It’s standing room only at the sprawling international firm with a tiny London office and no seats in its training contract.
Looking down on the Earth from an aeroplane window, it can be hard to pick out national borders across the rolling landscapes; but down below, these borders play a massive role in the daily lives of billions. While we wait for our next gig narrating a blockbuster BBC documentary, we'll say that few people know this better than those who work at international law firms. In this category you'll find Curtis, a firm founded in New York, which now boasts 16 offices around the globe.
“I liked how it was sold as an international firm working across borders with the chance to travel,” one interviewee told us. “It’s truly international work that’s so interesting, complex and varied. It doesn’t get much bigger than working with state entities!” Several state-owned companies and even governments themselves appear on Curtis’s client roster. India, Venezuela, Indonesia, Spain, Uganda… these countries and more all provide the firm with work. Within a panoply of Chambers Global rankings, Curtis shines brightest for international trade in the Asia-Pacific region; its other areas of expertise range from arbitration in Latin America and dispute resolution in Africa to public international law worldwide.
“You’re given responsibility straight away. There’s no room for baggage.”
Despite this impressive global presence, Curtis’s relatively pocket-sized London branch houses fewer than 25lawyers and takes only one or two trainees per year. The firm’s yet to receive any Chambers UK rankings but it’s carved a niche in two specialist practice areas: international arbitration and corporate finance. London also houses a growing litigation practice, which was recently bolstered by the addition of former Gibson Dunn partner Mark Handley. “He’s bringing in lots of brilliant work.” Our interviewees happily noted that “nobody’s going to slip through the net” in such a cosy environment.One source went further: “There’s no hiding here and you’re given responsibility straight away. There’s no room for baggage.” Fighting words, and indeed confidence is key to succeeding as a trainee here given the firm’s unconventional approach to its training contract.
Unlike most firms of its stature, Curtis offers a non-rotational training contract with no specific seats. “It’s very flexible and fluid,” one trainee noted. “My mornings and afternoons can be completely different and I really like the variety.” While the “lack of rigidity” allows trainees to be masters of their own path and “see as much of the firm’s practice as possible,” there are downsides to Curtis’s model. “It can be difficult in London as everything the firm does is run out of New York,” we heard. “When there’s no work, there’s no work.” Trainees told us that some associates have departed recently due to this “bottlenecking,” but help is at hand if you’re struggling. “It’s important to speak with partners and ask them to staff you on cases,” an interviewee reflected. “Curtis is not a place for someone waiting for things to come to you – you have to be patient and proactive, or lucky.”
We’ll say it one more time – the firm’s arbitration team does eye-watering work for governments and state-owned entities in investor-state disputes. On one notable example, Curtis represented the Republic of India in parallel investment treaty claims brought by Vodafone totalling $5.5 billion in value, linked to its taxation after the acquisition of Indian telecoms assets in 2007. In a similarly significant case – demonstrating the firm’s strengths in oil and gas arbitration – the Curtis team represented the Venezuelan government in two ICC cases with more than $20 billion total on the line.
Timing is of the essence on arbitration cases. “Once you’re committed to a case you’ve got to stick with it,” one trainee explained. “They really rely on you once you’re involved.” While “bog-standard” proofreading and bundling is unavoidable at trainee level, “that’s offset by how heavy the responsibility can get for other tasks on contractual or investor-state bilateral investment treaty arbitration cases.” These ‘heavy’ tasks ranged from “drafting a quarter of the rejoinder” on one matter to “drafting a very large portion of a statement of defence” for another. Interviewees also got involved with client meetings both at home and abroad, and all coped well with “getting thrown in the deep end” of globe-spanning cases. “There hasn’t been anything I’ve thought to be a drag,” a source told us. “We represent very interesting clients which makes the work thoroughly enjoyable. The fact that the firm trusts you to produce things for such large clients, and then they’re used in a case, is really satisfying.”
“…giving presentations to the whole of Europe.”
The other big chunk of Curtis’s practice in London is corporate finance. Compared to the “big looming deadlines” when working in disputes, interviewees generally preferred the more “rapid-fire” nature of finance with “smaller pieces of work getting turned around more quickly.” Investment management is “a large aspect” of the corporate side of work. Matters that span time zones can be demanding, but trainees noted that “when you’re part of a team doing crazy hours it’s nice to be doing the drafting legwork rather than just proofreading and side jobs.” Curtis has a strong corporate presence in the Middle East. The firm advised an Omani power and water company on its procurement of three independent water desalination projects; and acted for ABL Enterprises in its acquisition of 20% of the shares in Dubai-based manufacturer Sky Steel Systems.
