Saddle up for Sidley Austin: this US firm has a world-class funds practice, but it’s no one-trick pony.
Sidley Austin training contract review 2024
Among Sidley’s greatest achievements, we’d highlight its world-class reputation in hedge funds, its status as one of the top ten highest-grossing law firms in the world, and its role in producing of the world’s best power couples (the Obamas). Beyond the firm’s numerous notable alumni, Sidley Austin’s gargantuan reach of 22 global offices makes a startling impression. With 2,400 lawyers around the world, “it sometimes feels unimaginably enormous,” says training principal Patrick Harrison.
“We are most known for private equity work.”
It’s fair to say that Sidley Austin is more of a household name in its native US, where you’ll find half of its offices (opening most recently in Miami) and dozens of Chambers USA rankings. The London office is the largest of Sidley’s four European bases, housing 350 lawyers and for the last three years in a row, it’s recorded double-digit revenue growth.Harrison gives us a sense of its coverage, highlighting litigation and arbitration, employment, regulatory, life sciences, tax, and “all aspects of finance” as some of the areas of work on offer. “Within that breadth, we are most known for private equity work, and that’s really picked up in the last six years,” he tells us.Sidley earns recognition from Chambers UK for investor representation and hedge funds, as well as payments law, data protection, insurance, and capital markets in London.
Of course, Sidley’s “reputation for having some of the highest calibre of work” was a juicy draw for incomers, but it was also the size of the intake: “Having 12 to 15 trainees suits how you’re going to learn.” That is to say, “a lot of learning by doing.” As one elaborated, “within two weeks of being in a seat, I was involved in a big deal!”
When it comes to picking seats, while Sidley is best known for its private equity work, training principal Patrick Harrison underscores that the London office has "a broad portfolio of specialisms trainees can go into from the outset.” The training contract does have a strong finance flavour, and most trainees are likely to do a stint in the corporate department, but there are also seat options in groups like healthcare and regulatory.To start with, the firm sends out a list of options for trainees to consider before submitting their preferred destinations. We heard the firm looks to recruit an array of newbies with different interests to ensure that trainee intakes aren’t too skewed towards any one group. Most of the cohort got one of their top three choices for placement (and those who didn’t said they’re guaranteed a top three choice for their next seat).
With around 45 people in corporate, “it’s a big team,” trainees told us. “Corporate has a lot of different workstreams” in industries ranging from financial services, insurance and real estate to technology, life sciences and hospitality. The team mostly handles cross-border M&A and mid-market private equity of deals in the tens of millions, although there are some bigger transactions reaching into the hundreds of millions. These are “arguably more popular,” one trainee grinned, “because it’s the deals you read about in the press!” Football fans will be interested to learn that Sidley represented the private equity company Clearlake in its acquisition of Chelsea Football Club.In another biggie, Sidley Austin advised insurance company Arthur J. Gallagher & Co on a $3.35 billion acquisition. “Within my first week I was working on multiple deals,” one trainee told us, “with lots of drafting opportunities and helping with aspects of purchase agreements.” Trainees are also expected to carry out the less exciting due diligence on a deal, and while “that can get a bit repetitive,” combined with research tasks it was good experience for those just starting out. Sidley places some emphasis on proactivity in this department, expecting trainees to reach out for work, and “rewarding” those that do.
“We were working on restructurings for Chinese companies, so those hours start relatively early!”
Restructuring can be a busy seat for trainees, particularly given the firm’s international client base. “We were working on restructurings for Chinese companies, so those hours start relatively early!” In 2023, Sidley represented China Fortune Land Development in the restructuring of its $4.96 billion offshore debt. In another cross-border matter in Europe, the firm advised Schur Flexibles (a plastic packaging manufacturer) on its €600 million restructuring. One interviewee detailed their experience: “As you become more acquainted and engaged in the team, your responsibilities grow to include involvement in strategy meetings, and taking responsibility when it comes to drafting. So towards the end you get pretty comfortable!”
The firm’s banking and financial servicesteam is “pretty much exclusively advisory,” and encompasses three main types of work. First up, there’sinvestment funds, advising US hedge funds on UK regulations. Then you have the regulation of payment services, and helping banks and asset managers navigate the UK aspects of securitisation transactions in the US. “I focused on payment services,” one told us. “They’re happy for you to pick one out.” This team also played a role in Clearlake’s acquisition of Chelsea FC, advising on an £800 million loan agreement.
