Autonomy, responsibility, long hours and a lucrative pay package — Vinson & Elkins (V&E) offers the quintessential American firm experience for ambitious British future lawyers hoping to snag one of its six annual London training contracts.
Financially, the firm has bounced back from the troubles it faced in 2020 caused by a downturn in the energy sector and its refusal to place any staff on furlough or redundancy packages during the pandemic. 2021 brought increased demand in the M&A, capital markets and finance worlds, and Vinson & Elkins capitalised on this to post 16.6% revenue growth on its 2020 figures, to $912.4 million (£754.31 million). Profit per equity partner also grew healthily by 19.3%, to $3.51 million (£2.91 million), showing that the firm is well and truly back on track.
The firm’s origins go back to 1917 when V&E was founded in Houston, Texas. More than half a century later, the London office was established in 1971 to service clients involved in the North Sea oil boom. Consequently, the London office has a strong focus on the energy sector. There are about 75 fee earners in London, around 13 of which are partners, but most of the firm’s lawyers are based in the US. As well as London, the firm also has offices in Dubai, Riyadh, and Tokyo, but closed outposts in Beijing and Hong Kong in 2020.
In line with most American firms with small intakes, trainees are given little structured training. One rookie says: “[A] lack of formalised training means there is very much a learn by doing ethos”. However, this is supplemented by “a few department sessions here and there” as well as “two weeks of introductory presentations when you first join which provide helpful resources as you rotate through your seats”. Though the lack of formal training may seem daunting, trainees are well supported as they gain their “hands on experience”. One trainee tells Legal Cheek: “I have been constantly given work above my experience level which really stretches me as a lawyer, while still being entirely supported throughout. V&E is excellent for recognising potential, and then encouraging it in a nurturing way.”
Trainees highlight the non-rotational structure of the training contract, where, rather than the traditional seat rotation, trainees get experience in different departments all at once. This apparently offers newbies more flexibility and “allows a trainee to gain knowledge and experience that would not be possible within one six-month period”. As one trainee enthuses, “I love the work I do at V&E — the subject matter is incredibly interesting and technically complex, requiring a logical practical as well as legal mind to solve issues and come up with efficient solutions”. There also seems to be a good balance between high-level and ‘grunt’ work given to trainees: “Trainees are for the most part exposed to and work on substantive tasks such as drafting or identifying documents for cross-examination notes etc. There are also the more typical tasks such as bundling, proof reading or footnoting but they all help you develop as a lawyer. As you move through your training contract there is a focus on ensuring you do more and more associate level tasks so there isn’t as much of a jump when you qualify.”
The smaller intakes also mean closer-knit trainee ranks. “Due to the smaller trainee class size, the trainees are all very good friends and there is slightly less competitiveness than you might see at other firms,” one rookie told Legal Cheek. This ethos extends beyond trainees right up to partner level, with one spy reflecting: “I cannot fault my peers — I have made some excellent connections and relationships in my firm and would not hesitate to go to any of them with queries, work related or not, no matter how small or insignificant. That applies right the way up to partner level and I really have experienced first hand the support from partners during difficult times.” Trainees also share their office with a mentor from the firm’s associate ranks, who are “always keen to help you learn so you develop and become more of an asset to the firm”. One rookie summarised their experience with members at the top of V&E: “There is a complete open door policy — I would not hesitate to go and discuss issues related to both work and personal life with almost any of them and I am really appreciative of that.”
Of course, high levels of responsibility and remuneration normally mean plenty of late nights in the office. “Expect weekend and evening plans to be disrupted as with most American law firms,” says one trainee candidly. Another added: “It’s more manageable than you’d think, and my peers are extremely appreciative of the time we put in.” Though the extra hours don’t go unnoticed, with one junior lawyer noting that “people are always grateful for the work you do”.
The social life, meanwhile, is “fairly good” as there are “a lot of in-house drinks” and activities such as “softball matches, cycling and ski trips”. There is “something for everyone” and “generally people are up for lunch and drinks”. However, “being a small firm, you likely will not be hanging out with your colleagues on weekends”. Who does?
Since trainees are chained to their desks, it’s a good job these desks are based in “very fancy digs in the Walkie Talkie with Warhol prints on the walls and lots of white marble!” V&E’s office is on the 24th floor of the building, and boasts panoramic “views to die for” of some of London’s most iconic sights including “great views of St Pauls, Tower Bridge and the Shard”. Additionally, it is “only a few floors down from the Sky Garden” which V&E’s London lawyers have access to — “a plus”, as one trainee put it. “It’s got that wow factor. Easily the best office I’ve seen,” commented one insider.
But there is no canteen; “just a café that sells snacks” and a “communal kitchen to eat food in”. Perhaps this is to encourage trainees to eat at their desks?
Secondments are on offer to the firm’s HQ in Texas or the Middle East. Trainees reported jetting to Houston and Dubai for six months, which one described as “a good experience” as it was “interesting to stay away for a bit” but “definitely good to be back”.
Further steps are needed on the tech front, which one insider described as “very basic”. A happier trainee noted that “the billing software is relatively new and very good”. However, when it comes to WFH tech, another disgruntled spy notes that trainees are “set up with keyboard/mouse, charger, video camera and speaker but nothing else”. This is perhaps to encourage trainees back into the office, with the firm’s new policy being three days’ minimum in-person attendance. But the frustration of the rookies is felt here, too: “Although there has been recent pressure for trainees and juniors to be present in the office more frequently, this isn’t always mirrored by more senior fee earners,” one spy tells Legal Cheek.
Regardless, the perks should help soothe any frustrations. One trainee lists: “Gym membership, cycle to work schemes, complete healthcare… plus the salary’s not to be sniffed at,” with NQ rates rising to a market-topping £159,500. And it’s sometimes the smaller things which are the best appreciated — “standing desks are a huge perk; as are the snacks cupboard and generous Deliveroo/Gett allowance,” another rookie notes.