Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP - True Picture

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"Almost everything has a multi-jurisdictional element to it" – a common statement from trainees at Cleary. But not a surprising one, given Cleary's long-held continent-crossing ambitions: it took the firm just three years after launching in the US to open its first international outpost in Paris. 'So what?' you might say, but this occurred in 1949, long before the trend for global expansion in the legal sector took hold. With this head start Cleary has built a broad international network consisting of 16 offices across Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America. Over the years handling sovereign finance has become something of a forte for the firm, especially with regards to debt: the firm assisted Greece with its €206 billion debt restructuring and bond exchange in 2012, and proved its skill again in 2016 when it handled Argentina's $16.5 billion debt offering. On the international stage, the firm is a natural competitor to the magic circle. Chambers Global places Cleary in 13th place among the most capable global firms that's above many of the US giants like Skadden and Jones Day.

"We want to continue to work on the biggest and most interesting transactions."

In London, Chambers UK especially rates Cleary's capital markets expertise, but also tips its cap to the office's banking and finance, competition, corporate M&A and litigation know-how.  “2016 was a really good year,” training principal David Billington tells us. “We benefited from lots of big M&A transactions, [like Coca-Cola's  €28 billion merger with three companies] and a booming litigation practice” – which acted for the Russian Federation during a spat over the repayment of a $3 billion Eurobond. In the months ahead, Cleary will be “continuing to build upon the success our litigation practice has witnessed,” says Billington, “while maintaining our market share in transactional areas: we want to continue to work on the biggest and most interesting transactions.” To handle such hefty matters, Cleary needs to make sure it's nabbing top talent, which is why it recently upped its NQ salary to a jaw-dropping £120,000 – matching the broader hike occurring among US firms.

Despite recently luring A&O's head of non-contentious financial services regulation, trainees can rest assured knowing that the focus is on organic growth at Cleary: “You won't be reading about us suddenly hiring 25 lawyers from a competitor, for example,” Billington quips.

Loosen up

Clearly almost exclusively hires from its vacation scheme, which gives training contract hopefuls a taste of the firm's non-departmental structure. This set-up encourages Cleary's lawyers to take a multidisciplinary approach and work across practice areas. For trainees, this means being able to go and ask for work from lawyers operating in areas outside of their current seat's remit: "There are various departments in the loosest sense of the wordbut you can end up doing anything from any seat."

However, “it's not a complete free-for-all,” sources clarified. Seats are allocated after informal mid-seat chats with HR – and via a phone call before newbies start – who "are very accommodating of your choices providing they have a narrative of logical progression behind them." We also heard that while "seats such as finance and capital markets are more fluid, there are some seats which are more delineated, like tax." There are no compulsory seats per se, “but generally everyone finds themselves doing either US or UK capital markets for six months because it's such a big team and they are always in need of trainees," one source informed us. 

"The real benefit is that you are constantly tested and challenged."

Did our interviewees like this model? Yes, for the most part: "The real benefit is that you are constantly tested and challenged. Every day is different and every deal is different; you get so much exposure to different things." However, be aware: this is a system that requires initiative and first-rate organisation skills. "You've got to be careful," an insider emphasised, "as you can be too eager to get into everything at first. You really do have to take control, which can be challenging if you can't manage your time carefully." Applicants should also note that while Cleary's lawyers inevitably devote more time to certain areas than others, specialising isn't common – especially compared to other firms which implement more structured training programmes.


Passionate about mega mergers? If so, then a stint in Cleary's corporate M&A seat could be for you. Lawyers here recently acted for New York-based merchant bank Raine as it advised Japanese telecoms biz SoftBank on its £24.3 billion acquisition of UK computer outfit ARM Holdings. The group also pooled their know-how to advise the Qatar Investment Authority – the country's 'national wealth fund' – on its role within a consortium of buyers who snapped up a 61% stake in the National Grid's gas arm, valued at £13.8 billion. “I've done my fair share of big deals,” said one source casually, “which involves a lot of organising documents, but you also get to help negotiate certain provisions within the main agreements too.” Another had spent their time drafting memorandums and “writing a report for a client after being handed the responsibility from a mid-level associate – despite only being a trainee!”

"An incredibly steep learning curve."

