Windy City-born McDermott lets trainees bat the breeze with partners, while blowing through a training contract offering both private client and corporate experience.
You don’t need a weatherman...
… to know which way the wind is blowing at Chicago's McDermott. The firm sailed across the $1 billion line in gross revenue in 2018, with London's contribution soaring to $41 million, hotting up by nearly 40% from 2017. London, as the numbers show, is more light breeze than hurricane, but it's beginning to stir up a storm. Trainees noticed that there’s “a big push to expand the London office. We’re so big in the US, but not as well known here as we could be so we’re really trying to get our name out there.”
“Not as well known here as we could be.”
Despite the push for growth, it was the “small trainee intake” (just two a year) that attracted many of our interviewees. “I wanted to get my hands dirty from the word go,” one recalled. In addition, sources reckoned you get “a really nice culture in a smaller office” (something we’ll expand on later). Small offices like these tend to have qualities which can be seen as a positive or negative: increased partner contact, less structure/bureaucracy, and the potential for profound growth. That storm we mentioned earlier: consider if you want to be at the centre of it. Despite being one of over 100 American firms in London, McDermott does have something of a unique selling point among its US pals with its equal focus on classic corporate/commercial work and private client. “It’s quite rare to have those two so close together in a City practice,” one source observed. “Normally you have to choose between a private client firm or a corporate firm that doesn’t offer private client work at all.” But not at McDermott. Although the firm doesn’t have any transactional rankings in Chambers UK at present, it receives recognition in Chambers High Net Worth for private wealth advisory and disputes work.
Winds of change
Trainees agreed that seat allocation has been “evolving” recently. Previously, there wasn’t much to it: trainees rotated around the firm’s transactions, employment/tax and private client seats. But a few seats have been added since the firm nabbed some big-name lateral hires (including a trio of partners from DLA). There are now the additional options of real estate finance, litigation and regulatory. (Sources described the last of those as “a mix of GDPR and some healthcare regulation.”) As such, current trainees reckoned “in future they will probably ask trainees what they want to do next.”
“I was also able to negotiate security documents.”
The transactions seat roughly covers three areas: corporate, finance and data privacy (a more recent addition). On the corporate side, trainees work on general M&A transactions, including “corporate acquisitions, usually on the lender side in private equity buyouts.” Sources were pleased with their responsibility here: “I was doing the usual things that trainees do like the conditions precedent process, but I was also able to negotiate security documents.” One recalled: “The person I was acting directly opposite was a four-year PQE solicitor at Slaughter and May, which was a little intimidating, but ultimately a good thing.” Recently, the team assisted industrial gas company Praxair on the €5 billion sale of most of its European businesses to Japan's Taiyo Nippon Sanso – 100 people across the firm's network worked on that deal, led by a partner in London. And in another deal – a big one for all you crisp fans out there – McDermott lawyers in the UK, Germany and the US represented KP Snacks in its acquisition of Tyrrells from Hershey.
On the finance side, trainees might dabble in infrastructure finance work, where “each deal involves a much longer process – one project I worked on was with a partner who had been working on it since 2006!” On deals like this, trainees are often “drafting corporate authorisations and amending documents,” and of course “nothing trainees do will go out without being checked.” Lawyers have advised on projects including a solar farm in Lebanon and a new power and gas supply business for Anglian Water. And the team also recently advised Sequoia Infrastructure as lenders on the £40 million acquisition of 23 care homes in the north of England.
“We often have to look closely at various jurisdictions around the world to see how our tax laws interact with other areas.”
The private client team covers both contentious and non-contentious matters. The contentious side sees a fair number of trusts disputes on which trainees “helped with research, bundle prep, and drafting memos.” The non-contentious side involves a significant amount of probate work, including “drawing up wills and drawing up trusts.” Sources also highlighted that “the office is known for its international tax planning work, where we work with ultra high net worth individuals to put structures in place to mitigate tax in the UK.” In other words, lawyers here are helping rich people avoid tax. Trainees found this area interesting because “we often have to look closely at various jurisdictions around the world to see how our tax laws interact with different areas.” The clients are nearly all confidential but we can tell you the firm acts for five of the top 20 in the Sunday Times rich list and eight of the 100 people on the Forbes billionaires list. The team has also represented the Dawson-Damer family in a nine-figure dispute with law firm Taylor Wessing over a trust in the Bahamas. Overall, sources found the seat to be “more research-heavy, with less client contact because of the nature of the work – the partner is usually the client’s trusted adviser.”
