and this is by far the most impressive.”
Work doesn't get in the way of frivolities too often, as an average day runs from 9am to 7.30pm. “You're sometimes expected to work into the night, but rarely past 11pm.” Litigation tends to have the most regular hours, while finance has the least: “Everything comes in waves: sometimes you're out by six consistently, and at others you're lucky to get out before ten.” Trainees were happy with the lack of face-time required though. “Nobody expects you to stay for the sake of it: if it's quiet you leave when you get the chance.” Overall, sources felt that “there's a great team work ethic, and when it's busy everyone shares the various responsibilities.”
Acknowledging that “big American firms can be seen as going out for the blood of trainees,” K&L's cohort were relieved to discover that “this firm is simply not like that; the partners recognise that everyone has personal lives and they're all really friendly.” Most saw the London office as more English than American culture-wise, and put this down to “the endurance of the Nicholson Graham & Jones legacy” personified by the partners who've stuck around since becoming part of the K&L family.
K&L Gates' pro bono work for Battersea Legal Advice Centre is a “really good way for trainees to practise client care early.”
How to get a K&L Gates training contract
Training contract deadline (2020): 31 July 2018 (opens 1 November 2017)
The vac scheme route
K&L offers a two-week vac scheme in July, during which applicants are able to sample a couple of departments and attend some outings into the City. “I found everyone very friendly during my vac scheme, and I got to do some proper trainee work like bundling and helping draft an article for a newsletter,” said one source who'd taken part.
Applications are made online followed by an online verbal reasoning test. For those successful in passing, they will be invited in for an interview with HR. After their fortnight at the firm, vac schemers are automatically invited to attend a training contract assessment day and progress their application from there.
“Normally people apply for a summer vacation scheme to come and have a look at the firm first, and for us to see them,” says the firm's graduate recruitment team. “But that's not the only route; it just gives us longer to get to know them.”
Direct training contract applications
Direct training contract applicants are tasked with a short online assessment which tests verbal reasoning. Those with high enough scores are asked to attend an assessment day.
The day involves a group exercise followed by an informal presentation in which “all have the opportunity to speak,” the graduate recruitment team tells us. We say take the hint: get talking. A written test and reasoning tests are part of the day.
We also got some insight into what kind of competencies assessors are on the lookout for. “We'll be gauging whether people can write well, think clearly and draw logical conclusions under time pressure. We're looking for team players, not prima donnas or dominators. We want to understand people's skills, and we want them to be able to work collaboratively.”
The final stage of the training contract application involves an interview with two partners, followed by an individual exercise with HR. After that, HR “gathers together all the information it has on each candidate,” and it's decision time.
The firm tries to avoid a homogeneous trainee intake. Partner Tony Griffiths explains: “That's the beauty of our process – we get applications from all kinds of universities and backgrounds, and we look at them all. What stands out for us are candidates with the drive and initiative to think something through and then really go for it – even if they're not successful in the end. We don't choose candidates who like to have things passively fed to them.”
“We want our trainees to have a fairly entrepreneurial view of things, to like and enjoy new challenges. An individual who isn't phased by that does quite well,” Griffiths adds. “Clients expect you to come up with fairly novel solutions to their problems, and that requires an imagination. You can't get such solutions from textbooks.”
Interview with Europe and Middle East managing partner Tony Griffiths
Chambers Student: What have been the highlights of the last year at the firm?
Tony Griffiths: Last year was a particularly good one, though I'm not allowed to disclose the big highlights as they're confidential. The record year for firm revenue speaks for itself.
CS: The firm's global management changed at the end of last year – how do you think that will impact things going forward?
TG: Peter Kalis was the chairman and global managing partner for two decades; now that role is split between Jim Segerdahl and Mike Caccese. We've streamlined our management group, and as part of that my role was expanded beyond London to looking after Europe and the Middle East. That focus should mean we can drive our business in a more seamless way. We've been increasingly able to offer a synchronised client service across our global platform, and I think the corporate governance changes will help us move in that direction.
CS: How has Brexit affected the firm, and how do you think it will in future?
