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Working at a US law firm in London

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By Maya Ffrench-Adam on

Partners from Akin Gump and V&E join a legal education expert to discuss what it’s like to work in the City

At Legal Cheek and The University of Law’s latest virtual event, ‘Secrets to Success London’, lawyers from the London offices of US firms Akin Gump and Vinson & Elkins, joined a legal education expert from ULaw to discuss what it’s like to work in the City.

The speakers

Justin Williams, litigation partner at Akin Gump
Emilie Stewart, finance partner at Vinson & Elkins
Mike Butler, senior tutor and member of ULTRA, ULaw Moorgate

London as a legal hub

With English law being the dominant choice for parties entering into international commercial contracts, London has long been a global hub for transactional work and litigating international commercial disputes. Justin Williams, head of Akin Gump’s international arbitration practice, studied economic history at Bristol University before entering the graduate market in 1991. Given that the City offers the most “complex, interesting and cutting-edge legal work”, kickstarting his career in London was a no-brainer. “The City of London has more international disputes work than anywhere else, meaning you mix with people and clients from all over the world”, he told the virtual audience of over 500 students.

London’s position as a key legal hub is also expected to continue in the wake of remote working. In Williams’ opinion, the bottom line is that while London law firms may be more tolerant of working from home, lawyers will still need to be in London most of the time. The City is also expected to continue as a global hub for private equity work post-Brexit. Vinson & Elkins finance partner, Emilie Stewart, explained: “I’m yet to see real change in the types of deals we are doing, or anyone actively attempting to take their financing to other jurisdictions as a result of Brexit.” After all, as fellow panellist and ULaw senior tutor Mike Butler often explains to his students, by virtue of most London firms being international, they have business all over the world, making them less reliant on European markets.

Brexit aside however, legal tech is something everyone entering the legal graduate market needs to be aware of. As a member of ULaw’s tech research academy, ULTRA, Butler, explained, “students need to have a real interest in technology because it’s where the clients are going.” To account for such, the legal education provider is introducing a core skills module in its new Master of Laws Legal Practice, as part of its transition to the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) route from September. The module is designed to better equip students with the skills they need for practice and will focus on innovation and people skills — both of which are integral to a well-rounded O-shaped lawyer.

Find out more about studying the SQE at ULaw

Working at a US law firm in London — the best of both worlds?

While City firms are all characterised by their high-quality work, there are some notable differences at UK and US firm level.

Having originally trained within the UK magic circle and later moving to Akin Gump, Williams would now say that US firms offer “the best of both worlds”. Much of this he attributes to their leaner teams — from the initial cohort size, to headcount per transaction. This makes a great deal of difference at a junior level. Indeed, as Stewart explained to the audience, you can expect to be “working with closer-knit teams from the offset and know everyone in the office”.

Lean teams also give juniors far greater ownership of their work earlier on, which is aided by US firms’ on-the-job approach to training. Clients reap the benefits too. For example, in Williams’ experience, third-party litigation funders, which have a distinct perspective on the entire legal market, almost universally agree that leaner teams produce a better and more efficient client service.

On the contrary, UK law firms focus their business models on gearing (putting the maximum number of associates to partners on a deal). As a result, the structure is usually very top-down, and you have to give way to management more. However, because US clients expect more partner involvement across deals, teams are “flatter and smaller”, with less strictly regulated staffing protocols. As both Stewart and Williams explained, this gives you “greater scope for entrepreneurship and flexibility about how you go about developing your practice area.” Vinson & Elkins also embeds this flexibility within its training contract, with the second year of training being non-rotational. In turn, whilst trainees will still nominally be in a team, they’ll also have the chance to work across practices, handing them greater autonomy over their own career direction.

In sum, while there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to firms, the leaner teams, greater flexibility, and a wider international network at US firms, can make them the ideal place to kickstart a legal career in the City.

Find out more about studying the SQE at ULaw

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