Sidley Austin LLP - True Picture

This Chicago native is known for all that jazzy finance, and there’s plenty of razzle dazzle in private equity too.

Sidley Austin training contract review 2021

The Firm

“Sidley has a lot of depth,” said one trainee, reflecting on why this US giant stood out to them. “Alongside a strong finance practice and a growing private equity scene, they also brought in a life sciences team a couple of years ago,” which resulted in a new seat for trainees. Sidley is especially known for its capital markets work, with Chambers UK rankings in securitisation, structured finance, derivatives, debt, and restructuring, among other areas. And it’s worth taking note of that growing private equity scene, because it’s been a major focus for the London office over the last few years. It all kicked off in 2016 with the addition of a six-person team from Kirkland & Ellis (four of whom are still with Sidley). Fast-forward to 2020, and you’ll find more than 40 Sidley solicitors in London with a private equity string to their bow.

Bonus Feature - the Sidley Austin guide to becoming a private equity lawyer.

“It was a big indication that the firm is ambitious.”

The influx of lateral hires over the last four years or so caught the attention of Sidley trainees when they were researching law firms. For one interviewee, “it was a big indication that the firm is ambitious and growing.” Globally, Sidley’s on its ninth year of consecutive revenue increases, with the 2019 figure coming in at $2.3 billion. London – one of 20 offices worldwide – accounted for just over £98 million of that. To make room for all of the new faces, the firm recently relocated to new office premises in the Can Of Ham building, sandwiched next to the Gherkin near Liverpool Street. The move took place in February 2020, so trainees didn’t have long to enjoy the new space before lockdown, but at least they’ll have brand spanking new digs to move back into. Sidley’s trainee intake of around 13 a year is slightly bigger than some of the other US firms in the capital, but for our interviewees it was just right: “I liked the idea of knowing everyone’s name.” One particularly big name in the firm's history is Obama – Michelle and Barack's eyes met in the Chicago office.

The Seats

Trainees felt they had “so much say” in seat allocation.Before joining and at each rotation they submit three preferences for their placement. “It’s a very frank conversation with HR and they do their best to accommodate everyone,” they explained, “but of course second-years get priority.” Although there aren’t any compulsory seats, the size of the finance and corporate groups means that the majority of trainees will spend a rotation there.

“I was the contact for the local counsel and all their signing needs.”

Four trainees sit with Sidley’s BFG, the global finance group (GFG). The team handles leveraged finance and structured finance, and there’s also some real estate finance work (one trainee sits in this specific area). For the most part, trainees’ work is shaped by their supervisors. The team is currently seeing a lot of restructuring matters and advising clients on the impact of Covid-19. “I’m sending out a lot of advice notes!” one trainee told us. On the structured finance side, the team has advised Polar Asset Management (a Canadian hedge fund) on nine European collateralised loan obligations (known as CLOs) worth €1 billion in total. On a recent leveraged finance matter, the team acted for TowerBrook Capital on the £293 million refinancing of its portfolio company ICS. The group also has crossover with the private equity team on financing private equity buyout transactions (which are funded with leverage – which is to say loans). Trainees here got to draft loan agreements and shareholder resolutions, but just like the rest of the GFG cohort, “we need to keep on top of the closings.” For trainees across the group, “there’s a lot of exposure to project management.” That means “we run the conditions precedent and closing checklists, and liaise with opposing counsel and clients.” Oh, and as for the global part of global finance group? We heard of trainees working on cross-border deals that involved as many as 17 jurisdictions. On one deal, a trainee told us “I was the contact for the local counsel and all their signing needs, making sure they had the corporate authorisations we needed.”

Get Sidley's view on how to become a private equity lawyer here >>

Corporate takes in another four trainees per rotation. Again, work here is led by supervisors, so trainees may spend time on M&A, private equity, or a mix of both. “The work is much more technical on the M&A side,” trainees told us. “There’s a lot of project handling and overseeing completion checklists, but we also got a stab at drafting some new documents and that was fantastic. There was also some research legal involved.” The team recently advised gaming company Inspired Entertainment on its $120 million acquisition of Novomatic UK’s Gaming Technology Group. They also represented eBay on the sale of brands4friends (a German online shopping club) to a private equity firm. Some also got experience in public M&A with companies on the London Stock Exchange. The private equity team handles mid-market deals in the hundreds of millions – it recently advised Goldman Sachs, for example, on a $90 million investment in DocPlanner Group, an online healthcare booking platform. Trainees were responsible for tasks like incorporating comments into documents, preparing signature packs, and drafting parts of due diligence reports.

