Texan law firm Vinson & Elkins just celebrated 50 years in London, having set up shop in the capital in 1971 to take advantage of the booming oil and gas industry, after oil was discovered in the North Sea.
The firm began its London life with two English lawyers working in temporary space near Piccadilly Circus. It slowly grew, moving to a Mayfair townhouse that housed around seven lawyers, to its present day office in the City’s famous ‘Walkie Talkie’ building, with 75 lawyers among its UK ranks.
When V&E first came to the capital, US law firms were still something of a novelty, says Jeffrey Eldredge, a Texas-born partner at the firm, who has worked for the company for more than three decades, mostly from the London office.
At the time, he says, there was not many international law firms in London, and even large English firms did not have much of a global reach.
“I think that the city [in the 1980s] was a very different environment, and the legal community was very different.”
“I remember coming over and being kind of surprised when we broke for lunch and they wheeled in basically a bar trolley to serve drinks – you would not have found that at an American law firm in the 80s. But that’s the way it was. They brought in a round of tea at 4pm, and I found that very English.
“There wasn’t really any snobbery [towards American law firms], or competition, because everyone stayed in their own lane, so there was a lot of cooperation.”
18 hour days?
But times have changed, and large and powerful American law firms now make up a sizeable chunk of London’s legal sector.
“There’s now a lot of competition amongst the firms, and I think the English firms have had to adapt and are continuing to adapt to fend off or compete with the American model,” he continues.
“There are very good English firms and very good English firms that pay very well, but there’s a lot of competition, and some of the American firms are throwing around a lot of money.”
Working for an American law firm in the UK is rumoured to be a high stakes game. The pay is excellent – better than at English equivalents – but the hours are painstaking, with lawyers frequently clocking in 18 hour days.
Eldredge does not deny the hours are long, but sees it as unfair to characterise long hours as something synonymous with the US model.
“US law firms have had a tendency to come in and try to take the cream off the top, from the standpoint of the highest quality, therefore highest paying, more exciting work. And if you’re going to do that kind of work, then the clients who are paying those fees are going to expect you to be at their beck and call and they’re going to expect you to work as hard as they do,” he says.
“Another change I think in the City is the expansion, if not dominance, of the private equity players – and those people really do work 18 hours a day. And when you’re working for them, they’ll expect you to work their kind of hours.
“When we’re across the table from English firms, which we often are, they’re working the same hours we are. If you’re working at the top English firms on the top transactions, you’re going to be working long hours sometimes.”
V&E is committed to London, Eldredge says, and plans to continue to use the UK office as a base for its work in continental Europe, Asia and Africa.
“London is just such a great base,” he adds. “The dominance in the world economy of English law is pretty stunning, so from that standpoint for the largest, most complex transactions, English law is one of the most common used, so if you’re going to come and find the talent most capable to executing those transactions, they’re going to be coming out of London.
“London’s kind of our hub, our aircraft carrier. And I think that’s probably going to continue after Brexit.”