Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP - True Picture

Fancy working on “big, complicated international deals” but crave flexibility and a “more relaxed” atmosphere? Then say hello to US outfit Cleary.

I can see Cleary now

Cleary's trainees have already had a chance to get chummy with one another during their LPC at the University of Law in Moorgate. But apart from providing a welcome opportunity to mingle, our sources agreed that “it also gives the firm a chance to show us what it's all about: we attend seminars on its practice areas and we're invited to social events too.” So just what is Cleary all about then?

First, international work. “Virtually every matter has an international element, as most of our clients are big global corporates and banks, as well as sovereign states. You are constantly in contact with people all over the world,” one trainee summed up. Cleary wasted little time setting up its international network, launching in Paris in 1949 – just three years after opening its doors in the US. Lawyers had already been helping to advise on the Marshall Plan – a US initiative to help rebuild Europe after WWII – sealing Cleary's rep as a sovereign finance pro.

Cleary has since racked up 16 offices across Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America. And, we hear, the firm's keen for trainees to forge inter-office connections early on: first-years were whisked away to Brussels for a weekend meet-and-greet with all of Europe's new joiners, while others attended a retreat in Madrid. “There were lawyers from Frankfurt, Brussels, Milan and Moscow. We attended practice area sessions and went on social outings to art galleries and the Bernabeu football stadium!”

"We encourage our lawyers to be flexible.”

Flexibility is another hallmark. “You aren't forced to pigeonhole yourself,” trainees enthused, pointing to Cleary's non-departmental structure. It encourages lawyers to take a multidisciplinary approach and work across a number of practice areas. Specialising isn't common, but lawyers are likely to devote more time to certain areas over others. Training principal David Billington explains: “The system gives us a great advantage, as we are very nimble and can respond to changing market conditions.”

Cleary's London office receives nods from Chambers UK for its finance, capital markets, M&A and private equity panache, as well as its litigation and competition expertise. Trainees reported a flood of M&A deals of late, but, Billington tells us, “that's because the market has been dominated by those deals over the past 18 months. Our office was previously driven by restructuring deals and before that finance work. There's an ebb and flow, which is why we encourage our lawyers to be flexible.”

And what can we expect from Cleary London in the coming years? “We're steady-as-she-goes," Billington tells us. “So you won't read much about us in the legal press. Hiring lateral teams is not consistent with our ethos; our focus is on the training programme and growing organically.” He adds that there is a clear overarching goal though: “We want to continue working on the most complicated international matters out there.”

“You are the architect of your training contract.”

Mid-seat chats (and a phone call before newbies start) help to determine where trainees sit. From the outset, seat allocation is “a very collaborative process: you discuss your preferences, and HR tries to get you one of them.” Our interviewees often ended up with their top choice, and offered some advice for future success: “If you can show a reasoned and informed approach to structuring your training contract, that helps.” There are no seat requirements as such, but “there is an expectation that you'll do at least one of the core transactional seats – finance, M&A or capital markets.”

Ultimately, “you are the architect of your training contract,” one insider declared. The non-departmental structure allows trainees to go and ask for work from anybody – including lawyers operating outside of their current seat. This model scored a big thumbs-up from our sources. First, “it means you can get sneak previews of seats before you do them.” Second, “you don't have to give up a matter because you move seat, which is good because a deal can become like your baby – you don't want to give it away!” Nonetheless, it's also understood that trainees shouldn't neglect their assigned seat: “We all try and get the best from it so we can learn as much as possible.” And while those boundaries may be fluid, every trainee is assigned a supervisor who keeps a close eye on their workload and ensures they don't get too swamped.

Clearying house

Most of our sources had completed a stint in capital markets. It's a seat that comes with “an extremely steep learning curve” and a mix of debt, equity and high-yield transactions. One recent big hitter saw lawyers represent UBS and Deutsche Bank during investment fund Pershing Square Holdings' $1 billion debt offering. Sovereign-related work is frequently on the table too: the team also acted for Citigroup as the Republic of Iceland made a $400 million cash tender offer. On the equity side trainees had worked on IPOs, while debt work saw them chip in on bond matters. Common trainee tasks include conducting due diligence, drafting client memos, reviewing prospectuses and researching “some very complicated areas of law.” Client contact is common, with one source raving: “On one matter I enjoyed direct contact throughout!”