The data privacy team is part of the firm’s global privacy and cybersecurity group, and is currently advising pharmaceutical company Bristol Myers Squibb on GDPR and privacy issues in both the UK and the EU, related to collecting sensitive data during clinical trials. Trainees can expect to do research around topics like these, and there were also plenty of interesting writing tasks: “I wrote a report for a video surveillance company on facial recognition technology,” said one. Trainees also “wrote blogs on new laws and different proposals.”
On the contentious side, trainees can sit in the arbitration and international disputes practice. There are also white-collar investigations on the go. “Sidley has all of that in one,” one trainee explained, and “you’re required to be on all of those to see the broad range of work in London!” While there is “a bit of grunt work, like proofreading and taking attendance notes and all that jazz,” trainees can get a bit of client contact in this “intense” seat. “I worked on a judicial review application,” one shared. “I got to take the lead on witness interviews and putting together witness statements.” Sidley recently defended Brightline (formerly Virgin Trains USA) against a $250 million breach of contract claim by Virgin Enterprises (a subsidiary within Virgin), after Brightline terminated their trade mark licence agreement. Under the white-collar banner, Sidley represented Lars Mørch, a former executive board member of Danske Bank, during an investigation into money laundering for sums of $230 billion.
Trainees also get the chance to go on secondment either with firm clients (“you can go to a Premier League team, which is pretty cool!”),or to Brussels for a competition seat. And trainees told us pro bono is “huge” at the firm: “There’s a real drive – in the first week they had a session about the different types of pro bono available, so every trainee is involved in at least one matter.”
You’ll find Sidley’s London office in the Can of Ham building opposite the Gherkin on Liverpool Street. “It’s lovely,” one trainee praised. There’s a rooftop terrace and the odd extracurricular activity – "sometimes they’ll have something like wreathmaking at Christmas.” The firm takes up the 21st down to the 14th floor, where people usually have lunch: “It’s not a cafeteria, but there’s a lovely kitchen area where you have fresh fruit and barista-style coffee machines. And we can get Deliveroo after a certain time!”
While the trainees we spoke with tended to travel into the City for most of the week, Sidley has no formal firm-wide policy on working from home, instead allowing practices to decide on what works best for them. From what we heard, restructuring, employment, privacy, and regulatory tended to be the most flexible, while litigation and leveraged finance expected trainees to be in every day. Those we spoke with did stress that while some groups are slightly stricter, “there’s no expectation to be in into the late hours of the night!” Trainees were pretty accepting of the “long hours” that were sometimes required of them, warning incomers: “Don’t make weekday plans if you know your team is busy!” They reasoned that “everyone’s going through the same thing,” and they’re also compensated with a hefty salary befitting of a US firm in London. “No problems there,” one commented.
Trainees also stressed that “everyone was always in, which made working as a team a lot better.” They typically share an office with a supervisor or another trainee, which insiders told us was vital for getting quick feedback on tasks. “Partners won’t acknowledge your existence at some firms,” one trainee mused, but thankfully, “that doesn’t happen here! They’re the most down-to-earth people you’ll have met in your life.” And they said if they ever had “any concerns, you can go to your senior associate comfortably.”
Going into the office was also helpful for building their social networks. Trainees said they often meet up to have lunch together, and go for drinks each quarter (paid for by the firm). “They’ve cut a bit of the social spending budget with the state of the market,” but despite this, Sidley plans a good number of formal events through the year, including the annual Christmas do, summer party, and events through the firm’s affinity groups.
“If you want to do retreats to the US, Sidley is the place to be!”
The firm’s women’s group is particularly active, meeting regularly and hosting events such as the International Women’s Day coffee morning. Trainees were also positive about the firm’s efforts for other minority groups and felt that the firm’s ethnic minority network“really makes a difference.” For example, the firm holds a black lawyers retreat in LA, which trainees in the London office are invited to, as well as an Asian lawyers retreat, which was most recently held in New York. There’s also an LGBTQ+ retreat in Chicago. So “if you want to do retreats to the US,” one trainee quipped, “Sidley is the place to be!”
