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 continues to build following 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. 2022 saw global revenues climb $934.7 million (£743 million), up 2.5% on the previous year, thanks in part to an increase in infrastructure, energy transition and litigation work. Revenue per lawyer jumped almost 6% to $1.39 million (£1.1million). Profit per equity partner (PEP) also increased slightly from $3.5 million (£2.7million) to $3.52 million (£2.78 million) – a seven-figure-sum which is a million pounds over and above what some Magic Circle partners pull in. The positive results also come off the back of a very strong 2021 for the firm, which saw revenue and PEP growth of 16.6% and 19.3% respectively.
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 roughly 75 fee earners in London, 16 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 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: “Very little formal training, but you can learn a lot on the job from the people you work with, which is a much better way to learn.”
That said, every trainee is assigned a mentor “who you can speak with daily and learn from” as well as some formal training sessions hosted by associates, senior associates, counsel and partners in the office. Though the lack of structured 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, “One of the things that becomes obvious soon after you start working at the firm is that everything the firm works on really is complex, high-value, top of the market stuff — the work is incredibly stimulating, and you get the chance to try your hand at things which are above your pay grade early on.” 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, while another offered this heart-warming assessment: “It was clear to me from the vacation scheme, and throughout the training contract, that the firm prides itself on recruiting the right sort of people who will clearly be supportive to their peers and juniors. I felt very well-supported throughout my training contract and as a junior associate.” This support extends beyond trainees right up to partner level, with one spy reflecting: “Lots of law firms talk about open door culture, but at V&E it really isn’t lip service — there’s not a single person in the office, regardless of seniority, who I wouldn’t feel comfortable approaching even if just to pop in their office and ask them a random question. Again the firm prides itself on maintaining this sort of culture and I’m pleased to say that while I have been at the firm, it has done a great job of doing just that.”
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: “Partners are keen to teach you and help you develop as a lawyer, and always make time for any questions or concerns you may have. Everyone is very approachable and you are encouraged to knock on doors or pick up the phone if you need something.”
Of course, high levels of responsibility and remuneration normally mean plenty of late nights in the office. “A lot of the transactional work involves working with the US, so often your day can only just get going at 5 pm,” one source tells us. But the “plus side is that you have time in the morning to go to the gym etc. where you are less likely to be interrupted.” Another junior tells us, “that for a US law firm in the City of London, working on top of the market, high value deals and disputes for industry leading clients, we have it pretty good.”
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?
Given the long hours, it’s a good job lawyers are working from some ““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 “phenomenal” panoramic views of some of London’s most iconic sights including 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.
The firm appears to be taking steps to improve its poor tech – an issue which was flagged by several juniors in last year’s survey. “We recently upgraded our time recording and document management systems, and it’s been a great improvement from what we previously had,” one V&E insider tells us. “I understand we’re now using the latest and best software for those functions.” 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 rookies to attend the office, with the firm’s policy being three days’ minimum in-person attendance.
Regardless, the perks should help soothe any frustrations. One trainee lists: “travel, health and dental insurance, mobile phone stipend, gym stipend… basically everything you could want.” Oh, and the salary of £173,822 isn’t bad either!