New York’s sterling Shearman offers an international experience to a modest trainee cohort.
The training contract review 2020/21: Shearman & Sterling
Close all your Airbnb tabs; a contract at Shearman & Sterling could be just the globetrotting ticket you’re looking for. From Wall Street to, well, the world, the firm’s international network of 24offices offers newbies a training experience without borders. Whether they were on secondment to Singapore, New York, Abu Dhabi, Paris, or sat at their desk in London, trainees we spoke to were “collaborating with lawyers from all over the globe on most matters.” London’s an important piece of the jigsaw: Shearman scores strong Chambers UK rankings for projects, energy, banking, capital markets and financial services regulatory. Globally, the firm is most famous for its elite arbitration practice led from Paris. The firm has had a base in the capital since 1972 and favoured organic growth over mass lateral recruitment, but bolstered its arbitration and restructuring practices with new partner hires in 2020.
Cross-border mega deals and litigation are the fuel to Shearman’s fire. American deal support is a fixture here, but sources cut their teeth on plenty of homegrown matters as well. The appeal of the firm’s international practice brought more than a few trainees through the door; others were sold by the relatively small intake of 15 or fewer new starters each year. Once they’d settled in, interviewees discovered that Shearman had found a good midpoint between American qualities and British charm, celebrating the “relaxed” and “supportive” atmosphere. “Shearman doesn’t fit the US firm stereotype in terms of culture; everyone is very understanding and supportive,” one said. The firm does stick to the American stereotype on salaries, paying out a super-sized £120,000 to its NQs.
“Shearman doesn’t fit the US firm stereotype in terms of culture; everyone is very understanding and supportive.”
“The simple application was another of the reasons I applied,” a trainee told us. “Some firms ask you very convoluted questions, but Shearman’s process was straightforward.” Others were impressed with the extra mile the firm went to, in order to make life easier for applicants: “There was no centralised testing. The firm sent out people to our universities to conduct interviews, so we didn’t have to go to London; I got the feeling the firm valued my time and effort.”
To start their training contract, new arrivals settle into a “completely random” first seat. They then submit a minimum of five preferences before each rotation, keeping in mind that they must do at least two seats among the three core departments: finance, M&A and project development finance (PDF). It’s worth keeping an open mind to split seats and overseas secondments: “It’s down to client demand,” we heard. “You may be required to go overseas – if you’re needed, that’s that.” Getting summoned was no bad thing for sources: “I couldn’t have asked for a better training contract on reflection.” Beyond the core departments, popular seat options include antitrust and international arbitration.
As the largest of Shearman’s core seats, finance comes in many flavours – the two core parts of the offering are leveraged finance (the larger side) and structured finance. Capital markets has now also moved up to the finance floor in the London office. “Most trainees will get a large chunk of their work from the leveraged side and dip in and out of other teams depending on their supervisor or where is busy,” trainees told us. You’ll find both New York-based and English-sourced matters here for clients like Coca-Cola, Nokia and Investcorp, with Shearman usually advising lenders. To give you an idea of the money in play here, the firm recently advised the Bank of Nova Scotia on a $3.3 billion additional facility accession deed provided to subsidiaries of Virgin Media. As for structured finance, Shearman regularly advises European packaging producer Ardagh on hedging for its multibillion-euro financing structure. Common trainee tasks here include company search questionnaires (CSQ), drafting agreements, preparing legal opinions and keeping track of the conditions precedent. One source described their role as “a good set of tasks for a trainee – for example, the CSQ gives a deal overview and shows what needs to be done.” Trainees were wholly impressed with the finance department, especially for “the effort they put into training.”
“I’ve done a lot of drafting from scratch. You see the document from the very start and have the time to get comfortable with it.”
M&A offers a mix of both public and private deals with a strong cross-border focus; key clients include Goldman Sachs, Liberty Global and Intercontinental Exchange. Among Shearman’s recent deals, it’s worth highlighting ArcelorMittal’s $7 billion joint venture acquisition of Essar Steel India; and the $400 million separation of UKTV into two distinct operations owned by Shearman client Discovery and the BBC respectively. Joint ventures often appeared on trainees’ radars, as did infrastructure transactions – both came with plenty of drafting experience. “I’ve drafted ancillaries, non-disclosure agreements and resolutions,” one noted; another told us they’d put pen to paper on a share purchase agreement. “I’ve done a lot of drafting from scratch. You see the document from the very start and have the time to get comfortable with it.” Trainees also took on research responsibilities: “You get to grips with new areas of legal knowledge depending on what kind of asset is involved.” It’s worth noting that M&A has historically been one of the more competitive departments in which to score an NQ spot.
