Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP - True Picture

An international offering and cross-border deals spark joy for trainees at this US firm.

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In your working life, it's a massive boost to have something that excites you. For some, it's the tangible difference your work makes to the world; for others, it's seeing your boss whip out the company credit card at the pub. For the trainees at Cleary there's one thing that really gets the endorphins flowing: the firm's hefty cross-border dealwork. That alone attracted several trainees to the firm, one of whom told us: “In my time at the firm all but one of the deals I have worked on have been international." Another cooed that these were the sort of deals "you see on the front page of the Financial Times.”

Cleary, a US firm by birth, landed in London in 1971 having set up its first overseas office in Paris in 1949. Today the firm has a network of 16 offices in 13 countries, including six European nations, plus China, South Korea, Abu Dhabi and South America. Cleary wins a dozen global-wide rankings in Chambers Global, several of them top-tier, and that's before we even get into the Chambers rankings at national and regional level. The London office chiefly works on corporate M&A, banking and finance, capital markets, commercial litigation and competition – all of which are ranked by Chambers UK. Our sources highlighted that another attraction of working for Cleary is that British firms “don’t necessarily have the strength in the US market which American firms do have in Europe. And we provide a full service to our clients: as well as having a strong corporate practice, we are constantly growing our litigation team.”

“It’s a shock if you don’t get one of your top three.”

Prior to starting their training contract, rookies have informal discussions about seat preferences with HR, and so usually find themselves in one of their preferred seats to begin with – “it’s a shock if you don’t get one of your top three.” We heard that HR “goes into the war room and maps out allocation to get the best spread.”

Though there are no compulsory seats, we heard that “it would be weird for someone to train at Cleary and not do a big commercial seat – capital markets, finance and M&A are the cornerstones of the firm.” While the firm does have a rotational seat system, we heard that trainees are “able to carry over work from previous seats,” so there's “no arbitrary ending at the six-month mark.” This approach is a reflection of the firm's non-departmental approach to its different practice areas. The firm tends to hire predominantly from its vac scheme to ensure candidates can get used to this system.

Make it Raine

Cleary’s corporate M&A team is the hot spot for getting exposure to megadeals: the firm recently advised the Qatar Investment Authority on its role in the acquisition of a 20% stake in Rosneft, Russia's state oil company, a deal worth €10.2 billion. The team also works on some more medium-sized cross-border deals, for example advising UK merchant bank the Raine Group on its bid for a majority stake in Berlin-based SoundCloud, alongside several international investors – that deal was worth £131 million. Other clients include US food manufacturer McCormick & Company, Credit Suisse and private equity firm Warburg Pincus. Trainees described the corporate department as “a dumping ground for a load of different matters – the work also bleeds into other practice areas such as finance, so you end up dealing with high-yield issues, for example.” For trainees, “due diligence is unavoidable in M&A, while other tasks include deal management, research, speaking with directors, drafting board resolutions, and producing research presentations for supervisors.”

“I went straight into an IPO and led client conference calls with the banks.”

Sources gleefully welcomed the level of responsibility on offer in the capital markets seat. “I went straight into an IPO and led client conference calls with the banks,” one smitten interviewee beamed. Alongside doing basic due diligence, taking notes on calls, and drafting documents, trainees particularly enjoyed being able to maintain “a client relationship while managing the deal process – trainees process the submission of certain documents to the regulators, draft those documents, run them past the seniors, and handle communication with the listing agents and clients.” The mix of debt and equity transactions and high-yield bonds brings with it the tasks of drafting prospectuses and bond documents and “a fair amount of travel – I basically spent an entire month abroad, dealing with IPO matters and liaising with clients.” To name just a few of those clients: HSBC, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup have all called on the firm's services recently, and the team also advised GlaxoSmithKline on a $4 billion note offering, as well as advising the governments of Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire on sovereign bond offerings.

