Chicago's splendid Sidley combines international clout with a more intimate feel and a vibrant social calendar.
There are 100 reasons why you might choose a law firm. Sound financial governance might not be up there with the sexier messages in law firm marketing, but the canny student should take note of Sidley’s accomplishments: the firm famously avoids getting into debt. Its policy of restrained, low-risk growth has, rather refreshingly, powered the firm to the top. Revenue exceeded $2 billion in 2017, placing the firm in the territory of the magic circle. In London alone, the firm's last financial year saw revenues of £85.7 million, up by 14%.
Driving this growth is more than just elbow grease – though there is plenty of that – as the firm has been busy tweaking things in London. As one trainee explained: “Traditionally the firm has been very finance-oriented, particularly around securitisation, but recently we have steered more towards the private equity and corporate markets, which are more lucrative.” Since enticing a six-strong team of private equity partners over from fellow Chicagoan Kirkland & Ellis back in 2016, the firm has continued to successfully woo talent from rival firms: two corporate experts from Simpson Thacher & Bartlett and an M&A partner from Ashurst. The firm's identity may be shifting, but finance remains its forte; Chambers UK gives commendations for the firm's securitisation, restructuring, structured finance and derivatives work.
“The fact that we are the gateway between the US and the rest of Europe means we are pretty autonomous – there is no US Big Brother peering over our shoulders.”
The formula of “a top-tier, international law firm with a global reach and smaller trainee intake” sealed the deal for many of our sources, who contrasted this with the magic circle's much larger intakes. Working outside the firm's HQ wasn't a concern: “The fact that we are the gateway between the US and the rest of Europe means we are pretty autonomous," one source reflected, adding that "there is no US Big Brother peering over our shoulders.” Indeed, Sidley's London base serves many of the USA's finest in navigating the choppy seas of EU law. For example, the firm is currently representing a consortium of hedge funds through the Managed Funds Association (MFA) concerning the implementation of Europe's new Markets in Financial Instruments Directive (MiFID II).
The firm is broadly split between transactional, regulatory and litigation teams. Finance and corporate account for most of the firm's work, followed by areas such as dispute resolution, restructuring and regulatory. HR allocates seats after reviewing three preferences put forward by trainees two months before each rotation. “A lot of the decisions are made under banner of 'business needs' so it can be hard to understand how decisions are made,” trainees felt, adding that “there could be more transparency.” Retention is usually pretty good, but 2018 was a bit of a blip with five of ten qualifiers kept on.
Work in the regulatory group is much more academic compared to the finance and corporate groups. “A lot of our clients are US asset managers who have some sort of operations in the EU and need to know the regulations they must comply with,” insiders explained. A good chunk of trainees' time will be spent with their heads down researching EU law, regulations and sanctions. Tax is similarly research-heavy, with a “good variety of specialist work.” Here's a snapshot of one newbie's seat: “I worked very closely with one associate. We would get a tax problem in – something like calculating the VAT on importing a corporate jet into the EU – and we would spent two days getting to grips with the guidelines and legislation, and then create a first draft of a memo of advice. We would then spend the next two days reviewing and revising the memo."
Sidley's Global Finance Group (GFG) takes on four to five trainees at a time; most are in the more traditional field while one does more leveraged finance work. As well as the private equity niche, you'll also find the real estate group sitting here, which is also an option for the training contract. “It's a weird department because it's so top-heavy,” noted one of the few trainees, and “it can be difficult as a first seat because it's so complex and technical,” hence the need for so much seniority. One source even recommended “watching a few documentaries about the financial crisis and the world of finance beforehand to get to grips with the basic ideas.” Data room management and producing bibles may be a regular part of trainees' schedules in the beginning, but once up to speed we heard reports of juniors having direct client contact, drafting notices and conducting specific pieces of research. The team recently advised investment company Whitehorse on its participation in the €164 million senior financing of Bottega’s acquisition of Getronics.
“You get to see the broader aspects of a transaction."
