This Texan firm offers its London trainees international experience and big-ticket energy work.
The Texas oil boom – also known, brilliantly, as the gusher age – brought with it rapid industrial growth in the US and the birth of Big Oil. It was in this era, in 1917 to be precise, that Vinson & Elkins was founded in Houston serving energy and other clients. But oilfields weren’t the only things gushing when we spoke to trainees in the London homestead of this firm. “It’s so welcoming here and that stems from our Texan roots,” observed one interviewee. The firm sits comfortably at the top of the Chambers UK rankings for its oil and gas energy practice, and gets honourable mentions for arbitration, projects and construction. The firm has recently upped its annual trainee intake to five, and according to training principal Andrew Nealon, the firm is pursuing “aggressive expansion” and is hoping to increase the number to six.
"It’s so welcoming here and that stems from our Texan roots."
While V&E’s training programme is technically split into four six-month seats, the firm operates a “non-rotational” system of sorts which means “you can get involved in transactional work while you’re on a disputes team” and so on. It also means trainees can keep working on cases “so you can see them through to the end as well as working on matters you enjoy with people you like working with.” Good organisational skills are key if you want to make this work, however, as “you’re always balancing different work.” We also heard: “You have to do some litigious work to qualify, so everyone does a disputes seat.”
Find out about Becoming an energy lawyer (sponsored feature)
The energy transactions and projects (ETP) practice is the nucleus of V&E London, dealing with M&A deals, financings and disputes as well as the commercial and regulatory work for the industry. Even trainees who aren’t seated in ETP will likely find themselves involved in work for the energy sector, which is why trainees all agreed an interest in energy is crucial when applying to the firm. The team recently represented Norwegian state oil company Statoil in its $2.5 billion acquisition of the Carcara oil field in Brazil from Petrobras. Other clients include Canada-based Africa Oil Corp, Uzbek gas company Uz-Kor, and Australian oil and gas producer Woodside. “We tend to stick to the borrower side traditionally, but recently we’ve branched out into lender and funds side work,” an insider explained. “We tend to do quite bespoke and complicated deals, which means it's very much a labour-intensive process." Another source told us: “I had loads of client contact and was involved in meetings and calls. I never felt micromanaged or like anyone was breathing down my neck.” All of the deals and cases we heard about had an international element, and quite a few involved LNG projects. It's all quite simple really, one trainee explained: “Everything involves transferring oil and gas assets from A to B.” Another source concluded: “The feeling when you close a deal is one of the best in the world because you’ve worked so hard for a common goal. Usually a bit of a celebration follows!”
“My work has rarely had an English element."
In litigation, the focus is on international energy and construction. “There’s a heavy construction focus which doesn’t always come across on the firm's website,” a source revealed. In fact, the team is currently involved in the Panama Canal Expansion Project – construction doesn't come much bigger than that. V&E is representing the Panama Canal Authority in several multimillion-dollar arbitrations against a consortium of companies which are designing and building the third set of locks for the expansion of the canal. It's also been acting for the Iraqi Ministry of Oil in multiple matters including arbitration of a dispute surrounding the Iraq–Turkey Pipeline. “My work has rarely had an English element. I’ve worked with jurisdictions including the Middle East, the US and Germany,” one source reported. Another told us about their day-to-day work: “I’ve drafted claims documents, attended witness interviews and had a lot of client exposure. I’ve also attended court a lot. Litigation is a great experience because you may get instructed at the last minute and have to rush to get everything in place.” Sources reported that “there is some grunt work when there are filings, but that’s inevitable.” When cases go to hearings, trainees “have to assist from the back seats and make sure the advocate is able to rely on your documents.” Other tasks include arranging witness statements, gathering evidence and data management.
A mix of leveraged finance deals for private equity clients, distressed debt matters and the euphemistically named 'special situations' await trainees in a finance seat. Special situations, if you were wondering, are tactical manoeuvres like restructurings that can be deployed when a business isn't performing well. If the terminology confuses you don't worry: there is training on offer across seats. "They try to make sure everyone gets a well-rounded education," we heard. "There's always a push to update templates and learning resources particularly relating to finance. They put on training sessions every two weeks or so, and whenever there are legal or commercial updates someone comes in to talk about them.” Over in tax one source described working on “a matter where an African client wanted to do bond offerings and IPOs across six different jurisdictions. I had a lot of contact with clients and underwriters and had to ensure the deal lined up on time.”
