What started as a humble Chicago tax firm has grown into a global player; now MWE has a plan to boost its transactional and private client clout in London.
“Our key strategic growth markets are New York and London,” MWE's chairman Ira Coleman told our sister publication, Chambers Associate, in 2017. In London, training principal Nicholas Holland fills us in: “The firm conducted a strategic review in 2016, which took into consideration a four-year period leading up to 2020. In that time-frame we're looking to double the size of the London office, and between March 2016 and March 2017 we grew from roughly 40 to 60 lawyers.” Laterals were pinched from rival US outfits and established domestic firms (like Taylor Wessing and Simmons & Simmons), boosting the office's corporate and transactional department in particular: expertise in areas like aviation, health, life sciences and restructuring was added.
But laterals have also poured into the office's private client department, as Holland explains: “A lot of our clients are wealthy individuals, and we look to provide seamless corporate, tax and private client advice to suit both their family and business interests. Our transactional and private client departments are viewed as the office's primary drivers and largest departments.” For now, the London office picks up a solitary contentious trusts ranking in Chambers UK, but a look at the broader firm's accolades shows there's a sturdy network from which to draw support: Chambers USA praises key practices like healthcare, litigation and M&A, while Chambers Global rates MWE as one of the top firms in the world for private client work. Across the network there are ten offices in the US, eight throughout Europe and one in Asia (Seoul).
For our trainee sources the prospect of being one of only two new-starters each year was appealing. “I have friends at other firms with much larger cohorts and they're just photocopying – I liked the idea of having a lot of responsibility.” That's not about to change any time soon, as Holland reveals: “Much of our growth has been at the partner level, so if you're looking for a large trainee intake this isn't the firm for you; we're looking for trainees who will be comfortable interacting with seasoned practitioners and clients from day one.”
“You're the only trainee working on a deal.”
With their interests catered for, sources didn't mind the limited selection of seats on offer. The options available are corporate advisory, energy advisory, private client, and employment/tax. “You're therefore guaranteed to do all of them and will repeat one at some point,” which usually means doing more energy or more corporate – whichever area you've seen the least of between these two. Trainees don't submit preferences but do “have regular meetings” with Holland “about what we're up to and what we've enjoyed.”
Interviewees praised “the wide range” covered in the corporate and transactional department: “You get the M&A and private equity transactions on the corporate side, as well as general commercial and contracts work, plus energy deals.” Sector strengths include oil & gas, life sciences and healthcare, and the department takes on a number of Africa-related deals; a recent example saw the group advise Tana Africa Capital and Plexus Investments as they sold their share of Promasidor Holdings – a South African processed-foods manufacturer – for $530 million. Other key clients include global agri-business Olam, British healthcare company Circle Health, ExxonMobil and Italian private equity firm Ambienta. “You're thrown in at the deep end as you're the only trainee working on a deal,” said one source. “That means going to client meetings and being there for the completion. People are actually dependent on you.” Others told us that they'd spent time checking clauses in English law contracts on international deals; drafting a due diligence report for a vendor-side client; and conducting research on topics like how damages are calculated in English law. “In the midst of a deal you're checking all of the information in the data room and calling the client with updates to see if they're willing to progress.”
"One minute you're looking into Monegasque law and the next you're looking at legislation in Jersey.”
Wealth management for high net worth individuals and families is the name of the game in MWE's private client department, where many clients are large business owners with links to the US. As a result, “we work a lot with the US tax teams; basically if you're a US citizen you may have to pay tax back at home on top of your UK obligations.” But the seat is still “very international,” as clients' assets and family links can be spread far and wide: “It means thatone minute you're looking into Monegasque law and the next you're looking at legislation in Jersey.” Sources also liked the mix of contentious and non-contentious work available. The latter involved “a lot of research into trust structures and drafting memos for associates; I was looking into one for a client who had a private jet.” Drafting wills, lasting powers of attorney and trust documents is also common, with one interviewee highlighting that “a lot of clients change their mind about who they will leave their jewellery and property to!” Trusts disputes are a speciality on the contentious side, “but we take on anything that becomes litigious, like defamation, data protection and small bankruptcy cases.” Sources were given “sole control” of the latter: “I'd draft the applications to court and actually attend the hearing.”
A split seat between employment and tax is “research heavy” on both sides. The former group mostly provides its employer clients (like Formula One Management, British engineering company Vesuvius and the environmental arm of Canadian consultancy WSP) with day-to-day HR and compliance advice, but also supports the corporate department on relevant deals. “With general advisory work my supervisor would ask me to draft the advice and check the case law to make sure everything was correct. Employers often have queries about data protection regulations, and I also produced a note on gender pay gap reporting, as the rules about disclosure are changing.” Transfer pricings (i.e. the pricing of transactions occurring between companies under common ownership) and global restructurings are strengths in the tax team, which recently advised Canadian energy company Irving Oil as it acquired an oil refinery in Ireland. “About 60% of my time was spent on research,” one interviewee told us, “and the rest was spent on preparing stamp duty applications, which were difficult because you had to understand the structure of quite complex deals before compiling them.”
