Glowing financial results and growing geographies mean it's cheers all round at Lavanda, A&O's very own bar and terrace...
“I was attracted to A&O by its banking and geographical strengths,” one fairly representative trainee told us, although while banking is a big part of Allen & Overy's business, it is by no means the be-all and end-all. The global finance world's bounce-back in the years since the Great Recession helped A&O report record results in July 2014 –profits were up 7% in 2013/14 to £532m, with turnover 2% higher at a neat £1.23bn. “A&O has a big presence in China – with offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong,” another trainee pointed out, trying to explain the glowing financials. Geographic expansion has indeed continued apace, helping to drive growth. Last year we reported new offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City; this year Myanmar is the latest pin on A&O's map of the world, bringing the total up to 43. At the same time, A&O has undergone a massive streamlining operation in the past few years. In a headline-grabbing move, it shifted its European and US support staff to Belfast in 2011. Improved efficiency and cost-savings are paying dividends. The Support Services Centre now employs some 350 staff.
Such is the importance of Spitalfields-headquartered A&O's international network of offices – and cross-border nature of much of its work – that many trainees spend the last six months of their training contract abroad. “Most go all around the globe – Dubai, Washington, Shanghai, Moscow, Paris...” The list seems almost endless. Many of those who stay at home for their last seat will go on client secondment, although some will miss out either through choice or because their desired destinations were too popular. “I was delighted to get my secondment – international opportunities were one of the reasons I joined the firm. I understand that a few people were pretty annoyed that they didn't get theirs, or got a client secondment they didn't put down.” Nevertheless, opportunity knocks even louder for the most globally minded, because there are usually “a dozen or so NQ jobs across the international network” each year.
“They're very good at getting you where you want to go.”
Generally, though, interviewees spoke very positively about seat allocation. “The best thing about the training contract is the ability to work in any department I wanted to work in. Seat selection is very good. I got all my first-choice seats.” A couple of months before the end of their accelerated, A&O-tailored LPC, future trainees attend a fairly comprehensive open day, a bit like a careers fair, in which the various departments set up a stall each and showcase what they have to offer. “You also get a brochure from HR which describes the various groups and subgroups. You then submit a form noting down groups you're interested in and HR will then allocate people's first seats.” Three or four months into your training contract, you'll sit down to discuss your next two six-month seats, one being your 'priority seat' and one your 'request seat'. Sources praised this process as people usually get what they want. Furthermore, you can specify a subgroup and even a particular trainer (as supervisors are called here) – maybe you've heard good things about them, or met them at the information day and felt you 'clicked'. “They're very good at getting you where you want to go,” reiterated one junior. “By and large everyone gets what they want,” confirmed another.
A&O has two intakes each year, one in September and one in March. While there are lots of seat options on offer, as you'd expect in a magic circle firm, each trainee must do seats within two of the three core practice groups: banking, corporate and international capital markets (ICM). From 2014, they can do two banking seats rather than one. Other options include litigation, real estate and tax. There are some three-month seats, although they're rare: “You can do three months in litigation, then three months somewhere else like banking [litigation], pensions, environment – niche areas – but they do change a lot.” Trainers tend to be senior associates and, less often, partners.
The giant banking group is subdivided internally into different 'B' teams, each with its own number. We won't list them all here, but B2, for example, is structured and asset finance (like aircraft and ship financing), which is now separate from B3,which is leveraged finance and general lending. B4 is restructuring. You get the idea. A trainee might ask to do a banking seat and will be put into one of the Bs – or they might request a specific subgroup in advance. Banking clients include lenders like Barclays, HSBC and Goldman Sachs, borrowers like Marks & Spencer and advertising conglomerate WPP, and financial sponsors including CVC, Charterhouse, Cinven and HgCapital.
On a typical deal, said one interviewee, “I got to go to lots of internal meetings, and all-party meetings to discuss the terms of the financing. Towards the end of the deal I co-ordinated board minutes, and went to the client's office for the day to review documents with another firm.” Another trainee told us: “I spend quite a lot of time liaising with counsel and local parties, and circulating documents. You spread yourself over two or three deals. It's nice to deal with other jurisdictions.” Occasional travel abroad is one perk we heard about in a banking seat. Trainees described banking as “very, very busy”– a good thing for getting more responsibility “out of necessity, because trainers are so swamped! Mine gave me a lot of drafting, got me involved in internal discussions, let me loose on clients.” Another did “extensive drafting of documents I'd never seen before, for my trainer to review.”
"I felt I was contributing.”
Corporate subteams are similarly divided into numbers. C6 in particular is one to watch right now, as half of what it does, private equity, is an area “the firm is investing in heavily” (the other half of C6 is oil and gas work). For example, it recently brought in a heavy hitter from Ashurst, Stephen Lloyd, to co-head the group, as well as other lateral partners. General M&A is the bread and butter for corporate lawyers, and sources spoke of the usual peaks and troughs in this type of work. “I had a fair amount of client contact and was taking calls myself towards the end of it. The amount of work goes up and down. When there's a lot going on people expect you to pull your socks up and be there. When it's quiet you can leave.” Another experienced “high-level work” in this seat –"I was thrown into the fire on a big transaction. I worked on four or five different things. There was a lot of drafting work and client contact, drafting memos based on research, legal documents – generally I felt I was contributing.”
