A&O Shearman - True Picture

With a major merger in the bag, which magic circle firm is shaking up the banking & finance status quo? A&O Shearman.

A&O Shearman training contract review 2024

The Firm

Is there anything more exciting than the news of a law firm merger? Forget Taylor’s Eras tour or any dreams you had of winning the World Cup – in 2023, Allen & Overy broke the (legal) internet when it announced it would be merging with Shearman & Sterling to create a transatlantic titan that’s now known as A&O Shearman. The gigantic £2.7 billion deal will make it the biggest law firm merger in over a decade, and significantly propel A&O’s reach in the US, which has long been a target for growth for the magic circle firm. As a name that carries a lot of weight in project finance and the banking world, Wall Street firm Shearman & Sterling was a prudent choice of firm for A&O to partner with. 

Given that A&O is one of the most prestigious firms in the UK, the union isn’t going to materially change its practice in London, which sits at the heart of its international network of 40 offices. Of the firm’s 6,000 global headcount, about a third of lawyers are based in the UK, mostly in the London HQ (there’s also an office in Belfast). That includes about 80 trainees a year.

“A very prestigious firm.”

“As a prospective trainee, I knew that A&O was sat in the magic circle and a very prestigious firm, which was quite nerve-racking at the time!” one source recalled, “but I wanted a broad range of choice from my training contract.” Seat options at A&O cover everything from corporate and real estate to employment and litigation, but there’s little doubt that banking & finance is the firm’s specialty. The firm bags top-tier Chambers UK rankings for its banking & finance (lenders and borrowers) work, capital markets (debt and equity), and corporate M&A in the capital. Oh, and there’s a top ranking for investor representation nationally too.

The Seats

Seat allocation is always a tricky business. But to make things a little easier, A&O has its own app – RUTH– which allows trainees to rate each of the departments that interest them on a scale of 1–10: “It puts you into the algorithm and then spits out the result, but the firm will balance that with business need too.” New starters attend a seat fair prior to starting that provides an overview of each of the seat options, but the general consensus was that it was a good idea to reach out to people early. “I went round and spoke to people, and I made it clear that I had done that in my preferences chart,” one trainee told us, “I would certainly recommend doing that.”

As a trainee, you can expect to spend at least two seats of the training contract in one of A&O’s core transactional practices, which include banking, corporate, and international capital markets (ICM). Yet as the current cohort were quick to point out, “most seats at A&O will fall within the remit of those three groups anyway.” For those that don’t complete a litigation seat (either employment, intellectual property, litigation & investigations, or arbitration) the required contentious experience will be picked up via a litigation course run by Nottingham Law School, alongside participation in legal advice clinics.

“Everyone wants to do New York!”

For trainees in London, secondment opportunities come around in your fourth seat, but it’s a competitive process. “International secondments are based largely on performance reviews,” one trainee explained, whereby “you get a grade for each of the departments you’ve sat in, and essentially they will look at those and the people with the best scores get the first pick.” But whether it’s client secondments to banks and fintech companies in London, or international seats that have included New York, Milan and Paris, “there’s a wide breadth of opportunities. But be prepared – everyone wants to do New York!” There's word too that international secondment options will increase with the merger, so watch this space.

As one of A&O’s core transactional practices, corporate is an inevitable destination for many trainees at the firm. Given the size of both the firm and the practice, the corporate team is split into mergers & acquisitions, equity capital markets and venture capital/tech. On the capital markets side of things, A&O’s corporate team advises on a range of equity transactions and financing structures, including initial public offerings (IPOs), rights issues, secondary offerings and private placements. There’s a host of household names among the firm’s client list too, from TUI to Virgin Active to Empower. In one recent IPO, the firm advised the Israeli conglomerate Delek Group on its £2.5 billion listing of oil and gas exploration and production company Ithaca Energy on the London Stock Exchange. “The day to day on the equity capital markets side would be looking at annual reports of the companies that we were working for, and drafting ancillary documents like board resolutions and shareholder agreements,” one source told us. There were positive comments too regarding the environment that trainees were a part of in capital markets: “The team is at the cutting edge in terms of the products that they are dealing with. It’s a fast-paced environment to be in.”

