Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP - True Picture

Channel your legal know-how into Cleary – a New York-founded global firm populated with “intellectual people who are curious about the work they encounter.”

Cleary Gottlieb training contract review 2022

The Firm



This firm stands among the world’s elite, as this trainee was quick to tell us: “You get everything. The quality of work and clients, the quality of the environment and culture. It all operates at the highest level.” Cleary has 16 offices worldwide that have more rankings across the Chambers ranking guides than you can shake a stick at – it’s noted in Chambers Global as being one of the best firms internationally for areas such as competition/antitrust, international arbitration, capital markets, tax and corporate/M&A. Here on our drizzly shores, it’s ranked in Chambers UK for its work in areas like capital markets, competition, banking & finance (both sponsor and big-ticket borrower sides) and high-end M&A.

Clearians are known as “intellectual people who are curious about the work they encounter.” This “genuine interest in their work” includes “making academic contributions within their area of practice. People write journal articles and speeches and participate in expert panels and debates.” This means that the kind of person that will fit in here is “someone who wants to take a broader interest in their work. People here don’t just like what they do, they’re really fascinated in it and are interested in continually learning more.”

People here don’t just like what they do, they’re really fascinated in it and are interested in continually learning more.

Cleary’s next-level thinking is also present in the firm's departmental structures. “Lawyers are encouraged to be generalists within their practice areas. Even at partner level, you're unlikely to find a partner that only does one type of work.” Everyone we spoke to was a huge fan of Cleary’s “flexible training programme. It gives you the opportunity to drive your own career path.” The seat system at Cleary certainly is unique: “While you do have your four defined six-month seats, there is a great deal of flexibility within that.” Trainees continue to work on cases and take matters with them across seats – “I worked in six practice groups last week.” The seat allocation process is “very informal.” Trainees chat with HR halfway through their seat and talk through where they want to go next. There are no compulsory seats, though almost all trainees do at least one out of the capital markets, finance or M&A options.

The Seats



Capital markets isn’t a siloed team – trainees can “see the whole range” of work on both the debt and equity side. The team covers work such as high-yield transactions, US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) registered debt, shelf takedowns, debt matters and annual reports for multinational banks and corporations. The team works with clients such as the Republic of Armenia, GlaxoSmithKline, Barclays and HSBC. On the debt side, the team recently helped BP in a SEC-registered hybrid offering of $2.5 billion. On the equity side, the group worked on Russian shipping company Sovcomflot’s $550 million IPO on the Moscow Exchange. Trainees here draft “quite a few substantive documents” such as agreements, annual reports and legal opinions. They also review offering documents and can expect the "inevitable due diligence” as well.

The M&A team represents a mix of private equity and sovereign clients. As well as standard M&A, the team conducts regulatory and antitrust work and advises “companies with different subsidiaries all around the world on how they can work as one.” The team also works on acquisitions and deals that are “atypical. We do a lot of complex interpretations of group structures for tax reasons, which requires analysing the companies from the inside out.” The team recently advised exchange group Euronext on its acquisition of Borsa Italiana Group from the London Stock Exchange for €4.3 billion. They also assisted security company Allied Universal with its offer to acquire the issued share capital of G4S. Due diligence tends to make up a big chunk of trainees’ workload in M&A, as does taking notes on calls and preparing board minutes and corporate approvals. Trainees in the corporate seat get to draft business development articles and client commercial awareness alerts. On advisory matters, trainees conduct research on discrete areas of law and prepare memos that get passed on to clients. 

“Analysing the companies from the inside out.”

As with M&A, Cleary’s finance practice sees a lot of sovereign clients – the group recently worked on the Argentine Republic’s restructuring of around $63.4 billion outstanding foreign law-governed debt. Trainees get involved in “major transactions for sovereign clients all over the world. We’re literally helping shape the way that countries recover from debt.” On these cases, trainees “liaise with government officials in that country and their bondholders to make sure everything is moving along smoothly." As well as helping out countries, the team does work for “standard companies just wanting to borrow money.” This includes leveraged finance, fund formation, bond issuances and “a bit of restructuring work.” The team has a lot of crossover with other teams such as capital markets and M&A – “you basically assist everyone with raising money in whatever way they need to.” The group recently advised steel company ArcelorMittal on a $5.1 billion ten-year term loan agreement with a consortium of banks around the world. Trainees help draft the provisions in agreements, keep track of CP checklists, sit in on calls and draft minutes of meetings. “You get really involved in the depths of the transactions. You get to learn how documents and deals fit together.”

