How best to connect East and West? The answer’s currently being formulated in the London base of KWM – the world’s first Anglo-Asia-Pacific law firm.
All hail the King
London-headquartered SJ Berwin surprised the market back in 2013 when it opted to merge with Asia-Pacific heavyweight King & Wood Mallesons. The City firm – known for its private equity prowess – had been inching towards a possible US tie-up, but KWM came along with an attractive offer and turned its gaze eastwards instead. Three years on and post-merger KWM is working away to fulfil its raison d'être: to seamlessly connect jurisdictions: “Our policy encourages us to generate 80% of work within our European and Middle Eastern network, and 20% with our offices in the Asia-Pacific,” one trainee told us. “The idea is to focus on growing local clients and then cross-sell them services available in our Chinese and Australian offices. Work between London and those offices has increased since I started and I reckon that trend will continue.”
Since the merger, KWM London’s made a number of lateral hires from the likes of Eversheds, Linklaters and Fried Frank – bolstering areas such as real estate, projects and corporate. Despite the influx, it hasn’t all been plain sailing during the firm’s integration period. Several partner departures hit the private equity team in 2014, while a performance-related restructuring in 2015 saw London's partnership reduced by 10%. In addition, a strategic review of the firm's European and Middle Eastern arm is set to reduce the partnership in those jurisdictions by 15% by the end of 2016; so far in London, eight partners from areas including construction, employment, litigation and corporate have already departed for the likes of Ashurst and Baker Botts. Trainees expected the smaller, less central departments – like IP – to be hit most by this targeted downsizing.
“Management’s making the right noises about where we want to be.”
With all this toing and froing, trainees told us the atmosphere “isn't that great at the moment.” However, our interviewees were confident that things would soon settle down: “We're currently in the midst of the storm, but management's making the right noises about where we want to be. The recent restructuring aligns us with our Australian and Chinese offices more closely, so we’re currently looking to consolidate big departments like funds, real estate, finance and corporate.” Sources also hinted that legacy SJB’s private equity group will no longer be as prominent as it once was, thanks to the more balanced focus on those departments mentioned above.
At this stage in the proceedings, Chambers UK rates KWM’s litigation and mid-market M&A practices as its standout players in the capital, but on a nationwide basis the firm’s investment funds and private equity expertise is still highly acclaimed. Oodles of other areas receive nods too, from real estate to competition to banking & finance.
FIRE in the belly
Trainees must complete two corporate seats and a contentious one. There are three subgroups to choose from within corporate, but a stint within international funds will also satisfy the corporate requirement. A seat in litigation; property litigation; employment; or EU, competition & regulatory ticks off that contentious condition. First-seaters are “likely to end up in the larger teams like finance, real estate or international funds.” Rookies hankering for a slice of corporate pie “nearly always get their first choice,” but we're told there is, however, immense competition for smaller seats like IP. “You cannot come here and focus all of your attention on an area like that,” one source stressed. "It's not really a speciality of the firm.”
Sydney and Hong Kong were recently added to KWM's existing overseas stints in Paris, Madrid, Frankfurt, Luxembourg and Dubai. However, trainees felt that international sojourns were still lacking. “There are less options than when I started,” one second-year grumbled. “Only four out of 60 of us are abroad at any one time.” Many interviewees were keen to see the firm “leverage its international network,” as “more secondments abroad would definitely be a good thing.” Client secondments, meanwhile, were described as “few and far between.”
The international funds department is split into two areas: fund structuring and secondaries work. “On the fund structuring side,” one savvy trainee explained, “we’ll be helping a fund create its prospectus, raise money and admit different investors into it.” Secondaries work, meanwhile, involves the sale and transfer of funds. The team handles a mix of private, hedge, listed, real estate, infrastructure and debt funds, and you'll find names like Patron Capital, PAI Partners and Capital Dynamics gracing the client books. Lawyers here recently got to work assisting South Suez Capital during a $500 million fund-raising, the results of which were subsequently invested in numerous Africa-focused funds.
