“It's an exciting time to be here,” said trainees, as this US firm looks to beef up its London-based private client and transactional practices.
Don't you want MWE?
From its roots in the Windy City, MWE has fanned out to become an international powerhouse. It started out as a humble tax practice, but went on to gather a full-service offering across 19 global offices: ten in North America, eight in Europe and one in Seoul (it also has a strategic alliance in Shanghai, rounding out its Asia presence). In London, you'll find MWE in the Heron Tower, where the winds of change recently installed a new office head, Andrew Vergunst. His appointment looks set to bring about some positive developments, as this trainee revealed: “After a firm-wide strategic review the emphasis has been put on growing the London office.” Training principal Nicholas Holland elaborated for us: “We have a market to expand into, so we are targeting expansion in our private client and transactional practices through lateral hires – we're aiming for significant growth in those areas in 2016."
MWE London's size – it has just under 40 lawyers beavering away in the office – was among trainees' top reasons for joining MWE. “You get to work in small teams with a lot of partner interaction. In fact, you're likely to work with every partner here.” With just two fresh-faced trainees joining each year, our sources found that there was plenty for them to do. Trainees also pointed to a lot of cross-office collaboration as another perk: “You can pick up the phone and speak to someone in another office just like that. It's also not uncommon for overseas lawyers to come to London either.” Those who desire a legal career with an international flavour are therefore encouraged to apply, with Holland telling us that “our application form does favour those with a second language or work experience abroad.” Despite this flurry of overseas connections and a weighty presence in the US, trainees felt that “the London office doesn't seem beholden to the US – it's very autonomous and feels British.”
There are only four seats available at MWE: corporate, energy, private client and a seat split between employment and tax. “It's almost inevitable that you'll end up in each of them,” sources told us, but we did hear of some trainees bagging a repeat seat in a team they especially enjoyed. “You have to take the initiative though – if you want something then go and talk to someone about it.” Trainees were glad to have the opportunity to discuss their preferences with Holland before each seat rotation, but did say that they'd like to see a permanent overseas secondment on the horizon. “Owing to the small trainee intake in London, we believe that offering secondments during the training contract can at times be disruptive,” says Holland. “We do, however, consider overseas secondments on a case by case basis.”
McDermott's will to power
The 12-strong corporate team mostly handles mid-market deals in the £50 million to £500 million range. That doesn't mean that it can't take on the occasional billion-dollar whopper though: the team recently advised Constellation Hotels – a Qatari investment vehicle – as it snapped up an estimated £1.6 billion stake in the company that controls three of London's fanciest hotels: Claridge's, The Connaught and The Berkeley. Other sector strengths here include agribusiness, food and beverage, mining, and energy (which is covered separately, see below). “You're an integral part of the team,” said one interviewee, “and it's down to you to keep track of what needs to be taken care of during the deal.” Hence why trainees oversee “the transaction checklist, which requires you to consider every document and step that needs to be completed.” Sources had also drafted ancillaries and weightier documents like SPAs.
The six-lawyer energy group works on project finance and M&A deals in sectors like oil and gas, renewables and mining. The group recently advised Dutch company Orange Solar Power on a solar module factory that it intends to build in Lebanon, as well as Addax Petroleum – a subsidiary of one of China's largest oil and gas producers – on its involvement in an oilfield in Iraq. Some sources had been “assisting partners with pitches for new business,” while others described their day-to-day as “broadly similar to corporate: there's a lot of drafting board minutes and director's certificates, but on due diligence reports you get to liaise with local counsel, who give you a perspective on what to look out for – in one morning I rang six countries!” Clients here include governments, oil companies, private equity investors, financial institutions, independent power and gas producers, and commodity traders.
“It's not the place for coasting.”
Private client currently houses 15 lawyers, and Nicholas Holland tells us the team has received “a lot of investment and has been going from strength to strength in 2009.” Two recent laterals came with interesting specialisms: one's an expert in French trusts and the other advises clients in the film, music and publishing industries. Wealth management for high net worth individuals and families is the name of the game here, and many clients are large business owners with links to the US, rather than say big domestic landowners. “We do a mix of contentious and non-contentious work,” explained one trainee. On trusts disputes, sources found themselves “drafting letters to the other side, liaising with the court and preparing to do some advocacy.” On the non-contentious side, there's a heap of research up for grabs: “I was looking into citizenship routes in Cyprus, tax divisions across various countries and agreements that govern the use of private jets!”
