It's tough at the top, but the views are great – just ask trainees at this elite US private equity specialist.
Making money moves
Bigger tends to mean better in the good ol' US of A, and Chicago-born Kirkland is now the single biggest firm in the world by revenue. Its jaw-dropping riches cashed in at $3.165 billion for 2017, having grown 19% to pip fellow US beefcake Latham & Watkins to the post. Such mind-boggling quantities may seem an abstract concept to the average cash-strapped millennial with a latte habit, so let's move swiftly onto the London office for some more easily digestible factoids: the firm's London office plays host to around 200 lawyers and is one of the capital's very best when it comes to private equity.
The office was built on this specialism, and Chambers UK lavishes praise on the firm's highly international sponsor-side finance and investment funds work, which extends to advising investment outfits in high-value restructurings. Many of the best-known names in the industry use Kirkland (Bain Capital, Blackstone, The Carlyle Group and KKR) and that just hammers home how pivotal the industry is – something applicants shouldn't neglect. “Coming in, you really need to know what private equity is and who the big players in the market are.”
And yet, in line with the firm's revenue growth as a whole, the London team is expanding. Private equity specialist David Higgins recently arrived from Freshfields to become co-managing partner, while the restructuring team gained Matthew Czyzyk, and Nicola Dagg jumped ship from Allen & Overy to join the IP group. For trainees, an even greater triumph was the small intake. “That's what drew me to apply,” one trainee shared, and the rest enjoyed how that translated into “high responsibility. You're learning on the job and are treated much the same as an associate.” But be warned: “Kirkland isn't a place for everyone. The key thing trainees need to survive in this environment is confidence. None of us are wallflowers – recruitment places less emphasis on academic skill and more on commercial awareness and entrepreneurship.” Despite a top-of-the-market first-year salary (£50,000) and a mouth-watering $180,000 NQ rate, interviewees stressed that “if you're looking to have a long career at Kirkland, you need to be motivated by more than money.”
The secret life of private equity
Seat allocation is “quite informal. There are only ten of us so you just email your preference for the first seat.” Trainees discuss where they'll head next in their mid and end-of-seat reviews. “It's all super relaxed and very smooth; it's rare that people don't get what they ask for.” Those who did miss out on their first choice found they “could talk to HR about sitting with a particular supervisor and they took that on board. The process can be tailored personally to you and there's a lot of work to go around in each department.” Nevertheless, stints in corporate and debt finance are compulsory because of the prominence of related work in other seats. “If you have no interest in those areas you shouldn't really be here.”
'Multijurisdictional' is the buzzword in corporate. “On my first day I was staffed on a deal crossing 14 jurisdictions, and from there I was liaising with local counsel every day,” one trainee recalled. Organising local counsel is a key trainee role, and while due diligence “forms a huge chunk of your time, if you're willing you can work up to NQ level and possibly higher.” That progression saw sources get to grips with running the due diligence process, doing first drafts of due diligence reports, reviewing commercial contracts, amending board minutes and liaising with other teams to work out closing mechanics. “The sheer variety of deals was a big positive” for many. “Private equity is what we do but within that I've handled huge real estate matters, public-to-private transactions and straightforward M&A.” Along with Blackstone and EQT, Bain Capital is a key client: the firm recently advised it and Cinven on the €5.4 billion public-to-private takeover of German pharmaceutical company STADA. The firm recently worked for the Singaporean headquartered Global Logistics Properties on a successful $2.8 billion bid for European logistics firm Gazeley.
“It sounds ominous but they let you fail or succeed on your own terms.”
