As this Texan powerhouse celebrates its 100th birthday it continues to reap the rewards of a diverse practice...
INTERVIEWEES described Vinson & Elkins in impressive terms: “It's THE name in Texas,” proffered one. “You don't really get much bigger in the energy sector,” another said. “In terms of prestige, it's the 'Cravath of the South',” a third associate added. One thing's for sure, however you want to phrase it: this Texan powerhouse – which celebrates its 100th birthday in 2017 – has got the walk to match the talk.
Known primarily for its work in the oil and gas sectors, in the past ten years or so the firm has worked hard to diversify its practice. Despite nosediving oil prices, in 2016 Vinson posted the second-highest revenue in its 100-year history. And Chambers USA recognizes this versatility, awarding the firm top tier nationwide rankings for its energy practice, but also commending areas including general litigation, IP, capital markets, corporate/M&A, and tax in its home state. Diversification has also meant expansion out of Texas, with offices in New York, San Francisco, Palo Alto, DC, and most recently Richmond, complementing those in Austin, Dallas and firm HQ in Houston.
At the end of their summer, associates are asked to rank their practice preferences as well as which office they'd like to join. Of the seven offices mentioned above, all except Palo Alto and San Francisco take first-years. And as for a practice, though you are officially designated a niche, “if you want to experience it all you can. That means those with an entrepreneurial disposition are best suited, because you can pick up different work really easily in the beginning. Though, as you advance, there is pressure to specialize.”
As to where you can specialize, the corporate options are: capital markets/M&A (MACM), which accounts for around half of transactional associates; finance; tax; real estate; shareholder activism; and ETP (energy transactions, only available in Houston). Those of a litigious bent can choose between: complex commercial litigation (CCL), which makes up about two thirds of the operation; appellate; environmental; international dispute resolution; securities; energy regulatory; and bankruptcy. And, there's also IP, “which is sort of its own thing,” but is still officially part of litigation.
“Those with an entrepreneurial disposition are best suited.”
Even though the powers-that-be recently moved to merge the capital markets and M&A teams, they are “still pretty much distinct.” As a first-year associate you tend to be involved in at least some MACM work. Sources reported responsibility levels that were “very deal and relationship-dependent” and really “based on how long you've been working for the company.” That said, they're still pretty high-level, “anywhere from nearly running the deal” to “a more quarterback role – consolidating all the work together and making sure the partners have all the necessary paperwork.” Things are pretty similar over in litigation, in the sense that “you've got to be detail-oriented” and “do some grunt work” on the bigger cases; but on smaller ones “it'll just be you and a partner and in that case you're drafting motions, attending hearings and doing witness prep.”
While we are loath to indulge in regional stereotyping, almost every V&E associate we spoke to said that a certain Texas way of doing things permeates the firm. One NYC source expanded: “I talk to my friends at the large white shoe firms and it's clear that the Texan culture shines through. It's open-door and you can talk to anybody. It's competitive but there's a lack of cutthroatedness.” Another interviewee spoke of a pervasive bonhomie – “the word 'fratty' comes up on the Vault survey, which makes it sound quite negative. But I think it means that people tend to enjoy themselves in the office, to not be quite as dry. They like having people around at all times and everyone likes the people they work with.”
“The Texan culture shines through.”
The social life at V&E reflects this – “from junior associates up to partners, everyone's always up for getting together at least once a month.” These get-togethers usually take place during firm-sponsored happy hours at local bars. In DC the firm hosts an annual charity event where they make up a big space like a casino and bring in professional dealers to “do it right and we all try to win money for a great cause.” Over in Houston spooky goings on were reported at the firm's annual Hallowe'en bash when “everyone in the office brings in their kids to do trick or treat between floors,” the other offices host similar gatherings. But the jewel in the crown of this year's social calendar must be V&E's 100th year anniversary party in April at Houston HQ. All-firm events usually take place every three years, but for the big 100 “they're flying everyone plus a guest to Houston for three days of conferences and dancing.”
Training & Development
All attorneys will be familiar with the Houston base because everyone spends their first three days there doing team-building and general training. Then, when they return home, they'll have a week of “meetings being taught how to use your computer, or who to contact if you need document processing, or the librarian will come in and show you how to get hold of certain materials.” After this initial flurry, there are weekly CLEs – “one week it'll be a partner who does a lot of leasing and the next we might have one on real estate finance; next month we have tax lawyers coming in from a different office to impart their wisdom.”
