Vedder Price - The Inside View

A highflier in asset finance, Vedder Price offers its junior associates great transport links to other practices too.

PLANES, trains and automobiles may call to mind the 1987 classic movie starring Steve Martin and John Candy, but they also (along with ships) make up Chicago-headquartered Vedder Price's rocket-fueled transportation finance practice. The aviation finance group especially speeds through the legal rankings stratosphere, and shipping finance isn't far behind. But a glance at Vedder's other Chambers USA rankings shows the firm offers a range of less niche practices too, including corporate/M&A, banking & finance, bankruptcy/restructuring, labor & employment, white collar litigation, and investment funds. While hiring partner Michael Waters acknowledges that his firm has “one of the strongest transportation finance groups in the world," he also highlights that “Vedder is very much a full-service firm.”

Junior associate interviewees considered the mid-sizer “an excellent option if you're looking for a smaller place with the resources of a larger firm.” With close to 300 lawyers working from five US offices, Vedder is steadily growing. In 2016, it opened its second overseas office, in Singapore, to boost transport finance operations in the Far East. This followed a London launch five years before. Vedder's West Coast presence dates from 2013 and 2014 when it set up in San Francisco and LA respectively.

The Work



The three groups on offer at Vedder are corporate, litigation, and labor & employment, and summers go straight into their department of choice. They will re-join their groups when they start as first-year associates (all being well). All three practices operate a free market system of work distribution, “so it's up to you to fall into relationships and seek out work,” we heard. Several interviewees had already forged links with partners during the summer so “hit the ground running – since the first year I've never had to seek out work.” They were full of praise for the “self-regulating system. It's really nice as it allows me to focus on what I want to do.”

Global transportation finance (GTF) is the highest-flying corporate subgroup, where at least some of the assets can fly. Newcomers quickly found lift-off themselves: “They certainly challenge us. One of the ways we compete with larger firms is by asking a lot of associates.” Day-to-day this includes “drafting credit and security agreements, managing closings, and directly contacting clients. The firm welcomes you reaching out to clients to move things forward.” The manner in which the wheels of asset finance turn means “the workload is very cyclical, with no consistency month to month, but overall there's always enough” to get airborne and hit hours targets.

“The incredible amount of responsibility is a double-edged sword.”

Elsewhere in corporate, the finance & transactions team tackles “commercial finance work and M&A under the finance banner.” Associates had handled due diligence, document review and ancillary drafting, telling us they got “an incredible amount of responsibility – a double-edged sword as it's high stress but great for learning.” Some who'd specialized in finance had been eager to see more M&A work, but recognized “it's not a bad thing I haven't as I'd probably be overloaded.” Other corporate sub-teams include investment services (“there's trustee, fund and adviser counsel as well as broker-dealer work; I'm pleasantly surprised to get a lot of autonomy") and financial institutions (“banking, regulatory and M&A – under the Trump administration it looks like there'll be more of the latter.”)

There's some fluidity between the litigation and labor & employment groups, so interviewees here could swim in both pools. One had dealt with “a lot of discrimination cases, securities work, accounting malpractice, and some IP,” while another handled “government-side litigation, as well as data privacy and some immigration stuff.” In these departments “research is kind of standard; we also do a lot of writing of motions and memos.” People felt they got “a lot of freedom. There were times I thought I was thrown in the deep end, but I always came out better for it.”

Training & Development



Associates are assessed twice a year in their first four years, and once a year after that. “There's an interview process after the review committee meets,” during which “you get comments and recommendations from partners, then they assign you a grade.” While interviewees felt “such a formal process doesn't always allow for day-to-day feedback,” several were “very proud to say I get constructive feedback every day.” Training on top of that comes from “a pretty robust CLE program, especially practice-specific CLEs,” though juniors again favored a more informal education. “On the job is the only way lawyers learn; if you don't get your feet in the mud you're not learning,” one declared. “The busier you are the more likely you are to do well.” Others were satisfied by “a good mix of formal and on-the-job training.”

“If you don't get your feet in the mud you're not learning.”

Offices & Culture



Vedder has two offices on each of the East and West Coasts, complementing its 190-lawyer Chicago HQ: “Location-wise it's great, right in the Chicago Loop.” One source described the décor as “like out of Beetlejuice,” but renovations are underway and “the new layout looks really good.” The New York team has just moved to a different floor in Paramount Plaza “right in midtown,” and the new setup is “a lot more modern – we have our own window offices.” Vedder also has smaller bases in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, DC as well as London and now Singapore. Associates appreciated both the 'one firm' policy – “my understanding is it's better than most firms because of our size and congeniality” and conservative thinking. “Management won't spend money needlessly; we don't work in the biggest shiniest building because we don't need to.”