Kirkland's debt finance team is known for its sponsor-side work on leveraged buyouts, with refinancings, distressed portfolio acquisitions and rescue financings all on the bill. Jurisdiction-hopping is a common theme again, and trainees boasted that “Kirkland's deals almost never involve only an English component.” Kirkland stepped up to advise US private equity firm Advent International on the financing necessary to buy the biometrics and security business Morpho; it also sorted the senior and payment-in-kind loan facilities which Bain Capital used to acquire MSXI, a tech services provider. “It's one of the busiest teams – my only all-nighter so far was in my first two weeks there,” a trainee revealed. “You have to adapt to doing similar tasks repeatedly but it offers unparalleled insight into how deals operate.” Trainees “are involved with a lot of tedious process management work, but you are often allowed to run a deal once the core documents are all drafted.” This could even lead to “meeting the company's general counsel. Things can get real quick.” We heard several variations on the idea that “Kirkland throws you in at the deep end and you'll either sink or swim. It sounds ominous but they let you fail or succeed on your own terms.” A debt finance-themed horror movie might be an unlikely proposition, but the speed of matters means “it can be quite scary, especially if it's your first seat.”
Among the optional seats, investment funds has “historically been very popular.” It often takes more than one trainee at a time. “It's a really good place to start, you see where the money is coming in and it's a good base for other transactional seats.” Kirkland's expertise spans buyout funds, fund-of-fund investments and infrastructure funds, representing a range of private equity sponsors and European asset managers. “It's more of a cerebral-transactional hybrid than other seats,” interviewees suggested. “There are still elements of deal-making, but there's a lot more meticulous consideration of documents.” If a trainee were drafting board minutes for instance – a typical task – “we would need to think about the whole process by which the fund was started, and how the money is flowing. Even as a trainee I'm drafting documents that go out to investors.” It's daunting stuff given the amount of money being thrown around: Kirkland recently represented AMP Capital Investors in the formation of a $2.5 billion fund.
Trainees' experiences in tax were “very different. It's a lot more intellectual and technical – even after six months you're not really ready to be a tax lawyer.” The team works to support deals, but also has its own clients, including on some real estate matters. A tax seat offers “really good exposure and a lot of responsibility. My supervisor asks me to review major documents, and you have to flag any issues you find. It was intimidating when I first arrived but you quickly get the hang of it.” Restructuring likewise overlaps with the corporate and finance teams, but “the workload is a lot more up and down.” The even smaller teams offered closer collaboration with senior partners, and the department gains a top ranking from Chambers UK, hitting headlines recently by taking on the Toys R Us bankruptcy proceedings.
“It was intimidating when I first arrived but you quickly get the hang of it.”
The odd seat out is international arbitration, litigation and white-collar investigations – it's one place you might be able to avoid the words 'private equity.' “It sometimes felt like a completely different firm” according to trainees, although lawyers still do some corporate advisory work on top of the department's contentious caseload. The team has enough clout to count Boeing among its clients and it recently acted for Banco Popular shareholders in a $600 million conditions precedent claim before the Courts of Justice of the European Union. On investigations, trainees kept busy with hefty chunks of document review, but one told us: “I was also allowed to deliver documents we'd produced to the client. It was a nice break from looking at documents all day!” Trainees felt international arbitration had a “less formal approach” than other areas, and trainees told us “if you have a way with words, if you can get your head around the facts, you can really get stuck in. At one point I drafted an arbitration request for a country's government – that would normally be done by a qualified associate.”
Despite Kirkland's love of all things global, a secondment is by no means guaranteed. Some do get the chance to hit Hong Kong in seat three for a stint in debt finance or funds, and a potential New York corporate trip for fourth-seaters has been recently revived. No written application is necessary: secondments are treated like any other seat, though we heard “the firm is keen for you to have already done a London seat in the area you're interested in.” Client secondments also pop up ad-hoc, and can take the place of a full or half a seat.
Kirk hard, play hard
They may refer to their colleagues as 'attorneys', but beyond that peculiar Yankism sources “wouldn't say the culture feels super American.” Instead they pointed to youth as a defining characteristic – “it means your seniors are less scary. I can walk into a partner's office and have a normal conversation.” This also feeds into a “work hard, play hard mentality” that several sources acknowledged. Spontaneous drinks tend to occur within teams, but the firm also hosts an all-attorney Christmas party (most recently at the Savoy) and a summer retreat to The Grove hotel in co-ordination with the Munich office. “The focus is on the quality of big events over quantity,” trainees reported, “our downtime doesn't tend to synchronise but when everyone is free no expense is spared.”
