Meet Sidley Austin at the Legal Cheek UK Virtual Law Fair on 5 October 2021
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 increasingly globally. Sidley Austin recently confirmed a 5.4% rise in global revenue to $2.46 billion (£1.78 billion), while profit per equity partner increased nearly 10% to break the $3 million barrier to reach $3.1 million (£2.2 million) for the first time. It was also reported that Sidley’s London offices had enjoyed some of their best year’s turnover ever, growing 11% since 2020. This expanding London office promises 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.
There is no lack of stimulation in terms of quality of work offered at Sidley, as one trainee describes: “The work is excellent here. One of the things that makes Sidley different is that there’s such a range of work — yes, there’s the typical big private equity (PE) element that other US firms boast, but there’s also top-level UK work sourced from the London office and interesting, non-PE inbound work from other offices. Not knowing what the next deal will involve keeps it interesting.” 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”.
Additionally, the small teams encourage a flat, non-hierarchical(ish) structure. An insider reports: “The usual partner/associate divide just isn’t a feature of the office. Partners welcome, encourage even, associates approaching them with comments or concerns.” Though the firm apparently offers “very little formal training”, each department regularly holds specific training sessions and lunchtime talks for trainees, while others say that “seniors are very good at explaining things as you go along”. One insider told Legal Cheek, “I have never received anything other than a helpful response to ‘stupid’ rookie questions”, although another interviewee notes that “there has been a shift towards having more junior supervisors over partners.”
The small teams also foster a supportive atmosphere. “‘Supportive’ doesn’t do them justice,” a particularly enthused trainee tells us. “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.”
Others are less positive and suggest that the mood can be quite competitive among the trainees. One downside to the small teams is the lack of socialising outside of work. “A few events are put on by the firm but they are rarely well attended.” It is improving, though, and we hear the annual Christmas bash and summer parties normally go down well.
As with any US law firm the hours are heavy: “When things are busy, or you’re on a deal, you’re effectively on call the whole time including weekends.” Despite this, many trainees feel that the work/life balance is good. “Yes, there are at times long hours, but they are not all that common and most importantly weekends are respected and holidays are sacred. The partners make a concerted effort to ensure that associates are not bothered by work during holidays (whilst being easily contactable throughout their own holidays).” 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), gym and mobile allowances, and a subsidised Deliveroo dinner and a taxi home if you’re working late. Better yet, one Sidley spy tells us there’s even a “£2k BD budget” for associates “even from NQ level” which keeps things interesting. “Market-leading pay” also comes up trumps for juniors with trainees looking at a £148,500 pay package if they go on to qualify at the firm.
In terms of the tech at Sidley, “systems could do with being upgraded”. 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. They updated video conferencing software recently, which was good, but acted like rolling out Zoom was some kind of next-gen super software”.
Remote-working insiders have also reported difficulties connecting to their office work phone from home. Commenting on the firm’s response to Covid-19, one trainee said the firm was “inexcusably slow to provide working from home support. It was nearly a year after the first lockdown when the firm agreed to contribute to trainee equipment costs”.
Meanwhile, the firm recently upgraded its “tired” décor after moving its London office to the iconic ‘Can of Ham’ or the City’s 70 St Mary Axe, last year. The “beautiful” brand new office, described as “genuinely new age”, features large communal areas, standing desks, biker-friendly facilities (including plenty of showers and lockers), kitchenettes and even “very fancy” iPad coffee dispensers — a step up from the small panini-selling café found in the old office. Housing around 150 lawyers, the new digs even boasts enough space for partners, associates and even trainees to each have their own private offices. The glory of having your own office left one rookie pretty pleased, commenting, “I can’t imagine any firm in the City has a better office”.