Cleary's a US firm that's international, but not hampered by formality. Its lawyers are hard-working and driven, but not ruthless.
Amid the ongoing back-and-forth, bluster and bravado of Brexit, Theresa May expressed her belief that citizens of the world are in fact citizens of nowhere. But have faith – should you find yourself a lost and lonely citizen of the world, there's at least one last refuge, a dazzling oasis of historical globetrotting. It's name is Cleary Gottlieb. This US firm settled in Paris way back in 1949, and made its way to London in 1971. In total it's racked up 16 offices worldwide, from Beijing to Berlin, from São Paulo to Seoul.
Chambers Global places Cleary in 13th place in its list of the most capable global firms – that's above US giants like Skadden and Jones Day. And, as proof that these credentials trickle down to trainees, our interviews dredged up one word more than any other: international. “Basically everything here has an international element to it,” one trainee told us; “I’ve not worked on one deal here that’s been UK-focused!”
“Basically everything here has an international element to it.”
In London, Chambers UK especially rates Cleary's capital markets expertise, but it also tips its cap to the office's banking and finance, competition, corporate M&A and litigation know-how. Across these departments the firm does continent-crossing work with big-name finance clients such as Credit Suisse, HSBC, Goldman Sachs, Barclays and Citi. Cleary recently represented the latter two in a $1 billion cash tender offer by the Republic of Ireland. The same matter serves to highlight the large amount of sovereign finance work the firm does. “We do quite a lot of Russian work,” one trainee told us, “it’s one of the things that drew me to the firm!”
Even citizens of nowhere need a place to call home: the London team recently settled into its long-awaited new office. “It's very swish! And the views are astonishing – on a clear day you can probably see Kent!” Look a little closer and you might see some future growth: the office space came with room for nearly 200 Cleary compadres, a sign of confidence despite the uncertainty around London's future as an international hub. For now, discussion centred on its glass walls. “Everybody can see everybody all the time,” said trainees. “If you’re working long hours, you don’t feel shut off from the world.” Quirkier features of the new office include a cafeteria that has its own Instagram and an office-wide focus on sustainability. “There are no bins in any of the offices – just central bins. I like the eco-friendliness, but I would like somewhere to put my crisp packets!” As the old offices were “a bit brown and a bit 70s,” trainees were glad to finally be in “a space that reflects the calibre of firm that we are.”
Despite trainee claims that “we’re a rag-tag bunch,” an Oxbridge background is common (as it is with many US law firms in London). An aptitude for languages is also welcome: “There are people who speak five or six languages!” But the high threshold for talent is mirrored by a huge £120,000 NQ salary, something sources felt was deserved: “We’re paid well and the work reflects that.”
After informal discussions about their seat preferences, trainees were likely to find themselves in the seat where they want to be: “Cleary’s approach is very holistic and tailored to each person. Everyone who wants to do a particular seat gets to do it.” Though there are no compulsory seats, working in either M&A, finance or capital markets is almost a given. Many start out in one of these seats as “they’re a great starting point.”
“They take a broader view of what constitutes a seat.”
But the seats at Cleary aren't ordinary seats. “They take a broader view of what constitutes a seat,” one trainee explained. “We don’t have strict borders between departments.” This means trainees are encouraged to seek out work from lawyers whose work falls outside of their current seat's remit. We heard of trainees doing finance deals while sat in litigation, and litigation in M&A seats. Cleary hires almost exclusively from its vac scheme to ensure candidates can become accustomed to the system.
Supersize that, please
For fans of mega-mergers, Cleary's corporate M&A seat is a hot ticket. Lawyers here represented long-standing client the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) – the country’s national wealth fund – in its acquisition of a 20%, €10.5 billion stake in Russian national oil company Rosneft. The group also represented US spice and herb company McCormick in its $4.2 billion acquisition of the food business belonging to the UK's Reckitt Benckiser. Other clients include Credit Suisse, General Motors and private equity firm TPG. Trainees seemed to frequently pick up funds work while in this seat, with one describing their experience as “private M&A, small deals, big deals, fund-level structuring work, and all sorts of finance work, including back leverage.” Sources found that “the projects are small and discrete. Everything is quite urgent, everything 'needs to be done by Friday,' and that means we're often doing trainee tasks like due diligence.” Still, trainees could also draft memos and reports for clients.
