A&O’s magic stems from many sources. International dominance, world-class training and tech innovation are just a few pages in the spellbook.
Bank on it
Ask a room full of law students to name as many firms as they can, and chances are you’ll hear “Allen & Overy!” shouted back at you. One of five London-based magic circle titans, A&O’s reputation for top-tier work in the City and internationally is deservedly stupendous. It’s the recipient of more than 20 top-tier Chambers UK rankings, and also bosses most competition worldwide in banking and finance, capital markets, dispute resolution, projects and energy according to Chambers Global. Weighed up against its similarly titanic rivals, A&O excels most at anything and everything banking, though Clifford Chance is on a similar level. Enormous financial institutions and big global banks regularly call on A&O’s expertise (the names of which are confidential, but trust us – you've heard of them). And corporates? Yeah, A&O works for plenty of those too: BT, Uber and Shell are enough to impress.
We asked trainees why they’d opted for Allen & Overy – and they cited everything from its mahoosive international network (44 offices and counting) to the firm’s innovative attitude to tech. The firm’s London HQ is home to Fuse, an innovation space and software incubator drawing on the expertise of seven legal tech companies. Some enable digital access to fiddly financial regulations, others provide an intelligent writing tool to make drafting speedier. For trainees in particular, graduate recruitment partner James Partridge identifies the importance of providing an “environment where young lawyers get to collaborate with professionals from different industries.”
“It’s no secret that a key part of the firm’s strategy is being able to offer expertise in UK and US law in all the key jurisdictions and to develop our presence in the US."
Outside the lab, 2019 saw A&O launch a Belfast training contract for the first time. But let’s not skirt around the biggest story any longer. It’s been widely reported in the legal press that A&O is negotiating a possible merger with Californian counterpart O’Melveny & Myers. Partridge didn’t confirm these reports; instead we got the party line: “It’s no secret that a key part of the firm’s strategy is being able to offer expertise in UK and US law in all the key jurisdictions and to develop our presence in the US. That will happen either through a combination or attracting individuals and teams of lawyers in those places." We’d advise you to keep an eye on this story, if only for its potentially seismic market impact. Trainees knew no more about negotiations than we did, but they were largely happy with the firm’s transparency about behind the scenes goings-on.
In recent years the firm’s seat allocation process has “frequently evolved.” Trainees could previously select a guaranteed ‘priority seat’, but that’s been rowed back because too many people picked the same options. Future trainees can still express preferences, and most interviewees got through without much drama, but the “seemingly random” decisions had interviewees wanting more insight. Still, they understood that “it’s difficult to please everyone when you’re juggling more than 150 trainees at once.” Most go overseas or on a client secondment for their fourth seat, though again neither is 100% guaranteed and “that can get competitive.”
B2, or not B2?
Much like Game of Thrones’ Westeros, A&O’s huge banking department boasts seven kingdoms: corporate lending and real estate finance (B1), structured and asset finance (B2), leveraged finance (B3), restructuring (B4), projects, energy and infrastructure (B5), regulatory (B6), and funds and asset management (B7). Cross-border work is commonplace in all these seats, as are matters with enormous value. The firm recently helped several global financial institutions arrange a €3.9 billion loan financing to support a consortium of funds and investors in their takeover of Danish telecommunications firm TDC.
Many of our sources sat in B1, where most matters involve “a bank or lending institution providing finance for a loan or big property development.” For example, trainees were involved in financings for both hotels and student accommodation. Their role on large transactions is pretty well defined: “I was running conditions precedent [CP] checklists, organising signing processes and drafting smaller security agreements. Things get very document-heavy around crunch-time.” Our sources agreed that “it’s quite an admin-y seat as you’re on top of project management.” In slightly more vulgar language than we’ve used here, a trainee pointed out that “at the end of the day we’re signing a really effing big loan and someone’s got to keep track of everything.”
Over in B2, “asset finance basically means aeroplanes. There’s less shipping work now and you hear stories about wacky things like satellites and helicopters but trainees never see those projects.” Clients here include Etihad and BNP Paribas. The firm recently advised asset management company Falko on the acquisition and financing of 49 aircraft totalling more than $1 billion in value. “You’re doing pretty much the typical trainee tasks like CP checklists, things that don’t require much legal knowledge but are vitally important.”
“The workload can be a shock but you get good partner exposure.”
