Clifford Chance LLP - True Picture

Trainees who wanted it all for their careers weren’t taking any chances when they applied to corporate colossus Clifford Chance.

Clifford Chance training contract review 2021

The Firm

What did Clifford Chance’s trainees want from a firm? Not much, just “a prestigious name, great international opportunities, and a top-notch reputation across multiple practice areas.” Only a handful of firms could fulfil such a wish list. As a member of the revered magic circle, its status as one of the world's top corporate and financial law firms is airtight. Alongside its London HQ and a small Newcastle office, Clifford Chance has 36 more offices around the globe, including bases in New York, Singapore and Beijing. For trainees, this means overseas seats are up for grabs.


As for expertise across multiple practice areas, Clifford Chance pulls in over 270 rankings from Chambers Global. Domestically, Chambers UK bestows the firm with nearly 60 rankings, many of which are top-tier. The majority of these fall under transactional areas such as banking and finance, capital markets, M&A and private equity, but the firm’s litigation and banking litigation teams are considered top-notch too.

“It’s something I can use as a springboard for the rest of my career.”

But Clifford Chance’s sterling reputation wasn’t all our sources felt the firm had to offer. Many were also attracted to “a forward-thinking culture” and a firm they believed “genuinely values diversity.” This sentiment was shared by a clear majority of our survey respondents: 97% strongly approved of the firm’s efforts to recruit diverse candidates, and more than 30% identified as black, Asian or an ethnic minority. 

For some interviewees, “the training was the key driver” behind their decision to apply to Clifford Chance. “The quality of the work you’re involved in and the level of supervision is excellent,” said one. “No matter the stresses, I’m working with some of the best people in the country.” Interviewees had a strong sense of the opportunities Clifford Chance opened up to them – “it’s something I can use as a springboard for the rest of my career.”

The Seats

The firm has an innovative approach to seat allocation by using a computer algorithm. In short, trainees are given 200 points which they can ‘spend’ on seat preferences. The more they want to do a seat, the more points they spend. One source likened the process to a “blind auction,” explaining that “hypothetically you could guarantee a seat by spending your full 200 points in one go. However, it means that the remainder of your seats will be assigned based on the business needs of the firm.” Trainees liked that “the numerical approach takes out a lot of the politics” that often accompanies seat allocation.

Behind the scenes at the Clifford Chance SPARK programme for first years>>

There’s still some human input, but more so when it comes to allocating international and client secondments. “HR has to consider language skills and an individual’s general performance,” trainees explained. “They’re not going to send an underperforming trainee to a client!” Most trainees undertake an overseas seat. Available locations vary each year. “Often the seats in Asia are most popular, such as Singapore and Hong Kong, as well as those in the Middle East,” one insider told us. “There's a perception that because they are English-speaking, it’s much easier to assimilate and pick up more responsibility.” The firm’s overseas offices are often smaller than headquarters in London, so trainees agreed that these opportunities usually offered up greater responsibility all round.

“I’ve had the chance to work with some of the most intelligent people I have ever come across.”

Trainees have their pick of seven sub-teams within corporate including private funds, TMT, competition, financial institutions, private M&A, and public M&A. Of the two M&A groups, private is the biggest and provides plenty of opportunities for trainees to cut their teeth drafting board minutes, managing checklists and “helping supervisors analyse client queries.” The clients are huge – recently, the team advised Coca-Cola on its £3.9 billion acquisition of Costa. It also acted for Pfizer, one of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies, on a joint venture with GlaxoSmithKline to create a global consumer healthcare company.

Those with a passion for finance will salivate at the prospect of choosing between five distinct finance seats at Clifford Chance: SABRE (structured and asset-backed real estate); regulatory/derivatives; asset/project finance; restructuring; and general banking. The banking team recently advised the lead arrangers on the financing for the £1.9 billion take-private of BCA Marketplace, a car auction operator, by TDR Capital (a take-private is when private equity firms purchase the stock of a public company). One source explained that “compared to M&A, you tend to have more set trainee tasks that you are expected to do on repeat for each deal, such as drafting legal opinions and managing conditions precedent checklists. It can be less exciting, but it means you get good at something quickly and can add value.”

