Chicago's McDermott offers incomers an intimate training contract in a prestigious global firm that's rapidly expanding in London.
You can't sit with us!
Our interviewees didn't have a hard time realising McDermott was the right firm for them. They “wanted a small intake which would guarantee partner contact and have access to real top-quality work.” This kind of wish list sends applicants in the direction of the more compact operations offered by the US outfits in the City, with little McDermott standing out as “exceptionally unusual for having strength in both private client and corporate practices.” Sources were clear in identifying these areas as the firm's strongest accolades and indeed Chambers High Net Worth gives plaudits to McDermott's private wealth, and private wealth disputes groups.
The firm has yet to pick up any rankings in the UK transactional space, but that is something that could change quickly considering the firm's expansionary outlook. Chairman Ira Colemon pointed out to us in 2017: “We're looking to double the size of the London office.” Trainees on the ground did indeed note that “the office has expanded vastly since I started eight months ago. We've had lots of lateral hires join and a whole team has come over recently from DLA Piper focused on real estate finance. It's definitely an exciting place to work.”
“It's definitely an exciting place to work.”
Sources felt the firm was making positive steps towards “building its presence in London. We are a huge name in the US but not as many people have heard of us in the UK. Having so many big names join us from all over the City is certainly helping us to increase our profile.” But despite the growth, McDermott is still pretty diminutive by London standards. Departments such as employment have two partners heading the team while tax comprises just one. Even the firm's biggest department, corporate, is still only made up of just 11 partners and 11 associates. As such, incomers can enjoy the benefit of “having direct access to partners” during their training contract, with one source estimating having spent “60% of my time working directly with partners.” Some saw this as an advantage over “the tiered approach at larger firms where work is filtered down through lots of people before it reaches trainees.”
It's an environment where “there is no hiding from the spotlight. You don't have the comfort of going to 15 other trainees for help when something has gone wrong.” Insiders also highlighted the lack of a formalised training programme, explaining that the training “is geared more towards juniors than trainees.” That's not to say trainees are left to completely fend for themselves. “You're always made to feel part of the team and there is plenty of positive reinforcement and feedback from the partners. It feels great when you are told 'you did a good job analysing this here' or 'you applied the facts to the law well there.'”
Seat allocation is a very simple process at McDermott – because there isn't one. All trainees will complete a seat in the firm's transactions, employment/tax, and private client departments. Trainees then return to the department they wish to qualify into for their fourth seat. Limited the choices may be, but trainees did emphasise that “the work available within those seats is exceptionally broad,” and pointed out that “you sit with a different supervisor in the seat that you return to.” Following the recent hiring of a lateral, there's now also a data privacy seat.
Hair full of secrets
Transactions is the firm's biggest department and covers a wide range of work including private equity, M&A, finance, life sciences, healthcare and energy. The team has a particular expertise advising clients active across Africa, having worked in 45 out of 54 countries on the continent. Sources explained that “you are in no way tied to your supervisor and if you're not busy, the expectation is that you reach out to other associates and partners for work.” This is typical of how big firms work in the US, fostering an entrepreneurial impulse in lawyers. Trainees reported doing everything from “research into anti-bribery regulations and confidentiality agreements” to “taking control of the share purchase agreements and drafting ancillary documents, stock transfers and board resolutions.” Trainees will also act as the port of call with all local counsel, where they “get exposure to an element of negotiations.” Recently the team represented KP Snacks in its acquisition of Butterkist popcorn and represented Mondi Group as lead counsel in its €365 million acquisition of packaging group Powerflute.
It's billionaires rather than millionaires filling up the books of McDermott's private client team, including five of The Sunday Times top 20 rich list. McDermott serves these bajillionaires with all their contentious and non-contentious needs from wills and probate advice to complex tax planning and estate management. The seat is “a different world” compared to transactions, “being fundamentally more research-heavy and suited to those who are more academic.” A typical research task “could be as simple as a partner coming into your office and asking you to draw up a Flexible Life Interest Trust for a client. You might ask some further questions, schedule in a call with a client to appraise their estate and then draft all their underlying wishes.” Another described: “On a probate case, you would have to review all the necessary documents then contact the client to respond to any queries and make any necessary amendments.” On the contentious side, sources reported drafting witness statements, prepping for case management conferences and “running down to court every now and again.” Recently the team achieved a favourable settlement for a family in a highly contentious case that centred on the interplay between British Virgin Islands, Jersey and New Zealand trusts, and South African issues of forced heirship on a community property regime worth £120 million.