A seat in capital markets mixes debt and equity transactions, and comes with an "incredibly steep learning curve." As one source enthused: "I had a very large amount of responsibility and within a few weeks was running my own small projects with direct client contact." Alongside more standard activities like due diligence, other interviewees had been busy "researching the latest market abuse regulations,""assisting on a Russian shipping company's bond issuance" and "acting as the primary contact for a big banking client." As the seat "requires trainees to take on a management role,” plenty of client contact can be expected: “We're often the first line of communication with the outside!" Clients here include big hitters from the finance sphere, like HSBC, Goldman Sachs and Credit Suisse, as well as global companies (GlaxoSmithKline) and sovereign states (Russia); the group recently counselled the latter's Ministry of Finance during a $1.25 billion bond issuance. 

Over in tax the emphasis is still on multi-jurisdictional transactions, but "the nature of the work is very different," one insider explained. "It's more immersive, as you're dealing with specific issues that require special training and a lot of research. Unlike corporate seats, one assignment can be dragged over weeks." A stint here is therefore ideal for those who enjoy the academic side of the law: "It's actually quite similar to a law degree in that it involves lots of legislation analysis." Cleary's tax whizzes recently worked out all the tax intricacies tied to Barclays $790 million sale of its index benchmarking and risk analytics business to Bloomberg.

Cleary's litigators handle a range of disputes, covering – among other areas – banking, shareholder, competition and insolvency wrangles. The group recently acted for Brussels-headquartered banking group Dexia as it brought a number of derivatives-related claims against several Italian municipalities; lawyers here also counselled Sony after Microsoft brought a damages claim tied to cartel involvement in the supply of lithium ion batteries. "At the beginning I had very little responsibility," one interviewee relayed, but once up to speed trainees can be found "preparing witness statements, collating evidence, drafting pleadings and conducting legal research." This source was also pleased to add: “My supervisor was keen to involve me in discussions and by the end I was drafting our case strategy.”

“To go beyond your comfort zone.”

Those suffering from itchy feet will be happy to know that overseas seats are available on four continents. Spots in Hong Kong and New York are the most sought after, but trainees can jet off to Washington DC, Buenos Aires, Moscow, Paris and Abu Dhabi – typically in their second year.  These jaunts abroad offer "a very different experience to the London office," one Cleary jet setter emphasised. "The office I went to was much smaller – only one partner and a team of ten lawyers – so I was often treated as a junior associate.” Another felt that a spell away provided “a great opportunity to network, as you find yourself in a location with 50 other trainees all working for English and US firms.”

Despite regularly being challenged “to go beyond your comfort zone,” our insiders still felt well supported: "You never feel that you can't ask your supervisor for help with something. Plus they will only grant you as much responsibility as you can handle." Informal mid-seat chats with supervisors are followed by formal appraisals at the end of each seat: “The people you've worked with most submit feedback and you'll discuss their comments with your partner mentor and members of the graduate recruitment team.” These reviews were generally deemed useful, but some sources did lament that on occasion "they might forget to give you a mid-seat review and your end-of-seat review might happen two months into your next seat!"

Why so clearious?

If a regimented, stuffy atmosphere doesn't sit well with you, then Cleary's "relatively relaxed, non-hierarchical" approach might be a suitable alternative. "Quirky" was a word used frequently to describe the firm's culture and workforce, owing in part to its rep for being a more academic kind of place: "Our lawyers have a bit of personality and are not your typical 'lawyers.' They all have different quirks and passions." A more relaxed atmosphere translates into a more relaxed dress code: "As long as you still look smart, you can wear trousers and a jumper," one source commented. But don't fret if you have a swanky Versace outfit you've been dying to show off, as "some people still dress quite formally – you'll see full suits and ties too." On the whole, sources felt the non-departmentalised structure fostered a "collegial network throughout the firm," as "various constellations of teams are able to form."

“Various constellations of teams are able to form.”

Billington adds that “although we see ourselves as bookish and academic, we still have to be immensely commercial." Indeed, the approach to work is very hands-on: "If there’s a lot of work you have to pull your weight – and sometimes that means pulling late nights," one insider made clear. So what constitutes a late night at Cleary? “The latest I've worked is five the next morning but that’s an exception rather than the rule," yawned one interviewee, while another summarised: “The average day runs from 9.30am to 8/8.30pm, but if you're not busy you can leave at 6pm. It all depends on when the work comes in; loads can come in at 4pm, which means you can expect to work until 10pm or 11pm.” The corporate, finance and capital markets seats can be “very up and down,” but others, like tax, are “more consistent – not quiet but not crazy either!” Working long days and the odd weekend might be unavoidable, but our sources took heart knowing that "if you're slammed, your seniors are also that slammed. There's never the feeling that people pass the crap work and hours onto the trainees."

