Recruitment: Yanking them in

With limited brand recognition among UK students, US firms find it hard to tempt the cream of the crop away from the magic circle. Will a host of new recruitment campaigns shift the balance?

When US firms first arrived on these shores en masse around 10 years ago, most City partners did not even know any US firms apart from the US equivalent of the magic circle, the ‘white-shoe brigade’, recalls recruitment consultant Adrian Fox.

Originally the Johnny-come-latelies had little to distinguish themselves from UK firms, except they paid exceedingly well. They also quickly developed a reputation in the City for working you to the bone, something the magic circle had been best-known for.

But over the years, and undoubtedly after a lot of hard work, most US firms now have healthier levels of visibility in UK law and commerce.

But how entrenched are they among the target recruiting pool of universities?

US firms are now permanent fixtures on the London legal scene and, as revealed by The Lawyer’s sister publication Lawyer 2B’s exclusive research (see December 2007 edition), 23 of the top 30 US firms now homegrow their talent, or intend to. Of those firms only one intends to reduce the size of its trainee intake. The rest intend to stay at their current size or aim to grow by as much as 233 per cent by 2010-11, as is the case with Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom.

Graduate recruitment partner at West Coast firm Morrison & Foerster (MoFo) James Gubbins told The Lawyer: “In the last few years in the recruitment market, it’s been difficult trying to attract quality junior lawyers – [our graduate recruitment programme] gives us a pipeline of junior talent.”

But when Lawyer 2B asked 29 students at the Manchester Law Fair to name a US law firm, only seven could do so, and only six said they might apply to one for training contracts.

Alex Wiseman, a recruiter for US firms at Taylor Root, points out that “US firms still definitely suffer from brand recognition at graduate level.”

As high-quality graduates become scarcer and lateral hires become more risky investments, establishing an attractive brand will become more important to US firms.

The players
John Adebiyi is London partner in charge of graduate recruitment at Skadden, arguably the most successful and well-known law firm in the US. “I think, certainly, we don’t have a strong brand recognition among students,” he says. “Although it’s certainly more strong nowadays than it was a few years ago, when we first started our [graduate recruitment] programme. But it’s a constant fight to raise our profile.”

Indeed, Skadden has only had a graduate recruitment programme in the UK since 2003, giving other US firms a significant head start.

Baker & McKenzie is somewhat unique and is one of the firms with probably the strongest brand among its compatriots in London: it has been taking on trainees here since 1961 and 43 trainees are due to start in 2009-10.

Bakers has successfully branded itself as a “massively international organisation”, says Wiseman.

Bakers graduate recruitment manager Justine Beadle sees the firm as ‘global’ rather than ‘US’. She says Bakers attracts graduates because of its international reach and by offering 20 international vacation placements per year.

An easier approach, at least in terms of luring students, has been taken by Dechert, Jones Day, Mayer Brown and Reed Smith Richards Butler. They all merged with well-established UK firms, with Reed Smith and Mayer Brown taking on 30 and 32 trainees respectively in the previous round.

When Jones Day Reavis & Pogue (as it was then known) first came to London, it had no history of a local graduate recruitment programme and took on only one or two trainees a year. In 2003 it merged with UK firm Gouldens and inherited the latter’s longstanding graduate recruitment programme, taking on 21 trainees to start in 2009-10.

Jones Day recruitment partner David Smith says shifting name recognition from established brand Gouldens to the relatively unknown Jones Day was “initially a bit of an issue” and required pounding the streets at universities. But the firm now receives around 2,000 applications for around 20 places.

That is not to say it is impossible to do it yourself. Firms such as Sidley Austin, Weil Gotshal & Manges and White & Case set up their own trainee programmes in London in around 1996-97 and currently have 17, 19 and 53 trainees in their London offices respectively.

“These days we tend to get our first-choice candidate,” says Sidley graduate recruitment partner Elizabeth Uwaifobut, acknowledging that initially it was more difficult.

When Sidley’s small graduate recruitment programme first began “expanding in all directions” in the late 1990s, it placed a lot of strain on resources, says Uwaifo. “A few years ago, because of a lack of resources and fee-earner levels, we weren’t able to visit career fairs,” she explains.

Firms such as Debevoise & Plimpton, Latham & Watkins, MoFo, O’Melveny & Myers, Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe and Skadden are now facing some of the same teething problems in establishing their programmes in the consciousness of students.