A seat in capital markets mixes debt and equity transactions and high-yield bonds, and despite an initial “finding your feet” period, brings opportunities rife with responsibility. One source enthused: "I was doing a lot of significant work very early on. One month in I was helping to draft underwriting deals and filing all the documents for a shelf takedown." Alongside more standard activities like due diligence, proofreading and taking notes on calls, interviewees played a more pivotal role. “I was processing the comments from different parties of the working group, liaising with local counsel and drafting opinions.” As the seat allows trainees to take on direct client contact, many “felt like I had a stake in the deal when running it.” Clients here include big hitters from the finance sphere, like HSBC, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Deutsche Bank, as well as many sovereign states: the group recently worked on note offerings for Greece (€3 billion), Côte d'Ivoire ($1.9 billion) and Iraq ($1 billion).
“Finance at Cleary isn’t your vanilla bank lending!”
Over in finance, trainees described a smorgasbord of “different types of loan, restructuring, revolving credit agreements, bond issuances, derivatives work – I never get bored!” The department recently represented RUSAL (the world’s second largest aluminium company) in its $2 billion pre-export finance facility. The team also worked on the financing of the QIA/Rosneft acquisition, navigating EU and US sanctions to secure a €5.2 billion loan from Italian banking group Intesa Sanpaolo. “Finance at Cleary isn’t your vanilla bank lending!” as one trainee put it. Newbies got involved drafting facility agreements, dealing with clients and local counsel and helping out when pen met paper. “I ran the closing, which was a lot of responsibility – it involved getting up to speed quickly, liaising with lawyers all over the world and being very organised.”
Continuing the theme, Cleary's litigators handle a lot of disputes which concern financial services (including those relating to well-publicised LIBOR manipulation), working with clients such as Goldman Sachs, Dexia, and Citi. But it's broader than that, covering shareholder disputes and competition too, and representing tech companies such as Sony and LG. The group worked with the latter on a damages claim made by LCD and LED screen makers Iiyama, which stemmed from an infringement decision by the European Commission. Compared to transactional seats, litigation trainees “don’t get as much responsibility, because everything has to be signed off by a partner.” But despite this, trainees can be found “putting together first drafts of letters, preparing witness statements and requests for arbitration, as well as a fairly broad range of background legal research.” The chance to even get involved with some private client work provides a “very complex and entirely unique experience – the client care is very different than with a large company.”
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 are “great from a responsibility perspective,” one Cleary jet-setter emphasised. “You get treated like an associate there.” Going about getting sent abroad is “relatively straightforward. There’s no formal application process or anything like that – you just have a chat with HR about it.”
Ich Gott-liebe dich
It's easy to be blasé about the scale of matters on offer, but trainees are regularly pushed beyond their comfort zone. “You're expected to work extremely hard here. They throw you in at the deep end, but you’re not flailing around – they do it to see what you can cope with and then give you as much responsibility as they think you can handle.” And, reassuringly, there's guidance on tap to allow trainees to be bold. “In my first seat we had a partner who sat with us regularly to explain certain parts of the transaction in underwriting agreements. Having a partner sit down and spend two hours talking through things – it was really appreciated!”
For feedback, trainees had to be patient. “Partners are very busy, so it’s not anyone’s priority to give granular feedback on your work.” But informal mid-seat chats with supervisors and formal appraisals at the end of each seat are there to ensure trainees aren't left wanting. Overall, appraisals were described as being “not too formulaic, but a valuable process handled with the right mixture of formality and informality. You're generally trusted to be sensible and take on board the comments.”
“It's very unpretentious. You can ask as many stupid questions as you like.”
There was also a general sense that the environment was shaped for learning. “I think Cleary is typified by an intellectually curious individual who is committed to their work, and it's very unpretentious. You can ask as many stupid questions as you like – no one thinks it's a negative – it's encouraged.” More than one trainee touched on the intellectual streak they had noticed. “There's very much a focus on getting people who are intellectual, and interested in the law, but are able to translate that into being commercial. A lot of people here, if they weren't solicitors, they'd be barristers. It kind of feels like a university faculty.” With trainees in waiting studying the LPC at Moorgate together, they get a lot of time to build on their similarities. “Every firm says ‘no sharp elbows’ but it’s such a tight group here – it’s not a two-year long interview, it’s just working with your mates.”