The firm’s PDF group covers both a core project development practice, and the financing for the constructions. Shearman’s expertise lends itself to emerging jurisdictions, and the team is “particularly strong in the Middle East,” according to trainees. Clients have called for assistance on projects in Kenya, Cameroon, Nigeria, Kazakhstan, Brazil and Argentina, among other countries. Nationalised public entities (like Japan Bank for International Cooperation and Bahrain Petroleum Company) and private firms alike are on the roster – Shearman has advised on the development and financing of multi-fuel waste-to-energy project in the Arab Emirate of Sharjah and the modernisation and expansion of the Middle East Oil Refinery in Egypt. 2018 saw the firm grow an infrastructure funds practice with two lateral hires from Baker McKenzie. One trainee described working on a renewables infrastructure deal linked to financing an airport: “It came with an interesting regulatory aspect because of all the cross-border elements. I organised the signings, so was talking to ambassadors and news reporters; the projects we advise on are hugely important to the country they’re carried out in.” Day-to-day tasks in this seat include drafting ancillary documents, signature packs and originals, and signing off on conditions precedent.
“The projects we advise on are hugely important to the country they’re carried out in.”
On a worldwide scale, arbitration is a Shearman signature practice, scoring a top-tier Chambers Global ranking. Commercial and investment arbitration both play a role here. The firm has recently represented the Arab Republic of Egypt in two investor-state disputes following the poor performance and termination of a long‐term agreement for export of Egyptian gas to Israel, with upwards of $1 billion at stake. Trainees got to grips with disputes between private and public parties on both the company and state sides. “When I first joined the team I was working on a multibillion-dollar construction dispute in the Middle East,” one recalled. “There was a hearing in my first two weeks, it was a very exciting time.” During such hearings, our sources “took notes and organised bundles.” Much of the practice is kept under wraps, but we heard about investment issues in Asia and disputes fought over land in Eastern Europe.
Trainees can apply to do an overseas seat as part of the normal assignment process. Sometimes it’s even easier than that: “My supervisor asked around if anyone was willing to go to Abu Dhabi,” an insider noted. “I came forward and off I went!” Trainees can generally voice an interest in jetting off to another office, especially if they can explain how it will benefit their learning or build off of experience in a London seat. Some of the most common destinations include Singapore, Brussels and Paris. Although heavily sought after, overseas seats aren’t as competitively fought over as you might guess. “A lot of the offices rely on London trainees coming in,” one revealed. “There are also always trainees from all over the globe in the London office.” Because they take a role equivalent to junior associates, Londoners get a “kick up the butt” in their level of responsibility once abroad: “The teams are even leaner, so you’re constantly learning and getting to meet new people.” Got the global bug? You might even get a second golden ticket: “I’ve been overseas twice, and it’s been a very valuable experience,” a travel-happy source told us. The firm continued to run overseas seats during the Covid-19 pandemic, with trainees seconding from home where necessary.
Shearman encourages pro bono with a 25-hour requirement; anyone that logs double that earns a congratulatory star. “The projects we’ve done even come up during our reviews,” trainees said, stressing the importance placed on pro bono. They’d worked with charities including local primary schools, Walworth Academy and the Spitalfields Crypt Trust. One source described helping people affected by Covid-19 on “a bitesize project with one of the partners. We help people in need by answering their queries.” Another source was impressed with the firm’s local community outreach: “We display artwork by the homeless throughout our offices, it’s lovely to see.”
“We display artwork by the homeless throughout our offices.”
A typical working day at Shearman starts at 9.30am, and if trainees find themselves twiddling their thumbs they are free to leave at 6pm. Most of our interviewees found little time for thumb-twiddling, with common late-night finishes at 11pm. Nobody complained about the need to put in the hours when necessary: “The firm recruits conscientious people. If you have work to do you’re expected to stay until its done.” Trainees noticed face-time expectations dropping once their supervisors got to know them. “If you are responsible, people understand that you have a life and don’t really bat an eyelid,”one said. The demands of transactional seats are “very up and down,”whereas litigious departments are more consistent (more consistently “horrendous”for some). Nourishment for the soul comes from compensated Deliveroo after 8pm and counselling sessions to help trainees de-stress. “Your supervisor is the first person to notice if you’re looking unwell,”an interviewee rather ominously suggested…
The most common adjective used by trainees to describe the Shearman culturewas ‘supportive’. “Although the work is hard, the goal never feels too hard to reach,”they agreed. “If I’m in the office late it’s really not so bad as the firm has an immensely supportive atmosphere. I enjoy being around the people I work with.” Suddenly finding themselves out of the office during the Covid-19 pandemic, trainees weren’t too shaken up – one who was mid-secondment told us: “The team checks in everyday, which speaks volumes for the firm’s culture.”Team Shearman knows how to loosen their ties once in a while too: “A couple of the main partners came along to our karaoke night, they were dancing and singing with us,”a source said. “We are a very integrated team.”You know what they say – lawyers who sing together, stay together.