Another of the core departments that works closely with the capital markets team at A&O is banking. One of the firm’s largest departments, the banking group (at the risk of stating the obvious) “predominantly work with banks, but we also work with clients like airlines on the financing of aircraft and ships – tangible assets.” The firm is also known for its strength in areas like leveraged finance and emerging ESG. As you might expect, the banks that A&O have worked with include just about every big name you can think of. On the borrower side, the team acted for a Danish audio manufacturer on a €520 million loan. For trainees, “there’s a lot of precedent-based drafting and a reasonable amount of project management,” one recalled. “Depending on what stage of your training contract you are at, the drafting can be a case of making a start and seeing how you get on, but I’ve got much more as I’ve got used to systems.”

As we’ve mentioned, A&O’s banking and finance focus underpins a number of the practice groups at the firm, and litigation is no different. The department has particular strength in banking and finance litigation, be it disputes or investigations, but there is plenty of variety in the day to day. “I’ve had an opportunity to work on both the litigation and the investigation side,” one trainee told us. “Investigations are where companies are potentially going to be investigated by the regulator, so our role in that is to liaise with that regulator and respond to letters etc.” The nature of the work depends in large part on “the client and what exactly has happened. There might be sexual allegations, there could be fraud – there’s a huge range.”

“A lot of trainee work in the seat revolves around what we call ‘new money’…”

Spread across the firm’s 40-office network, the restructuring & insolvency department at A&O is one of its biggest. With such a multinational team, cross-border work more or less comes with the territory, which means trainees will get exposure to both deals and clients with an international flavour. “A lot of the clients we work with are your standard big bank or multinational company that needs a loan,” one source put it plainly. “On the company side, it was a lot of legal research. In restructuring, it’s a lot more bespoke and less precedent-based, so I was really challenged there.” In fact, the firm works with banks, corporate clients and government institutions on everything from debt restructuring and contingency planning to distressed acquisitions and formal insolvency proceedings. “A lot of trainee work in the seat revolves around what we call ‘new money’, which is an offshoot of leveraged finance,” one source explained. “There’s a lot of the same sort of work that you would get as a trainee in leveraged finance, but more of the actual drafting work, alongside client calls and meetings.” One recent matter saw the team advise finance company Greensill on issues surrounding its administration in 2021.

“Whatever you want to do in law, employmentcan be a good place to start,” one trainee remarked. “A lot of what I have worked on in employment is about protecting employees from racial or sexual discrimination situations further down the line, whether that’s by drafting employment contracts, or advising HR on related policies and things like that.” And there’s no doubt about it, trainees in employment can expect variety. Forming an important part of a full-service offering to corporate clients, the employment team works closely with and trains alongside groups in corporate, regulatory, IP and data protection. On the employer side, client names include Google and Swansea University. In one recent employment case, the firm advised GSK in a High Court case brought by AstraZeneca over GSK’s hire of AstraZeneca’s former head of investor relations. The case revolved around whether the non-compete agreement with AZ prevented Dr Chris Sheldon from commencing employment until a later date.

Trainee Life

As a general rule, trainees are required to be in the office three days a week, but there are plenty that come in more often to take advantage of the firm’s resources and training. “If you are in a team that is more black-letter law heavy, you’ll have a lot more updates on case law, and those are sessions that the whole team will go to,” one recalled, “where there is less of a focus on black-letter law, there will be less of that. But we do also have lunchtime seminars where junior associates or partners will talk about market trends or news items which are really helpful check-in points.”

The firm also has a REACH buddy system, through which “trainees from minority ethnic backgrounds can partner up with associates across the firm once a month,” one told us, “just for a catch-up and a check-in.” One of the consistent themes among our conversations with trainees was that making the most of your supervisor as a resource was essential: “You HAVE to ask if you don’t understand things. The assumption at an associate level is that you know what you’re doing, so make the most of being able to ask questions.”

“Two rooftop terraces and two cafés… as well as a gym downstairs.”

“The offices themselves are really nice,” one trainee was quick to point out. Located off Spitalfields, the shiny HQ comes “with two rooftop terraces and two cafés where you can buy food at subsidised prices, as well as a gym downstairs that we have free access to.” For trainees that are working late, meals and taxis home will be covered by the firm too.