Trainees found more drafting opportunities in the B5project finance seat: “You can get good experience working on security documents and board resolutions.” A&O was instructed by Hitachi and Horizon Nuclear for the development of nuclear power plants in the UK, a project worth £20 billion. A&O also worked on the financing of the $5 billion Trans Adriatic Pipeline project, with the team also advising the joint venture company behind it on the development and construction elements. “It’s a really exciting place to be as a trainee,” according to one source. “The workload can be a shock but you get good partner exposure.”
Corporate splits into subgroups too: C4 does a mix of private and public M&A, for instance, while C6 is dedicated to private equity. “There’s more scope to move” than in banking seats though. “If resources are needed on major deals you’re not restricted to one area.” Trainees mostly worked on M&A deals for large financial institutions, but the firm represents companies too – it advised 21st Century Fox on its £27.7 billion takeover bid for Sky; the following sale of its £11.6 billion stake to Comcast; and eventually the sale of 21CF itself to Disney for a mind-boggling £71 billion. Due diligence, liaising with local counsel in various jurisdictions, and our old friend the CP checklist all fall under trainees’ remit, though some also “got to do more day-to-day advisory work, which was a refreshing change.” Commercial and competition seats also fall into the corporate bucket.
The paper grail
Within A&O's ICM practice, trainees can sit in areas like securitisation, debt and equity capital markets, and derivatives and structured finance. The last of these kicks off with “a week of general capital markets training then another week specific to derivatives.” This crash course was welcomed as “it’s a lot more technical than banking work,” though that means “the tasks are a little more mundane. We’re checking definitions on huge documents and marking up schedules.” Some sources got to do more drafting but overall “it’s more process-oriented and a lot of what you learn is transferable to other seats.” A&O does a mix of debt capital markets – advising Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Finance on an $11 billion bond issuance, for example – and equity capital markets. National law firm DWF recently called on A&O to act on its prospective IPO and London Stock Exchange listing.
Litigation options include employment; banking and finance investigations; corporate and commercial litigation; IP; and international arbitration, a popular choice for interviewees. “Arbitration has fewer limits on paper production so there’s more evidence to trawl through – it’s interesting but intense.” Trainees also got “tons of client contact. You see the A&O international network at its peak but that means the hours can be brutal.” A&O recently acted for the European Union in multi-jurisdictional proceedings focused on Syria’s breach of commercial agreements. Lawyers also helped a major hedge fund take on a former employee found guilty of stealing trading strategies, including securing his extradition from China to face trial. Multiple trainees reported that “litigation was the busiest seat and it can be high-pressure.”
“You see the A&O international network at its peak.”
Trainees don't have to do a full seat in litigation – they can also gain their contentious experience through 40 hours of pro bono at legal advice clinics. Most of our sources picked up pro bono work regardless, as taking a fourth seat secondment requires completion of those 40 hours too. “You’re invited to a secondment fair relatively soon into your third seat,” where associates who’ve previously seconded abroad help the current crop choose their destinations. Trainees rank options in order of preference (including at least one client secondment) and write a short paragraph about why they’d like their top choice, though HR ultimately decides who goes where based on how trainees score in their reviews. Some interviewees grumbled that “we don’t get told much about the decision process.”
Common secondment destinations include Tokyo, Singapore, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Milan and New York. “The people and work are similar but you get trusted with a lot more independence as you’re moving towards a junior associate role.” The same was true for sources who’d done secondments at clients, where “general counsel and associates let us run with a lot.” Some overseas spots do require language skills.
Shoreditch the diet
“Trainees often comment that moving seats is like moving between different companies, the cultures can be so different.” We heard that A&O has “an overall feel of pragmatism, professionalism and consistent levels of respect for trainees,” but smaller teams tend to be “a bit more personable and it’s easier to create a collegiate atmosphere.” Contrastingly “the benefit to being in a big team is there are more trainees to support you and you can have a bit of fun when you’re working late.”
There were a few nervous laughs when we asked about hours. “The mentality here is you need to get everything done even if that means staying for a very long time,” although “there isn’t a culture of sticking around when you don’t need to.” We heard that banking seats “are notorious for bad hours” and corporate “goes through cycles of very busy and quieter times.” Good days wrap up by 7 or 8pm but, conversely, trainees can also be in the office past midnight for days in a row, and most end up working some weekends. Expect a similar experience to what you'll hear from the remaining members of the magic circle.