A contentious-oriented competition seat offers trainees the chance to work on “everything from working on merger clearances for some of the largest transactions in the world to different emerging areas that we consult on for different competition authorities around the world.” There’s a big commitment to the academic side of the law in this team: “We’re at the forefront of competition issues and write commentary on recent cases that gets published in renowned books as well as in our own publications and client alerts.” The group has an illustrious client roster, booking the likes of Google, LG and Walgreens. The group recently advised on Telefónica's £31.4 billion combination with Liberty Global, which brought O2 and Virgin Media together under one roof. Unfortunately, trainees here “can’t escape doc review,” but once that’s done, they get to work on preparing documents to submit to various competition authorities and research companies involved in mergers.

To score an overseas seat, trainees express their preference in the normal seat rotation process. “It’s important to indicate early on if you want to do an overseas seat. A lot of people want to do them.” Pre-Covid, trainees in past intakes have spent time in DC, New York, Abu Dhabi, Paris, Milan, Brussels, Buenos Aires, Moscow and Hong Kong. However, any destination is decided by “business need alone.”

Trainee Life



Cleary does run formal training opportunities and lunchtime practice area presentations, which interviewees felt were “useful, but I find learning on the job more helpful.”Supervisors were described as “fantastic – they’re always making efforts to support your development. I’ve had closer relationships with my supervisors than I’d expected.” During lockdown, supervisors caught up with trainees “on a daily basis over Zoom. It was nice having that connection and the knowledge that they’d know about any issues I was having.” Cleary has a “pretty extensive system of various mentors and buddies throughout the firm.” Trainees get a trainee buddy in the year above, an associate buddy and a senior mentor (a counsel or partner) who all “make themselves available and offer support when you need it.”

Colleagues across the board have a sense of community: “The camaraderie is a massive part of Cleary. It's a cliché but everyone is genuinely so lovely to work with.” The training contract structure “doesn’t encourage internal competition, as we are not 'graded' on any scale, and there is no sense that we are being pitted against each other.” This continues as Cleary lawyers progress too: “The lock-step remuneration means that there is no reason to vie for credit on a piece of work or try to poach clients or tasks from other associates.” The smaller trainee intake “allows you to know everyone and be more involved when working with the team – it’s more personal and you get to know one another in more depth.” Trainees told us about social events such as wine and cheese nights and murder mystery parties.

“The camaraderie is a massive part of Cleary.”

The firm hosts diversity talks and outreach programmes to “help create a safe space for everyone.” Cleary is home to committees that “meet regularly and frequently communicate initiatives and events to the wider group.” Trainees are “encouraged to take an active role in at least one of the various committees.” We heard that while “diversity in the lower ranks is excellent,” more could be done to “support women and minority ethnic lawyers into leadership.” We heard that on religious and cultural holidays the firm “makes an effort in the office to observe them and send out a memo about it. For the Mid-Autumn Festival, they put out mooncakes in the break rooms and did something to celebrate Diwali. It shows you they really care about everyone as individuals.”Mental health is also a focus at the firm, with a Wellness Committee described as “active in organising events and providing support.” However, many noted that “it is difficult to reconcile these good intentions with the reality of working in a busy and dynamic firm with demanding clients!” There are also social mobility programmes where “local secondary school kids visit our office and get a taste of what it’s like to work here.”

Pro bono is “fantastic at Cleary” according to our interviewees. The firm has a dedicated pro bono managing lawyer in the London office who “gets trainees involved in everything from attending local legal advice clinics to researching international law topics for NGOs.” We heard of work done on death penalty appeal cases with US charity Reprieve: “We write briefs trying to plead for their death sentences to be commuted.” Overall, there’s a “massive scope of pro bono work to get involved in.”

Trainees told us that they spend an average of 12 hours a day logged on – “there was one really late signing I had at 5am. But usually late nights are over by midnight.” If trainees put in those tough hours, supervisors and partners “for sure give you a big ‘thank you’ for staying up late. But it’s understood that that’s the way it works here – it’s normal.” This wasn’t seen as a negative among interviewees: “You go with the flow. We’re self-starters and client service comes first. In general, you try to respond ASAP.” The salary (especially at NQ level) at Cleary is up there with the highest in the London market – £50,000 for first-year trainees, rising to £140,000 on qualification.

Qualification is a “relatively informal” process, consisting of a discussion in April with HR where trainees say where they’d like to qualify. “They take that away and try their best to meet everyone’s particular interest.” In the lead-up to the process the training principal has “catch-ups bi-weekly and is more than happy to answer any questions. It creates a platform for us to ask and be open rather than being hush-hush about it.” Qualification is “flexible,” with trainees being able to work across groups once qualified. Clearians take “all sorts of options and routes” in their career. Though it’s “open that it’s not everyone’s intention to make partner,” we heard that it’s “definitely an option. We recently appointed our first London partner who trained at the firm – so there are people who stay here long-term.” In 2021, 11 of 16 spring qualifiers stayed on at the firm.

Get Hired at Cleary



Vacation scheme deadlines (2022): 31 January 2022 (opens 1 October 2021)

Training contract deadline (2024): 31 July 2022 (opens 1 February 2022)

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.”

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This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2021

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)