“I'm not going to lie, it's pretty brutal.” This trainee could only be talking about their hours. “Overall we do work harder and later than peers at most firms – but only by an hour or two and I've never felt left to drown by myself.” To quantify, 12-hour days were seen as the norm in corporate and debt finance. Closings pushed that number even higher. That “the firm is very sensible about remote working – say if you're having a washing machine delivered” – was a small mercy, as were free dinners after 7pm and free cabs home after 9pm. “Sometimes we will be here working until 2 or 3am, but at least there are nice views to keep you motivated!”
“You forget how nice it is until you invite a friend and they can't believe you work here.”
Sitting pretty above London in the Gherkin, Kirkland's base is “an amazing place to be. You forget how nice it is until you invite a friend and they can't believe you work here.” Early birds can grab a free breakfast from the canteen every morning, and following complaints about coffee machine quality “there was a meeting with HR. Three weeks later we did taste-testing for new machines and they took feedback on what people preferred.” Trainees also meet with HR, plus their supervisor, for a mid-seat review; end-of-seat evaluations include the training principal. While the former is “very informal,” the latter requires trainees to fill out an online questionnaire and each partner they've worked with scores them on various competencies.
Training takes an informal tack. “The reality is you pick it up as you go, people prefer that here. When someone has explained something, you'll do the first draft – which you might not feel ready for – rather than having formal training or watching someone else do it.” Trainees emphasised “this is not the place you come if you want to hide in a big crowd and trudge along. You have to be willing to go the extra mile and take on responsibility.” As trainees enter their last seat, and decide they want to qualify with the firm (all the sources we spoke to did) they must submit their preferred department to HR and the training principal. They juggle everyone's choices and hand out offers around April/May. We heard that “the firm is embracing a model to ensure lots of us join corporate or debt finance. If you apply there it's very likely you'll get in, but that doesn't mean you can't qualify into smaller teams.” In 2018 all ten qualifiers stayed on.
Kirkland has a 20 pro bono hour per lawyer target. Thankfully, “each seat gives good opportunities for pro bono work and people genuinely enjoy doing something different.”
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How to get a Kirkland & Ellis training contract
Training contract deadline (2021): 14 July 2019 ( opens 1 October 2018)
Kirkland & Ellis offers ten training contracts each year, and attends law fairs at Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, Exeter, King’s College London, LSE, Nottingham, Oxford, Queen Mary University, Trinity College Dublin, UCL, University College Dublin and Warwick.
Both vacation scheme and training contract applicants are invited to complete an online application form. They'll also upload their CVs, fill out the usual details (academic history, work experience and so forth) and answer two commercial questions.
Applicants are also asked to write a cover letter and our source suggests applicants read the instructions carefully. Graduate recruitment tells us: “It can be frustrating when candidates don't pay attention and fail to format it as a letter – if you're looking at 800 cover letters, and that basic attention to detail isn't there and it isn’t specific to Kirkland & Ellis, then it's likely the application will not be progressed any further!”
Firm recruiters also urge candidates to research the firm thoroughly before applying. “There’s a huge amount of information about the London office online, particularly on our graduate recruitment site. Pick up on our clients, the matters we've worked on and what lawyers are expected to do here. All US firms in London offer something different, so you have to think about why you want to come here, and what you can offer through your previous experiences and achievements.”
Each year Kirkland receives over 400 applications for its 30 vacation scheme places. The firm runs a few assessment days in late January and early February and invites 20 to 25 applicants to each. The day involves a group exercise, an interview, a written task and in-tray exercise. Our graduate recruitment source tells us the first is designed to assess how well candidates interact and work with other people, “which is important given trainees will often be working in small teams” while the latter tests their ability to prioritise.