At least finding a tasty midnight snack is easy: trainees declared that “being based in Shoreditch definitely makes A&O the coolest magic circle firm, and the Spitalfields food options are the envy of my other friends in the City.” Our sources also applauded the on-site gym, doctor and roof terraces, where you’ll find the “super-cheap” Levanda bar, “a great place to go on Friday night if you don’t fancy doing anything too adventurous.” Trainees can invite their own friends to hang out there, but they seemed happy to chill with the rest of their cohort: “We get on really well and there are so many of us that it often feels like we’re at uni!” Some departments are more social than others and several run ski trips. There’s also a trainee summer ball and firmwide party, plus “lots of diversity events. There’s definitely been more emphasis on those recently.”
“Being based in Shoreditch definitely makes A&O the coolest magic circle firm.”
Trainees share an office with their designated ‘trainer’ supervisor (a partner or senior associate), so “it’s important to have someone you get on with.” Some suggested “putting the trainers through more training would really benefit us,” but other interviewees “got on really well with them. It can come down to luck.” Should they want to feed anything back, trainees can make use of the newly introduced Compass programme. “It encourages us to give and receive comments for colleagues immediately after a piece of work rather than waiting for appraisals.” The firm’s training, which includes introductory and ongoing knowledge sessions for each department, received excellent feedback. “You also learn things by osmosis just by working for industry-leading clients,” a source told us. Many interviewees argued that strong training helped compensate for a salary gap between A&O and rival American firms, though some insiders warned that “pay is one of the question marks that arises when you’re thinking about qualification.”
Perhaps the recent NQ salary raise (which followed similar fillips from the rest of the magic circle) vanquished that question: pretty much everybody we spoke to wanted to stay on at the firm. NQ salaries just went up (in line with the rest of the circle), so who could blame them? Part way through their fourth seat, trainees ‘bid’ for the department they’d like to qualify into and inform partners in the relevant department of their intentions. “It’s relatively low-stress because we don’t need to interview,” one said, though sources recommended keeping in touch with departments you like after your seat. Trainees judged that the 80of 93 qualifiers retained in 2019 could look forward to “long-term opportunities, it’s not a case of ‘make partner or get out.’”
City firm life can be intense: A&O’s trainees recently set up a wellbeing committee to help address issues. “The firm is definitely putting more emphasis on trainee support, it’s going in the right direction.”
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How to get into Allen & Overy
Training contract deadline (2022): 22 December 2019
Open day deadline: 13 February 2020
A&O First deadline: 13 February 2020
A&O First and open day
A&O First is an initiative for first-year undergrads (both law and non-law), providing ongoing contact with the firm. Students come in for a two-day workshop during the Easter break and then return for a day before they start their second year. “If it works for the students and us, it's the start of our relationship with them,” says graduate recruitment partner Claire Wright. “Many go on to do a vacation scheme and then the training contact.” The application involves “a shortened version of our application form and a short telephone interview with a member of the graduate recruitment team.” In addition, the firm offers students the opportunity to apply for an additional day of work experience at one of its international offices.
Separate to A&O First, the firm also runs an open day for anyone to attend, which include talks, workshops, and networking opportunities.
A&O runs vacation schemes at two different points in the year, so you can opt to apply for the one that works best for you. Screening of the completed online application forms is done manually, and recruiters look for evidence of a clear interest in the law, commercial awareness, and why a candidate is applying to A&O. Be sure to tailor your application: many people still send in standardised applications that could equally be sent to other firms. Take our word for it: even though A&O is a big firm recruiters absolutely hate this and are guaranteed not to send your application to the next stage if you send them a generic boilerplate.
Interview with graduate recruitment partner James Partridge
Chambers Student: What have been the most exciting developments at A&O over the past year or so?
James Partridge: Generally speaking, advanced delivery is an exciting area which has grown over the past five years We’re focusing on how best to combine technology with legal expertise to deliver innovative solutions to our clients. That offering includes our Legal Services Centre in Belfast, the Peerpoint platform, a team called the Markets Innovation Group, a fintech advisory offering and our Fuse tech innovation space. We’ve also recently launched a consulting business, A&O Consulting, and our advanced delivery function is now taking on recruits at graduate level.
CS: The firm’s put a lot of resources into advanced delivery. How does legal tech innovation enhance the trainee experience?
