Entrepreneurship is key if trainees want to survive the long hours and thrive at this US giant.
Kirkland of plenty
Roll up, roll up! Come and see the most enormous, gigantic, jumbo law firm in the world! Since 2017 Kirkland & Ellis has been the largest law firm in the world by revenue, grossing an eye-watering $3.76 billion in 2018. That year also saw the firm take over from White & Case as the largest US law firm in London. It's quite an achievement, yet dealing with billions is nothing new here. At any given moment, Kirkland’s London office could be advising on the €3 billion takeover of Spanish hotel operator Hispania Activos by private equity firm Blackstone. Or it might be handling a €2.6 billion Italian bank bond offering for a group of global private equity firms. Or perhaps working on the €7 billion restructuring of agribusiness Agrokor. “It almost gets to the point where the numbers are abstract!” said one goggle-eyed trainee.
Trainees described Kirkland's London base as the “primary office in Europe.” The other two are Munich and Paris – the latter opened in March 2019 as the firm’s 15th stronghold. Most of Kirkland’s offices are in its native US – nine in fact. Trainees said there was a “significant amount of interplay” with the American offices, and “very few of our deals have an English nexus.” Lawyers have recently worked on deals with moving parts in the Balkans, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, Germany, France, Italy, Scandinavia, India, Australia, the US, South America, Ireland, the Channel Islands... and the UK.
“Kirkland is a key player in private equity law.”
Chambers UK ranks Kirkland's London banking, capital markets, restructuring, investment funds and private equity practices among the best in the capital – right up there with the equivalent teams at magic circle firms and other US giants. Private equity is key to lots of what the firm does (as opposed to many firms who gain their renown working for blue-chip corporates). “I don’t think it’s a secret that Kirkland is a key player in private equity law,” one source said, adding boldly: “If you want to be a lawyer in private equity, I don’t think there’s anywhere better to be than Kirkland at the minute.” Recently several partners from Linklaters, Freshfields and Clifford Chance have jumped ship to join Kirkland, as well as ones from other US firms like Simpson Thacher, Milbank and Weil. Trainees said the funds team in particular is “growing like mad – we’ve hired an obscene number of people recently.”
Hours and salary are among other enormities you’ll find at Kirkland (more on these shortly), but the trainee intake is not. With just ten newbies a year, the small intake means trainees felt you “can make a name for yourself from day one.” Backgrounds in investment banking and accounting held many trainees in good stead to handle the finance-flavoured work, and Kirkland “makes no bones about the fact that its predominant practices in London include corporate and debt finance.” For trainees, this means compulsory seats with both teams.
HR gathers trainees’ preferences ahead of each rotation. Some of our sources did point out that the compulsory seats put a limit on how many they get a say over. “That can be a bit frustrating,” one felt, “but ultimately people come to Kirkland for private equity” – which you’ll come across in almost every seat. There are a couple of overseas options – debt finance in Hong Kong for third-seaters and corporate in New York for fourth-seaters. Allocating these involves a bit more back and forth with HR because of the demand, and trainees can usually only do these seats if they’ve already sat with the equivalent London team.
Trainees give a first and second choice of which department they’d like to qualify into around the time of the mid-seat review in their final seat. Usually the firm makes offers a few weeks later, but in 2018 things were all sorted in one weekend and all ten qualifiers stayed on. In 2019 Kirkland retained all ten qualifiers.
Deals on wheels
One trainee gave this simple, helpful explanation of Kirkland’s three largest teams: “In the private equity life cycle, you have fund-raising at the start, which is what the investment funds team does. Then the client is looking to do deals: corporate does the equity piece – the sale and purchase – and debt finance provides the financing.” Simple! Well, not really. But that's what lawyers are for, eh?
Corporate is the firm’s largest group with 80 lawyers. Five trainees at a time sit here (plus another in New York). The team primarily does M&A for US and European private equity and financial institution clients, including real estate, sovereign wealth and pension funds. There is some public to private work too. Clients include enormous private equity firms like Blackstone, which Kirkland advised on the £1.46 billion privatisation of Network Rail's commercial property. Kirkland also advised Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund as part of a €4.4 billion consortium acquiring a majority stake in the real estate assets of French multinational hotel group AccorHotels. For trainees, “quite a lot of the work is adminny: drafting board minutes, making bibles, reviewing contracts, doing business development research... and I don’t think anyone can escape due diligence!” Post-closing processes appear to offer most opportunity for trainee client and stakeholder contact. Trainees also “run the data room process: collating all the information from sellers and distributing it to different teams.”
