From the Big Apple to New Fetter Lane, this American giant offers trainees a slice of the BigLaw pie in London.
Sullivan & Cromwell training contract review 2022
It’s a firm with legendary status in New York, famed as one of the city’s elite BigLaw outfits. S&C’s London base may be less than a fifth of the size of its HQ in New York, but it’s far from being a mere satellite office. In fact, it’s the firm’s second largest office in its 13-strong network that strategically targets many of the world’s major economic hubs including Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Beijing. The firm has a number of prestigious Chambers Global rankings in each of these jurisdictions, while Chambers UK bestows high praise for the firm’s capital markets, corporate/M&A, and restructuring work in London.
What's it like to work at a global law firm? Sullivan & Cromwell's Graduate Recruitment Partner and Training Principal Ben Parry will be helping us to answer this question at the Gen Z Summit on Thursday 3 March. Sign up here to attend.
Just four trainees ply their trade at S&C each year. One insider emphasised that “because there’s so few juniors, you get a lot of attention,” adding that “I like that there’s an actual focus on the trainees here.” With no room for wallflowers, a “proactive and ambitious” mindset characterises many of S&C’s incomers, who celebrate “getting responsibility from the outset.” Training principal and graduate recruitment partner Ben Perry echoes their comments: “In terms of life as a trainee, a training contract with us by nature involves experience and exposure in different practice areas, but it also involves giving trainees as much responsibility as possible, as doing so gives the trainees the best start to their long-term careers.” To read our full interview with Ben Perry, click on the 'Get Hired' tab above.
Trainees typically complete two six-month seats in year one, followed by three four-month seats in the second. Being the corporate heavyweight that it is, the firm’s core departments of M&A, finance, and capital markets take on the most trainees at each rotation.
“Humongous transactions for really established corporations."
Perry also emphasises the importance of the firm’s “generalist approach” to staffing, highlighting that “our transactional practice is called the General Practice group; the group encompasses all of capital markets, M&A, finance, and restructuring.” When flights aren’t grounded, trainees are usually “guaranteed a secondment” in one of the firm’s international offices. Previous destinations have included New York, Hong Kong, Paris and Sydney. The firm hopes to send trainees off on these secondments from 2022 onwards.
Both public and private M&A work is on offer at S&C, with plenty of opportunities to work on “humongous transactions for really established corporations,” as well as smaller deals with private equity houses. The team recently advised aircraft manufacturer Spirit AeroSystems on its acquisition of Short Brothers from Bombardier. They also represented West Street Infrastructure Partners on its acquisition of Adapteo, a real estate provider in Northern Europe, and Calisen, an energy company in the UK. “Quite a few deals originate in London,” we’re told, but trainees highlighted that there are plenty of opportunities to work with colleagues in Asia and America too. Quintessential junior tasks, such as marking up SPAs or drafting corporate resolutions and board minutes, formed much of trainee life. Another trainee also highlighted that “because you share an office with a partner, you’re able to listen on calls, which helps you better understand a deal’s broader picture.”
“You're constantly dealing with clients who are filing in multiple countries."
In competition, “you're constantly dealing with clients who are filing in multiple countries, so there’s lots of consulting with other firms internationally,” one insider explained. As exemplified by one newbie’s experience: “I recently worked on a case with filings in over 20 countries!” Last year, the London-based team represented Fiat Chrysler Automobiles on its merger with Peugeot to create Stellantis. In the mythical pre-Covid time, travel was also part of the equation for juniors. “I was in Brussels every other week,” one source told us, adding that “I regularly travelled to Paris and Milan for other client meetings too. Building those relationships at such a junior level made me feel very lucky and happy to have chosen the firm.” Antitrust merger filings proved common for trainees, where they kept busy “helping prepare and submit relevant documentation to competition authorities such as the European Commission.” Other trainees reported conducting market diligence research and preparing responses to competition authority requests.
