A Texan abroad: this global firm attracts those with the gumption for international work, but only a lucky few get a spot.
With dozens of firms to choose from in the City, what stood out about Akin Gump for its trainees? “It has a strong corporate and finance background, andI wanted to work in that kind of world, with big private equity and hedge funds.”Pretty much every trainee we spoke to chose the firm for its core practices – "it's recognised for being technically excellent" – and for its "smaller intake size, more intimate environment but big work." With a network of 20 offices globally, the work is definitely big. The London office opened in 1997, significantly boosting its headcount in 2014 when US firm Bingham McCutcheon went bust.
Four years on, training principal Vance Chapman highlights ongoing organic growth, telling us “the office is getting on towards being double in size.” The union particularly bolstered London's funds and restructuring practices, and the firm's expertise in those areas is perhaps the best way to differentiate it from its US counterparts. The firm's funds and restructuring work receives excellent rankings from both Chambers UK and Chambers Global. Akin’s oil and gas practice is another traditionally strong area for the firm: it's well ranked by Chambers UK, and recently hired a project finance partner from Bracewell. Akin also took in Bingham’s trainees, and has continued each year with a petite intake of four or five. Chapman says this is set to stabilise at an intake of six in years ahead: “I want to maximise everybody’s opportunities coming through the door. We’re not looking to have a programme where we get a lot of trainees not qualifying with us at the end of the training contract.”
“...more intimate environment but big work”
With up to ten seats on offer, anxiety levels were low: “You know you’ll eventually be able to sit where you want.” The first seat is allocated by business need from “whatever is left over” after second-years have raided the pantry. Still, “everyone was put somewhere they’d already expressed interest in on their application.” Three months into the contract, graduate recruitment begin monthly check-ins with trainees, both to check their progress, and to gauge their interests for future seats: “It’s a more intimate and flexible process than it would be with a massive intake.” Chapman agrees: “We have a lot of flexibility in managing how much time trainees spend with a particular practice, so we can adjust that for a particular candidate.”
A seat in restructuring proved to be popular: “It’s what the firm is known for and they’re very good at what they do.” The group specialises in advising creditors during restructuring, notably in the oil and gas industry. Recent work includes advising bondholders of offshore drilling contractor Seadrill Group on its $17 billion restructuring, and representing private placement noteholders on the $3.5 billion restructuring of Premier Oil’s debt liabilities. Elsewhere, the firm advised on the potential restructuring of construction company Carillion, before it hit the headlines, and liquidation, in early 2018. Trainees' day-to-day was split between “research tasks, reviewing and editing documents, and project management: when it comes to closing you're liaising with clients and collating documents.” While trainees couldn’t expect too much responsibility on the mega deals, one trainee had “taken the lead on a small project. I was organising the process to extend the maturity dates of some bonds, and I was lucky enough to see it through from start to finish over three weeks.”
On the hedge of glory
The litigation and international arbitration group has grown quite a bit of late –“it’s doubled in size since I started!” The team tackles financial litigation: it recently advised a number of funds and a bank which held $650 million in notes issued by Oak Finance Luxembourg, which fell into default. It also handles energy disputes, and has a specialism in Russia-related spats. The team represents Renova (a Russian conglomerate) in a $1 billion dispute with a Russian government minister over the ownership of Russia's largest power generation company, IES. As matters tend to drag on, trainees spent “a lot of the first month getting up to speed.” Once in the thick of it, “the emphasis was on administrative tasks like bundling and cross-referencing,” but there was also an opportunity to “draft letters of instruction to experts and witness statements.” Trainees relied on fortunate timing to get court experience, but we encountered some who were in the right place at the right time.
More client contact was found in the corporate seat, although the pace is “quite a bit more dramatic” than litigation. Again, the firm has strengths in Russian work: the group recently advised Russian internet company USM Holdings on the sale of its $740 million stake in Mail.Ru Group. It also advised Brunswick Rail on its £20 million takeover by Amalgam Rail Investment. Trainees described working on “slivers of massive US deals, where one of the assets is a UK company. You’d get asked to do the due diligence on the UK elements.” They were also tasked with “doing research, drafting documents, and advising on regulatory issues.” Capable trainees could get more involved in “an asset or share sale. It wouldn’t be super high-value but you’d see it beginning to end.”
An investment funds seat will mean working “mostly on the hedge fund side, with a lot of fund formation.” Clients in this area include J.P. Morgan Private Equity and India Capital Management. For trainees, responsibility came around quickly if they were up to it: “Two weeks in, they were pretty happy to give me the first cut at an offering memorandum, which was pretty daunting. I had a minute of panic but that’s the kind of challenge I relish.” Over in financial regulation, trainees also worked on hedge funds, advising on the regulatory aspects: “Sometimes clients wanted to know about regulation in Germany or Spain, so I’d reformulate the question into lawyer language and send it to local counsel in those jurisdictions, then I'd translate the answer back into client language.”
“You sign up to an American firm knowing you’ll have to put in hours.”
This international element was a common thread across all seats. Trainees were “either working with international clients or with lawyers from one of Akin Gump’s international offices.” Working with the US would mean staying later, while working with Asian countries meant an earlier start. “And when you’re working with both,” one chuckled, “it does stretch your day quite a bit. You arrive at 9.30am and then turn around and it’s 10.30pm – where did that day go?” So take note: “You sign up to an American firm knowing you’ll have to put in hours.”
Run, trainees, run!
