Mega work, mega money, mega hours... this US juggernaut's reputation precedes it, but is the beast cuddlier than you might expect?
Skad's the limit
Internationally speaking, New York giant Skadden's best known as a transactional powerhouse, and it's got a worldwide top-banana Chambers Global ranking for corporate/M&A work to prove it. The firm's London office lives up to that reputation while also boasting a distinctive speciality: its international arbitration practice is top-ranked by Chambers UK. The office's banking, capital markets and financial crime expertise also picks up notable nods. New arrivals were clear about Skadden's appeal: “It's best in class. I was looking for somewhere that does top-ticket work, but doesn't have a huge intake.” Skadden held the title of best brand in American law for five years (according to the Acritas U.S. Law Firm Brand Index), and despite being knocked off the top spot by Jones Day in 2017, it's still winning market-rocking mandates, like 21st Century Fox's proposed £11.2 billion takeover of Sky.
The firm's hard-nosed Wall Street image may generate certain preconceptions about its culture – “aggressive,” “power-hungry” and “masochistic” were all bandied about in our interviews – but trainees were eager to dispel the myths. “It's really not like that,” one asserted. “I'd say people have that idea because Skadden encourages trainees to be entrepreneurial – you can take as much responsibility as you want.” Another agreed: “They'll throw you in at the deep end, but you'll always get a life raft.” Several interviewees strongly recommended nabbing a spot on the firm's vacation scheme, as it's “the best way to gain insight into what Skadden's really like.”
Upon arrival, every trainee is assigned one transactional and one litigation seat to cover their first year; second-year seats are “a bit more flexible” and allocated following discussions with training principal Danny Tricot. It might seem limiting on paper, but interviewees appreciated that the set-up “helps you to build a well-rounded knowledge and understand the whole firm.” Qualification follows a similar 'less-is-more' approach: “There are no formal interviews, as it's something you discuss as you go through your training contract.” All of our insiders hoped to stay on at Skadden and felt “the firm has a place for all of us. There's no natural selection culling process.” In 2017, eight of nine qualifiers stayed on.
How many zeroes in a billion?
Litigation/arbitration is arguably the London office's signature dish; it's officially one seat and trainees get the chance to sample both sides. When it comes to litigation Skadden is adept at handling cases for financial services, telecoms and energy and natural resources clients, as well as super-wealthy individuals: the team recently won a reverse summary judgment in the English High Court on a $380 million claim against Ukrainian billionaire Gennadiy Bogolyubov.Research is the name of the game for trainees, which provides “good opportunities to hone drafting skills,” alongside document review and sitting in on strategy meetings. Things can be “fast moving: by my second week I was on a billion-dollar arbitration with the team and had to catch up immediately on the background – which stretched back 15 years! I was on calls with clients and did an exceptional amount of trial prep.” Billion-dollar judgments are far from unusual at Skadden – in one doozy of a case, the firm secured a $1.2 billion award for Japanese telecommunications giant NTT DOCOMO. Trainees also got the chance to work on bilateral investment treaties – one reported that “we were looking to see if we could restructure a partly-nationalised company. I ended up dying a bit of a death, but it was very interesting!”
“I started with the skeleton and it ended up as a 340 page document.”
Heading down to corporate (literally, it's on the lower floors), trainees are assigned to either M&A, insurance, private equity or capital markets streams, but are encouraged to seek work from across the department. Multi-jurisdictional deals are par for the course here, with the group recently advising Nokia's Finland arm on a $16.6 billion combination with French company Alcatel-Lucent. Skadden's capital markets work covers both debt and equity offerings, as well as high-yield financings; HSBC, US energy tech outfit Ecolab and Africa-focused financial services group Atlas Mara have all been clients. A source here told us that "you're never doing printing or binding; instead I'm drafting supporting documents then flicking them in front of the supervisor before they go out." How much rope do newbies really get? "My supervisor was busy so they asked me to do the first draft of the prospectus," said another, adding: "I started with the skeleton and it ended up as a 340 page document." Cases are often coordinated with the firm's overseas offices, and there's even the possibility of a jaunt overseas if duty calls.
Tax is usually only available as a third or fourth seat. Trainees sometimes get their own office and as the team is only four lawyers deep “it makes for a good stepping stone between being a trainee and an associate.” The department handles both contentious and advisory work, much of which is cross-border and has included advising insurance giant Phoenix Group on tax issues relating to its £935 million acquisition of Abbey Life Assurance. A “research-heavy” stint here offers “a good chance to get into statutes and work with everyone in the office, as a lot of the work feeds into the firm's transactions.” Elsewhere, trainees were happy with their stint in banking, “managing the checklist, which requires you to liaise with local counsel and press them for outstanding documents – in my first month I also got to draft a global deed of release, which was terrifying but great early exposure.” Those in the designated white-collar crime seat also documented “a lot of travel” to European capitals in order to “interview people, work out evidence and conduct doc review – it was more fact-based, and covered things like drug cartels and smuggling.”
NYC you later
It's also possible to go on secondment to the firm's Hong Kong office or New York HQ, where “the work is a lot more substantial, because they treat you like a US associate.” The process for going is as simple as filling out an application to explain “how the experience would benefit you,” but competition is stiff with four slots available for a second-year intake of nine. The firm also likes would-be secondees to know which department they want to qualify into so they can tailor their trip accordingly.
“There's no face-time culture,” said trainees, but “when things are busy you're expected to be here working hard.” US firms are notorious for long hours, but our sources had the required degree of resilience to handle them. Days vary in corporate so “sometimes you'll do 9am to 6pm, but at other times you won't leave until long past midnight,” thus “it's not the length that's difficult, but the unpredictability, as you come into work not knowing when you'll be leaving.” Litigation offers a more consistent, “manageable” average end-time of 8pm. By all accounts, only needing “two taxi rides home in eight months” is good going.
