Trainees at Chicago-hailing Austin have plenty of powers to do pro bono, network and get themselves educated on all things finance. Yeah baby, yeah!
Sidley Austin training contract 2022
Sidley’s sole UK office in London has been on a winning streak of late: it recorded double digit revenue growth in 2020. This reflects what trainees dubbed the firm’s “growth path” in recent years, which has seen it build out its private equity practice in particular. It hired "a bunch of people” (six private equity partners) from Kirkland & Ellis back in 2016, kickstarting a period of reputation-strengthening in the area: "It’s gone from a firm I’d never heard of to being the next Kirkland,” one trainee felt. While Sidley’s star continues to rise in the London market, it is worth flagging its rich history in the US, where it is known for its Chicago origins and domestic strengths in areas such as investment funds, capital markets and international trade.
“We’re not a satellite office and we have our own client base.”
London-based trainees felt there was something intimate about the firm's base here: “Although our work is becoming more high-profile, we’re still holding on to our origins as a small base [in London]. We’re not a satellite office and we have our own client base, so we don’t get everything from the US like some other American firms here.”A comparatively smaller intake of trainees gain exposure to this home-generated work, which was another draw for our interviewees, as this one explained: “I didn’t want to be a tiny fish in a massive pond, like magic circle trainees – we get more responsibility at a junior level.”At the time of writing, Sidley trainees also get paid more than their magic circle counterparts and can look forward – if all goes well – to a higher NQ salary(£148,500): “I’d be lying if I said the remuneration didn’t play a part in my decision to come here!” one interviewee admitted.
Speaking of money, Chambers UKrecognises Sidley’s financial know-how in eight different categories, including capital markets and restructuring. Only one ranking isn’t directly finance or financial services-related – data protectionand information. On a UK-wide basis, Sidley London is especially regarded for its hedge funds, insurance, and payments lawexpertise. One source observed that “the firm works with more niche clients like small funds, rather than the traditional FTSE clients that other big firms work with – that really drew me here.”
While it won’t seal the deal, “networking is important"when it comes to seat allocation, as one source explained: “For example, I went for lunch with a partner in the group I wanted to join.”Naturally, “the further through the training contract you get, the stronger the position you’ll be in to get the seat you want, because you’ve met more people and expressed interest.” More formally, HR sends around a list of all the available seat options before a rotation, from which trainees rank their top three preferences: “It’s good to chat with HR too, just to set out your stall.” The process was ultimately deemed transparent, and newbies get advance warning if they won’t be rotating into one of their top choices. As of September 2021, Sidley's competition-focused secondment to its Brusselsoffice resumed. There are two secondment options available at each rotation: a stint with the litigation and arbitration folks in Sidley’s Hong Kong office and a client secondment (these were put on hold in March 2020 due to the pandemic but will resume in March 2022).
Trainees told us that the restructuring team has grown significantly over the past year or so. We heard there are two types of restructuring keeping trainees busy in this department: the first one involves urgent client requests, which are common “given the state of the economy at the minute: we’d have to drop everything and pick up the matter – maybe the client was being asked for the money they owe – so it’s very fast-paced and the outcome is different every time.”The other type of restructuring is more traditional: “It’s about entities looking for opportunities to purchase distressed assets, so I’d be tasked with identifying opportunities in the market,”a source explained. There’s a heavy focus on business development in this group, which partly involves “identifying industries where companies are really struggling with the impact of the pandemic and bringing that research to the team.”
“...it’s very fast-paced and the outcome is different every time.”
Corporate work revolves around traditional M&A and private equity, with trainees getting involved in both sides. Drafting board resolutions is a standard task, alongside running the usual due diligence. “This team is extremely busy,” an interviewee told us, “so trainees get a lot of responsibility: we’re often the contact for clients and the other side. I felt like a core member of the deal team, which really set this seat apart from my others.”The more substantive work was described as incorporating comments into transaction documents and updating signings for closings. Some enjoyed research tasks the most: “My supervisor would say, ‘We want to do X on this deal, so can you find out what the legal position is.’ It’s like getting an essay topic at uni: you don’t know much about it, but you go away and research it, then present your findings.”