The hybrid tax/employment seat is similar to private client in that “you have to keep on top of all the latest cases and changes in the field,” trainees reasoned. “I spent a lot of time attending settlement negotiations, taking notes of all the key points each employee wanted to make as they were being made redundant.” Another reported “creating a whole know-how session on gender pay gap reporting over two weeks. I produced a short memo on the topic and presented my research to the whole team, looking at how the firm would comply with it.” In tax, one trainee detailed their involvement on a “huge international restructuring. I was liaising with Cayman counsel, working out the more tax efficient way to approach the restructuring.”
Not so plastic
Talking on firm culture, our interviewees brought it back to the size of the firm: “People should bear in mind that we don't have the social life that comes with a big trainee intake.” That doesn't mean socialising is limited to a game of Scrabble, however. “Formally we have drinks on the last Friday of every month in the office and our social committee organises lots of events throughout the year. We've had a summer party in the Sky Garden and have done Ceilidh dancing for our Christmas formal.” Now you might think that prancing around a room arm in arm with a partner might be a tad awkward but the situation is made easier by way of the fact that “you know everybody’s name in the office and there is no separation in hierarchy socially.” Sources pointed to the firm's “staff appreciation week for secretaries, where the firm buys different gifts for them every day of the week,” as evidence of the firm's down-to-earth and flat hierarchy.
US firms traditionally have a reputation for the longest hours, the trade-off being market leading pay packets. However, with only a single transactional seat on offer at McDermott, trainees' hours are comparatively lower than its US brethren. As one insider explained: “In private client, employment and tax, you'll be leaving around 7pm consistently every day.” A stint in transactions may see trainees finishing past 10pm for a couple of weeks approaching deal closure but overall, if you go by hourly rate, McDermott trainees may well be the best paid in London, and indeed the country.
Trainees need not lose too much sleep over qualification. “I had to do absolutely nothing,” one source explained, adding that “I was a bit worried by the lack of formality but the heads of departments just approached us and offered us a job.” In the end the firm kept on one of its two qualifiers in 2018.
Trainees' offices are "huge. You could fit five people in here even though I share with an associate already."
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How to get a McDermott training contract
McDermott Will & Emery takes on just two trainees per year. The firm receives training contract applications from a broad range of universities, including quite a few from continental Europe. Cambridge, UCL and King's are the universities represented among the 2019 intake.
The application form requires candidates to list their academic qualifications to date, including all modules and the grades received for each. Recruiters look for a minimum AAB at A level (or equivalent) and a strong 2:1 degree.
Applicants are also asked to detail their work experience. According to London HR sources, “having some in the legal sector is advantageous, but general commercial experience is beneficial as well, as it means applicants hopefully understand how businesses work.”
Rounding off the form are a few long-answer questions. “We’re looking for applicants to provide fairly logical answers with supporting information,” HR sources tell us. “One of the recent questions was ‘What qualities do you think you have that would make an impact with a client?’ For that we’re looking for an idea of what those qualities are and examples of how the applicant has demonstrated them.”
The firm uses a meticulous scoring system to assess applications – “if you fall down in one area, then you can pick it up in another,” we're told – and chooses 25 or so candidates to attend an assessment day. This includes a two-hour written exercise. “We present them with a commercial scenario, and ask them to analyse the information and produce a number of written reports. We’re looking for logic, structure and grammatical correctness – evidence that they can write well,” HR sources explain.
The day also includes lunch with trainees, a Q&A session with a panel of partners and associates and a drinks event in the evening. One current trainee told us: “The day showed me a lot about the firm, and the way all of the partners put in so much effort to talk to us about life at MWE was very encouraging.”
The firm's trainee solicitor recruitment committee invites ten candidates to interview after assessing each candidate's written exercise and listening to feedback from partners and associates.