“We still have that Midwest mentality.”

The “more conservative setting” also impacts culture “in the sense that everyone comes here to work, but you don't make the firm your entire life.” That means “when things are busy you work hard, but when they're not you take advantage of that and leave earlier.” Insiders reckoned “the culture in LA is a bit different as people get in later and wear more casual clothing,” but every office “still has that Midwest mentality. Everyone works hard but I don't feel they're super-stressed out, and there's not one person I've met who's a total bummer.” Associates were also pleased with Vedder's conservative financial strategy, revealed via regular state of the firm addresses. These provide “transparency,” supplemented by emails providing daily or weekly breakdowns of financials and anonymous lists of associates' billed hours.

“Opportunities are there” to get know colleagues outside of work, and like at many firms “most of the social stuff happens during summer,” from sports to wine tasting. Asked how many partake in events year-round, sources explained that “some associates love going out, others would rather have more balance with their own lives. Relations between associates are very positive. The size of the firm means anyone brought in wants to rise to partner level; associates don't compete.” The firm's new women's initiative, WAVES [Women At Vedder Empowering Success], “does really well” attracting associates to happy hours and book clubs.

Diversity



Acknowledging “there's still a lot of white-haired white men at the top,” Vedder juniors told us “it's getting better across the board. Like at any firm, the higher up you get the more it's a relic of traditional ways.” The firm regularly visits various minority careers fairs and takes one diverse 1L summer associate each year. In 2015 it launched the WAVES initiative to complement Vedder Diverse (an affinity group for minority attorneys) and host “great meetings” to promote gender diversity. With these groups making waves, sources concluded “the resources are certainly there. What the firm is up against is how to maintain good talent.We heard that a female lawyer on maternity leave in 2016 was subsequently promoted to partner – strong evidence that the firm is tackling the issue in a supportive way.

“It's getting better across the board.”

Hours & Compensation



“In true Vedder fashion, they took the time they needed” to match the increased Cravath salary scale. Some were concerned by “radio silence – we had no idea whether to expect the raise and were kept out of the loop,” suggesting “a lot of advocacy by associates was needed” to secure the increases. Others argued “they took the time to work it out properly” and didn't “fault them for taking the time to decide.”

“Some were more sensitive about the change.”

To go with the salary hike, the firm also bumped its bonus eligibility target from 1,850 to 2,000 (though associates have been encouraged to aim for 2,000 for a while). So is the extra dough worth longer days? For many corporate associates “2,000 is definitely achievable, and the extra money is a great added perk,” but those in other practice areas were less thrilled. “Some were more sensitive about the change as they found it hard to hit 1,850. There might be worries if you don't hit it, but what matters more is that you're billing as much as your peers.”

Pro Bono



Vedder has also doubled the pro bono hours associates can count as billable. While there was some complaint that the new 60 hour allotment “is still a little low,” the vast majority appreciated the increase. A pro bono coordinator sends out routine emails listing opportunities varying from prisoners' rights cases to divorce issues. One associate “brought in my own pro bono matter, and ran it past the coordinator. There turned out to be additional expenses but the firm didn't bat an eye.” Some were too busy to get involved, but agreed “Vedder is definitely committed to pro bono, and for some people it's definitely not underutilized.”

“There turned out to be additional expenses but the firm didn't bat an eye.”

Pro bono hours

  • For all US attorneys: undisclosed
  • Average per US attorney: undisclosed

Strategy & Future



Vedder has slowly but surely grown its network over the last few years; Singapore is the latest addition. Operating shareholder Doug Hambleton explains: “The new location gives us ready access to Asian businesses in aviation and maritime finance. We're not looking to simply plant a flag in a new place.” Being relatively small and mighty suits the firm, according to Hambleton: “Vedder doesn't seek to acquire other firms or merge, we're not a mega-firm and don't seek to be one. We try to build on the strengths we already have and maintain the edge we have in those areas.”

Get Hired



As in the norm at OCIs Vedder is above all “looking for a cultural fit.” That might include some more unusual questions – “I was asked what my favorite airplane was;I answered incorrectly, apparently!” – but for the most part candidates get “a lot of conversational, very realistic questions, it's a straightforward approach.” One interviewee explained “most of the discussion is based on the 'other' section of the candidate's resume, they're interested in finding out your interests and about any relevant work experience.” It's not a prerequisite as “you might not have much experience, but they're interested in any kinds of internships and courses you may have done.”