“If I’m in the office late it’s really not so bad as the firm has an immensely supportive atmosphere.”
When not unleashing their inner Britney Spears, trainees cut loose during the three formal trainee socials each year, for which they receive “a very generous budget.”Each department also has its fun, project finance taking the proverbial cake with “drinks every Friday.”At the time of our calls the WISER women’s committee had recently hosted an International Women’s Day celebration: “There was a panel discussion along with food and drinks – we saw a great turnout.”Though sources were impressed by Shearman’s efforts to push for diversity through internal organisations, they felt representation of women and ethnic minorities “could be better” at the senior level.
New arrivals get up to speed via weekly training sessions in each of the firm’s core departments, typically run around lunchtime. “I recently attended training on how to conduct the due diligence process in M&A,”one source said. “There are always opportunities to learn.” The appraisal portal provides trainees with easily accessible feedback via a portal dubbed ‘My Development’ – they can access comments from any lawyer they’ve worked for. Trainees also get an NQ mentor, who helps to make the qualification process crystal clear. It all starts with “a casual conversation with a partner you have a good relationship with in the department you want to qualify into.” From then on, the firm runs qualification as it does seat rotation; trainees submit three department preferences to HR. Shearman retained 12 of 13 trainees in 2020.
Shearmanator II: Decampment Day
The firm runs a European associate retreat, gathering lawyers from various offices for a conference. “There’s both training and networking,” trainees explained. “It’s great to meet everyone – those relationships don’t stop when you come back to London.”
How to get a Shearman & Sterling training contract
Apply for training contract through vacation scheme
Competition for training contracts at Shearman & Sterling is increasingly fierce. Applications for 2021 training contracts were up 35% compared to previous recruitment rounds: the firm received around 2,000 applications for its 15 training contract vacancies. At a base level, future trainees need a minimum AAB at A level and 2:1 degree. The firm now recruits exclusively through its vacation scheme.
Graduate recruitment manager, Paul Gascoyne tells us the online form “is pretty standard” and contains three open-ended questions: 'Why do you want to be a solicitor?' and 'Why Shearman specifically?' plus “a commercial question about our place in the industry.”
“There are four elements to an application that can help a candidate to progress to the interview stage,” Gascoyne says. “They are strong academics, evidence of relevant work experience, tailored answers to our questions and an error-free application form. We like to see that, at the very least, candidates attended firm open days or other non-assessed events – that shows they're committed to a career in the law.”
Interviews and assessments
Around 5% of applicants go on to a first-round interview. This takes place with either a senior associate or a partner and a member of the graduate recruitment team, and “isn't too formal,” according to Gascoyne. “We aim for a conversational tone to ensure it's a two-way process.”
Candidates are asked the usual 'Why law?' and 'Why Shearman?' questions because “we want to see a genuine interest in us as a firm. We also expect candidates to be able to speak knowledgeably about our place in the industry at large,” Gascoyne says.
The vacation scheme
Shearman has historically run four vacation schemes: one in the winter, two in spring and one in the summer. All vac schemes run for two weeks and there's room for up to ten candidates on each.
Vac schemers spend each week in a different department. On top of that, “we try to connect those who express a particular interest in a certain area with relevant people around the office,” says Gascoyne. “We might arrange for them to have a coffee with a partner from that department, for example.”
He goes on to tell us that supervisors “are told to treat vac schemers as they would a first seat trainee. We want them to have as authentic an experience as possible.” Along with a supervisor for each department they visit, attendees are assigned a trainee mentor, whose workload they shadow in between various HR-led activities. Vac schemers undertake the assessments outlined above – written and group exercises, a case study assessment, plus a partner interview – during the second week of their placement.
Trainees who’d experienced other vac schemes were won over by Shearman’s: “Some firms give you fake pieces of work and put on too many socials. Here, they give you a taste of what it’s really like as trainee.”
Interview with head of graduate recruitment James Webber
Chambers Student: What are the firm's goals for the near future?
James Webber: One of our firm’s strategic objectives is increasing disputes proportionally within the firm, with a long-term goal to make disputes count for 30% of Shearman’s revenue and headcount – we’ve been growing litigation and arbitration practices in London also.
CS: How is Brexit affecting the firm? How is it affecting your clients' business?
JW: ‘Not much’ is probably the answer, to be honest! Brexit has affected the financial markets and attractiveness of UK assets because people don’t know what the pound and the British economy will do. I’m an antitrust guy and I was worried that after the referendum people wouldn’t want to use London based advisers for competition work as a lot of that faces Brussels. Those worries haven’t come to fruition. A lot of the EU law expertise is here and is likely to stay for the same reasons that many professional services cluster together in the City of London. The prospect of Brexit has affected the economy as a whole, but so far there have been fewer negative effects on our practice than we anticipated.