The firm also has in place an extensive mentorship scheme designed to help juniors develop and grow. New starters are assigned both a partner and associate mentor to ease them into firm life. Then, after six months, you get to choose your own formal mentor. There is still further support offered by the firm's careers consultant, who travels around all of the offices imparting wisdom and offering an outlet for any associate concerns.
Hours & Compensation
Though there is no concrete billable target it's “generally understood” that associates need to hit 2,000 hours to be bonus-eligible. After this bonuses are tiered at 2,150 (x1.1) and 2,300 (x1.25) hours. There was universal praise for Vinson matching the increased Cravath scale in 2016. Sources didn't sugar-coat the fact that working at V&E means long hours. There's not exactly a face-time culture, but “people would not be pleased if I just bolted before 5pm.” All-nighters aren't a given, but they do happen – “in my two years here I've pulled four.” And interviewees agreed that the “Friday afternoon document dump that ensures you're working the weekend” was not unheard of.
Over half of the juniors on our interviewee list were based in Houston, which “definitely feels like the home office,” not least because “it offers the fullest range of practices to incoming associates.” It also boasts the only private Starbucks in the country. The firm's second-largest office, Dallas, has plans to move to brand new digs in the near future – “I can see it being built out my window... It's just a hole in the ground now but when it's finished it's going to be magnificent!”
"It's just a hole in the ground now but when it's finished it's going to be magnificent!”
New York associates appreciated the fact that their office has “all the resources – librarians, subscriptions, CLEs and experts” that “a large firm can provide,” but with “the smaller office atmosphere of a more boutique establishment.” A discerning bunch, they did however have some qualms with the office's recent renovation – “they seem to have changed the carpet though the new one is just as bad as the old one, which seems kind of pointless.” DC interviewees were pleased with their office's location both for its “excellent transport links” as well as the dozen or so nice bars and restaurants found in the retail space below.
Pro bono is definitely on the agenda at V&E, though transactional lawyers – who of course make up the majority of the firm – thought it “much easier to find litigation work.” That said, an unlimited number of pro bono hours count toward the bonus target which, coupled with twice monthly awards for those that bill the most, “offers more than enough incentive to get involved.” In Texas, the firm is heavily involved with Houston Volunteer Lawyers who deal with things like immigration, helping veterans and the homeless, as well as landlord/tenant disputes for those who struggle with legal fees. Meanwhile, up in New York after President Trump's executive immigration ban, “a bunch of V&E lawyers went down to JFK to help out those facing deportation.”
Pro bono hours
- For all US attorneys: 23,261
- Average per US attorney: 42
Sources felt that when it came to diversity at the firm, more was being done to improve the gender rather than the racial ratio. The Women's Initiative is particularly active, holding a big all-firm lunch once a year as well as a new lunch series: “You put in a request for a female partner. Then they set up lunches with you, another associate and two female partners.” There are also a number of diversity-related events taking place at the 100th anniversary weekender – “the Women's Initiative is hosting a brunch for all the female attorneys and there is a big forum taking place for all the diverse attorneys.”
One source described V&E's OCI process as “one of the more easy interviews.” But not “easy in terms of the questions asked, just that it was more of a conversation instead of an interrogation – I felt like they were trying to get to know me as a person.” As far as the questions go, “it's not weird behavioral stuff like at Google” – they ask “pretty standard stuff” but “I think potential recruits will find that we quickly try to get away from the résumé.” What it came down to, as one source succinctly put it, was “when I'm sitting in a conference room at 3am eating my Seamless – do I want to talk to you about something other than work?”
Strategy & Future
As mentioned previously, V&E has worked hard to diversify its practice away from its energy roots, a move that has proved incredibly shrewd in the long run: “We've actually got a really renowned restructuring group that have benefited from the oil downturn. Last year was our second most profitable ever. Showing that the firm's done a great job positioning itself.” Associates are offered an outlet for any grievances, and an insight into the firm's decision-making, at all-associate meetings – “we can submit questions anonymously and discuss candidly the direction that the firm is headed.”
