Have a penchant for high finance? Ropes & Gray might have what it takes to reel you in.
Learn the ropes
While this Boston-born finance stalwart was celebrating its 150th birthday with great fanfare last year, its small-ish London outpost got the party rings and pass-the-parcel out to celebrate its fifth. Just kidding: they actually went to Kew Gardens to watch Jools Holland smash it on the piano with his musical chum. There’s been cause for another celebration too: Ropes & Gray UK recently moved from its “cramped old office” to a brand new building on 60 Ludgate Hill, which came with a roof terrace and an inspiring view of St Paul’s. And while it “still smells of IKEA,” these new digs couldn’t get much better, right down to the new eating area referred to as ‘Alibi’.
Ropes' pull for trainees was clear during interviews: “The international element, the small intake, and the option of a secondment were most attractive.” Sources also found the firm's growing London presence, plus “the backing of a US powerhouse” to be a big draw. Ropes certainly has “backing.” It's now amassed 11 offices with roughly 1,000 lawyers between them. Locations include Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seoul and Shanghai. Impressive, given that in 2007 Ropes boasted just six offices, all in the US. The London base opened in 2010, and has worked its way up to earn Chambers UK rankings in banking and finance (on both the borrower and sponsor side), private equity, high-yield products, and restructuring and insolvency.
The first seat is chosen for newbies by the firm after third and fourth-seaters claim their top picks. After that, “you select preferences for your other seats as you go along.” A stint in one of Ropes' finance seats – high-yield, banking or collateralised loan obligation (CLO) – is compulsory, as is an additional one in the firm's private equity department. A finance-oriented seat in Hong Kong is available, and while client secondments are possible they're “not frequent.”
Deals knot to be sniffed at
The banking team counts lenders like Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank and borrowers like multinational telecoms companies Liberty and Altice among its clients. A recent highlight saw the team assist the latter during its €7.4 billion acquisition financing for Portugal Telecom – Portugal's largest telecoms service provider. On the lender side, lawyers advised Goldman, Deutsche and Nordea Bank on their €1.45 billion acquisition financing of European debt collector Lindorff. You'll also find quite a few alternative capital providers – like KKR and CVC Capital – dotting the books here. “It was so hard and the hours were so long,” recalled one source, but nonetheless they still “loved” the seat and many ranked it as “the best one.” Alongside drafting “simple” documents like board minutes, trainees are typically responsible “for all the streams of communication, so you're contacting clients, liaising with counsel and delivering all the documents that need signing – you're the one with loads of knowledge and you feel very useful.”
What used to be called business restructuring is now referred to as 'special situations'. This sounds like it could be a euphemism for something embarrassing, but it's actually about distressed asset acquisitions; companies going insolvent and needing speedy help; and general money-related corporate crises. You can expect some billion-busting deals here too: Ropes' lawyers acted for the senior unsecured bondholders during insurance giant Towergate's £1 billion restructuring; they've also been toiling away on a £7 billion matter that resulted from Lehman Brothers' collapse and will determine how its surplus assets will be distributed. “It's a technical seat,” a rookie explained, “and responsibility is high from the beginning – once you show you know what you're doing, they let you run with it.” One had worked “on a large restructuring which was coming to an end, so there were loads of trainee tasks. I contacted clients, arranged for signatures, handled some very large Excel spreadsheets and made sure everything was properly allocated.”
“We're all so busy!” one private equity trainee exclaimed. The department caters for a number of sponsor clients like Bain Capital, Morgan Stanley PE and TPG. It's also upped its prestige factor in the London market by snaring Travers Smith's head of private equity, Philip Sanderson. Trend-wise, the group's been handling more and more co-investment deals, like this one: it represented the European Bank of Reconstruction & Development (EBRD) as it pooled together €250 million with Apollo Global Management to acquire Slovenia's second largest bank, Nova KBM. “The people are excellent to work with,” sources gushed; “they take the time to explain things and give you precise deadlines.” And our interviewees wasted no time getting stuck in: “They gave me a share buy-back to take care of, so I redrafted the documents and was able to run the closing myself, but still had support and feedback throughout.”
“I'm so sorry, take tomorrow off!”
Fancy a more contentious six months? Well, Ropes' trainees can do a seat split between the office's competition and business and securities litigation practices. In addition, those who'd dabbled in government enforcement matters told us that “you're mostly working on internal investigations that are tied to accusations of fraud or bribery.” The trainee role involves “sifting through a company's documentation in order to find and report back on something specific that we're looking for. You also get to sit in on employee interviews to ascertain what they've done and use that to advise the company on the next steps.” A number of private equity clients also “require us to conduct anti-bribery and corruption due diligence if they're looking to buy a potentially risky company.”