Our insiders had sat in both leveraged and project finance, both of which fall under the generalist finance banner. As one source clarified: “I’m in leveraged finance, but that doesn’t stop me being involved in other finance deals when it gets busy.” On the leveraged finance side, the firm recently represented a group of landlords in the restructuring of Virgin Active. Trainees here had a range of responsibilities, including providing guidance to clients regarding new restructuring guidelines, writing client memos, and helping to draft finance documents on restructuring loans and bonds. One source emphasised that “I’ve had access to a lot of substantial work that has really pushed me and helped develop new skills.”
“I was on one oil and gas deal where the email track was insane – it was all-encompassing!”
Project finance work in the energy space usually sees the firm advising sponsors on large projects, with large being the operative word. As one insider told us: “I was on one oil and gas deal where the email track was insane – it was all-encompassing.” Deals this size usually means work involves “less purely legal tasks and more project management,” one insider reflected, adding that “it’s cool because you tend to get a lot more client contact.” Recently, S&C advised Ambatovy Minerals and Dynatec Madagascar on the restructuring of the Ambatovy nickel and cobalt mine in Madagascar.
A seat in capital markets deals “mostly with debt and equity markets” and focuses on “big bond issuances or EMTN programmes” in the London office. In the US, the firm frequently ranks among the top firms for representing issuers in global equity deals, so there’s no shortage of high-value, complex work. For example, S&C recently advised Cellink, a bioconvergence start-up, on its convertible bond and equity offering. The London office often “supports the US practice,” by reviewing domestic and EU restrictions, and one source highlighted that “every trainee will draft selling restrictions of US issuers.” Another pointed out that “because the department is so small, it’s often just you and an associate working on a deal, so you get lots of responsibility.”
Talking culture, our insiders reiterated the benefits of the firm’s compact size. “With small teams and a smaller intake, you’re very involved in many aspects of firm life,” one trainee emphasised. Personalities understandably vary, with “some people who are friendly and some who are more serious,” but overall, sources spoke to a “collegial” and “approachable” atmosphere amongst trainees and NQs. When folks find time to be outgoing, social events – like Friday night drinks or seasonal parties – are reportedly popular. There’s also (pandemic permitting) a week-long orientation for new starters in New York, which was touted as “a great way to help integrate trainees into the wider firm.”
One trope trotted out about American firms in London is the hourly demands. And as one source wryly noted: “Yes, the hours are long.” We heard anecdotes of consecutive midnight finishes as well as regularly worked weekends, “although not for the whole day.” Part of the difficulty for sources was the unpredictability. “There are some days when you might bill only two hours, then others where you’ll work from midday to 4am.” For many, 7pm was deemed to be “an early finish.” Free taxi rides home and a Deliveroo allowance for those finishing late help sweeten the deal. Sources also highlighted that after “tough runs,” there is usually “a bit of a breather with small tasks so you can rest after a heavy workload.”
"You have to be very driven and committed."
However, one trainee advertised caution: “For anyone deciding on joining, they should know about the commitments and hours. You have to be very driven and committed, especially in a small intake where you’re given high responsibility – it’s very important to be aware of that.” Overall, the consensus was that the firm’s generous compensation made the late nights worthwhile. “You definitely have the money in mind,” one junior remarked, making clear that “for me, the salary does justify the hours.” Moreover, we can confirm that juggling time zones and high client demands are part of the equation for anyone working at a top corporate firm.
Our interviewees were consoled by the knowledge that “the firm typically aims to keep on all of its trainees.” True enough, this year the firm kept on all four of its qualifying trainees. People have qualified into S&C's competition and tax groups, but for those who go on to kickstart NQ life in the general practice, Perry tells us: “We do not have a process where people are jostling or competing for slots in particular teams at qualification and having to make narrow choices between, for example, private equity or project finance. What drew me to S&C, coming here as a relatively junior lawyer, was the ability to work on all those things at once and gain greater experiences and skills, as compared with narrowly focusing on one area.”
