Sullivan & Cromwell LLP - True Picture

This Wall Street firm’s sterling reputation provides a million-dollar experience for trainees seeking international exposure.

London Calling

In its native New York, thoroughbred Sullivan & Cromwell is preceded by its reputation for headline-hitting deals (like the Bayer–Monsanto mega-merger) and prestigious alumni (including Amal Clooney). The London base, while comparatively small and with a relatively new English law practice, drew candidates seeking “a firm that’s international and advises on transatlantic work as well as matters in Europe, Asia and Australia.” S&C’s London office houses under 100 lawyers, and trainees appreciated working in “a smaller office where it’s easier to build up a rapport. I liked that after a week everyone knew my name.” The firm’s presence in London is small but mighty – it's ranked by Chambers UK for projects, energy and capital markets, and wins a spot in Chambers' 'high end' category for M&A work, where it's ranked alongside firms with two or three times as many London lawyers.

“Transatlantic work as well as matters in Europe, Asia and Australia.”

After qualification, junior associates are expected to become generalist practitioners, covering capital markets, finance, restructuring, M&A, private equity and project finance. “It’s something the firm and the chairman really pushes,” we heard. “The generalist approach means you’re not bogged down in a niche and get to try a lot of different things.” All four of the firm's 2019 qualifiers will be taking this on having founds jobs with the firm. An NQ reflected on the policy: “It can be difficult to go up against an English firm with partners who've worked solely on derivatives for 20 years, but we compensate for that knowledge gap with the breadth of expertise we have.” Sources noted that the firm’s offering is “much narrower than in the US” – we'd add that it's narrower than at many other City firms too. The only contentious group is competition – all the other work is transactional.

I Sought the Law 

Trainees usually complete two six-month seats in their first year and three four-month ones in their second, doing seats in capital markets, finance and corporate, as well as one or two “floating seats.” Because there are only seven seats available, and because the firm places an emphasis on trainees becoming generalists once qualified, most of the sources we spoke to were happy with this system, which means they get to see almost all the firm's practices. “Towards the end of the LPC and at the start of the traineeship the graduate recruitment team gets to know you and your interests,” we heard. “If you have seat preferences you can make that clear and they’ll accommodate them.” All the trainees we spoke to had also done an overseas seat in one of the firm’s offices abroad.

Trainees can expect a mix of both public and private work during a corporate M&A seat that regularly involves cross-border deals.The group represents big-name corporate and finance clients including BP, Bayer and Goldman Sachs, and recently assisted with Fiat Chrysler’s sale of its Magneti Marelli components company to CK Holdings for €6.2 billion.“Whenever a deal comes in it’s all hands on deck; you get pulled in different directions,” one interviewees explained. Once thoroughly shaken about trainees settle down to “a lot of due diligence and getting agreements signed.” One source reflected: “At the start of the seat I was taking on more typical trainee tasks, but as it evolved there was scope to start running things myself. I’ve had to step up and take control over certain documents. Generally I’m in control of all the filings for a large deal and help out with verification.” Another trainee reflected on how they interact with clients and other parties involved: “I was able to call the company directly and liaise with foreign counsel.”

“I was able to call the company directly and liaise with foreign counsel.”

S&C’s capital markets team covers debt and equity, with the firm representing both issuers and underwriters. Clients include big beasts like Barclays and Deutsche Bank, and the team advised the four investment banks which are underwriters to the European Investment Bank on note offerings totalling $21 billion in 2018. Trainees explained how London might be involved in an international matter: “If the New York office was considering a client with an EMTN [Euro Medium Term Note] programme, we answer questions about that, as well as doing discrete research tasks.” On equity matters trainees described “drafting board minutes, letters of consent, and other ancillary documents,” as well as working on management equity plans. Those doing more debt-side work told us of spending their time “reviewing UK and EEA restrictions, as well as renewing base prospectuses.”

