Two Texan traits of “Southern hospitality” and energy expertise have translated over to V&E's London base, where trainees get to see as much of the practice as they’d like. Everyone’s a Vinner…
V&E may be a Big Mac on the global projects scene, but in the City it’s more of a mini slider sandwich with all the key ingredients: meaty energy deals, a lot of oil, a salad of seats, and a Gherkin (just nearby). “V&E doesn’t try to be all things to all people,” one of our trainee sources told us. “I wanted legal practice with a political angle, and the oil and gas work I’ve done has fit the bill because we look at the relationship between different countries.” This is one of the US firms with the deepest roots in London, setting up shop all the way back in 1971, but Vinson & Elkins has kept its UK headcount on the lower side.
Chambers UK ranks the firm highly for oil and gas work and construction, recognising V&E for its projects practice too. Energy work is fo sho the headline here, but the Texan outfit’s no one-trick buckaroo: the broader corporate team quadrupled in size over just three years. Trainees can sample the practice with a bit more freedom than a traditional seat structure affords. New arrivals are “thrown in wherever they need you,” but get more say over seat two; the second year of the training contract is more flexible: as part of the non-rotational system, trainees may pick up or carry forward the work that most interests them. “It gave me the independence to shape the training contract how I wanted, and it means you hit the ground running as an NQ," one reflected.
“Oil & gas is our heritage. Our forte.” Based on trainee comments, it’s no surprise the energy transactions and projects (ETP) team works for some of the biggest players in the industry. “In my first week I was in client meetings with a national oil giant during a multibillion-dollar deal,” a trainee recalled. “It was a very exciting way to kick the seat off!” International is the name of the game here, and the London team works closely with the Houston office “if we need input from a practice area we don’t have in London, or any help with US regulatory issues.” The firm recently advised J.P. Morgan in the first ever North Sea underwritten oil and gas financing, with $500 million senior notes issued for the $2 billion acquisition of Chevron North Sea by Ithaca Energy. Other clients on the books include BP and the Ministry of Oil of the Republic of Iraq.
“You won’t end up bundling for two years.”
V&E’s energy prowess feeds into its complex commercial litigation (CCL) group, which has a particularly strong and established presence in the construction and oil & gas sectors. Trainees felt they saw “the biggest complex construction cases possible. V&E is the place for that kind of work.” The firm represented the Panama Canal Authority in a series of multibillion-dollar arbitrations with a consortium of European and Panamanian companies. “Arbitrations like that are so vast that trainees typically do more discrete, less exciting tasks like preparing bundles,” but don’t panic that you’ll be completely sidelined. “You won’t end up bundling for two years,” a trainee confirmed, “as mega arbitrations are also mixed in with small matters where you get to draft witness statements and email clients applying law to their circumstances.” The litigious seat is known for its elite-level clientele: “So much of our work concerns the Middle East and we need to work very closely with the Dubai office.” London has a strong enough relationship with its sister office that one of our interviewees was on secondment to Dubai when we came calling; other sources “didn’t work with a single American client,” highly unusual for trainees at US-based firms in the UK.
The opposite is the case in capital markets, where trainees “work with major American banks.” Don’t be fooled by the department’s “very broad-sounding name” – V&E eschews an equity practice in favour of specialising in high-yield bonds. “We’re much more niche than many of our US counterparts,” a source declared. In a recent example, the firm represented Goldman Sachs in the issuance of €550 million worth of floating rate senior secured notes (bonds with variable interest rates). Trainees were pleasantly surprised by the drafting experience on offer, “the main thing this group does is draft big prospectuses.” This mammoth task involves liaising with local counsel, making sure the right people sign the right documents and “identifying which numbers need supporting.” Sound appealing? Capital markets is one of the easier seats to get “because it’s known for having the worst hours,” and we heard of one poor trainee who had to work from 10am to 4am for ten days in a row. “I was at the point where I forgot my own name, but the firm knew it was killer,” they explained. “I only had to work a few hours a day after that period.” Summing up their experience, another trainee said: “You have to sacrifice your personal life in capital markets, but there’s no other seat like it.”