JP: These areas feel much trendier than a normal law firm! They offer a really nice environment where young lawyers get to collaborate with professionals from different industries. Taking a longer-term view, there will be a wider array of career paths available due to new roles being created. I was an A&O trainee back in the mists of time and when I qualified there weren’t even many in-house roles; there’s now such a diversity of career options and advanced delivery provides a new opportunity.
CS: You’ve recently stepped into the graduate recruitment role. How has the firm’s training assessment process evolved as of late?
JP: We’ve refreshed our recruitment process, and now include an online situational judgement test as part of our interview. Historically, law firm recruitment has been more backward-looking about what you’ve done in the past; we’re now carefully designing interviews to recognise that not everybody has had access to the same opportunities. We’re coming up with real life work scenarios and assessing how candidates would react when faced with them. The feedback we’ve had about the new process has been very positive and we welcome the increase in diversity that these changes should lead to.
CS: What are your priorities for the training contract over the next few years?
JP: Recruiting diverse talent is a key priority for us. Across all areas of the firm we’re emphasising diversity and inclusion in every sense. In our Summer Vacation schemes, we’re ensuring that BAME candidates get the mentoring they need and that we can have conversations about long-term career progression from day one. We’re running a series of inclusivity events in the autumn and we’ve restructured our Graduate team to include an individual focusing on diversity.
Another part of my role is thinking hard about the lawyers of the future and what qualities they will need to succeed. Intellect, curiosity and all the traditional traits will still be important but part of why we’re refining the interview process is to focus on qualities like technology awareness and innovation. Future lawyers need to be increasingly adaptable.
CS: Applying to the firm is obviously very competitive – how can a candidate stand out from the crowd?
JP: The answers you give to the questions on the application must show thoughtfulness, and if you can provide examples to back up your points then that helps. Demonstrating that you have the capacity to think innovatively is very important, as is enthusiasm and energy. One of the best things about A&O is that you’re surrounded by people who “get it” and the culture is one of continually improving what we do. The people who do well here are the ones who can cope with uncertainty and can adapt to it. We never finish getting better as lawyers, there’s always a new problem to learn how to tackle.
CS: How do you think the looming shift to the Solicitor's Qualifying Exam will affect training contracts, if at all?
JP: The question we have to grapple with is whether to stick with the traditional model, which is the easiest option, or see more opportunities for flexibility in how we recruit. The interesting thing about the SQE for me is it opens a lot of potential pathways through which to qualify as students and firms are less wedded to a two year training contract.
To give an example, is there necessarily an advantage in having four seat rotations.? Could a firm recruit trainees into an area like IP directly and they qualify there after two years? We are looking at how we best adapt to the forthcoming changes, but my instinct is that A&O as a global firm would like trainees to understand the whole network and business, and students would want the flexibility and exposure to different parts of the business that comes with training contracts in a similar form to what they are now.
CS: Finally, there have been legal press rumours about the firm merging for some time now. Do you have any comment on potential future developments?
JP: No specific comment – it’s no secret that a key part of the firm’s strategy is being able to offer expertise in UK and US law in all the key jurisdictions and to develop our presence in the US. That will happen either through a combination or attracting individuals and teams of lawyers in those places.
Allen & Overy LLP
One Bishops Square,
- Partners 550
- Associates 1649 worldwide
- Total trainees 168
- UK offices London, Belfast
- Overseas offices 43
- Contact [email protected]
- Application criteria
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Minimum UCAS points or A levels: 136 UCAS points (AAB)
- Vacation scheme places pa: 50
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1st August 2019
- Training contract deadline, 2022 start: 22nd December 2019
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1st August 2019
- Vacation scheme 2020 deadline:
- Winter – 20th October 2019
- Summer – 22nd December 2019
- Open day deadline: 13th February 2020
- A&O First deadline: [postponed due to COVID-19 outbreak]
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £46,500
- Second-year salary: £52,500
- Post-qualification salary: £100,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days + bank holidays
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa:
- - £9,000 for the GDL
- - £10,000 for the LPC
Main areas of work
Open days and first-year opportunities
A&O are hosting an Open Day on 17th March 2020, open to anyone in the second year of their undergraduate degree and onwards, as well as graduates from any degree discipline who want to get greater insight into a career in commercial law.
University law careers fairs 2019
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2019
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