"A world of finance” awaits trainees at this US firm's London base.
Go Sidley, it's yo' birthday
2016 marks 150 years since Sidley laid roots in Chicago. The firm's London office may be considerably younger (the firm jump-started its UK-based operations in 1974) but it'll still be honouring the wider firm's milestone – just in a more altruistic way than you might expect: “Instead of holding an extravagant party, we're asking our staff to choose three or four charities to whom we'll make a donation,” training principal Will Smith tells us.
Over the last century and a half, Sidley's amassed enough offices and lawyers to make it a significant player on the world's lawyerly stage: over 1,900 lawyers are currently beavering away in Sidley's 20 offices, which you'll find dotted across the US, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. Their combined efforts brought in a mighty $1.87 billion revenue figure in 2015.
The firm's work is broadly split between transactional, regulatory and litigation teams. In London, the office's finance and corporate practices account for a fair whack of the work, followed by areas like dispute resolution, restructuring and regulatory. Chambers UK tends to honour the office's strength in those transactional areas, especially its capital markets, real estate finance, insurance, funds and restructuring work. The corporate team recently got a major boost thanks to the addition of six private equity partners who jumped ship from the City office of fellow US firm Kirkland & Ellis. “The Kirkland hires are a very talented team with a fantastic roster of clients who will augment our current private equity offering,” says Will Smith. These latest additions point to what Smith describes as a healthy period for Sidley: “We've witnessed three record-breaking years for the whole firm. We're in a very good place both in London and internationally and have a great base from which London can grow organically. The future's looking very positive.”
“There are no cookie-cutter deals.”
HR allocates seats after reviewing three preferences from each trainee, though first-seaters are likely to wind up in one of the firm's two largest groups: global finance or corporate. Trainees have been able to hop across to Brussels to undertake a competition seat for some time, but the firm's recently added additional overseas postings in Geneva and Hong Kong. The Geneva stint has a litigious slant while Hong Kong – although weighted towards corporate and finance – offers the chance to explore a range of areas.
The global finance group (GFG) is full of “quite thinky stuff,” one source ruminated. “It's a bit of an esoteric seat and very interesting.” How so? “It's a high-margin practice; everything you do is quite complex so there are no cookie-cutter deals. The matters here require a lot of knowledge about finance and structured finance especially.” (Get a head start by consulting our handy practice areas overviews on banking and finance and capital markets). Sidley's pretty tight-lipped when it comes to GFG deals, but sources here had predominantly toiled away on securitisations and debt restructuring deals. However, derivatives, insolvency, general banking and real estate finance work are also on the menu here. Client-wise, there are banks and financial institutions aplenty, with big names like Apollo, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank and Man Group making an appearance on the list. Undertaking due diligence (“not a dream activity,” one source grumbled) dominates the days of the five or so trainees sat here at any one time. A considerable amount of document management also fills the hours – especially as a deal closes – though interviewees did have the chance to review contracts and draft notices as well.
GFG also houses a real estate team with its own trainee (though this rookie can jump onto broader finance matters when GFG needs some extra manpower). Investors with real estate leanings – like Invel and Globalworth – dominate the client books, as well as asset management companies like Cairn Capital and Och-Ziff Capital Management. Real estate trainees often lend a hand with corporate support work, by researching “things like stamp duty land tax” and tackling that inescapable due diligence.
The corporate team's deals tend to be high-value and cross-border. One recent matter saw the team liaise with counsel in France, Germany, Jersey, Luxembourg and Sweden: together they helped to create a €4 billion joint venture for Swedish pension funds Första AP-Fonden and Andra AP-Fonden, which will invest in commercial property. Most of the “big, chunky transactions” trainees get involved in are M&A deals. The department assists both buyers and sellers: it recently advised Heineken on its purchase of a 57.9% stake in Jamaican brewer Desnoes & Geddes, as well as the Bank of Cyprus as it sold its investment in an open-ended fund to Dorchester Capital for €84 million. “The team has a reputation for giving trainees a broad range of experience,” one interviewee told us. “I've encountered everything from due diligence to contract reviews to bits and pieces of legal research. As transactions advanced a bit I was drafting ancillaries and negotiating some of the smaller transaction documents.”
Fun fact: the Obamas met at Sidley in Chicago when Barack was a summer intern.
If you like your M&A to have a risk-themed bent – and who doesn't these days? – a stint in insurance might be worth a whirl. Sources working on these matters found themselves drafting scheme summaries and answering client questions on the insurance aspects of these transactions. Virginia-headquartered client Genworth Financial has been keeping lawyers busy of late: they advised it on the $490 million sale of its lifestyle protection insurance business to AXA, as well as the $55 million disposal of its European mortgage insurance business to AmTrust. The team's scope extends beyond M&A: they're also dab hands when it comes to advising insurers on regulatory issues, reinsurance matters and longevity swaps – a scheme which offsets the risks posed to pension schemes by the simple fact that pensioners are living longer. The petite employment team (there are only two lawyers here) also supports corporate transactions. However, a seat here can take an advisory turn, allowing trainees to research and draft memos for clients. “Employment-specific matters,” like redundancy or harassment claims, are topped off with “a tiny bit of pensions work.”