Working late is probably something that prospective trainees will need to wrap their heads around, with hours at A&O slightly higher than the market average according to our survey. “I would say a usual finish time would average out at around 7pm,” one told us, “but there are peaks and troughs. I have left at the upper end of midnight a few times.” To balance this, however, trainees were unanimous that late nights never came unexpectedly. As one source put it, “It’s quite rare to have a bad day that you don’t expect, and it makes it much easier when you know they are coming. It hasn’t been unpredictable.”

Salary-wise, “there’s a lot of talk in the market about US vs UK salaries,” one commented. “The starting salary is £50,000 as a trainee, which is obviously great compared to other professions – and they recently increased our NQ salary from £107,000 to £125,000 – but they didn’t raise the trainee salary.”

The effort the firm puts into its structured training contract has undoubtedly paid off. In fact, 100% of our survey respondents indicated that they hoped to remain at the firm beyond qualification. “Qualification is quite an informal process. You put in indicative bids, which is followed by the release of a vacancy list, before you put in final bids,” one second year explained. “At that point, people would have a conversation if you weren’t going to get a particular seat. There is a possibility that you’ll interview if it’s a really competitive seat, but not generally.” Building your profile and having conversations with the relevant departments is a must. In 2023, A&O retained 71 of 79 qualifiers.

Allen & Over the line? Mergers this size take time – so much so that A&O and Shearman launched a website (announcingaoss.com) about the union before it becomes official. Read more about the merger here.

How to get an A&O Shearman training contract

Training contract application deadline: 17 November 2023

Vacation scheme application deadline: 22 September [winter]; 27 October [summer]


First things first, you probably need to come to terms with the fact that competition for places on the training contract at A&O Shearman is pretty stiff – the firm receives around 4,000 applications a year across the vacation scheme and direct training contract route. Rather than submitting a CV and cover letter, applicants must complete an online application form, where there is room to show off things like part-time work experience: “We value proactivity in finding out more about the legal industry through attending events, online work experience modules, and taking on roles of responsibility at university,” early careers recruitment manager Charlie King tells us.

King also highlights that the firm has put in a big recruitment drive across the country, with a particular focus: “We work with partnerships and use geo-targeting to ensure we’re reaching social mobility cold spots across the UK,” King adds. “We have also widened the pool of universities we target to include non-Russell Group universities with high diverse populations across the UK.”

Interviews & Assessment

The firm runs a virtual assessment centre for successful applicants (all with the goal of whittling down the candidates to the firm’s target of around 80 hires by the end of the process). As King points out, the tasks the successful candidates will need to navigate at the assessment centre stage are as follows:

  • Case Study Interview with a Partner – “They will be given a fictional commercial case study 40 minutes ahead of their interview to read through and prepare their responses to some initial questions given,” King explains. “They will then spend the first 15 minutes of the interview presenting back their responses to the questions. The remaining time will be spent having a wider conversation about the case study to understand their broader commercial awareness.”
  • Written exercise – “Candidates will be given a short written task to complete which will follow on from the case study interview,” King tells us. “Candidates will be asked to write a response to a question but can use Word to type up their answer and then copy and paste into the assessment platform to assist with spelling and grammar. The suggested word count is around 500 words and this enables us to assess their written communication skills.”
  • Scenario-based interview – “Candidates will be talked through a series of hypothetical scenarios they would likely find themselves in if they were a trainee at the firm. They will be asked to talk through how they would respond, the steps they would take and things they may need to consider.”
  • As King explains, “candidates will finish their half day assessment centre with a Q&A session where they speak with current trainees about life at the firm to help them make an informed decision about whether A&O is the right environment for them.”

Candidates will then hear back with an outcome within 1–2 weeks.