MWE will rock you
“The small teams, combined with the more outgoing people who work here, means that nobody's holed up in their office alone,” said one trainee, and others were quick to agree: “It's a super-collaborative place. People are always in and out of their offices, bouncing ideas off of each other.” Support was therefore close at hand, and often informal in nature: “We chat with partners about matters and personal things. It's such an open dialogue. There's no need for a process to discuss any issues you have. If I'm ever unsure about anything, I'll just ask – I never hesitate.” On the flip side, a more intimate environment means that “you have to be willing to take on responsibility, as there isn't anywhere to hide.” It can be a full-on training contract, we heard, so “you need to be quite confident, robust and willing to learn – it's not the place for coasting.” Indeed, “consistent post-midnight finishes for a few weeks on a big deal” doesn't sound like coasting to us. While there are intense periods and occasional early morning exits as deals ramp up, trainees revealed that their average working day lasts between 9.30am and 7.30pm.
MWE lawyers tend to take an opportunistic approach to socialising. “If it's a particularly sunny day an email will fly around saying, 'I'm going to the pub! Anyone else is welcome to join me.'” To suit those with less spontaneous inclinations, monthly drinks are held in the office. We also heard that the firm puts on a good Christmas do: “Someone decided a ceilidh (a traditional Gaelic social gathering, FYI) would be fun. So we were all adorned in kilts and twirling around.” With trainees in a spin, it's fortunate they didn't have qualification worries on their minds. “It's a very informal process. You sit down with the training principal and chat about it. Everyone's confident because the firm is good at letting you know that you're doing well.” Two of three qualifying trainees were kept on in 2016.
McDermott trainees can participate in pro bono schemes including Lawyers in Schools and Lawyers without Borders.
How to get a McDermott training contract
Training contract deadline (2019): 30 June 2017
McDermott Will & Emery takes on just two or three trainees per year. The firm receives training contract applications from a broad range of universities, including quite a few from the US and Canada. Cambridge, UCL and King's are the universities represented among the three-strong 2015 intake.
The application form requires candidates to list their academic qualifications to date, including all modules and the grades received for each. Recruiters look for a minimum AAB at A level (or equivalent) and a strong 2:1 degree.
Applicants are also asked to detail their work experience. According to London HR sources, “having some in the legal sector is advantageous, but general commercial experience is beneficial as well, as it means applicants hopefully understand how businesses work.” This is also the place to mention language skills – an important attribute if you’re interested in a secondment to one of MWE’s European offices. “If someone wanted to go to Paris, for example, they'd need to be able to speak French at an advanced level,” our HR sources say.
Rounding off the form are a few long-answer questions. “We’re looking for applicants to provide fairly logical answers with supporting information,” HR sources tell us. “One of the recent questions was ‘What qualities do you possess that you think would impact well on a client?’ For that we’re looking for an idea of what those qualities are and examples of how the applicant has demonstrated them.”
The firm uses a meticulous scoring system to assess applications – “if you fall down in one area, then you can pick it up in another,” we're told – and chooses 30 or so candidates to attend an assessment day. This begins with a two-hour written exercise. “We present them with a commercial scenario, and ask them to analyse the information and produce a number of written reports. We’re looking for logic, structure, grammatical correctness – evidence that they can write well,” HR sources explain.
A lunch with trainees follows, then a Q&A session with a panel of partners and associates, and a drinks event in the evening. One current trainee told us: “The day showed me a lot about the firm, and the way all of the partners put in so much effort to talk to us about life at MWE was very encouraging.”
The trainee solicitor recruitment committee invites ten candidates to interview after assessing each candidate's written exercise and listening to feedback from partners and associates.
Candidates attend a single 45-minute interview with a panel of three partners, all of whom they'll have met during the assessment day. Those three partners interview all ten candidates. The firm's HR team tells us this is “highly structured and competency-based,” and advises applicants to “do as much research, and have as much of an understanding of our firm and our culture, as you can.”
The firm says that successful candidates are those who transform the interview into a “two-way process – that indicates to us that they're comfortable asking questions and are amassing information to help them ascertain whether this is the right firm for them.”
Interview with training principal Nicholas Holland
Student Guide: How has the London office fared recently? Have there been any big developments or highlights we should know about?
