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. After four successive years of profit per equity partner (PEP) growth the firm has seen a tougher financial year thanks to Covid disruption and partner breakaways. PEP dropped 22.9% to $1.9 million (£1.4 million) and revenue dipped 11% to $861 million (£624 million).
Shearman is known for big-bucks deals, recently representing Intercontinental Exchange in its $11 billion acquisition of Ellie Mae and ViacomCBS on the $2.18 billion sale of Simon & Schuster to Penguin Random House. However, the firm’s transactional and energy-focused practice areas apparently suffered the most from the pandemic slow-down, but Shearman says it enjoyed a good bounce in these areas later in 2020, with London coming back especially strong. An eight-partner breakaway in February 2021 has seen a new push for partners, with Shearman recently promoting 14 of its senior lawyers to the partnership and lateral hires in double digits.
Shearman 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, however, “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. One rookie recounts how trainees “are very close and rely on each other for silly work-related questions but also post work pints!”. 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. We are told that, during the pandemic, overseas placements continued (albeit virtually) in Brussels with around 50% of trainees typically spending time in locations such as New York, Singapore, Abu Dhabi and Brussels.
Needless to say, NQs work hard for their £145,000 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 which are said to be “shockingly bad” for work/life balance. Long weekdays are expected and it is not unheard of to have weekends and occasionally annual leave interrupted. 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.”
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. Coffee is also provided for free to help newbies grind through the long hours and partners are known for showing their appreciation for the team’s hard work with their generosity when hosting drinks and meals.
The firm’s office is more than functional — with standing desks apparently available on request — 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”. One insider added, “the office is located right by Spitalfields market at Liverpool Street station, so is ideally placed for food / drinks / commuting”.
Legal tech is improving: “It is an ongoing process, but the firm appears to be positively engaging with developments in legal tech,” one trainee tells us. Another detailed how “the document management system recently introduced is satisfactory, but can be cumbersome and slow. The redlining software — which is used daily — is far from perfect, and often crashes when working on large documents”.
The firm takes the view that “on the fringes tech can certainly improve what you do but it can’t alter the fundamentals that this is a people-based business”, in the words of one litigator. This is echoed in trainees’ experiences: “We are not actively encouraged to use legal tech, and I’m still not really sure what other technology we can use.”