We don't need to tell you to keep an eye on your GPA, as though “we don't always get the people at the top of class, we look for people who can develop. There is a somewhat high expectation of GPA but at the callback it's a lot more informal than people expect.” It's always better to be a well-rounded person than a grade-smashing robot “when we write up evaluations a lot of it is resume and intelligence, but more of it is based on whether the person is normal and if they'll add something to the office. Because the firm is relatively small it's important that we'll have something to talk to them about” day to day.

Asked what experiences could stand candidates in good stead, one Vedder associate felt “interning for a judge is always useful. Not everyone does it but I've looked through resumes and that always stands out as impressive.” Another revealed “one thing I always tell students interested in litigation is that it helps to do journal work.” Beyond that “taking a year off before law school can make all the difference. People can do without it but if someone comes in knowing how to work with people they understand how to communicate in an office space.” Communication is clearly key, as a colleague agreed “we have a culture of people wanting to talk to other people, so we like those who demonstrate interests beyond the classroom.”

More about aviation finance



While it may be smaller than its peers, Vedder Price joins global giants Clifford Chance, Holland & Knight and Milbank in getting top Chambers USA rankings in the aviation finance field, making them ideally-placed to advise clients on the twists and turns involved. But what is it about aviation finance that makes it so complicated? Why is it, as hip young millennials say, even a thing?

Well, the first reason is that airlines have very tight margins and often can't afford to buy their planes outright. So they partner with a number of investors, who buy shares in a trust which in turn purchases the aircraft and leases it to the airline for a number of years (after which title to the plane passes to the airline.) This is called an equipment trust certificate, and functions somewhat like a bond. More straightforward is operating leasing, where the airplanes are owned by operating lessors who lease them to airlines either on a short term basis (for example, to cope with the summer vacation season) or for periods of three to five years. Airlines appreciate operating leasing for its flexibility, but it can also be pricey.

Given that aircraft frequently fly across national borders, it makes sense that the rules governing them have an international element. The most important international instrument in the world of aviation finance is the Cape Town Convention, most specifically its Aircraft Protocol. The Convention creates a cross-border regime for the registration of interests in aircraft. These are registered in a central international register, and have priority over other interests, allowing creditors to recover assets even when they're situated in countries that are traditionally debtor friendly. By reassuring lenders, the convention makes them more willing to lend, allowing borrowers to obtain financing at better prices.

Vedder Price

222 North LaSalle Street,
Chicago,
IL 60601
Website www.vedderprice.com

  • Head Office: Chicago, IL
  • Number of domestic offices: 5
  • Number of international offices: 2
  • Worldwide revenue: $2389.8 million
  • Shareholders (US): 158
  • Associates (US): 111
  • Summer Salary 2017 
  • 1Ls: $3,462
  • 2Ls: $3,462
  • Post 3Ls: N/A
  • 1Ls hired? Yes (Diversity Scholar in the Chicago Office)
  • Split summers offered? No
  • Can summers spend time in overseas office? No
  • Summers 2017: 13
  • Offers/acceptances 2016: 13 offers, 12 acceptances

Main areas of work
Corporate, labor and employment, litigation.

Firm profile
Vedder Price is a thriving general-practice law firm with a proud tradition of maintaining long-standing relationships with its clients, many of whom have been with the firm since its founding in 1952. With approximately 300 attorneys and growing, Vedder Price serves clients of all sizes and in virtually all industries from offices in Chicago, New York, Washington, DC, London, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Singapore.

Recruitment details
• Number of 1st year associates: 11
• Number of 2nd year associates: 6
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $180,000
• 2nd year: $185,000 – $190,000
• Clerking policy: No

Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2017:
Brooklyn, Chicago-Kent, Cornell, Fordham, George Washington, Georgetown, Loyola, Northwestern, Notre Dame, University of Chicago, University of Illinois, University of Michigan

Summer details
Summer associate profile:
Vedder Price recruits candidates with strong academics, excellent verbal and written communication skills, initiative and enthusiasm. Ideal candidates have a demonstrated interest in the practice area they are applying for, as evidenced by relevant course work and/or prior work experience. As Summer Associates will interact immediately with senior shareholders and clients, executive presence and maturity are valued.

Summer program components:
Summer Associates are integrated quickly into the practice area they are joining, through substantive work assignments, observation opportunities and training sessions. Summer Associates will work with an assigned associate advisor to receive practical advice and guidance. A firm-wide summer program orientation is hosted in Chicago during the first week of the program for the summer class to meet each other and engage with Firm Management. There are two formal review sessions, one at mid-summer and the other at the completion of the program, incorporating written attorney feedback regarding each completed project. Social events are frequent, both office-wide and in small groups, to ensure Summer Associates enjoy the collegiality of the Firm.