With its top-end compensation (interviewees giggled coyly when asked if they were satisfied with their salary) and heavy finance bent, it's not shocking that trainees are often expected to work some tough hours. Banking came with the most gruelling schedule, while high-yield pulled in at a close second. All-nighters were deemed “unusual” but possible; late nights frequent (“whether you're at the office or sat at home typing in your PJs”); and weekends occasional. Sources stressed that while some seats are “busy all the time,” others have “hectic periods” that thankfully wane to a rejuvenating lull. Plus, we heard that Ropes is very appreciative of its trainees' time: “It's always acknowledged and you're always thanked. They say, 'I'm so sorry, take tomorrow off!'” However, interviewees did take it for granted that they should be “reachable all the time. If you're at the theatre or a funeral that's fine, but we're paid a huge amount (£95,000 upon qualification) and clients are demanding. It sounds terrifying but there are worse firms out there!” Proof that it can't be all that scary: six out of seven qualifiers stayed on in 2016.
Zero shades of gray
Sources were unanimously effusive when describing Ropes' culture: “Everyone is totally approachable; you can walk into a senior partner's office and they're happy to chat. No one is notorious for being horrible.” What's more, Ropes' lawyers jump straight into being nice: “The day I got my training contract offer a partner called me and said, 'Why don't you come for a drink with us tonight?'” Sources felt this “lack of hierarchy” stemmed from the London office's youth: “It's quite unique and refreshing in that sense. No one can say, 'Well this is how it's been done for years and years.'”
There's no denying that Ropes London has grown quite a bit since 2010: one trainee “went on secondment, came back, and there were twice as many people here!” Despite trainee forecasts of exponential growth and forays into new areas, training principal Dan Martin suggests we hold our horses. “I don't think many new practice areas will crop up actually. If you look at our competitors – Kirkland & Ellis and Gibson Dunn, for example – the typical size of a US firm's London office is between 150 and 200 lawyers. We're currently at 130, so we've plateaued in terms of growth. Never say never, of course, but we're pragmatic.” So what does Martin see in the future then? “We will maintain momentum and look to build on our newer areas: in the last year we welcomed teams in securitisation and finance, litigation, data protection and competition.”
Ropes doesn't “encourage a drinking culture,” but it does understand the importance of partying: “They give us cash to do whatever we want, and even after an impromptu Friday night at the pub, the firm picks up the tab.”
How to get a Ropes & Gray training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: 31 January 2017
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2017
Ropes & Gray opened its London office in 2010. The firm has had a formal trainee recruitment process in place for the past two years and is continuing to develop an ‘attraction campaign’ to ensure it recruits the very best candidates, head of HR Beverley Sorsby informs us. 2016 marked Ropes & Gray’s first foray into the world of university law fairs, with recruiters pitching up at UCL, Bristol, Durham, Oxford and Cambridge.
Training contract applications and requirements
Applicants will need at least AAB at A Level and have either gained or be on track for a 2:1 degree. The firm also welcomes applications from those turning to the law as a second career.
Ropes & Gray receives over 200 direct applications for its training contracts every year. At the moment, around seven new trainees are sought during each recruitment round. Given the smaller number of applications received (in comparison to larger City outfits), Sorsby tells us that the firm's hiring staff can “read every application to analyse its true merit.”
So what will recruiters be looking out for on the form? Previous work experience in other City firms is a plus, in that it enables candidates to demonstrate an understanding of the culture they're about to enter. However, don't panic if you can't secure that kind of experience: focus instead on nabbing appropriate opportunities that will prove your dedication to a career in law. For example, Sorsby tells us that pro bono experience gets a big thumbs up, so explore what your university or law school can offer on that front. Commercial awareness is another important area, and candidates will be asked to comment on the significance of a current hot topic in their initial application. “Lawyers have to provide commercial solutions,” says Sorsby, “so showing that you really understand and have an interest in the commercial world is incredibly important.” Check out our features on legal industry trends and news to prepare.
After filling in the online application form, the most promising candidates complete a video interview. If they ace this, around 12 are then invited to the firm for an assessment day.
Interviews and assessments
Candidates will also be asked a commercial-based question during their face-to-face interview. Sorsby assures us that this requires little to no prior legal knowledge, and sets out to test a candidate's general business knowledge and awareness of current global economic issues. Interviewees can also expect to be asked 'Why Ropes & Gray?' “This is where some applicants fall down,” Sorsby points out. “When applying, they may not have considered Ropes & Gray enough, so in the interview we'll probe and challenge our candidates on their reasons for applying to the firm.”
Given the emphasis on growth, interviewers will also assess how entrepreneurial each candidate is. Those who have “a natural sense of business development” will especially impress. Before the interview day arrives, think of some worthy examples that demonstrate your entrepreneurial flare: you might have started your own mini-venture at university; organised a fundraising activity for a local charity; or put in place a profitable new system during your summer job. Anything that shows you're proactive, creative and can obtain good results should go down well. Interviewees are also expected to complete a written assessment on the day.
