New York-headquartered Shearman & Sterling is one of the biggest law firms in the world, with annual global earnings closing in on the billion US dollar mark. A fourth successive year of profit per equity partner (PEP) rises – this time by 3% – has seen the firm reach a PEP of $2.46 million (£1.89 million). It has a long track record in the UK, dating back to 1972, and as of 2016 was earning about a fifth of its revenue here (the firm hasn’t reported its London-specific earnings since then).
A training framework as well developed as most UK firms is, perhaps, just as important as the cash. Still: this isn’t a place for people who need their hand held.
The 15 trainees that the firm takes on each year are given “associate level responsibility” in a culture that encourages you to “figure it out yourself and if OK then to just deal with it” and “if not to find help and advice”. While “most learning is on the job”, there are “many useful training sessions and this has continued while we work from home”. The work is generally high quality, but “as the cheapest fee earners at the firm sometimes efficiency dictates that you do less thrilling tasks”.
One trainee describes the experience like this: “Due to the size of the office, there is a limit to the amount of structure that can be provided in the training process. The extent to which formal training is provided further varies dramatically depending on which team you are sat with. The flip side to having a less structured training programme is that the experience is less sheltered, and trainees have exposure to a fantastic variety of interesting work. This is particularly true of the smallest teams, where the lack of any real structured training necessitates a more ‘on the job approach’, and lean staffing requires trainees to quickly find their feet, roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. From becoming an expert in a new area of law, to drafting court submissions, to interviews and meetings, trainees can find themselves going from complete novice, to NQ level work in a very short space of time.”
A few egos aside, peers are very supportive (“except at seat rotation time”) and partners approachable. A junior associate tells us: “There is no stuffy atmosphere or general air of superiority that I have encountered from the partners at the firm, and that attitude is mirrored as you move down the ranks. I have never felt unable to talk to someone when a problem or question has arisen, whether about work I was doing or otherwise.” This vibe is reflected in the out of work scene: “The partners are cooler and more social than us, depressingly,” jokes one trainee.
Development is furthered by the keenness of the firm to send trainees on international secondments, with half of the current cohort having done one or spent time on firm business overseas. Popular locations include New York, Singapore, Abu Dhabi and Brussels.
Needless to say, NQs work hard for their £120,000 salaries. We are told that rookies need to be able to work in intense bursts when required, with hours that are sometimes “brutal”, especially in the transactional departments. “Weekend work and late nights but not many finishes after 12 [midnight]” is one summary. But there is no expectation of face time when it’s quiet. Another trainee reports: “Stamina is a skill you learn quickly, but if there is no work to be done associates will wonder why you are sticking around.”
Another describes it like this:
“The reality is that working for more or less any City law firm is not going to be a 9-5 affair. Although anecdotal, my experience seems to have been better than many friends in Magic/Silver Circle firms, and hours, as always, are often practice group dependent. Nonetheless, 9-7 is a quiet day, you will generally expect to be ordering a firm subsidised Deliveroo at least 1-2x a week and, although generally only interrupted when necessary, weekends are in no way sacred. The firm is pretty good at respecting holidays and there is a broad collegiate culture around shielding people while they’re away as much as possible. At the end of the day, the work/life balance is not too bad, and seems better than many other firms, but this is still corporate law so the expectations are still high.”
On the plus side, this could be a good time to join. One Shearman insider insists that “my work/life balance has definitely improved since we started working from home”. The firm has, we’re told, adapted extremely well to the post-COVID dispensation, with home desktops supplied and “IT staff available to advise on WFH-specific things”.
The perks are well targeted: for example, a £30 food allowance for those working after 8pm and at the weekends is among the most generous in the City, and a smart way to make up for Shearman’s lack of a canteen (which is a frustration at lunchtimes: “you have to choose between an £8 lunch from the likes of Pret, or using any precious free time you have cooking up lacklustre lunches for the week”). To burn off all those Deliveroo meals, the firm offers a high subsidy for Virgin Active membership that reduces the cost by around two thirds.
The firm’s office is functional but one of the less spectacular City law gaffs. It’s “generally fine” if you get an outward facing room, meaning lots of natural light, “but some unlucky associates do find themselves in offices away from the edges of the buildings without windows and natural light.” Meanwhile the heating and aircon systems can apparently be “very hit and miss”. We asked insiders about initiatives to make the place more eco-friendly, but answer came there none. Positives include standing desks on request, the office’s nice location on the City-Shoreditch borders and improving (but still not great) tech. “It is an ongoing process, but the firm appears to be positively engaging with developments in legal tech,” one trainee tells us. This is mainly on legal project management tools rather than anything super-futuristic: the firm takes the view that “on the fringes tech can certainly improve what you do but it can’t alter the fundamental that this is a people-based business”, in the words of one litigator.