Kirkland & Ellis International LLP:
Best trainer - US Firm in the City
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If size matters, then the small but perfectly formed London office of Kirkland & Ellis (K&E) has the best of both worlds, backed up as it is by the might of a US-headquartered giant. Founded over 100 years ago, the firm today has 1,600 lawyers worldwide, with around 10% of those based in London. It uses the relatively compact nature of its UK base to its advantage, taking a dynamic, nimble approach to both work and training - as evidenced by its having scooped the Best Trainer - US Firm in the City award for four years in a row (as well as Best Recruiter in 2011) at the LawCareers.Net Training & Recruitment Awards.
"With our small intake - around eight a year - our trainees are very much a focal point in whichever department they are placed," comments Rajinder Bassi, training principal and partner in the international litigation and arbitration group. "There is a lot of encouragement for them to get involved in matters at the outset, and take on the responsibility that they feel comfortable with and can handle. We are very well regarded in terms of offering excellent -quality work; the days of trainees being sent off to just do the photocopying have long gone."
Both the small size of the cohort and the fresh approach of this US-based firm chimed with Dave Pritchett, now a second-seat trainee. "I did a vac scheme at both a US and a magic circle firm, and there was a big difference in style and size of intake," he explains. "That also applies to the trainee experience here; although there is a bit more pressure, you have the chance to shine and for your face to get known. You're not likely to be overlooked and I felt that played to my strengths - you enter an environment where you are encouraged to achieve. You also have the chance to get to know people in the various departments better, as there are only around 45 lawyers in our biggest department."
Size also proved decisive for first-year trainee Aisling Campbell, who reaped the benefits first hand during her vacation scheme: "When researching where to apply, it can be hard to distinguish between firms, especially when you're looking at their own marketing material. So doing the vac scheme was great; there were just 10 of us on the scheme, I was given actual work to do, I took part in a mock transaction, and we had lots of talks from different practice groups. I was struck by the smaller intake, with trainees given more responsibility as a result. I also liked that the firm was highly ranked in a number of areas, so there seemed to me to be no sacrifice in terms of quality of work by not going to a big UK firm."
This winning combination of high-quality work in an intimately sized, yet entrepreneurial office that helps to set K&E apart. "This is an incredible, international firm that does high-value work; our trainees get to work in an environment which is fun and dynamic, with practitioners who are leaders in their fields," comments Kate Osborne, K&E's graduate recruitment specialist. And like attracts like, says Dave: "I think that the firm's strength in private equity and funds lends itself to a particular type of person - someone who wants to get stuck in and make something of themselves. That mentality runs throughout the whole firm and the type of work complements the type of people who are here."
The same spirit remains in evidence as firm's lawyers progress beyond their traineeships and climb the professional ladder, explains Rajinder: "We are not very hierarchical and we have a young and dynamic partnership. Our partners continue with their fee-earning and roll their sleeves up with everyone else. There is no ‘us and them' mentality." That extends to giving everyone the chance to shine, regardless of job title, as Aisling observes: "Work is not delegated according to seniority; rather, if it needs doing and you're capable or can be taught, there's no reason that you won't be given the chance to do it." Dave suggests that compared to his friends' experiences at the magic circle or similar, at K&E "there is a sense that you get as much responsibility as you can handle and you're not hamstrung by how nominally qualified you are; although you are still a trainee, you're not labelled by that".
And while the transition from student to professional is often challenging, the firm does all it can to smooth the path - for example, Kate and her team are conscientious about staying in touch with future trainees before their official arrival. "We check in with them regularly between hiring and the beginning of the training contract," she explains. "We invite them to university law fairs, the summer and Christmas parties and, from this year, our GDL and LPC cohort will all go to The University of Law together. That will give us a chance to look after them more closely, check how they're doing with their course results and that they're coping."
It's another benefit of being our size - everyone gets involved.
The next landmark moment is the trainee's first few days at the firm, which is handled carefully to minimise anxiety. "There is a three-week induction programme, which starts at the end of August with an orientation programme, followed by the Professional Skills Course (PSC) with the entire cohort," says Kate. "There are then early-stage training sessions in their departments and opportunities to meet senior partners over lunches and at socials, followed by the introduction to their supervisors. It's all about making them comfortable."
"Coming in at the end of August was great," recalls Dave, "as we found out where we were sitting, met lots of people and then it was off to the PSC for two weeks." Aisling agrees that the "long induction was a nice way to ease into the role; by the time we got to our first seat, we were really ready for it".
Having landed in their respective departments, trainees are supported by their supervisors - who are in turn handpicked for their ability to train,: "We ensure that we have assigned the right supervisors to the right trainees: partners and senior associates who will help and listen, and keep an eye on how the trainees doing," says Kate. "We want them to know that they've got a support network around them." Rajinder adds that it's not just the trainees who are in need of training: "We also focus on making sure that the supervisors are well trained and reminded of what they should be doing in terms of guiding the trainees and giving them a good balance of work." There is also an emphasis on reaching out to fledgling lawyers: "Those departments that have first-seat trainees are mindful of that; the associates and partners give them more attention."
Strong support also comes from other sectors within the firm, including graduate recruitment. "Kate and her team always have their door open and because there is an existing relationship, trainees are very comfortable going to them for guidance," explains Rajinder. "The trainees also rely on each other a lot; for example, they talk to those who have already done the seat they're in and get the layof the land. They are very close, due in large part to being a small cohort."
Another aspect of the training contract is its eight-month trainee training programme, which features three lunchtime lectures a week (with lunch included!). "The training sessions are with senior partners and the trainees seem to really value that exposure," says Kate. "It's another benefit of being our size - everyone gets involved." "With the weekly training sessions, you get a thorough grounding in how the firm operates, how the teams interlink and where you might want to go next," adds Dave.
For Aisling, that next place is Hong Kong, where she will be seconded to the debt finance team: "I'm very excited about it! All the practicalities are taken care of by the firm, which takes the pressure off, and I've been talking to those lawyers in London who've spent time in the Hong Kong office and the trainee who is currently there to get a sense of what to expect."
There are many elements to creating an environment conducive to the incubation of tomorrow's elite lawyers, but in Rajinder's view, one of the most important is the firm's refusal to rest on its laurels: "We are not complacent; we are constantly evolving, making sure that we seek out and value trainees' input to create a bespoke training contract. If they have good ideas, they are implemented." Kate concurs: "The mid- and end-of-seat reviews are a good sense check of how things are going, such as whether there is anything we can improve on. We're of a size where we can implement change quite quickly."
Rajinder goes on to point out that the firm is seeking a diverse range of recruits, "not robots", as she puts it: "If I consider our current cohort, they are all very different personality types, but they all have drive, ambition and a desire to take on responsibility and prosper. There are a lot of firms out there offering good training, but in a small intake such as ours you will not be pigeonholed; you can take on as much as you can handle. And you are more likely to get good-quality work, especially if you are prepared to push yourself and take ownership; but you have to be the type of person who is not fazed by that prospect."
Both Dave and Aisling confirm that working at K&E has exceeded their expectations. "This is a very transactionally focused office, so you need to want to be a part of that. I have been given excellent work as part of a busy team, where I feel valued," says Aisling. Dave sums it up this way: "I was very excited about coming to K&E and starting my training contract; now, as I get more into my practice, I can see more clearly how the work and my career will develop and that is even more exciting. The experience has exceeded my expectations and the firm lives up to its claims; it definitely does what it says on the tin."