“It’s nice to be invited into the room where it’s all happening.”
That said, the hours in M&A are similarly topsy-turvy: “You’ll do 20-hour days one week then 10-hour days the next.” Here too, the bulk of the work is international; we heard it’s very rare for both sides to have English clients, so trainees spend their days liaising with local counsel. “You need to have a basic understanding of how their legal system works so that you know which questions to ask and how to formulate the information coherently,” one said. V&E recently advised UK-based telecoms company Helios Towers on its purchase of a controlling interest in South African firm SA Towers. The firm’s corporate clients also include Africa Oil Corp and investment giant KKR. When they’re not busy with cross-border transactions, trainees are invited into local client meetings: “It’s nice to be invited into the room where it’s all happening, which isn’t always the case at other firms where optics are everything.” Other trainee responsibilities include verification and drafting board resolutions.
Interviewees noticed V&E’s “Southern hospitality culture” come to the fore during negotiations: “We’re not aggressive and we don’t take a hard line. Senior lawyers emphasise that we must always be polite.”Several said “London is very much its own office, but we have a lot of Texans working here and people fly over from Houston all the time. It’s amazing that they remember what you talked about last time they visited, like the fact I’ve got a dog.”Sources were generally chuffed with the environment at V&E. “It feels like we’re all equals,”one declared. “Everyone, partners included, is keen to chat if you need to interact with another human.”
Vinson & Elkins sits alongside fellow American giants Akin Gump and Kirkland & Ellis at the top of the market in London for compensation, paying its NQs a staggering £147,500 a year. As well as making other firms look cheap, V&E also matches US counterparts by investing heavily in diversity and inclusion. “We aim to take a progressive approach in the UK and we’re responding to the dialogue here too,”insiders suggested. Several highlighted the firm’s Women’s Initiative, which is “very prevalent across the firm. We often connect with the WIs at our US offices and had a virtual panel where we discussed how to cope with having children as a partner at the firm.”There’s diversity and inclusion training for juniors, mid-levels and partners (“absolutely compulsory, no excuses”) and an LGBT+ alliance is in the works.
“What really sets us apart is the informal support… you aren’t just one of a hundred trainees.”
Each trainee shares a room with a senior associate or partner, and new starters receive mentors when they arrive: “I go for a meal with mine two or three times a week and they help out, but what really sets V&E apart is the informal support,”an interviewee felt. “The office is so small that we all know each other, and you aren’t just one of a hundred trainees.”During the coronavirus pandemic, the firmwide WhatsApp group reliably came through with memes and funny videos, and V&E hosted virtual happy hours on Friday evenings. “They checked in with us every day, everyone was super supportive,”we heard.
Qualification is “relatively informal. You’ll likely have been working with your chosen team for at least a year and they won’t reject a trainee because they hired one recently, it’s about whether you’re a good fit.” V&E retained all four qualifiers in 2020.
How to get into Vinson & Elkins
Training contract deadline (2023): 30 June 2021 (opens 18 January 2021)
The vac scheme route
The best way to score a training contract with Vinson & Elkins is to get onto a summer vacation scheme and treat it as an extended interview. According to training principal Andrew Nealon, V&E places a great emphasis on its vac schemes, with something like 95% of all trainees completing one prior to joining the firm.
Landing a placement entails passing an interview (to which approximately 80 candidates are invited) in which applicants can expect to be asked amongst a range of other questions why they're applying to a firm that specialises in energy – specifically what they find exciting or interesting about the sector, in particular if this has been listed as a key attraction in their application form.
In the end, the firm typically accepts around 25 participants onto its vac schemes. Each week-long scheme aims to confirm that both sides – the firm and the applicants – are happy with the fit. Afterwards, further interviews to decide who gets a training contract are rare. “The firm makes decisions based on how the placement went coupled with their subsequent performance at interview,” Nealon tells us.
