Captain Kirk: meet the private equity powerhouse beaming trainees up the ladder.
Kirkland & Ellis training contract review 2024
Let’s talk about main character energy. It’s eye-catching, it’s empowering, and on the legal stage, Kirkland & Ellis has got it in buckets. “Type into Google ‘best law firm in the world’ – and it’s Kirkland that’s going to come up,” one of the firm’s trainees proudly pointed out. Defining ‘best’ is another story, so we’ll be more discerning in this True Picture, but Kirkland – the world’s highest-grossing firm – is bound to be one of the global mega firms that appears in such a search. As one of the biggest and most well-known law firms out there, it attracts scores of ambitious applicants every year. After all, “if you’re going to work the hours that come with a firm like this, you want it to be somewhere that people recognise as exciting!”
“I would describe it as a meteorite!”
Kirkland’s London office turns 30 in 2024, and one trainee reckoned “in a lot of ways, the firm changed what corporate law was in London.” They’re sort of right – after the 2008 financial crash, Kirkland & Ellis was a key player in the move towards acting for private capital (as opposed to corporates or banks). This continues to fuel the firm’s “explosive growth” today. Kirkland & Ellis was the first firm to break the $6 billion revenue threshold back in 2022, which prompted one trainee to say: “I would describe it as a meteorite!”
Every single one of the firm’s departments operates within the private equity sector, supporting firms at each stage of the PE life cycle, from fundraising to exit. The firm bags top-tier Chambers UK nationwide rankings in investment funds and private equity buyouts, as well as top plaudits in the capital for its banking & finance, restructuring, and tax work. With over 400 lawyers working in London, the firm is also well known for having set up camp in the famous Gherkin. “It might seem like a small thing, but working in the Gherkin is very exciting when you’re fresh out of uni!” The firm is actually gearing up for an office move – insiders told us – in late 2024/early 2025 to a purpose-built building in London, so watch this space.
If we haven’t made it clear already, you’ve got to have an interest in private equity if you want to work at Kirkland: “All of our practices feed into the private equity cycle, rather than having a single private equity team.” All trainees are likely to spend time in corporate, debt finance, and investment funds, three of the firm’s main practice areas. While this does restrict the element of choice, “these are probably the kinds of seats that you would be interested in anyway,” one finance enthusiast added. Other options include the likes of real estate finance, litigation and tech & IP transactions.
Along with a smaller trainee intake typical of US firms, the seat allocation process is relatively informal, with trainees having a chat with recruitment about where they are interested in working and where they see their career going. “As a general rule, if they can’t make it work, you’ll probably get it next time,” one second-year told us. While international secondments to New York and Hong Kong were available pre-COVID, they haven’t yet returned as an option for trainees.
“It’s exciting to be part of such a dynamic environment.”
As one of the firm’s headline departments, the investment funds practice at Kirkland is one of its largest, with over 100 lawyers spread across two floors of the Gherkin. “The team is huge, and there are over 30 paralegals working in the department, so the chances are you’ll never get to know everyone by name,” one trainee explained, “but it’s exciting to be part of such a dynamic environment.” The team is focused on assisting private equity investment funds as they navigate the legal and regulatory hurdles of fund formation and investment management. Clients include Nordic Capital, Inflexion Private Equity and BC Partners, which the firm advised on the closing of its latest flagship fund, valued at a whopping €6.9 billion. “The day-to-day generally depends on where you are in the life cycle of these funds,” one trainee explained, “but fund formation is usually the same sort of process, so we as trainees are helping the partners on things like regulatory disclosure documents, or contacting investors to ask if we can waive parts of the LPA on existing funds.” For those that aren’t familiar, LPA stands for ‘legal partnership agreement’ – a legally binding document that sets out the relationship between investors and the fund manager. Trainees also attend a boot camp at the beginning of the seat that runs new starters through the essentials of the practice. “One of the partners will run you through everything you’re likely to come across,” one explained, “which meant that when I started, I understood the language that people were using. Once you got the basics, it was much easier.”
Another of the firm’s core practices is debt finance. The firm has particular expertise on the borrower side of financing transactions, with the team working on everything from leveraged acquisitions and public company financings to debt restructurings. According to trainees, you can expect a faster pace of life in debt finance compared with investment funds: “The nature of the work is such that debt finance comes with a bit more responsibility than funds, just because the timelines in funds are less compressed than they are in debt.” Taking a first crack at creditor agreements was one example of how trainees got involved. In one recent deal, the firm advised Advent International and LANXESS on the financing for the €3.7 billion acquisition of the Engineering Materials business from DSM.
