To a lucky few, California's O'Melveny offers a jurisdiction-smashing training contract focused on investment funds and private equity.
Revered across the pond for its litigation expertise, American O'Melveny's London base is a very different beast. “We're one of the best firms in the City for private equity work,” trainees proudly declared. “It's a super attractive and trendy area at the moment.” A hefty proportion of the practice in London is funds-related. Office head and graduate recruitment partner Jan Birtwell tells us the firm will “continue to build on its strengths” in the funds sphere going forward: “We aim to expand more into the debt and real estate funds spaces, as we're primarily focused on private equity right now.” The firm's sole Chambers UK ranking is for investment funds, but London lawyers also practise in corporate, finance and litigation, all of which are somewhat linked to funds. Birtwell also sees the office “building up its litigation practice in white-collar crime.”
Over in Chambers Global the firm scores rankings in 12 areas including antitrust, M&A, competition, litigation and projects. It has a strong international presence, which could be getting stronger: the legal press reported in 2018 that O'Melveny had entered merger talks with magic circle giant Allen & Overy – an event that would leave many a global firm quaking in its boots. Nothing was confirmed about the possible merger at the time we went to press.
For now, the London office is smaller than you might expect, playing host to just 25 qualified lawyers at the time of our research. Correspondingly, it takes just three trainees each year. The ones we spoke to felt very much connected to O'Melveny's stateside operations, noting “lots of the decision making comes from the US. America is the centre of the firm culture.” Americanisms that have carried across to the UK vary from a big focus on pro bono work to little things like naming all-lawyer catch-ups 'attorney meetings'. Trainees’ work is also packed with global flavours: “I haven't done much UK-centric work at all, there's a very international client base including investors from all over the world.”
As there are only a few departments in the office, “all trainees end up doing pretty much every seat.” First seats are assigned but following that things get“very flexible because there are only three trainees. You can do longer or shorter seats in each department depending on business need.” There's also the chance to go on secondment to either the Hong Kong or Brussels office. Deciding when you do what with HR is “more of a conversation than an assignment process.” The loosey-goosey approach carries across to qualification too: “There's no big drama of having to formally apply and go for coffee with partners – the interview is the two years you train here.” Trainees reported that “throughout the training contract we have informal discussions with HR about where we're interested in qualifying. The firm decides who to make offers to on that basis.” In 2018 two of three qualifiers stayed on.
It's all funds and games
O'Melveny's trademark investment funds practice excels on both sides of fund formations and fund-raising, working for any number of sovereign funds and institutional investors. It's also a big player in the complex secondary transaction market, where the interest in a fund is sold on to other investors. Matters span many jurisdictions (Swedish LLC Adelis called on O'Melveny for help with the fundraise for its €600 million second private equity fund) and funds working in various industry sectors (the team also advised infrastructure group Quinbrook on a fund aiming to direct $1 billion towards green energy projects).
The primary trainee task is running Know Your Customer (KYC) checklists, for which “you're in contact with the client straight away, excitingly.” Reviewing documents like subscription agreements is also commonplace. Interviewees suggested “there's no real distinction between trainees and associates” when deals hot up, generating “a steep learning curve.” But the funds don’t stop here: “The nature of the firm means a lot of work is fund-related so you'll get exposure to it from other seats,” trainees told us.
A corporate seat will throw up some M&A, and the deals are often financed by private equity investment funds. The Government of Singapore Sovereign Wealth Fund's Special Investments wing is a key client; the team also advised healthcare investment firm Vivo on the $400 million acquisition and restructuring of Surgical Specialties. “M&A largely means due diligence” for trainees, but that aside, “grunt work is more of an anomaly than the norm because we have legal secretaries to help us.” Instead, sources co-ordinated closing checklists and in some cases ran their own secondary fund transactions. There’s also a lot of work on US private placements (American bonds sold in the private market). On these matters trainees were “independently running the closing process, drafting documents and liaising with clients and local counsel” across the firm's network.
“Grunt work is more of an anomaly than the norm.”
A finance seat meant “mainly borrower-side bank lending” for our sources. Some of those borrowers are corporates, but trainees had “also done borrowing work for funds clients, plus some derivatives matters.” Recent matter examples include property investor Segro's €650 million refinancing of the company’s existing bonds and secured debt, and two placements – totalling $355 million – for French-based global inspection and certification agency Bureau Veritas. The seat involves “lots of process and document management – you're reviewing the ancillaries but get to see the main ones too.” Another plus is “lots of client contact. If you do it as a later seat you're the one sending things out so you've got to get it right or you look stupid.”
Trainees can get a taste for the contentious in international disputes. “It can tie in with the other departments. We'll represent fund general partners on any issues they have,” insiders explained. There's some more distinct fare on offer too, including chances to help the American litigation team on cross-border cases. The department's got 'international' in its title for a reason – trainees we spoke to worked on disputes linked to California, Australia, Antigua and Ecuador. “It's understood you'll get some churn work but you're regularly given more interesting things to do,” they said.
A spell overseas in O'Melveny's Hong Kong or Brussels office technically isn't guaranteed, but trainees reckoned: “It's assumed everyone will do one at some point.” Most secondees will already have done a seat in the department they'll be joining abroad, and those we spoke to applauded the firm for “preparing us well.” Both offices are smaller than London so “you're even more involved in the deals,” and trainees found they could dabble in other departments while there.