Mapping it out
Sidley's financial services regulatory team advises on compliance with regards to securitisation deals, investment funds, mortgages, anti-money laundering and financial sanctions. Financial services outfit Western Union recently came to the group for advice on upcoming changes to EU and UK securities regulations, particularly those tied to the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive (MiFID), which was put in place to increase consumer protection and competition between investment services. The department also “supports teams like global finance, tax and corporate by reviewing transaction documents; it's good as you get a mix of matters directly from within the group and from other departments, so you work with loads of people across the office.” And around the globe it seems, as trainees regularly reached out to local counsel “to ask whether or not certain things are relevant in their jurisdiction. I was contacting foreign counsel in places I'd never even heard of!” As well as broadening their knowledge of far-flung locations, sources completed “a lot of discrete research tasks for international clients that wanted information on EU law.”
Over in dispute resolution, trainees keep their finance hats on as many of the wrangles touch upon the worlds of structured finance, derivatives and insolvency. The group recently represented Icelandic bank Kaupthing during a dispute over the division of £130 million that was held by its (now liquidated) subsidiary, Murray Holdings. Expect plenty of cross-border matters here – including several offshore cases: one involved two Russian businessmen – Mikhail Abyzov and Viktor Vekselberg – and their incorporated companies in the Bahamas, Cyprus, Panama and the British Virgin Islands, as they fought over an oral joint venture agreement.
This flurry of cross-border deals and cases does have an effect on trainees' daily routines. “You can wait until 4pm to receive an email from a colleague in the US who needs something back by 5pm their time,” one trainee revealed. “Conference calls can take place as late as 10pm because you're working with colleagues in China and the US and that's the only time everyone can make.” Add a hectic workload to the mix and trainees stay in the office for the long haul: “When you're busy, especially in a smaller group, you can consistently be leaving between 9pm and 11pm on a regular basis.” 8pm exits were rated as “a fairly good night” by several interviewees, but trainees were also keen to point out that “if you've done what needs to be done, people are happy for you to leave at 5.30pm or 6pm. If not, you're expected to stay until it's finished, even if that means you're still there at 2am.”
“It's like we have an American big brother.”
“Everyone acknowledges that we're here to do a serious job, so the office atmosphere can reflect that,” said one trainee of Sidley's culture, “but at the same time there are a lot of warm and friendly people. We are actually allowed to have fun!” Others flagged the firm's “relaxed dress code” and relatively flat hierarchy – both of which they put down to Sidley's stateside roots. Pay is also in line with the other US big spenders (NQs get a not-so-shabby £100k), but are there any other American imports? “Not really. I was really surprised,” admitted one interviewee. “You hear a lot about US firms being very individualistic with everyone watching their back, but we all get along.”
When it comes to the relationship between London and the US network, “it's like we have an American big brother; he's not controlling you but he has your back.” So the siblings are relatively close? “We certainly don't feel like a remote outpost of an American firm,” one source mused. “But overall the US influence is probably more noticeable the higher up you go – as a trainee it's not that visible.” Another told us: “Occasionally you see the odd thing that's very American – like our massive Halloween party. The partners bring their children into work, but the trainees end up having more fun than the kids. At one point I had a python draped around my neck!” A python what now? “The conference rooms are turned into petting zoos,” another source helpfully explained, with all the, er, usual cute, cuddly critters: “They set up a falconry room, a reptile room, and a creepy-crawly room with tarantulas.” The faint of heart can always stick to areas adhering to the party's main theme: last year's was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. On a more formal note, trainees also mentioned the firm's annual summer party which takes place on Sidley's roof terrace, as well as the “fantastic Christmas dinner, which is always a glittery affair.”
So, is the qualification process a cause for a champagne celebration or more of a Halloween-esque fright fest? “Judging from previous years I think the firm tries to take on as many as they can, so I'm feeling positive about the whole process,” was one typical second-year response. Looking back over recent qualification rounds, it's true that the majority are kept on: eight of 11 qualifiers stayed in 2015, while seven of nine did the year before. A jobs list is usually released in April; trainees can then apply for as many positions as they like, and face an interview for each. In 2016, Sidley maintained its good track record by retaining ten of 11 second-years.
Sidley's keen to expand its trainee cohort: the firm's now looking to take on 12 new starters a year, up from the ten it has traditionally recruited.