Those applying directly for a training contract face two rounds of interviews, which take place between September and October however only take place if there are still offers available after the summer vacation scheme. These are relatively informal and in the past featured either making presentations or providing interviewees with theoretical scenarios and asking them to give basic legal advice.
Vinson & Elkins gets around 400 applications each year for 6 training contracts. Competition, naturally, is fierce. Grades-wise you'll need at least a 2:1 and AAB at A level to land an interview, but what then? “If you've made it into the interview, you're obviously a good candidate on paper,” says Nealon. “What tends to elevate people is self-confidence without arrogance, as well as the ability to make a connection with people. I will be asking myself, 'If I hired you, would I want to share an office with you?'” Trainees agreed: “I think it’s heavily based on seeing how you interact in the office and seeing if you can hold a conversation, rather than what’s on paper.”
Getting your personality across can also help you stand out. “Typically we ask candidates: 'When you are not studying, what do you do to have fun?' Some people can struggle with this straightforward question, but it allows us to find out a bit more about a candidate and it gives them a great opportunity to show some personality. A candidate once told us they were a baking enthusiast: this sparked off a discussion about signature bakes and the ever-popular TV baking contest. It doesn’t matter what the candidate is interested in as long as they can talk enthusiastically about it – then they have a chance of capturing our attention.”
Both Nealon and our trainee sources agreed V&E's training contract lends itself to self-starters. “You need to be willing to take responsibility and have a go, but you also need to use your common sense,” Nealon clarifies, adding that the latter “is actually quite a rare quality, despite the name.” Trainees agreed: “Education will get you far here but common sense and hard work will get you further.”
He goes on to tell us the firm is pretty open when it comes to trainees' university backgrounds – the 2019/20 trainee group contained graduates of Durham, Exeter, St Andrews, Nottingham, Sheffield, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE and UCL, for example – and that excellent academics are a must. While legal work experience is generally preferable as it “demonstrates a genuine interest” in the law, the firm also considers those with relevant non-legal experience – so make sure you don't leave that six months you pulled pints in the student union off your CV. “We recognise this can provide you with useful skills, like business planning or people skills, and it shows a willingness to get involved and juggle various competing demands,” explains Nealon.
Vinson & Elkins RLLP
30 Fenchurch Street,
- Partners 19
- Associates 47
- Total trainees 10
- UK offices London
- Overseas offices Austin, Beijing, Dallas, Dubai, Hong Kong, Houston, London, New York, Richmond, Riyadh, San Francisco, Tokyo and Washington DC.
- [email protected]
- Talent manager: Aidan Connor [email protected] partner: Andrew Nealon, [email protected]
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 5
- Applications pa: 400
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Minimum UCAS points or A levels: AAB or equivalent
- Vacation scheme places pa: 25 approx
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1st November 2020
- Training contract deadline, 2023 start: 31 July 2021
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 November 2020
- Vacation scheme 2021 deadline: 31st January 2021
- Open day deadline: Open now until 7th February 2021
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £50,000
- Second-year salary: £55,000
- Post-qualification salary: £147,700
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £8,000 for GDL and LPC
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London
- Overseas seats: Middle East, Houston
- No. of seats available abroad pa: 2
Main areas of work
The firm currently offers five training contracts commencing each September. Trainees will gain wide experience in many different areas, working with a wide variety of associates and partners from across the firm. V&E is proud of the fact it has won several LawCareers.Net awards for the quality of its training with a further seven nominations.
Whilst the trainees are based in London, the firm is currently regularly seconding its trainees to other offices (particularly its offices in the Middle East and Houston).
Open days and first-year opportunities
University law careers fairs 2020
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2020
- Construction: Contentious (Band 4)
- Construction: International Arbitration (Band 2)
- Energy & Natural Resources: Oil & Gas (Band 2)
- Projects (Band 3)