As the firm that helped bring together one of the 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. It posted a global revenue this year of $2.2 billion (£1.8 billion). In London turnover has grown at a faster pace than the firm globally: by 14% over the last year to reach £97.5 million. This expanding London office which it puts down to “high levels of demand” promises exciting new deals and good secondment opportunities. Around a half of the firm’s rookies do an international secondment, with New York and Chicago 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 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.” However 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.
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 healthcare (including a free Headspace subscription), gym and mobile allowances, and 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”. The need for an upgrade is also applicable to the decor, with one interviewee adding that the offices “are looking a bit tired lately”. It appears that Sidley took this point on board, as it prepares to move to new premises, ‘the Can of Ham’ or the City’s 70 St Mary Axe, in January. Will this usher in a new age of good views and glass walls? Will the new office upgrade the food offerings? Currently there is only a small café which does paninis. The old office is not all bad. Certainly there may be a few people missing the firm’s “big roof terrace open throughout the summer.”