This US-born titan excels in the London market, playing off its penchant for all things private equity.
If it’s financial security you’re looking for in a time of economic unease, you’ve come to the right place. 2019 saw US giant Kirkland & Ellis become the first ever law firm to hit (and exceed) $4 billion in revenue – it went to a whopping $4.15 billion last year. Breaking that record was a firm-wide effort between 15 offices worldwide, nine of which are in the US. But from what we can gather the UK base in London had a significant role to play in the story. Trainees told us the office has “grown exponentially over the past decade” and from our stats we can see that lawyer (partner and associate) headcount grew by 12% between 2019 and 2020 alone.
Trainees proudly told us “Kirkland & Ellis is a leader in all things private equity.” We always advise you to treat bold declarations with caution, but private equity work is key at Kirkland (as opposed to many firms who gain their renown working for blue-chip corporates). The firm is ranked top worldwide by Chambers Global and sits among the UK’s crème de la crème for private equity investment funds and high-end private equity buyouts, according to Chambers UK. In London specifically, Kirkland ranks top for restructuring and its sponsor-side banking and finance work. It also wins accolades in the capital in high-yield capital markets, tax, and financial crime: corporates.
“I’m very ambitious, and I wanted a firm that reflected that.”
Record-breaking firms attract highly driven people. “I’m very ambitious, and I wanted a firm that reflected that,” one trainee told us. These go-getters were drawn to Kirkland’s smallerintake in the hopes of getting “a lot of exposure” and responsibility early on. “You’re part of a team and everyone contributes,” they confirmed. This went hand in hand with high expectations, and sources reiterated that “you can have a laugh, but everyone expects you to give your all.”
Every Kirkland trainee does two compulsoryseats with the corporate and debt finance teams – the firm’s two biggest departments. For the remaining two seats, trainees can submit their preferences. “It’s a pretty informal process,” they explained. “When you’re midway through your current seat, graduate recruitment will ask for your preferences. From there, they collate everyone’s choices and work hard to make sure everyone gets what they want.” Under typical circumstances, the firm also offers two international secondments: a debt finance secondment to Hong Kong, and a corporate secondment to New York. We heard that trainees in the past have gone on to qualify in these offices and related practices.
Debt finance work is “one of the things Kirkland in London is well known for,” andas such, trainees in this seat felt they’d got stuck into “really exciting work.” The practice covers “all the finance work around leveraged buyouts andhelps clients with the raising of debt.” The team acts exclusively for sponsors in these deals and helps out when it comes to “negotiating the loan of debt they borrow from banks.” The team has worked for big private equity companies such as Blackstone, Bain Capital and Advent International, and recently advised Thoma Bravo on its £3.1 billion offer for cybersecurity company Sophos. Sources also told us the firm has recently been handling “more distressed financings with the restructuring team.” For trainees, work in this seat involved running the conditions precedent process, reviewing subscription booklets and negotiating side letters. Sources were also “given the reins on all things KYC [Know Your Customer]. Although it’s not a very legal task, it can be invaluable because the deal won’t go through if the banks aren’t given KYC approval.”
“Because we’re often working for private equity sponsors, the angle and the pace of the transactions is very different.”
Over the last four years, Kirkland’s corporate team has “almost doubled in size.” Trainees here got involved in M&A transactions spanning “multi-jurisdictional headline deals to UK-based deals, from smaller portfolio company transactions to larger sponsor-level transactions.” Some trainees also dabbled in “reverse IPOs – taking companies private – as well as a lot of management incentive plans.” Billion-pound price tags are common: the team recently advised investment management company GLP on the £18.7 billion sale of its logistics business to Blackstone, for example. It also advised private equity outfit TDR Capital and Stonegate Pub Company on their £1.27 billion offer for pub company Ei Group.Interviewees noticed thatthe main documents they worked with “are the same as other firms, but because we’re often working for private equity sponsors, the angle and the pace of the transactions is very different.” Trainees described “highly focused” clients: “They really understand the transaction and push you harder.” Day to day, trainees often started out with tasks like “reviewing data room documents and managing local counsel.” As the seat progressed, they moved on to “drafting the due diligence report, liaising with counsel and internal teams, and sometimes getting the chance to do the first cut of the shareholder agreement.”
