Ambitious types with a penchant for private equity would be well advised to knock on Chicago-born Kirkland & Ellis’ door – and not just for the killer qualifying compensation.
Nickle in the pickle
From its swish digs in the Gherkin, K&E's London outfit revolves around all things private equity and finance. “It's all encompassing,” one trainee stressed, highlighting the extent to which private equity clients permeate the departments. Providing this type of client with a range of services – from corporate to tax to finance – has long been this office's raison d'être. Its sponsor-side finance practice has consistently earned a top nod from Chambers UK, while its investment funds and private equity buyouts work is also highly regarded.
“We are focused on continuing to strengthen our core practice areas of corporate – in particular our private equity practice – and finance," says training principal Rajinder Bassi. "We want to further deepen and broaden our bench in those teams so we have been active in hiring key laterals over the last twelve months.” The past couple of years have certainly been interesting: when it comes to arrivals and departures, K&E's been busier than most airports. It's lost a mix of banking, capital markets, funds and corporate partners to rival US and magic circle firms. In early 2016, a six-strong team of partners jumped ship to set up Sidley Austin's private equity practice; a capital markets partner announced he was hopping over to Freshfields a few days later.
But as Bassi highlights, K&E has been giving as good as it gets: it's poached Weil's head of tax and its banking chief; Linklaters' competition head and five further corporate partners; and a debt finance partner from Freshfields. While the full blow of those partner exits may yet be felt, for now the office appears to be faring well. Out of K&E's five non-US offices, London reportedly generated the largest slice of revenue in 2015 – around $180 million out of almost $200 million. Headcount-wise, the office has doubled in size over the last five years, and it doesn't look set to stop growing: we heard whispers that the firm's on the hunt for an M&A maestro to help it delve deeper into the European private equity market.
Seats in corporate and debt finance are compulsory, as well as a turn through either restructuring or litigation and arbitration. If trainees really don't want a contentious fix they can complete an external litigation course instead. “Allocation's very straightforward,” we hear. “There's no real bureaucracy – you just state your preferences to HR at the mid-seat review and they do their best to accommodate you. Everything balances out nicely because there aren't many trainees.” There’s also a corporate seat available in New York and either a debt finance or investment funds one in Hong Kong.
Shoes you lose
You'll find more private equity clients than you can shake a wodge of bonds at in the debt finance team: key client Bain Capital is on the books, as are big names like Apollo Global Management and KKR. The team is especially known for its sponsor-side work on leveraged buyouts, and has proven itself to be a dab hand when it comes to refinancings, distressed portfolio acquisitions and 'rescue financings' (where a snappy investment's needed to save a failing business).
One mega deal of late saw the team advise Advent, Bain Capital and Clessidra on their €2.15 billion acquisition financing of Italian payments business ICBPI. Elsewhere, lawyers oversaw Astorg Partners' €500 million refinancing of its Luxembourg-based portfolio company M7 Group. The work here is “quite process driven,” so trainees spend their time managing the conditions precedent check list, liaising with local counsel, and circulating closing documents, “which isn't the most exciting job in the world,” an interviewee grumbled.
“A lot of direct contact with the investors."
There's a lot of crossover with K&E's corporate department – the office's largest. For example, a mix of debt finance and corporate lawyers recently joined forces on this €200 million acquisition: London-headquartered client CapVest Equity and its portfolio company Valeo Foods gobbled up Italian food outfit Balconi from Clessidra and the Balconi family. Other sales and acquisitions have seen the group advise CCMP Capital on Pure Gym's purchase of LA Fitness, and Sycamore Partners on its £245 million sale of Kurt Geiger shoes to fellow private equity firm Cinven. Trainees here busied themselves with due diligence, and also had to ensure that all corporate authorisations and ancillary documents were in order. “I even got to try my hand at drafting a couple,” one source added.
