The price is right in many ways at Vedder, especially if asset finance floats your boat.
IN October 2015, when the historic luxury passenger ship the SS United States was due to be sold off for scrap, the nonprofit that owned the ship turned once again to Chicago's Vedder Price to help (lawyers here had helped the charity acquire the liner in 2011 and have provided pro bono legal support since then). True, with around 280 lawyers and five US offices, Vedder's a little smaller than many of the firms we profile in this guide, but its second-to-none knowledge of the transportation finance sector made it the ideal choice to help save this iconic flagship. Chambers USA awards Vedder the top ranking for its expertise in this area. It's not a boutique firm, however, and also gets the nod from Chambers for its banking & finance, bankruptcy, investment funds, employee benefits, labor & employment, corporate/M&A & private equity, and litigation: white-collar crime work.
The SS United States was huge: during the Cold War in the early 1950s it was secretly designed to be easily converted to carry 15,000 troops should war break out. Vedder isn't looking to become quite so big. As hiring partner Dana Armagno puts it, “we're not trying to be a megafirm. We want to focus on what we do best, and be the best at it.” That said, steady expansion is very much on the cards. The firm opened its first West Coast office in San Francisco in 2013, and followed it up with an opening in Los Angeles in 2014. Back in 2011, Vedder made its first voyage overseas, launching in London.
This isn't a place for people who don't know what area of law they want to practice. Summer associates spend all their time in one department, and that's the department they'll work in when they start full-time at the firm. The three groups on offer at Vedder are corporate, litigation, and labor & employment. “While it might have been fun to get litigation experience," a transactional New Yorker told us, "I knew I didn't want to build a career in it.” The corporate: global transportation finance (GTF) group and corporate: finance & transactions usually take the most new starters, followed by labor & employment. Litigation, corporate: tax, and corporate: investment services take one or two attorneys apiece.
"We staff our deals very leanly."
Many firms talk about their 'high-flying' practice groups, but in Vedder's GTF team, this description is rather more literal. This is an asset-backed financing department where at least some of the assets can fly. The assets in question are, of course, planes, trains and ships. “We're not a huge law firm, so we staff our deals very leanly.” Aviation finance isn't taught at most law schools, so newbies need to spend some time brushing up, but once that's done it's a short interchange from “simple tasks like preparing checklists and reading conditions” to "doing the initial drafts of documents.”
Closely related to GTF is the finance & transactions corporate subgroup. This department does a lot of work in the private equity sector, representing either the funds themselves or the banks who lend to private equity houses. This gives the firm's budding lawyers a chance to do both corporate and financial tasks. Either way, there's a lot of responsibility. “If it's a brand-new credit agreement the partner will do most of the drafting, but if it's an amendment, I'll do it myself,” said one source of the finance work. Similarly, over on the M&A side, “if it's a smaller deal I'll draft the asset agreement with the help of the partner.” Of course, responsibility varies according to deal size. But “by the end of my first year I was running deals,” recalled a source in Chicago.
“By the end of my first year I was running deals.”
Vedder has two offices on each of the East and West Coasts, complementing its 190-lawyer Chicago HQ. This is by far the largest office and calls the Loop – Chicago's trendily named business district – home. It's certainly a handy location, although “the general consensus is that the other offices are nicer.” This might not be the case for much longer, as a refurbishment is in the works. The DC office “couldn't be more central,” enthused a source here. It's situated on L Street, geographically and alphabetically next to the capital's famous K Street. It's the smallest of the East Coast offices, with a fluctuating population of lawyers that's “never more than 20.” In the middle size-wise is New York with almost 50 lawyers in a Midtown high-rise.
Training & Development
“Vedder does a really nice job of training you,” thought a source in transport finance. There's the traditional orientation period to help newbies get to grips with the firm's computer systems. This is followed by a range of practice area-specific lunchtime CLEs delivered by firm shareholders. “You can only learn so much by listening to people,” thought one insider. “You need to get out there and get hands-on.” No lawyer, no matter how hands-on, is an island, and our sources thought very highly of the support they were given. “I don't know if I lucked out, but my secretary's really helpful,” admitted one associate. In addition, every new attorney gets a junior and senior mentor who they meet for lunch and a chat.
Associates are assessed twice a year in their first four years, and once a year after that. Every supervising attorney they've spent ten or more hours working with submits a detailed description of their work and rates the associate's performance according to various criteria, including work quality and contribution to the firm. Associates are then given a summary of each review. "It seems like a pretty comprehensive process,” sources who'd been reviewed thought. Interestingly, the process isn't anonymous: “You're told straight up who said what.”
Hours & Compensation
Associates who bill 1,850 hours are eligible for a lockstep pay increase and a bonus. There's also a target of 2,000 hours, which qualifies associates for a higher bonus. “You get a certain extra for every hour you've worked over 2,000,” explained one junior. “Hitting the hours isn't a problem,” another told us confidently. “There's plenty of work.”
"Hitting the hours isn't a problem."
Associates reckoned that Vedder Price is equally happy with them choosing to “work 3,000 hours for the biggest bonus,” as they are for associates to “work a little less and not get a bonus at all.” An average workday begins between 8.30am and 9.30am, and finishes any time between 6pm and 9pm. All those we spoke to reported working remotely after getting home, and looming deadlines do signify late nights. “The latest I've worked is 3am,” a New Yorker told us, “but a late night usually means midnight or 1am.”