Through the looking glass
The firm tells us that the longest hours are billed in private client. However, trainees said corporate can feel like more of a slog because “it's up and down. If you're working on a deal then you could be leaving any time between 10pm and 1am most nights for a few weeks, but if it's quiet and you're just doing research and drafting you can leave by 6.30pm.” In the other departments the hours were much more stable, with most trainees starting their days between 9-9.30am and exiting the office between 6 and 7pm. “Occasionally you may have to work later than that – until 8pm, for instance – but not that often.”
“We have glass walls for a reason,” training principal Nicholas Holland jokes. “Everyone can see what everybody else is doing so you need to be a bit of a go-getter, but also someone who is happy to put their head down and work.” Another trainee clarified: “Confident characters do very well but grandstanding isn't appreciated. It's the kind of firm where everyone is in their own offices beavering away – it's not for people who are looking for a loud, buzzy atmosphere.”
That's not to say that there are no social events on the calendar. Office-wide parties are held at Christmas, Easter and during the summer; the latter recently consisted of drinks held on top of the Walkie Talkie skyscraper in the Sky Garden restaurant. “There was a pretty good turnout, a live band and some good nibbles and canapés.” Back at the office (based in the City's Heron Tower) monthly drinks are held, and on a more informal basis “people do meet up after work, but it depends on how busy everyone is.” To build bridges across the network, the firm now sends all its NQs out to the US for orientation with their American peers. This year the knees-up happened in Chicago.
All NQ positions must be signed off in the US before being officially offered to qualifying trainees – this is common among US-headquartered firms. For some, this naturally leads to an opaqueness in the system: “You're not even told which departments will be able to take people on.” Others were more positive and liked the informality of the approach: “The training principal just contacted me and we had a chat about my preferences.” In the end, one of the two qualifiers stayed at the firm in 2017. To learn the full story behind the recruitment process, click on the 'Get Hired' tab above for an interview with training principal Nick Holland.
Why does MWE's chairman want his lawyers to be like Bruce Springsteen? Check out our interview with Ira Coleman to find out.
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How to get a McDermott training contract
Training contract deadline (2020): 29 June 2018
McDermott Will & Emery takes on just two trainees per year. The firm receives training contract applications from a broad range of universities, including quite a few from continental Europe. Cambridge, UCL and King's are the universities represented among the 2019 intake.
The application form requires candidates to list their academic qualifications to date, including all modules and the grades received for each. Recruiters look for a minimum AAB at A level (or equivalent) and a strong 2:1 degree.
Applicants are also asked to detail their work experience. According to London HR sources, “having some in the legal sector is advantageous, but general commercial experience is beneficial as well, as it means applicants hopefully understand how businesses work.”
Rounding off the form are a few long-answer questions. “We’re looking for applicants to provide fairly logical answers with supporting information,” HR sources tell us. “One of the recent questions was ‘What qualities do you think you have that would make an impact with a client?’ For that we’re looking for an idea of what those qualities are and examples of how the applicant has demonstrated them.”
The firm uses a meticulous scoring system to assess applications – “if you fall down in one area, then you can pick it up in another,” we're told – and chooses 25 or so candidates to attend an assessment day. This includes a two-hour written exercise. “We present them with a commercial scenario, and ask them to analyse the information and produce a number of written reports. We’re looking for logic, structure and grammatical correctness – evidence that they can write well,” HR sources explain.
The day also includes lunch with trainees, a Q&A session with a panel of partners and associates and a drinks event in the evening. One current trainee told us: “The day showed me a lot about the firm, and the way all of the partners put in so much effort to talk to us about life at MWE was very encouraging.”
The firm's trainee solicitor recruitment committee invites ten candidates to interview after assessing each candidate's written exercise and listening to feedback from partners and associates.
Candidates attend a single 45-minute interview with a panel of three partners, all of whom they'll have met during the assessment day. Those three partners interview all ten candidates. The firm's HR team tells us the interview is “highly structured and competency-based,” and advises applicants to “do as much research and have as much of an understanding of our firm and our culture as you can.”
The firm says that successful candidates are those who transform the interview into a “two-way process – that indicates to us that they're comfortable asking questions and are amassing information to help them ascertain whether this is the right firm for them.”
Interview with training principal Nick Holland
Interview with training principal Nick Holland
Chambers Student: Could you describe the firm as a whole? What should people think when they hear the name 'McDermott Will & Emery'?
Nick Holland: We are a fiscally conservative, but socially liberal firm. We have no debt and, so far as I am aware, we have never had debt. We don't expand hastily. Our approach is generally slow and steady both for hiring and for expansion.
We don't borrow money for any purposes – even for capital investment. For example, in March 2017, we relocated our Chicago office and that entire move was done without any debt financing.
