Sullivan & Cromwell is famous in the US for setting high standards. Its heavy transactional lean and international focus makes this US BigLaw with a British accent.
Chambers Student: “What sort of person thrives at the firm?” Training partner Ben Perry: “Someone who has a range of skills and diverse attributes: they have legal, practical and emotional intelligence and the desire to be in a hands-on environment where people collaborate closely.” We couldn’t have put it better ourselves, so we didn’t try. S&C has achieved near-legendary status in New York, and globally the firm works on “top-of-the-fold, cross-border matters,” and has a “stellar reputation.” In London the firm gives its “small intake” of trainees “access to top clients and a lot of early responsibility.” It’s a “steep learning curve,” our sources admitted. In the US, the firm sits on the top of the pile for a range of transactional and litigious matters heavily based around the capital markets, banking and finance sectors and so it’s no surprise that in London, which “specialises in transactional work,” the firm gets a nod from Chambers UK for its debt and equity capital markets; high-end corporate/M&A and restructuring practices. It’s US BigLaw with a British accent.
“Everyone has a choice to do an international secondment or a client secondment.”
S&C’s seat arrangement is a little unusual: “We do five seats,” trainees told us. “Two six-month seats to begin with, then three four-month seats.” As a smaller offshoot of a global firm, S&C’s London office is more of a “general practice,” we were told. “We don’t have a lot of practice areas and you end up doing almost every single seat anyway." There are about six options in London (plus overseas choices), so the fact that their first seat was up to the firm didn’t bother our sources. The firm does try to get a sense of trainees' preferences ahead of starting the training contract, and for subsequent seats, “it’s a dialogue. You can say if you definitely don’t want to do something next, and if you really wanted to do something you could ask them, and they’d probably listen.” Whatever happens, everyone is likely to do corporate/M&A and a finance seat. To satisfy the contentious requirement “we do a week-long external course with BPP.” Additionally, “everyone has a choice to do an international secondment or a client secondment.” Trainees typically go overseas in their second year, and unlike local seats, the “international seat is dictated by the trainee." The firm works hard to fulfil their wishes: trainees can ask to go to any of S&C’s offices, with “New York and Hong Kong the most popular options.” Other recent destinations have included Melbourne, Sydney, Paris, and Washington DC.
If you end up in corporate/M&A, and you will, you’re going to do “due diligence. Lots of due diligence.” It’s a department where the firm represents Apollo; the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB); Fiat Chrysler; Goldman Sachs; Qatar Investment Authority; and Rhône Capital among others, and recently advised Bayer on its $7.6 billion animal health business divestment to Elanco. Another recent highlight for the team was advising Chinese company C.Banner on its sale of Hamleys toy store to Reliance Brands. Our sources said in addition to due diligence, trainees could expect to “mark up purchase agreements, do random research tasks, do some drafting and some admin.” Described as being “a bit more stop and start than the other seats I’ve worked in,” trainees acknowledged that there are times “you’ll be given a task you won’t have done before with tight deadlines.” One trainee warned that “90% of M&As die at the first hurdle. You do a lot of work for offer to launch, but it’s so dependent on markets.” The feedback on the seat was mixed, some thought there “wasn’t much guidance,” while others said they “would definitely do it again."
“It’s the most emails across any seat I’ve done.”
Competition/antitrust, meanwhile, was overwhelmingly described as a “positive experience” by our sources. The “team are lovely, intelligent people,” enthused one trainee. In addition to S&C's corporate clients, the team has worked with Spirit AeroSystems Holdings, and Iveco and its parent CNH Industrial, among others. The firm recently advised Advance Publications on the competition-related aspects of its $1.7 billion acquisition of Turnitin. Unsurprisingly, most of the “work is to facilitate transactions in the corporate department.” What stood out for our sources was they “got to go along to international meetings,” which highlighted “the team being really integrated.” In competition, “a lot of early responsibility” meant “lots of client contact, participating in client meetings, drafting key documents” and dealing with “RFIs [requests for information] from round the world and working directly with clients to get the answers to those questions.” Other tasks included “industry research, reviewing the filings and updating the RFIs.”
