Trainees can take a bite out of various transactional practices at this Big Apple-based firm.
Sullivan & Cromwell training contract review 2024
What do you get if you mix a small trainee intake, US roots and a strong commercial focus? Sullivan & Cromwell, of course. The promise of significant responsibility was a key attraction to the majority of the trainees we interviewed. US firms are notorious for dropping trainees in the deep end, and many sources were eager to dive right in. “The quality of work was something that drew me in. I wanted to do be involved in the most interesting matters, not just small deals or minor claims.” This “intellectually stimulating work” is evidenced in our sister guide, Chambers UK. The firm is recognised for its nationwide debt capital markets, projects and international mining, and picked up rankings for its restructuring/insolvency, competition, and M&A (deals worth upwards of £800 million) work.
Over its 144-year history, the firm has also made a name for itself on the international stage. Take, for example, M&A work: the firm advised Amgen in its $28 billion (yes, billion) acquisition of Horizon Theraputics. This matter, led by training principal Ben Perry, was one of the largest healthcare mergers in 2022. It’s this sort of work that has earned the firm a place in Chambers Global’s multi-jurisdictional corporate/M&A table. It won’t come as a surprise, then, that the firm is home to a network of 12 overseas offices.
The small trainee cohort (currently between four and six each intake, though the firm is looking to increase this to eight) also made newbies feel like more attention would be paid to their development. And they weren’t wrong: “the personability allows me to make a mark at the firm.” Ben Perry reassured us: “We recognise as a firm that people and culture are crucial; we recruit and train the brightest and best as trainees and have been doing so for a decade. Over that time, we have aimed to create a collaborative environment, where our lawyers are encouraged to grow and develop and then pass that knowledge onto others."
According to trainees, good things come in small packages.“Because the intake is small, the seat allocation process is pretty informal and flexible,” one source explained. Newbies are asked to fill out a seat preference list, ranking the six seats available. Although “priority is given to second-seaters,” our interviewees found that, typically, “we got given our first or second choices.” The firm then facilitates open communication during the training contract to discuss changes to preferences and discuss future movements, which trainees claimed “felt more personable.” Conversations around secondments are also encouraged. Typical destinations include J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs.
Now, a firm with an international touch must have some secondment opportunities, right? With the pandemic in the rear-view mirror, trainees were thrilled to hear about the reintroduction of international secondment opportunities. Those who braved jet-setting across the world had the opportunity to go to any of the firm’s 12 international offices, but Hong Kong and New York were highlighted as the most popular. Whilst there is flexibility and openness around secondments, trainees with their sights set on Paris, Frankfurt, Beijing or Tokyo will need to speak the language. Bon voyage!
“You’re doing law, but you’re connected to the real world.”
An area growing in the firm (and in trainees' hearts) is the competition and foreign investments seat, a small but mighty team which is mainly centred around transactional merger work (with a dabble in cartel work and state aid). Types of clients this team work with include car giant Fiat Chrysler and insurance companies AXA and Allianz. The firm is currently advising technology company e& on the competition aspects of its acquisition of its majority stake in Vodafone. Trainees' day-to-day lives involve project management, like maintaining trackers and work streams. “I did lots of research in this seat as it’s a law-heavy area so you’re looking into things like market definitions,” told one trainee. Because of the team’s size, interviewees found that “you get lots of responsibility.” We found competition was a seat enjoyed by most, and this could be put down to factors such as contact with local counsel: “You learn about different regulatory environments, which keeps things varied. Yes, you’re doing law, but you’re connected to the real world.”
“I was struck by how much of M&A is about being a project manager as well as being a lawyer!”
A team that goes hand in hand with competition is M&A. Trainees enjoyed being in the midst of things in this team, with some “struck by how much of M&A is about being a project manager as well as being a lawyer!” Types of tasks these guys learn to juggle include “dealing with signings and coordinating closing documents, plus general checklist upkeep.” Some trainees got to do the first draft of documents for transactions. The seat was highlighted as “less client-facing.” Instead, newbies “act as a middle man, pulling together work streams.” This group’s most recent clients include smoke-free tobacco company Swedish Match and Anglo-Australian metal and mining corporation Rio Tinto.
In true US fashion, finance and restructuring is taken seriously at S&C. The team falls into two subcategories: project & leveraged finance and restructuring. On the one hand, project finance typically “focuses on helping to finance major infrastructure projects” such as advising mining behemoth Barrick on the Reko Diq project in Pakistan, one of the world’s largest undeveloped gold and copper deposits. On this side of the team, newbies can be expected to “complete a lot of project management work, such as signing and closings, and completing first drafts of documents like short contracts.” On the other side of the coin, restructuring includes lenders and borrowers. For example, the firm is working with Barclays, as administrative agent to Cineworld, on its restructuring. Unlike project finance, trainees can jump into “due diligence roles,” with a side order of research. This seat was characterised as “fluid.” If trainees have a specific interest (or time on their hands), they can raise it with their supervisor, who will help them get involved with more work (though newbies typically work on their supervisors’ matters).