TG: As I keep saying to my European colleagues – to quote Theresa May – the UK is leaving the EU, not Europe! We're developing our focus in Europe and the Middle East; we're not ignoring Brexit, but focusing on client demand for synchronised advice across the region regardless of geopolitical events. From what I've seen, I believe that demand for synchronised work will continue to grow even post-Brexit.
CS: K&L's trainee intake is smaller than many other firms of its size – do you see it growing in future?
TG: We try to keep the intake at a number that makes the trainee experience as valuable as possible, and have done that by keeping our numbers consistent for the past four or five years. Feedback from trainees is positive, and we wouldn't want to dilute their experience by increasing numbers. Yes, we do have to align our intake with business demand, but it's been fairly consistent over the years and I don't see the need to change that from a business or trainee point of view.
CS: What motivated the increase in the London associate billable target to 2,088 hours, and what's the reaction been like?
TG: The new target is universal across the firm. We don't run a Swiss Verein structure, and so it makes sense to keep it standardised. We recognise market nuances so we still base associate compensation and bonuses in London on a 1,600 hours threshold. It took some time to explain that to associates, and their first reaction centred on how the change would affect compensation, but they understood that things would stay fairly consistent within each jurisdiction.
CS: What makes K&L Gates unique among multinational firms?
TG: The synchronised nature of our business. Management has been driving that synchronisation harder than ever before. Clients tell us that they like our ability to cover all the nuances of their business, and that approach is built on the absence of divisions and demarcations between offices and practice areas. Our structure enables us to come up with synchronised and holistic solutions to client problems.
CS: What sort of person thrives at the firm?
TG: Above all, people with imagination. Our approach is different to other firms because we don't have siloed departments, and that can represent a challenge to associates if they're used to that sort of structure. At K&L Gates we embrace the idea of working with colleagues across different disciplines to produce a solution to a problem, and we encourage that to be a proactive process. Doing so takes a degree of imagination and open-mindedness. Not only does it take imagination, but flexibility and an entrepreneurial attitude to meeting clients' requirements. That's what we're looking for.
CS: Do you have any advice for our readers who are about to enter the legal profession?
TG: Law firms' clients are evolving, and their requirements are evolving in a way the industry finds challenging. Clients are looking for holistic solutions to their problems, and that is driving (and will continue to drive) consolidation and change in the legal market. From a reader's perspective, that should be an exciting prospect, as it presents the opportunity to be part of a profession that's evolving to meet client demand like never before.
One New Change,
- Partners 55
- Associates 75
- Total trainees 17
- UK offices London
- Overseas offices Austin, Beijing, Berlin, Boston, Brisbane, Brussels, Charleston, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Doha, Dubai, Fort Worth, Frankfurt, Harrisburg, Hong Kong, Houston, Los Angeles, Melbourne, Miami, Milan, Munich, Newark, New York, Orange County, Palo Alto, Paris, Perth, Pittsburgh, Portland, Raleigh, Research Triangle Park, San Francisco, Sao Paulo, Seattle, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore, Sydney, Taipei, Tokyo, Warsaw, Washington and Wilmington.
- Contact Hayley Atherton (recruiting manager)
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: TBD
- Applications pa: 1,000
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 predicted or equivalent (or the relevant academic equivalent)
- Minimum UCAS points: 320
- Vacation scheme places pa: 12
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 November 2017
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: 31 July 2018
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 November 2017
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 31 January 2018
- Salary and benefits
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenence grant pa: Yes - £5,000 for GDL maintenance grant and £7,000 maintenance LPC grant
Main areas of work
The firm ensures each trainee is given exceptional opportunities to learn, experience and develop so that they can achieve their maximum potential. Trainees spend six month seats in four of the areas mentioned above. Each trainee sits with a supervisor and is allocated an individual mentor to ensure all round supervision and training. The firm has a thorough induction scheme and career development programme. High importance is placed on the acquisition of business and professional skills, with considerable emphasis on client contact and early responsibility. The training programme consists of weekly legal education seminars, workshops and a full programme of skills electives. Pro bono and corporate social responsibility activities are also encouraged.