Trainees in finance contrasted the work with capital markets: “It's way more fast-paced – an IPO could take six to nine months, whereas a leveraged loan could be done in a few weeks, so we handle around 15 deals in just six months.” The clients are chiefly borrowers, both corporates and sovereign states. For example, the firm recently advised steel giant ArcelorMittal on a massive $7 billion loan to buy India's Essar Steel, and advised the government of Chad on the refinancing of a $1.3 billion loan. Although finance trainees do get mundane tasks like due diligence and drafting emails for associates, they're also able to “get involved in deal management – as opposed to just grunt work.” We also heard that “there are a lot of business development opportunities too – trainees help prepare presentations, write articles for Cleary's blogs, and do market research.”

Cleary-ed for takeoff

Cleary’s litigators focus heavily on cross-border litigation with clients including international businesses (LG Display and Japanese shipping firm K Line), government entities (the Russian government and an arm of the Kuwaiti government) and some individuals (French entrepreneur Max-Hervé George and ice hockey player Danis Zaripov). Lawyers recently defended NSK, a Japanese manufacturer of bearings for cars, against a €500 million damages claim by Peugeot. Trainees informed us of a lack of exposure to clients and the main elements of larger matters in this seat – “the stakes are high, so we focus on drafting and document review behind the scenes.”

The litigation practice also covers competition work, which trainees noted “is interesting in light of Brexit,” given the London office focuses on both EU and UK matters. “We work closely with the Brussels office,” one trainee told us, “dealing with merger filings and client pitches.” The firm's biggest competition matter of late saw it represent both 21st Century Fox and Disney in getting sign-off from the European Commission and US regulators for Disney's $71.3 billion takeover of Fox. We heard that “trainees helped to get the procedure cleared – it’s extremely interesting to see matters that you’re working on in the newspapers every day.” The team has also been acting for Google in ongoing investigations into the search engine's alleged abuse of its dominant market position.

Trainees with itchy feet may get the chance to jet off for an overseas seat in one of Cleary's overseas offices. With locations on four continents, lucky trainees in previous years have spent time in DC, New York, Abu Dhabi, Paris, Milan, Brussels, Buenos Aires, Moscow and Hong Kong. Typically, second-years present a valid business case as to why it would be beneficial for them to do a seat abroad, and then it's up to HR and business needs if they go. Trainees described the allocation of overseas seats in recent years as “ad hoc – there are no regular seats.” Interviewees put this down in part to the markets in places like Hong Kong and Paris “becoming a little bit more locally focused, so although they still practise English law, there is now a requirement to be able to speak Mandarin, Cantonese or French.” Availability in the US has also dried up in recent years, but trainees emphasised the “increasing need for secondees in Abu Dhabi.” When rookies did get to go abroad they loved the opportunity. One reported: “I’ve been able to help cross-examine witnesses, which is definitely something I wouldn’t do as a trainee at Cleary in the UK.”

Gott guidance?

The firm starts the year with trainee-specific training programs, then continues with department-specific seminars on things like US securities, recent deals and work streams. Trainees are also provided with a formal three-tier support system during their training contract. “We have a trainee mentor who takes us out for lunch a couple of times in our first year to guide us through the basic beginning steps,” one interviewee explained. “Then our NQ mentor is more like a point of contact if we’re struggling with work, and our partner mentor is there to deal with more serious concerns.” Trainees are certainly pushed beyond their comfort zone, but the firm balances this out with guidance on tap. One source said: “Our supervisors understand that as a first-seat trainee, we won’t know the basics – they sat down with me to explain how to write a memo, interpret the law and advise clients.”

“Yes, we do have a slight obsession with perfectionism.”

More informally trainee support might consist of “spending Friday mornings picking my supervisor’s brain and going through different articles.” Interviewees highlighted that “everyone is very intellectually curious” at Cleary, typified by “very very clever” people having frequent “interesting conversations about our work.” One trainee also admitted: “Yes, we do have a slight obsession with perfectionism – we are passionate about the work we do.” But interviewees told us not to be intimidated by this and that Cleary's lawyers are perfectly capable of chatting about things outside the world of law. “I had a preconception that people would be super sensitive and snobby but the truth was a refreshing surprise,” one source said.