How to get a Sidley Austin training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2016/7): 7 November 2016 (winter); 31 January 2017 (spring and summer)
Training contract deadline (2019): 31 July 2017
*Sidley's currently in the process of reviewing its application process so some of the areas outlined below may change in the future. We'll bring you any updates once they've been confirmed by the firm.
Sidley representatives attended seven law fairs in 2016: King's College London, UCL, LSE, Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol and Nottingham. Note that the firm considers applicants from a broader range of universities than these, so don't be put off if yours doesn't appear on the list. The firm also now organises open days in March and June.
Applications and assessments
The firm launched a vacation scheme in summer 2013 and now receives around 500 applications for it each year, on top of the 300 it generally gets from candidates gunning straight for a training contract. Sidley tends to recruit the majority of its trainee intake from the vac scheme.
The initial online form is similar for both and sets out to assess candidates' commercial awareness and problem-solving skills. The form includes a question asking applicants to describe a recent commercial issue. A graduate recruitment source tells us this is “the first question I look at when short-listing candidates – it's a very telling question, as it reveals what interests applicants have and speaks to elements of their personality.”
Aspiring recruits need a high 2:1 degree with consistently good grades throughout. The firm also pays a lot of attention to A level results, though it keeps an open mind on the work experience front. “This doesn't have to be legal experience,” confirms our source, telling us “it's actually refreshing to see non-legal work experience on the form. It's particularly impressive to see someone who has thrived academically while also holding down a part-time job.” Tying these experiences and the skills acquired from them to the realities of a job in a City firm is a must.
Those who impress on paper – both vac scheme and training contract applicants – are invited to attend an hour-long interview with two partners, followed by a coffee with an associate. The latter, our graduate recruitment source explains, is “an opportunity for candidates to get more of the low-down on the firm and ask questions they didn't want to pose to a partner.”
“We can see from their application form that shortlisted candidates have excelled academically,” our source tells us, “so the next part of the selection process provides us with an opportunity to test their intellect and find out more about the individual and their personality.” Candidates are given each interviewing partner's CV beforehand. We suggest using this as a tool to stimulate conversation and make the interview a two-way exchange.
Ultimately, it's “the subtle things” that are scrutinised during the interview, we're told – for example, whether someone is confident or over-confident, and whether they could hold their own with clients. “They asked me some professional conduct-type questions to see how I'd deal with certain situations,” recalled a current trainee. “It's about seeing how you react under pressure.”
Partners are also likely to raise questions involving the economy and the latest financial news. “They want to see that a candidate has their own thoughts and isn't swayed automatically by what they as partners are saying,” our source reveals. “We're not looking for 'yes' people in that sense; it's always good to have a debate.”
Interviewees aren't expected to be an expert on the inner workings of Sidley's practice areas, but they do need to demonstrate a sound understanding of the firm's work, clients, and recent matters to impress.
In 2015/16, the firm decided to run a winter and a spring scheme on top of its usual three two-week summer schemes. Each scheme has space for nine candidates and participants spend each week in a different department.
“We try to make it into a mini training contract and cram as much in as we can,” the firm tells us. In between live work, vac schemers attend briefings from partners and a few social events, including Sidley's Christmas or summer parties.
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Sidley Austin LLP
25 Basinghall Street,
- Partners 44
- Other fee earners 70+
- Total trainees 20
- Contact Nicole Katz, graduate recruitment advisor
- Method of application Apply online at www.sidley.com
- Selection procedure Interview and verbal reasoning test
- Closing date for 2019 31 July 2017
- Training contracts pa 12
- Applications pa 600
- % interviewed pa 15
- Required degree grade 2:1
- Training salary (2015)
- First year: £44,000
- Second year: £48,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- % of trainees with a non-law degree pa 50%
- Overseas offices Beijing, Boston, Brussels, Century City, Chicago, Dallas, Geneva, Hong Kong, Houston, Los Angeles, Munich, New York, Palo Alto, San Francisco, Shanghai, Singapore, Sydney, Tokyo, Washington DC
Main areas of work
Sponsorship and awards
Sidley Austin LLP, a Delaware limited liability partnership which operates at the firm’s offices other than Chicago, London, Hong Kong, Singapore and Sydney, is affiliated with other partnerships, including Sidley Austin LLP, an Illinois limited liability partnership (Chicago); Sidley Austin LLP, a separate Delaware limited liability partnership (London); Sidley Austin LLP, a separate Delaware limited liability partnership (Singapore); Sidley Austin, a New York general partnership (Hong Kong); Sidley Austin, a Delaware general partnership of registered foreign lawyers restricted to practising foreign law (Sydney); and Sidley Austin Nishikawa Foreign Law Joint Enterprise (Tokyo). The affiliated partnerships are referred to herein collectively as Sidley Austin, Sidley, or the firm.