The growing London office of this US firm is slowly building up its standing in the UK market.
As far as law firm names go, Morgan Lewis sounds pretty inconspicuous, but don't be fooled by the nominal unobtrusiveness. This Philadelphia-founded firm is not short of ambition. In recent years, it made waves by absorbing the carcass of defunct US firm Bingham McCutchen, before striking up an international merger with Singaporean outfit Stamford Law. And in May 2017 Morgan Lewis was thrust into the global limelight after two of its US lawyers acted as tax counsel to President Trump. Oh, and the firm is also one of the highest grossing in the world, at $1.86 billion in 2016.
Across the Atlantic from Trump Tower's meticulously-kept invoices, the London branch of Morgan Lewis busies itself with a mix of finance, litigation, corporate, energy, employment and – of course – tax matters. Although ML is a mammoth firm globally, with 2,200 lawyers and 30 offices (17 in the US, with latest overseas post opened in Hong Kong in early 2017), its presence in the London market is still maturing. At the moment, Chambers UK awards the 36-year-old office just a single ranking. Recent growth has been pretty substantial though: the London office's revenue grew 17% in 2015/16 to £33.9 million.
London revenue growth has been boosted by the arrival of lateral hires. In summer 2015 a team of three structured transactions partners joined from K&L Gates, and in 2015/16 the firm also hired tax, competition and investment management lawyers from a rival. Growth isn't all on the transactional side: in spring 2017 the firm brought in two disputes partners from Norton Rose Fulbright. Trainee numbers are on the up too: ML is recruiting six to eight trainees to start in 2020, up from five a few years back. Retention is usually pretty good too, and in 2017 four of six qualifiers were kept on.
First seats are assigned by HR, but before subsequent rotations trainees get a say and email their preferences over. Given the small trainee cohort – just 13 at the time of our calls – there's little griping about allocation. “HR do a good job of managing to fit everybody into the seats they want,” a source said. “Sometimes it's just not possible to get your first choice, but if that happens you're very likely to get what you want for your next seat.” There's also the possibility of overseas seats in Moscow, Dubai, Singapore or Brussels. Apparently, the popularity of these jaunts abroad “depends on the intake” but Dubai and Singapore were generally cited as favourites.
'International' is the buzzword in ML's litigation department, where trainees sample a range of commercial disputes, as well as white-collar, insurance recovery and arbitration matters. Quite a few cases originate in Russia. The firm also has plenty of energy clients, but a large wedge also hail from the insurance and finance sectors. There are other clients too: the firm recently advised Sainsbury's on a high-value competition claim against Visa and Mastercard over the card fees they charge retailers. (Magic circle firm Linklaters acted for Visa.) On cases such as this trainees find themselves “regularly writing letters to the other side, responding to disclosure queries, listening to calls and attending meetings with counsel and experts.” Interviewees said that “of course there's bundling too – you can't avoid it!”
A seat in corporate and business transactions sees trainees work on many an M&A deal. Clients stem from across the world and on the current roster you'll find German pharma company Merck, UK capital investments firm Alcuin and Russian web search engine Yandex. Lawyers also recently advised Japan's Sumitomo Corporation on the €751 million takeover of Irish banana company Fyffes. (The firm acts for some more well-known names too, but they're all confidential.) A trainee told us that they'd “assisted on the sale of a big Russian company which involved a fair bit of due diligence as well as drafting ancillary documents and the share purchase agreement.”
“I've researched collateralised loan obligations to prepare a summary note for a partner.”
Meanwhile over in structured transactions trainees plunge into the heady world of securitisation. “We tend to act on behalf of borrowers rather than lenders, but not exclusively,” one explained. “I've been to a client's office to carry out due diligence, and I've researched collateralised loan obligations to prepare a summary note for a partner. Managing the conditions precedent checklist is also an unavoidable task for trainees.” Clients here include Uber and banks like Barclays, Citigroup and J.P. Morgan.
Trainees were thrilled with the employment seat. “It's amazing,” one said. Over in the US, employment is perhaps the firm's best-known practice and “what we were initially famous for.” In London, “the department is very busy. I went to a client's offices when working on a discrimination claim to take notes.” Morgan Lewis “always acts for employers, on a broad range of matters – there are contentious cases, but we also do non-contentious work, supporting corporate deals.” On the contentious side, the firm recently helped major US bank Wells Fargo secure a settlement over the departure of a team of senior employees to a competitor. Other clients include Spotify, insurer Munich Re, Amazon and US investment manager State Street.
The Murphy the better
Sources reckoned that “because of the size of the firm, teams are quite small so there's a lot of support if you need it, but it's not a negative if you prefer to be left to your own devices. I've never felt like I couldn't go and approach a partner or associate for help.” Trainees have informal mid-seat appraisals and then an appraisal at the end of each seat which is “more formal, with a document that's pretty much like a school report, saying what you've done well and what you can improve on. It's a helpful indicator of where you're at.”
“It's not a negative if you prefer to be left to your own devices.”
One trainee summed up what the hours are like pretty well: “It just totally depends on the work, and not so much on the department. In litigation, if you're coming up to a trial then the hours are horrendous – I was consistently working until 10pm or 11pm. It's a hard slog, but the days do go quickly. When it's quiet it's normal to leave at a reasonable time like 7pm or 8pm. The hours are tough but no different to other City firms.” Of course, the transactional seats can also demand “relentless” hours, but here too “it's up and down.” One summarised sharply: “I knew what I'd signed up for and I feel we're compensated well enough to get over it.” Quite right. Morgan Lewis was one of many firms to get caught up in the ongoing Salary Wars between US and City firms, upping NQ pay to £100,000.