Shooting the breeze
The resounding consensus was that juniors found McDermott to be “very open and non-hierarchical.” Time and again we heard that trainees were “just as comfortable speaking to partners in a social setting as we are speaking among ourselves.” Of course, trainees reiterated that “it’s a hard-working firm and people care about the work they’re doing” but emphasised that “you feel like part of the team and that makes you want to do an even better job.” We thought the firm’s American roots may have some bearing on the culture, and indeed sources cited the firm’s Chicago HQ as a reason for “everything being a bit less formal than at New York-headquartered firms.”
“It’s nice to clock off a bit early and socialise.”
It’s worth pointing out that the very small intake of trainees means “there’s not as much social activity compared to at other firms with bigger intakes.” That said, trainees are still able to let their hair down once in a while with things like “drinks at the end of the month, which are well attended – it’s nice to clock off a bit early and socialise.” The office also has a social committee that recently organised a bowling outing for associates.
When we brought up the subject of working hours, trainees agreed that “due to the nature of transactional work, the hours are very up and down.” One elaborated: “Some days I leave at 5.30pm, and on other days it's midnight.” But when the late nights do roll around, sources were encouraged by seeing “partners and senior associates working late as well – trainees are not just left to our own devices!” Those who'd done a seat in private client reported the most consistent hours, plus in private client “you always know the deadline in advance so can plan for it.” One trainee also emphasised that “my weekends are generally my own – I’ve only had to work on the weekend a handful of times in six months.”
The small size of the firm and its intake means qualification is a relatively informal affair: trainees are encouraged to “make your preferences known,” and then the heads of practices have a meeting and decide what jobs they want to offer qualifiers. This then goes to the US for final approval. Although some felt the process was somewhat “opaque,” our sources were relatively confident in their chances of retention, explaining that “the firm’s financials have been strong globally and London seems like a place it's looking to grow.” In the ten years from 2009 to 2018 the firm retained 26 of its 36 qualifiers (72%), and in 2019 two out of three were kept on.
“McDermott has a good reputation generally and a training contract here will stand me in good stead. The name carries a lot of weight and the level of responsibility I’ve had will impress any future employer.”
How to get a McDermott training contract
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.”
McDermott Will & Emery UK LLP
- Partners 548 (worldwide)
- Associates 560(worldwide)
- Total trainees 5 (London)
- UK offices London
- Overseas offices 20
- 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: B
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 24th February 2020
- Training contract deadline, 2021 start: 30th June 2020
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £43,000
- Second-year salary: £48,000
- Post-qualification salary: £100,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £7,500
McDermott Will & Emery partners with leaders around the world to fuel missions, knock down barriers and shape markets. With more than 20 locations on three continents, the team works seamlessly across practices, industries and geographies to deliver highly effective — and often unexpected — solutions that propel success. More than 1,100 lawyers strong, the firm brings personal passion and legal prowess to bear in every matter for its clients and the people they serve.
Founded in 1998, our London office brings a prestigious and full-service city practice to Europe and complements the Firm’s capabilities in France, Germany, Italy and Brussels.
As part of an extensive international network, we provide complete multidisciplinary legal services to a diverse range of national and international businesses, from multinational and national corporations to financial institutions and investment banks, as well as high-net-worth individuals. Our offshore capabilities are extensive, ranging from the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man to the Cayman Islands and Bermuda. Additionally, we have a strong network of professionals in China and numerous countries throughout English and French-speaking Africa. The firm has around 60 lawyers at present in London, the majority are English-qualified.
Main areas of work
Corporate/transactional, private client, international tax, energy, healthcare, employment, data privacy, finance and real estate.
The firm is looking for the brightest, best and most entrepreneurial trainees. Candidates will need to demonstrate commercial awareness and a genuine understanding of the firm. 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.
The firm provides a comprehensive range of benefits which includes private medical and dental insurance, life assurance, permanent health insurance, pension, season ticket loan, subsidised gym membership, employee assistance programme, 25 days’ holiday.