Don't believe the hype (well, believe some of it): New York's Skadden is a heavy hitter that stares down its rivals for the weightiest matters – but just like any bruiser, it also has a softer side.
Who's the skaddy?
There are elite firms, and then there's Skadden. Known the world over as a corporate powerhouse, recent statistics show that Skadden's still got it: in 2015 the firm topped the global M&A tables, after its lawyers took on 293 deals worth over $1 trillion – that's nearly a quarter of the global market share. But there's another, less desirable element of Skadden's reputation that seems to have stuck too: “People think that this is a firm where management is faceless and everyone is pushed to their limits.” However, it became apparent after a few minutes of talking to our sources that Skadden's popular 'Death Star' moniker doesn't really hold up. “From the moment I started on the vac scheme I realised that image of Skadden was completely unfounded. The matters we were working on were substantial, but I felt a lot more valued because of that and could imagine myself at the firm permanently. Plus you quickly realise how nice everyone is and that they definitely don't want to be at work any longer than they have to be!” Most of our sources had taken part in the firm's vac scheme, which came complete with “loads of lunches and dinners and an evening spent watching football from a box at Stamford Bridge” – making us wish we'd done it too.
Founded in New York City in the late 1940s, the firm started out as a refreshing alternative to the snooty 'white shoe' firms that dominated Manhattan's legal market. With three Jewish immigrants as its founding fathers, Skadden has always held diversity close to its heart. And the London office continues this tradition, with a third of its associates belonging to an ethnic minority, and nearly half of its partners the first in their family to attend university. That's not to say that Skadden didn't get where it is today by being all cuddly and inclusive. It's ambitious at heart, and is known for going after and poaching the crème de la crème of the corporate law world. In 2016 it pinched K&L Gates' head of corporate crime, Elizabeth Robertson, to steer the firm's London-based government enforcement and white-collar crime practice. Contentious work is another strong suit for the firm: Skadden's international arbitration expertise is top-ranked in Chambers UK, while its litigation arm is rated in the prestigious 'elite' category. The firm also receives slicker-than-your-average nods for its banking, M&A, equity capital markets and restructuring work.
Trainees are expected to complete a transactional seat and one in litigation/arbitration. Trainees get a chance to discuss their options with training principal Danny Tricot during every seat and then submit two preferences before rotation. Sources did warn future joiners not to expect getting their top choice every time, but the good news is that “there are only nine possible seats, so you will end up doing at least a couple of your priorities.” Second-years can undertake an overseas seat in Hong Kong or New York.
“I've flicked between cases in India, France and Eastern Europe.”
Litigation/arbitration is arguably the London office's signature dish. It is officially one seat but the department is made up of specialist lawyers with expertise in areas like offshore and shareholder disputes, as well as in industries like energy and telecoms. Trainees are likely to experience “the whole spectrum of work because your supervisor will try to assign you as varied a caseload as possible.” Of the two wings, “arbitration is the most international,” so expect to become acquainted with multiple jurisdictions: “I've flicked between cases in India, France and Eastern Europe – all in the space of one day.” Sovereign states, banks and international corporations dot the team's books here, as well as high net worth individuals with a presence in the UK. Recent highlights show the scope of the department's reach: Skadden's arbitration lawyers have represented Vodafone during a $4.33 billion investment treaty dispute against the government of India; defended the government of South Sudan against a claim brought by Sudan's state-owned oil company, Sudapet; and secured a victory for NTT DOCOMO – Japan's largest telecoms company – in a $1.2 billion arbitration against Tata Group's holding company. “My supervisor was open to letting me do everything that I wanted to do,” a source here reported, “so I got to review and draft requests for arbitration, and help to draft the responses to any requests too.”
There have been some mighty cases on the litigation side as well. The firm's made headlines for taking on mega squabbles between oligarchs, namely the $6 billion Berezovsky v Abramovich case and the $2 billion Pinchuk v Bogoliubov & Kolomoisky one. It's also helped the French network of banks, Crédit Agricole, to strike a settlement with the US Attorney's Office after a seven year long sanctions investigation, and represented the lead claimant (tobacco giant Philip Morris) in a judicial review challenge against the UK government's plain packaging law – one of the biggest challenges to be considered in the English courts. Not bad for a team with just over 40 qualified lawyers split between two practices. Litigation has similar clients to arbitration and while the bulk of the cases take place in the English courts, some hearings occur in places like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands – jurisdictions with similar common law principles. And, before you ask, trainees have been known to jet over to the Caribbean to help out. “The work is definitely exciting to be involved in because it's all over the news,” said trainees on this side of the contentious fence. There's a team of legal assistants who “take on a lot of the heavy lifting,” but trainees can still expect “a fair amount of bundling to make sure everything is cross-referenced properly.” Perks are evident though: “I'd be invited to the various strategy meetings and I helped to brief the client to ensure that they were fully prepared for giving evidence.”
Multi-jurisdictional deals are also the forte of Skadden's M&A and capital markets team. Before 2015 these were two distinct teams but the firm has effectively merged them under one big corporate umbrella. As a result, trainees are encouraged to “source work from wherever you want, unless your supervisor is really swamped that is. I didn't really know what I was interested in so it was great.” Those on the capital markets side work on debt offerings and bonds, as well as top-notch IPOs and high-yield financings. London lawyers on the equity side recently advised Old Mutual Asset Management on its $267 million secondary offering on the New York Stock Exchange. If you're leaning towards M&A then expect more bumper deals: headline matters of late include acting for pharma company Mylan on its proposed $33 billion acquisition of Perrigo; representing Nikkei – Japan's largest media company – as it purchased the Financial Times Group from Pearson for $1.3 billion; and advising Finland-based Konecranes during its $10 billion merger with US manufacturer Terex. On these mammoth deals sources were “ensuring that we had all the checklist points signed, drafting the smaller agreements, and reviewing the main SPAs to make sure nothing that could be disadvantageous to our clients was being overlooked.”
