Getting stuck into mega matters all over the globe, New York giant Shearman is an absolute worldie.
Never had a friend like Shearman
Aladdin won Princess Jasmine’s heart with a song declaring he could ‘show her the world’. They may not have a magic carpet (as far as we know) but Shearman & Sterling has earned the love of many a trainee with a similar promise. The firm’s international network grew to 25 offices with the addition of bases in Seoul, Houston and Austin in 2019; big cross-border deals and multi-jurisdiction litigation are all in a day’s work and a training contract sojourn to exotic destinations like Singapore, Abu Dhabi and New York is firmly on the cards.
The firm is top-ranked by Chambers UK nationwide for projects and fares well for banking and energy, but Chambers Global extracts a more handsome genie from the bottle – Shearman earns a multitude of rankings including a top-of-the-pile nod for its international arbitration prowess. Most of the London office’s work is linked to finance (big-name clients include Barclays, Nokia and Wells Fargo) and corporate M&A (for which Liberty Global, General Electric and the Qatar Investment Authority call on Shearman’s expertise). Our trainee interviewees brought up “the long history of the firm and the fact it’s acted on some of the biggest transactions ever completed, and still does today.”
“We’re not a Wild West outpost acting as local counsel for Wall Street lawyers.”
Born in New York way back in 1873, the firm’s had a London office since 1972 and it generates plenty of its own work without needing to import too much from across the pond. Trainees liked that “there’s a well-established culture. We’re not a Wild West outpost acting as local counsel for Wall Street lawyers.” Where Shearman does fit the US firm stereotype is its smaller trainee intake. In recent years the firm’s consistently welcomed 14 or so newbies each year.
That doesn’t mean they’re treading water – two partners recently came on board to kickstart an infrastructure practice. “There were worries about the effect that might have on internal promotions,” a source revealed. “At a town hall meeting the management explained it should in fact create more opportunities.” Junior lawyers were also chuffed that Shearman boosted NQ pay to a tasty £120,000 – 20k above the new magic circle rate. “There had been murmurs that it was about time they raised to keep up with the competition,” insiders said.
New arrivals are assigned their first seat without a say; they then have to submit a minimum of five preferences before each rotation and “HR tries to allocate us as best possible considering whether we’ve got our choices and what we’ve done already.” There were some grumbles that “more often than not your preference can be set aside in favour of business need, which makes it seem a bit pointless to submit them at all.” Happier sources argued that there’s probably no better way of doing things.
Trainees are expected to do seats in two of the three core departments – finance, M&A, or project development and finance – and most end up following that pattern, although some sources suggested that the rule’s applied less strictly than it was once upon a time.
Sterling work, everybody
Finance is the largest of Shearman’s three core seats. The “very general practice is loosely separated into leveraged and structured finance” and while trainees are expected to work across both, most spent the majority of their time on the leveraged side. “You’re very much expected to do the admin work like due diligence and bibling,” and in this seat “it’s obvious which roles are for which people. It’s a good department for learning deal management and organisation skills.” There’s certainly a lot to keep on top of on matters like advising Merrill Lynch and Wells Fargo on bridge and term loan financings linked to Comcast’s £30 billion offer for Sky.Trainees are also expected to run conditions precedent checklists and, towards the end of the seat, answer client queries. “I found it a very useful first seat to get to grips with the groundwork,” one interviewee told us. “It might be frustrating for a fourth-seater wanting to take more responsibility.”
There’s a mix of public and private work on offer in M&A, and borders are no obstacle to the team's practice – it acted as lead counsel to Goldman Sachs Saudi Arabia during the circa $5 billion merger of two banks and advised Boston Scientific on its $4.2 billion offer to acquire healthcare company BTG. “Everybody’s blasé about working with other Shearman offices on deals,” one source said, although several interviewees reported working on “mostly UK-based deals. It varies by trainee and there are clients from the US who need advice from us.” Similar to finance in that “there are clearly structured tasks for people at each level,” M&A differed in offering “a lot more client contact. We’ll prepare presentations for them and write up board minutes after meetings.” Trainees also delved into discrete research tasks and kept the global operation running smoothly. A word of warning if you fall in love with it – qualifying into M&A can get competitive.
“You have to consider political risk and geography.”