CS: How much of the work you do is London-based, and how much comes from the US or elsewhere?
JW: The vast majority of the work is international. As a trainee you wouldn’t very often work on UK-only cases or matters involving only UK companies, but that doesn’t mean everything’s been fed in through New York. This isn’t a satellite office and you’re not simply here to service the American HQ
CS: What differentiates Shearman from other US firms with presences in London?
JW: Yes, there are many differences between US firms that you need to consider.
Does the firm have an elite practice? Shearman & Sterling is an original Wall Street firm and has always been an elite corporate finance and M&A practice. Historically our business was built on advising investment banks and large corporates coming to New York to raise financings or litigate disputes.
Does the firm have a global practice? We have offices in the world’s major financial centres doing significant cross-border work, but we don’t try to compete for purely local work in –say Indonesia or Japan. Firms with large numbers of offices tend to have a very different business model to us.
In terms of US firms in London, another question to consider is does the firm have a substantial English law business? A number of elite New York firms have a very small English law practice; Shearman & Sterling has one of the largest English law practices of the elite US firms. As a trainee you have a wider range of practice areas to train in.
CS: Do you see the firm growing or shrinking trainee numbers in future? If so, why?
JW: For the last five years we’ve had between 13 and 15 trainees at a time even as the underlying business as grown. The changing way in which we price and manage transactions is likely to lean towards more paralegals and assistants; if so, trainee demand may decrease over time. The market is changing quickly and that does impact what law firms need from their workforce – trainees are expensive and associates even more so. Lots is changing across the profession, but so far our intake has remained stable.
CS: What kind of person would fit in well as a trainee at Shearman?
JW: There’s no type as such. We have an extremely large number of applications and we’re very fortunate that we can choose people who’ve got extremely strong academics, then filter them down based on their ability to communicate ideas effectively, analyse problems imaginatively and work in teams. Those are difficult things to do. It doesn’t necessarily translate that someone with the best academic qualifications will have the best analytical or communication skills.
People who are able to communicate, advise, listen closely to and empathise with our clients will fare well here. Lawyers often start their careers thinking of clients as corporations with coldly rational motivations but in reality client organisations are made up of individuals trying to do their best. The privilege of being a lawyer is that those individuals are seeking your help and advice. That’s why being a lawyer is such a rewarding job. Being able to empathise with clients’ questions and understanding the hurdles they face. That maturity and insight is what we try and look for.
CS: Is there anything else we haven't already talked about that our readers should know about the firm?
JW: One of the firm’s biggest developments internationally over the past year is building out a Texas business, which is designed to increase our M&A capability. Texas is growing like crazy and if it were an independent country it would be one of the richest in the world. We’ve hired M&A, energy and tech lawyers in Houston and Austin – those were quite ambitious moves for a Wall Street firm, but they’ve already brought in lots of new opportunities.
Shearman & Sterling LLP
9 Appold Street,
- Partners 36
- Associates 180
- Total trainees 25
- UK offices London
- Overseas offices: 23
- Graduate recruiter: Paul Gascoyne, [email protected], 0207 655 5000
- Training partner: John Adams
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 15
- Applications pa: 2,000
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 or equivalent
- Minimum UCAS points or A levels: AAB
- Vacation scheme places pa: 40
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 September 2020
- Vacation scheme 2021 deadline:
- 3rd November 2021 (Winter)
- 19th January 2021 (Spring/Summer)
- [NOTE - 2021 spring vacation scheme postponed due to COVID-19 outbreak]
- Open day deadline date: Various
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £45,000
- Second-year salary: £50,000
- Post-qualification salary: £120,000
- Holiday entitlement: 24 days pa
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £8,000
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: Hong Kong
- Overseas seats: Abu Dhabi, Brussels, Dubai, New York, Paris, Singapore
Main areas of work
Open days and first-year opportunities
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2020
- Banking & Finance: Borrowers: Big-Ticket (Band 2)
- Banking & Finance: Lenders: Big-Ticket (Band 3)
- Banking & Finance: Sponsors (Band 3)
- Capital Markets: Debt (Band 3)
- Capital Markets: Equity (Band 3)
- Capital Markets: High-Yield Products (Band 3)
- Competition Law (Band 5)
- Corporate/M&A: High-end Capability (Band 5)
- Energy & Natural Resources: Oil & Gas (Band 3)
- Energy & Natural Resources: Power (Band 2)
- Financial Services: Non-contentious Regulatory (Band 3)
- Infrastructure (Band 3)
- Projects (Band 1)