MoFo started its programme in 2006 with one trainee, but hopes to grow to four by 2010-11. Gubbins says that, in the first year, the firm missed the milkround and was “behind the curve in attracting graduates, having missed that first wave”. Although the situation has improved, he admits: “We’re still not on people’s radar screens.”

Orrick’s first batch of trainees, recruited as part of an organised programme, have just joined the office this year. Orrick graduate recruitment partner Simon Cockshutt has also been hitting the road at careers fairs across the country and is “spending rather more on advertising than I’d like”. Several partners are heavily involved in the process, he says, “but as in all these things, not everyone’s as enthusiastic as others”.

“We perceive ourselves as having some difficulty in the London market in that we’re relatively unknown,” says Cockshutt. But he believes this is an issue for most US firms. “Most other [US] firms aren’t known and the fact that you’re a Reed Smith, Skadden or Orrick doesn’t matter. To the student they’re all the same because they’re all unknown.”

Same, but different
A huge problem that US firms in London face is how to differentiate themselves not just from the magic circle, but also from each other.

“What any US firm will say is largely quite similar at newly qualified up to year-three level: the opportunity to work in a smaller office environment, the nature of the work, transactions are generally multijurisdictional and the ability to have responsibility on important deals,” explains Wiseman.

Almost all US firms that The Lawyer has spoken to echo this standard sales pitch – with minor variations: Skadden claims “real responsibility at an early stage and working in a relatively small office environment”, Weil touts its “higher-quality client base that you don’t necessarily get in other firms”, while Orrick talks about being “a friendly, relatively small office environment in a large firm, which guarantees high-quality work”.

Only a few firms push the financial angle, which to many students is actually one of the greatest incentives for joining a US firm. Most US firms’ trainee salaries are higher than those offered by the magic circle, and newly qualified salaries can outstrip magic circle rates by as much as 50 per cent, as with the case of Latham.

Latham graduate recruitment partner Lene Malthasan says offering the highest newly qualified salary in the City was not a conscious decision, but was rather the result of pegging to protect against the exchange rate risk on the falling US dollar. She says it was “the right thing to do”, but does not agree that this is what differentiates the firm, resorting to the tried-and-tested ‘size, quality, culture’ formula.

Alternative ideas to establish brand identity and recognition can be difficult. Cockshutt claims that Orrick’s distinctive green ‘O’ logo on a white background helps.

Weil, meanwhile, has adopted a new campaign, challenging students to “do something that scares you”, which is meant to communicate to students that they “are going to be put out of their comfort zone”, says HR director Thea Gaunt, adding that “the campaign has gone down very well”.

Jones Day, as part of its Gouldens’ inheritance, offers an innovative non-rotational seat training contract, where all trainees get their own office and can work for any variety of departments for two years.

These things take time, acknowledges Wiseman, but at the end of the day “the US firms will have to prove they’re here to stay”.

That means getting all the basics right, such as providing adequate training and resources that are up to scratch, notwithstanding most US firms’ smaller London presences.

“I think it’s important that we can offer training, because they’re the best brains we’re looking at who could easily walk in to the magic circle,” says Sidley’s Uwaifo. “We want to be able to offer them something that competes favourably with what they’d get in the magic circle. That’s why we go out of our way to give them a quality of training that’s not second to the magic circle.”

The US firms in London certainly seem to be making all the right noises. And as they continue to do so, this will put even more pressure on the limited talent pool that all firms in London have to dip into.

Additional research by Joey Bastick-Vines, Husnara Begum and Julia Berris


During Lawyer 2B‘s recent straw poll at the Manchester Legal Careers Fair, only a quarter of students could name a US firm. Those who did either name-dropped UK-US merger firms Dechert, Jones Day and Reed Smith, or established London player Shearman & Sterling.

Students also said they thought they would learn and practise only US law at US firms, and Weil Gotshal & Manges graduate recruitment manager Jillian Singh wrote on that students told her they were discouraged from applying to US firms because they thought US firms in London were “only satellite offices”, “will work you much harder” and “will not train you”.

The main reason students gave for why they want to work at US firms is the opportunity to travel and the high pay.

This research shows that some US firms offer high salaries and many offer international secondments to trainees. However, none guarantees trainees a seat in the US.