Banking and finance lawyers have particular expertise in acquisition finance, high-yield bond deals and restructurings. Many matters have a European aspect to them, so we wondered whether the team had been impacted by the result of the EU referendum: “In terms of weathering the storm, Skadden is well placed due to its substantial US client base,” trainees assured us. “Even when the market was quiet, we were working on a huge deal out of Hong Kong.” Trainees spend a lot of time running conditions precedent checklists, but also draft supporting documentation like guarantee agreements. A marquee deal for the team came when it advised US manufacturing company Ball Corporation on the financing of its proposed $8.4 billion takeover of UK consumer packaging company Rexam. This type of cross-border work means that trainees are “regularly helping the US offices in order to make sure that any agreements are in line with European market practices.”
“You can sit in your PJs while you work.”
When conversation turned to the sticky subject of hours, sources were divided as to how severe they really were. “In many ways Skadden lives up to its reputation, as I've been working on big deals and getting a lot of responsibility. But there are some things that I expected – like really long hours and an aggressive culture – that haven't really materialised.” While this source was glad that the hours weren't quite as punishing as expected, others did reveal that there are some tiring periods. “When you're on a deal in the transactional seats, you can expect to work a few weekends and have some 2am finishes.” Things tend to be a bit calmer in litigation, but “when you're coming up to a hearing, you'll probably be staying until 11.30pm most nights.” However, trainees won't always be sat looking glum on the tube every Saturday morning, as the firm gives them all a laptop “that allows you to sign into the Skadden network from home – so you can sit in your PJs while you work.” Newbies also get to pick their company phone – either an iPhone or a BlackBerry. Hmm... decisions, decisions.
Of all the perks, the firm should stand out for its pay: “As far as trainee salaries go, I look at my friends at other firms who aren't working weekends and are leaving at 7pm most nights, and you can't help but think about the disparity.” Typical to many top US firms in London, small teams equate to greater responsibility: "you're constantly being told that you are essentially a junior associate." And then once you become fully fledged, “the NQ salaries are excellent," by which we mean a life-altering sum of £118,000.
There are two big firm-wide parties a year, one at Christmas and one during the summer, as well as a smaller one on the 4th July to celebrate some kind of independence day, or something. In 2015, the Christmas party was held at London's swanky Claridge's hotel, while summer vibes bloomed atop the Big Easy's roof garden in Canary Wharf, where there was “a barbecue and dancing until 2am.” Outside of these collective events, a lot of socialising takes place within teams, with some – banking and corporate, we're looking at you – more extroverted than others.
Skadden is usually filed under the same heading as Weil Gotshal or Cleary Gottlieb, ie mega US firms with a smallish but formidable presence in London. However, unlike the other two, Skadden's London HQ isn't in the City. Most sources agreed that its Isle of Dogs location at first made them hesitant: “I really wanted to work in the City and not in Canary Wharf, but it's actually great. It's not exactly quiet but it's a bit calmer than the Square Mile. There are enough places to go after work and if you want to go to the City or the courts you can just hop in a taxi.” Being East has other benefits too, as “there are more young people around here and it's cheaper to live close to the office. The DLR is great as well!” Despite being in a modern, airy building – next to Clifford Chance, “the real Death Star,” one quipped – the London base is split into individual offices and “everyone gets their own once they've qualified.”
As for qualification, “it's pretty informal and there's no form-filling.” Training principal Danny Tricot will “ask where you're thinking of qualifying” during mid and end-of-seat meetings. When second-years have a clear idea, “it's just a matter of telling Danny and he'll discuss it with the head of that department” and “about halfway through your fourth seat he'll call and tell you where you are going.” In 2016, seven out of eight qualifiers moved into their very own NQ office at Skadden. “Everyone who wanted to stay is and in their first choice,” one cheerfully reported, before seizing an opportunity to get their claws out: “We're not like the larger firms where they have 100 trainees and have to cut them by a certain percentage.” Ouch.
Out of only 11 partnership promotions worldwide, two were made in London, demonstrating “the office's importance in the network,” trainees suggested.
How to get a Skadden training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2017): 12 January 2017
Training contract deadline (2019): 31 July 2017
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 mention “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 fairy tale. 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 the UK
Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom (UK) LLP
40 Bank Street,
- Partners 31*
- Associates 115
- Trainees 16*
- *London office
- Contact Aidan Connor, graduate recruitment manager
- Method of application Online application
- Selection procedure A selection event comprising of an interview and a short exercise
- Closing date for 2019 31 July 2017
- Training contracts pa 10-12
- Applications pa 1,000
- % interviewed pa 8%
- Required degree grade 2:1
- Training salary
- First year: £45,000
- Second year: £50,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- % of trainees with a non-law degree pa 50%
- Overseas offices Beijing, Boston, Brussels, Chicago, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Houston, Los Angeles, Moscow, Munich, New York, Palo Alto, Paris, São Paulo, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore, Sydney, Tokyo, Toronto, Washington DC, Wilmington
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