Building one of the best English law practices in town for international clients is the ultimate goal for Philly-headquartered Morgan Lewis.
Morgan Lewis has been no stranger to the headlines in recent years: first it swallowed much of doomed US firm Bingham McCutchen, then it embarked on a precedent-setting merger with Singaporean firm Stamford Law. An aerial shot of the firm now shows over 2,000 lawyers in 29 offices across the US, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The majority of these 17 bases can be found in the States, so it's no surprise our sources felt the presence of their cousins across the pond: “The US offices are sort of like attentive parents – attentive, but not smothering.” And ML London has something to offer the family, as managing partner Peter Sharp reiterates: “We are the firm's focal point for English law, but our clients are from anywhere but England.”
“It's still becoming what it wants to be.”
A celebration is in order as 2016 marks ML's 35th birthday in the capital, but we got the sense that lawyers here won't be keeping their party hats on for long: trainees told us that the office is “constantly developing, growing and improving. We are all working towards the same goal, which makes for a very positive, energised environment.” The office currently works on a mix of finance, litigation, corporate, energy, employment and tax matters. For now though, Chambers UK affords a solitary nod to ML's business immigration work. “It's still in the process of becoming what it wants to be,” said trainees, pointing to the office's steadily increasing size and scope.
Indeed: ML has made several lateral coups recently. A new structured transactions team joined from fellow US firm K&L Gates; this development, Sharp says, is “part of a global strategy to build on the US structured transactions group. We've gone from having no London presence in this regard to having a six-partner team.” The acquisitions don't stop there: tax, competition and investment management teams have been bolstered by new hires – creating a fresh demand for trainees. “This expansion can only be a positive thing,” trainees suggested, “it's made us hopeful that there will be more opportunities to qualify.” In 2016, all five trainees stayed at the firm.
Getting mor-gan you asked for
First seats are assigned by HR, but before subsequent rotations trainees get a say and email their preferences over. Given the small trainee intake – just eight at the time of our calls – newbies often discuss their seat preferences together, boosting the chances of “most people getting what they want each time.” The same nifty tactic is used when it comes to plotting overseas seats to the Moscow, Dubai, Singapore and Brussels offices. Client secondments may be rare, but they do add another potential string to this training contract's bow.
'International' is the buzzword in ML's litigation department, where trainees sampled a range of commercial disputes, as well as white-collar, insurance recovery and arbitration matters. Quite a few cases originate in Russia, where international sanctions have prompted “a significant increase in disputes,” Peter Sharp tells us. Fittingly, the firm has plenty of energy clients, but a large wedge also hail from the insurance and finance spaces. Trainees were thrilled that a “very efficient” document centre handles much of the paperwork, freeing up their time to draft witness statements and arbitration requests, as well as client memos and letters. They also get out and about, running documents to court, attending client meetings and even “arguing a point with a master at the RCJ.”
"For weeks I was chasing foreign counsel to get all the documents agreed and signed!”
Banking trainees highlighted “a good balance between borrower and lender work,” which is often focused on emerging markets in former Soviet states, Africa and the Middle East. The team, for example, recently advised a syndicate of institutional investors as they set about financing the construction of two container vessels for Kuwait-based United Arab Shipping Company. Sources mainly assumed a project management role during their time here. “It's down to us to run the conditions precedent list, which involves establishing what has to be done during a deal and then following up to ensure everything's been completed. For weeks I was chasing foreign counsel to get all the documents agreed and signed!”
A seat in corporate and business transactions comes with many an M&A deal – something of a focus for the London team. “Everyone wants to try corporate,” trainees revealed, despite it being “up there for the longest hours.” Clients stem “from all sorts of jurisdictions,” and on the current roster you'll find American pharma giant Merck, Norwegian credit management company Lindorff Group and Russian broadcasters CTC Media. ML recently advised the latter as it divested its interests in its Russian businesses, as well as US outfit Perrigo as it purchased a medicine to manage Crohn's disease from AstraZeneca for $380 million. “You have to draft ancillary documents and make changes to SPAs,” trainees told us of their experience on deals, “but it's vital that you keep all of the associates aware of the changes you're making.”
It doesn't matter if it's syndicated or bilateral, secured or unsecured – ML's new structured transactions team has got it covered. But with terminology like that, we weren't surprised to hear that “the work is very technical, so a seat here comes with a steep learning curve.” Trainees have to familiarise themselves with a range of assets that can shape deals, from social housing and commercial real estate to derivatives and vehicle supply contracts. Once they'd got their heads around the ins and outs, trainees found there was plenty of time to refine their drafting skills on board minutes and test their persuasiveness by helping to negotiate auditor letters. Clients here include banking kingpins like Barclays, J.P. Morgan and Deutsche Bank.