"There's a lot of trust here, which can be quite daunting but I loved it.”
“When you start out it takes a while to get to grips with the complex concepts,” one funds trainee told us, “so your responsibility starts low but the team is known for allowing good client contact and eventually I was calling up the fund managers directly.” Another found it “such a fast-paced seat with lots going on – you have to hit the ground running!” Our sources had mostly worked on fund structuring matters, with one attending “loads of meetings with investors and fund managers to discuss the structuring.” Others had spent a fair amount of time picking the tax department’s brains in order to help construct tax-efficient structures. All in all, it’s best to keep your post-its to hand in this seat, as trainees have to deftly keep track of all the developments unfolding between investors, fund managers and foreign counsel. But interviewees were “more than just glorified PAs”; they were also relied upon to draft some chunky documents like the deeds of adherence and limited liability partnership agreements.
The corporate department is split into the following subgroups: M&A and equity capital markets; corporate real estate and finance funds & indirect real estate (FIRE); and private equity transcations. The latter recently acted for asset managers Intermediate Capital as it sold its £550 million interest in meat substitute maestro Quorn Foods to Philippines-based Monde Nissin. On the real estate side, the team acted for joint venture outfit The Stage Shoreditch as it attracted an investment from Chinese real estate developer Vanke for its mixed-use development known, funnily enough, as ‘The Stage’. One source, who'd run the conditions precedent checklist and drafted land registry forms, told us: “They're really happy to let you run with what you feel you're capable of doing. There's a lot of trust here, which can be quite daunting but I loved it.” Other interviewees found themselves “managing data rooms and drafting ancillary documents on the big matters," but on smaller deals were able to "speak more frequently with the clients, attend meetings and draft shareholder agreements.”
Document-bags at dawn
Real estate work is divided between acquisitions and disposals of large portfolios, and ongoing leaseholder work for large institutional investors. Clients here include investment and asset mangers like Invesco Real Estate and Schroders, as well as familiar high-street names like Marks & Spencer. Disposals can call for an all-hands-on-deck approach. “The whole real estate team recently had some input on a huge disposal of industrial sheds – it was very glamorous!” one trainee ribbed. Elsewhere, trainees had to keep their best ‘You’re Fired!’ impressions at bay when the team acted for London Executive Offices as it acquired Lord Sugar's privately owned real estate vehicle The Sugar Building, which is perched right next to St Paul’s. These acquisition deals saw trainees taking on “more organisational tasks like schedules of deeds and documents,” but those who latched onto landlord and tenant matters saw responsibility levels rise: “Running them by yourself is really satisfying, as they require a range of skills. You become the first point of call for clients and tenants, and also draft things like leases and rent deposit deeds.”
The litigation group handles commercial, fraud and banking disputes, as well as arbitrations. The diverse client list includes bookies Bet365, the Bank of New York and the republics of Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine. Most trainees tend to work on several matters at once rather than just one big-ticket case. However, one case has been taking up quite a bit of the group’s time of late: it’s been representing market research company Ipsos during a £230 million dispute with tech development outfit Aegis Group. The wrangle concerns allegations of fraudulent misrepresentation and breach of contract arising from Ipsos’ purchase of market research business Synovate from Aegis. “It's a big and intense case and we're throwing everything at it,” sources exclaimed. One added: “Litigation's known for being a seat where you get less responsibility, and yes, anyone can pounce on the wrong terminology, but I've still been able to draft letters to the other side. I've also attended a few client meetings, but that isn’t a typical occurrence for trainees.” However, legal research and memo-writing are tasks that all trainees here can count on.
