Sidley is an international heavyweight with a compact London operation.
Talented Mr Sidley
Despite its relatively modest London operation, Sidley is no small fry. In fact, the firm boasts a nearly 2,000-strong army of lawyers scattered across 20 offices worldwide – constituting a global practice on which the sun never sets. Sidley's gargantuan reach belies a firm with a pragmatic and flexible approach to doing business. It is an ethos that wouldn't seem at odds with the firm's most famous son, Barack Obama. In fact, it was at Sidley's Chicago HQ that a young summer associate named Barack first came across a whip-smart attorney called Michelle; and the rest, as they say, is history. It's posterity that the firm has its eyes on, with a shrewd fiscal policy that means it can proudly boast of “zero debts,” something trainee sources described as a “real fillip: you know they manage things well and that the firm will be around for a long time; it just provides that extra security.”
While Sidley's US practice is renowned for its litigious – and especially its appellate – work, its London office is “heavily tended towards structured finance.” Indeed, Chambers UK recognises the firm's financial wizardry, awarding it high rankings for its capital markets, restructuring, investment funds and other financial services work. Sidley's finance team – known as GFG (global finance group) – exerts such a draw that in March 2016 it managed to tempt a six-strong team of private equity partners over from rival Chicagoan Kirkland & Ellis, “bringing a whole team with them.” This bolstered Sidley's financial clout but also created a new work stream for the firm's trainees. Not that it's changed the names on the seat list – which are still: capital markets; corporate; competition; employment; disputes; funds; the aforementioned GFG; insolvency; insurance; regulatory; and tax. It's just that now trainees can specify whether they want to do straight GFG or corporate, or the private equity versions of those seats.
"You know they manage things well and that the firm will be around for a long time."
Before they choose their first homes, all trainees will have passed through an accelerated LPC in Holborn, paid for by the firm. Speedy learning can be strenuous, but the fact that all new starters have six months together before joining means “we're all really good mates by the time we start.” A couple of weeks before their first day, newbies submit their top three preferences for their first seat, a process that is completed three months before every rotation. HR “prioritise second years” but sources insisted “most people get choices that were in their top three.” Corporate is the biggest department, taking up to five trainees at a time, and is therefore the first port-of-call for many. Deals tend to be high-value and cross-border – the best kind – even though a lot of the clients are UK-based. This ambidexterity is exemplified by one of the team's biggest clients, the Bank of Cyprus, whom in November 2016 Sidley represented as it de-listed from the Athens Stock Exchange and moved its listing to London. Though corporate is made up of specialist lawyers – apart from private equity – it's pretty free-market in terms of assignment: “In my M&A seat a big restructuring came in and I asked to be involved and it was fine.” Sources reported an incremental growth in responsibility – “initially you are mostly proof-reading, getting introduced to deals. Then you'll be drafting ancillary documents and liaising with Companies House; and then drafting board minutes and sale-and-purchase agreements.”
Going for gold
GFG is a similar size to corporate and also takes around four or five trainees at a time. As well as the private equity niche, you can also find the real estate group sitting here, and it's also an option for the training contract. Like corporate, there's a variety of work going round, and high autonomy means trainees can tailor their experience. Also, unlike the other departments, GFG has recently introduced a capacity form to monitor trainees' workloads – “you fill in how busy you are at the start of every week and that way no one's assigned work when they're already overloaded.” As with the whole training contract, trainees were under no illusions about the volume of that work – “I wouldn't have applied to Sidley if I wasn't prepared to work hard, and boy do we work hard.” In GFG this entails a lot of project management, “contacting the other side of a deal and managing those aspects that are time-sensitive.” Again, responsibility levels are high, as they are in all of the transactional seats – “client interaction is very different to how it is in advisory seats. It's much more upfront: you'll be emailing clients almost everyday.” GFG trainees get a lot of jaw-jaw, “you'll be the one talking to Moody's and the banks” about a deal. In July 2016, the team worked on one of the largest leveraged debt repricings of the year, the €1.2 billion repricing of Austrian packaging manufacturers Constantia Flexibles' debt.
