When Sullivan & Cromwell, the original ‘MoneyLaw’ firm, began offering UK training contracts in September 2013, jaws dropped as the firm revealed trainees would start on £50,000, a record at the time. Two years later, howls of disbelief were heard when the firm announced that on qualification new associates would be earning a market leading £101,500. Thanks to a series of sizeable pay increases in recent years, and in an attempt to keep pace with its US rivals, London newly qualified solicitor remuneration is now understood to sit comfortably above the £145k mark.
S&C have a total of 13 offices spread across four continents, and has relatively deep roots in the UK, having first set-up in London in 1972. Whilst London is the firm’s second-largest office, its 80 or so fee-earners pale in comparison with the 550 at the New York headquarters. The fact that more than 60% of the firm’s employees work in the Big Apple should indicate to potential trainees that they are joining an outpost of the mothership rather than just a standard City law firm.
As if to emphasise the point, London trainees are whisked away to New York at the start of their training contracts for a week-long orientation — travel restrictions permitting, of course. Further London training sessions are streamed online all the way from the New York office, located across the road from longstanding client Goldman Sachs. S&C has close ties to the megabank — Goldman previously appointed a former S&C partner as executive vice president, while another partner was recently chosen to head-up the investment bank’s corporate legal department. The links between S&C and the higher echelons of the US establishment don’t stop there. The former chairman of the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) was an S&C partner before being nominated by the-then President Donald Trump.
Back to training contracts, which the firm started offering in 2013, S&C has since increased the size of this programme to six. With such a small trainee intake, the firm does not yet have the extensive infrastructure in place to offer the sort of structured training associated with large UK firms. Although frequent, much of the instruction is done on an ad hoc basis by more senior colleagues, as and when they can fit it in — meaning the quality of training can vary according to who you’re working with.
But the smaller size of intake can also be a good thing, in that it allows the firm to be more flexible with their TC structure- it is rumoured that whilst trainees complete the standard two seats during their first year, this can go up to three, four-month seats in the second year to allow for a broader range of experience. It’s also worth noting that since 2017, the firm has attempted to improve its formal training by hiring a dedicated training supervisor. Like most US firms, trainees are expected to get stuck in and learn on the job. This small group are given plenty of responsibility from the start.
As a result of the firm’s small trainee pool and high-profile work, trainees can find themselves doing the job of associates at other firms. “In addition to the normal diet of trainee work you are quite quickly given fairly stretching tasks which can be very stimulating,” comments one insider. Trainees have also been known to deal with clients and QCs directly. The other side of this work is the unpredictable hours and weekend working that it necessitates.
Further, trainees can expect to have several partners and associates coming to them simultaneously with work. Those who can’t manage multiple deadlines should look elsewhere. As for support, each trainee is assigned a partner mentor, who “checks in from time to time” and we’re told trainee cohorts are “close knit”. The firm also boasts a friendly and approachable atmosphere where all associates are “well known” to trainees, and rookies working directly with partners “can speak openly and contribute to the deal as an equal member”.
The firm apparently made a “seamless transition” to remote working following Covid-19 thanks to regular Zoom meetings and check-ins with trainees. “I’d almost say that the team dynamics work better in some regards,” one rookie reported.
A large chunk of S&C trainees complete an international secondment during normal times. New York and Hong Kong are popular destinations. Although, beware that work demands can see placements shortened! One disappointed respondent said they were in “Hong Kong for three months, instead of the advertised six months”.
The work/life balance is as you would expect for a US firm. “Depends on the stage of the transaction. Sometimes it gets extremely busy, so there is not much balance. Other times it gets quiet, so you have time to recharge your batteries. Partners do not staff you on busy consecutive deals, so you get a chance to rest,” said one insider.
There is a silver lining, though, and the firm offers hefty meal allowances for late workers and free taxis home for those that leave after 9pm. In terms of other perks, a cake trolley goes around the office every Tuesday and Thursday, we’re told, and the firm provides lunch from the adjacent Pizza Express once a month. Employees have access to a concierge service which is known for its ability to secure places at restaurants which are fully booked and organise dry cleaning. From time to time, S&C also offers free tickets to music and sporting events.
From the outside, S&C’s London office on New Fetter Lane seems unassuming. However, the individual offices within it are among the most spacious of any law firm in the City. Employees also have access to an on-site gym in the basement. The roof terrace is a pleasant spot for lunch in the summer. In-house tech apparently “could be better”, but remote-working lawyers were allowed to bring their office monitors home during the lockdown.
Three practice groups operate from the firm’s London hub: General Practice (incorporating all the standard hard-hitters of M&A, finance and restructuring and more), Competition and Tax. Recent deals include advising Ferrari on its IPO and Fiat Crysler on its $60 billion (£50 billion) merger with Peugeot. This work translates into huge profits. Indeed, S&C is one of the most profitable law firms in the world, with profit per equity partner (PEP) coming in at a cool $6.37 million (£5.27 million). This stellar PEP is derived from revenues of $1.77 billion (£1.47 billion). By way of comparison, Magic Circle firms turnover between £1.7 and £1.9 billion, but do so with over twice as many lawyers.