The EU, competition and regulatory group handles merger control matters, CMA investigations and cartel issues. Things can move pretty fast here, as this trainee enthusiastically recalled: “Two days into our first week one of the trainees went along to a dawn raid!” KWM’s role, as adviser to the company being raided, was to “ensure that our client knew what was going on and that the regulator stuck within the bounds of the search order.” Those left behind in the office predominantly undertake research tasks. In the past we’ve heard that the seat’s quite admin-heavy, but this time around we were told that “they’ve listened to feedback and now ensure trainees work on a few different tasks.” A raft of household names like the BBC, LEGO and Universal Music are present here, and the team recently advised Expedia after several EU regulators challenged the travel company’s online booking arrangements with a number of hotels.
“The culture’s still in a bit of a flux.”
As KWM realigns its focus to boost cohesion, the shift is having an effect on more than just the practice areas. “The combination is so young; I’ve only ever known it in transition and the culture’s still in a bit of a flux,” one source told us, mirroring the sentiment of several others. Despite the ongoing changes, some interviewees could still detect shades of legacy SJB: “Within teams people have that entrepreneurial spirit and ‘get up and go’ character that was associated with SJB. We still attract big personalities and people are encouraged to speak out. Everyone tends to be quite jovial with one another.”
Other sources tended to emphasise differences between departments over an office-wide culture. “Finance and litigation are known for being more aggressive, while funds and real estate are really friendly and considered to be great for trainees.” The fact that these last two tend to be more social no doubt helped to generate this encouraging assessment. “Real estate makes time for wine every month, and they feel very strongly about recognising lives outside of work.” Funds, meanwhile, apparently does what it can to alleviate the stress of long working hours. “We celebrated Christmas by hosting a different Advent event in each office; every day come 5pm we had a party!” On an all-seasonal basis, there are “a lot of impromptu drinks on Fridays” at local bars The Banker and The Oyster Shed, plus quarterly trainee drinks on the firm’s plush roof terrace, which can be found close to Southwark Bridge at 10 Queen Street Place.
Funds is typically known for having some of the most punishing hours with interviewees here “routinely working past midnight” (hence the need for those stress-busting shindigs). In most other seats trainees exited at 7pm on “a good day: generally you’re out by 8pm, but when it’s bad you could be leaving sometime between 10pm and midnight.” Hours in corporate and finance can be particularly spiky, while seats in litigation and real estate come with more consistent schedules.
Retention rates at KWM haven’t been outstanding in recent years and the restructuring process has thrown qualification into a bit of disarray. “The party line is that departments will be hiring,” which understandably came as a relief to our sources, although many felt that the NQ spots would be clustered in those larger core groups like corporate, finance and real estate. In the end, the firm retained 23 of 34 second-years.
Integrating KWM’s far-flung arms was always going to be a challenge, but an interesting one at that. As it continues to iron out its post-merger wrinkles, it makes an attractive proposition to those interested in its core practices and geographical reach.
How to get a KWM training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: 31 January 2017
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2017
When we asked our graduate recruitment sources at King & Wood Mallesons what the firm is looking for in future trainees, this is what we heard: “We want commercially minded candidates who are looking to get real responsibility right from the start of their career here.” A trainee added: “You need to be proactive and ambitious, but not to the extent that you'll trample on people to get to where you want to be.”
The firm offers 30 training contracts a year, and is on the lookout for a minimum 2:1 degree. Look out for KWM at law fairs up and down the country – representatives typically attend around 20 (in addition to giving presentations at ten universities each autumn). The firm also holds a few open days each year for law and non-law students at its Queen Street Place headquarters in London.
The vacation scheme
KWM runs three vacation schemes a year: a two-week long placement at Easter and two two-week placements in the summer. Each scheme takes 20 students who spend their time in two different departments during the scheme. The pay is £310 per week, and it's worth noting that around 80% of each trainee intake is generally made up of ex-vac schemers.
Vac scheme hopefuls apply through an online form that covers a candidate's academic history and work experience, and asks a few questions on why they want a career in the law and what skills they can bring to the firm. The application also tests commercial awareness by asking about a recent news story.