ML likes trainees to arrive at the firm with a little extra: applicable work experience, a stint as a paralegal or a handy second language often does the trick. Proving that you're more of a get-up-and-go type is vital, as “there's a good camaraderie between trainees and associates – we're all very determined and work hard.” Indeed: 9.30am to 7pm might be the average working day, but busy periods bring some scary hours and sacrificed weekends – particularly in banking, corporate and litigation. “For a week I would finish at ten, then the next at one, then at 11,” revealed one source. Others described the reality of all-nighters: “When you get something to proof-read at 4am you just want to take a nap!”
Each trainee shares an office with a seat supervisor – usually a senior associate – who's tasked with keeping an eye on their protégé's workload: “A good supervisor will ensure you aren't overworked.” Encouragingly, wizened second-years felt training had “improved greatly” during their time at the firm. “We now have weekly sessions, which progress from the basics to more specific and advanced topics. They aim to equip trainees with knowledge of all the departments.” The office's cosy size – 68 lawyers at the time of our calls – means it's easier to pick the brains of those above: “We aren't hierarchical and everyone's on a first-name basis. It's not hard talk to partners as you have worked directly with them.”
“It's not entirely American, but it's not just British either.”
Despite the long hours, sources stayed social by organising trainee breakfasts; “we get to catch up over the standard sausages, egg and bacon sandwiches.” Friday night tipples and seasonal celebrations (for Chinese new year, for example) also keep up morale. On the healthier side, we heard about “yoga classes with associates, and plenty of group runs.” To ensure the fun stretches across the office, annual summer and Christmas parties are held. The latter consisted of a dinner and a quiz, but “once the partners went home, everyone started dancing!”
This year ML established a forum that allows trainees to give feedback on their experience. So far, qualification leave for NQs has been introduced as a result.
How to get a Morgan Lewis training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: 31 January 2017
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2017
An application for one of Morgan Lewis' six available training contracts starts off as most do – with an online application form. The firm typically receives between 250 and 300 applications, and selects 20 to 25 to be interviewed, usually in the second or third week of August. “They're interviewed by four lawyers who vary in seniority and practice area,” says London managing partner Peter Sharp. This takes place over two separate interviews, usually back to back.
Current trainees told us these interviews focus on “getting to know you, why you've chosen law and what your interests are; there aren't any off-the-wall questions.” As Sharp tells us: “We investigate their personality and look for evidence of a genuine interest in business. They also need to be able to collect their thoughts and speak clearly.” After their interviews, candidates have a Q&A session with the current trainees and are given a tour of the office.
Training contracts are awarded straight off the back of the interview day. “We don't do any structured tests to see if people have done their law exams,” says Sharp. “We believe that if they have the qualifications, they're qualified.”
Morgan Lewis' vacation scheme is a week-long affair that takes place in the summer. Obtaining a spot requires an online application and a telephone interview with HR. The firm tends to receive around 150 vac scheme applications each year.
Attendees are assigned to a practice group, but also take part in seminars and workshops to explore other areas. They're given a supervisor to keep them on the straight and narrow, but have license to roam at social events where they'll rub shoulders with the office's bigwigs.
Training contracts aren't offered purely off the back of a successful vac scheme. “If they've made an impression, then they'll be invited to interview like the others,” says Sharp.
“There's no such thing as a standard Morgan Lewis person,” says Sharp, “but I'd say the starting point is strong academics.” Indeed, entry into Morgan Lewis requires a high 2:1, plus AAB at A level. “That said – and this may sound negative – the candidate whose only calling card is strong academics is not likely to be of interest to us,” he continues. “Candidates also need that 'extra dimension', whether it's a degree in a related discipline, previous work experience or language skills.” Speaking of the latter, it's worth noting that many of the trainees we've spoken to had international links or were able to speak multiple languages.
Legal work experience “always helps,” Sharp adds, “as it's evidence that someone is committed to a legal career and has made their choice based on solid experience.” He points out that “this can come from anywhere, from a small general practice firm to an in-house legal department.” Non-legal work experience “is also appealing in the cases where it gives people greater commercial awareness and a realistic insight into the business world. At the end of the day, our clients are businesses, and we are a business firm. The trainee candidate who wants to be a human rights specialist is great and all, but we won't be for them – they'd be barking up the wrong tree.”
Interview with London managing partner Peter Sharp
Student Guide: There have been more lateral hires this year, including a three-partner finance team from K&L Gates. Is this part of a broader growth strategy?
Peter Sharp: When we spoke in 2015 I mentioned we would be looking to grow in certain areas and one of those was finance. Consistent with that strategy, the partners who joined us are structured finance experts and they are very much part of a global strategy to build on the US structured transactions group. We've gone from having no London presence in this regard to having a six-partner team.