The corporate team takes on a “broad mix of M&A and global restructuring work,” thought trainees. Clients are mainly European or global, and a typical deal here would resemble Sidley's work with insurance broker Aon, which it advised on the sale of its global benefits administration and business outsourcing business to private equity giant Blackstone for a hefty $4.3 billion. “You get to see the broader aspects of a transaction compared to finance where you approach deals from a specific funding point,” sources explained. Trainees' roles here tend to more managerial and include "preparing structure charts, managing CP checklists, drafting board resolutions and liaising with clients.” Those who opt for a seat in the employment department will also find themselves doing a lot of corporate support work. “You might be churning out new iterations of employment handbooks based on changes in corporate structure, or doing the due diligence on employment contracts as part of an acquisition," one interviewee explained. "If someone is buying a company they will want to know if there is a massive pension fund or how much holiday everyone is entitled to.”
US firms suffer from some stereotypes (often justifiably) on the theme of the lawyer sweatshop, but trainees at Sidley were quick to reassure us that they'd sidestepped the worst of it. “We have a reputation for being nice and normal - it's not cut-throat. That might sound trivial but it makes the difference when you're working late.” This echoes research in our US guide of the Chicago mothership, which remains sanguine in an otherwise highly strung legal market.
Sources also felt this mood was helped in part by the firm's modest size and more intimate feel: “I don't know everyone's names but I know everyone's face now, which makes it easier to make connections and ask questions.” Our sources detected some variances between departments. The finance and corporate groups for example were considered “much more old-school. Some of the partners resemble classic law-firm partners from ten years ago and still expect some deference from the trainees.” A firm-wide culture of respect exists at Sidley, and sources were thankful that this keeps a lid on any “boy's club or lad culture developing,” as isn't uncommon in the City.
“I know everyone's face now which makes it easier to make connections and ask questions.”
Our sources were relieved that a small intake doesn't mean a meagre social life. “The firm is very social and not in the artificial, 'I'll go and have one drink and leave soon after' kind of way," one interviewee stressed. The two annual highlights include the firm's heavily subsidised ski trip over a long weekend in January and the sailing trip in May: “We all go down to Southampton and race to the Isle of Wight and back against other law firms. You can be a complete beginner!” sources reassured. Other notable events include the firm's rooftop summer party and winter party, held last year at Claridges. “No tension carries over, and everyone – especially the secretaries - really let their hair down.”
The one stereotype of US firms that did ring true, unsurprisingly, concerned hours. “Most clients will have a strong US footprint so you need to be mindful of what their professional expectations are, and that they are working in a different time zone,” sources cautioned. 8pm finishes are the norm at Sidley, but everyone had worked much longer and for long periods. “I was working until 11pm twice a week for six months,” one regulatory trainee told us, adding that “working weekends is not uncommon.” Still, seats such as tax and employment were reported as more forgiving and trainees felt the firm generally respected any planned events; "plenty of people have taken two week holidays."
Sidley Austin will be moving its London office to the 'Can of Ham' building at 60–70 St Mary Axe in January 2020.
How to get a Sidley Austin training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: 5 November 2018 (winter), 31 January 2019 (spring/summer)
Training contract deadline (2021): 22 July 2019
Sidley representatives attended eight law fairs in 2017: King's College London, UCL, LSE, Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Nottingham and Durham. Note that the firm considers applicants from a broader range of universities than these, so don't be put off if yours doesn't appear on the list. The firm also organises two open days in March.
Applications and assessments
The firm launched a vacation scheme in summer 2013 and now receives around 1,000 applications for it each year, on top of the 400 it generally gets from candidates gunning straight for a training contract. Sidley tends to recruit the majority of its trainee intake from the vacation scheme.
The initial online form is similar for both routes and sets out to assess candidates' commercial awareness, academic record and work experience. The form includes a question asking applicants to describe a recent commercial issue. A graduate recruitment source tells us this is “the first question I look at when shortlisting candidates – it's a very telling question, as it reveals what interests applicants have and speaks to elements of their personality.”
