Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP - True Picture

If you wish to be a “global citizen” in a friendly and “stratospherically intelligent” environment, look no further than cheery Cleary.

Cleary Gottlieb training contract review 2021

The Firm

When you think of New York’s international white shoe elite – and Cleary are very much one of them – it’s unlikely that ‘friendly’ will be the first word in your mind. A network of 16 international offices doing billion-dollar work all over the globe, employing the skills of attorneys from over 50 countries… it sounds vast, perhaps intimidating. Yet trainees in Cleary’s London base described it as “the best of all worlds, you don’t have to sacrifice personality to work here.” Once upon a time, in fact, Friendly was legitimately this firm’s middle name – Henry Friendly was one of the founders of Cleary, Gottlieb, Friendly, & Cox.

“It’s common for people here to have an international background or at least an interest,” we heard. “At least half the most recent intake has had a lot of foreign exposure, lived abroad, or have come from overseas.” Trainees loved their internationally diverse cohort: “You’re exposed to different cultures and perspectives, which has really opened my eyes to how the world operates. It makes me feel like a global citizen.” Cleary is ranked in Chambers Global as top worldwide in capital markets and competition/antitrust, and it’s highly commended for dispute resolution, corporate/M&A and tax among other fields. As for fair Blighty, the team in London earns Chambers UK rankings for high-end private equity buyouts, capital markets, banking litigation, competition and big-ticket corporate – all of which often have a strong international dimension.

“…impressed by the people here. They’re stratospherically intelligent!” 

Looking around their cohort, trainees were “unbelievably impressed by the people here. They’re stratospherically intelligent!” Cleary clearly looks in certain places to find boffins: “Almost exclusively from private schools. Oxbridge alumni are about 70% of each intake.” At the time of our calls, the split was 60% Oxbridge and from September 2020 it will be 52%. High-achieving Russell Group universities tend to supply the rest; some felt this “seems unfair” but rationalised the situation by pointing out that “this salary package attracts a lot of applicants from top unis, so the applications are skewed.” The pay package certainly is impressive – Cleary once boasted the highest NQ salary at £120,000, though a handful of firms have since outdone them. “It’s quite competitive… it’s comparable to the salary of first-year juniors in the US, so it makes sense for us,”trainees said.

The buzzword at Cleary was “flex”– trainees used it as a summary for “freedom, flexibility and independent thought” at the firm. Trainees in one seat may be “flexed” to help out on a matter in another department, “getting insights into a practice area without even sitting there.” It’s also common for trainees to “continue matters from your first seat through your entire training contract, from various angles. It’s a more organic way of learning.” A vast international network combined with a “flexible” training contract gives trainees “a bird’s eye view of the entire market,”while the ability to move around the firm gave sources the impression of “making a rich and unique contribution to Cleary from day one. It might sound kitsch, but it’s true!” The seat allocation process is “very informal. You chat with HR at the halfway point of your seat and give them a list of where you’d want to go next and why.”There are no compulsory seats, though almost all trainees do one of capital markets, finance or M&A.

The Seats

“Here in Clearyland,capital markets isn’t a siloed team,”trainees said. “You can see the whole range from shelf takedowns and debt matters to annual reports for multinational banks and corporations.” This theme park of a practice includes emerging markets, US and European debt and equity offerings – to give you an idea of the money being thrown around, Cleary recently advised Credit Suisse on issuing $6.25 billion in notes over multiple transactions; HSBC on the issuance of $7.25 billion of note offerings total; and acted on the $6 billion IPO of Scandinavian media group Schibsted’s Adevinta. Massive deals mean trainees typically get stuck into “unglamorous”due diligence. Insiders revealed that Cleary recently trialled AI software to streamline the process, “which can work really well, but you’ve still got to read everything yourself!”The seat can also involve legal research, taking call notes, drafting disclosure and some types of agreements, and work on annual reports. One additional key trainee task is “going over selling restrictions and keeping on top of what’s going on with Brexit. It can all change very quickly!”

The M&A team represents a mix of private equity and sovereign clients – trainees were keen to let us know that “aside from them being really bloody big, we don’t have a typical client type.” Wells Fargo, BNP Paribas, Goldman Sachs… the common theme is big money. Cleary recently advised the Qatar Investment Authority on its acquisition by its subsidiary of a stake in Adani Electricity Mumbai. The team also works on acquisitions and deals that “aren’t all pure M&A in the conventional sense”– examples include internal restructurings, asset disposals and buyouts, as well as “housekeeping and advisory work. Clearly handles corporate governance and helps clients find new acquisition targets.” Trainees in a corporate seat get to draft business development articles and client alerts. Due diligence tends to make up a hefty chunk of the workload, as does taking calls notes and preparing board resolutions. Interviewees felt like “a valued addition to the team on each project,”suggesting “you can really take ownership of what you do.”On advisory matters, trainees conduct research on discrete areas of law and prepare memos that get passed on to clients. 