“I was on the phone to clients within the first week or two.”
Five more trainees sit in debt finance, the next largest team with just under 60 lawyers, handling sponsor-side leveraged finance and restructuring. Recent work includes advising investment giant KKR and its portfolio company Selecta on the €440 million acquisition of Italian coffee company Gruppo Argenta, advising Japanese private equity company Advent International on the financing of its €1.9 billion acquisition of Czech pharma business Zentiva, and advising Blackstone on the financing of its £800 million acquisition of the operator of Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre. Trainees we spoke to were “on four or five deals at any one time.” On a mid-market private equity transaction, one trainee was “revising various papers for financing documents and running processes like 'know your customer'.” Managing the conditions precedent checklist is “a key task” too. Client contact is a big plus. “I was on the phone to clients within the first week or two,” one trainee reported, “and every day I was messaging the bank.” Another added: “You get to know the trainee working on the other side very well – you start to recognise each other’s phone numbers!”
Investment funds is a key area of work for Kirkland – the practice earns a top ranking from Chambers Global. In this optional seat, there are two main strands of work: fund-raising and secondaries (the buying and selling of existing investments). The London team recently handled the formation of a €6.5 billion fund for asset management company Ares Management, the €2.2 billion restructuring of a fund for private equity company Nordic Capital, and the creation of a €1.4 billion real estate fund for investment boutique Tristan Capital Partners. Trainees do “a lot of reaching out to investors and drafting subscription booklets” and “have a go at drafting side letters.” Sources said they were less involved in secondaries work.
The tax team often assists on M&A transactions and fund raisings. For example, the team advised on the tax aspects of the Network Rail deal for Blackstone and Ares’ €6.5 billion fund creation. Trainees reported doing a lot of research (“I’d say that’s my number-one task“) plus “some doc review and completing forms for HMRC.”
A seat in competition is also “quite research-based.” One trainee found themselves looped into an enormous pharma transaction, which meant “researching the product portfolio, collating vast amount of information about products and how they could potentially compete, and drafting the European Commission filing.” The firm recently acted for titanium producer Tronox on its proposed $1.67 billion acquisition of rival Cristal. Kirkland also advised Chinese investment firm Creat Group on its €940 million public takeover of plasma protein supplier Biotest. One trainee observed: “The group travels more than any other team – but not me. I wish!”
“You won’t have someone mollycoddling you.”
Trainees in disputes might get involved in white collar, IP, civil litigation or arbitrations. The firm handles both commercial and investor-state arbitrations, and arbitration clients include Samsung, General Motors, Boeing, logistics company Agility and China's Ping An Insurance. Recent commercial litigation highlights include acting for industrial supplier Noble Group in a $3.5 billion debt finance dispute, and acting for packaging manufacturer LB Europe in a $5 million dispute with one of its Spanish distributors. On one investigation, a trainee was “heavily involved in the doc review process, correspondence, working with the authorities, helping the team draft relevant memos and collating information to respond to requests from authorities.”
When it comes to choosing seats, trainees recommended “taking the initiative” and making the case to HR by saying: “’I’d be best placed to go to this team.’” Similarly, interviewees said trainees had to “ask to have a go and be involved” in the work they wanted across seats. “There’s a fantastic support network, but you won’t have someone mollycoddling you,” one source said. Another added: “If you go out of your way, people go out of theirs and will spend a lot of time teaching you the ins and outs of documents.”
Kirkin' in the Gherkin
Kirkland is currently spread out over six floors of The Gherkin in the City of London, but is soon taking over a seventh. Working in one of the City’s most iconic buildings is a pretty snazzy affair, but trainees said the novelty does wear off: “It’s not so cool at 3am on a Tuesday, but my grandma loves it.” Kirk perks like a £25 dinner budget after 6pm and taxis home after 9pm help ease the toll of the long hours, but there’s no denying it can be a slog. “US firms get a bad reputation – you sell your soul and all that – but ultimately, we’re usually facing a magic circle firm on the other side and everyone is in till midnight.” Another added: “You do often work till the early hours of the morning, there’ve been a few all-nighters, and I’ve only had to do the very odd thing on holiday.” Bundling by the beach, proofing by the pool: cool! In corporate and debt finance trainees can expect “mad ups and downs,” while sources in litigation described steadier (though not necessarily less demanding) hours of 9am to 8pm.