Trainees who’d sat in asset finance expressed similar sentiments. “Although it’s technically difficult in a couple of areas, the work is also quite straightforward in that you’re typically dealing with the same three or four types of deals,” one clued us in. “Once you familiarise yourself with them, they become easy to understand and repeat.The majority of the work is in the aviation sector, “so if you don’t like planes, you probably won’t enjoy it,” one source put it bluntly. The team recently advised GE Capital on the sale of PK AirFinance, an aviation lending business, to Apollo Global Management and Athene Holding for $3.6 billion.

In regulatory/derivatives (which is also known within the firm as 50H) much of the work is advisory and focuses on black-letter law. One insider told us: “I’ve had the chance to work with some of the most intelligent people I have ever come across.” Sources suggested the regulatory seat offered more responsibility than other transactional departments. As evidenced by one trainee: “I was writing memos that went straight to clients with minimal oversight and conducting detailed research into what the implications of a certain EU regulation would mean for a transaction.”

Within capital markets trainees can do seats in equity and structured debt. The team recently advised Nordic residential property managers Samhällsbyggnadsbolaget i Norden (also known as SBB, mercifully) on the structuring, drafting and negotiating of a €300 million hybrid capital issuance. “Debt capital market deals follow very strict and rigid timelines,” insiders explained. “In terms of sheer volume, it’s quite high-octane but the workloads are fairly predictable.” Translation: you’ll consistently be working late nights, but you’ll know they’re coming.Plenty of drafting was available, as were opportunities “for trainees to run some deals independently with a supervising associate.” The department also scored among the highest of the transactional seats for the level of client and partner contact it offers trainees.

“Doing some glorified admin can actually be a relief when you’ve been working long hours."

Trainees can sample a wide variety of work within the firm’s dispute resolution seat, including commercial litigation, arbitration, regulatory investigations work, and more. Some of the clients here include General Electric, Airbus and BT, the last of which the firm defended against claims brought by the administrators of Phones 4u, alleging that several telecoms companies colluded against it. In a recent arbitration, the firm also represented Invenergy Renewables against Poland concerning contracts made with state-owned companies. Our interviewees explained that “once you’ve gained your team’s trust, you’re rewarded with meaningful responsibility, particularly in the form of research.” We also heard of trainees getting more mundane tasks, such as “inputting analysis from transcripts into a table – for a month!” But on the plus side, “doing some glorified admin can actually be a relief when you’ve been working long hours." Our survey results showed that there wasn’t much client contact or interaction with partners in this seat, but respondents agreed overwhelmingly that the work was interesting, their legal skills progressed, and that they would be happy qualifying into the department.

Sources also pointed out that “the litigation department heads up most of the firm’s pro bono initiatives.” Trainees can participate in one of several clinics that the firm attends each week, which include assisting local residents with issues such as Court of Appeal litigation, domestic violence, employment, welfare benefits, debt and housing. The firm also advises and represents the parents of autistic children in litigation before the Special Educational Needs Tribunal to secure better educational provision for their children.

Trainee Life

At this point, you’re probably dying to know how much of your social life you’d have to trade in for Clifford Chance’s name adorning your CV. Let us ease you in. Trainees reported far less gruelling hours in seats like litigation, where they often went home before the 8pm mark. In pensions, “I logged on at 9.30am, took a full hour for lunch and was off at 7pm every evening without fail.” Over in the transactional seats, “there are going to be days where you’re leaving at 6pm and days where you’re leaving at 6am,” one insider summarised. Asset finance was highlighted as particularly tough (“some of my friends looked grey in that one!”). Our survey participants ranked SABRE as the most demanding seat – “I was happy if I got out between 10pm and 11pm!” One particularly expressive trainee described it as “the murderous baby produced when real estate finance and structured finance decided to merge last year.” Fortunately, we heard the firm “recently had a review to help address the problem” of trainees working long hours.