CS: You mentioned hiring there. Trainees told us they found the NQ process somewhat opaque. Could you comment on this. Why is this the case?
NH: Our conservatism is also present in terms of expansion: the levels of approval we have to go through for even an NQ hire show you that we think through very carefully whether each hire is an appropriate decision or not.
Across the firm, before any lawyer is hired we have to get sign-off from the local practice head, the local office head, the global practice group head and the CFO of the firm. That's true from NQ level right the way up. We are very careful and diligent about the hires we make; we're a firm that's more likely to miss a good opportunity than to make a bad hiring decision!
As a second-year trainee at McDermott you don't apply for a posted NQ job. We decide that we want to hire a particular person for a particular post and we offer it to them. We come to you with a proposal for an NQ role – we either offer you a position or we don't depending on decisions at partner level about hiring. That process is opaque to the trainees because they are not part of it, though I encourage them to speak with me regularly if they have any questions.
CS: What is the current strategic role the London office plays and what sort of relationship does it have to the US?
NH: London is one of the three offices that was recently particularly targeted for growth; in the past year, our London office increased in size by 50% from around 40 lawyers to around 60. Initial growth has been targeted at expanding the number of partners, particularly rain makers, which means opportunities for new associates and trainees.
The partner level hires have primarily been in the private client and transactional practices, but also in healthcare and litigation. Private client and transactions are seen as groups around which other groups can grow. Many of our clients are wealthy individuals with substantial operating businesses to whom we can provide seamless corporate tax and private client advice, acting for both businesses and individuals. We have also been expanding some of our non-contentious insolvency work.
Our London-based private client work is international in nature – we don't generally act for the landed gentry. We act for international families who may have some component of their wealth in London or find London is a convenient place to meet with their lawyers. We are well respected in the US for private client work, and we are replicating that in the UK.
CS: How is Brexit affecting the firm?
NH: One of the challenges posed by Brexit for us arises because we have historically had a disproportionate number of applications from the continent relative to other firms, because of our reputation in the US and across Europe – we have three offices in Germany, for example. We have quite a few EU passport holders (both ancestral US citizens and those from the EU) who apply, so we will face a challenge in the immediate future. [This is because of potential changes to whether EU citizens can move to and settle in the UK after Brexit – ed.] We are very international in the London office – we have 60 lawyers and 25 nationalities.
CS: The firm does a lot of pro bono work. How important is that in the London office?
NH: It is hugely important to the firm; it's a big part of our identity. There are various organisations we work with, including Lawyers In Schools and Lawyers Without Borders. The firm wants all lawyers, trainees included, to do at least 20 hours of pro bono a year. You can do up to 100 hours of pro bono work and it will be credited as billable, counting towards your overall hours target.
CS: What sort of person thrives at the firm? How can a candidate really impress at interview?
NH: We are looking for future partners: the type of person who down the road could be out there winning client business. We are a very entrepreneurial firm. If you are the sort of person who requires a training programme which is very structured, then this is likely not the place for you. We have a small intake, so as a trainee you have to be accessible to everybody in the firm regardless of practice group because you are a firm resource as far as we are concerned.
You also need to be committed to our key practice groups. Our obvious areas for expansion are transactions and private client – you need to demonstrate you are committed to those practice groups.
CS: Is there anything else our readers should know about the firm?
NH: The key thing to take away is that our London office is in a state of transition. It has grown exponentially in the past year and it will expand over the next three years in London. The transactional practice will be significantly larger as likely will be the private client department.
Because our intake is small you also need to be someone who is comfortable interacting with seasoned practitioners. We pay very well and we want you to thrive. [Bear in mind that McDermott pays trainees and NQs more than any other private client-focused firm in London – ed.]
McDermott Will & Emery UK LLP
- Partners 564 (worldwide)
- Associates 330 (worldwide)
- Total trainees 4 (London)
- UK offices London
- Overseas offices 19
- Graduate recruiter: Human resources, 020 7577 6900
- Training partner: Nicholas Holland, [email protected]
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 2
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Minimum A levels: Bs
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 26 Febuary 2018
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: 29 June 2018
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £43,000
- Second-year salary: £48,000
- Post-qualification salary: £90,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: No
- Maintenance grant pa: £3,750
McDermott Will & Emery’s London office, founded in 1998, brings a full-service legal practice to Europe and complements our capabilities in France, Germany, Italy and Belgium. The London offices is part of an extensive 19 office international network that provides a unique platform from which McDermott offers legal advice to local and international organisations.
The London office represents a wide range of clients, including large publicly and privately held commercial, industrial and financial corporations, small and medium-sized businesses, trustees, and high-net-worth individuals and families. The firm has around 45 lawyers at present in London, most of whom are English-qualified.
Main areas of work
The primary focus is to provide a practical foundation for your career with the firm. You will experience four seats over the two-year period and a deliberately small number of trainees means that the firm is able to provide a degree of flexibility in tailoring seats to the individual. Trainees get regular support and feedback.