“I wanted to be on one of those mega-deals you hear about.”

Ambitious trainees make a beeline for Cleary's M&A seat. “I wanted to be on one of those mega-deals you hear about,” a trainee told us. "I wasn't disappointed – I experienced two in six months!” So how mega are we talking here? Well, pretty mega: lawyers assisted on Coca-Cola's €28 billion merger with three companies, creating bottling behemoth Coca-Cola European Partners. They also represented South Korea's MBK Partners during its $6 billion acquisition (as part of a consortium) of retail biz Homeplus from Tesco – Asia's largest private equity-led deal at the time. Most matters cover multiple jurisdictions: the one above involved parties from Singapore and Canada, as well as South Korea and the UK.

For trainees, these hefty deals come with an inevitably weighty amount of due diligence. “It can be mind-numbingly dull!” one groaned. “It feels like you're locked in the data room, scouring the same things over and over. After a few weeks it can be hard to stay focused.” It's not all doom and gloom though. We also heard from those who'd drafted ancillary documents like board minutes and liaised with local counsel in various locations. Client contact may not be what it is in capital markets, but some sources had managed to nab a seat at the table during those all-important negotiations.

Cleary's finance clients include sponsors like investment firm Boyu Capital and borrowers like Chinese computer manufacturer Lenovo. The firm's sovereign expertise is well utilised here as well, and lawyers recently served as counsel to Greece as it secured a €7.2 billion bridge loan to make payments to the IMF and the European Central Bank. Trainees busied themselves by “running closing documents between local counsel and the other side” on hectic refinancing deals, but found some small gems to work on too: “I was able to contribute to the security documents and conduct some research.”

Tax is “like Marmite: you either love it or hate it.” Luckily interviewees who'd sampled a seat here largely loved it. “The tax partners and senior associates are fascinated by their work, and their enthusiasm is infectious,” one trainee told us. There's a fair amount of corporate support work to tackle, on deals like the €40 billion merger between building materials heavyweights Lafarge and Holcim. Given the “highly technical nature of tax,” a seat here is research-heavy: “I was head in book most of the time. Understanding how the law works in this area is brain-achingly difficult!” Other day-to-day tasks included “updating tax sections of loan documentation and checking warranties.”

Those with a taste for contentious matters can head to Cleary's international litigation and arbitration practice. Financial services spats and civil fraud cases are common on the litigation side, while investor-state disputes are something of a speciality arbitration-wise. The governments of Greece, Argentina and Russia are on the books, with lawyers representing the latter during a $50 billion arbitration with former shareholders in Moscow-based oil company YUKOS. Matters here bestow less responsibility on trainees, “as the stakes are high and more can go wrong.” There's the usual bundling and comment review to be done, but trainees also conduct research to help formulate the arguments that will eventually be used in court.

Just so we're cleary

While trainees denied that there's a particular type of 'Cleary' person, they did highlight one unifying trait: they all had an interest in international matters and legal systems. “You get to work on the biggest and most interesting international deals,” this trainee beamed. “It gives you a massive advantage as you become a well-rounded lawyer, with knowledge of how other jurisdictions work.”

Overseas seats are therefore popular. Spots in Hong Kong and New York are the most sought after, but trainees can also jet off to Washington DC, Paris, Moscow, Buenos Aires or Abu Dhabi – typically in their second year. “I don't know of anyone who wanted to go abroad and didn't end up doing so. The key is stating your interest from the get-go and chatting with those who have gone before you during your first two seats. Show you're keen.” Trainees can be asked to pack their suitcases for shorter trips too: we heard about one who regularly popped over to Paris to work on an IPO, and another who'd journeyed to Lisbon to do some due diligence.

How does this non-departmental structure affect the atmosphere? “It makes the environment more collaborative and relaxed – it doesn't have that nasty competitive edge that you might expect from a US firm in London,” one trainee pondered. Another agreed: “It's because more people are generalists here. They move around, so it feels like we're all on the same team.” A lockstep salary and bonus system also keeps that dog-eat-dog mentality at bay, while a more casual dress code helps to lighten the mood: “You don't have to wear a suit and tie – chinos and a shirt are perfectly acceptable.”

“People are hard-working and passionate."