And in this vein, our interviewees were impressed by the firm’s approach to mental wellbeing. “They want to support you if you’re feeling bad,” one trainee told us, adding: “They make efforts to make sure your hours are more manageable. A response of 'this is what you signed up for, deal with it,’ would never be acceptable.” Resources on hand include an occupational health professional who lawyers can access through the firm’s healthcare programme. Another insider felt that “on a firm-wide level they are great mental health advocates, but in reality your experience is dependent on your supervisor and the team you’re in.”

“A junior associate from an ethnic minority background can mentor a partner.”

Interestingly, one of our interviewees drew a correlation between the departments with the most demanding hours and their gender composition. “Groups such as capital markets are very male-heavy,” they stated, adding: “I think if you’re a young black woman looking for representation at the higher levels then it becomes problematic.” The firm has set itself targets of 15% of new partners and 30% senior associates to be made up of ethnic minorities by 2025, and is aiming for 40% female global partners by 2030. Clifford Chance performed well in our diversity survey, with trainees ranking it favourably in categories such as inclusivity training. The firm has a female empowerment programme called Accelerate, as well as a reverse mentoring scheme, whereby “a junior associate from an ethnic minority background can mentor a partner.”

While trainees undoubtably work hard, being part of a firm that generated revenues of £1.8 billion in 2019 means trainees can expect some considerable perks too. For example, last year, litigators were rewarded with an all-expenses paid skiing trip to the Alps. The firm also puts on summer and Christmas parties. As for the salary, trainees start on £48,000 and progress to £54,000 in the second year. Along with most of its magic circle peers, Clifford Chance cut NQ pay in the wake of the pandemic, so this year’s successful qualifiers will begin on £94,500.

On the approach to qualification, all trainees are given a presentation during their final seat outlining a “very clear timetable” of the process.Competitive departments such as litigation “have a four-stage approach,” which involves interviews, supervisor meetings and appraisal analysis. Last year, the firm boasted a respectable 90% retention rate. This year, 70 of 95 qualifiers were kept on.

Tech a Chance on me

Clifford Chance launched its IGNITE training contract last year, offering a tech-focused experience for a small number of trainees a year.


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• Freshfields

• Linklaters

• Slaughter and May

These large international firms:

• Baker McKenzie


• Herbert Smith Freehills

• Hogan Lovells

• Latham & Watkins

• Norton Rose Fulbright

• White & Case

Our practice area guides:

• Corporate and transactional

• Finance, capital markets and restructuring

>> A-Z of firms

How to get a Clifford Chance training contract


Vacation scheme deadline (2021): 10 December 2020

Training contract deadline (2023): 10 December 2020

Open day dates (2020): various; see website

SPARK – first-year programme (June & July 2021): 10 December 2020

Watch Clifford Chance's new video on its IGNITE tech traineeship

Watch Clifford Chance's video on its SPARK programme

Initial applications

The first step in applying to everything Clifford Chance offers is an online application form (there's a shortened version for one-off open days). Standing out from the crowd is crucial: graduate recruitment marketing manager Aasha Tikoo suggests the best way of doing so is “demonstrating the skills required to do well here through your own work experiences. These days it's less about a checklist of core competencies – though those still exist – and more about aligning to our core values of client service, collaboration and empathy for people from diverse backgrounds.” A trainee we spoke to who’d attended an open day noted “something that stood out was that the managing partner attended and gave a talk about inclusion, diversity and the importance of people feeling comfortable at the firm.”

Clifford Chance requires applicants to complete a Watson Glaser test. The assessment lasts 30 minutes and features 40 problem-solving questions. Global head of people and talent Laura King explains that “the more you can display an enthusiasm for problem solving, the better” throughout the application process. “Take interest in what's changing around you whether it's artificial intelligence, globalisation or another trend.” That's especially important if you’re applying to the firm’s tech-oriented ‘IGNITE’ training contract, the process for which is identical to the regular route.

It’s worth noting that Clifford Chance does not recruit on a rolling basis and does not review applications until after the deadline has passed. It is recommended that you apply to an open day or attend a careers event to to learn more about the firm before applying for a training contract.