In true US firm fashion, trainees picked up most of their skills during on-the-job training, but this doesn’t mean the firm leaves its newbies high and dry. There are formal trainings across the practice spectrum, including weekly M&A and private equity sessions. “We’re given training on non-disclosure agreements and competition,” for instance. “Then you have investment and regulatory team-specific trainings talking about market structure and the different players in the financial industry… it’s good to hear the theory behind it.”
When the time for qualification rolls around, HR publishes the seats that have roles available and qualifying trainees make their applications. “There is an informal track though,” one insider told us, so it’s common for trainees to have had chats with the teams they’re interested in by the time the formal process kicks off. By then, our sources felt “it’s kind of just a hoop-jumping exercise.” In 2023, 8 out of 14 qualifiers joined Sidley as NQ associates.
21 Days Later
Sidley Austin held ‘21 days of diversity’ encouraging attorneys to engage with a piece of media, sparking conversations around diversity and inclusion at the firm.
How to get a Sidley Austin training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: Winter: 15 October 2023Spring/Summer: 7 January 2024
Applications and assessments
The firm launched a vacation scheme in summer 2013 and now receives around 1,000 applications each year. Sidley recruits all trainees through the vacation scheme.
The initial online form 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 pays attention to A level results, but also uses Rare’s contextual recruitment system and considers mitigating circumstances.
The firm 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 are invited to attend an hour-long interview with one partner/counsel.
“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 interviewer's biography 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.”
Interviewers 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 the interviewer’s views,” 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 one-week winter and two-week spring scheme on top of its usual two-week summer schemes. Each scheme has space for up to 15 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 various practice groups and a few social events.
Sidley Austin LLP
70 ST MARY AXE,
Sidley is an elite global law firm powered by lawyers who practice at the highest level of the profession. Backed by 157 years of trailblazing heritage, we deliver superior service to a high-caliber group of market leaders worldwide, while placing a premium on collaboration and diversity. Our firm boasts a roster of more than 2,300 lawyers who wield deep experience in litigation, transactional, and regulatory matters spanning over 50 legal disciplines and industries. With 21 offices situated in major commercial and financial capitals around the world, our lawyers possess the cultural awareness and legal acumen needed to advise clients in today’s global economy.
Main areas of work
We handle a vast array of litigation, transactional, and regulatory client matters with practices in: antitrust/competition; capital markets; corporate governance; derivatives; employment; food, drug and medical device; global finance (including structured finance); healthcare; hedge funds, insurance; investment funds; private equity; real estate; real estate finance; restructuring; and tax.
The firm is not a typical City firm, nor is it a ‘legal factory.’ Everyone is encouraged to be proactive and to create their own niche from the first day onwards, so there is no risk of being just a number. Trainees spend time in the firm’s main groups. In each group, trainees will work with a partner or associate to ensure individual training with practical hands on experience. You will be encouraged to take on great responsibility where appropriate. Regular meetings with your supervisor ensure both the quality and quantity of your time at Sidley. In addition, there is a structured timetable of training on a cross-section of subjects.
We run a one-week winter vacation scheme and two-week vacation schemes in both the spring and summer each year. You will get to experience the day-to-day life of a lawyer at the firm and will have the opportunity to undertake real casework, rather than just observing or shadowing. This practical experience will be supplemented by a programme of presentations and workshops that will ensure you get to know the full firm culture. We aim to recruit all of our trainees from the vacation schemes.
Benefits include: private health insurance, life assurance, contribution to gym membership, interest-free season ticket loan, income protection scheme, and pension.
Open days and first-year opportunities
Sidley is offering first year students the opportunity to attend an Open Day held in March. For more information, please visit our website.
Sidley and Sidley Austin refer to Sidley Austin LLP and affiliated partnerships as explained at www.sidley.com/disclaimer
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2023
- Competition Law (Band 6)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 3)
- Banking Litigation (Band 4)
- Capital Markets: Debt (Band 3)
- Data Protection & Information Law (Band 3)
- Financial Services: Non-contentious Regulatory (Band 4)
- Financial Services: Payments Law (Band 2)
- Insurance: Non-contentious (Band 3)
- Investment Funds: Hedge Funds (Band 3)
- Investment Funds: Investor Representation (Band 2)
- Life Sciences: Regulatory (Band 2)