But while early responsibility and hands-on lawyering were themes of most seats, project finance involved “more admin tasks. Most of the time I wasn’t doing what you might call lawyer work,” one disgruntled trainee confessed. “It’s not so legalistic,” admitted another. “You won’t be doing much research, analysis or drafting, more project management style.” Common tasks included “doc disclosure, reviewing commercial contracts and helping to mark those up.” Trainees also mentioned “drafting presentations with engineering and technical people, advising on the finance structure and legal aspects, and quite a lot of government engagement work.” We guessed that with that many “process-driven tasks” there’d be a fair number of emails? “It’s the most emails across any seat I’ve done. Could be getting over 100 on a busy day on one deal.” On the plus side, the work is truly international. S&C advised Rovuma on its $35 billion LNG development, a large natural gas project off the coast of Mozambique.
S&C’s capital markets practice has the clients to make any capitalist drool: BP; CPPIB; Ferrari and Goldman Sachs are all on the books. Matter values are often in the billions of dollars. S&C was involved in what was the biggest IPO in Asia in 2019, and the third largest globally, when it advised Budweiser and its parent company AB InBev on the beer company's $5.8 billion global offering and listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. But for all its obvious street cred some trainees were unenthusiastic. “I wasn’t a huge fan,” one grumped. “A lot of it is ancillary work for the New York office, and it’s mostly debt capital markets,” we heard. For others, it was “a big step up from project finance… back to quite legalistic work.” Trainees mentioned “a lot of research. How do I comply with this EU directive? How do I comply with these financial regulations?” Finding the answers, we were told, could take you “back to the primary legislation to sift through, digest, understand, and condense and present the findings in an accessible way.” The work was “really varied. One day you could be doing research on European legislation. Other days you’re marking up a document for updates on Brexit. Other times you’re inputting comments, or putting together a bible.”
Let’s start with the hours. From what we can determine, S&C is one of the firms where the stories about the hours that lawyers work is true. Everyone we spoke to said that 10–12 hours was standard – and that was before you got busy. Many of our sources had worked at least one all-nighter: the latest we heard was a trainee coming in at 10am and only leaving the following afternoon. We were also warned that “as NQ there’s a lot more responsibility. A big shift. The hours are a lot longer. I’ve been pretty busy, usually not leaving before 9 or 10pm. Sometimes working until 3, 4, 5am.” While every trainee thought that one department was “more stable” in terms of hours than others, our research showed that every seat could see you working until the early hours and over weekends.
“You’re working across time zones.”
Sources appreciated that “when you’ve worked hard, there is leeway to take some time out." But the bottom line is that “lean staffing means responsibility. If you don’t do it, then it doesn’t get done. People say, ‘Go home,’ but you have to take on the responsibility. De facto you’ve got to do the work.” It’s an unavoidable reality of a firm with offices around the world working together, where “you’re working across time zones.” These demands are not unique to Sullivan & Cromwell.
While the hours were occasionally a source of frustration, mitigation was that “everyone is super friendly. It’s quite a young office, with quite a lot of juniors, which is good, because you can ask for help.” That said, we heard that “there are people who are difficult to work with and it’s treated as though that’s just their personality and everyone just has to absorb that.”However, they must be doing something right; Perry says retention is always high and this year is no different: all four qualifiers stayed on at the firm.
And finally... go online to find out about the firm's diversity initiatives in our interview with Ben Perry, S&C's training principal and graduate recruitment partner.
How to get a training contract at Sullivan & Cromwell
Vacation scheme deadlines (2021): 15 January 2021 (opens 2 November 2020)
Training contract deadline (2023): 16 July 2021 (opens 3 May 2021)
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 Ben Perry, training principal and graduate recruitment partner at Sullivan & Cromwell
Chambers Student: Are there any highlights or significant developments from the last year that you’d like our student readers to know about?
Ben Perry: We've continued to grow across all of our practice areas at all levels. The most important thing is that we continued to have 100% of our trainees qualify into practice and become associates. The trainee programme has been the engine room of the UK practice in recent years.
Each of M&A, capital markets, leveraged finance and restructuring, and project finance are significant areas currently and significant areas for further development. We have antitrust and tax practices that continue to grow. We continue to be involved in some of the biggest and most interesting work.
CS: What will the firm look like in five years?Any plans to expand?
BP: We want to recruit the best, most diverse people and grow from within, both globally and in London.
CS: Are you growing or shrinking trainee numbers? If so, why?
BP: No change. We've always taken between four and six trainees a year and it’s no different this year. We’re pleased that an extremely high proportion stay on: our first intake qualified five years ago and most of them are still here.