The project finance team is big in the oil and gas and mining industries, and represents clients across the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. The group is currently helping to arrange financing for a $25 billion LNG development off the coast of Mozambique which is a joint venture between ExxonMobil and Eni. One trainee enjoyed “working closely with my supervisor and as I progressed going from getting more prescriptive instructions to using my own initiative and having my work reviewed less frequently.” Another source reported: “You’re given the opportunity to work on documents as though you’re an associate and then they’ll fix anything you miss.” Again, newbies had an “involved” experience here – we'd call it intense. “You have to have a good idea of where things are at in terms of financing structures and the status of different work streams,” one source shared. “Towards the end of my seat I was involved in core negotiations with lenders and marking up issues lists with comments to be reviewed by senior associates.” Despite the heavy workload, one trainee assured us: “My supervisor was very good at keeping track of what I was doing and when other people were giving me work.” 

“I was involved in core negotiations with lenders and marking up issues lists.”

Competition lawyers support their colleagues in the transactional groups. The team recently advised US gas company Praxair on the competition aspects of its $80 billion merger with German rival Linde, working with the firm’s antitrust, M&A and environmental practices across its network. Trainees explained: “The team mainly covers merger control, which involves a lot of EU and CMA [Competition and Markets Authority] filings.” Again, the small size of the London office means that the team “has four people on a deal when elsewhere they’d have 40.” As a result, trainees had “helped draft chapters and responses to information requests sent over by the European Commission” and “spoken directly with clients on a daily basis.” One source told us about the international nature of the work: “I was able to handle two foreign jurisdictional filings and frequently dealt with local counsel.”

Seek clique and you shan't find 

Roughly half of S&C’s London office is made up of US attorneys, and “a lot of the English lawyers also have international backgrounds.” Culturally we heard this set-up means “everyone’s open-minded as we're a very varied group. The good thing about being so international is that everyone is very inclusive – there aren’t any cliques.” Another interviewee noticed an intellectual vibe at S&C: “There’s a culture of being interested in the law. It’s not that we’re not commercially savvy, but the culture is definitely academic in that sense.” Due to the firm’s relatively small stature, we heard that “there’s not that much going on in terms of networking events. Your friendships are left to progress naturally, which I prefer.”

“The culture is definitely academic.”

Despite admitting that “it can be difficult to maintain a work/life balance,” sources said the firm is “very understanding and would be happy to take you off a matter if you were struggling.” It’s still worth noting, however, that trainees' schedules include some pretty full-on hours. In capital markets we heard “if it’s busy I’ll come in at about 8.30am and leave at about 9 or 10pm.” A corporate second-year told us: “In my first year my days were around 9.30am to 6 or 7pm, but recently I’ve been getting into work at about 10am and leaving between 10pm and midnight.”

Sources praised the firm’s graduate recruitment team, who we heard “stay involved with trainees as we progress. You can always approach them if you have any structural problems.” During mid-seat reviews, trainees sit down with the managing partner, a recruitment partner and their current supervisor “to go through feedback from anyone you’ve done a serious amount of work for. It’s also a chance to air any grievances you might have.” Some praised the firm’s response to upward feedback, citing the recent introduction of “additional training and mini-inductions before changing seats.”

Trainees and associates are encouraged to take on pro bono work by attending round-table discussions with charities and taking on matters through pro bono brokerage services.

How to get a training contract at Sullivan & Cromwell


Vacation scheme deadlines (2020): 10 January 2020 (opens 1 November 2019)

Training contract deadline (2022): 10 July 2020 (opens 1 May 2020)


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.”

Vacation scheme

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.

Trainee profile 

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.”

Sullivan & Cromwell LLP

1 New Fetter Lane,

  • Partners: 17
  • Associates: 47
  • Total trainees: 10
  • UK offices London
  • Overseas offices: 12
  • Contacts  
  • 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: 1st May 2020
  • Training contract deadline, 2021 start: 10th July 2020
  • Vacation scheme applications open: 1st November 2019
  • Vacation scheme 2019 deadline: 10th January 2020
  • 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

Firm profile
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, Australia, 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.

Training opportunities
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 secondments in the United States, Europe and Asia-Pacific.

Vacation scheme
A two-week summer placement scheme during 2020 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 1st November 2019 through to the 10th January 2020.

Other benefits
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.

University law careers fairs 2019
Cambridge, Queen Mary, Bristol, Oxford and University College London.

This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2019

Ranked Departments

    • 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 3)
    • Projects (Band 2)