“Very little of the work I’ve done has been purely English law,” an interviewee recalled of their training contract experience as a whole. “There’s always an international element with people from several different offices involved, it’s very much a New York firm and we’re a branch of that.” Communication with the firm’s other offices is part of the day-to-day – during the GDPR flurry, a trainee found themselves “giving presentations to the whole of Europe, meeting with managing partners of the different offices and even drafting some policies myself.”London is very much one piece in the global Curtis jigsaw, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing for trainees: “All the work comes from New York and the Americans don’t all understand what a training contract is, so they give us elevated responsibility and treat us like associates from day one.”
Not enough months in a day
Elevated responsibility also comes from London’s pared-back headcount. That can be a double-edged sword: “Office politics can be harder to avoid when you’re in a smaller place and you can really feel it when people leave,” a trainee suggested. More positively, “the advantage of being in a small place is that it’s generally very friendly and more understated, there’s no ostentatious behaviour here.” Comparing their firm to others with bigger presences in the UK, Curtis trainees reported: “There’s more of a sense of bottom-up organisation. You don’t get the feeling that people are looking over your shoulder.” One described the office as “hierarchical, but not oppressively so from the top-down.”
“American culture gets brought over – they make me write the date the wrong way round!”
There are so few lawyers in the office that “Curtis isn’t really a ‘drinks after work’ place.” Sporty types should keep reading – there are a number of active clubs and a new softball team was the talk of the office. “We’re quite laid back when we play… we’re doing quite well for people who’ve never swung a bat before!” Transatlantic imports don’t stop at softball and sources told us that “American culture gets brought over – they make me write the date the wrong way round!” US firms have (fairly or not) earned a reputation for intense working hours: “How late can we work? How long is a piece of string?” This trainee went on to clarify that “the American horror stories aren’t true. The firm respects people having lives outside the office.” On a good day, trainees get to head home at around 6.30pm, but there are many more bad days than good days: weekend work and all-nighters are very much on the cards.
There were some grumbles about the looseness of the training contract: “There are obviously advantages to the flexibility and non-rotational system but you do need an element of formality to go with that. They’re working on that but it’s not quite there yet, it would be nice to have a little bit of structure with training and feedback.” Qualification is also a relaxed affair – one source said they “had to check to see if I had to actually apply for a job. Trainees are treated like associates from the start so nothing really changes once you qualify.” The firm retained its only qualifier in 2019.
Towards the end of the training contract, trainees travel to the Big Apple to participate in the firm's US summer associate programme.
How to get a Curtis training contract
Curtis receives around 300 applications each year for its two available training contracts. There's no formal vacation scheme, but the firm does invite some candidates to undertake work placements. The firm recruits trainees to start in the same year – so in March 2019 it is recruiting trainees to start in September 2019.
Training contract applications begin with a covering letter and CV. “The covering letter should be well written, showing that the applicant has done some due diligence on Curtis,” says London deputy managing partner Winta Jarvis. “If someone is particularly interested in the firm's arbitration work or its international reach, they should tell us. As for the CV, we like to see good academics as well as some relevant work experience.”
The firm holds three rounds of interviews. Around 18 candidates are invited to the first, which involves a half-hour “quite general and relaxed chat” with Jarvis. “It's a chance for me to get to know them and find out a bit about where they've come from,” he says. “They usually meet the current trainees too.”
Between eight and ten interviewees are invited back for a second interview. Here candidates speak to some of the other partners in the London office, and it's likely they'll chat to some current associates as well.
Only three candidates are called in for the final interview, which takes place with London managing partner Carl Ruggiero. After that, “the final decision is made collaboratively based on the views of everyone,” Jarvis tells us. He adds: “The collective aim of the interview process is for prospective trainees to meet and get to know as many people at Curtis as possible. That way, when they start as a trainee they'll be confident being around everyone, and they'll hit the ground running.”
According to our sources, “you need to be proactive to get in here – the kind of person who's up and about and actively seeking work. They give you a lot of autonomy, and you have to be able to deal with that.” Sources went on to mention that a small office means small teams, “so it's really important you're amicable and down to earth.”
Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle LLP
99 Gresham Street,
- Partners 9
- Associates 14
- Total trainees 2
- UKoffices London
- Overseas offices 15
- Graduate recruiter: Tuula Davis, office manager, 020 7710 9800
- Training partner: Mark Handley, [email protected]
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 2
- Applications pa: 300
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Minimum UCAS points or A levels: AAB
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: Rolling applications
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: Applicants for a September start should apply by 31 December 2019
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £42,000
- Second-year salary: £46,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: Yes
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London
Main areas of work
Open days and first-year opportunities
University law careers fairs 2019
LinkedIn: Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle LLP
Email: [email protected]