"I felt like a core member of the deal team."
Sidley’s global finance group is centred on structured and debt finance, but there's also a leveraged finance side. Sources were happy to get experience on the borrower side (instead of just the lender side, as can be the case elsewhere in City firms). They also felt it was a great seat learning-wise, with this interviewee explaining: “My supervisor will call me and say, ‘We’re going to accept comments X, Y and Z and this is why we’re accepting them.” This seat is “conceptually more taxing than M&A, which is much easier to follow because it’s just about buying and selling, but structured finance involves collateralised loan obligations[CLOs], which I didn’t understand before I started.” Trainees handle document management, “which isn’t particularly glamorous, but we have to do it!”Those who had sat in corporate noticed “a big difference in terms of research – there’s not much of that at all in this seat, but I have done a lot more drafting – on things like legal opinions – in a shorter period of time.”
“My supervisor will call me and say, ‘We’re going to accept comments X, Y and Z and this is why we’re accepting them.”
The focus in the designated real estate financeteam is on asset-backed finance, a trainee informed us: “We effectively operate as a support group for the finance, restructuring and corporate teams, so we advise on the real estate aspects of their transactions.” We heard that “lots of the work involved reviewing various types of documents, like leases, then providing comments to external counsel.” Elsewhere, matters involved commenting on and reviewing documents – like Land Registry filings – that have been sent through by the other side’s legal representation. It’s worth noting that this group does a lot of pro bonotoo, like handling charities’ lease issues.
Pro bono tends to be more of a focus in US firms, and Sidley is no exception. NQs here can even apply for a post-qualification pro bono fellowship that typically lasts for three months. Previous destinations have included Big Society Capital, Just for Kids Law and JUSTICE. There’s also an annual prize for the person who’s done the most pro bono work. Sidley encourages its trainees to get involved with PIP (personal independence payment) issues: “We do tribunal appeals if these benefits have been taken away. We get to work directly with associates on those submissions, then attend the hearing, which is really good.” The firm’s pro bono counsel emails a list of available projects every week, but trainees are also welcome to bring in their own matters: “It’s a great way to show partners you can lead matters.”
"Partners see us as valuable members of the team – they often put our names in press announcements."
We were told that Sidley has quite a flat hierarchy, with this source explaining: “All my interactions with partners are very natural – they’re really approachable. They see us as valuable members of the team – they often put our names in press announcements, and one partner invited me to a deal-closing lunch, for example.”Another noted: "Because we’re a small firm, you get to know everyone by name and the trainees and associates are good friends.” Trainees also get to meet their colleagues in the firm’s European offices: “Sidley has run a European Lawyers Conference for the past couple of years. In 2019 it was hosted in a hotel in Surrey and we had seminars in the day, then a massive party in the evening.”Christmas parties are also reported to be very special: “The first couple I went to were in Claridge’s!” Of course, a lot of the socialising of late has been virtual, and Sidley has adjusted accordingly: “We had virtual comedy nights and breakout rooms, some of which were with other offices. They’ve done so well in replicating the office culture as much as possible.”
Mentorship varies by supervisor: “My current supervisor is better than my last one. He’s happy to communicate via WhatsApp, so he’ll send me voice notes with feedback on my work.” Others explained: “We’re encouraged to take initiative, rather than rely on being spoon-fed. One of the partners has the motto: ‘There’s no such thing as a silly question, but there is such a thing as a lazy question.’” Interviewees spoke highly of the training on offer: “Lots of it is about bringing people together from across the offices. We have training calls with the European and US offices on topics like trends in the law. Sidley is really keen to retain trainees, so even if people are really busy, there’s still a big emphasis on trainee development to ensure we’re as qualified as we possibly can be.”