"You’re really connected to the world and how it operates."

As with M&A, Cleary’s finance practice sees a lot of sovereign clients – recently helping the Government of Barbados put together its $6.7 billion debt restructuring. “We’ve worked on so many major refinancings and restructurings throughout history, and the seat has a big geopolitical element to it. In this department it feels like you’re really connected to the world and how it operates,”one trainee told us. “It adds to the feeling of being a global citizen at Cleary.” When not advising entire countries, the team also works on leveraged finance deals, corporate restructurings and accessions for corporates; they recently represented the Eurasian Resources Group in a $7 billion series of financing transactions. Interviewees’ favourite part of this seat was “dealing with local counsel – I’ve been the point contact in London and gained a lot of experience.” Trainees also drafted client responses, board and shareholder resolutions and loan facility agreements, as well as managing CP checklists.

A contentious competition seat offers trainees the “full spectrum of restrictive agreements and competition policy” to soak up. Cleary’s team handles US, European and post-Brexit UK work, “advising companies when they’re being investigated and generally on how to comply with government regulations.” The group also tackles merger controls working “closely with the M&A department.” Huge clients like Disney, Coca-Cola and Sony call on Cleary, and the firm advised Louis Vuitton on the global competition aspects of its luxury industry record $16.2 billion acquisition of Tiffany. Interviewees here got to grips with “academic policy advocacy. Because competition is evolving all the time, lots of associates contribute to various journals.” Trainees got their fill of drafting court submissions, bundling and research: “I’ll be looking at other regulators’ decisions, working out what it was that pushed them one way or the other and seeing how it relates to our case. It feels like a lot of work, but it’s fine because we’re all bookworms anyway!”

“The small intake means everyone has a good chance of going somewhere.”

Scoring an overseas seatisn’t a game of musical chairs – trainees give HR a business case of why they want to go to that location, “usually it’s because you will have been in touch with a partner over there and want to continue that work.” Jetsetting trainees in past intakes have spent time in DC, New York, Abu Dhabi, Paris, Milan, Brussels, Buenos Aires, Moscow and Hong Kong (any destination is up for grabs if there is a business case, however). As with general seat allocation, trainees felt the secondment process was “organic” and allows you to “chase the opportunities and lifestyle that are most exciting for you. The small intake means that everyone has a good chance of being able to go somewhere.” In larger offices like Hong Kong and Singapore there’s a “great wider trainee community to help maintain a social life,” whereas in other offices like Buenos Aires and Abu Dhabi “the team’s much smaller so they treat you more like a junior associate.” Don’t look for a new swimsuit just yet: “It’s not a holiday. You get there, have a weekend to get your bearings, then you’re straight in on Monday morning and should expect to be busy.”

Trainee Life

Though Cleary does run formal training opportunities and lunchtime practice area presentations, interviewees felt “the biggest part of our training is the incredible work we get to see as trainees. It’s invaluable.” They also keenly described a “huge degree of pastoral support”including regular check-in calls and meetings with HR every six weeks. Seat supervisors earned praise for “getting really involved in trainees’ professional development and making sure everyone feels part of the Cleary family. Some partners are more relaxed, some are more hands-on, and the younger ones are more approachable, but everyone’s friendly.”

From “intellectual”and “academically curious”to “wicked smart,” interviewees had a clear idea of who fits in at Cleary. Arriving at an “intellectually rigorous place” can be “a bit intimidating at first,” but our sources clarified that “the culture is relaxed. Trainees aren’t in competition with each other and no one’s trying to prove themselves.” Many felt right at home in the thoroughbred environment: “We all play at a higher level because we’re surrounded by other great players, but that doesn’t mean there are any egos or abrasive personalities. We’re all down to earth.” Cleary prefers trainees to study the GDL and LPC together at University of Law, to break the ice before the training contract kicks off.