Integral to this expansion of our finance practice – in addition to the three hires you've mentioned – was the lateral hiring of a tax partner and a real estate partner. We also recruited another finance partner, Lisa Cargill, who our other lateral hires had known for several years.
SG: What role does the London office play in relation to the broader Morgan Lewis network?
PS: We are the firm's focal point for English law, but our clients are from anywhere but England. That reflects the role English law plays in today's world. Our work predominantly involves using English law all around the world in finance transactions, joint ventures and so on, and to deal with subsequent disputes.
I understand why you ask about the role of the London office. Other big firms look like us on the outside but really they are a federation of separate offices. We are an integrated firm: one business, one partnership, one system. So in that sense I don't tend to think of US-made decisions affecting London: we are a single organisation that makes decisions as a whole.
SG: What sets Morgan Lewis' London office apart from its competitors?
PS: Obviously there are a large number of US law firms in London and many take trainees. If you're wondering what differentiates us from the perspective of a student and prospective trainee then I'd point to the fact that we have a broad business. Many US firms are finance focused, particularly within their London offices. The work may be good but it is oriented towards financial services and banking. Some of our work is for banks too, but only part of it. Our client base is varied and includes major pharmaceutical businesses, technology companies, household-name corporations and so on. Lawyers here can work with clients from every conceivable sector.
SG: How do you think the firm's growth will affect the training contract you offer?
PS: With each round of strategic growth we undertake, new opportunities arise for trainees. We now have a structured transactions team that wasn't there a year ago. In other areas we are not doing things for the first time, but the volume of work has increased. For example, our expanded investment management team now has demand for a trainee to work within that group, while two or three years ago we wouldn't have talked about a trainee sitting there as there wasn't enough volume. That is true of a number of different practice areas at the firm.
SG: Your training contract is relatively new. How is it evolving?
PS: We are constantly evaluating whether we can do things better. For example, we are improving our internal programme of training lectures and seminars. That is the sort of thing that as we become bigger it becomes more viable to organise internally. We have also initiated a regular trainee forum, where any issues affecting our trainees can be discussed and progressed.
SG: We spoke to a few trainees who'd done split seats. Is this common?
PS: The training contract certainly has a fluidity to it, but in an organised way. I think that is reflective of the philosophy of the firm: we want lawyers who can be versatile and agile rather than being pigeonholed in a little box. That isn't good for our lawyers or our clients.
Trainees are assigned to one practice group at a time because we are small. But if there's a need for extra resources in another department it is necessary and easy for us to be flexible with our trainees. For example, I was recently working with a trainee from our corporate department on a litigation matter as he was available and a fluent Russian speaker, which was very helpful for that particular case.
SG: Why does the firm offer overseas seats as part of its training contract?
PS: There are multiple reasons. For trainees who go overseas the experience is very valuable. I was in our Moscow office recently to meet clients and had coffee with the trainee who is doing a seat there. She recounted how varied the work that she had been involved in was, as she is the only trainee there. She had exposure to exotic and exciting matters. Sending trainees abroad is also important to the firm as a whole in order to create a long-term international community of lawyers. When trainees who have spent time abroad return to London and qualify with us, they already have relationships and friendships with our other lawyers around the world. That helps to cement international collaboration.
SG: A fair share of Morgan Lewis' international work relates to Russia. How are the economic sanctions that have been placed on Russia affecting that work?
PS: We have seen a definite increase in clients asking for advice on what the sanctions are and how they work. There has also been a significant increase in disputes prompted by the developments. So it's changed the balance of our work.
Another big macro-economic factor which is similarly influential is the low oil price. On the one hand there's been a downturn in transactions in the oil sector, but there's been an increase in related disputes and restructurings. Again, there's a change in balance.
Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP
5-10 St. Paul's Churchyard,
- Partners 33
- Assistant solicitors 34
- Total trainees 12
- Contact Graduate recruitment team, 020 3201 5000
- Method of application Online application via www.morganlewis.com
- Closing date for 2019 31 July 2017
- Selection procedure Interviews
- No of training contracts pa 6-8
- Required degree grade High 2:1
- Training salary
- First year: £45,000
- Second year: £50,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days pa
- Post-qualification salary £100,000
- Overseas offices Almaty, Astana, Beijing, Boston, Brussels, Chicago, Dallas, Dubai, Frankfurt, Hartford, Houston, London, Los Angeles, Miami, Moscow, New York, Orange County, Paris, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Princeton, San Francisco, Santa Monica, Shanghai, Silicon Valley, Singapore, Tokyo, Washington, Wilmington
Main areas of work
Trainees will have the opportunity to actively participate in all in-house associate training sessions, and to take part in pro bono work and business development activities.