That's a tidy sum, certainly plenty to keep eager young bucks in slick T.M. Lewin office wear. That said, “you're not expected to be suited and booted and in a tie every day unless you're meeting clients. I know that's not unique to Morgan Lewis but it's very down to earth.” There's often only one trainee in each team, which our sources said made them feel highly valued. One said: “I have social conversations with partners, so it's not always about work. As a trainee you're treated like an integral part of team, not like you're just there to prop up the associates.”
When it comes to the organisation of the firm, trainees noticed “a definite American input. Management decisions, for example, are made in the US and our London managing partner Frances Murphy travels to the US quite a bit.” However, trainees said that the US influence “isn't an overbearing presence” and noted that “when talking to colleagues in the US their culture seems very similar to ours.”
London's social committee meets monthly to organise upcoming events, which tend to occur every couple of months or so. A wine and cheese evening graced the social calendar recently, along with a Chinese New Year celebration and a Wimbledon-themed get-together. There are also annual summer and Christmas shindigs.
To get an insight into this firm's international reputation go to chambersandpartners and check out its Chambers Global rankings.
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How to get a Morgan Lewis training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2018): 5pm on 31 January 2018 (opens 1 October 2017)
Training contract deadline (2020): 5pm on 31 July 2018 (opens 1 October 2017)
An application for one of Morgan Lewis' six top eight 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 litigation partner Peter Sharp, who first set up the firm's traineeship in 2012. 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 training principal Matthew Howse
Chambers Student:What would you like our readers to know about Morgan Lewis?
Matthew Howse: We're an ambitious global law firm that's growing in London and around the world. A particular focus for us of late has been Asia: in the last two years we've opened in Singapore, Shanghai and Hong Kong. We are a full-service law firm that practices across a very wide range of areas. In London we focus, in no particular order, on corporate, litigation, competition/antitrust, employment, investment management, structured transactions, finance and tax.
CS:What challenges does Morgan Lewis face?
MH: One of the challenges for us and for all quality firms is getting and then retaining the right people. There's obviously a lot of competition out there, especially from other US law firms that like us are looking to grow their London offices. As a firm we will be continuing to focus on the practice areas that we believe fit with our strategy. We don't take a scatter-gun approach and just hire anyone and everyone; we have a very focused plan with regards to what we want to do and the type of people we want to do it with. In London we are doing everything that we set out to do, so the plan is to continue to expand our existing practice areas in order to increase their strength and depth.
CS:How will Brexit affect US firms in London?
MH: Brexit will affect everyone in the legal profession in some way, shape or form in good ways and bad. My sense is that it will affect the London offices of US firms less than UK firms, principally because a lot of the work carried out by such firms is global rather than domestic – so if the economy falters and there's a downturn in domestic work, we will be less affected by that.
CS:What kind of training experience can Morgan Lewis provide?
MH: The experience we provide is very hands on, and trainees here are given a lot of responsibility from the outset. That enables trainees to feel fully integrated in the departments they work within, as they get a lot of access to partners and senior associates. This is possible because the nature of our firm is very team-oriented and the size of our trainee intake – between six and eight each year – allows those who are joining us to get stuck in straight away.
CS: In your opinion, what are the key differences between working in a US firm and working in a domestic firm in the City?
MH: I think that for lawyers in US firms there's a flatter structure, less hierarchy and less formality than there is in traditional UK-based firms. At all levels, if people are capable then they can get involved in the deals and cases that are taking place – trainees can therefore become an important part of the team very quickly. Generally I think that in the London office of a US firm you get the best of both worlds: you get to be part of a high-quality international business while enjoying the more intimate atmosphere that comes with a smaller office.
On a broad level, one big difference between large law firms is the way that they work. There are some very successful firms that are individualistic in that they require their lawyers to be very independently successful. At Morgan Lewis we take a much more collective approach, and believe that we are stronger when we work together as opposed to working on an individual basis. For example, some of our biggest and most important clients are clients not just of one partner, one office or one practice area – often there are 20 or more offices and several practice areas doing work for one client. That shows the power of collaboration, and for us that means making sure that our clients are fully served by a wide range of lawyers across multiple jurisdictions.
CS:What should those interested in your firm demonstrate to really impress at interview?
MH: We don't have a pre-set idea of the perfect candidate: we recruit from quite a wide range of backgrounds and attract different personalities. We are looking to hire bright, engaging people with good communication skills who want to be involved and are clearly motivated and excited by a career in law.
While there is a lot of competition for places, candidates shouldn't be put off by knock-backs and should keep going. Some of our best trainees are people who have experienced rejections but kept going and have acquired life experience – resilience is an important trait for a successful career.
Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP
5-10 St. Paul's Churchyard,
- Partners 34
- Associates 38
- Total trainees 12
- UK offices London
- Overseas offices 30
- Graduate recruitment team, 020 3201 5000
- Training partner: Matthew Howse
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 6-8
- Minimum required degree grade: High 2.1
- Minimum A levels: AAB
- Vacation scheme places pa: 10
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 October 2017
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: 5pm on 27 July 2018
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 October 2017
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 5pm on 31 January 2018
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £45,000
- Second-year salary: £50,000
- Post-qualification salary: £100,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £8,000
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London
- Overseas seats: Brussels, Dubai, Moscow, Singapore
Main areas of work
Over two years you will complete four, six-month seats with the opportunity to gain experience in at least three distinct areas of law. International secondment opportunities to our Brussels, Dubai, Moscow and Singapore office may also be available. In addition to formal appraisals, the office environment allows regular contact with, and feedback from, the training principal, supervisors and other lawyers. 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.
To apply for a place on our summer programme applicants should complete the firm’s online application form which is available on our website www.morganlewis.com. The closing date for applications is 31 January 2018.