“The form needs to be free from errors and well written,” says a source in graduate recruitment, adding: “We like to see that candidates have held a position of responsibility or a leadership role, or that they've been part of a team that has functioned well.” It's also important to make your reasons for applying to the firm clear. Approximately 1,000 people apply for the vacation scheme each year, and around 8% are invited to an interview with a member of the graduate recruitment team and a managing associate. From here, the firm chooses who gets a place.
During the vac scheme attendees are mentored by three supervisors: a partner, an associate and a trainee. Typical tasks include basic drafting and research, and participants often have the chance to observe client meetings and even go to court. “We offer vac schemers real work in a real office, so be professional,” a graduate recruitment source advises. “Show us who you are – the different departments will be looking to see if you're someone who will work well within the team.” Vac schemers also attend several 'know-how' training sessions, and in their final week they have a training contract interview.
The firm arranges a number of merry social jamborees over the course of the vac scheme. In recent years these have included sushi making, cocktail making, bowling and ping pong.
The training contract application
On top of those who apply for the vacation scheme, the firm receives another 1,000 or so direct applications for its training contract. The application form is exactly the same as that for the vac scheme, and between 50 and 70 candidates are asked to a first interview, which takes place with a member of the grad recruitment team and a managing associate. Applicants are also given a tour of the building by a trainee.
Those invited back for a second interview are given a case study and asked to give a ten-minute presentation on it to two partners. Interviewees face questions on their presentation, as well as some competency-based inquiries meant to test their commercial and analytical skills.
KWM in Asia-Pacific
First law firms talked about their lawyers' IQs, then their EQs (emotional intelligence) and now KWM's website is touting its lawyers AQs (that's Asia intelligence to us non-KWMites). While the firm's 'AQ' certainly benefits from having lawyers on the ground in Asia, the drive for expertise in this area relies on collaboration between the firm's Europe/Middle Eastern and Asian arms and strengthening the know-how and insights of its lawyers in Europe. Our London trainee sources told us they're already becoming increasingly exposed to their colleagues in Asia: “Since the combination there has been a growing focus on working with Asia-Pacific clients and sharing work with our Chinese and Australian offices and we'll continue to focus on this going forward,” one trainee reckoned. So for all you aspiring KWMites, here's a quick run down of what the firm's Asia-Pacific arm has to offer.
Ten offices and over 1,000 lawyers make up KWM's mainland China presence and the firm also has an office in Hong Kong. Between them they haul in an impressive 41 Chambers Asia-Pacific rankings, 16 of which are top-tier. Transactional practices feature heavily with banking and finance, capital markets, corporate/M&A and tax all getting a nod but you can check out the full run-down here. True to the firm's mission statement to “connect the world to Asia and Asia to the world” there's plenty of cross-border work on the go in China and Hong Kong: a team of corporate lawyers from Beijing, Hong Kong, London and Luxembourg recently advised Beijing-based insurance company China Life on its £150 million acquisition of a 40% stake in City of London skyscraper 99 Bishopsgate. Meanwhile, another team of Hong Kong and London deal-doers advised HK CTS Metropark Hotels on its acquisition of Kew Green Hotels (which runs the historic, seafront Grand Hotel in Brighton) from Goldman Sachs and private equity firm TPG.
Singapore is KWM's most recent addition to the region. It opened in May 2015 with a focus on international funds, dispute resolution, international arbitration, and projects and energy; recently the team acted for Shell Eastern Petroleum on its joint bid with Keppel Offshore & Marine subsidiary Keppel Investments for a liquefied natural gas bunkering license, which allows the joint venture to store and supply fuel to ships in Singapore. Most matters here involve advising Chinese clients on projects in Singapore and Singapore clients on projects in China.
