This global firm is definitely not for the faint-hearted. Trainees can expect to be thrown in at the deep end and will be expected to work long hours (long hours at firms like Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton mean very long hours. Think 9:30am-9:30pm, although you could be out the door by 7pm on quiet days). For the driven and the determined, however, the rewards are many. Trainees have flexibility in their areas of work, earn a top-notch salary and can choose to work overseas, pandemic permitting.
American in origin, Cleary has 16 offices in Europe, the USA, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America. Join this firm and stick a pin in a globe. Almost all of its work involves multiple jurisdictions, and the world really is a Cleary lawyer’s oyster. Trainees have an excellent chance of securing an international secondment — with around 40% normally spending time abroad. And for those who miss out, there’s always the induction jolly to Milan.
Back in Blighty, the firm moved to spanking new offices in London Wall Place in 2018, and occupies the top five floors of a 16-storey tower. Although, one spy claims they “have to close our blinds on one side of the building after 7pm so as not to offend residents of the Barbican with all our light pollution”. It is unusual among law firms in that it does not divide its workforce into specialised departments. Consequently, its 130 or so London-based lawyers are expected to work across several practice areas (note that those numbers reportedly fell in 2018 after a number of high profile departures to Allen & Overy). According to Cleary, this reflects “the firm’s overall commitment to creating a seamlessly interwoven legal practice”. The advantage this has for trainees is that it exposes them to a broad range of work.
In terms of work, Cleary, in common with some of the other US law firms in London, has a flourishing capital markets practice, where securities such as shares and bonds are issued to raise long-term financing for businesses or governments. Trainees can also choose seats in M&A, finance, dispute resolution, financial regulation, employment, funds, intellectual property and competition law.
It has an impressive roster of clients, from Coca-Cola and Sony to Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, private equity funds and sovereign governments. Billion dollar deals are the norm for Cleary. Recent work includes advising BNP Paribas on its inaugural $1 billion green bond offering and Google on its $2.1 billion acquisition of Fitbit, as well as leading on the 15-month antitrust review process in the European Union, United States, Australia, Japan, and South Africa.
Sometimes, at these behemoth firms, trainees find themselves stuck with filing and administrative tasks. Not so at Cleary, where there are “very few tedious proof-reading style tasks. Most of the work is research, drafting, coordinating counsel etc.” Another trainee enthuses that “most days are a vigorous yet wonderfully enriching intellectual workout, but some slightly less stimulating days are inevitable”.
The training on offer is “more of the ‘on-the-job’ variety”, one trainee tells us, with “very few formal training sessions”. This, however, seems to be the preferred mode for at least one rookie: “Learning by doing is the best way for me. Ultimately, I don’t think that pre-arranged presentations and sessions have as much value.” Another, meanwhile, reports that the “training has improved greatly — a really solid curriculum now and of course top-notch on-the-job training and feedback.” The transition to home-working went relatively smoothly too. “I have no complaints,” one respondent reports. “They’ve been exceptional.”
When the going gets tough you can rely on your fellow trainees to provide moral support. Cleary scores well for peer support in the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey. “The trainee cohort is very close”, one source explains, thanks in part to the firm’s relatively small intake — around 15 each year. “We often go out together and are always willing to help each other out at work,” another adds. As for the firm’s partners, one insider tells us this: “I’ve never felt that I can’t approach even the most senior partner on a professional or social basis. Senior lawyers make a real effort; the managing partner of the firm (from the NY office) can remember the names of trainees he’s met once in the London office.” Impressive stuff.
In terms of work/life balance, it’s not great — but what did you expect? This may be because the constantly shifting workload makes it difficult to plan ahead. Trainees report that it “depends on deal flow”, and that “it varies from period to period, and is always unpredictable”. Although one rookie tells us “if you flag that you have an engagement, they’ll do their best not to bother you”. The upside of training at Cleary is the quality of the work. It’s better to be pushed and challenged to develop your skills than struggling to get enough experience, and having this firm’s name on your CV will give your career a turbo-boost. The international nature of the firm makes it highly attractive, while the generous salary (trainees start on £50,000, newly-qualified associates command £133,000 and profit per equity partner last stood at $3.67 million (£2.64million)) will see off your student debts in no time.