Morrison & Foerster (UK) LLP:
Best Trainer – US Firm in the City

No profile of Morrison & Foerster would be complete without mentioning what is possibly the best nickname in the entire legal profession – MoFo. The firm’s website explains how it came about: “In the 1970s, when teletype was used to send overseas cables, the firm purposely chose ‘mofo’ as our teletype address. The nickname stuck, and we later decided to use it as our web address. In many ways, the MoFo nickname is an affectionate reminder that while we are very serious about our clients’ work, we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”

We regularly find that trainees and associates operate at a level well above their peers at much larger firms

That encapsulation of the firm’s culture feeds into what is also affectionately known as the ‘Mofo mojo’, as Jeremy Jennings-Mares, capital markets partner and training principal, explains: “We do focus a great deal on the ethos of the firm – the MoFo feel – and so the people that we tend to recruit fit in with that.”

MoFo has more than 1,000 lawyers in 16 offices around the world and has had a London presence for over 35 years. However, the firm keeps its trainee intake deliberately small – one of its many selling points and a crucial reason that it is this year’s winner of the LCN Award for Best Trainer – US Firm in the City. Lynnsey McCall is head of legal talent and recruitment (Europe); her view is that an annual intake of around five is beneficial for all, particularly the trainees themselves. “It ensures that they get a lot of responsibility and the opportunity to progress quickly,” she maintains. “We regularly find that trainees and associates operate at a level well above their peers at much larger firms. They love having the chance to demonstrate what they can do and being rewarded quickly for their contributions. They are playing a valuable role; they can see that what they’re doing directly impacts the case, deal or matter.”

Eliska Macnerova, second-year trainee, cites diversity – of both people and work – as one of the main things that attracted her to the firm. “I came across MoFo when I was studying at King’s College,” she explains. “I researched them in advance of the law fair and liked that their tech sector and corporate law expertise aligned neatly with my master’s subjects and my dissertation. However, what truly set MoFo apart from other firms at the law fair was their diversity, both in terms of their trainee intake, with trainees recruited from different countries, backgrounds and age groups, and also in terms of work and clients – I spoke to one of their trainees about advising big corporations as well as small start-ups. Everything I’d read about them was confirmed when I spoke to them in person.”

Eliska had the chance to gain an even deeper understanding while on MoFo’s two-week vacation scheme – a prerequisite for being awarded a trainee contract. “I spent my time in the employment and corporate departments, and was given a variety of real work to do, including drafting, research, analysis and taking part in business development events,” she recalls. “At the end, I had an informal chat with grad rec about my experiences. I found the entire process very transparent – we were told who would be giving feedback on us, the timeline and how we would be assessed, which was very refreshing. Overall, the firm left a very good impression on me; they were welcoming and supportive throughout, and there was an emphasis on it being a two-way process, in that both parties had to be confident that it was a good fit.”

Jeremy explains why the vacation scheme plays such a central role in the recruitment process. “During that time, we’re not only assessing the candidates, but they’re assessing us on whether this is a place that they can imagine working and fitting in,” he points out. “From our point of view, we’re that much more certain than we would be if it were based solely on a couple of interviews that the person will contribute to the culture that we have created. In terms of settling in as trainees, it helps that they have all come through the vacation scheme, so will have worked for us for a couple of weeks and know each other already.” This process is further eased by the efforts that MoFo takes to keep in touch with its future joiners between being hired and before joining. “We were invited to all the Christmas and summer parties,” Eliska recollects. “And the firm facilitated an in-house internship for me at one of their clients, prior to me starting the legal practice course (LPC). So they kept in touch both socially and professionally! They also managed to match my experience on the internship with my first seat in the technology and transactions group, which was a good transition.”

Our trainees and associates have a voice and we listen to what they are looking for in terms of training and seek regular feedback about training that has been provided to ensure that we’re meeting their needs

Part of Lynnsey’s role over the last 18 months has involved revamping the training process, with a specific emphasis on induction training. “When I joined the firm, I worked closely with our professional support lawyer and the marketing and business development team, and solicited feedback from the partners and associates to look at what the trainees really needed for successful on-boarding,” she recalls. “We wanted to give them both the technical knowledge and practical skills to enable them to transition into their roles swiftly. As a result, we made some significant changes to our trainee orientation programme. We now work with some excellent external providers to deliver training on client care, time management and effective communication. These are three areas that are key to giving people a smooth start. We have been delighted with the feedback from the sessions and how quickly the trainees in the September 2016 intake were able to make an impact.” Eliska confirms that she felt “much more prepared after those two weeks, and it really smoothed the transition from LPC to a professional environment”.