Candidates attend a single 45-minute interview with a panel of three partners, all of whom they'll have met during the assessment day. Those three partners interview all ten candidates. The firm's HR team tells us the interview is “highly structured and competency-based,” and advises applicants to “do as much research and have as much of an understanding of our firm and our culture as you can.”
The firm says that successful candidates are those who transform the interview into a “two-way process – that indicates to us that they're comfortable asking questions and are amassing information to help them ascertain whether this is the right firm for them.”
Interview with training principal Nick Holland
Chambers Student:In London, the firm is unique for having strength in both the private client and corporate spaces? How did this develop?
Nicholas Holland: Our private client practice has been at the heart of the firm's history since it began in 1930s Chicago. From our inception we've been committed to representing wealthy, entrepreneurial families with all their planning, tax and businesses affairs. Today, we are definitely the market leader in the US and we are seeking to grow our reputation significantly in London.
Globally, private client accounts for 7% of headcount and 13% of revenue. It's a group that punches above its weight in the firm and is possibly our most profitable practice group. In London, the idea was to focus on private client and transactions which were seen as areas with lot's of overlap and that would also create more work for the other departments.
CS: Ira Coleman told our sister publication Chambers Associate of the firm's plans to double the size of its London office. What is motivating that growth?
NH: Two years ago we completed our strategic review which targeted London as one of three offices where we really wanted to see a significant increase in size. Since that strategic review, we have gone from a London office of 40 lawyers to 60. We recently had two new partners and three new associates join in September. We had originally anticipated the office doubling in size over the next five years but that might happen within the next year.
Our growth in London is done in parallel with growth in New York; as significant international centres, being strong in both is naturally in our interest and much of the growth has come in the form of lateral hiring from top firms.
CS: What do you think McDermott can offer prospective trainees that a magic circle firm cannot?
NH: The main thing is we are not leveraged. There are fewer associates than partners so if you want opportunities to work directly with partners, this is a great place for you to train. On a typical file I would have just one associate and one trainee working under me. As a trainee you will be attending meetings and interacting with clients regularly and directly.
CS:What do you see as the greatest challenge facing McDermott in the London market?
NH: Generally, Brexit. I think in some ways we are well placed to deal with the fallout but there are definitely challenges posed by Brexit. My honest view is that much of the legal work in London is based on the fact that foreign entities will almost always pick English Law to govern and very often English courts to enforce their contracts. However, there is a misunderstanding as to why that happens. The fact that the English judicial system is not corrupt, its judges and lawyers are excellent and that English law is highly permissive are only part of the reason. People pick English law and English courts because of English judgments have an unmatched enforceability in foreign jurisdictions, including Europe. The legacy of empire means there is an unparalleled network of treaties with commonwealth countries in place, compared to jurisdictions like the Canadian provinces which generally only have agreements with other provinces in addition to the UK.
However, that reach is threatened by Brexit and what we are seeing are countries such as the Netherlands and France who are making changes to their tax and court systems to try and attract businesses post-Brexit.
McDermott Will & Emery UK LLP
- Partners 566 (worldwide)
- Associates 380(worldwide)
- Total trainees 4 (London)
- UK offices London
- Overseas offices 20
- Graduate recruiter: Human resources, 020 7577 6900
- Training partner: Nicholas Holland, [email protected]
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 2
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Minimum A levels: Bs
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 25 Febuary 2019
- Training contract deadline, 2021 start: 28 June 2019
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £43,000
- Second-year salary: £48,000
- Post-qualification salary: £90,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: No
- Maintenance grant pa: £7,500
McDermott Will & Emery’s London office, founded in 1998, brings a full-service legal practice to Europe and complements our capabilities in France, Germany, Italy and Belgium. The London office is part of an extensive 20 office international network that provides a unique platform from which McDermott offers legal advice to local and international organisations.
The London office represents a wide range of clients, including large commercial, industrial and financial corporations, small and medium-sized businesses, trustees, and high-net-worth individuals and families. The firm has around 60 lawyers at present in London, most of whom are English-qualified.
Main areas of work
The primary focus is to provide a practical foundation for your career with the firm. You will experience four seats over the two-year period and a deliberately small number of trainees means that the firm is able to provide a degree of flexibility in tailoring seats to the individual. Trainees get regular support and feedback.