Capital markets is centred on debt and equity capital for issuers. Trainees in this seat reaped the benefits of being part of an international firm, with work coming in from all around the world. Trainees explained how this filtered into daily life: “You could be asked to review UK and EU documentation or monitor public announcements.” Capital markets was described as “very black letter law-heavy,” meaning “the work can be quite technical, with industry-standard language. You should expect to do research so that you can answer specific questions.” Matters here are high-stakes; the firm recently worked on a cross-firm project advising Arm (SoftBank's chip designer) on an IPO in the US. Clients also come from a range of industries: the firm works with the world’s largest brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev, the Bank of Ireland and bp. The department even advised the Kingdom of Denmark on its €1.5 billion offering of Euro medium-term notes. Confused? Us too. Medium-term notes are, essentially, bonds that are issued across multiple markets in multiple currencies, and are typically paid back after five to ten years.
“There is definitely a US feel to the office. Our clients tend to be from the States, and we celebrate holidays like Thanksgiving here by having a themed lunch,” explained one interviewee when asked about the culture of the firm. In terms of diversity and inclusion, “the firm has been quite good at making sure there are a wide variety of backgrounds. People can bring where they come from to work and it’s valued and respected.” The firm also takes part in Solicitor Horizons, amentoring programme that pushes for social mobility within the legal world, something which training principal Ben Perry “takes very seriously.”
Due to the firm’s “academic feel,” social events aren’t common: “Everyone is very studious and not particularly extroverted.” If social gatherings do arise, they typically consist of local drinks and dinners. We were told that people like to get breakfast and lunch together in the office’s canteen (which is free!). Although newbies jet off to New York for an orientation programme, a lot of development support happens at home, with regular training sessions for juniors and firm-wide happening throughout the year. For example, a recent M&A session went through “what's been going on in the market and what's new and upcoming.”
“We are well compensated for sure!”
Our survey found that, on average, trainees work just under 53 hours a week, almost 20% above the market average. Rookies usually finish around 7.30pm, but sources said the hours are “heavily reliant on market conditions.” If there is a busy period, the firm “makes a point of allowing for time off afterwards.” Like the majority of US firms we cover, the firm’s compensation for these hours is more than generous. “We are well compensated for sure!” hyped one trainee, with the current salary sitting at £60,000 for first-years. S&C was praised for being “market-leading” when it came to salary and bonuses.
Because of the close-knit nature of the cohort (and frequent chats with the training principal), “the teams already have a sense of where you plan to go and where you’ll fit in” come qualification. Branded a “really informal process” by sources, chats are had with trainees about their performance in their penultimate seats. Trainees are then able to qualify into the general practice group (which encompasses M&A, capital markets and more), or the specialist tax and competition groups. The cohort found that “everyone qualified into departments they want to” this year. In 2023, the firm retained all of its trainees.
A knack for tax
The firm now offers trainees a seat on the tax team.
How to get a training contract at Sullivan & Cromwell
- Vacation scheme deadlines (2024): 12 January 2024 (online applications open 1 November 2023)
- Training contract deadline (2026): 12 July 2024 (online applications open 1 May 2024)
Sullivan & Cromwell's training contract is both newer and smaller than most, taking on up to eight candidates a year. Sullivan & Cromwell has recently moved to an online application form and these need to be tip-top perfect to stand out from the crowd, too – the firm gets 450 to 500 applications for its training contracts as well as an additional 450 to 500 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 candidates should write a “punchy letter of motivation, covering no more than one side of A4 to accompany their online application.”
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 office 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 – online application and interview session as direct applicants for the training contract. Up to twelve candidates a year are selected to go on a two-week placement at the firm in June or July. Davies tells us that “they are allocated a work coordinator and mentor 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 £750 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 Ben Perry
Chambers Student: How would you describe the firm? How would you describe its position in the market?
Ben Perry: Sullivan & Cromwell is one of the leading global law firms andone of thelongest established US firms in London. Last year, we celebrated our 50th anniversary in London with a fantastic event for our lawyers, trainees, clients, alumni and friends of the firm, which was well attended! We are a truly global partnership, and we work on some of the most challenging and interesting transactions, in Europe and globally. For example, in the last 12 months, we advised on one of the largest healthcare and life sciences transactions in Amgen’s pending acquisition of Horizon Therapeutics, as well as on a ground-breaking AI transaction in OpenAI’s partnership with Microsoft. These are significant and noteworthy matters, during which there was significant cross-office collaboration. The London office has around 90 lawyers and trainees in London, over half of which are English qualified or training to become English qualified. One distinguishing feature of S&C is our close-knit culture. We like to say we have the “best of both worlds” in that we are advising on market leading global transactions while still being at a size where everyone knows each other, in an environment that emphasizes collaboration rather than competition.