Not content to arm trainees with an arsenal of useful skills, Lynnsey and the firm recognised the importance of supplementing that with training specifically designed for MoFo’s associates. Lynnsey says: “We offered them training on how to supervise and delegate, so that the skills the trainees were developing in respect of delivering high-quality work was mirrored by what the associates were learning about how to delegate effectively, give constructive feedback and engage trainees on the work they were given.” This all feeds into a strong emphasis on aligning training with the firm’s core values: “All of the training we offer fits in with MoFo’s strategy and key priorities, and overall vision for the firm. For example, one strategic priority is about capitalising on MoFo’s reputation and expertise, so the technical training fits into that. Another relates to building strong networks internally and externally, and the client care modules fit within that priority.”

Jeremy summarises the importance of building trainees’ key skills early: “We are extremely focused on them developing the practical skills which they will need on a day-to-day basis in relation to the clients that we have and the type of transactions that they will be involved with. Sometimes we bring external speakers and trainers in to help, including barristers and experts from the tech world, so it’s a good mix with our own people.” Early training leads to a confidence that encourages greater responsibility. “There is a high level of responsibility in terms of tasks; I have found myself writing articles on developments in the tech sphere, drafting commercial contracts, speaking directly with clients and supporting the department with research,” Eliska reports. “In corporate, there has been a lot more transactional work, including drafting due diligence reports, coordinating input from different departments, and working on mergers and acquisitions.” She is also benefitting from an expanding practice: “When I was on the vacation scheme, the funds and derivatives departments did not even exist in the London office. And now, I will be doing a split seat in these two departments! I’ve already been involved with helping to set up some funds and met a variety of clients, so I’ve already had some great experience with the funds department.”

Trainees are given a liaison mentor, who is there for them throughout the training contract and is distinct from their seat supervisor, serving more of a mentoring role. Encouraging senior people at the firm to get involved with recruitment and training has never been hard, comments Jeremy: “I get the feeling that all the lawyers in the London office are heavily invested in our trainee programme – partly because they see the beneficial effects of it on their particular practice area and client work. That starts from the outset, when we’re making recruitment decisions about who will be our next group of trainees – there is a high level of office-wide input into this, including feedback on the vacation scheme students. We like our prospective trainees to have contact with as many different people in the office as possible.”

That is also central to the famous MoFo feel. “The culture here is inclusive and compared to other firms, our structure is relatively flat, trainees seek and receive feedback directly from partners, and work with them closely,” maintains Lynnsey. “Our trainees and associates have a voice and we listen to what they are looking for in terms of training and seek regular feedback about training that has been provided to ensure that we’re meeting associates and trainees’ needs. We try hard to achieve the right balance between formal learning opportunities and the chance to work in teams on exceptional deals and cases, all of which helps to accelerate our trainees and associates’ development.”

Jeremy agrees: “Our culture is very important to us – that is more than just lip service. Equally, our culture is generally regarded as very attractive by recruits; there is more and more recognition in the market about how we operate as firm, so trainees do know what they’re getting. The focus on culture is something that we take very seriously.”

Reflecting back, in her first seat alone Eliska had the chance to use her language skills, working with colleagues, local counsel and clients in Belgium, Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, the United States and Asia, building up her business development skills, and flying the flag for the firm overseas. “My most memorable experience was a trip to Cyprus,” she enthuses. ”Just the client from Hong Kong and me travelled there to carry out due diligence interviews. A lot of trust was placed in me to represent the firm on my own but I truly enjoyed it!” Her expectations of what life as a trainee at MoFo would be like have been surpassed: “On the vacation scheme, I felt that I could really be myself, the firm appreciated my set of skills and brought up my strengths. Everyone was very open to  sharing their experiences, and was interested in me as an individual and my development. This support and culture has become even more apparent during my training contract and now I am excited about sharing my experiences and helping our new trainees.” MoFo shows no sign of losing its mojo any time soon.