Saddle-up with this slick Texan energy expert for a training contract in a compact, high-paying firm.
Non-rotatin' tootin' good time
V&E bears all the hallmarks of an American firm in London – small intake, high pay and financial flair – but with a special Texan twist on all three (smaller intake, even higher pay and unparalleled energy expertise). Maybe it's because the Lone Star State has always done things a bit differently from the rest of the US that V&E goes the extra mile. The firm was founded during the state's early 20th century oil boom and it still has a lot tied up in that bubblin' black Texas tea. Chambers UK grants it a top ranking for energy and natural resources and recognises the firm for construction, arbitration and projects work. Oil certainly isn't the only thing bubbling at V&E: trainees were gushing in their praise of “an atmosphere of genuine friendliness and a really open culture.” Perhaps this was a factor in Freshfields finance partner Ian Frost joining the firm in March 2016. Frost followed hot on the heels of Cadwalader private equity partner Paul Dunbar and a run of other lateral hires.
The training contract – like a good old-fashioned hoedown – is an informal affair. Trainees do the standard four seats but they are only “seats in inverted commas.” This means you carry work from one seat to another and as a result "can see a deal through from start to finish.” Trainees find out a month before they start each seat where they're moving next. The allocation process is ad hoc, though trainees are consulted in their first mid-seat review about their preferences –“they try to fit it all together and if they can accommodate your wishes they will.”
Due to its historic ties with the oil industry, V&E's ETP department is the diamond in its belt buckle. The team remains the firm's powerhouse, dealing with big-ticket upstream oil and gas M&A, financings and regulatory issues. The semi-non-rotational nature of the training contract means many sources had spent the majority of their contracts on energy matters, which tend to take a while to run their course. Tasks can be high-level –“I was on a finance deal where I was regularly liaising with the client” – though there can be lower-level work too: “You can go for weeks doing bundling then weeks feeling out of your depth.” However, being slightly befuddled is no big deal as “supervisors are more than happy to sit down and go through anything, even when they're busy.” Despite being an office of just 45 fee earners, V&E London works on some titanic deals. A recent highlight saw it advising Iraq's oil ministry on the development of a 1,680-kilometre $18 billion oil pipeline from Iraq to the Red Sea port of Aqaba in Jordan. Other clients include Denmark's former state oil company DONG Energy and the Africa Oil Corporation, which operates across East Africa's Great Rift Valley.
The 15-lawyer litigation/arbitration team deals almost exclusively with international dispute resolution and commercial litigation related to the energy and construction industries. Trainee responsibilities range from “bread-and-butter tasks like conditions precedent checklists and bundling” to attending hearings and client contact over the phone. It might also be advisable to pack your magnifying glass since most arbitrations are very fact-based so “you have to do a lot of research.” Disputes clients include major corporations like Norway's Statoil and UK LNG business BG as well as state-run institutions like the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development and the Panama Canal Authority. Recent work includes representing a Lithuanian energy company in a claim brought against the Latvian government regarding the upgrading of a heating supply facility.
V&E's energy and disputes teams act like a sponge being wetted and squeezed out, soaking up energy and construction expertise and clients and spreading both across the other practice areas. The M&A team regularly operates at the high end of corporate energy transactions and has advised on many of the $1 billion-plus oil and gas deals to have closed in Africa in recent years. It also has a growing telecoms practice that has dialled in on huge network financings and industry acquisitions, especially in Africa and the Middle East. Another good example of the work the team does is its recent representation of investors J.P. Morgan and Barclays as initial purchasers of an offering of high-yield debt worth $500 million by a Norwegian energy company. Trainees in this seat will want to keep their wits, and perhaps a spare pen, about them as sometimes they are needed to “take notes on calls that can last up to four hours.” Not all duties are secretarial: “The work ranges from research to keeping issue lists up to date, which is something associates often do too.” There's also plenty of due diligence and proofreading to be getting on with. Trainees often sit with “one of the highest-billing partners in the firm worldwide” so are never short of things to do.
The firm's smaller departments – tax, construction and employment – are shedding their stabilisers and reaping the rewards of their older siblings' prestige. “Not everyone likes tax” as it is “quite research-oriented” but its energy-related niche means the department contains some of the world's leading lawyers in their (narrow) field. “Many magic circle firms can claim to have the best M&A finance teams in the country but when it comes to tax advice for oil and gas companies, our team really is top-tier and a lot of the work it does is really cutting-edge.” The success of the firm's forays into the construction industry have led to the creation of a distinct department. Business is booming and the team has recently provided advice to the Turkish government over the construction of the new Star Refinery, part of a $5.6 billion investment in the country's oil industry.
V&E trainees can pitch up in Houston, Hong Kong, Dubai or Beijing for an overseas seat. Nonetheless, secondments are by no means guaranteed –“we only have six trainees, so sending one abroad is a big decision” – and those who are keen must make a solid business case for the posting. The firm is not shy about pushing its lawyers and this is reflected in the hours they work: a trainee's typical day across all seats ends at around 8pm. This obviously fluctuates closer to deadlines and since these occur more frequently in litigation, trainees here can expect “a few 1am finishes.” Long hours are well rewarded: NQ pay was recently bumped up 25% to £100k to match the sum paid by several other US firms.
