Think money, think Kirkland & Ellis. The American juggernaut continues to grab the business world’s attention, posting a series of blistering financial results whilst luring some of the City’s best talent to its ranks (Alvaro Membrillera, the London head of rival Paul Weiss, being just one recent example). Add to the mix high-quality work, big pay, seriously long hours, and you’re left with perhaps the world’s most talked about law firm.
Having been the first law firm to break the $4 billion (£3.06 million) barrier several years ago, Kirkland’s gross revenue now sits at an astonishing $6.5 billion (£5.1 billion) thanks to an 8% uptick on the previous year. Whilst this is modest growth by K&E standards (revenues swelled by a whopping 25% in 2021-22), its total income remains triple that of some Magic Circle rivals.
What makes this yet more impressive is the persistent profitability of the firm – while headcount is up 13%, compared to 11% the previous year, profit per equity partner (PEP) continues to climb. This now sits at a mammoth $7.5 million (£5.7 million) — a 2% bump on last year after jumping a staggering 19% to $7.4 million in 2021. With this type of cash floating around is it any wonder a partner at the firm recently made headlines after reportedly dropping a cool £31 million on a new mansion in Malibu!
Of course, critics suggest the firm’s financials come off the back of an ‘eat what you kill’ culture, but the firm has posted impressive trainee retention rates in recent years. No doubt, the market-leading NQ salary of $215,000 (around £170,000 based on its current conversion rate) gives rookies an incentive to stay, whilst trainees start on £60,000, rising to £65,000 in their second year.
The lucrative pay is accompanied by high-quality work in the private equity-focused office and you can expect to be given “a lot of responsibility from the outset”. The “very hands-on training” is highly-rated and with a focus on “learning by doing and developing in live deal situations”, according to one source. Perfect for the sort of self-starters that Kirkland attracts. Another insider tells us this: “If you’re willing to involve yourself and take on responsibility then it’s perfect because you can learn a large amount in a short period of time by choosing to put yourself in situations where you need to know the answer in a very real and practical sense. That said, you won’t be put out of your depth — there’s always someone else on the deal who will be more than happy to discuss any questions!”
A further rookie reports that the “ton of hands-on experience, particularly given the number of hours you are expected to work”, easily makes up for the lack of “formal classroom training”. We’re also told that “if you’re aggressive and willing to get involved and to take transactions by the horns, there is ample opportunity to learn and develop”.
The US giant’s lean teams are said to readily yield “incredibly complex and engaging work”. The general rule appears to be that “trainees are offered as much responsibility and exposure as they would like and can handle”. Plus “trainees are able to take ownership of more stimulating elements of transactions at a very early stage, and are actively encouraged to be vocal about the kinds of projects and tasks which we feel would be beneficial to our development as lawyers”.
But be warned, the quality of work can vary between departments. The firm’s “private equity and debt finance work is the most interesting and complex in the market bar none,” one rookies trumpets. “Bread and butter transactional departments perhaps not so much for juniors.” One junior offers this insight: “As a junior, while I am still expected to do most of the trainee level work on my deals (given the very limited number of trainees at the firm and no paralegals in my team), I am also given lots of work well above my level and people are keen to make sure you understand what’s going on so you can contribute as much as possible. I feel like an integral part of my team and am given a leading role on key work-streams so I can take ownership. It is a pretty energetic place to work.”
Meanwhile, you will be working under some of the top lawyers in their fields and, contrary to popular belief, the partners are reportedly very friendly. “The partners are great and really approachable both in a general social sense and in terms of professional development,” one source explains. “We’re all part of the same team and everyone goes to socials together, chats around the office, etc. which makes for a good working environment but the big thing I’ve noticed is that (very busy) seniors will also take time to invest in your development and answer your technical questions if you take the initiative to approach them.”
But, again, the go-getter type is essential to thriving in the firm which, Legal Cheek is told, operates as a fiercely competitive meritocracy. “Don’t expect much interaction if you aren’t engaging and bold,” explains one insider. Another claims that “if you weren’t working 2,000-2,500 in billables a year you were under capacity, anything less than 50 hours a week to a client is evidence that you might get ripped into corporate M&A deals, regardless of what seat you sit in”.
Of course, Kirkland did not get where it is with everyone leaving the office at 6pm. According to our figures, the firm has some of the longest working hours in the country, with trainees and junior lawyers averaging over 12 hours in the office each day. On work life/balance, one rookie tells us: “Balance? Sorry mate, never heard of him.” Another provides this more detailed take: “The firm gives you a great degree of freedom as to how much work you take on and how you do it, and in that respect it’s really quite flexible in terms of working balance. The result of that is that if you choose to be on a large number of active deals then you’re going to be very busy, but you’re busy on your own terms and you’re getting the value from those projects that you put in. Hours are, of course, not exactly 9 to 5, but it’s certainly not dissimilar to any other serious private equity or finance outfit in the City and the upside is that you’re doing higher quality work from an earlier stage of your career.”
That said, trainees seem fine with this pact of top pay, more independence and high quality work. “The firm is open about the fact that it requires applicants to have a greater appetite for responsibility than elsewhere, and taking on more responsibility requires a greater time commitment”, noting that “partners and associates are very good at respecting weekends/annual leave and will only disturb either if absolutely necessary”.
Agile working doesn’t appear to have had such an impact as it has had in other firms, with the majority, perhaps unsurprisingly, preferring to get stuck into work at the office. It also helps that trainee cohorts are “close and really supportive”. With some wholesome camaraderie, rookies are known to have “honest discussions about where we are at with our personal and professional lives”, while avoiding the kind of competitive tension or backstabbing that is sometimes present in the City. “We all want each other to do well,” says one besotted trainee.
Kirkland is famously located on 12 different floors in Sir Norman Foster’s Gherkin building in the City of London. What’s more, the interior is as impressive as the exterior. “I defy you to find anywhere better to be sat at midnight working on a Tuesday,” quips one trainee. As one insider pithily put it: “It’s the Gherkin. Don’t worry, your mum will be proud of you”. But an office move is on the horizon. The US titan has put pen to paper on a new building at 40 Leadenhall Street dubbed ‘Gotham City’. An exact move date is yet to be announced but one junior tells us they’re “super excited” about the impending switch.
Once relocated they’ll have a hard time beating the current favourite watering hole though. When Kirkland’s lawyers are not billing, they get to enjoy one of City law’s best perks: access to Searcys, the bar at the top of the Gherkin. Other top freebies include a 24-hour concierge service to help busy junior lawyers with their personal ‘to-do lists’, corporate hospitality seats at the Yankees and Henley Royal Regatta Stewards’ Enclosure tickets. There are also fairly regular firm bashes where “literally no expense is spared as a reward for how hard everyone works”. Also note that lunches after closing a big deal “can be huge”. On a more practical day-to-day level, free breakfast, lunch and dinner in the office are appreciated as “a huge perk”.