CS: Are there any highlights from the last year you think it would be helpful for our readers to know about? E.g., changes to the training contract, office moves, etc.
BP: There are two points that I would like to highlight. Firstly, is the continued success of all our practice areas in 2022. One area that we have done particularly well in in the past few years is M&A, where we continue to be in first place in the global rankings. Secondly, we were very pleased to have Karan Dinamani, a leading private equity partner, join us as a partner in London to strengthen our position in private equity in Europe and more broadly.
CS: How would you describe the training environment/culture that you have aimed to create at the firm?
BP: We recognise as a firm that people and culture are crucial; we recruit and train the brightest and best as trainees and have been doing so for a decade. Over that time, we have aimed to create a collaborative environment, where our lawyers are encouraged to grow and develop and then pass that knowledge onto others. The majority of our English qualified associates joined us as trainees, so they’ve helped mould the training contract into what it is today. We have a culture of continuous learning where our lawyers are encouraged to show initiative. We believe that the trainees here get far greater opportunities due to the smaller intake size. When trainees qualify, the generalist approach we encourage means they don’t have to focus too narrowly on one practice area.
CS: What’s the current set-up with remote working for trainees? Is there a set number of days where trainees are expected to come into the office? / How has the pandemic impacted the way the training contract is run?
BP: We found that our trainees want to be in the office. This is the best way to cultivate relationships and use the full resources the firm has to offer. This is not something that just concerns trainees though. The firm is very collaborative in nature, so it's important for all lawyers to be in the office for meetings and training sessions, for example.
There were things we couldn’t offer to our trainees over the pandemic like overseas secondments, but we provided other great opportunities like client secondments that trainees could participate in. Over the course of this year, the secondments have gone really well. Throughout the pandemic and beyond, we put huge effort into ensuring that our high levels of collaboration and mentoring stayed intact.
CS: What sort of person thrives at the firm? How can a candidate really impress at interview?
BP: The kind of people who thrive here have skills such as adaptability, curiosity, teamwork and intellectual ability. All of those help make a successful lawyer and are some of the things we look for in candidates. The message we give is that we expect applicants will have done their homework on the firm and the application letter should convey to us what it is about the firm that attracts them to us. The people who stand out have done this research – it's about more than just listing the firm’s achievements. We want people to dig a bit deeper. We don’t run testing and assessment centres. If a candidate is invited in to meet us, the interaction is informal because we want to give candidates the opportunity to show the best version of themselves. We want to know their interests and what they studied and where they see themselves as a lawyer in the next few years.
CS: Does the firm have any set recruitment targets around diversity?
BP: We have a long and proud history of diversity and inclusion. We are committed to fostering an equitable and inclusive environment. We believe a diverse team, with a wide range of perspectives, is vital to providing the highest calibre of legal advice. The broader the lens, the better placed we are to provide the best service to our clients.
CS: And finally, do you have any advice for those thinking about pursuing a career in law? Either at your firm or more generally?
BP: When people come in to spend time with us, one of the things I try to impress upon them is that they should make sure they’ve given enough thought to this career, given the length of time needed to establish themselves. The more research you can do and experience you can garner, the better! It is important that you learn about the profession, including the type of firm you would like to work in and the practice areas that you’re interested in. It is important for people to not have fixed ideas at this stage. The beauty of the training contract system is the ability to make a choice of which direction you would like to take your career in. By reading this interview, you are already embarking on that personal journey and quest for personal knowledge!
Sullivan & Cromwell LLP
1 New Fetter Lane,
Sullivan & Cromwell is a global law firm providing comprehensive and integrated legal services worldwide. The firm comprises more than 850 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 June or July 2024; remuneration £750 per week. Online applications for the firm’s 2024 summer vacation scheme open November 1, 2023 through January 12, 2024.
Private health insurance; dental insurance; life insurance; a group personal pension scheme with the option to contribute via salary sacrifice; paid maternity, paternity and adoption leave plans; a subsidised gym membership; a concierge service and 24-days’ vacation per annum.
Instagram account @uksullcromgrads
grad website link: https://careers.sullcrom.com/uk-trainee-solicitors
Application form link: https://sullcrom.grad.allhires.com/app/
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2023
- Corporate/M&A: £800 million and above (Band 4)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 4)
- Capital Markets: Debt (Band 3)
- Energy & Natural Resources: Mining: International (Band 4)
- Projects (Band 3)