Lisa Cargill is the training principal and a finance partner at Morgan Lewis. Alexandra Reddington is the firm's graduate development adviser.
What have been the most exciting stories at Morgan Lewis in recent times?
Lisa Cargill: Firstly, there’s been the expansion of our corporate department, with a team of three new partners joining from Herbert Smith Freehills. Their focus on private equity has greatly expanded the capability of our corporate practice and it’s now fairly large for a US non-niche firm in London. From a trainee perspective that’s been very well received, as they’re now able to do a much broader range of work.
Secondly, a little over a year ago a partner, counsel and three associates joined from Reed Smith. They focus on asset-based lending, which tacks onto our existing offering and has definitely increased the range of finance work that trainees can be exposed to.
How would you differentiate Morgan Lewis from other top US firms with offices in London?
LC: One thing Morgan Lewis has firm-wide is a relatively low leverage: our ratio of partners to associates is small. Other firms have a similar model but the result of that here is that groups tend to be intimate and even trainees work directly with partners. I have a trainee in my department now who deals exclusively with us partners all the time. There’s no typical pyramid structure where trainees only ever see junior associates, who only ever see mid-level associates and so on.
Morgan Lewis also has a very strong culture and ethos which I like to describe as a small firm environment within a big firm context. Big firms tend to be impersonal and trainees in a large cohort can feel quite anonymous, but this firm has a very personal touch to it. Vacation scheme students and people who get actual exposure to the firm come away feeling very impressed with the culture.
The office has grown substantially in the past few years – do you expect that to continue going forward?
LC: It’s opportunity-based, there’s no strategy to grow for growth’s sake. The team coming from HSF was a great opportunity; partners will join individually but across the firm you’ll often see whole teams move across. Our attitude is that always we’re on the lookout for good opportunities and want to grow but not just for numbers’ sake,
Trainee numbers have also been on the up. How has the firm ensured it maintains a quality training contract experience?
LC: It’s quite easy because we’re leanly staffed for associates and we really need our trainees, they’re not just sat around proofreading. We’re still at the stage where we’re increasing trainee numbers but while may have three or four in corporate, there are seven or eight partners there with them. The trainee in my department is currently acting in a first-year associate role.
We heard that the firm has formalised the training contract application process. How does the new process work?
Alexandra Reddington: Previously it was just a two-stage process: first a telephone interview with the then HR manager, then a face-to-face interview with a partner. Last year we introduced a more formalised process starting with an online application form. We still have a telephone interview, then the next stage is an assessment centre. We’re looking at a much more varied set of skills and knowledge than we could in a simple interview. The assessment day includes a partner interview; a case study combining written exercise and panel discussion; and a group exercise. The candidates also get the opportunity to have lunch with some of our partners in a more informal setting. It’s crucial that applicants understand what each assessment is assessing and what skills they need to demonstrate.
LC: That’s the direct route – alongside that, our vacation scheme now takes place over two weeks. It’s great for applicants because they get to work in two different departments and get exposure to them over a long period. The summer scheme students are assessed for a training contract whilst attending the scheme and that also involves an interview, a group presentation and an assessment on a piece of written work. We’ve expanded the direct application process so that we can compare candidates from the two routes. It’s hard to compare a summer student to someone who’s only doing a 30-minute interview.
Proportionally how many successful applicants go through each route?
AR: Looking over last the few years it’s pretty much 50/50 but that does vary year on year: in our most recent intake only one came from the vacation scheme, but the year before over that over 75% of trainees did. It varies greatly and we don’t have a set quota that we must take from either route; it completely depends on the calibre of the candidates coming through.
All Morgan Lewis trainees are eligible to go overseas. What experiences can trainees get from an international secondment?
LC: Overseas offices tend to be smaller so it’s probably a more varied experience to having a seat in one practice in London; in Dubai, for example, you’ll be working across departments and helping where you can so it’s an opportunity to get a broad-base experience in a completely different environment and culture. There’s also the benefit of being taken out of your comfort zone, that’s a great learning experience.