The firm hosts diversity talks and outreach programmes to keep the subject “at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Cleary takes diversity and inclusion totally seriously.” However, some diverse trainees felt that “though the firm isn’t putting barriers up, they’re also not leading the way. There’s a respectable atmosphere, but Cleary needs to do more, especially on the social mobility front.”We only heard good things about the firm’s pro bono efforts: a coordinator connects trainees with “small ad-hoc matters in the UK, or bigger ones in the US and worldwide.” Local projects include volunteering at a women’s legal clinic and helping refugees apply for resettlement; longer-term matters, such as a project surveying the persecution of the LGBTQ+ community in the Caribbean, look to make “massive changes.” Cleary is “enthusiastic”for traineesto bring their own pro bono causes to the table too. “My cases have come with experiences that are harder to get on client matters and they’ve developed me hugely, personally and professionally,”one said.

“We’re academics, so we want to take the extra time.”

If it sounds like there’s a lot going on at Cleary, news that trainees have “completely unpredictable hours won’t come as a surprise.Supervisors are tasked with supplying trainees with a minimum of seven billable hours a day, but the longest we heard was 70 hours in one week; this source confirmed “that’s definitely not a regular deal,”and trainees often head home between 7 and 8.30pm, but many felt “a need to be responsive 24/7. I don’t turn my work phone off when I sleep.”Some argued this drive to grind is “self-led. It’s not that the firm is necessarily asking you to stay that late – we’re academics, so we want to take the extra time to do the work and learn properly.” Trainees can get refreshed at Burger & Lobster Friday lunches and let their hair down with fortnightly pizza and beer at informal get-togethers.

An “open channel”between trainees and HR from the start of the training contract about qualification and “what’s expected of you”means that the process is “informal and organic.”At the end of April, each trainee has a discussion with HR about where they’d like to qualify, which is taken into consideration along with business need. It’s common to qualify into more than one department: “There’s a lot of freedom. Someone once qualified into litigation and M&A, which is as varied as it can get!” All our interviewees looked to “stick with Cleary for several years,” but noted that many tend to head for pastures new at senior associate level “as the firm doesn’t make many homegrown partners.” In 2020, Cleary kept on ten of its 13 spring qualifiers.

Nothing’s gonna stop us now

Cleary earned praise from interviewees for training contract management during the coronavirus crisis: “The firm’s infrastructure is robust and there's been no shortage of ongoing training."


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Get Hired


Vacation scheme deadlines (2021): 1 October 2020

Training contract deadline (2023): TBC

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 assessment days, which involves submitting a cover letter and CV online. From a total of 1,500 applicants, around 120 are called in for the assessment 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 series of workshops and a 30-minute interview with partners, counsel and associates. To wrap up the day, there's a drinks event that “gives us 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. 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 a number 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 Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP

2 London Wall Place,

  • Partners: 175 (19 in London)
  • Total staff: 900 lawyers globally
  • Total trainees: 21
  • Contacts  
  • Recruitment team: Jessica Williams
  • Application criteria 
  • Training contracts pa: 10-15
  • Minimum required degree: High 2:1
  • Dates and deadlines 
  • Training contract applications open: 1st February 2021
  • Training contract deadline: 31st July 2020 Spring/Summer
  • Vacation scheme applications open: 1st October 2020
  • Spring/Summer scheme deadline: 31st January 2021
  • Salary and benefits 
  • First-year salary: £50,000
  • Second-year salary: £55,000
  • Post-qualification salary: £133,000
  • Holiday entitlement: 25 days
  • Sponsorship 
  • LPC fees: Yes
  • GDL fees: Yes
  • Maintenance grant pa: £8,000
  • International and regional 
  • 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.
Training opportunities
We do not believe in a ‘one size fits all’ training solution. By recruiting 10–15 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 40 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. The deadline for spring and summer vacation scheme applications is 31st January.

Other benefits
25 days’ holiday, fitness subsidy, health screening, private health insurance, life insurance of twice annual salary, long-term disability insurance, critical illness insurance, dental insurance, employee assistance programme, emergency backup care, cycle to work scheme and subsidised staff restaurant. Open days and first year opportunities Insight day in spring 2021.

University law careers fairs 2019
• University of Bristol
• Trinity College Dublin
• Kings College London
• Cambridge University
• Durham University
• Exeter University
• Oxford University

This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2020

Ranked Departments

    • Banking & Finance: Borrowers: Big-Ticket (Band 3)
    • Banking & Finance: Sponsors (Band 4)
    • Banking Litigation (Band 4)
    • Capital Markets: Debt (Band 2)
    • Capital Markets: Equity (Band 3)
    • Competition Law (Band 4)
    • Corporate/M&A: High-end Capability (Band 4)
    • Litigation (Band 6)