Trainees told us the hours at V&E are unpredictable and often long. They reported 11-hour days on average, but added that this can “skyrocket” during closings or filings. "On average I get in 9 or 9.30am and leave at 8.30 or 9pm," one typical interviewee reported. Sources said that colleagues “respect you for the hours you put in and if things are spiralling they will call you and see if they can help.” One source added: “The firm goes above and beyond to make it survivable. It’s drilled into us that when we have free time we should use it. If you have commitments they’ll let you go to them as much as they can. They don’t want the job to totally overshadow your personal life.” The firm recently hosted a talk on handling stress and a meditation session, and a trainee told us: “If I ever feel overworked I just go straight to my supervisor and the training principal. They really listen and are considerate.”
Houston, we have a prom
Thanks to the firm’s Houston roots, trainees reported that it has a “distinctively Texan feel,” adding that “there are always lawyers coming over from the US so you can hear Texan accents in the halls. It’s a very chatty, open office.” This culture even filters through to work assignment: “You don’t get handed stuff to do; you have to knock on doors and ask for work.” Trainees were positive about the firm's culture, with one saying they'd made friends with people across the different levels of the hierarchy. On the social side, we heard about firm-wide ‘proms’ in Houston, a ski trip to Andorra and a Thanksgiving celebrations back in London. London also has an active women’s initiative group which hosts regular events including a recent screening of Hidden Figures and a golf day.
"You can hear Texan accents in the halls."
V&E’s London office is on the 24th floor of the Walkie Talkie building with 360-degree views over St Paul’s, the Shard and the Tower of London. “The first thing everyone says when they walk into reception is ‘wow’,” one interviewee enthused. Events are often held in the Sky Garden at the top of the building, and the office come with a “kitchen with a huge fully stocked fridge and loads of drinks, coffee and pastries.” When they’re not admiring their surroundings, trainees can be found sharing an office with a senior associate, which “gives valuable exposure to the way lawyers work. It’s great because they’ve been through it all themselves.” Trainees are also assigned an associate mentor, who's usually “two to three years qualified so they don’t feel too far removed. We regularly go for lunch.”
When it comes to feedback we heard that “you get appraisals after three months and then every six months. I always find it really constructive, and even when it’s more of a dressing down it’s clear they want you to do well.” A seasoned trainee suggested “keeping a list of all your feedback so you have something to refer back to when you’re in doubt.” During appraisals, trainees are also invited to give feedback about the training programme. “If they can, they’ll accommodate your suggestions.” In 2018 the firm retained two of four qualifiers.
How to get a V&E training contract
Training contract deadline (2021): 31 July 2019 (opens 1 November 2018)
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 75% of all trainees completing one prior to joining the firm.
Landing a placement entails passing an interview (to which approximately 50 candidates are invited) in which applicants can expect to be asked why they're applying to a firm that specialises in energy – specifically what they find exciting or interesting about the sector.
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 purely based on how the placement went,” Nealon tells us.
Those applying directly for a training contract face two rounds of interviews, which take place between September and October. 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 four 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. Says Nealon: “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 2016/17 trainee group contained graduates of Bristol, Durham, Exeter, Oxford, Liverpool and Warwick, 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.
Becoming an energy lawyer
Vinson & Elkins RLLP
30 Fenchurch Street,
- Partners 15
- Associates 34
- Total trainees 8
- UK offices London
- Overseas offices ustin, Beijing, Dallas, Dubai, Hong Kong, Houston, London, Moscow, New York, Richmond, Riyadh, San Francisco, Taipei, Tokyo and Washington DC.
- [email protected]
- Training 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: 1t November 2018
- Training contract deadline, 2021 start: 31 July 2019
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 November 2018
- Vacation scheme 2019 deadline: 31 January 2019
- Open day deadline: Open now until 8 February 2019
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £50,000
- Second-year salary: £55,000
- Post-qualification salary: £143,000
- 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 2018
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2018
- Construction: Purchaser (Band 3)
- Construction: International Arbitration (Band 2)
- Energy & Natural Resources: Oil & Gas (Band 1)
- International Arbitration: Commercial Arbitration (Band 5)
- Projects (Band 3)
- Telecommunications (Band 4)