As the firm that helped bring together one of the world’s most iconic power couples, Barack and Michelle Obama, Sidley Austin has a unique claim to fame. The Obamas’ love story began in Sidley’s Chicago office where Barack was a summer associate and Michelle a junior associate (and his supervisor!).
In addition to being immortalised by the Obamas, the firm is one of the most well-known in the US and globally. Sidley Austin recently confirmed a 5% rise in global revenue to $2.9 billion (£2.3 billion), while average profit per equity partner (PEP) climbed an impressive 12% from $3.7 million (£3.06 million) to roughly $4.2 million (£3.3 million) — a seven-figure average that far exceeds that of any Magic Circle firm. It was also reported that Sidley’s London office enjoyed solid results, with revenue climbing by roughly £30 million to reach £151.9 million over the past year. And the firm is looking to strengthen its foothold in the capital with chair Yvette Ostolaza looking to step up recruitment and take advantage of what she described as “disruption” in the legal sector.
This continued growth in the City is providing exciting new deals and good secondment opportunities. Around a quarter of the firm’s rookies do an international secondment, with Brussels and Hong Kong being popular destinations, while one rookie reports completing a pro bono secondment with a children’s charity.
There is no lack of stimulation in terms of quality of work offered at Sidley, as one trainee describes: “Notwithstanding the drudgery of some tasks, the work is top-notch with trainees given a high level of responsibility including on some very high profile mandates.” Though one rookie explains the quality can “vary between seats”, the general rule seems to be that “ability is rewarded with good work and responsibilities” and the small headcount makes for “far less grunt work than you might expect at trainee level at firms with greater headcount”. Another junior describes the work as “very cutting edge” and often find themselves researching “new technologies and laws”.
Additionally, the small teams encourage a flat, non-hierarchical(ish) structure. This means trainees are “working with partners on a daily basis”, one spy explains, while another tells us that superiors “welcome, encourage even, associates approaching them with comments or concerns”. Another source tells us “partners truly adopt an open-door policy” and “directly mark up your work and take the time to explain if [you have] any questions”. Though the firm apparently offers “very informal training”, departments do regularly hold specific training sessions and lunchtime talks for trainees, while others say that “seniors are very good at explaining things as you go along” – although it can vary between supervisors/partners. One insider told Legal Cheek, “I’ve always felt like I was operating at a junior-associate level at the end of every seat during my TC.” We’re also told some departments are making efforts to formalise the training rookies receive.
The small teams also foster a supportive atmosphere. “The trainee group is genuinely lovely”, one happy trainee tells us. Another offers this assessment: “Being in one of the smaller teams here in London, it’s incredibly reassuring to know that each of the other associates in my team would be willing to offer advice, take something off my plate if I was too busy or even just cover for me if I need to pop out of the office. Those not in my team are also incredibly reliable — it’s definitely the sort of place where you can pick up the phone to someone and ask a question rather than having to send a formal email. 11/10 would pick them all as godparents.” Echoing this, another adds: “I have been very lucky to have great mentors as a trainee and a junior associate.”
As with any US law firm the hours are on the long side: “It’s tough initially and you need to learn to balance it out”, one trainee explains, “but once you are in the swing of things it becomes much easier.” While another source claims “trainees are expected to be available more or less all the time”. We’re told “weekends are respected and holidays are sacred”, and partners make a concerted effort to ensure that associates are not bothered by work during their scheduled downtime. Another tells us: “Not the horrendous sleeping pod life that I was anticipating!”
Experiences can differ across seats, as one insider notes: “If you do a seat in corporate, expect to work later than 11pm every night and some weekends. If you do a seat in tax, you probably won’t work past 9pm. Weekend working is an expectation if there is work to be done, rather than being seen as an exception.”
Standard perks at Sidley range from private healthcare (including a free Headspace subscription), £400 annual gym allowance, in-house counselling, free Deliveroo after 7pm and a taxi home if you’re burning the midnight oil. Better yet, one Sidley spy tells us there’s even a “£2k BD budget” for associates “even from NQ level” which keeps things interesting. Excellent remuneration also comes up trumps for juniors with trainees looking at a £159,500 pay package if they go on to qualify at the firm. The only real perk missing according to one rookie is a canteen.
“Not fantastic but getting better”, is how one insider describes the tech situation at Sidley. Although “firm-issued laptops are generally good and IT is very responsive”, one respondent complains that Sidley’s document management system “looks like it was built for dial-up internet”. As for agile-working support, expect the usual IT hardware like a computer monitor and keyboard, as well as an office chair “if you ask”.
As part of its efforts to become greener, Sidley recently launched a unique apprenticeship covering, among other things, sustainability. While the opportunity doesn’t lead to qualification as a solicitor, at the end of the 20-month apprenticeship, the candidate will have gained a Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability diploma.
The firm’s “phenomenal” London office — housed within the iconic ‘Can of Ham’ or the City’s 70 St Mary Axe — gets a major thumbs-up from rookies. A base for around 150 lawyers, it features large communal areas, standing desks, biker-friendly facilities (including plenty of showers and lockers), kitchenettes and even “very fancy” iPad coffee dispensers. The office even boasts enough space for partners, associates and even trainees to each have their own private offices. “If Carlsberg did offices…”, one source summarises.