All the same, “people are hard-working and passionate about what they do.” Many tagged the culture as academic: “You can tell that you're working with very smart people who are genuinely interested in what they do. They're happy to talk about it for hours in the evening!” This suited trainees, who appreciated “the willingness people have to give up their time and teach you things.” Supervisors – who trainees share an office with – were deemed very useful on this front: “I'm constantly picking their brains and asking questions.” Further knowledge is shared during weekly lunchtime talks, where a topical issue or development in the law is discussed.

All of this enthusiasm is needed to handle the unsurprisingly long hours. Time-sensitive deals, particularly in M&A and capital markets, can see trainees working until 3am in the run-up to a closing. Other time-consuming tasks – like due diligence – can mean a string of midnight finishes. However, trainees tend to make their getaway between 7pm and 8pm and appreciate the quieter times. “It's the nature of the work we do – sometimes we're slammed and sometimes we leave at 6.30pm.” The smaller size of the office does protect trainees to some extent: “People know when you're working late, so you don't feel like you're slipping through the cracks. They adjust staffing accordingly to give you a bit of a break and ensure that you're not consistently beasted!”

So trainees do get a chance to let their hair down. “HR encourages people to socialise,” said one interviewee, adding: “They've formed 'cluster groups' of lawyers of varying seniorities – once every few months you'll go out with your group, and it's a great way to get to know more people at the firm.” Elsewhere, team drinks, Christmas parties, wine and cheese events and quiz nights keep people entertained: “There's a 'guess what region this wine is from' round in the quiz. You take a sip and give an answer – I think that's aimed more at the partners!” LPC bonding time and a smaller trainee intake (18 at the time of our calls) meant that our sources were close. “As trainees we often make our own fun and go for Friday drinks at our locals, Davy's and Corney & Barrow.”

When it comes to qualification, “everyone is pretty confident and there's no anxiety among the cohort about it.” With consistently high retention rates (12 out of 13 qualifiers stayed in 2015, and 100% in the two years before that) it's easy to see why. In 2016, all nine qualifiers nabbed NQ jobs at the firm.

Cleary will be hopping across the road to swish new build 2 London Wall Place in 2017. “We'll have the top four floors and we even get our own barista bar. Everyone's excited,” Billington tells us.

How to get a Cleary Gottlieb training contract


Vacation scheme deadline (2017): 4 November 2016 (winter), 28 January 2017 (spring and summer)

Training contract deadline (2019): 31 July 2017

Open days 

Cleary recruits nearly all of its trainees through its vacation scheme. The best bet for landing a place is applying for a spot on one of the firm's open days, which involves submitting a cover letter and CV online. From a total of 2,000 applicants, around 120 are called in for an open day.

It's also possible to apply directly for a vac scheme, but graduate recruitment partner Richard Sultman admits this route is “harder,” with partner Andrew Shutter chiming in to tell us “less than 5% of applicants can expect to get onto the vac scheme without attending an open day.”

Open days start with lunch, followed by a tour, a presentation about the firm, a commercial negotiation workshop, a 20-minute interview with partners and associates, and a competition case-law study. To wrap up the day there's a drinks event that gives partners a chance “to see the candidates as individuals and how they interact with the other applicants,” says Shutter.

Vacation schemes 

Cleary offers 48 vac scheme places each year, 12 for two weeks on the winter and spring schemes as well as 24 across the two summer schemes. Participants are paid £500 a week – the highest of any firm we've come across.

According to Richard Sultman, the vac scheme aims to provide a “real-world experience. The idea is that students will be staffed on client transactions. We don't offer synthetic work; it will be real.” And indeed, one trainee told us: “At my other vac schemes, there were times when I was asked to read a textbook for a week or just sit in the Royal Courts of Justice watching a trial, but here I did work that was actually substantial,” confirmed one trainee. “Lawyers were depending on my analysis for their transactions. That was the level of responsibility I was looking for.” Another added: “The firm makes sure you do a considerable amount of what you're interested in. I found that very impressive.”

The programme's not all work and no play. Trainees told us they “felt really, really comfortable” during their time as vac schemers and praised the firm's efforts on the social side, which include organised activities like ping pong outings and cookery classes. “By the time I left, I'd met at least half of the lawyers here, whereas at other firms I only got to know a handful,” shared one source.

How to impress 

The direct-to-training-contract application route is the riskier one, according to our sources, and involves two rounds of interviews. “The most crucial thing is that you come across as a person who could start work with us the next day,” one insider advised. “It’s important to want to practise law and want to practise it at Cleary. You have to find a way to show that.” Shutter tells us “it's very impressive when people have done their research and can show that they really understand Cleary.”

