Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP - True Picture

Which “top-shelf” US firm has offices all over the world, a finance focus in London, and a growing competition practice? The answer is Cleary.

Cleary Gottlieb training contract review 2024

The Firm

“I wanted somewhere international,” one trainee told us, recounting their search criteria for a training contract. “That led me to the top-shelf American firms.” Not all of the US firms in the UK can genuinely be described as international, but with 16 offices across the globe, Cleary has got the cross-border credentials: “You’re constantly working with people in Brussels and New York!” On top of established star quality in its native USA, the firm has a world-leading competition practice according to Chambers Global, and picks up additional rankings across Europe, Latin America, and South Korea for capital markets and corporate/M&A.

At the firm’s London office, cross-border transactions are a core focus, with Chambers UK  bestowing strong rankings in capital markets and big-ticket banking & finance work (on the borrower side). The firm also earns respectable rankings in banking litigation and competition. The latter’s “great reputation” was a big pull for one of our interviewees, and trainees noted competition as a particular area of growth for the firm – “it’s a hiring machine right now!” The firm has actually had a spate of notable hires recently across different practices, adding to its private equity and M&A expertise with partners from magic circle member Linklaters, and Travers Smith, a prestigious City firm. A couple of insolvency partners also crossed over to Cleary from Dechert, another US firm.

“… eager to get lots of responsibility early on.”

Aside from its global reach, trainees were keen to reap other benefits of working at a US firm in the land of tea and crumpets. Namely, our interviewees were “eager to get lots of responsibility early on,” and figured a training contract at a firm with a smaller trainee intake (around ten) was the way to go. It also doesn’t hurt that the firm offers one of the highest salaries in the market, another common fixture of US firms. On the inside, interviewees reported that “it doesn’t feel like an American firm.” US firms typically get a bad rep on this front, so trainees are (usually) pleasantly surprised when they join the ranks of a prestigious name like Cleary. “Everyone’s been so nice, and they want to help you become part of the team. I’m friends with the people I work with!”

The Seats

The firm kicks off the seat allocation process by sending out videos with information on different practices. Trainees are supplied with a list of available seats, after which they're able to have a chat with HR and submit two preferences. With a smaller intake, trainees are usually clued into what their peers are up to, which can help them navigate their seat options over the two years. Typically, trainees can expect to do one of the bigger seats, depending on business need.

With its overseas offices, you might be wondering what the score is with international secondments. A handful of trainees had snapped up opportunities which are advertised on the available seats list. Different offices offer up different focuses: arbitration in Paris, funds and capital markets in Hong Kong, corporate in Germany, antitrust in Brussels, and anything in New York! There are also a few odd client secondments which are available on an as-needed basis.

Trainees described the firm’s competition practice as a “leader of the London office. It’s a popular seat with popular supervisors, and because it’s the largest department it often takes on a few trainees.” There are some big-name clients here, which trainees were quick to tell us about: “Google is a huge client for Cleary, so trainees will undoubtedly do some of this work.” For instance, the group represented the tech giant in its appeal against two fines (both in the billions of euros) imposed by the European Commission in relation to Google Shopping and Google Android. Cleary’s competition group also acted for Sony Interactive Entertainment on the antitrust issues arising from its proposed $69 billion acquisition of Activision Blizzard (known for its game Call of Duty). “Working with high-profile clients and household names has been the most interesting part!” We heard trainees get involved in “all sorts of tracking and doc review where you carry out legal research.” Sources mentioned some special business development assignments, such as contributing to a competition law book. Another common task was “putting together presentation slides for new and old clients who are delivering training at their companies.”

Trainees can expect a busier seat in capital markets, with one finding “a culture shock between the pace of transactional and non-transactional work! The timescales in capital markets are much shorter, so you learn a lot quicker.” The firm deals with equity IPOs, debt offerings and regulatory disclosure work, typically on the underwriter side for the likes of Barclays, HSBC, and Credit Suisse. The firm also does public disclosure work on an ongoing basis for some clients, like publishing regulatory updates if a company has a crisis. The team recently advised pharmaceutical group GSK on the demerger of its consumer healthcare company into a standalone business (Haleon) and the listing of its shares on the London and New York stock market. Trainees were happy to get experience drafting disclosures and described themselves as “on the frontline” in this seat. “I’ve enjoyed the closeness of clients in capital markets, and the fact you’re on calls and people ask questions only you know answers to because you’ve been looking over information.” Any downsides? “You rarely feel switched off.” Trainees can expect to be asked things like, “Please review this – we want to talk about it tomorrow morning!” But at the very least, “you’re not bored.”

