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 a couple of years ago, Kirkland’s gross revenue has now hit over $6 billion (£4.9 billion). It’s worth pausing for a second to acknowledge the enormity of the 25% growth the Chicago-bred firm has achieved in the past year – adding a whopping $1.2 billion (£980 million) in 2021-22. That’s the equivalent of the total value of say Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, or Willkie, Farr & Gallagher added in a single financial year. What makes this yet more impressive is the persistent profitability of the firm – while headcount is up 11%, profit per equity partner is up more. PEP grew around 19%, taking equity partners’ pay package to a staggering $7.38 million (£6.03 million) on average.
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, while 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 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. The firm “will not spoon-feed you at all, and you will need to reach out to the people you are working with/for to get clarity on what is expected and have your questions answered”.
Fortunately, “the majority of people are surprisingly approachable internally and will brief you on the transaction context and how best to go about the task” and the formal training that is delivered is “of a very high standard”. 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”. 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 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. As one newbie details: “Being a trainee can mean doing the work of an associate who is a few years PQE or it can mean doing something really repetitive and dull that will one day be automated. You can be vocal about getting ‘better’ work though, and people will listen. Also huge variation between departments – a specialised advisory practice seat will probably give you more detailed and intellectually stimulating work than a standard transactional practice seat which may be more focused on keeping matters progressing on condensed timeframes. You’ll learn a lot on both though, without even realising it.”
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. Another rookie puts this down to “strong attendance at regular post-work socials” which allows juniors to get to know senior members of the team in a more casual setting.
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. “I do not make plans during the week because ‘after work’ could mean 9.30pm or it could mean 3am. You do adjust and learn to take advantage of quieter periods during the day, but the learning curve is steep and it is a challenging setup to explain to the people in your life. The people you work for are generally appreciative of that sacrifice,” confesses one.
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”.
Working from home 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 the 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”. The highly-rated canteen is supplemented by the firm’s policy of covering £25 expenditure on Deliveroo orders for those who are working late. The firm is, however, expected to move to a newly constructed building at 40 Leadenhall Street, dubbed ‘Gotham City’.
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”.
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 made the most of the uptick in private equity deals. The firm ranks first by global M&A deal value (a whopping $548 billions-worth in total (£448 billion)) and was second to Goodwin Procter in deal volume. No wonder that two ambitious Freshfields private equity lawyers were among the lateral hires! For those thinking of entering its ranks, don’t expect Kirkland’s impeachable position to change soon.