“There's no pressure to socialise.”
Watching the sun set from your desk is also a lot less painful when you're on the 24th floor of London's iconic new 'Walkie Talkie' building. The firm moved into these new premises in February 2016 and all agreed that they were a massive upgrade from the old digs. The new spot has “incredible views of London as you are basically on top of the City.” We'd be lying if we said V&E had the liveliest trainee social scene we've ever come across – there are monthly drinks that “vary in terms of attendance.” But rather than seeing this as a negative, sources liked the fact that “there's no pressure to socialise.” This may also relate to trainees' more mature outlook: all our interviewees this year had spent time living abroad and had previous work experience before starting at the firm.
The informal nature of the contract carries through into the qualification process. From what we could work out, the process works like this: trainees are sat down at the end of their third seat appraisal and are asked which department they'd like to qualify into. Then “if you want to stay, and you're a good trainee” the firm will try to find space for you in your desired team at the end of the contract. In 2016 both qualifiers were retained.
On floors 35, 36 and 37 of the Walkie Talkie, V&E's new digs, is the sky garden: a multi-storey tropical greenhouse with panoramic views across London.
How to get a Vinson & Elkins training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: 31 January 2017
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2017
The vac scheme route
The best way to score a training contract with Vinson & Elkins is to get onto a summer vacation scheme and treat it as an extended interview. According to training principal Mark Beeley, V&E places a great emphasis on its vac schemes, with something like 75% of all trainees completing one prior to joining the firm.
Landing a placement entails passing an interview (to which approximately 50 candidates are invited) in which applicants can expect to be asked why they're applying to a firm that specialises in energy – specifically what they find exciting or interesting about the sector.
In the end the firm typically accepts around 25 participants onto its vac schemes. Each week-long scheme aims to confirm that both sides – the firm and the applicants – are happy with the fit. Afterwards, further interviews to decide who gets a training contract are rare: “The firm makes decisions purely based on how the placement went,” Beeley tells us.
Those applying directly for a training contract face two rounds of interviews, which take place between September and October. These are relatively informal and in the past featured either making presentations or providing interviewees with theoretical scenarios and asking them to give basic legal advice.
Vinson & Elkins gets around 400 applications each year for four training contracts. Competition, naturally, is fierce. Grades-wise, you'll need at least a 2:1 and two As and a B at A level to land an interview, but what then? “If you've made it into the interview, you're obviously a good candidate on paper,” says Beeley. “What tends to elevate people is self-confidence without arrogance, as well as the ability to make a connection with people. I will be asking myself, 'If I hired you, would I want to share an office with you?'”
Getting your personality across can also help you stand out. Says Beeley: “Typically we ask candidates 'When you are not studying, what do you do to have fun?' Some people can struggle with this straightforward question, but it allows us to find out a bit more about a candidate and it gives them a great opportunity to show some personality. A candidate once told us they were a baking enthusiast: this sparked off a discussion about signature bakes and the ever popular TV baking contest. It doesn’t matter what the candidate is interested in as long as they can talk enthusiastically about it – then they have a chance of capturing our attention.”
Both Beeley and our trainee sources agreed V&E's unstructured training contract lends itself to self-starters. “You need to be willing to take responsibility and have a go, but you also need to use your common sense,” Beeley clarifies, adding that the latter “is actually quite a rare quality, despite the name.”
He goes on to tell us the firm is pretty open when it comes to trainees' university backgrounds – this year its population includes graduates of Oxford, Exeter and Durham – and that excellent academics are a must. While legal work experience is generally preferable as it “demonstrates a genuine interest” in the law, the firm also considers those with relevant non-legal experience – so make sure you don't leave that six months you pulled pints in the student union off your CV. “We recognise this can provide you with useful skills, like business planning or people skills, and it shows a willingness to get involved and juggle various competing demands,” explains Beeley, who adds: “Maybe I'm biased – I used to work in bars myself.”
Trends in the energy sector
Vinson & Elkins RLLP
20 Fenchurch Street,
- Partners 15
- Assistant solicitors 26
- Total trainees 6
- Contact Sarah Stockley, 020 7065 6016
- Method of application Online application form
- Selection procedure Interview
- Closing date for 2019 31 July 2017
- Training contracts pa 3-4
- Applications pa 400
- % interviewed pa 10%
- Required degree grade 2:1
- Training salary
- First year: £45,000
- Second year: £47,500
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- % of trainees with a non-law degree pa 50%
- No. of seats available abroad pa 4
- Post-qualification salary £100,000
- % of trainees offered job on qualification 100%
- Overseas/regionaloffices Austin, Beijing, Dallas, Dubai, Hong Kong, Houston, London, Moscow, New York, Palo Alto, Richmond, Riyadh, San Francisco, Taipei, Tokyo and Washington DC.
Main areas of work