CS: We got the impression that the firm has quite a strong Oxbridge leaning when it comes to hiring trainees?
BP: No, we aim to recruit the best from a wide range of universities. If you look at the history of our trainees, you’ll see that a double-digit number of universities are represented.
CS: What sort of person thrives at the firm?How can a candidate really impress at interview?
BP: The type of person who thrives at the firm is someone who has a range of skills and diverse attributes: they have legal, practical and emotional intelligence and the desire to be in a hands-on environment where people collaborate closely. Our trainees get the most exposure early on in their career. It's going to be quite a big contrast to firms that recruit 80–100 trainees per year, where there may be fewer opportunities for early responsibility. Applicants nowadays are very discerning and the people who are applying to us know what they’re looking for.
CS: What’s the firm’s approach to mental health?
BP: We realise that goodmental health, and wellbeing generally, are an important part of what enables people to operate at the best and highest level. To that end, we offer both Firm-wide and London office-wide programmes featuring both internal and external experts. All of them are available to trainees. We have a highly collaborative practice and people at a senior level take a keen interest in making sure that trainees are adjusting to the demands of working life, forming supportive, professional relationships with colleagues who are invested in their development and getting enough rest and taking vacation time when needed to recharge.
CS: What’s the firm’s strategy to improve its gender diversity?
BP: Women partners hold numerous senior leadership positions in the Firm. We have a dedicated Diversity, Equity & Inclusion team, as well as a Diversity Committee and a Women’s Initiative Committee. The Women’s Initiative Committee supports the Firm’s global efforts to retain and advance our women lawyers by providing professional development, networking and mentoring opportunities to women at all levels of seniority. These efforts are further supported by numerous initiatives at a local level, which earlier this year included our first European women lawyers workshop, where female partners, associates and trainees from all four of our European offices met in London to discuss what makes a successful career and ways of further enhancing our networking, recruiting and resources for female lawyers in Europe. We also work with a number of our clients to exchange and develop additional ideas for the retention and advancement of women.
CS: Do you think enough is being done to tackle implicit bias at law firms?
BP: We are committed to providing our people with multiple opportunities for candid dialogue regarding diversity, equity and inclusion. The Firm therefore provides mandatory diversity training for lawyers and trainees to enable them to understand how they can contribute to an inclusive and effective working environment. The most recent training was on allyship. This was led by partners to underscore the message that the need for diversity, equity and inclusion is essential to our collaborative work.
We know that allyship requires sustained and consistent effort, and it requires us to continuously grow. We also know that sustained allyship creates an inclusive environment in which all people have access to the resources they need to succeed. Therefore, we have also created a Firm-wide allyship programme.
One area that’s been the subject of a lot of attention in the context of the legal profession is social mobility. I’m personally involved in the City of London Law Society’s efforts on social mobility, including as a member of the committee which oversees a social mobility initiative called City Solicitors Horizons. This was created to improve access to the legal profession for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. There are a large number of firms, including S&C, that are sponsors of that initiative. We’re interested in promoting social mobility across the legal profession. So we provide mentors from among S&C partners, associates and trainees to both law and non-law students who participate in City Solicitors Horizons. Every mentor has signed up voluntarily and we provide work experience for the those students alongside other development opportunities. There are a large number of similar initiatives across the City; sometimes groups of firms, sometimes individual firms. My own view is that, when working towards a broader social objective, it’s better when a number of firms and people are working together and we’re very pleased that we are the firm which has the highest number of people serving as City Solicitors Horizons mentors.
Sullivan & Cromwell LLP
1 New Fetter Lane,
- Partners: 16
- Associates: 56
- Total trainees: 9
- UK offices London
- Overseas offices: 12
- Graduate recruiter: Kirsten Davies
- [email protected]
- 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: 6-8
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 3rd May 2021
- Training contract deadline, 2022 start: 16th July 2021
- Vacation scheme applications open: 2nd November 2020
- Vacation scheme 2021 deadline: 15th January 2021
- 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 2021; remuneration £500 p.w; apply by CV (including a full classification and percentage breakdown of all academic results) and a covering letter to [email protected] Applications accepted from 2nd November 2020 through 15th January 2021.
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, 2020
- Capital Markets: Debt (Band 3)
- Capital Markets: Equity (Band 4)
- Corporate/M&A: High-end Capability (Band 3)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 4)
- Energy & Natural Resources: Mining (Band 4)
- Projects (Band 3)
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