“There are lots of sovereign clients, which is super interesting.”

Over in finance, “there are lots of sovereign clients, which is super interesting.” Barbados is one such example – the firm represented the country in a $150 million debt conversion, which will allow the country to borrow costs and put money towards a long-term marine conservation project. The group works with standard commercial clients too, like steel and mining company ArcelorMittal, which it represented on a €5.5 billion ESG loan. Traditional borrower-side work forms the bulk of work, but the firm also handles leveraged finance, restructurings and issuances. “You do it all,” said trainees. “It's challenging but it’s good experience.” Trainees honed their drafting skills and tried their hand at board resolutions, call notes, and ancillary and facility agreements. “Admin case management is typical” too, which might not be so glam but it’s still a key part of a deal!

The disputes  team is another biggie in Cleary’s London office, and trainees can get involved in some juicy cases (including arbitrations). The group recently defended Ryanair and its subsidiary Laudamotion in a $40 million commercial claim brought by the aviation leasing company AerCap. So it’s safe to say the team is flying high! The firm also recently defended Japanese transport company “K” Line against claims by Volkswagen for €260 million in damages arising out of competition law infringements, and in separate proceedings, McLaren, which is seeking up to £115 million. Trainees often get involved with multiple smaller matters for big clients. “There’s a nice mix of day-to-day case management and more substantial work,” one told us. “I had a decent number of research tasks, which was interesting.” Other tasks might include writing up notes from strategy calls and drafting witness outlines. It’s common in contentious practices for trainees to get more oversight, simply because the stakes are so high. One trainee told us about a piece of work they did: “The junior checked, and the senior checked, and then the partner checked. It was good for me understanding the case.”

Trainee Life

With around 128 lawyers, Cleary isn’t a mega firm in terms of headcount. “I really like that it’s a small firm. It’s almost like everyone knows everyone.”Culturally, insiders described it as “generally non-hierarchical, with opportunities to mix at different levels.” Trainees put much of this down to the firm’s hiring efforts: “They ensure people fit and can have good relationships with each other, even from the vac scheme level.” This helps in the long run, because “we all work hard – there’s no time for annoying people. Getting on with your colleagues makes the hours easier and the work feel less intense.”

According to our survey, trainees at Cleary work slightly longer hours than the market average, with those in capital markets often finishing as late as 11pm. “Teams are leanly staffed so there aren’t many people to cover the work,” said a trainee. Although this allows rookies to get more responsibility, it also means “you’re always expected to be contactable.”

All things considered, trainees were generally happy with the salary, and we should think so – it’s one of the highest pay packets in the City. There’s always room to nitpick, of course: “Trainee salaries haven't been raised since 2021, which means there’s been a sizeable cut due to the increasing cost of living.” 

“We get to go to closing dinners where partners take everyone out.”

There’s a formal hybrid working policy of at least three days in the office and, according to sources, “you try to align these days with your supervisor.” Regular social events, such as fortnightly drink and canapé events, kept trainees motivated to go in and mingle with colleagues. And more informally, “we get to go to closing dinners where partners take everyone out. It shows how you can fully integrate into the team.”

US firms are often hot on D&I, and trainees were quick to praise Cleary for its initiatives and working groups. There are women’s, LGBTQ+ and social mobility groups, and interviewees boasted how they’re “filled with amazing people!” One event attendee added that “the initiatives run by these groups are taken seriously. The City Horizons Law Event, for example, gave students from underrepresented backgrounds an insight into law.” Newbies were generally satisfied with the diversity of their cohort, adding that “some of us are from low socio-economic backgrounds and are ethnic minorities.” Some observed that the recent spate of lateral partners wasn’t particularly diverse, “which is a shame looking at the ranks, particularly in this size of the firm.” By contrast, “it’s very encouraging to see partners promoted internally with a different leadership style.”