Aspiring recruits need a high 2:1 degree with consistently good grades throughout. The firm also pays a lot of attention to A level results, though it keeps an open mind on the work experience front. “This doesn't have to be legal experience,” confirms our recruiter source, telling us “it's actually refreshing to see non-legal work experience on the form. It's particularly impressive to see someone who has thrived academically while also holding down a part-time job.” Tying these experiences and the skills acquired from them to the realities of a job in a City firm is a must.
Those who impress on paper – both vac scheme and training contract applicants – are invited to attend an hour-long interview with two partners and the graduate recruitment manager.
“We can see from their application form that shortlisted candidates have excelled academically,” our source tells us, “so the next part of the selection process provides us with an opportunity to test their intellect and find out more about the individual and their personality.” Candidates are given each interviewing partner's CV beforehand. We suggest using this as a tool to stimulate conversation and make the interview a two-way exchange.
Ultimately, it's “the subtle things” that are scrutinised during the interview, we're told – for example, whether someone is confident or over-confident, and whether they could hold their own with clients. “They asked me some professional conduct-type questions to see how I'd deal with certain situations,” recalled a current trainee. “It's about seeing how you react under pressure.”
Partners are also likely to raise questions involving the economy and the latest financial news. “They want to see that a candidate has their own thoughts and isn't swayed automatically by what they as partners are saying,” our source reveals. “We're not looking for 'yes' people in that sense; it's always good to have a debate.”
Interviewees aren't expected to be an expert on the inner workings of Sidley's practice areas, but they do need to demonstrate a sound understanding of the firm's work, clients, and recent matters to impress.
Since 2015/16, the firm has run a winter and spring scheme on top of its usual three two-week summer schemes. Each scheme has space for up to 10 candidates and participants spend each week in a different department.
“We try to make it into a mini training contract and cram as much in as we can,” the firm tells us. In between live work, vac schemers attend briefings from partners and a few social events, including Sidley's Christmas or summer parties.
Sidley Austin LLP
25 Basinghall Street,
- Partners 45
- Other fee earners 100+
- Total trainees 22
- UK offices London
- Overseas offices 20 (including London)
- Graduate recruiter: Nicole Katz, graduate recruitment manager, [email protected]
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 12
- Applications pa: 1,000
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Minimum A levels: AAA
- Vacation scheme places pa: 45
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract deadline, 2021 start: 22 July 2019
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 October 2018
- Vacation scheme 2019 deadline: 6 November 2018 (winter) and 31 January 2019 (spring/summer)
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: TBD
- Second-year salary: TBD
- Post-qualification salary: £120,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £11,000
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London
- Overseas seats: Hong Kong, Brussels, Geneva
- Client secondment: Yes
Main areas of work
Open days and first-year opportunities
Sidley Austin LLP, a Delaware limited liability partnership which operates at the firm’s offices other than Chicago, London, Hong Kong, Singapore and Sydney, is affiliated with other partnerships, including Sidley Austin LLP, an Illinois limited liability partnership (Chicago); Sidley Austin LLP, a separate Delaware limited liability partnership (London); Sidley Austin LLP, a separate Delaware limited liability partner- ship (Singapore); Sidley Austin, a New York general partnership (Hong Kong); Sidley Austin, a Delaware general partnership of registered foreign lawyers restricted to practising foreign law (Sydney); and Sidley Austin Nishikawa Foreign Law Joint Enterprise (Tokyo). The affiliated partnerships are referred to herein collectively as Sidley Austin, Sidley, or the firm.
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2018
- Banking Litigation Recognised Practitioner
- Capital Markets: Debt (Band 4)
- Capital Markets: Securitisation (Band 3)
- Capital Markets: Structured Finance & Derivatives (Band 4)
- Real Estate Finance (Band 4)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 3)
- Tax (Band 5)
- Data Protection & Information Law (Band 3)
- Financial Services: Non-contentious Regulatory Recognised Practitioner
- Financial Services: Payments Law (Band 2)
- Insurance: Non-contentious (Band 4)
- Investment Funds: Hedge Funds (Band 3)