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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. For the driven and the determined, however, the rewards are many. Trainees have flexibility in their areas of work, earn a top-notch salary (trainees start on £57.5k, go up to £62.5k, and on qualification, take home a more than £160k) and can choose to work overseas if they so desire.
American in origin, Cleary has 16 offices in Europe, the US, Middle East, Asia, and Latin America, with the firm opening its latest gaff in Silicon Valley in 2021. 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 a decent chance of securing an international secondment with destinations including Hong Kong, Cologne, Frankfurt, Brussels, Abu Dhabi, and New York. And for those who miss out, there’s always the induction jolly to Milan.
Back in Blighty, the firm moved to new offices in London Wall Place in 2018, and occupy the top five floors of a 16-storey tower which boasts “glass-front double height ceilings with views across the City” and “some serious Succession vibes.”. This is in addition to the roof terraces, pocket gardens and parks, restored remains of the Roman city wall, and medieval St Alphage church tower.
It is unusual among law firms in that it does not divide its workforce into specialised departments. Consequently, its hundred or so London-based lawyers are expected to work across the firms practice areas, including: international finance and corporate work, tax (both US and UK), antitrust, financial regulation, litigation and arbitration, and intellectual property. 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, although the usual four-seat training structure remains in place. Trainees can also choose seats in M&A, finance, dispute resolution, financial regulation, employment, funds, intellectual property, and competition law.
“Once you train at Cleary you can thrive anywhere” – the words of one proud informant. “A lot of the learning is ‘on the job’,” remarks a second, though others laud the many training sessions and points of contact provided to help trainees navigate their way through the work undertaken by firm’s flourishing capital markets practice that newbies are likely to come across in some shape or form.
It also helps that the partners are generally “very approachable”. “I have two partner mentors and they are always saying hello around the office and encouraging us to come to them with any questions,” reveals a well-supported rookie. Another gushes: “The partners have been incredibly kind and approachable, and the associates I’ve worked with have been endlessly patient and willing to help.” And this goes all the way to the top of the firm: “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. Whilst there are typical murmurings of busy and unavailable superiors at peak times, the rookie view is overwhelmingly positive, and all seems well in the Cleary ship.
Another thing that is impressive about Cleary is its roster of clients that include Coca-Cola, Sony, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, private equity funds, and sovereign governments. Billion-dollar deals are the norm for the firm. Recent work includes advising Credit Suisse on their proposed merger with UBS, lender Grupo Bimbo on just shy of $2 billion worth of sustainability-linked credit, and Verizon on $2.5 billion worth of tender offers. This is in addition to representing the Republic of Iraq against the Republic of Turkey in an International Chamber of Commerce arbitration initiated in 2014, and Goldman Sachs on a $1.04 billion mortgage loan agreement.
And it’s certainly not like trainees are far from the action: “I’ve been on real matters and client calls since the first couple of weeks, the exposure is amazing.” Another recounts: “I was able to immediately jump into ongoing matters and feel like my days are very full and interesting”. Whilst this high degree of responsibility can come with a side order of stress, we’re assured this is more than compensated for by the typically “stimulating” work.
Even Cleary, however, cannot escape the ever-present grumbles of trainee grunt work. One rookie confesses they “are given the work of a paralegal as well as of a 2PQE lawyer. This leads to many administrative and highly time-consuming tasks at the same time as more intricate or higher responsibility ones.” Fortunately, whilst the tech isn’t considered to be cutting edge, it is said to be “good” and IT support is “great”, which helps trainees handle the more mundane tasks.
As already mentioned, this is not the place for the more laidback with the trade-off for such great exposure and pay being “high stress and long hours”. This spy explains: “Long hours are expected and are often not praised enough. Trainees are ranked based on their billable hours to supervisors every week.” But it may not be all that bad with others stressing that the work/life balance is “actually much better than expected”. How much can a new rookie really expect when they’re bringing home one of the biggest pay packets the City has to offer?
One merrier newbie reports: “it is practice group specific (forget it if you are in cap markets) but in my current seat I can leave at 6pm and, if necessary, log back in at home. I have also been travelling on weekends much to my surprise.”. Another details that they “have very little time during the week to do much beyond work, but weekends have been respected for the most part.”
Those who are big fans of flexible working, expect to be disappointed; we are told Cleary makes all its recruits come into the office for the first three months of their training contract. After that, however, you get to relish the benefits of “good tech equipment” provided by the firm, though some wish there was a budget for a desk and chair.
When the going gets tough, however, 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 of only around 12 each year. “We often go out together and are always willing to help each other out at work,” another adds with all being “extremely friendly and supportive”.