Lawyers at S&C participate in a range of pro bono and corporate social responsibility initiatives. The team have recently spent time advising at the Horizon Legal Advice Centre (which helps people who are trying to access employment and disability benefits); assisting charity Size of Wales, which works with communities in Africa and Latin America to protect forested areas; and participating in workshops in West Africa, which aim to foster equal access to the benefits of energy projects.
How to get a training contract at Sullivan & Cromwell
Training contract deadline (2024): 15 July 2022 (opens 2 May 2022)
Sullivan & Cromwell's training contract is both newer and smaller than most, taking on a maximum of only six candidates a year. Instead of the more typical online form, Sullivan & Cromwell applicants register their interest by sending in a CV and covering letter. These need to be tip-top perfect to stand out from the crowd, too – the firm gets 350 to 400 applications for its training contracts as well as an additional 250 to 300 applications for its vacation scheme.
So, what's the secret to getting to interview? The firm's trainee solicitor recruitment manager Kirsten Davies explains that “some candidates copy and paste deals from our website, but we know that information already because, of course, we worked on those deals. What's more helpful is to let us know why they interest you, and how they match what you want from the job.” She also adds that “it's pointless to repeat what's on your CV already.” Instead, candidates should write a “punchy letter of motivation, covering no more than one side of A4.”
Candidates called back to the next stage come into the firm's offices for a morning or an afternoon session. This starts with an informal chat with Davies. Candidates are interviewed by two partners separately and have a tour of the firm conducted by trainees, including introductions to key members of the office. Davies explains that “our assessment process is very collaborative, so I will speak to the partners about my time with the candidates, and we'll also speak to the trainees who took them for coffee. More often than not everyone's on the same page.”
Candidates for the vacation scheme go through the same process of CV, covering letter and interview session as direct applicants for the training contract. Around eight a year are selected to go on a two-week placement at the firm in July. Davies tells us that “they are allocated a supervisor and are fully immersed in the firm. We aim to have a good balance between work and social activities.” Vac schemers get the generous sum of £500 a week for their trouble, as well as being considered for a training contract. Around two-thirds of Sullivan & Cromwell trainees so far have been through the vacation scheme.
Sullivan & Cromwell plays particularly close attention to grades. As Davies tells us, “we take grades quite seriously, so that means we're looking for a high 2:1 or a First. We ask for a full percentage breakdown of academic results right the way through. We understand if there's the odd blip along the way, but we do look for consistency.” Grades aside, she adds that the firm looks for “common sense, commercial aptitude, analytical skills, enthusiasm, resilience, initiative, and motivation to be part of the team at Sullivan & Cromwell. We have relatively small intakes, so people are given a much higher level of responsibility, so it's also important trainees have the level of confidence to handle that level of work.”
Interview with training principal and graduate recruitment partner Ben Perry
Chambers Student:How has the year gone for the firm?
Ben Perry: I think what really stands out from the last year, both in London and firm-wide, is how everyone has pulled together and supported each other, at a time when we didn’t know what was going to happen next in relation to the pandemic. Our whole team readily and seamlessly adapted to Covid and rose to meet the many professional challenges that presented themselves, as well as helping their families, colleagues, and the wider community. From my perspective as training principal in London, it was about ensuring that junior lawyers and trainees made personal and professional connections outside of the office environment. We did that in a number of ways, through enhanced and expanded training sessions; regular team meetings across all practice groups; regular check-ins from partners and senior lawyers; and informal catch-ups, as well as Zoom quizzes. Looking forward, I expect that we’ll incorporate many of these things into our daily practice.
CS:What practices have been performing particularly well?