Assessment day

The best candidates progress to an assessment day at the firm’s London office. Each day consists of two interviews conducted by panels of partners and associates, both assessing applicants' commercial skills through the use of a case study. There's time allocated before each interview to familiarise yourself with the materials. Tikoo tells us the key is to “show you understand Clifford Chance's business and are keen to train with us. We're looking for candidates who can engage in meaningful conversation and demonstrate their passion for particular topics.”

It's worth noting that neither panel sees candidates' CVs, so both the initial application and interview performances are taken into account when the firm hands out training contacts. Clifford Chance aims to let applicants know if they've been successful as soon as possible.

Vacation scheme

In 2020 there will be one two-week summer programme exclusively for penultimate year students; the application process is identical to that of the training contract. Tikoo stresses that “it's not vital at all to do a vacation scheme,” and the firm encourages prospective trainees to “apply for a vacation scheme if they really feel they need that additional exposure before making their mind up” – so if you know Clifford Chance is the firm for you, go straight for the training contract. During the vacation scheme, candidates get a trainee 'buddy' as well as a supervising lawyer who they'll shadow.

Trainee profile

Historically, Clifford Chance has taken “almost exactly 50/50” law to non-law graduates annually “with only ever slight variation.” Every year, a decent proportion of trainees come from Oxbridge, but more importantly the cohort comes from over 30 institutions including LSE, Lancaster, Essex, Warwick, Edinburgh and Southampton.

King tells us “applicants don't have to be from a certain background or have a certain personality: they have to be intellectually curious and want to work as part of diverse teams, which isn't always as easy as it sounds.” She encourages candidates to make their own interests clear: “If you're a classical guitarist, or really into cooking, we want you to bring those talents and passions with you. Don't check yourself at the door, bring your whole self to Clifford Chance.”

SPARK scheme

SPARK is an award-winning and unique opportunity to gain an unparalleled introduction to the world of commercial law, undertaking classroom-based learning alongside work shadowing in a practice area. You may even secure a training contract by the end of your first year of university (or second year if you are on a four-year degree).

Clifford Chance LLP

10 Upper Bank Street,
Canary Wharf,
E14 5JJ

  • Partners 586
  • Associates: 3,553
  • Total trainees: 506
  • UK offices: London
  • Overseas offices: 35 offices in 23 countries
  • Contacts  
  • Graduate recruitment team graduate.recruitment@cliffordchance. com
  • Application criteria 
  • Training contracts pa: 90-100
  • Dates and deadlines 
  • Training contract applications open: 3rd August 2020
  • Training contract deadline, 2022 start: 10th December 2020
  • Salary and benefits 
  • First-year salary: £48,000
  • Second-year salary: £54,000
  • Post-qualification salary: £94,500
  • Sponsorship  
  • LPC fees: Yes
  • GDL fees: Yes
  • Maintenance grant pa: GDL: £10,000 LPC: £10,000
  • International and regional 
  • Offices with training contracts: London

Firm profile
Clifford Chance is a leading global corporate law firm. But we’re not a typical one. Far from it. Life here means doing the best work for exceptional clients while being yourself. We look for individuals, not for ‘typical lawyers’. We’re focused, but we know how to have fun. And we collaborate. At every level. Which makes this a brilliant place to learn. To find your feet quickly. To get ahead.
What we do and where:
We give expert legal advice on every aspect of commercial law. And our clients? From infamous corporations, governments and global banks, to not-for-profits and charities, we help just about everyone with our specialist knowledge and skills. That variety definitely makes life here interesting. As does the scale and scope of what we do. Our work covers corporate; global financial markets; real estate; litigation and dispute resolution; plus tax, pensions and employment. And when it comes to where we are, we work in major financial centres across the Americas, Asia Pacific, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
How you can get involved:
You don’t need a law degree to join us. (About half of our trainees come from non-law backgrounds.) What matters is that you’re resilient, curious, creative and open to new challenges. You’re someone who loves to learn. A great problem solver. A smart thinker. You’re commerciallysavvy, solutions-oriented and up for working as part of a close-knit team. One of the ways you can show us you have what it takes is to experience life here before you apply for your Training Contract. You can explore the possibilities available by attending one of our virtual events or completing one of our free Global Virtual Internships — open to everyone. These offer unparalleled access to legal resources whilst revealing the people and culture in a way that has never been done before.