With these long hours there isn’t always time for a regular firm social life, but trainees do get “nine readymade friends” from the LPC in the form of their fellow trainees. “One of us sets up a Skype chat every single morning and we chat all day long.” Another source commented: “They couldn’t have found a wider spectrum of personalities in terms of what you’ll find people getting up to on a Friday – there are trainees who will go clubbing till 6am and others who don’t drink.” The firm does throw some “incredible” parties occasionally. There’s Christmas at the Savoy, and the corporate group recently arranged a Burns Night celebration complete with a ceilidh. Trainees also went on a retreat to luxury hotel The Grove in Hertfordshire with colleagues from Kirkland’s European offices. There was time for an “England versus the rest of the world football match, which was fiercely competitive.”
“People come here because they’re quite ambitious.”
We’d expect nothing less from the Kirkland cohort. While we heard of a “culture shift to be less Wolf of Wall Street,” trainees also said: “Everyone wants to succeed. People come here because they’re quite ambitious. They see partnership as a goal and a challenge.” Speaking of the partnership path, we heard the words “manageable” and “exciting” used: “You see partners who aren’t much older than you, so it doesn’t seem all that far away.” In this “pretty young office,” trainees felt comfortable with their superiors. “It doesn’t feel like a boss/underling relationship,” one said. What’s more, “equity partners thank you for your help on a deal, and it doesn’t feel facetious. That is what motivates you to get up in the morning – not the money.” We're sure the £50,000 first-year salary doesn't do any harm – and this soars to a humongous $190,000 on qualification. Sound good? Trainees said Kirkland life “requires a certain level of entrepreneurship. It reflects the private equity industry – they’re looking for people to have ideas, move things forward and be self-motivating.”
The female trainees we spoke to were impressed with “inspiring” female role models at Kirkland and various women’s initiatives.
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How to get a Kirkland & Ellis training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2020): 5 January 2020 (opens 1 October 2019)
Training contract deadline (2022): 12 July 2020 (opens 1 October 2019)
Kirkland & Ellis offers ten training contracts each year, and attends law fairs at Cambridge, Nottingham, Kings College London, LSE, Queen Mary University, Bristol, Oxford, UCL, Exeter, Durham and LawCareersNetLIVE.
Both vacation scheme and training contract 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 US 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 500 applications for its 30 vacation scheme places. Following a video interview stage, the firm runs assessment days in late January and early February and invites 20 to 25 applicants to each. The day involves a group exercise, an interview and an in-tray exercise. 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.
There are two fortnight-long spring and summer vacation schemes each year. Vac schemers sit with a supervisor during their placement, but “this is just a location” according to our source. They told us: “Students are actively encouraged to seek out work from all areas, and their supervisor, trainee mentor and the graduate recruitment team are all on hand to point them in the right direction.” Trainees recalled this as “a great opportunity to experience the work of different practice groups” and “everyone is so friendly that you don’t feel nervous about approaching groups, even if it’s something you’re not used to!”
It's unlikely vacation schemers will see a live transaction from start to finish, so the firm provides a mock transaction in which the students conduct a negotiation exercise, hammer out the terms of a sponsorship deal and attend a signing meeting to close the deal.
The firm also runs practice group overview sessions to give vacation schemers a chance to learn more about different departments and network with relevant figures. Everyone is allocated a trainee buddy, and there are various socials. Recent social events have included a private cookery lesson and a high speed boat trip on the Thames!
All vacation schemers receive feedback on their performance and are offered the opportunity to interview for a training contract before the end of the scheme. “We hope to consider all of them for a training contract” our graduate recruitment insider tells us, noting: “We’ve already been able to get to know their personalities and see their approach in action, and the interview is another chance for them to really demonstrate their skills and shine in front of the interviewing partners.”
The firm generally receives over 400 direct training contract applications, on top of the hundreds it gets for vacation schemes. If applicants are successful at application stage they will be asked to complete a video interview, followed by a face-to-face interview at the firm.
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.
Interview with training principal Rajinder Bassi
Chambers Student: Are there any significant developments from the last year that you’d like our student readers to know about?
Rajinder Bassi: There has continued to be growth in the London office. Most recently we have added an IP litigation team from Allen & Overy – Nicola Dagg is the lead partner. We also opened the Paris office and two ex-Linklaters partners came in to set that up – Vincent Ponsonnaille and Laurent Victor-Michel. They are up and running.