Trainees might sit in investment funds, where lawyers work on initial fund-raising as well as “any fund queries throughout the lifetime of the fund.” Fund-raising requires the team to “create the governing documents for the fund, set up the entities required, and even advise on tax regulations.” The funds range from credit funds and buyout funds to real estate funds and special situation funds. Sources reckoned the group has been “growing its market share of mid-market funds” with the occasional “mega fund” thrown in. In the latter category, the team recently advised capital market company L Catterton on the formation of a $1.45 billion fund for investing in Asia’s lifestyle and branded goods sector. Elsewhere the firm advised Resolution Capital – a real estate securities company – on the formation of a $3.5 billion investment vehicle for investing in life insurance portfolios. Throughout this seat, interviewees appreciated being “included in client meetings with the main fund-raising guys” and getting “regular contact with clients on the phone.” Other typical tasks included “drafting lasting powers of attorney and taking the first cut at side letters.” One source recalled: “I also ran my own deals because when investors want to transfer out of a fund or transfer interest to someone else, it’s basically a mini deal in itself. Trainees get to run with those with supervision.”
“A lot of retail restructurings for high-street companies.”
Restructuring was a particularly popular choice among our interviewees. For many law firms, it’s an area that has seen an influx of work following the outbreak of Covid-19. Trainees worked on “a lot of retail restructurings for high-street companies.” Recent clients include well-known names such as Forever 21, Mamas & Papas, Paperchase and Pizza Express. The team recently advised South African retail company Edcon on its $1.6 billion restructuring.One source explained how a matter might go down: “If the company goes bust, it enters into a company voluntary arrangement which helps them stay afloat.” Part of this includes “agreeing with landlords on a subsidised rent for a period” and generally “helping companies restructure their debt.” Trainee responsibilities included attending board meetings and taking signatures, legal research, and occasionally helping with “client information presentations.” Sources here felt that “sometimes they throw you in the deep end, but there’s always someone around to help.”
Work is mostly transactional at Kirkland, but there is a litigation side to the firm too. The group is roughly split into four subsections: High Court litigation, IP litigation, international arbitration and white-collar crime. “As a trainee, you can get stuck into all of them,” insiders told us, adding that their assignments might depend on what their supervisor does. The team recently acted for manufacturer Galapagos in proceedings that arose from a challenge to a $505 million restructuring. The team also represented software company Liveperson, which was sued by a former agent alleging the company owed them money. There’s a fair bit of deal support work for the corporate team here, like looking into “the white-collar or anti-bribery aspects of target companies.” On arbitrations, the trainee role included “turning comments into a plea or submissions, doing some case research, and some letter writing.” Sources found the seat “quite cerebral. You often spend hours at a time reading through case law to pinpoint an area of law that’s uncertain. The answers are rarely an easy find!”
“Outwardly, it’s a firm that’s seen as quite aggressive,” trainees acknowledged, “particularly in the debt and corporate markets, but you don’t feel that within the team.” All of our sources impressed upon us that “everyone is respectful and it’s a very professional work environment.” Others reiterated that “people are generally friendly, no matter how busy they are.” Of course, you don’t get to the top of the AmLaw 100 just by being ‘friendly,’ and trainees emphasised that “people do expect a lot. Everyone pushes each other to be the best.”
“Most of the time, the hours are longer than the average person’s hours.”
Pushing for perfection was borne out in the hours trainees spent in the office: “You work as hard as you need to get the work done.” Depending who we spoke to, the average time trainees left the office fell somewhere between 7.30pm and 9.30pm. On later nights though, trainees felt supported: “Every time I’ve been here late, most other people on the team were there too.” Because hours varied “massively month to month, sometimes even week to week,” trainees could go through a period of “11-hour-plus days.” Alternatively, “if you have a quiet week, you’re not expected to be at your desk 24/7. There have been days where I’ve left the office at 6pm.” Ultimately, interviewees said “most of the time, the hours are longer than the average person’s hours.”