Here's the set-up in the investment funds group: “Basically, we're helping private equity clients establish funds. It's all about pulling together money from different investors. Every investor must sign an LPA [Limited Partnership Agreement], so a lot of what we do involves negotiating the terms within those agreements. We're covering the life of the fund so it's important to ensure everyone's happy with the structure of it.” Working alongside all seven of the firm's US offices, the London team recently had a hand in forming a $1.6 billion real estate fund for Landmark Partners. “You get to do quite a lot of drafting,” one trainee enthused, but bear in mind sources mainly tackled “simple agreements like deeds, accession letters or term sheets.” There’s also “a lot of direct contact with the investors: you'll be chasing them up for documents and keeping an eye on the status of everything.”
Over in litigation and arbitration, the private equity focus is noticeably diluted. Boeing is a client on the litigation side, while arbitration matters have brought giant corporates like Samsung, General Motors and Dow Chemical to K&E's door. Our sources had mostly encountered arbitrations. “We work on a lot of bilateral investment treaties, usually on the side of a company against a certain government.” K&E recently represented Chinese insurer Ping An against Belgium after it lost around £2 billion in investments when Belgian-Dutch bank Fortis collapsed. “Bread and butter” tasks here include doc review and drafting chronologies, “but as you get more experienced you can start drafting sections of pleadings.”
Sprechen Sie Kirklandisch?
Revolving facilities. Senior subordinated notes. Portable senior secured bonds. 'WHAT DO THESE THINGS MEAN?!' we hear you cry. But don't fear: K&E's trainees are given a crash course at the start of each seat to help them get their heads around all those tricky finance terms and structures. “I felt so confused when I started,” admitted one trainee, “but you do get used to the language.” Plus associates “are totally willing to talk you through it.”
K&E stumps up the cash not just for trainees' brains, but their time too. It's one of the select US firms doling out top New York market-rate salaries to its NQs, worth $180,000 (first and second-year trainee solicitors receive £46,000 and £50,000, respectively). “Typically you won't leave the office before 7pm,” sources warned. “If you're on a busy deal it's more likely to be 11pm.” Early morning finishes or all-nighters aren't atypical either, “but find me a City trainee who hasn't experienced that,” one unperturbed source pointed out.
“Everyone here is a high achiever.”
“Everyone here is a high achiever and it’s generally expected that we’ll all go that extra mile,” another explained. “It doesn't feel too hierarchical though; if you're staying late on a big deal, the associates and partners are there too.” Others commented that people tend to “push themselves to get ahead here” and are “committed to moving up the firm at a fast rate.” Those with an eye on the income partnership can be elevated quite quickly – at the six-year qualified mark. The first step in this process is qualification – an area where K&E consistently performs well. 2016 was no exception,with seven of seven qualifiers staying on.
The small trainee cohort (just ten per year) produces “a really close group; we all go out together for drinks and dinner when we can fit it in.” We're told the trainee social budget was recently extended and the firm doesn't skimp when it comes to larger events either: last year's summer party took place at fancy Chinese restaurant Yauatcha (we hear the gold leaf seafood rice is to die for) and the Christmas bash is usually held in the very swish St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel. Plus there's the annual retreat to Hampshire, where K&E's London and Munich lawyers pack their finest tweed for “lots of country activities.”
“You don't have to be the chattiest, loudest person,” trainees reckoned, “but you need to have a quiet confidence and be able to hold your own” to succeed in this driven environment.
How to get a Kirkland & Ellis training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2017): 13 January 2017
Training contract deadline (2019): 14 July 2017
Law fairs and recruitment scope
Kirkland & Ellis offers ten training contracts each year, and attends law fairs at Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, UCL, LSE, King's College London, Bristol, Nottingham and Manchester.
Both vac scheme and training contract applicants are invited to complete an online application form. They'll also upload their CVs and fill out the usual details (academic history, work experience and so forth), and answer two commercial questions designed to whittle down numbers. “It's our application twist so that candidates don't just do a copy and paste job,” says a graduate recruitment source.