“I was able to draft parts of an EU Commission investigation document.”

Trainees might do an advisory seat in banking and financial services regulatory. “Having experience with the structured finance team is a plus as this seat covers funds and derivatives work as well,” trainees explained.Clients here include fund managers, banks and asset management companies. The team recently advised KPMG on its compliance approach in line with the EU Market Abuse Regulation. Brexit was a big feature in a lot of the work here. For example, the team recently advised Aon Securities on its investment activities in Europe pre- and post-Brexit. Amidst uncertainties, trainees were tasked with “researching and keeping up to date on what other EU countries are doing and drafting bullet point emails with the latest updates to send to clients.” Sources here enjoyed legal research and drafting advice notes. The seat also threw up the occasional unexpected challenge, like “having to find a lawyer in Mongolia who spoke English and had the niche expertise we needed.”

Other advisory seat options include competition, life sciences, tax and employment. The firm has some truly giant competition clients, including Apple, which it advised during a European Commission investigation into a complaint made by Spotify about Apple’s App store. Trainees here get to spend three months in the Brussels office. At the time of our calls, we heard the work in Brussels was more focused on cartel investigations in the EU, while London was handling more matters related to mergers. On the investigations side, “I was able to draft parts of an EU Commission investigation document,” one lucky trainee told us. Merger matters entailed “a lot of multi-jurisdictional analysis and filing preparation.”

London’s emerging life sciences department also works closely with Brussels, advising clients in pharmaceutical, biotech and medical spheres, as well as food and cosmetic companies. “I visited the High Court in the first week of the seat,” recalled one startled source. “It was a baptism of fire!” The team recently advised US pharmaceutical company Nektar Therapeutics on GDPR compliance in its European clinical trials.

“I’m struggling to think how I’ll spend my salary if I do qualify.”

Sidley’s usual overseas secondment options include an international arbitration seat in the Hong Kong office. There might also be other secondment options here and there as needed – for example we heard a trainee had spent time in the Geneva office with the world trade law team. The firm has previously offered a client secondment with Airbus in Toulouse.

In true American style, there’s “a big push” on pro bono in Sidley’s London office, though some suggested “maybe not as much as there is at other US firms” that set specific pro bono hours targets. Sidley does recognise pro bono contributions with awards and our sources felt “heavily encouragedto the point where every trainee is expected to have done one Personal Independence Payment appeal during their training contract.” Plenty of our sources had exceeded this. The firm's pro bono fellowship programme is in its second year, allowing “a trainee who’s about to qualify to work one to three months in-house at a charity of their choice.”

Trainee Life

At the time of our calls, a handful of trainees were going through the qualification process“We have a week to choose which seats we’d like to qualify in and submit our CVs,” they explained. “Interviews are then set up with partners in those departments.” Appraisals play a big part in the decision, so “it’s important to treat every person you work with as if they’re above you, regardless of seniority.” In 2020 all nine trainees were retained, with one on a fixed-term contract.

“I’m struggling to think how I’ll spend my salary if I do qualify,” said one flummoxed trainee, as they contemplated the £135,500 salary that greets Sidley NQs. With trainees starting on £50,000, “I’m already earning so much more than my mum ever has, so I can’t complain – but some people still do!” According to one critic, “if you equate the pay per hour, then it isn’t really that high.”

“There was one week where I worked until 3am every night – including Sunday!” 

We’ll leave you to do the maths and decide if you agree: trainees reported average hours of a 9.30am start with a 7.30pm finish, but with a lot of fluctuation in the transactional seats. “You’re either slammed or twiddling your thumbs,” said trainees, and one recalled “there was one week where I worked until 3am every night – including Sunday!”  Trainees far preferred the more “predictable hours” in advisory seats.

With long hours, socialising is perhaps not as prevalent as it is at traditionally English firms.” Even so,trainees described “a lot of fun” in the Sidley office playing foosball and ping pong with their colleagues, including partners. We also heard the firm has men’s and women’s football teams. “I’d actually consider people I’ve worked with here more as friends than colleagues,” said one.

Trainees did feel the London office was “lacking” in the representation of different demographics, “but not because they aren’t trying.” As well as working with Bright Network and Rare Recruitment, the firm recently appointed senior associate Alice Morgan as diversity and inclusion consultant. “She heads up diversity efforts in the European offices,” one trainee explained, “and has organised a few conferences like inviting BAME lawyers in the legal industry to talk to us at Sidley.”