Unsurprisingly, corporate/M&A is another team that comes with a hefty headcount. The department advises across the full range of M&A activity, including public and private deals, joint ventures, buyouts, and investments. “M&A was quite similar to debt in terms of timelines,” one second-year recalled, “but it’s broader, and you’re putting more details into place than just the financing.” Trainees reported that due diligence on documents was a big part of the day-to-day in the seat, along with reviewing shareholder registers and writing up reports. But there were opportunities to work with local counsel on coordinating the signing and closing of the deals too. In a recent deal, the team advised private equity firm Asda Group, owned by the Issa brothers, TDR Capital and Walmart, on the c. £2.27 billion acquisition of EG Group’s UK and Ireland operations.
“There is a focus on individual responsibility.”
Deals like these come with a lot of regulatory considerations, and this is where Kirkland’s financial services regulatory (FSR) team steps up. It provides advice to private equity firms and investment funds on the regulatory aspects of their work. “A lot of the work that advisory practices do has a significant component servicing some of the larger teams, like corporate or investment funds,” one trainee explained. “When the corporate team is working on an acquisition, there are a lot of regulatory questions that go on behind the scenes, so you need to be clear about what a particular private equity house’s intentions are for that business, and that comes with a lot of forms!” This translates to a lot of due diligence work for trainees in the seat, but there is opportunity for drafting too. “It all sounds tremendously boring until something goes wrong!” one joked. “So you’re getting substantive experience in something that has quite high stakes.” This is one of the optional seats for trainees. The group at Kirkland recently played a part in EQT’s €6.8 billion acquisition of Baring Private Equity Asia.
Kirkland & Ellis operates a formal training programme for trainees in the first four months of their training contract, which covers the essentials of the firm’s core practice areas, as well as soft skills training. In some groups, there are opportunities to sync up with the training on offer at the firm’s US offices too.
But, like anywhere, trainees at Kirkland get out what they put in. While trainees were quick to tell us that supervisors were very willing to sit down with a trainee and walk them through how to do something, the emphasis is on learning by doing. “It is focused on being a self-starter,” trainees emphasised. “They always support you doing whatever you want to do, but there is a focus on individual responsibility.” As a result, “it’s probably fair to say that it suits certain personalities. There are people that will thrive in that environment in corporate law, and there will be others where it makes sense for a few years, before moving in-house or to a more specialist area.”
“When you’re closing a deal or completing a signing, all bets are off.”
A big part of this comes from the fact that, as is common with the big US firms in London, hours can be long. “When you’re closing a deal or completing a signing, all bets are off,” one trainee warned. “I’ve definitely worked 85 to 90-hour weeks during the worst periods, although that is the exception.” Before you get out your violin, note that trainees earn a whopping £60,000 salaryin their first year, which rises to the US market rate of $215,000 on qualification. This makes Kirkland one of the highest-paying firms in the market, which must go some way to easing the slog of busy times.
As a general rule, trainees come into the office Tuesdays to Thursdays, with Monday and Friday work-from-home days, although this varies from team to team. While the firm is just around the corner from a move to a new office, the current crop of trainees had enjoyed their time in the famous Gherkin. “It’s been great,” one praised. “It sounds like a benign and boring perk, but all our meals are covered. Breakfast and lunch are provided in the office, and there is a Deliveroo allowance for dinner, which saves a lot of money in the long run!” With a bar just downstairs, there are plenty of opportunities to socialise too: “We get a discount, so all the trainees go out for drinks every Thursday.”
Trainees approaching qualification will submit their preferences in May. “I don’t think it’s as formal as an interview process,” one second-year told us. “It’s a case of ticking a box, and you would have already had conversations and dinners with the team you’re hoping to qualify into, so you should have a pretty good idea already.” In 2023, the firm retained all ten qualifiers.
Life in the fast lane:Kirkland & Ellis has a unique six-year partnership track: “I could, in theory, be a partner at 30, which I just wouldn’t get anywhere else.”
How to get a Kirkland & Ellis training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: 31 December 2023
Training contract deadline: 31 December 2023
Kirkland & Ellis offers up to 20 training contracts each year, and attends law fairs at Cambridge, King's College London, LSE, Bristol, Oxford, UCL, Exeter, and Durham.
Applicants are invited to complete an online application form. They'll also upload their CVs, write a cover letter, fill out the usual details (academic history, work experience and so forth) and answer a couple of more in-depth questions.
Applicants are advised to read the application form carefully. Our Kirkland sources tell us, "Some applicants do not answer the specific question being asked. This is perhaps either because they haven't taken their time when reading it, and/or because they have copied an answer from another application form which asks a similar question, but is in fact slightly different. Attention to detail is a really important skill to demonstrate. It is also important to ensure that you tailor your application and cover letter specifically for Kirkland & Ellis. If you don't get these simple things right then it makes it more difficult for us to progress the application to the next stage given the strong competition."