Vinson's vocations: more on the work
In the energy transactions & projects group, the work is unsurprisingly very focused on oil and gas. One junior told us, “I do a lot of international upstream oil and gas work, which involves government contracts and concessions, and drawing up agreements with partners. I also do a lot of upstream M&A.” It's not all upstream work though, as another associate pointed out, “I worked on a midstream joint venture agreement.” We heard the size of the deals can vary hugely, from $3 billion to $20 million, and clients mentioned included pipeline companies as well as private equity backed companies: “We worked with them to acquire and sell upstream oil and gas assets.” One third-year added that frequent client contact was a definite plus of working in this group. “I'm handling the client and working with them, making sure everything gets done – you get a lot of responsibility early on here.” That doesn't mean you're expected to handle everything on your own though, as “the partners are always there to support and review your work, and to answer questions.”
Associates in corporate real estate described the work as “split between leasing acquisition and finance. A typical day would involve some leasing work, negotiating leases from a landlord's perspective, assisting in diligence matters, and also helping with portfolio financings.” One second-year told us that this often translates into “reviewing sensitive documents like loan agreements and purchase agreements.” That said, there is a clear increase in responsibility levels as associates progress with the firm: “I've really moved up in that sense,” one third-year noted. “I'm doing more free drafting, and taking the first stab at a purchase and sale agreement.” Crossover with other practice areas is fairly common, particularly with corporate M&A. “If there's a big merger happening, for instance, I'll sometimes go and advise on sections of the deal that pertain to real estate.”
Over in tax, juniors reported “a lot of oil and gas and energy law work.” One associate remarked upon proposed regulations released by the IRS in May, “that had a massive effect on almost all of our clients in certain fields, so we had to represent those clients before the IRS to see if we could change the regulations.” This has led to “a lot of comment projects and persuasive writing about the proposed regulations” for new starters. As far as responsibility goes, “I've had a lot, which was tough at first. I got to take the lead on a few of the comment projects.”
Vinson & Elkins LLP
1001 Fannin Street,
- Head Office: Houston, TX
- Number of domestic offices: 8
- Number of international offices: 8
- Worldwide revenue: $653,901,000
- Partners (US): 210
- Associates (US): 316
- Summer Salary 2017
- 1Ls: $3,462/week
- 2Ls: $3,462/week
- Post 3 Ls: $3,462/week
- 1Ls hired? Yes
- Split summers offered? 10 week program, varies by office
- Can summers spend time in overseas office? Case by case
- Summers 2017: 95
- Offers/acceptances 2016: 61 offers, 43 acceptances
Main areas of work
Antitrust; appellate; complex commercial litigation; condemnation; construction; employment, labor and OSHA; energy litigation; energy regulatory; energy transactions / projects; environmental and natural resources; finance; government contracts; government investigations and white collar; intellectual property; international dispute resolution; M&A/capital markets; media and entertainment; private equity; professional liability; real estate; REITs, restructuring and reorganization; securities litigation/regulation; tax – executive compensation and benefits.
Collaborating seamlessly across 16 offices worldwide, Vinson & Elkins LLP provides outstanding client service. Our lawyers are committed to excellence, offering clients experience in handling their transactions, investments, projects and disputes across the globe. Established in Houston in 1917, the firm’s time-tested role as trusted advisor has made V&E a go-to law firm for many of the world’s leading businesses. We bring competitive strength, insight and know-how to guide our clients through their most complex transactions and litigation.
• Number of 1st year associates: 57
• Number of 2nd year associates: 37
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $180,000
• 2nd year: $190,000
• Clerking policy: Yes
Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2017:
Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Fordham, George Washington, Georgetown, Harvard, Howard, LSU, Loyola University, Patent Law Program, NYU, Northwestern, South Texas, SMU, Stanford, The University of Texas, Tulane, UC Berkeley, University of Chicago, University of Houston, University of Maryland, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, University of Richmond, UVA, Vanderbilt, Washington University, Washington & Lee, William & Mary, Yale
Summer associate profile:
Vinson & Elkins hires talented and highly motivated individuals who desire a sophisticated legal practice.
We look for candidates who take initiative, offer diverse perspectives, are innovative and will enjoy working alongside top lawyers in a friendly and collegial environment.
Summer program components:
V&E’s “one firm” mentality offers summer associates the opportunity to work on cross-office projects from a variety of practice areas of interest. As a summer associate, you’ll experience hands-on legal training, develop mentoring relationships and get an understanding of what it is like to practice law at Vinson & Elkins.