Undoubtedly the industry’s most defining story of recent years has been the disruptive rise of Kirkland & Ellis. The American juggernaut has captured the business world’s attention, posting a series of blistering financial results while luring some of the City’s best talent to its ranks. Add to the mix top-quality work, incredible pay, seriously long hours, and an office located in one of the UK’s most glamourous buildings, and you’re left with perhaps the world’s most compelling law firm.
Having been the first law firm to break the $4 billion barrier in last year’s financials, Kirkland’s global turnover is now closing in on $5 billion; the Chicago-bred firm recorded growth of 16% that takes turnover to $4.83 billion (£3.5 billion). Profit per equity partner has also reached similarly eye-watering new heights, climbing a meteoric 19% from $5.2 million to $6.2 million (£4.5 million). Even better news from the London office whose revenue is believed to have drastically outpaced these already impressive results, apparently soaring 29% to $550 million (£398 million).
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 $205,000 (around £150,000) gives rookies an incentive to stay, while trainees start on £55,000, rising to £60,000 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 hands-on training is highly-rated by the sort of self-starters that Kirkland attracts, though of course this means you can’t expect too much in the way of formal instructional sessions.
One rookie cautions: “The formal training is not as good as what I imagine it might be at the magic circle. However, in terms of ‘on the job’ training, I am very satisfied.” Another adds: “What the firm lacks in formal training it delivers in spades by way of practical experiential learning. 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”. But, be warned as trainees are known to receive their fair share of “boredom from overwhelmingly drab due diligence work” in busier departments, especially the firm’s M&A department.
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. “Associates and partners are very approachable and always take the time to explain the wider context behind a deal,” explains one insider.
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. Although the “workload can be fairly relentless”, one rookie noted: “I don’t think the hours seem particularly different to my peers in the magic circle”. Another evaluated the situation like this: “You work hard, and you are expected to always be available. But that’s what you sign up for.”
Consensus is that work/life balance has deteriorated somewhat thanks to remote working. One junior explained: “What little work/life that existed prior to Covid has completely evaporated since. Associates expect you to take calls at 11pm on Sundays, and the assumption that you are always on and always able to take and reply within minutes”.
Meanwhile, in light of the Covid-19 crisis, the firm has adapted well to working from home. One trainee says: “We have had a seamless transition to working from home. With the firm providing regular updates and support.” Another describes Kirkland’s pandemic response as “hard to fault”.
However, when working life returns to something like normal, expect plenty of time spent in the office, although this is mitigated by how delightful said office is; Kirkland is famously located on the 19th-25th floors of 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. Another reports, “being able to say you work in the Gherkin always impresses people”. The highly-rated canteen is supplemented by the firm’s policy of covering £25 expenditure on Deliveroo orders for those who are working late.
And 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, Henley Royal Regatta Stewards’ Enclosure tickets, and the swanky annual UK ‘attorney retreat’ at the Four Seasons Hotel in Hampshire. 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”.
Kirkland’s remarkable rise to the top of the Big Law pile has, so far, proven unstoppable, and life at the firm is pretty much what you’d expect. Some observers look to American rival Latham & Watkins as the more inherently sustainable model, having been stress-tested in the past. Kirkland’s tip of the spear remains its transactional team, which has gone relatively unaffected in light of the economic damage caused by the pandemic. The firm also boasts a slick restructuring practice, making it well placed for the Covid-induced financial struggles ahead. For those thinking of entering its ranks, don’t expect Kirkland’s impeachable position to change soon.