“97% of people here are genuinely nice,” according to insiders. “The small office size is definitely important to the culture. You'd definitely be called out if you were rude to people here.” Furthermore “everyone's extremely bright with a good sense of humour, so you hear a lot of witty jokes.” Lawyers of different levels are even cosy enough with one another that “partners play pool in the breakrooms with trainees.” From pool, to Paul – trainees reckoned the plush facilities come with “the best view of London. Overlooking St Paul's is a really great location, and the offices themselves are so nice.” Trainees share a space with their supervisor “to build a relationship and have someone to ask questions to,” then get their own room upon qualification. The office also has an open terrace upon which O'Melveny hosts its annual summer party.
“Partners play pool in the breakrooms with trainees.”
The summer shindig is only the tip of the social iceberg: there's “genuinely always something going on.” Two trainees sit on the social committee organising monthly events and dinners. “We're not just a bunch of people who want to go drinking all night,” they assured us, “we've done everything from dragon boat racing to arranging terrariums” (Google tells us they're a glass container full of plants). “None of it's a chore. It goes back to the culture: everyone gets along well.” But there's still plenty of time left in the day for work: regular trainee office hours ran from 9am to somewhere between 6.30pm and 7.30pm, but “working with America means we'll obviously have to stay later sometimes.” In the busiest periods, post-midnight finishes can stack up, while the dubious honour of longest slog went to an interviewee who “finished at 6am then came back in at 9am. But that's definitely exceptional.”
Trainees particularly enjoyed pro bono work for the Horizon Legal Advice Clinic, advising members of the public on disability benefits issues.
How to get an O'Melveny training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2019): 31 January 2019 (opens 1 November 2018)
Training contract deadline (2021): 30 June 2019 (opens 1 November 2018)
O'Melveny invites applications both to its vacation scheme and directly into a training contract, but the former route is preferred and stands you in the best stead to get a spot. “We try to fill our intake from vacation scheme applicants,” London office head and graduate recruitment partner Jan Birtwell reveals, and the firm only takes three trainees a year so spots are hard to come by. The firm runs two vacation schemes a year, both a week long. Candidates initially submit a CV alongside a pretty standard application form, and complete “some questions that require independent thinking."
Birtwell predicts that the firm's intake will expand as a “natural consequence” of its growth in London, but explains “we keep things small because we see trainees as future associates, not quasi-paralegals.” Her advice to applicants is to “make sure you really want to practice law and cross-examine your motives for doing so.”
Up to five applicants attend each week of the scheme. Upon arrival, students are assigned a 'buddy' – typically a trainee or very junior associate – to guide them towards work. Along with shadowing, vac schemers get individual exercises to complete which “tests their drafting skills.” Jan Birtwell stress that “there's no need to have a law degree and it won't give you an advantage, we create situations where both law and non-law students can be tested.” Like at other firms there's also a social component to the scheme. “Candidates get a pretty good insight to the office” says Birtwell, the team's small size meaning “they have the opportunity to meet pretty much everyone while they're here.” The final piece of the puzzle is interviews; once the week's over, everybody gets together to discuss candidates' performances before offers are made.
In the first instance, candidates meet with Jan Birtwell and O'Melveny London head of litigation David Foster; they’re typically the only two partners at the firm who assess candidates' full CVs. Birtwell advises interviewees “read back through their application form! It's important that candidates have done their research into the firm, then reread back over it and are prepared to have a discussion with us.” The next stage is a presentation in front of counsel and various exercises leading out of that. Interviews conclude with an online aptitude test “assessing the requirements needed to be a trainee here,” Birtwell says. These are marked blind before offers are made to the best performers.
The requirements O'Melveny's looking for include being a “self-starter, and having the mature outlook to take responsibility early.” It's also essential to “have a reasonably outgoing, tolerant personality. It's a small office so we can't afford to have people with large egos who can't collaborate with others.” As for how to impress at interview, “be prepared to engage in an argument. We like to see independent thinking.” An example question from previous years is “what area of law would you like to see changed, and why? It's important that candidates choose something they have an interest in, rather than picking something they think we'd want to hear about.”
O'Melveny & Myers LLP
5 Paternoster Square,
- Partners 7
- Associates 18
- Total trainees 6
- UK offices London
- Overseas offices 14
- Graduate recruiter: Natalie Beacroft
- Training partner: Jan Birtwell
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: Up to 4
- Applications pa: Approx 200
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 (any discipline)
- Vacation scheme places pa: Up to 10
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 November 2018
- Training contract deadline, 2021 start: 30 June 2019
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 November 2018
- Vacation scheme 2019 deadline: 31 January 2019
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £44,000
- Second-year salary: £48,000
- Post-qualification salary: Market rate
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £8,000
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London
- Overseas seats: Hong Kong, Brussels
Main areas of work
Individual preferences can usually be taken into account when tailoring the London training programme, subject to completing the core competencies. Trainees complete seats with partners or senior lawyers usually in each of the corporate, finance, funds and litigation practices. O’Melveny trainees are also regularly seconded overseas to the Hong Kong and Brussels offices. They are encouraged to be proactive and take responsibility at an early stage. Trainees work in a very supportive and inclusive environment, with regular formal and informal feedback. Great importance is placed on training for lawyers at all levels, and so trainees participate in both legal and non-legal skills training programmes.
University law careers fairs 2018
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2018
- Investment Funds: Private Equity (Band 4)