With all of the firm’s new hires over the last few years, our interviewees did pick up on “a clear divide” between the ‘legacy’ teams at the firm and the more recent lateral hires. From the trainees’ perspectives, it was most obvious in training styles. “The private equity team’s approach is very much to build an active learning environment,” they said, or in other words, to learn on the job. All supervisors undergo some training, but not everyone was satisfied: “I think the younger supervisors need more training.”

At the time of our interviews, trainees themselves wanted to get more department-specific training, “because it gets super busy when you start a seat and there isn’t really much time to sit and read through the trainee handover notes.” But it looks like the firm is now some way to solving this: the shift to remote working prompted Sidley to allocate trainees specific time to go through these handovers and get up to speed without the benefit of being in the office. NQs get to attend corporate college in Chicago HQ, which continues into third, fifth and seventh year. Beyond this US excursion, trainees felt the London base has a more familial link with the firm’s other European offices. The firm hosted its first EU lawyers conference this year at an estate in Windsor, “and all the lawyers from the Munich, Geneva and Brussels offices flew over.”

Red Hot Sidley Peppers: It wasn’t all work and no play at the conference: “We put together a band with a guitarist from Brussels, and a pianist and bass player from Geneva. It was really enjoyable.”


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How to get a Sidley Austin training contract


Vacation scheme deadline: 6 November 2020 (winter), 31 January 2021 (spring/summer) 

Training contract deadline (2022): 16 July 2021

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 . 

The interview 

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. 

Vacation scheme 

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.

Sidley Austin LLP


  • Partners 44
  • Other fee earners 100+
  • Total trainees 27
  • UK offices London
  • Overseas offices 20 (including London)
  • Contact  
  • Graduate recruiter: Nicole Katz Graduate Recruitment Manager
  • Application criteria  
  • Training contracts pa: 12 - 14
  • Applications pa: 1,000
  • Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
  • Minimum A levels: AAA
  • Vacation scheme places pa: 50
  • Dates and deadlines  
  • Vacation scheme applications open: 1st October 2020
  • Vacation scheme 2020/2021 deadline:
  • Winter: 6th November 2020
  • Spring/Summer: 31st January 2021
  • Salary and benefits  
  • First-year salary: £50,000
  • Second-year salary: £55,00
  • Post-qualification salary: £135,500
  • Holiday entitlement: 25 days
  • Sponsorship  
  • 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: No

Firm profile

Sidley Austin LLP is one of the world’s largest full-service law firms. With approximately 2,000 lawyers practising on four continents (North America, Europe, Australasia and Asia), the firm provides a broad range of integrated services to meet the needs of its clients across a multitude of industries.

Main areas of work

Corporate, competition, debt and equity capital markets, debt finance; including structured finance, debt restructuring and derivatives, employment, financial services regulatory, healthcare and FDA, food and drug law, hedge funds, insurance, , litigation, private equity, real estate and real estate finance, restructuring and tax. 

Trainee opportunities

The firm is not a typical City firm and it is not a ‘legal factory’ so there is no risk of being just a number. Everyone is encouraged to be proactive and to create their own niche when they are ready to do so. Trainees spend time in the firm’s main groups. In each group trainees will sit with a partner or associate to ensure individual training based on ‘hands on’ experience. You will be encouraged to take responsibility where appropriate. Regular meetings with your supervisor ensure both the quality and quantity of your experience. In addition, there is a structured timetable of training on a cross-section of subjects.

Vacation scheme

We run a one-week winter vacation scheme and two-week vacation schemes in spring and summer each year. You will experience the day-to-day life of a lawyer at the firm and will have the opportunity to undertake real work 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 as much about the firm as you possibly can during the placement. We aim to recruit all of our trainees from the vacation schemes.

Other benefits

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 Austin LLP are offering first year students the opportunity to attend an Open Day. Open days will be held in March. For more information please visit our website. 

Social media

Twitter @SidleyUKGrads

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 partnership (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, 2020

Ranked Departments

    • Banking Litigation (Band 5)
    • Capital Markets: Debt (Band 3)
    • Capital Markets: Securitisation (Band 3)
    • Capital Markets: Structured Finance (Band 3)
    • Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 3)
    • Data Protection & Information Law (Band 3)
    • Financial Services: Payments Law (Band 2)
    • Insurance: Non-contentious (Band 3)
    • Investment Funds: Hedge Funds (Band 3)