Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld:
Best Trainer – US Firm in the City

What is better than coming up with your own award-winning graduate recruitment scheme? How about inheriting one that is fully formed and the perfect fit? In 2014 the London office of US firm Bingham McCutchen, along with its Hong Kong and Frankfurt offices, was laterally acquired by another US heavyweight, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

Bingham had already been running a successful training contract programme, but it was new to Akin Gump. Vicky Widdows, director of international legal recruiting and development, had been involved with graduate recruitment at Bingham and was delighted by the response the team received from the new firm: “We brought our training across with us and it has been incredibly well embraced. Sebastian Rice, London managing partner and global chairperson Kim Koopersmith are very supportive, and there is great enthusiasm from other senior lawyers. There is certainly no lack of interest in what we’re doing because they know the benefit to the firm of hiring great junior lawyers. That is also the beauty of a smaller office – you can walk around and have one-to-one conversations with everyone about the programme.”

Vance Chapman, partner and training principal, concurs: “In terms of support from within the firm, I think that one of the benefits of Akin Gump taking on a developed programme that was already off the ground and flying is that it has been very well-received by all practice areas. Everyone is keen to have trainees working in their departments and the quality of our trainees has been great.”

It’s certainly not a case of sitting back and rolling out the same format year on year – things are under constant scrutiny. “We are always looking at what can be improved,” explains Vance. “Part of the vacation scheme exit interview is getting feedback from the participants on what has and hasn’t worked for them, and what they’ve experienced elsewhere that we can learn from. In terms of the vacation scheme itself, we want it to be as close to the experience of a trainee or junior associate as possible; so while there are sessions and talks, the bulk of it is sitting with a supervisor doing actual work. We want them to have the experience of day-to-day trainee life in a firm like this.”

A ‘firm like this’, as Vance explains, is “a full-service commercial firm which focuses on a number of key areas including hedge funds, distressed and financial restructuring, and emerging markets”. That tends to attract a certain type of self-starter, keen to work in a dynamic and fast-paced environment. “It won’t suit all personalities, so we’re looking for people with intellectual curiosity who are solutions-focused, who enjoy immersive learning and are after complex work,” explains Vicky. “They will thrive here.”

 “Our practice areas are attractive to some because they’re in the news,” adds Vance. “We also give our lawyers the chance to express themselves and make the most of the opportunities that are given to them; so again, we tend to attract people who want that sort of training. We are about 100 lawyers here, so it’s small enough to feel that you know everyone – it’s not a factory! We are a warm and open office, and although people are busy and getting on with the job at hand, it’s also non-stuffy and there is limited hierarchy. That’s a virtue of the size and the specialisations – everyone works very closely with one another – and what we’re trying to create.”

Small size, solid reputation and interesting work were just a few of the draws for first-year trainee Rachel Beddoe when she applied (to what at the time was Bingham): “By training at a smaller firm I really liked that I wouldn’t be compromising on the quality of work – that was key. The vacation scheme gave me the chance to sit in a number of different departments, meet interesting people and get involved in actual matters. I felt that I got true insight into what life as a trainee would be like.”

When it comes to smoothing the transition from academic law to life as a commercial lawyer, the firm does all it can to help its prospective trainees. Rachel appreciated its efforts to help arrange a work visa (she is Australian) and to advise which LPC subjects would best suit the training contract that awaited her. “We are in constant email touch with our future trainees all the way through the LPC and they are invited to our summer party and a Christmas event, which is a great way of introducing them to people at the firm,” Vicky adds. “We also encourage them to pop in if they’re ever in London. There is an ongoing dialogue, but it’s not forced. When they arrive, we run a comprehensive on-boarding process, filled with firm knowledge and training. We encourage them to always ask questions – there is no such thing as a bad one – and they tend to settle in very quickly. We keep an eye on how things are going and always ask whether they have enough or too much work, and evolve their training based on that feedback.”