BP: In London, we’ve worked on an incredible number and variety of deals this year. I’ll give you some statistics. In capital markets, between March 2020 and March 2021, our capital markets team has worked on almost 50 different deals, totaling $90 billion. Our M&A and competition teams worked on over 50 deals with a total value of over $100 billion. We are a transactional practice in London, with four core practices in M&A, capital markets, leverage, and project finance. Our restructuring team has also worked on a large number of high profile restructurings this year, including Cineworld, Norwegian Air, and Pizza Express. Overall, if you were to pick one deal as a highlight of the year, it would be the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles merger with Peugeot, creating Stellantis.
CS:What does the next year look like for the London office? Are there any specific plans for growth?
BP: In the short term, as we’re speaking during the national lockdown, we’re looking forward to getting back to office, seeing and working with each other in person again, assuming that things go well with the end of lockdown of course. In terms of growth, what I would say is that our focus both across the firm and in London is about growing organically by recruiting the best trainees and associates from a wide variety of backgrounds.
CS:When the transition begins, do you expect the change in firm leadership – Robert Giuffra and Scott Miller succeeding Joseph Shenker – to bring a new focus for life in London or the firm more generally?
BP: From a practical perspective, not much has changed. Bob and Scott were made co-vice chairs, but Joe Shenker remains chair and Rodge Cohen senior chair. I think what’s worth highlighting is the complementary nature of their practices: Bob as a litigator working on many major and high-profile cases – the Volkswagen litigation being one – and Scott on the transactional side. The fact they have been appointed as co-vice chairs reflects the increasingly complex business of the firm. Scott was based in London earlier in his career. He was a partner in the London office and has also some time been co-coordinator for US and European corporate practice, working closely with people in the European offices on a large number of transactions. He was lead partner on the Fiat Chrysler / Peugeot merger and the Ferrari IPO.
CS:How has the firm adapted to working life across the pandemic?
BP: Firstly, we had a couple of prior experiences in New York of having to close the office for short periods, after 9/11 and then after Superstorm Sandy. The duration of those closures was not remotely on the scale of Covid, but it did give us insight into what that involved and how to operate remotely. It meant that we’d already made investments in technology, in particular cloud computing technology, to enable us to work remotely. Secondly, from a practice perspective, our focus has always been on continuing to acquire and retain clients, which depends on cultivating a reputation of excellence and innovation. A central part of that relies on collaboration and working as a team; no matter what the level of a person’s experience, it’s about bringing a different perspective. A major achievement has been continuing to develop and foster that culture of teamwork even with people working remotely.
From a practice development perspective, like all people in our profession, we’re accustomed to lots of work travel and meeting new and existing clients in person. None of that has been possible. But the new online environment has presented great opportunities and we’ve done more client outreach than ever before, through virtual meetings, webinars, podcasts, and traditional written materials. We’ve seen a lot of change in working life, but overall we expect that these changes, habits and practices will stay even as we transition back to normal times.
CS:Pandemic aside, are there any other broader trends/challenges affecting life at the firm? Whether politically, economically, culturally, or otherwise.
BP: I talked in last year’s interview about the impact and importance of diversity, equity and inclusion. The events over the past year have shown the vital importance of DEI as a whole, and law firms are no different. It’s an essential part of who we are and what we do. It’s an area requiring sustained and consistent efforts and we’ve continued to enhance and develop our allyship programmes and affinity networks and will continue to do so.
CS:You mentioned last year that “people who are applying to us know what they’re looking for” – what makes trainee life at Sullivan & Cromwell unique?
BP: I would go back to our multi-disciplinary approach. We champion this at all levels because we believe that makes us better lawyers and better serves our clients. In terms of life as a trainee, a training contract with us by nature involves experience and exposure in different practice areas, but it also involves giving trainees as much responsibility as possible, as doing so gives the trainees the best start to their long-term careers. We can do this because we recruit the best and most diverse people; we give hands on training and offer a close support network who closely collaborate with one other. The key difference is the far greater opportunities to get responsibility in a programme like ours, organised the way we are, with a smaller intake.
CS:When trainees qualify, what practices do they find themselves in?