This advice goes for anyone applying, no matter the route they take. “I met one candidate at an open day who knew all about a particular piece of litigation we'd done in New York regarding the recovery of stolen art,” says Shutter. “That's the kind of detailed interest we're looking for.”

What's more, it's important for applicants to come across as “bright, confident and interesting” during their dealings with the firm. “What we really look for are people who have shown that they are obviously academic, but also curious and intellectually brave and courageous and up for the challenge of doing something different to the usual 'conveyor belt' approach,” shares Shutter.

Recruiters told us they're pretty demanding in terms of the skills applicants have to demonstrate, with sources confirming “you don't find people who come to Cleary because they didn't have offers from anywhere else.” Being a team player is also a must. “It's not for someone who doesn't work well with others; you look after your colleagues here. Don't apply if you have sharp elbows.”

Finally, consider this tip from an insider: “If you’re the kind of person who feels uncomfortable taking your own initiative, it’s probably better for you to go to a more structured training programme.” In other words, Cleary is not a place for those who want to float along or be closely managed. “If you want a more traditional experience,” affirms Shutter, “you should probably look at other firms.”

Cleary: internationalists

Click here to read more about the internationalist strand to Cleary's work.

Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP

City Place House,
55 Basinghall Street,

  • Trainees 20
  • Partners 193 (19 in London)
  • Total Staff 2,500 (200 in London)
  • Contact Claire Astbury
  • Method of application Cover letter and CV
  • Selection procedure Future trainees are primarily selected from among those having completed a vacation scheme with the firm
  • Closing date for 2019 31 July 2017
  • Training contracts pa 12-15
  • Required degree grade High 2:1
  • Training salary  
  • First year: £48,000
  • Second year: £52,000
  • Post-qualification salary £120,000
  • Overseas offices New York, Washington DC, Paris, Brussels, Moscow, Frankfurt, Cologne, Rome, Milan, Hong Kong, Beijing, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, Abu Dhabi and Seoul

Firm profile

Founded in 1946 by lawyers committed to legal excellence, internationalism and diversity, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP is a leading international law firm with 16 closely integrated offices located in major financial and political centres around the world. For more than 60 years, the firm has been pre-eminent in shaping the internationalisation of the legal profession. Cleary’s “one firm” approach enables them to deliver all their resources to all their clients, wherever in the world they may be.

Main areas of work

Core areas of practice in London are mergers and acquisitions, financing and restructuring, capital markets, international litigation and arbitration, and competition. In addition, there are successful self-standing practices in tax, financial regulation and intellectual property and information technology. Lawyers who focus on different practices work closely together according to the requirements of a particular transaction.

Trainee profile

Cleary looks for candidates who are enthusiastic about the practice of law in a challenging and dynamic international setting. While academic excellence is a pre-requisite, Cleary places particular emphasis on recruiting candidates with whom they and their clients will enjoy working. A sense of humour is as important as the ability to think critically and creatively about cutting-edge legal issues.

Training environment

Cleary does not believe in a 'one size fits all' training solution. By recruiting 12 to 15 trainees each year, Cleary are able to offer bespoke training that is tailored to their trainees’ interests, experience and aptitudes. Nor do they believe that the transition from trainee solicitor to associate occurs overnight on qualification. So, they encourage their trainee solicitors to accept increased responsibility as soon as they are ready to do so. Given appropriate levels of supervision and support, their trainees operate as lawyers from the day that they join Cleary.


5% employer pension contribution, 25 day’s holiday, fitness subsidy, health screening, private health insurance, life insurance of twice annual salary, long-term disability insurance, dental insurance, employee assistance programme, emergency back-up care and subsidised staff restaurant.

Vacation schemes

The firm’s London office offers around 50 vacation places each year across four schemes; winter, spring, and summer. The firm actively encourages all candidates that are considering applying for a trainee solicitor position to undertake a vacation placement with the firm. Applications for winter vacation placements should be received by 4 November. The deadline for spring and summer vacation scheme applications is 28 January.

Sponsorship and awards

Cleary funds the LPC for all future trainee solicitors. For non-law graduates, the firm also funds the GDL. A maintenance grant of £8,000 is paid for each year of professional study.