Sidley's regulatory team is huge in the US but much smaller in London. Perhaps that goes some way to explaining why trainees are expected to “hit the ground sprinting.” The reg team is “notoriously busy,” though sources insisted this was “in a good way – I've probably learnt more in six months here than in any other seat.” It's fairly unique in that nearly all of its work comes from other departments, though that said, it does have its own clients, usually payment service providers or asset and investment managers. Because it's relatively small and its lawyers are required to assist other practices, the team has a number of highly specialised fee-earners: “I worked a lot with an associate who was well-versed in anti money-laundering stuff and so helped the competition team out regularly. The reg team really does have its fingers in a lot of pies.” The team recently worked on the Chicago Board Options Exchange's $3.2 billion acquisition of Kansas-based equity exchange Bats Global Markets, which has an office in London. On another deal, one source ended up “liaising directly with a company director: people really just let you get one with it.” Another interviewee concurred: “I wrote an article that was published under my name!”
Oh behave, Austin
Sidley trainees' experiences aren't restricted to these shores. At every rotation there's the opportunity to jet over to Hong Kong for six months. The seat changes between finance and disputes and is usually contested by three or four trainees – “there's a slight evaluation when they decide whether they think you'd get on well in Hong Kong, and they take into consideration whether it's related to the seats you've done before.” There's also the opportunity to spend three months of a competition seat in Brussels. Sources felt the fair way secondments are allocated is indicative of Sidley's good culture, which they were effusive generally about. “It sounds super cheesy, but everyone's just really nice,” said one. “It's strange to see people with their doors closed,” observed another. As mentioned previously, there's no getting away from the fact that hours at Sidley aren't for the faint-hearted. The corporate seat came in for the most amount of ire – “about half of my weekends were spent in the office.” However, many of those we spoke to felt that the hours thing at American firms was “slightly exaggerated,” and that anyway “Sidley eschews this convention. If you have plans, people try and accommodate." Conversely, “they will boot you out if you don't need to be there.”
"There are owl rooms, reptile rooms, bouncy castles, and all the partners and associates bring their kids.”
Pastoral care came in for heaps of praise. The firm has recently put considerable effort into growing its HR team and “they're taking a much more active role in employee welfare – there's a newsletter for mothers and one on how to handle stress. We also have healthcare coverage that includes mental health, and there's also a masseuse that comes in every week.” And if all of that doesn't rub you up the right way, Sidley's social scene is second to none. Brace yourself for a looong list... “There's drinks, talks and lunches all the time. But there's also more organised stuff like cooking classes and pizza parties.” There's also “an annual ski trip and sailing trip, and then there are sports teams (football, cricket and softball) and various marathons.” You want more? OK, there are also “dress down Fridays, a bake sale, and every year we do the Tour de Law – last year we came second!" But wait, we haven't mentioned the jewel in the firm's diamond-encrusted social crown: the Hallowe'en party. This is no sheets-and-plastic-pumpkins affair, its an all-out extravaghoulanza – “they dress up the whole sixth floor and there are owl rooms, reptile rooms, bouncy castles, and all the partners and associates bring their kids.”
But trainees weren't scared about their job prospects at the end of it all. Most were of the view that “it is a significant investment on the firm's part and they tell you that they do it with the intention of keeping you for the long-term.” This, coupled with the fact that “retention rates are historically very high,” unsurprisingly spread good-vibes amongst the class. A jobs list is released mid-April and then you “get together your CV and your previous appraisals” and send them to the departments that you want to apply to.
In 2017 the firm retained seven of its eight qualifiers as NQs.
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How to get a Sidley Austin training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2017/18): 7 November 2017 (winter); 31 January 2018 (spring and summer) (opens 1 October 2017)
Training contract deadline (2020): 20 July 2018 (opens 1 November 2017)
Sidley's currently in the process of reviewing its application process so some of the processes outlined below may change in the near 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 1,000 applications for it each year, on top of the 400 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 routes and sets out to assess candidates' commercial awareness, academic record and work experience. 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 shortlisting 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 recruiter 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 and the graduate recruitment manager.
“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.
Since 2015/16, the firm has run a winter and 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.
Sidley Austin LLP
25 Basinghall Street,
- Partners 47
- Other fee earners 90+
- Total trainees 22
- UK offices London
- Overseas offices 20 (including London)
- Contact Graduate recruiter: Nicole Katz, graduate recruitment manager, [email protected]
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 12
- Applications pa: 1,000
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Minimum A levels: AAA
- Vacation scheme places pa: 45
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: 22 July 2018
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 October 2017
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 6 November 2017 (winter) and 31January 2018 (spring/summer)
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: TBD
- Second-year salary: TBD
- Post-qualification salary: £120,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25
- LPC fees: yes
- GDL fees: yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £7,000
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London
- Overseas seats: Hong Kong, Brussels, Geneva
Main areas of work
Open days and first-year opportunities
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.