The qualificationprocess was described as informal. Once the firm has released the available NQ jobs list, trainees submit CVs for the positions they want. Overall, “people aren’t nervous about it[qualification], because the firm has really good retention rates.” In 2021, Sidley retained 11 of 13 qualifiers.
Peaks and troughs
As we often hear from trainees working in City firms – especially those in transactional practices – the “hours can fluctuate a lot: some days I’ll clock off at 4pm and other days it’ll be 3am.” According to our survey, trainees put in roughly 52 hours a week.
How to get a Sidley Austin training contract
Applications and assessments
The firm launched a vacation scheme in summer 2013 and now receives around 1,000 applications for it each year. Sidley aims to recruit all trainees through the vac 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 pays attention to A level results, but does also use Rare Recruitment.
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 two partners.
“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 bio 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 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 partners and a few social events, including Sidley's summer party.
Interview with Patrick Harrison, training principal at Sidley Austin
Chambers Student: What does the firm do to help trainees eventually become partner?
Patrick Harrison, training principal: We recently set up a practice development review system that forms an important part of the associate compensation committee process: there are eight London partners in the committee who associates can discuss their career development plans with. We also have an internal sponsorship program, where associates can take any partner out for lunch and discuss career progression.
The firm also has a global D&I committee, chaired in London, which brings in additional mentors for folks with diverse backgrounds, and we have a cross-office committee on the retention and promotion of women, with a sub-committee in London, so members reach out to female associates and run programs for them based on issues facing female associates.
Although the partners within associates’ specific practice groups are the most important contacts for career progression, we have structures in place to ensure that other people in the firm look out for associates and bring them forward, too.
We also do networking training sessions with associates to help them with the soft-skill side of professional development. They also get a budget to take clients out. Associates can also invite their peers to associate-only networking events.
CS: Tell us about the firm’s diversity and inclusion initiatives.
PH:In addition to the global D&I committee I mentioned, we work with the Social Mobility Foundation to recruit students for work experience. We have partnered with a couple of different organisations for training contract recruitment, one of which is Rare Recruitment which helps us to contextualise the applications we receive. We get over 1000 applications for the 15 training contract spaces we have, so we want to make sure we review those applications in a way that takes candidates’ circumstances into account, like showing academic excellence despite being educated at a school where very few people went on to university.
We also support Bright Network, which helps us improve diversity in pipeline applications. Through the organization, we do open days that are targeted at certain demographics to make sure we boost the number of applicants from different backgrounds. We’re also very supportive of the different groups our trainees and associates want to join when they’re with us: for example, we sponsor Interlaw Diversity, an LGBTQI+ organization that runs a mentoring scheme for LGBTQI+ associates.
CS: How does the firm keep its community intact with remote working?
PH:Making sure we give the right kind of support, training and work was a challenge.
The early days of lockdown were very much about trying to replicate the support systems we have in the office. We focused on improving communication and making sure we were in touch with each other by phone and video more than we were pre-pandemic to make up for not being physically together in the office. Supervisors scheduled regular video calls with trainees, and most groups increased the frequency of virtual meetings.
There were, of course, periods where restrictions were lifted so we gave supervisors budgets so they could catch-up with trainees in person and go out for lunch. People could work in the office if they had specific reasons, like mental health issues or bad WiFi. We put lots of wellbeing resources in place, like an in-house counsellor, a private GP service and various virtual sessions including yoga and pilates. The wider firm made May 2021 Living Well month, and we made it a big focus here in London: there were events almost every day, be it an expert session on sleep patterns or how to help your kids deal with the pandemic.
A number of partners spoke to their own experiences with mental health: we had very open sessions about difficulties they had faced through their careers.
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This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2021
- Banking Litigation (Band 5)
- Capital Markets: Debt (Band 3)
- Capital Markets: Securitisation (Band 3)
- Capital Markets: Structured Finance (Band 3)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 3)
- Tax (Band 5)
- Data Protection & Information Law (Band 3)
- Financial Services: Payments Law (Band 2)
- Insurance: Non-contentious (Band 3)
- Investment Funds: Hedge Funds (Band 3)
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