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 vac schemer 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 5.3% rise in global revenue to $2.337 billion (£1.836 billion), while profit per equity partner increased 10.5% to $2.82 million (£2.22 million). Although Sidley’s London turnover has previously outpaced the firm’s global performance, latest reports show that revenue grew by less than 1% over the last year to £98.1 million. Still, 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 New York, Chicago, Brussels and Hong Kong common 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.”
During such deals trainees and associates work in small teams giving them significant exposure to the work and a chance to develop their skills. 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”. 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 go down well (when there’s not a global pandemic on).
As with any US law firm the hours are heavy. Despite this, some 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.
In terms of the tech at Sidley, “systems could do with being upgraded”. Although “firm issued laptops are generally good and IT are very responsive”, one respondent complains that Sidley’s document management system is “quite Windows 95 and very unresponsive” which often drags out trainee work. 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 it’s “quite annoying that there was no allowance for purchasing office equipment (monitors/desk chairs) like I’ve heard of at other firms – the first few weeks were very tedious doing everything on a laptop till I caved and bought a monitor anyway”.
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, earlier this 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 paninis-selling café found in the old office. Housing 142 lawyers, the new digs even boasts enough space for partners and associates to each have their own private offices – a privilege which room-sharing trainees must first earn.