AR: Trainees also get six months experience living and working abroad, in a different culture and environment. We are one firm but each office will have its own distinctive nuances. Being able to understand differing working cultures builds a network for when you qualify, and you’ll continue building those relationships throughout your career at Morgan Lewis.
A firm’s character or culture is an important subject for our readers. What would you tell them about the culture of Morgan Lewis and what kind of person would fit in here?
LC: It’s a very flat culture as opposed to a hierarchical one, this is an open-door office and trainees come in and out of partner’s rooms all the time. Obviously, this is an American international law firm and hours are important but they’re certainly not extreme, there definitely is a work/life balance that you wouldn’t get in some of the more aggressive US firms.
AR: There’s no face time requirement and if a trainee finishes at 6pm they can go home without worrying about waiting around for something. Having worked at other US firms myself, I do see a big emphasis on balance here which filters down from the very top.
LC: Another indicator of the culture here is that second year associates onward are eligible to work two days a week from home and partners are genuinely happy for them to do so.
As for the type of person that fits here… definitely someone who’s confident and prepared to roll up their sleeves and work hard. Because it’s a small office and you’re working directly with partners you have to be prepared for things to be a bit unstructured, and you need to have the confidence to take something on and give it your best shot, distilling it down to basic principles. The environment’s probably not as rigid as a lot of the big UK firms with very structured training and know-how programmes, where if you want to draft a document there’s a lot of precedent to work from. We do have that but it’s not used for everything in every department. People at Morgan Lewis have to be prepared to come across new things, tackle them from scratch and not be spoon-fed. We also choose people we’d like to work with!
AR: Trainees get a lot of responsibility early on, so they have to be confident enough to be able to speak to clients. Supervisors and peers are there to support them but trainees need to be confident enough to step outside of their comfort zone and not be afraid to ask questions. They also need to be resilient enough to take on board any constructive feedback they receive. It’s a sociable firm too with a wonderful community spirit; we recently completed the London Legal Walk and have a social committee who run a number of events throughout the year, including the summer and Christmas parties, , a cheese and wine night, pub quizzes etc. The London managing partner also hosts a drinks evening at the end of each month.
The firm recently launched an ML Well mental health initiative. What new resources are now available to trainees?
AR: That focuses on a number of elements, not only looking at mental wellbeing but also reinforcing the intellectual, physical, emotional, and occupational health of our lawyers and staff, with an underlying emphasis on engagement and community. . It’s a multidimensional approach to supporting the well-being of every employee across the Firm, led by a team in the US.. In the London office, we’ve been running a number of sessions on topics such as managing stress and excelling under pressure. Most recently we ran a session introducing mindfulnessand the practical applications of it, and there’s another session coming in the next couple of weeks after we received really positive feedback. The firm is giving individuals the support they need to take a step back and take some time for themselves. The initiative only launched in March 2019 so there’s lots still to be rolled out over the next 12 months.
LC: At the moment it’s not a whole bunch of offerings that weren’t there before – it’s getting across that these topics are important and that there’s a culture here that fosters workplace wellbeing, the firm takes that seriously.
One of the things that’s quite a big feature of our firm is our chair takes pro bono very seriously, and everyone in the firm has to do a minimum 20 hours of pro bono a year. Everybody in our office really likes doing pro bono and candidates often mention it at interview.
How do you think the looming shift to the Solicitor's Qualifying Exam will affect training contracts, if at all?
AR: Until we get full results from the SRA’s pilots I don’t think there’s too much we can do to prepare for that! Once it’s embedded in, the SQE will likely become the new normal but until we have more information it’s just a case of wait and see.
Do you have any advice for our readers who might want to apply to Morgan Lewis?
LC: Very often the themes that come out at interview are that applicants like the small office, they don’t want to be just a number and they’ve probably heard that they’ll get direct exposure to partners. Applicants also like that it’s an American office with international work on offer for trainees; there are opportunities for foreign placements but for a lot of people it’s more the flavour to the work itself that’s attractive. Morgan Lewis’ culture and pro bono are big reasons why candidates apply here and that seems to be a major distinguishing feature for this firm.