BP: The way we’re organised, it’s a generalist approach. Transactional practice is called the General Practice group; the group encompasses all of capital markets, M&A, finance, and restructuring. In the US offices, it also picks up other areas like financial institutions, real estate, IP and so on. When someone qualifies in the General Practice group, they’re carrying on in the same vein working across a number of our practices. It can vary in each case, but a newly qualified associate will, for example, do some M&A with capital markets or do restructuring along with M&A.
We do not have a process where people are jostling or competing for slots in particular teams at qualification and having to make narrow choices between, for example, private equity or project finance. What drew me to S&C, coming here as a relatively junior lawyer, was the ability to work on all those things at once and gain greater experiences and skills, as compared with narrowly focusing on one area.
I should however mention that we’ve also had people qualify into our competition and tax practices. Competition is part of the Litigation group within the firm and there is also a separate Tax group.
The General Practice group involves a range of work, that’s the way it works across the Firm. As people get more senior, they develop expertise and will focus more on one or two areas. As people finish as trainees and become associates, we’re very focused on helping them with the transition from trainee to associate and carrying on with that generalist approach.
CS:What advice would you offer to students about to begin their legal careers?
BP: I think that the current environment, where recruitment activities are taking place online rather than in person, has created more opportunities for students to find out about the legal profession. Online events are significantly more flexible and easier to take part in. I’m quite sure that, over the past 12 months, that’s given us the opportunity to interact with many more students than we would have done with in-person events. My advice is to take advantage of the online events on offer, as this will help you find out more about law firms, and put you in much better place to decide if this is the career path for you.
Sullivan & Cromwell LLP
1 New Fetter Lane,
- Partners: 16
- Associates: 60
- Total trainees: 9
- UK offices London
- Overseas offices: 12
- Graduate recruiter: Kirsten Davies
- 020 7959 8900
- Training partner: Ben Perry
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 4-6
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 or other
- Vacation scheme places pa: 8
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 2nd May 2022
- Training contract deadline, 2024 start: 15th July 2022
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1st November 2021
- Vacation scheme 2022 deadline: 14th January 2022
- Salaries and benefits Holiday entitlement: 24 days
- Sponsorship LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa:£12,850
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: Hong Kong
- Overseas seats: Other offices in the US, Europe and Asia-Pacific
Sullivan & Cromwell LLP provides the highest quality legal advice and representation to clients worldwide. The firm comprises more than 875 lawyers who practice through a network of 13, highly integrated offices located in key financial centres in Asia-Pacific, Europe and the United States. The London office practices English, EU and US law.
Main areas of work
S&C London is perhaps unique in the scale, complexity and significance of the work carried out in an office of its size. Practice areas in which the UK qualified lawyers and trainees in the London office work include: leveraged finance and restructuring, capital markets, M&A and private equity, project development and finance, competition and tax.
We seek trainees who have an excellent prior academic record along with strong academic credentials. You should possess genuine intellectual curiosity, integrity, strong interpersonal skills, commercial awareness and an ambition to succeed at one of the world’s leading law firms. Training contracts with S&C will be divided into at least four seats.
We aim to provide interested trainees with the opportunity to spend time in one of our other offices during their training contract. Our trainees have spent time on secondment in the United States, Europe and Asia-Pacific.
A two-week summer placement scheme during 2022; remuneration £500 p.w; apply by CV (including a full classification and percentage breakdown of all academic results) and a covering letter to email@example.com. Applications accepted from 1st November 2021 through 14th January 2022.
Include private health insurance, dental insurance, life insurance, travel insurance, a group personal pension scheme, subsidised gym membership, concierge service and 24 vacation days each year.
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2021
- Capital Markets: Debt (Band 3)
- Competition Law (Band 6)
- Corporate/M&A: High-end Capability (Band 3)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 3)
- Energy & Natural Resources: Mining (Band 4)
- Projects (Band 3)
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