Trainees can also be refreshed at Burger & Lobster Friday lunches and let their hair down with fortnightly pizza and beer at informal get-togethers. The diverse flavour of the office, with associates from all different countries, not only adds to the international feel of the office, but also to the “cool, quirky events” which take place regularly. Besides the staple Christmas and summer shindigs, trainees take part in ski trips, wine and cheese nights, strolls to the local pub and evenings at drag shows.

Another add-on to regular work at Cleary is its pro bono practice: a designated pro bono coordinator (a former lawyer) administers various projects, letting trainees get involved or create their own opportunities. Matters on offer range from asylum, immigration and refugee cases to advising start-ups on fund-raising and working to prevent death sentences being carried out abroad. “There's no mandated pro bono target, but we treat pro bono clients as we would any fee-paying client,” one trainee reported.

“Periods when you don't see daylight.”

It's a wonder trainees find time for pro bono and social extracurriculars given the long hours they work. “Trainees have an ‘always on call’ mentality here,” one source shared, while another said that in the winter there are “periods when you don't see daylight.” Rookies said that a regular day lasts from 9am to 7pm, but with differences between seats: while you might could leave at 6pm in disputes, 8pm is more typical in finance, and one source said that “weekends in competition were sacred but this was less so in transactional seats.” There are some very late nights too: one interviewee reported 4am was the latest they'd stayed, while another cited a few midnight departures from the office. But our interviewees weren't bothered so much by the length of their hours as by their unpredictability. “It’s impossible to know at the start of the week how many hours you’ll be working,” one source grumbled.

Trainees had the impression that the transition to NQ is a “simple continuation.” Between 2008 and 2018 Cleary kept on 90 of its 97 qualifiers (93%), so “there’s definitely not a mass exodus at qualification.” In 2019 ten of thirteen qualifiers were retained. Conversations about retention begin during mid-seat and end-of-seat reviews, accompanied by informal chats with partners about qualifying in your preferred departments. Cleary’s non-departmental structure feeds into the NQ process as there is the possibility to mix practice groups on qualification – “it's quite common to mix M&A with capital markets or finance.” Although the firm does its best to keep all trainees on, if there is competition for the niche seats like IP or funds, this may be an issue. “For the smaller teams, it’s more a ‘one in, one out’ situation, whereas corporate is known to make space for extra NQs.”

Cleary trainees are accustomed to cross-office communication across several jurisdictions. “Especially in the competition team, when working on a merger we’ll be liaising with ten or more European countries via email or phone.”

How to get a Cleary Gottlieb training contract


Vacation scheme deadlines (2020): 3 November 2019 (winter, opens 1 October 2019); 31 January 2020 (summer, opens 1 November 2019)

Training contract deadline (2022): 31 July 2020 (opens 1 February 2020)

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: 187 (21 in London)
  • Total staff 1,300 lawyers globally 
  • Total trainees 29
  • Contact Recruitment team: Jessica Williams
  • Application criteria 
  • Training contracts pa: 15-20
  • Minimum required degree: High 2:1
  • Dates and deadlines  
  • Training contract applications open: 1 February 2020
  • Training contract deadline: 31 July 2020
  • Winter vacation scheme applications open: 1 October 2019
  • Winter scheme deadline: 3 November 2019
  • Spring/summer vacation scheme applications open: 1 November 2019
  • Spring/summer scheme deadline: 31 January 2020
  • 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 
  • 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, nancing and restructuring, capital markets, international litigation and arbitration, and competition. In addition, Cleary has established successful self-standing practices in tax, nancial regulation, and intellectual property and information technology.

Trainee opportunities

We do not believe in a ‘one size fits all’ training solution. By recruiting 15–20 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 quali ca- tion. 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 3rd November. The deadline for spring and summer vacation scheme applications is 31 January.

Other benefits

5% employer pension contribution, 25 days’ holiday, tness 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 2020.

University law careers fairs 2019

• University of Bristol
• University of York
• University of Nottingham
• Kings College London
• Cambridge University
• Durham University
• Exeter University
• Oxford University

This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2019

Ranked Departments

    • Banking & Finance: Borrowers: High-end Capabilities (Band 4)
    • 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 3)
    • Litigation (Band 6)
    • Private Equity: Buyouts: High-end Capability (Band 4)