The vacation scheme is often used as a stepping stone to a training contract, but not exclusively so. In 2016, Ropes & Gray received 280 applications for its two two-week-schemes, which run over Easter and the summer. There are up to five places available on each scheme and the application process is identical to that of the training contract.
Ropes & Gray's vac schemers all sit together in an open plan area and get exposure to as many practice areas as possible. They're assigned a trainee buddy and a junior associate to help guide them through the scheme, but candidates are encouraged to go and speak to people at all levels to get the most out of their time at the firm. Conducting company searches, drafting documents and completing negotiation exercises are just some of the tasks vac schemers can expect to undertake.
During the scheme, students are assessed via a presentation, an interview and a written assessment. Those who really impress are likely to be offered a training contract – around 55% of Ropes & Gray's trainees are recruited off the back of the vac scheme. On the social side there are nights out with the current crop of trainees, who also organise an internal networking event for all vac schemers. Students are paid £350 a week to cover expenses.
Interview with training principal Dan Martin
Student Guide: What's the general strategy going forward?
Dan Martin: It's to maintain momentum and consolidate our very impressive wins on the client and deal front. Last year new teams in SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) finance, litigation, data protection and antitrust joined us, expanding our contentious side – which was necessary for a firm of our size. Going forward we will be trying to build out those newer areas.
SG: How would you break down the division of R&G's London practices by headcount?
DM: By far the biggest is finance, which includes high yield investments, SEC, CLO (collateralized loan obligation) and traditional UK finance – so let's say about 40%. This is followed by private equity and corporate at 25%, special situations at 20% and private equity fund formation at 15%.
SG: Can you tell us more about R&G's trainee recruitment process?
DM: We run a number of events and we're experimenting with different types of attraction techniques, like the Chambers Student Guide. We've been at City Law Live for the past two years in a row, which we've found to be a very good event. We also run an Easter and a summer vacation scheme every year, and the application deadline for both falls on 31 January 2017. We aim to take four or five candidates on each scheme, but we're quite flexible and currently running one with seven. The strength of the candidate will get them on it. The schemes gives us a chance to get to know the candidates and for them to get to know the firm – both sides are provided with the best opportunities to make an informed decision.
SG: What are R&G recruiters looking for when screening candidates?
DM: We deliberately have a number of people involved in the selection process. We think diversity is desirable so the starting point for us is putting together a diverse panel of selectors. The trainees who've succeeded the most have been really enthusiastic and able to seize opportunities – those who've got involved in every aspect of office life. It goes beyond just strong academics, and not every academically-gifted candidate would be a good fit here.
SG: What can R&G offer to aspiring trainees and what do you expect in return?
DM: R&G is a young practice in London, so there's a lot of energy and enthusiasm about growing the business, and that will continue. Trainees will benefit from a smaller office because they're more likely to be known personally and less likely to find themselves pigeon-holed. Our contentious trainees, for example, cover white collar crime, litigation and competition. I suspect in larger firms that range would be covered by more than one trainee. What we'd expect in return is enthusiasm and a willingness to embrace the opportunity.
SG: How important is it for candidates to have an interest in finance?
DM: People coming to this firm should have an interest in private equity and leveraged finance – the other parts of our offering have been developed to provide services to those same clients. If you're litigating, for example, it will be in a private equity and leveraged finance context. With regards to demonstrating that interest: since 2008 there's been a lot of press about high finance, as well as a number of popular books like Liar's Poker, The Big Short and Fool's Gold. Read them and make sure you understand what the City does on a day-to-day basis – for your future sanity if for nothing else!
SG: How would you describe R&G's culture?
DM: I've worked at a magic circle firm and another American firm in London, but I think I've enjoyed working at R&G the most. There is generally a good atmosphere here and everyone is enthused when new deals and matters come in. It's the type of place where people want you to succeed.
Ropes & Gray LLP
60 Ludgate Hill,
- Partners 32
- Assistant solicitors 94
- Total trainees 13
- Contact Beverley Sorsby, head of human resources London, 020 3201 1608
- Method of application Online application form
- Selection procedure Video interview followed by an interview with two members of the trainee recruitment committee
- Closing date for August 2018/March 2019 application
- Vacation scheme applications: 31 January 2017
- Training contract applications: 31 July 2017
- No of training contracts pa 5-7
- Applicationspa 400
- % interviewed pa 5%
- Required degree grade 2:1
- Salary for each year training
- First year: £44,000
- Second year: £48,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- Post-qualification salary £95,000
- % trainees offered NQ role 85%
- Overseas/regional offices Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Silicon Valley, New York, Washington, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul, Tokyo
Main areas of work