If trainees want a break from those whopping commercial matters, pro bono endeavours are on offer and actively encouraged – a common feature of US firms in London. This source told us: “There are no targets and it's not forced on you. If you have an idea that you want to pursue then they'll encourage you to do it, so I've been helping to set up different charities.” Others had worked on refugee resettlement projects and helped at free legal advice clinics for women.

With qualification approaching, our sources were expecting an informal process: "You just sit down for a chat with HR and the head of the department in which you'd like to qualify. Unless they have a problem with you, the idea is to keep all the trainees on." Historically robust retention rates boosted our interviewees' confidence, and they were right to feel that way as all eight qualifiers were kept on in 2017.

A brand spanking new office awaits the next generation of Cleary comrades: the firm will move into 2 London Wall Place by the end of 2017.


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How to get a Cleary Gottlieb training contract


Vacation scheme deadline (2018): 3 November 2017 (winter), 19 January 2018 (spring and summer)

Training contract deadline (2020): 31 July 2018

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

2 London Wall Place,

  • Partners: 193 (21 in London)
  • Total staff 2,500 (200 in London)
  • Total trainees 27
  • Contact  
  • Graduate recruiter: Claire Astbury
  • Application criteria 
  • Training contracts pa: 15-20
  • Minimum required degree: High 2:1
  • Dates and deadlines  
  • Training contract applications open: 1 February 18
  • Training contract deadline: 31 July 2018
  • Winter vacation scheme applications open: 1 October 2017
  • Winter scheme deadline: 3 November 2017
  • Spring/summer vacation scheme applications open: 1 October 2017
  • Spring/summer scheme deadline: 28 February 2018
  • Salary and benefits 
  • First year: £48,000
  • Second year: £52,000
  • Post-qualification salary: £120,000
  • Holiday entitlement: 25 days
  • Sponsorship 
  • LPC fees: Yes
  • GDL fees: Yes
  • Maintenance grant pa: £8,000
  • International and regional 
  • Overseas office: New York, Washington DC, Paris, Brussels, Moscow, Frankfurt, Cologne, Rome, Milan, Hong Kong, Beijing, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, Abu Dhabi and Seoul

Firm profile

Pioneers in the globalisation of the legal profession, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP is a leading international law firm with 16 integrated offices located in major financial and political centres around the world. The firm operates as a single global partnership. Consistent with the vision of its founders, Cleary remains committed to openness, diversity, individuality and collaboration.

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, Cleary has established successful self-standing practices in tax, financial regulation, and intellectual property and information technology.

Trainee opportunities

We do not believe in a ‘one size fits all’ training solution. By recruiting 15 to 20 trainees each year, we are able to offer training that is tailored to each trainee’s interests, experience and aptitudes. Nor do we believe that the transition from trainee solicitor to associate occurs overnight on qualification. So, we encourage our trainees to take responsibility as soon as they are ready to do so. Given appropriate levels of supervision and support, trainees operate as lawyers from the day they join us.

Work experience

The firm’s London office offers around 48 vacation places each year across four schemes: one in winter, one in spring, and two in summer. Cleary actively encourages all candidates who 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 3 November. The deadline for spring and summer vacation scheme applications is 28 January.

Other benefits

5% employer pension contribution, 25 days’ 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, cycle to work scheme and subsidised staff restaurant.

Open days and first year opportunities

First year insight day in spring 2018.

University law careers fairs 2017

• Cambridge
• Bristol
• Durham
• Exeter
• King’s College London
• London School of Economics
• Oxford
• Queen Mary University of London
• University College London

This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2017

Ranked Departments

    • Banking & Finance: Borrowers (Band 4)
    • Banking & Finance: Sponsors (Band 3)
    • Banking Litigation (Band 3)
    • Capital Markets: Debt (Band 3)
    • Capital Markets: Equity (Band 3)
    • Competition Law (Band 5)
    • Corporate/M&A: High-end Capability (Band 3)
    • Litigation (Band 5)
    • Tax Recognised Practitioner
    • Private Equity: Buyouts: High-end Capability (Band 3)