Split into project development (handling the physical construction aspects) and the financing that pays for them, project development and finance encompasses infrastructure, oil and gas and renewables. Africa and the Middle East are the geographic focus here: Shearman recently acted for the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company on the financing and development of the Sharjah Multi-fuel Waste-to-Energy project. “You get good insight into other jurisdictions and always have to consider political risk and geography,” a source explained. Deals here tend to take longer than in other departments – they can often rumble on for years – but that offers “a good opportunity to really bed into projects and understand the moving parts.” Trainee tasks can vary based on who your supervisor is as “some are good at including you in meetings and others pretend they don’t have trainees at all,” but there’s usually a balance of “quite tedious” signature packs and originals alongside drafting opportunities.
The firm labels its competition practice with the American term antitrust. Merger clearances and cartel investigations are key areas of the practice; the team’s “really hot on state aid cases” too. Trainees in the seat saw “a full competition spectrum in six months,” and told us the “level of responsibility on offer was extraordinary. If you ask to do something more difficult you’ll get the chance.” Beyond footnoting and legal research, all our interviewees had a go at “relatively high-level drafting including writing memos from scratch that became the foundation for entire projects.” Some also got to prepare business development materials for partners and write marketing pieces, remarking that “it’s pretty cool to see your words printed in a specialist publication.” Cases tend to be international by default: for example, the team represented five oil and gas giants in the competition aspects of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, stretching from Russia to Germany.
Describing arbitration as a “marquee Shearman practice,” trainees told us it’s “really good for your development and you really feel like part of the team. It’s less hierarchical than other departments.” Once again, cross-border is the name of the game, and the firm acted for Cyprus-based Alverley Investment in $250 million proceedings brought against the state of Romania. When not representing companies in investment treaty disputes, Shearman also assists states and state-owned bodies. Trainees we spoke to worked on a “very large construction arbitration.” They explained that “there is grunt work but the team quickly learns to trust you if you can do it quickly and effectively. By the end of the seat you’re drafting and helping prepare for hearings.” On investment treaty arbitrations, interviewees were “doing more ad-hoc research into quirky facts. I was working with the Paris, Abu Dhabi and Frankfurt offices on one matter.”
Trainees can apply to do a seat overseas as they would any in London. There’s a fairly high chance you’ll get to go if you’re keen, and the firm can sometimes require trainees to go jetsetting if an office needs bodies. New York aside, most potential destinations are home to “much smaller teams than in London, so there’s lots of room for a trainee to step up and grow their skills.” It’s also become more common for trainees to spend a seat with a firm client, which can also be mandatory.
Break away or takeaway?
All of our sources were “very strongly encouraged to do pro bono, the firm gives you a stern word if you don’t!” Shearman sets an aspirational target of 25 hours for all lawyers and anybody who doubles that earns a congratulatory star for their door. Examples we heard include writing tribunal appeal submissions for a disability charity; assisting with domestic violence clinics; and work for the World Bank. “Pro bono is one area where your lack of seniority doesn’t matter,” a trainee said. “You could know the most about a matter and end up upwardly supervising very senior members of the firm.” There were some complaints that busier periods of billable work can leave little time for pro bono.
Interviewees had a nifty trick for remembering how often they had to stay late in the office: anybody who’s still about at 8pm can charge Deliveroo to the firm. “I’ve only done it four or five times in the past six months,” one laughed. Others had a more hectic (but presumably tastier) time of it; we heard “transactional seats are definitely worse, there can be a lot of post-midnight finishes and sometimes all-nighters.” Trainees appreciated that “the firm was honest about how dreadful the hours can be” and one source reckoned “people at Shearman don’t like being bored, so a 10-hour day is better than having nothing to do.”
Despite the hectic hours, one trainee challenged the idea that there was a stereotypical US-firm culture: "Everybody’s relaxed and there’s no formal ‘power dressing’ for no reason.” There is some grounds to think the firm might deviate: chiefly, the firm’s relatively long history in London and the fact that “lots of associates have been poached from magic circle firms, so they tend to be the kind of lawyers who really like what they do and wouldn’t be here otherwise.” Some worried about a lack of diversity in the ranks, acknowledging that “they talk about it but a lot of the candidates coming in for vac schemes are from Oxbridge.” Other trainees argued that London head Matthew Readings is “hot on diversity and the firm absolutely promotes the right values,” and in 2018 the firm appointed Sandra Bang as its first ever global diversity and talent strategy officer.