The Vacation Scheme

The firm hosts 30 people for its winter vac scheme in December, and 30 for the summer in June. Applicants for the vac scheme will also need to complete an online application form outlining work and education history, followed by an interactive assessment: “The assessment will include verbal and numerical reasoning items and two short motivation questions to complete via video.” While the assessment is untimed, the general consensus is that it takes around 45 minutes to complete. There are practice questions an preparation tips available on the firm’s website. The next step is an assessment day comprising of two one-on-one interviews and a written assignment. “The first interview is based on a commercial case study, where you’ll have time to work through a brief and prepare a short presentation to deliver to your interviewer,” King explains; “this will be followed by a discussion on the key points from the case study. In the second interview, you will be asked a series of questions based on scenarios you may encounter as a trainee.”

Open Days

  • In-person Q&A sessions every Friday afternoon in the London office during recruitment season (August – January).
  • 1:1 virtual recruiter appointments on Mondays during recruitment season (August – January).
  • A&O Open Doors – a presentation evening held at the London office in October.
  • A&O Open Doors: The Virtual addition – uncapped capacity for those who are unable to travel to the office for the main presentation evening.
  • A&O Festival of Diversity – for students to find out about the firm’s DE&I strategy and employee networks, and to hear from diverse representatives at A&O.
  • A host of events with partnerships such as Bright Network, Legal Cheek, Aspiring Solicitors, etc.

A&O Shearman

This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2023

Ranked Departments

    • Banking & Finance: Borrowers: Big-Ticket (Band 1)
    • Banking & Finance: Lenders: Big-Ticket (Band 1)
    • Banking & Finance: Sponsors (Band 2)
    • Commercial and Corporate Litigation (Band 2)
    • Competition Law (Band 2)
    • Construction: Non-contentious (Band 4)
    • Corporate/M&A: £800 million and above (Band 1)
    • Employment: Employer (Band 1)
    • Environment & Climate Change (Band 2)
    • Financial Crime: Corporates (Band 2)
    • Information Technology & Outsourcing (Band 3)
    • Intellectual Property (Band 2)
    • Intellectual Property: Law Firms With Patent & Trade Mark Attorneys Spotlight
    • Intellectual Property: Patent Litigation (Band 2)
    • Pensions (Band 1)
    • Real Estate Litigation (Band 5)
    • Real Estate: £150 million and above (Band 4)
    • Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 2)
    • Tax (Band 2)
    • Administrative & Public Law: Mainly Commercial (Band 2)
    • Asset Finance: Aviation Finance (Band 1)
    • Asset Finance: Rail Finance (Band 2)
    • Asset Finance: Shipping Finance (Band 3)
    • Banking Litigation (Band 2)
    • Capital Markets: CLOs (Band 1)
    • Capital Markets: Debt (Band 1)
    • Capital Markets: Derivatives (Band 1)
    • Capital Markets: Equity (Band 1)
    • Capital Markets: High-Yield Products (Band 2)
    • Capital Markets: Securitisation (Band 1)
    • Capital Markets: Structured Products (Band 2)
    • Commodities: Trade Finance (Band 2)
    • Data Protection & Information Law (Band 3)
    • Employee Share Schemes & Incentives (Band 4)
    • Energy & Natural Resources: Oil & Gas (Band 1)
    • Energy & Natural Resources: Power (Band 1)
    • Energy & Natural Resources: Renewables & Alternative Energy (Band 1)
    • Financial Services: Contentious Regulatory (Corporates) (Band 1)
    • Financial Services: Non-contentious Regulatory (Band 1)
    • Financial Services: Payments Law (Band 1)
    • Fraud: Civil (Band 5)
    • Infrastructure (Band 1)
    • Insurance: Mainly Policyholders (Band 2)
    • Insurance: Non-contentious (Band 3)
    • International Arbitration: Commercial Arbitration (Band 2)
    • International Arbitration: Investor-State Arbitration (Band 3)
    • Investment Funds: Investor Representation (Band 1)
    • Investment Funds: Real Estate (Band 2)
    • Life Sciences: IP/Patent Litigation (Band 2)
    • Life Sciences: Transactional (Band 2)
    • Private Equity: Buyouts: £500 million and above (Band 3)
    • Projects (Band 1)
    • Projects: PFI/PPP (Band 2)
    • Public International Law (Band 3)
    • Real Estate Finance (Band 1)
    • Telecommunications (Band 2)
    • Transport: Rail: Projects & Infrastructure (Band 3)
    • Transport: Rail: Rolling Stock (Band 2)