There are two fortnight-long spring and summer vacation schemes each year. Vac schemers sit with a supervisor during their placement, but “this is just a location” according to our source. They told us: “Students are actively encouraged to seek out work from all areas, and their supervisor, trainee mentor and the graduate recruitment team are all on hand to point them in the right direction.” Trainees recalled this as “a great opportunity to experience the work of different practice groups” and “everyone is so friendly that you don’t feel nervous about approaching groups, even if it’s something you’re not used to!”
It's unlikely vacation schemers will see a live transaction from start to finish, so the firm provides a mock transaction in which the students conduct a negotiation exercise, hammer out the terms of a sponsorship deal and celebrate with Champagne at the closing. Cheers to that!
The firm also runs practice group training sessions to give vacation schemers a chance to learn more about different departments and network with relevant figures. Everyone is allocated a trainee buddy, and there are various socials. Recent social events have included crazy golf and darts, while vacation scheme participants were also invited to a firm-wide event hosted by Dame Katherine Grainger, as well as the firm’s summer party!
All vacation schemers receive feedback on their performance and are offered the opportunity to interview for a training contract before the end of the scheme. “We hope to consider all of them for a training contract” our graduate recruitment insider tells us, noting: “We’ve already been able to get to know their personalities and see their approach in action, and the interview is another chance for them to really demonstrate their skills and shine in front of the interviewing partners.”
The firm generally receives over 400 direct training contract applications, on top of the hundreds it gets for vacation schemes. If applicants are successful at application stage they will be asked to complete a video interview, followed by a face-to-face interview at the firm.
According to the firm, interviewers are looking to get a feel for a candidate's personality, business acumen and motivations. Some might pose situational questions to get interviewees thinking on their feet, but we're told questions will never be overly technical: “Applicants aren’t expected to have strong legal knowledge at this stage, as we accept applications from both law and non-law backgrounds.” Showing some understanding of the private equity (PE) market is a good idea though, given the firm's focus on PE and transactional work. Our advice? Read up on what PE funds do; know who the big PE firms are, and the range of companies they buy and sell, but don't worry if you don't understand the intricate make-up of different fund structures.
Private equity explained
For more on what private equity is and Kirkland's practice in this area see our feature Private equity explained.
Kirkland & Ellis International LLP
30 St Mary Axe,
- UK partners 93
- UK associates 146
- Total trainees 20
- UK offices London
- Contacts Graduate recruiter: Lauren Massey, [email protected], 020 7469 2021
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 10
- Applications pa: 800
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 or other
- Minimum A levels: AAB or equivalent
- Vacation scheme places pa: 30
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 October 20187
- Training contract deadline, 2021 start: 15 July 2019
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 October 2018
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 6 January 2019
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £50,000
- Second-year salary: £55,000
- Post-qualification salary: $190,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £10,000
- International and regional
- Overseas seats: Hong Kong, New York
For over 100 years, major national and international clients have called upon Kirkland & Ellis to provide superior legal advice and client services. Our London office has been the hub of European operations since 1994. Here, approximately 270 lawyers offer detailed expertise to a wide range of UK and international clients.
Main areas of work
The principal focus of the training is on transactional law with a specialism in private equity. Trainees complete four, six month seats and obtain training in areas such as corporate M&A, debt finance, investment funds, restructuring, real estate finance, international arbitration and litigation, financial services regulatory, antitrust and competition, and tax. In addition there are opportunities to undertake an overseas secondment to enable trainees to experience the international resources and capabilities of Kirkland & Ellis.
On the job training is actively supported by an extensive education programme, carefully tailored to meet the needs of our trainees.
Open days deadlines
• March 2019 open day deadline: 17 Feburary 2019
University law careers fairs 2018
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2018
- Banking & Finance: Sponsors (Band 1)
- Capital Markets: High-Yield Products (Band 2)
- Competition Law (Band 6)
- Financial Crime: Corporates (Band 4)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 1)
- Tax (Band 4)
- Investment Funds: Private Equity (Band 2)
- Private Equity: Buyouts: High-end Capability (Band 2)