“Even during the qualification process there’s never any trainee backstabbing.”
“Each department has its own culture which hinges on the size,” and “the larger the department the better they tend to be at socialising.” Project finance got particularly good reports for its Friday afternoon beer fridges, “aimed at encouraging people to get away from their desk.” Shearman runs firm-wide summer and Christmas parties and the graduate recruitment team gives trainees a budget to host their own socials. “We’re a close-knit community and try to get together ad-hoc when we can,” one source told us. “Even during the qualification process, when you expect sharp elbows to come out, there’s never any trainee backstabbing.”
The process kicks off with a meeting to explain which departments are hiring. “There’s an expectation you’ll already have told your preferred department that you’re interested,” sources suggested. “There are lots of off-the-record coffee meetings to get an idea of whether your application would be welcomed.” Trainees submit three preferences for where they’d like to qualify: “It feels like HR are on your side. More transparency for those who didn’t get what they wanted would have been great but lots of people got their first choice department.” Thirteen of 16 qualifiers stayed on at Shearman in 2019. One of the lucky ones was “inspired by seeing former trainees who are now great lawyers and are still here eight or nine years later.”
As well as an NQ mentor, trainees get a supervisor in each seat. “You can request someone but it’s not guaranteed,” and we heard that “there’s quite a mixed range of styles between people here. Sometimes having a partner supervisor means you’re left to your own devices more.” Larger departments run introductory training sessions and regular lunchtime tutorials, while in smaller teams “there’s definitely less structured training but supervisors are more attentive and that’s training enough.” Requests for more regular feedback appeared in a few of our interviews. The firm’s already addressing concerns, introducing an “avant-garde” appraisal portal called My Development through which trainees can request comments from anybody they’ve worked for.
Shearman’s London office is less flashy than some City counterparts: there's no gym, canteen or pool, but there are pool tables in breakout spaces. The location between Shoreditch and Spitalfields Market means "there are lots of options for lunch!"
How to get a Shearman & Sterling training contract
Training contract deadline (2022): TBC
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.
Graduate recruitment manager, Paul Gascoyne tells us the online form – which is used for both vac scheme and direct training contract applications – “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.” He mentions that while legal work experience is not essential for vac scheme hopefuls, it is a must for direct training contract applicants. “We like to see that, at the very least, they've 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.
Success at this stage leads to an assessment centre for training contract applicants; for vac scheme applicants this takes place in the second week of their placement. The day-long assessment centre starts with a written exercise that Gascoyne assures us “is accessible to both law and non-law candidates.” A group exercise in the form of a business case study follows. “Seeing how candidates behave and conduct themselves as part of a team is very important to us,” says Gascoyne. “Our London office is quite small, so we need to see that people can interact well with others.”
Next up is a case study assessment: candidates are asked to review a news story before discussing it with two lawyers. Forming a balanced argument is key, as is being able to discuss commercial issues confidently.
The final step is an interview, usually with two partners. We have it on good authority that this is “much more commercially-focused than the first interview.” According to Gascoyne, “a big part is also determining whether the interviewee will fit into our culture.” The day also includes a lunch with trainees; a tour of the office; and a drink with some of Shearman's lawyers to round off the day.
The vacation scheme
Shearman runs 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 have been the highlights of the last year in Shearman’s London office?
James Webber: It’s been a great year in London. Ward McKimm – the City’s pre-eminent high yield bond lawyer - joined us from Freshfields and we had two infrastructure and leveraged finance partners join from Baker McKenzie. 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 2019
- Vacation scheme 2019 deadline:
- 3rd November 2020 (Winter)
- 19th January 2020 (Spring/Summer)
- 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, 2019
- Banking & Finance: Borrowers: High-end Capabilities (Band 3)
- Banking & Finance: Lenders: High-end Capabilities (Band 3)
- Banking & Finance: Sponsors (Band 3)
- Capital Markets: Debt (Band 3)
- Capital Markets: Derivatives (Band 4)
- 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)
- Projects (Band 1)