Pro bono is another common fixture of life at a US firm, and “I was surprised at how many opportunities there are,” a trainee raved. Even though it’s optional, we heard people do it because it’s “meaningful work and gives you lots of early responsibility.” Trainees said opportunities are typically “very rights-focused,” and involve working with charities, like the Clooney Foundation for Justice (set up by Amal and George Clooney). At the end of a seat, trainees get a report detailing their general and pro bono hours, which is “a great way to see how much time you’ve dedicated to it.”

Qualification is the final hurdle of the training contract. Trainees chat with HR about their preferred department during their final seat. Things aren’t kept hush-hush, as “HR give you an early indication as to whether there might be a spot available.” In recent years, we heard that “the bigger groups don’t usually have an issue with this, but if you want to qualify into a specialist team then you should speak to the partners.” In 2023, the firm retained eight out of ten trainees.

Any more Cleary queries? Trainees’ first two days are training days. After that, there might be the odd lecture here and there, but “the training is way more on the job.”

How to get a Cleary training contract

  • Vacation scheme deadlines (2023/24): 31 October 2023 (Winter) and 31 January 2024 (Spring and Summer)
  • Training contract deadline (2026): 31 July 2024

Initial Application

"The application form isn't painful," said training principal James Norris-Jones: "We just ask for a CV, cover letter and transcripts." Following this, successful candidates are asked to an assessment day.

Assessment Days

Cleary recruits nearly all of its trainees through its vacation scheme (following the initial application.) From approximately 1,200 applicants, around 180 are called in for an assessment day. Assessment days include a presentation about the firm, a workshop and two interviews, one based on competency and CV questions and the other being a technical interview with a mix of partners, counsel, associates and HR. 

Vacation schemes

Cleary offers 65 vac scheme places each year across the winter, spring and summer schemes. Participants are paid £500 a week. 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.

Norris-Jones told us: "We deliberately operate our vac scheme in a flexible way. We don't allocate supervisors, because we want vac schemers to work in different areas of the firm. We ask them to make introductions to our lawyers in as many areas as possible." Candidates receive feedback at the end of the vac scheme, then training contract offers are made: "We make very few direct training contract offers," explained Norris-Jones.

Top tip for this stage: "We look for people who are intellectually excellent," revealed Norris-Jones. "We also want people who demonstrate passion for the law and can give good reasons for why they want to work with us. Our lawyers constantly do new things with different types of work, so on the vac scheme, we need to see an eagerness to knock on people's doors and ask to take on things they haven't yet had exposure to. Those are the people who will flourish here."

Who does the firm recruit?

Although Cleary predominantly recruits from Russell Group universities, the firm "is looking for diversity in every sense of the word. We want balance by gender, race and socio-economic background," explained Norris-Jones. "The reality is we have an enormous pile of applicants who have top grades, so it can be hard to distinguish between applicants. That means we look for something more than grades, which is intangible in a way, but can be evidenced by seeing how candidates interact with people, the questions they ask and the breadth of experience on their CV."

Why train at Cleary?

According to Norris-Jones, "This is an unusual and interesting place to work. We don’t sit in groups, we're deliberately mixed across floors, which is an indication of our culture – we like to interact with each other and know what each other is doing. We do the most interesting, cutting-edge international work for amazing clients like Goldman Sachs, Sony and Google, but we offer the opportunity to do that with a great group of people who get on."

Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP

2 London Wall Place,

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 16 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 60 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 the winter scheme is October 31 and spring and summer vacation scheme applications is January 31.

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 2024.

University law careers fairs 2023
• University of Cambridge
• University of Oxford
• University of Exeter
• University of Warwick
• University of Durham
• University of Edinburgh
• University of Nottingham
• Kings College London
• London School of Economics and Political Science
• University College London

This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2023

Ranked Departments

    • Banking & Finance: Borrowers: Big-Ticket (Band 2)
    • Competition Law (Band 3)
    • Corporate/M&A: £800 million and above (Band 4)
    • Banking Litigation (Band 3)
    • Capital Markets: Debt (Band 2)
    • Capital Markets: Equity (Band 4)