Kirkland & Ellis International LLP

Kai Zeng
Kirkland & Ellis International LLP

Kirkland & Ellis International LLP

University: University of Cambridge
Degree: English
Year of qualification: September 2015
Position: Associate
Department: Restructuring

What attracted you to a career in law?

I studied English at undergrad level because it interested me personally and it was fun, but after a while I felt that it was intellectually self-indulgent! I realised that I wanted to do something more concrete and work within a team of people. 

Why solicitor not barrister?

Although this may be a gross generalisation, life as a barrister seemed like more of a solo, research-based job and as I said above, after three years in the library on my own, I thought it’d be nice to be part of a team. 

How did you decide which firms to apply to?

I went to law fairs, used my careers service and talked to friends – in fact my girlfriend at the time was studying law and making applications, so I learnt a lot from her! I used to read The Lawyer, Above the Law, LawCareers.Net, firm websites and kept up with the business news. In my second year, I applied to everyone, taking a scattergun approach, which I don’t recommend - I received all rejections! In my third year, I took a more targeted approach and started to think about what I really wanted, which was corporate work for big clients, so I applied to very commercial firms. 

How much work experience did you do? Why is it so important?

I did a vacation scheme at a Magic Circle firm in my third year. It was a really good experience, a very well-practised format and I was offered a training contract. However, I also went on to do Kirkland’s scheme, thinking it would be cool to work in the Gherkin for a couple of weeks! It was a brilliant experience, with great people and interesting work, and I knew it was the place for me. I jumped at the offer of a training contract there.

When you do your research, all the firms claim the same sorts of thing, so it’s not until you actually go into a firm that you get a true sense of what it’s like to work there – the type of people it attracts, the vibe and the working environment. I had a lot of freedom at Kirkland to manage my own workload and I liked that. Because it’s a newish office, there is a less rigid process and you have more freedom to make your own choices. 

Which departments did you train in?

My first department was corporate, where I was very much finding my feet. I was trying to figure out how to do the most basic of things, such as manage my workflow. Next, it was on to debt finance, where one deal really stands out. It was a bond issuance and we were acting for the bond purchasers. I was thrown right in at the deep end, with things flying at me from all angles – it was a new level of stress! But reflecting back once it was over, I enjoyed that it taught me what it is really like to be a lawyer. My third seat was in restructuring and then back to debt again for my fourth seat.

How does the qualification process work at the firm?

It is pretty informal. Half way through your fourth seat you let HR know where you want to qualify, having already talked to the right people – ie, supervisors and partners in your preferred department. There are no formal interviews or need to submit a CV, and most people get their first choice, especially as we’re a relatively small intake. 

What do you wish you’d known about being a trainee before you started that you now do?

I would tell my two-years-ago self that law is as much a physical job as it is mental – although obviously you’re constantly thinking how to solve problems and how best to serve your clients, it is important to carve out time for yourself. I run a lot, but having a physical outlet of any sort is important as it allows you to unwind.

It’s also important to know that you can sometimes get what you want with a kind word rather than a legal point – listen to the concerns of the other side and try to explain your point of view clearly, rather than trying to ram an argument down people’s throats. 

Please outline your area of expertise. What might you do in a typical day?

In the restructuring team, each day is different. In the early stages of a deal, there is a lot of client engagement, including negotiation, and calls and emails with the other side, as you try to hash out a deal. It’s interesting to see how clients approach these deals, as it can be quite different to the way lawyers do. Afterwards, you move into the more lawyerly role of drafting documentation, and nailing down details with the other side. This is important because you are learning where you can leave ambiguity and where you have to be precise, and being clear about what you’re committing other people to do. 

What do you most/least enjoy about your career and why?

The best thing is when you solve a problem or reach an important milestone – that feeling is always great. It’s even better if your solution is something you have anticipated and planned for, and already dealt with. Clients are always impressed by that!

The worst thing is the unpredictable hours. It’s not that they’re always long, it’s just that it can be difficult to plan and that can cause stress, although it is the nature of the job.

How involved are you with business development and promoting the firm?

Although the formal elements, such as pitching for new work, come at a later stage, at this level we are always encouraged to go to events. Just last week I was at a negotiation held at the office; we’re a small team so I get a lot of client contact. Our team also runs a variety of client events and seminars, so those are always good opportunities to network. 

What makes your firm stand out from the rest?

For me, it’s that the firm gives you a lot of freedom to manage your work and time. If things are quiet, I can go out for a run in the middle of the day – I’m not sure I could do that at a lot of firms. The firm also has broad strength in all areas, which is why it’s such a good platform for young lawyers. As long as you’re sure you want to do corporate work, the firm is a great choice because you get exposure to lots of different areas and to see what suits you. That combined with small team sizes means that you get a lot of deal exposure, certainly more than you would at this level at other firms. 

What advice do you have for budding solicitors who are contemplating a career in law?

Don’t take the scattergun approach I did! Rather, do your research and try to meet as many people as you can, especially through open days – I think they’re a great way to explore particular firms and you can go to lots, which is not always the case with vac schemes. I think they’re the best level of exposure you can get for a reasonable time commitment. 

Where is your dream holiday destination?

I’ve always wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands to see all the unique wildlife. 

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