But then, Kirkland doesn’t attract average people. “The hours aren’t necessarily a negative thing,” one felt. “They pay off in incredible experiences and responsibility.” This perspective won’t be uncommon at Kirkland; trainees said everyone is “very entrepreneurial, driven and targeted.”Sources were also keen to add that “it’s a true meritocracy – not the kind of place where you wouldn’t feel you could raise a point just because you’re junior. It doesn’t matter what level you are. All that matters is the work you produce.”
Sources noticed Kirkland’s American roots shining through in one aspect more than others: its pro bono commitment. Although participation isn’t mandatory, “all attorneys are expected to do 20 hours of pro bono every year, and most trainees do it.” Lawyers get weekly emails outlining the opportunities on offer, and so far, our sources had been involved in matters like employment tribunals and advisory work on charitable statuses. Interviewees appreciated getting “valuable experience as a trainee” this way.
They also flagged other features of Kirkland life that helped with their overall development, such as “a strong women’s leadership programme.” Others pointed out “you’re working with people who are market-leading in their field, so you’re learning from the very best.” Trainees were further spurred on by the firm’s partner track, which is among “the most defined in the market.” Associates here can be promoted to partner from their sixth year, as opposed to their eighth or ninth year which is usually when associates are considered for partnership.
Trainees nearing the end of their training contract face an informal qualification process: they’ll have a chat with HR and the training principal about halfway through their final seat to discuss where they’d like to qualify. They’ll usually “have a discussion with partners in the relevant teams beforehand to express interest” too. Recent NQs recalled that “the process was wrapped up within a week.” In 2020, the firm retained nine of ten qualifiers. They can look forward to a bumper salary of $190,000 (trainees start on a measly £50,000).
Gherkland & Ellis…
The firm’s office is spread out over ten floors of the iconic Gherkin building in the City of London.
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How to get a Kirkland & Ellis training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2021): 3 January 2021 (opens 1 October 2020)
Training contract deadline (2023): 11 July 2021 (opens 1 April 2021)
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 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.
Usually 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. Social events in 2019 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 to work 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 500 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 interviews 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.
Kirkland & Ellis International LLP
30 St Mary Axe,
- UK partners c.130
- UK associates c.210
- Total trainees 21
- UK offices London
- Overseas offices 14
- Contacts Graduate recruiter: Lauren Massey, [email protected], 020 7469 2021
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 10
- Applications pa: c.1000
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 or equivalent
- Minimum A levels: AAB or equivalent
- Vacation scheme places pa: 30
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 April 2021
- Training contract deadline, 2023 start: 11 July 2021
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 October 2020
- Vacation scheme 2021 deadline: 3 January 2021
- Open day deadline: 1 November 2020 / 14 February 2021
- 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
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.
Open days and first-year opportunities
Our open day taking place in November 2020 is aimed at those eligible to apply for our vacation schemes and training contracts. The deadline for applying is 1 November 2020.
Our open day taking place in March 2021 is aimed at those in the first year of a law degree or penultimate year of a non-law degree. The deadline for applying is 14 February 2021.
University law careers fairs 2020
Bristol; Cambridge; Durham; Exeter; Kings College London; LSE; Nottingham; Oxford; Queen Mary; UCL.
Diversity, inclusion and wellbeing
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, 2020
- Banking & Finance: Sponsors (Band 1)
- Capital Markets: High-Yield Products (Band 2)
- Competition Law (Band 6)
- Financial Crime: Corporates (Band 3)
- Intellectual Property: Patent Litigation (Band 3)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 1)
- Tax (Band 3)
- Investment Funds: Private Equity (Band 1)
- Private Equity: Buyouts: High-end Capability (Band 1)
Visit the firm's recruitment page here.