Nicholas Holland: The trend over the past few years has been a lot of investment in our private client practice, which I think is particularly interesting, and very international. Because we don't have a property estates team here, most of the work we've been doing is with operating businesses and the families that own them. The majority of those families aren't English, which differentiates us from other private client departments in the City who have more English landowning private clients. That's not what we are doing; we don't do conveyancing or property work – we work for families who have no, or only a tendential relationship with the UK and hold large operating businesses. We didn't have a private client team six years ago; but now it is the biggest department, and our managing partner is a private client lawyer.
Andrew Vergunst became head of the London office in March 2017, taking over from Hugh Nineham who retired. There is now big investment coming in London: we have a market to expand into, so we are targeting expansion in our private client and transactional practices through lateral hires – we're aiming for significant growth in those areas.
London is a very good place to be while this is happening; as we focus on hiring transactional and private client lawyers, other departments like tax and employment may grow as a result. The private client lawyers we're looking to bring in tend to have longstanding relationships with clients, so there might then be an opportunity to fill in the other departments as those client's require other services.
For trainees this expansion matters. There will be more places to qualify into, and it's nice to be in a place with hum and growth.
SG: Considering there was a global revenue drop of around 1% in 2015/16, while PEP rose 3.3.%, how insulated is London from the wider firm's fortunes?
NH: If the firm fairs well then the London office fairs well. But we have no debt; we're very conservatively run. That means dips like we've seen would not remotely hurt us.
SG: What effects are the firm anticipating as a result of the EU referendum result?
NH: We aren't a big banking firm where the clients will disappear, so I don't think it will be too problematic for our work.
SG: Do you aim to recruit people who have a more international background or outlook?
NH: Our application form does favour those with a second language or work experience abroad. So the mix of nationalities is often a consequence of the way we value languages, because less English speakers can speak second languages. As we had our assessment day earlier this week, we could already tell we had a very global group.
SG: Are regular international secondments ever going to become part of the contract?
NH: We do have one of our English trainees in Brussels currently and one of our French equivalents will come to London. There is certainly an appetite for increasing levels of co-operation, and we know there's an appetite for secondments. An exchange programme would be great, but there's no easy way to get it established - the current problem is Brexit and people's right to work in Europe.
SG: Do you foresee an increase in your trainee numbers at some point?
NH: I don't foresee an increase – we'll see what happens though. The firm tends to hire at partner level and let things filter down from there. If the need arises, we will be open to it. But that's part of the conservatism which I mentioned. If we need more people we'll hire them, but it's hard gievn the built-in delay of training contracts, and when you can fill the gap by hiring paralegals.
We are socially progressive, being very much committed to a progressive agenda, but we're very fiscally conservative. This place grows organically and it takes us a long time to hire people. We'd much rather miss the opportunity than make a mistake – you can see that with the pace of our hiring. We have a slow intake because we are deeply concerned about the quality of the personnel. We have to make sure we can trust someone and make sure they get a blessing from someone in the firm.
SG: How does the smaller sized intake impact trainees outside of work?
NH: Well, younger trainees might be looking for a more socially engaging firm than us. It's not like the magic circle where it is a nice social catch for those people. You're in a group of only four trainees, and one of only two new ones, so we can’t offer that same social side. That favours older, more established trainees who don't need the firm to provide the same level of social organisation. We can’t offer the same variety of social events that a larger intake can.
McDermott Will & Emery UK LLP
- Partners 581 (worldwide)
- Associate lawyers and other fee earners 491 (worldwide)
- Total trainees 4 (London)
- Contact Human resources
- Method of application Apply online at www.mwe.com
- Selection procedure Assessment day, which includes a panel Q&A, written test and partner interviews if selected to the next stage
- Closing date for 2019 30 June 2017
- Training salary (2016)
- First year: £41,000
- Second year: £45,000
- Post qualification NQ salary (2016) £90,000
McDermott Will & Emery’s London office, founded in 1998, brings a prestigious and full- service legal practice to Europe and complements our capabilities in France, Germany, Italy and Belgium. We are part of an extensive 20 office international network that provides a unique platform from which we offer legal advice to local and international organisations.
The London office represents a wide range of clients, including large publicly and privately held commercial, industrial and financial corporations, small and medium-sized businesses, trustees, and high-net-worth individuals and families. The firm has around 45 lawyers at present in London, most of whom are English-qualified.
Main areas of work