“They try to cultivate an entrepreneurial spirit,” one insider thought when asked about the firm's culture. By way of example, the source noted that “if you bring in a new client, you'll get a cut of the fees.” This is in contrast to other firms, which “will just say 'thanks.'” This isn't to say that money replaces manners – “being from the Midwest, Vedder takes pride in being congenial,” said an agent at Vedder in Chicago. “I'm never nervous about approaching a shareholder,” said another. “There's no real hierarchy, and everyone's approachable.” We heard mixed reviews of the firm's social scene, with some attorneys telling us that “all the associates try to do happy hour events,” and others saying that “this isn't the sort of place where your co-workers are supposed to be your best friends.” This isn't to say that lawyers are unfriendly, our source hastened to add, merely that Vedder is the kind of place where “work isn't my life.”
"They try to cultivate an entrepreneurial spirit."
“It's not extremely diverse,” insiders admitted, “but it seems like it's heading in that direction.” Diversity varies by office and practice group. The number of female attorneys is generally pretty good, with sources reporting either a 50/50 split, or slightly more women in recent incoming classes. As at other firms, diversity decreases as you go up the ranks of seniority; recent summer classes have been more diverse but “when you look at the partners it becomes much less so.” Juniors were interested to see what happens at partnership level: “There's a woman here who's up for partner,” someone in Chicago highlighted, adding: “She's on maternity leave, so how they handle that is of particular interest.” The female senior associate mentioned was elevated to partner in March 2016.
"We'll always strive to do better.”
As well as a hiring committee which is very diversity-focused, there's a specific diversity committee whose role is to develop programs to entice diverse candidates to the firm, and look at retention. Vedder regularly visits various minority careers fairs and takes one diversity 1L summer each year. “We're proud of our successes,” hiring chief Dana Armagno tells us, “but we'll always strive to do better.”
Pro bono is often more suited to litigation than transactional attorneys. Most Vedderites are transactional attorneys, so perhaps they could be forgiven for being a bit cautious when it comes to dipping their toes into the pro bono pond. That said, “the firm is very open to transactional attorneys doing litigation bono work,” and “there are definitely corporate and IP opportunities.”
The firm partners with organizations like the New York legal assistance group, the Chicago Bar Foundation's Adoption Assistance Program and the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago, and associates can treat up to 60 hours' worth of pro bono work as billable. Lawyers who had done pro bono raved about the experience, which offers “complete control, a lot of drafting,” and, for those doing litigation, “the chance to go to court.”
Pro bono hours
Vedder holds OCIs at a select number of schools near its offices in Chicago, New York and DC, although hiring partner Dana Armagno tells us that the firm is certainly open to write-ins from further afield. “They often send an alumnus to conduct the interviews,” recollected one source. At the callback stage, there are interviews with shareholders and associates, and a less formal lunch interview with two associates. Even the officially 'formal' interviews aren't too formal, we heard. “There are no complicated interview questions,” one associate reported. While the lunch interviews are supposed to be about “seeing how a candidate handles themselves in a less formal situation,” they also give applicants a chance to ask questions that they might not want to bother shareholders with, such as “what's the work/life balance like?” and “what do you do all day?”
"They always send an alumnus to conduct the interviews."
Because the firm hires summer associates straight into the departments they'll end up practicing in (corporate, litigation, or labor & employment), it wants candidates to demonstrate some experience in that area. “This can be through having worked in a bank or in the aviation sector, having a business major at undergrad, or having taken the core business law modules at law school,” says HP Dana Armagno. A demonstrated interest in the firm's practice areas is all well and good, but sources reassured us that it isn't necessary to be an aircraft geek or gearhead. “I'm not even that into cars,” someone in transport finance told us.
Strategy & Future
Quality over quantity appears to be Vedder's plan for the future. Take the firm's recent expansion to the West Coast. Instead of growing “haphazardly,” sources there tell us the firm is “looking to expand deliberately.” Whichever side of the country they're in, don't expect Vedder to deviate too wildly from its present course. “We want to focus on becoming best in class in our core practice areas,” reiterates hiring partner Dana Armagno.
While it may be smaller than its peers, Vedder Price joins global giants Clifford Chance 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 the hip young millennials say, even a thing?
Well, the first reason is that airlines have very tight margins, so they 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 kind of 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 would 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.
222 North LaSalle Street,
- Head Office: Chicago, IL
- Number of domestic offices: 5
- Number of international offices: 1
- Worldwide revenue: $238.3 million
- Shareholders (US): 160
- Associates (US): 113
- Summer Salary 2016
- 1Ls: $3,077
- 2Ls: $3,077
- 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 2016: 14
- Offers/acceptances 2015: 11 offers, 10 acceptances
Main areas of work
Corporate, labor and employment, litigation.
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 and Los Angeles.
• Number of 1st year associates: 8
• Number of 2nd year associates: 10
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $160,000
• 2nd year: $165,000 – $170,000
• Clerking policy: No
Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2016:
Brooklyn, Chicago-Kent, Cornell, Fordham, George Washington, Georgetown, Loyola, Northwestern, Notre Dame, University of Chicago, University of Illinois, University of Michigan
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.