Among many notable work highlights, lawyers in the Paris office (located next to the Arc de Triomphe) advised French multinational Vivendi on the €17bn sale of its phone unit SFR to European cable group Altice. In another highlight, A&O advised on the complex £3.4bn loan and bond refinancing for broadcast transmission provider Arqiva, a transaction which involved partners in departments including banking, corporate, ICM and tax. Lawyers in London, Germany, Romania and the US recently advised Romanian state-owned electricity company Electrica on its dual listing and IPO on the Bucharest and London stock exchanges.
With over 450 lawyers worldwide, A&O's ICM practice is huge too, and trainees for the most part enjoyed their time here. Clients like Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse and Citibank benefit from brainy legal advice involving concepts like derivatives, securitisation, structured finance and intercreditor issues – if, like our chancellor George Osborne, the question 'what is seven times eight?' makes you break out into a cold, silent sweat, then probably best to avoid this one if you can. Thankfully, said one trainee, “my trainer was great and has kept in touch throughout my training contract.”
“People can have wildly different experiences.”
Quite a few avoid doing a formal litigation seat, racking up their 40 hours SRA-required contentious experience in pro bono matters instead. Employment is a popular team – "very competitive but they fitted us all in. It's a smaller team, so you get more exposure to each other's working styles. The hours are probably better than in the transactional teams because there's less business-critical work where you have to find a deal and it must be done tonight. By contrast, employment follows tribunal dates so it's easier to plan ahead. You get work requests from all of litigation in a general email, and you can chip in ad hoc on anything if you're not busy. But generally you only do work for your subteam.”
Other litigation subteams include arbitration (where “people can have wildly different experiences”), finance/regulation, commercial litigation and intellectual property. “You're better valued as a trainee in transactional groups,” some found. “Litigation is hierarchical – trainees do bundles and legal research. You can't really have trainees running round and sending emails. There is a lot of copy checking, bundling – not stuff you can give to a secretary, but not the most exciting legal work.” Litigation is a strategic priority for A&O, so expect to see further growth here in the coming years. In one recent case, the firm acted for private equity firm CVC in a dispute over monies owed following the onward sale of a beer company to Molson Coors.
When it comes to appraisals, trainees get a “very helpful” mid-seat informal review –“it's good to hear where you stand before the formal end-of-seat review.” A 'buddy' in your first six months “mostly answers silly questions like how to turn on the computer.” Trainees update their 'record of experience' as they go along, ticking off the types of work each department does as they do it. They're graded between one and five at the end of each seat, one being the best and five the worst. “It's good to show progress, but some trainers never give more than a three, while some always give one,” we heard, although “there is a meeting between partners to iron out inconsistencies. There's trainee gossip about more lenient departments, but the system works.” In reviews, trainers “give input, and advice about what to focus on in the next seat.”
"The days go so fast."
And what of those notorious magic circle hours? “When I started I thought 'how will I ever do such long hours?' But the days go so fast a lot of the time. You work on quite interesting stuff, so you're happy to see it through to the end. Plus, the rest of the team is there with you.” There were rumours of sleeping pods, whose existence was confirmed by more than one source: “Yes, I've seen them! There are four, like tiny hotel rooms, with a single bed and en suite bathroom.” People can take time off in lieu (known as TOIL) if certain mega-hours and “business targets” have been met, but more commonly “lots of departments operate a discretionary system.” Most interviewees regularly worked well into the evening every weekday, sometimes past midnight, but equally felt able to leave much earlier (5.30pm or 6pm) during quieter times. “A&O is good at distributing work evenly, so the week after a really hard shift I was given less work. Some trainees can get quite stressed, but everyone's part of a team and the firm does look for resilient characters.”
Is it all work and no play? “Before I started I thought people would be driven, high-achieving, but they're also normal and sociable.” A&O's very own café/restaurant-by-day, bar-by-night, Lavanda (whose name may or may not be a pun on the lavender plants on its terrace), is ever-popular. As the office has “one foot in the City, and one in Shoreditch,” there are tons of hipster pubs, bars and restaurants nearby, including The Gun, and The Water Poet. This year's trainee ball was in the "jungle room" of the Barbican Centre (a hidden gem, we can assure you), while various sports and arty things (like a choir and theatre) are available for those so inclined. The basement gym is a “social hub,” as is the “mini sports hall” which hosts things like football, badminton and classes like spinning and “boxercise.” However, “the tennis club seems to have more social functions than actual games!” A&O has long-established pro bono links with Toynbee Hall and Battersea Legal Advice Centre, among other places. And in 2009 the firm launched its 'Smart Start Experience' for underprivileged Year 12 students to sample a week in A&O's office.
In 2014, 82 of A&O's 99 qualifiers stayed with the firm.
This firm has no profile.