As American as apple pie, trainees acknowledged an emphasis on pro bono. It isn’t obligatory, “but everyone in my intake has done some form of pro bono.” The firm has ties with Asylum Aid and Lawyers Without Borders (with whom a lucky trainee spent a week in Tanzania). Trainees can also mentor in schools in underprivileged areas: “We meet once a month and talk about things like post-uni application forms and interview skills.”
“The office feels like London: people from all over the world work here.”
But that’s it on the American front, said trainees. “The office feels like London: people from all over the world work here.” Besides a common interest in corporate work, they described themselves as a varied bunch. The trainee intake itself “is a pretty international bunch. We’ve got someone from the Netherlands, Singapore, and Ireland.” Trainees also wanted prospective applicants to be assured that there’s support as they find their feet: “Akin Gump doesn’t have formal orientation at the beginning of each seat, which can be intimidating. But the associates are very cognizant of that, so you’re never left floundering.” Training, Education and Development Talks (aka TED Talks) occur every two weeks. These are led by associates for the first three months, “then trainees start giving them to practice our presentation skills.”
Lawyers are incentivised to look after themselves with the Be Well initiative: “you earn points if you subscribe to healthy eating seminars or take part in a step-count challenge.” Lawyers can then exchange those points for ‘presents’ at the end of the year, “ranging from a water bottle to Bose headphones.” Get your running shoes on, we say.
The office, near Liverpool Street, is spread across four floors. Its terrace was appreciated in the hot summer months, while its tantalising proximity to Spitalfields Market and its lunchtime options was deemed “bad for your wallet.” Put your violins away though. Akin Gump’s salary is among the best in the City: £48,000 for first-year trainees and a bump up to £52,000 for second-years.
The decision on retention was “more of a discussion than a process” – in 2018 the firm kept on all five of its qualifying trainees.
How to get an Akin Gump training contract
Training contract deadline (2021): 14 July 2019 (opens 15 October 2018)
University visits and work placements
Akin Gump doesn't currently send representatives to any law fairs, but instead candidates interested in the firm should apply for a two-week summer work placement via the firm's careers website. Akin Gump usually offers between eight to ten places, and vac schemers spend each week in a different department. Everybody's allocated a trainee buddy and they spend their visit working alongside associates. “We aim for them to see how commercially focused our work is, experience a mixture of contentious and transactional work, and get exposure to an area most don't get a chance to study – for example, restructuring or energy transactions,” says Widdows.
Trainee hopefuls at Akin Gump need consistently strong academics and should be on track for at least a 2:1 degree. “Legal work experience is a plus, but not a necessity,” Widdows says. “If you've got previous experience in a firm with a financial institutions or energy focus, then that is good as our work will be more familiar to you.”
Alongside questions about an applicant's commercial awareness and attraction to Akin Gump are ones asking about challenging experiences they've tackled and what they hope to gain from their career. On that note, Widdows has this to say: “We're not looking for someone who wants to disappear into a large programme in a full-service firm; we want people who are interested in collaborative working within a fast-paced, business law environment. Applicants also need to show that they understand the demands of our very commercially focused client base.” She adds: “Applicants should be sincere, solution focussed and give us a sense of how they genuinely see themselves working and thriving in an immersive learning environment.”
Those the firm chooses to interview attend at least two separate meetings in person, which will include written exercises.
Widdows tells us that the interviews are “are very conversation-based – if a candidate can offer up interesting insights, solid commercial awareness and demonstrate an entrepreneurial and intellectually curious approach, then they tend to do well.” Interviewees can expect to be asked about their application form and their reasons for pursuing a career at Akin Gump. Those who impress are invited back for a one-on-one discussion with a partner about a topical commercial issue or current affairs article, with time to prepare beforehand.
Showing that you have a cool head and can not only handle but enjoy the pressure is key to securing a training contract here. As Widdows explains: “That's what our programme is all about – enjoying the early responsibility and the intellectual challenges that arise with this level of interesting and high-profile work.”
Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld
10 Bishops Square,
- Partners 39
- Associates 59
- Total trainees 9
- Graduate recruiter: Vicky Widdows, [email protected], 020 7012 9600
- Training partner: Vance Chapman, [email protected]
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 4
- Applications pa: 300
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Minimum UCAS points or A Levels: AAA or equivalent
- Vacation scheme places pa: 8
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 15 October 2018
- Training contract deadline, 2021 start: 14 July 2019
- Vacation scheme applications open: 15 October 2018
- Vacation scheme 2019 deadline: 31 January 2019
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £48,000
- Second-year salary: £52,000
- Post-qualification salary: $190,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £8,000
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London, Hong Kong (via PCLL route)
- Overseas seats: Ad hoc
- Client secondments: Ad hoc
Main areas of work
An important part of Akin Gump’s culture is its commitment to pro bono. Trainees are encouraged to take part and are represented on local and firm-wide pro bono committees, including a unique scholarship programme. The firm has an inclusive working culture and actively supports a broad diversity strategy for its continued success.
We welcome applications from law students in their penultimate year of study, non-law students in their final year and graduates looking to commence a training path in two years’ time. Participants are offered a training contract interview at the end of the programme.
Participants are paid at the London Living Wage.
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2018
- Banking & Finance: Borrowers (Band 5)
- Banking Litigation (Band 5)
- Capital Markets: Debt (Band 5)
- Litigation (Band 5)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 1)
- Tax (Band 6)
- Construction: International Arbitration (Band 3)
- Energy & Natural Resources: Oil & Gas (Band 2)
- Financial Services: Contentious Regulatory (Corporates) (Band 3)
- Investment Funds: Hedge Funds (Band 2)