“The Wharf seems a bit strange when you first get here, but it grows on you.”
The firm's office is nestled outside the City in London's other big financial centre, Canary Wharf. Some trainees confessed that “the Wharf seems a bit strange when you first get here, but it grows on you, and there are more restaurants than there used to be, so people now come here in the evening by choice.” Skadden's building may seem “grey and sterile,” but “there's a ping pong table outside the office and mini-golf down the corridor, so I can't complain too much!” When you're not knocking balls about there are “a fair amount of lunchtime learning sessions” to complement on-the-job training.
Supervisors play a big role in trainees' education: “They're not just there to fall back on, but to teach and push you, and if you screw up they'll tell you.” It may sound intense, but the firmprovides ways of dealing with stress: if things get tough “you can go downstairs and get a back massage,” and it's always “helpful to have a close-knit group of trainees to offload on.” New starters got plenty of chances to bear their souls over a pint as “people try to go out for drinks most Fridays,” and the firm organises departmental and summer parties as well as a big Christmas event: 2016's was a Narnia-themed affair at the Honourable Artillery Company complete with (thankfully fake) polar bears.
If a starting salary of £45,000 isn't enough to lure you in, Skadden offers its NQs a wallet-busting £118,000, “a big factor when people choose to qualify or move here.”
How to get a Skadden training contract
Training contract deadline (2020): 31 July 2018
Scope of recruitment
Future trainees at Skadden need a strong academic record, including the standard 2:1 degree, but training principal Danny Tricot is quick to tell us “we don't just hire on the basis of candidates being clever. We also want to see that they are ambitious, motivated self-starters. We typically operate in small groups, so we need people who are happy to be treated like an associate from day one.” He goes on to say: “They also need to work well with others – somebody you'd be happy to work late on a transaction with.” We're told the lion's share of applications generally come from just six or seven universities, among them Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, LSE, King's and UCL.
The firm does accept direct training contract applications, but our sources emphasised that the vac scheme is its primary form of recruiting. The process for both types of application is the same.
Applications begin with an online form. “Candidates should really tailor their answers,” says Tricot, explaining: “We need to get a sense of who you are and why Skadden is the place for you – we can tell when you've applied to 50 other firms with the same copy/paste responses.” He also advises detailing why certain points are relevant. “We often hear about various awards and competitions, but instead of just naming them and saying you came first, tell us what inspired you. Frankly, I don't care if you came tenth – it's all about explaining what you drew from it.”
Previous legal work experience “isn't crucial” to land a spot, though Tricot says he is “a bit disappointed” when candidates don't have any work experience at all. “Put everything you've done down on your CV, even if it's shop work or working in a restaurant – that shows you've got a good work ethic.”
From a total of 1,000 or so applicants, between 80 and 100 are invited the firm's open day – an assessment day of sorts. Passing this is a prerequisite for getting on the vac scheme.
The day begins with a 45-minute office tour and welcome session, then a half-hour interview with a partner and associate. “In this interview, we want to get an idea of what kind of person you are,” says Tricot, “so we tend to veer away from questions like 'Why do you want to be a lawyer?' and instead talk about what's on your application form and why you think Skadden is for you.”
After that, there's a group exercise in which applicants engage in debates or role-play as board members of a company. “We're trying to find out whether they're shrinking violets at this point,” says Tricot, “though we certainly don't want to see any aggression. Candidates need to have the social skills to judge how to behave with people they've just met.” Rounding off the day is a presentation on the firm and a Q&A session.
Around half of those who attend the open day go on to attend Skadden's summer or Easter vac scheme. Each lasts two weeks, with candidates splitting their time between two departments. Vac schemers “are treated just like trainees, and the work they produce may even be used,” says Tricot. “It's all about giving them an accurate picture of what it's like behind the desk.” Current trainees gave the experience two thumbs-up: “I saw a big difference between Skadden's scheme and the others I went on, where it felt like they were trying to pull the wool over my eyes with cocktails and canapés,” said one. “Here they treat you like adults from the get-go and don't try to sell you the fairytale. For example, I told a couple of associates I was worried about the hours I'd be expected to do, and they all went straight away to print out their time sheets to show me the reality.”
Toward the end of the scheme, candidates undergo an interview with two partners. This is accompanied by a written test and a presentation on a current affairs issue. Typically, Skadden offers between ten and 12 training contracts per year, and successful candidates can expect to hear back by September.
US firms in London
Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom (UK) LLP
40 Bank Street,
- Partners 32*
- Associates 120
- Trainees 18*
- UK offices 1
- Overseas offices 22 - Beijing, Boston, Brussels, Chicago, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Houston, London, Los Angeles, Moscow, Munich, New York, Palo Alto, Paris, São Paulo, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore, Tokyo, Toronto, Washington DC, Wilmington
- *London office
- Aidan Connor, graduate recruitment manager
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 10-12
- Applications pa: 1,000
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: 31 July 2018
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 12 January 2018
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £45,000
- Second-year salary: £50,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £8,000
Main areas of work
The firm can offer you the chance to develop your career in a uniquely rewarding and professional environment. You will join a close-knit but diverse team in which you will be given ample opportunity to work on complex matters, almost all with an international aspect, whilst benefiting from highly personalised training and supervision in an informal and friendly environment. The first year of your training contract will be divided into two six month seats where you will gain experience in corporate transactions and international litigation and arbitration. In the second year of your training contract, you will have the opportunity to discuss your preferences for your remaining two seats. The firm also offers the opportunity for second year trainees to be seconded to our Hong Kong or New York office for a six month seat.