Firm recruiters also urge candidates to research the firm thoroughly before applying. “There’s a huge amount of information about the London office online, particularly on our graduate recruitment site. Pick up on our clients, the deals we've worked on and what lawyers are expected to do here. All firms in London offer something different, so you have to think about why you want to come here, and what you can offer through your previous experiences and achievements.”
Each year Kirkland receives over 1,000 applications for up to 20 training contract places. Following a video interview stage, the firm runs assessment days in late January and early February. The day involves a group exercise, an in-tray exercise, and a chance to meet with some partners at the firm. Our graduate recruitment source tells us the first is designed to assess how well candidates interact and work with other people, “which is important given trainees will often be working in small teams,” while the latter tests their ability to prioritise.
The final stage of the recruitment process is an interview with at least two partners. According to the firm, interviewers are looking to get a feel for a candidate's personality, business acumen and motivations. Some might pose situational questions to get interviewees thinking on their feet, but we're told questions will never be overly technical: “Applicants aren’t expected to have strong legal knowledge at this stage, as we accept applications from both law and non-law backgrounds.” Showing some understanding of the private equity (PE) market is a good idea though, given the firm's focus on PE and transactional work. Our advice? Read up on what PE funds do; know who the big PE firms are, and the range of companies they buy and sell, but don't worry if you don't understand the intricate make-up of different fund structures.
Kirkland & Ellis International LLP
30 St Mary Axe,
Kirkland & Ellis is a global law firm specialising in advising on private equity M&A and financing transactions, fund formation, litigation and restructuring. The firm is pre-eminent in those areas globally across its 18 offices in US, Europe and Asia. The firm has developed its leading position by focusing on, empowering its lawyers with accelerated career paths to partnership, rewarding dedication, focus and teamwork and allowing its lawyers to be entrepreneurial and client facing at all stages in their careers.
Main areas of work
The firm handles complex corporate, debt finance, investment funds, restructuring, real estate finance, tax, financial services regulatory, international arbitration and litigation, antitrust and competition, technology and IP transactions, IP litigation and capital markets matters.
The principal focus of the training is on transactional law with a specialism in private equity. Trainees complete four, six month seats and obtain training in areas such as corporate M&A, debt finance, investment funds, restructuring, real estate finance, international arbitration and litigation, financial services regulatory, antitrust and competition, and tax. In addition there are opportunities to undertake an overseas secondment to enable trainees to experience the international resources and capabilities of Kirkland & Ellis.
Our trainees gain experience through active involvement in deals throughout their careers together with extensive technical training.
We offer placements throughout the spring and summer months. Candidates are eligible to apply if they are in their penultimate year of a law degree, final year of a non-law degree or beyond. We look to recruit as many of our future trainees as possible from the vacation scheme. .
Benefits include private medical insurance, travel insurance, pension scheme, bonus scheme, employee assistance plan, discounted gym membership, dental plan, cycle to work scheme, season ticket loan, and concierge service.
As a firm with a global presence, we embrace and promote diversity and inclusion, both within our own organization and throughout the legal profession. We are proud of our employees' rich and varied backgrounds, knowledge and skills, which make us stronger as a Firm.
Diversity and inclusion at Kirkland transcends race, gender identity, gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, country of origin and political affiliation. We value and encourage diversity with respect to each individual’s work style, career path and professional and life experiences. We continually strive to build and maintain a culture that values and gathers strength from our differences.
To achieve this goal, a dedicated and active group of partners leads our Firmwide Diversity and Inclusion Committee. The committee has racial and ethnic diversity, gender and LGBTQ+ subcommittees to ensure that our programs and policies address the needs of all attorneys.
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2023
- Banking & Finance: Fund Finance (Band 2)
- Banking & Finance: Sponsors (Band 1)
- Commercial and Corporate Litigation (Band 4)
- Competition Law (Band 4)
- Financial Crime: Corporates (Band 3)
- Intellectual Property: Patent Litigation (Band 2)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 1)
- Tax (Band 1)
- Capital Markets: High-Yield Products (Band 2)
- Financial Services: Non-contentious Regulatory (Band 3)
- Infrastructure (Band 3)
- Investment Funds: Private Equity (Band 1)
- Investment Funds: Private Equity: Credit Funds Spotlight
- Investment Funds: Private Equity: Secondaries (Band 1)
- Investment Funds: Real Estate (Band 4)
- Private Equity: Buyouts: £500 million and above (Band 1)
- Real Estate Finance (Band 4)
Visit the firm's recruitment page here.