This chummy culture meant the trainee cohort got together for spontaneous drinks and the occasional wine and cheese night. In a wider sense, the firm fosters a collaborative atmosphere through “the non-departmentalised structure, which means people work together,” and the “global lockstep compensation system, which means there aren't departmental or personal rivalries.” The firm also has a fondness for pro bono, a US-firm trademark. “There are loads of pro bono opportunities and you can do as much or as little as you want.” Available opportunities include working for a women’s legal advice clinic at Toynbee Hall, immigration work, setting up charities and the Lawyers in Schools programme. The latter, providing legal seminars to GCSE students, was extremely popular. “It gets them engaged in the law and informs them of their rights. I was learning quite a lot when I was doing it that I didn’t know!”
Snapping back to trainees' core work, there's the inescapable fact that “the hours can be intense, and expectations are really high.” Tougher seats, like capital markets, can deliver days lasting from 10am to 10pm. Some saw their hours as justified – “you'd never be made to stay late if it wasn't absolutely vital” – but others warned that “there’s no respect for your personal time. Someone will email with work on a Sunday and there’s this low-key expectation that work’s the only thing going on in your life.” The reality was that “that sometimes means cancelling or not making plans.”
Those up for the commitment had faith “that they’ve hired us because they think we have a future at the firm.” In the ten years from 2008 to 2017 Cleary retained 80 of its 86 qualifiers (93%). In 2018 it kept ten of 11. One thing to note is that “the smaller teams like tax don’t necessarily take someone every year.”
Trainees were used to interacting with other offices on a daily basis. “It feels like you’re working with lawyers in your own office – it's not a big deal to be on a conference call with colleagues in New York, DC or Paris.”
How to get a Cleary Gottlieb training contract
Vacation scheme deadlines (2019): 3 November 2018 (winter, opens 1 October 2018); 31 January 2019 (summer, opens 1 November 2018)
Training contract deadline (2021): 31 July 2019 (opens 1 February 2019)
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.
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.”
Interview with graduate recruitment partners Jonathan Kelly and Nallini Puri
Chambers Student: Are there any highlights from the past year you think are important to mention (eg new practice areas, office openings, changes to the training contract etc)?
Jonathan Kelly: ObviouslyNallini’s promotion to partnership is a very important piece of news! We’ve also recruited James Norris-Jones from HSF who’s a young superstar in the London disputes world. It’s a very exciting time – fast-moving and sunny!
In terms of other developments, we have moved offices to a new building. It’s been a huge success, there’s a good buzz and energy to the office. It’s forward-looking and designed for the future. It’s a joy to come into the office every morning!
CS: Following the office move, do you envision the culture changing at all over the next few years?
Nallini Puri: The culture is not going to be very different from the way it is today. It’s one of the most wonderful things about the firm and we carefully decide who we recruit to retain that culture.
Cleary is a firm where we get to do great quality, interesting work alongside a group of really interesting people. That’s the kind of firm trainees can expect to join: nothing too different because it’s so integral to the way we are.
CS: We’ve heard a lot about the lack of distinct hierarchy at the firm – what exactly is meant by that?
JK:When it comes to interviews for potential trainees and graduates, they meet with a variety of counsel, partners, trainees and associates and then everyone sits down and offers their views. It’s not just a partner making the decisions, it’s very inclusive – which is one of our principal cultural mainstays. You get so much more of an interesting and insightful view if you ask trainees who just got here as well as partners with 20 years of trainee hiring experience. It really makes the process a sound one.
The ex-managing partner when I joined the firm gave a few minutes speech at a dinner for new partners. He said "I wake up every morning and come into the office, and we’ve got a billion dollar business and however many hundred lawyers around the world – but the thing that strikes me every morning is – there’s nobody in charge." There’s no individual who’s in charge of the London office, it’s not me. We’re all in it together – it’s a flat hierarchy.
Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP
2 London Wall Place,
- Partners: 193 (21 in London)
- Total staff 3000 (240 in London)
- Total trainees 27
- Contact Graduate recruiter: Rory Uwins, Jessica Williams
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 15-20
- Minimum required degree: High 2:1
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 February 2019
- Training contract deadline: 31 July 2019
- Winter vacation scheme applications open: 1 October 2018
- Winter scheme deadline: 3 November 2018
- Spring/summer vacation scheme applications open: 1 October 2018
- Spring/summer scheme deadline: 31 February 2019
- Salary and benefits
- First year: £48,000
- Second year: £52,000
- Post-qualification salary: £120,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- 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
Main areas of work
Open days and first year opportunities
University law careers fairs 2018
• King’s College
• London School of Economics
• Queen Mary University London
• University College London
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2018
- 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 4)