Like KWM's Singapore base, its Tokyo office predominantly acts as a link for Chinese inbound and outbound investment. You'll find it advising Japanese clients on their investments and IP interests in China, and Chinese clients on their Japanese investments.
Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney make up KWM's Australia presence. The quintet – made up of over 1,100 lawyers – earns itself 25 Chambers Asia-Pacific rankings, over half are top tier. Banking and finance, capital markets and corporate M&A are the big hitters in Oz, though the likes of energy, financial services and investment funds among several others also nab spots in Chambers' top tier. Competition for domestic work among Australian law firms is pretty tough at the moment, so KWM's currently one of several firms increasingly looking for cross-border work throughout Asia, particularly targeting real estate and urban infrastructure in Asia and Australia.
The KWM-SJ Berwin merger
On 1st November 2013, the legal industry witnessed a merger first: London private equity pro SJ Berwin joined forces with Hong Kong-headquartered King & Wood Mallesons. The result? The first Anglo-Asian firm, complete with 2,700 lawyers and 31 offices spanning Asia, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and North America. A move East was not always on the cards for SJ Berwin: its attention was once firmly fixed on the US. Previous managing partner Rob Day explored merger options with both Orrick and Proskauer Rose in 2010, before briefly courting Mayer Brown in 2012. Then KWM's silhouette rose on the horizon. “It was a completely unique proposition,” graduate recruitment partner Nicola Bridge told us in 2014. “The growth potential in the Asian market is incredible.”
The advantages to the deal seemed clear; it was hoped the union would give SJ Berwin a more robust funds offering in Asia, and boost its broader finance and litigation practices. The new firm's Swiss Verein structure also proved appealing, as each legacy firm could maintain its own profit pool while operating under the same branding and strategy.
SJ Berwin did have to sacrifice its name and branding though and commentators in the legal press began to posit SJ Berwin was a junior player in the global operation. Some suggested that the loss would have little effect, as several key client relationships were tied to prominent corporate partners – like Steve Davis, Richard Lever, Tim Wright and Ed Harris – rather than just the firm's name.
However, all of those partners mentioned above subsequently moved to US firms or other large international outfits in London. The office also lost its litigation head, as well partners in its regulatory and IP teams. In addition, a July 2015 review of the firm's UK partnership saw 15 individuals given their marching orders, while a further review of the firm's European partnership in 2016 culled 24 of the firm's UK, Europe and Middle Eastern partnership. A number of partners also headed for the door of their own volition in 2016. Among the deserters were a six-partner private equity team in Paris and Europe managing partner William Boss who resigned in January – more than a year before his term was set to end.
In early 2016 global managing partner Stuart Fuller told the legal press the firm's focus is now on collaboration between offices. KWM's also currently implementing a five-year plan called '2020', which aims to strengthen the European arm of the business, but so far details have remained under wraps.
Some effective planning wouldn't go amiss, as KWM now has some serious competition at its heels: in 2015, the ever-ballooning Dentons merged with China's biggest legal shop, Dacheng, to create the world's largest law firm, with over 6,500 lawyers. Other firms, like Mayer Brown and Baker & McKenzie, haven't opted for the merger route, but have entered into joint ventures and associations with Chinese firms instead.
King & Wood Mallesons
10 Queen Street Place,
- Partners 500
- Assistant solicitors 2,200
- Total trainees 60
- Contact Graduate recruitment team
- Method of application Online application form
- Selection procedure Two interviews, case study and critical reasoning test
- Closing date for 2019/20 training contracts 31 July 2017
- Closing date for 2017 Easter and summer vacation schemes 31 January 2017
- Training contracts pa 30
- Applications pa 2,000
- % interviewed pa 10%
- Required degree grade 2:1
- Training salary
- First year: £40,000
- Second year: £44,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- % of trainees with a non-law degree pa 50%
- Post-qualification salary £70,000
- Overseas offices Over 30 offices across Asia, Australia, Europe and the Middle East
Main areas of work
How to apply