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 are nearly always kept on, have flexibility on their areas of work, earn a top-notch salary and can choose to work overseas.
US in origin, Cleary now 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 international secondment. They might spend six months in the USA or six months in Moscow and Paris. One trainee is “about to go to Hong Kong for six months” while another is “leaving in September to spend six months working at the firm’s Buenos Aires office”. Another rookie casually drops “24-hour trips to US, Rome and Brussels” into the conversation before complaining “Cleary could fork out for premium travel rather than economy”.
Back in Blighty, the firm moved to spanking new offices in London Wall Place last year, and now occupies the top five floors of a 16-storey tower. 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 lawyers numbers reportedly fell last year 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. Recent work includes representing creditors holding around $9 billion worth of Venezuelan debt and advising professional services company Dun & Bradstreet in its sale for $6.9 billion. It also represented financial houses BNP Paribas and Crédit Agricole in a successful legal challenge against the European Central Bank.
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”.
Trainees have a good chance (43%) of bagging a client secondment. These tend to be high-quality and are an attractive perk for up and coming lawyers in this field. Typical options include “asset manager, three months”, “six months at FTSE 100 company” and “BNP Paribas for a few months”.
Scarily, the training has been described as “non-existent”, although “big efforts are being made on this front. Capital markets and soft skills training have benefited particularly”. More reassuringly, one trainee explains that “formal training is not as strong as the larger firms but in terms of learning on the job I feel well supported and given interesting and complex tasks that act as training”. Another reports: “Training has improved greatly — a really solid curriculum now and of course top-notch on-the-job training and feedback.”
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. There is a “very supportive environment”, and “our trainee cohort is very close. We often go out together and are always willing to help each other out at work”. Don’t count on the partners to step in, though, as partner approachability “depends on the superior”.
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”. 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 £48,000, newly-qualified associates command £120,000 and partners take home an eye-watering $3.16 million (£2.57 million)) will see off your student debts in no time.