CS: What should students know about the firm’s strategy and what it wants to achieve over the next few years?
Rajinder: I don’t think the firm’s strategy will change. We have a very clear vision that we wish to be the best in the practice areas we cover. There has always been a strong focus on private equity, and we have continued to strengthen that practice. We continue to strengthen all our practices with the best talent. We do not necessarily want to grow for the sake of growing; we want to continue to strive to be the best at what we do. We are not going to sit on our laurels, as we will always make strategic hires in our core areas of practice.
CS: The Paris office opened recently as you mentioned – could this mean any secondment opportunities for trainees in future?
Rajinder: I think it is still early days. However, it is something we will think about at some point. It is something we would potentially consider in the next year depending on opportunities there. At the moment we do secondments to our Hong Kong and New York offices.
CS: Is Brexit and the uncertainty around it having any impact on the volume or type of work the firm is doing at the moment?
Rajinder: We have not seen that yet. Our transactional departments all remain robust. We are still hiring people because we are busy. It seems that, at this juncture, we have not faced any downturn in demand for our legal services as a result of the uncertainties in the market. Also, with our client base, people see opportunities both when the economy is good and when there is a downturn.
CS: Are there any plans to grow trainee numbers?
Rajinder: No immediate plans. It has been discussed but it is not something we are doing at the moment. I think one of the strengths of the trainee program from the feedback we have had is that because it is a relatively small trainee intake, trainees get a lot of responsibility. So if there were to be any expansion it would not be significant at all.
CS: Firm culture is an important subject for our readers. What would you tell them about it?
Rajinder: I think the word that is often used when describing our culture is entrepreneurial. If people have great ideas, it doesn’t matter whether those ideas are from a trainee or a partner, those ideas can get implemented very readily. The people we tend to hire across our practice areas are driven and entrepreneurial.
Not only is it entrepreneurial, but I would say it is also a very energetic and young environment. Trainees who come for their two-week summer vacaction schemes often comment on how dynamic the environment is. They feel they are getting good opportunities from a range of people because they can knock on doors and seek out work as people here are accessible and friendly.
CS: Anything to add?
Rajinder: We had 100% retention with the trainees currently going through qualification for September. We are obviously proud of that and are hopeful for a similar rate this year.
Kirkland & Ellis International LLP
30 St Mary Axe,
- UK partners 116
- UK associates 187
- Total trainees 20
- UK offices London
- Contacts Graduate recruiter: Lauren Massey, [email protected], 020 7469 2021
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 10
- Applications pa: 800
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 or other
- Minimum A levels: AAB or equivalent
- Vacation scheme places pa: 30
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 October 2019
- Training contract deadline, 2022 start: 12 July 2020
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 October 2019
- Vacation scheme 2019 deadline: 5th January 2020
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £50,000
- Second-year salary: £55,000
- Post-qualification salary: $190,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £10,000
- International and regional
- Overseas seats: Hong Kong, New York
For over 100 years, major national and international clients have called upon Kirkland & Ellis to provide superior legal advice and client services. Our London office has been the hub of European operations since 1994. Here, approximately 325 lawyers offer detailed expertise to a wide range of UK and international clients.
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. Kirkland & Ellis operates as a strategic network, committing the full resources of an international firm to any matter in any territory as appropriate.
Thanks to the small intakes, trainees are given early responsibility to work on complex multijurisdictional 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.
On the job training is actively supported by an extensive education programme, carefully tailored to meet the needs of our trainees.
We offer two two-week 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. Vacation scheme students will receive £500 per week. We look to recruit as many of our future trainees as possible from the vacation scheme.
Benefits include private medical insurance, travel insurance, free breakfast, bonus scheme, employee assistance plan, corporate gym membership, cycle to work scheme and season ticket loan.
Open days deadlines
• November 2019 open day deadline: 3rd November 2019
• March 2020 open day deadline: 16th Feburary 2020
University law careers fairs 2019
Cambridge, Nottingham, Kings College London, LSE, Queen Mary University, Bristol, Oxford, UCL, Exeter, Durham, Newcastle, LawCareersNetLIVE
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2019
- Banking & Finance: Sponsors (Band 1)
- Capital Markets: High-Yield Products (Band 2)
- Competition Law (Band 6)
- Financial Crime: Corporates (Band 4)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 1)
- Tax (Band 3)
- Investment Funds: Private Equity (Band 1)
- Private Equity: Buyouts: High-end Capability (Band 1)