“We’re looking for people with intellectual curiosity who are solutions-focused, who enjoy immersive learning and are after complex work”

Rachel describes how she eased in to life as a trainee: “You come in for the first week and then go off on the Professional Skills Course; it’s like dipping your toes in, having a break and coming back fully prepared. We then have monthly meetings with Vicky and regular formal and informal meetings with our supervisors, all to check on our progress and that we’re OK.”

Vance confirms that the firm keeps a close eye on trainees’ wellbeing and progress: “You do need to be more self-starting than at some other firms, but it’s not as if we throw them to the wolves – we’re very conscious of the fact that they’re trainees, not zero-year associates! They are treated and protected accordingly. We give them the chance to take on responsibility, but of the right type and level, especially in the first seat.”

Once fully embedded, the emphasis is on hands-on experience, as Vicky explains: “We favour a practical approach, so from the outset trainees sit with their supervisors, who are senior lawyers and partners, so that they are exposed to the complexity of legal work and different ways to approach things. They learn through practical examples and actual matters – we don’t run loads of generic lunchtime sessions.” Another example of that practicality is the model that sees trainees impart what they have learnt: “As part of their ongoing development, we get them to teach a subject back to their peers, which is a great way of reinforcing the learning model.”

Rachel confirms that compared to the experiences of some of her contemporaries, the responsibility she has been given surpasses those at a similar level elsewhere: “You can take on as much responsibility as you can handle. I get the sense that in other firms where there are a greater number of trainees, they may get stuck with more mundane tasks. Here you operate more like an associate, and I for one really appreciate the independence and freedom that comes from being able to do that.” She describes a recent work highlight as an example: “I was involved on all aspects of a recent restructuring deal. I know that at other firms trainees may only be involved in isolated elements, but that’s not the case here – you get stuck in, learn all about it and get to know the clients and the commercial background.”

Working closely with supervisors is key to the trainee experience. “I sat with Vance in my first seat and got great insight into his work as a partner,” reports Rachel. “I think that’s a sign of the almost total lack of hierarchy here – all the partners are very friendly and approachable. One of the things I was keen to do was take on a manageable amount of responsibility at an early stage. Because we work closely with our supervisors, you’re able to talk to them and actively seek work that challenges you. And if they see you putting the effort in, they will thank you, and it all helps to make you feel very valued and supported.” Trainees also rely on one another: “The fact that we are a small intake – there are only three others in my year – means that you get to know each other very quickly and can lean on each other.”

Size is also something that Vance cites as a bonus: “Our trainees appreciate being part of a smaller group; they have to be independently minded and self-confident, but it also means that we have enough seats to give them a large number of options. We can even split seats if that makes sense – some trainees appreciate being able to do more practice areas over the same period of time.”

Vicky muses on the secrets of the scheme’s success: “I think that we invest the right amount of time and energy into our programme. Our firm is all about superior client service and I consider the lawyers and trainees my internal clients. Most US firms have a similar drive and innovation to us, but I think that we are particularly keen on ensuring that our trainees get a personalised and tailored training experience.”

While the office is obviously part of a much bigger global operation with a significant presence in the United States, because graduate recruitment is so different Stateside, US involvement in the training contract programme is somewhat detached, as Vance explains: “The US offices are focused on their own summer associate programmes, and thus not really involved in the detail of the programme here. From time to time we find ourselves explaining the process our US colleagues, but we always have good things to say, so it’s an easy sell!”

Rachel would highlight the combination of practical experience alongside mentoring as the firm’s USP when it comes to training: “You work very closely with your supervisor, who takes an active role in ensuring that you feel comfortable and are getting to know the work and the people you work with. What I saw of the firm on the vacation scheme – friendly and approachable people, dedicated and hardworking lawyers, who are passionate about their work – has proven to be exactly how it is. It is very fast-paced, but friendly, and you are immediately made to feel part of the team. The quality of work has been excellent. I would choose here a thousand times in preference to anywhere else and I couldn’t recommend it more.”

View Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld's details