Main areas of work
Corporate; global financial markets; real estate; litigation and dispute resolution; tax, pensions and employment.

Training opportunities
All of our trainees rotate through a two-year programme which gives them the opportunity to explore our practice areas. We also offer client secondments, international secondments and splitseat roles. It’s all about making sure they get the breadth of experience they need to thrive.

Other benefits
Benefits include free gym membership, pension scheme, on-site healthcare, private healthcare scheme, season ticket loan, cycle-to-work scheme, dental plan and more.

First-year opportunities
Clifford Chance SPARK:
We will be running two of our award winning SPARK schemes in 2021. The application closing date for our first year SPARK schemes is 10th December 2020.

University law careers fairs
2020 Visit our Events Hub to find out about our virtual opportunities:

Social media

Twitter @CCGradsUK
Careers website

This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2020

Ranked Departments

    • Banking & Finance: Borrowers: Big-Ticket (Band 1)
    • Banking & Finance: Lenders: Big-Ticket (Band 1)
    • Banking & Finance: Sponsors (Band 2)
    • Banking Litigation (Band 1)
    • Capital Markets: Debt (Band 2)
    • Capital Markets: Derivatives (Band 2)
    • Capital Markets: Equity (Band 1)
    • Capital Markets: High-Yield Products (Band 3)
    • Capital Markets: Securitisation (Band 1)
    • Capital Markets: Structured Finance (Band 2)
    • Commercial and Corporate Litigation (Band 2)
    • Competition Law (Band 2)
    • Construction: Non-contentious (Band 1)
    • Corporate/M&A: High-end Capability (Band 2)
    • Employment: Employer (Band 2)
    • Environment (Band 3)
    • Financial Crime: Corporates (Band 2)
    • Information Technology (Band 4)
    • Litigation (Band 1)
    • Pensions (Band 4)
    • Planning (Band 4)
    • Public International Law (Band 1)
    • Real Estate Finance (Band 1)
    • Real Estate Litigation (Band 5)
    • Real Estate: Big-Ticket (Band 3)
    • Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 1)
    • Tax (Band 2)
    • Asset Finance: Aviation Finance (Band 1)
    • Asset Finance: Rail Finance (Band 2)
    • Asset Finance: Shipping Finance (Band 3)
    • Commodities: Derivatives & Energy Trading (Band 3)
    • Commodities: Trade Finance (Band 3)
    • Construction: International Arbitration (Band 2)
    • Data Protection & Information Law (Band 5)
    • Employee Share Schemes & Incentives (Band 1)
    • Energy & Natural Resources: Mining (Band 2)
    • Energy & Natural Resources: Oil & Gas (Band 2)
    • Energy & Natural Resources: Power (Band 1)
    • Energy & Natural Resources: Renewables & Alternative Energy (Band 2)
    • Financial Services: Contentious Regulatory (Corporates) (Band 1)
    • Financial Services: Non-contentious Regulatory (Band 1)
    • Fraud: Civil (Band 4)
    • Hotels & Leisure (Band 3)
    • Infrastructure (Band 2)
    • Insurance: Mainly Policyholders (Band 2)
    • Insurance: Non-contentious (Band 1)
    • International Arbitration: Commercial Arbitration (Band 2)
    • International Arbitration: Investor-State Arbitration (Band 2)
    • Investment Funds: Private Equity (Band 2)
    • Investment Funds: Real Estate (Band 1)
    • Parliamentary & Public Affairs: Public Affairs (Band 1)
    • Private Equity: Buyouts: High-end Capability (Band 1)
    • Projects (Band 1)
    • Projects: PFI/PPP (Band 2)
    • Retail: Corporate & Competition (Band 2)
    • Telecommunications (Band 3)
    • Transport: Rail: Projects & Infrastructure (Band 2)
    • Transport: Rail: Rolling Stock (Band 2)