Applicants are also asked to write a cover letter and our source suggests applicants read the instructions carefully. Graduate recruitment tells us: “It's frustrating when candidates don't pay attention and fail to format it as a letter – if you're looking at 700 applications and that basic attention to detail isn't there and it isn’t specific to Kirkland & Ellis then it's likely the application will go into the 'no' pile.”
Firm recruiters also urge candidates to research the firm thoroughly before applying. “There's a huge amount of information about the London office online, particularly on our graduate recruitment site. Pick up on our clients, the matters we've worked on and what lawyers are expected to do here, then ask yourself 'How will that benefit me?' US firms in London offer something different, so you have to think about why you want to come here, and what you can offer through your previous experiences and achievements.”
Each year Kirkland receives over 750 applications for its 25 vacation scheme places. The firm runs a few assessment days in late January and early February and invites between 12 and 15 applicants to each. The day involves a group exercise, an interview, a written task and in-tray exercise. Our graduate recruitment source tells us the first is designed to assess how well candidates function within a team, “which is very important in a small office,” while the latter tests their ability to prioritise.
There are two fortnight-long summer vac schemes each year. Vac schemers sit with a mid-level associate during their placement, but “this is just a location,” according to our source “They're actively encouraged to seek out work from all areas, and their supervisor is on hand to point them in the right direction.” Trainees recalled this as “good in that it forces you to go and meet other people, but bad as it can be difficult if you're not used to doing that!”
It's unlikely vac schemers will see a live transaction from start to finish, so the firm provides a mock transaction in which trainees conduct a negotiation exercise, hammer out the terms of a sponsorship deal and celebrate with Champagne at the closing. Cheers to that! The firm also runs practice group training sessions to give vac schemers a chance to learn more about different departments and network with relevant figures. Everyone is allocated a trainee buddy, and there are various socials. Recent highlights have included crazy golf competitions and James Bond-style speedboat trips!
All vac schemers receive feedback on their performance and are offered the opportunity to interview for a training contract before the end of the scheme. “We hope to consider all of them for a training contract,” our grad rec insider tells us, noting: “We've already been able to get to know their personalities and see their approach in action.”
The firm generally receives between 650 and 700 direct training contract applications, on top of the hundreds it gets for vacation schemes. Recruiters invite around 20 applicants to attend interviews in the summer, so there aren't any prior assessments
According to the firm, interviewers are looking to get a feel for a candidate's personality, business acumen and motivations. Some might pose situational questions to get interviewees thinking on their feet but we're told questions will never be overly technical: “We don't require anyone to quote case law!” Showing some understanding of the private equity market is a good idea though, given the firm's focus on PE and transactional work. Our advice? Read up on what PE funds do; know who the big PE firms are, and the range of companies they buy and sell, but don't worry if you don't understand the intricate make-up of different fund structures.
Private equity explained
For more on what private equity is and Kirkland's practice in this area see our feature Private equity explained.
Kirkland & Ellis International LLP
30 St Mary Axe,
- Partners 801
- Assistant solicitors 887
- Contact Emma Ridley
- Method of application Online application form
- Selection procedure Interview
- Closing date for 2019 14 July 2017
- Training salary (2016)
- First year: £46,000
- Second year: £50,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- Post-qualification salary $180,000
- % of trainees offered job on qualification 100%
- Overseas/regional offices Beijing, Chicago, Hong Kong, Houston, London, Los Angeles, Munich, New York, Palo Alto, San Francisco, Shanghai, Washington DC
Main areas of work
The principal focus of your training will be on corporate law with a specialism in private equity. You will complete four, six month seats and obtain training in areas such as corporate M&A, debt finance, funds, arbitration, IP, regulatory, antitrust and competition, restructuring and tax. In addition there will be opportunities to undertake an overseas secondment to enable you to experience the international resources and capabilities of Kirkland & Ellis.
Your on the job training will be actively supported by an extensive education programme, carefully tailored to meet your needs.
Duration: two weeks
Remuneration:£500 per week
Closing date for applications