Sullivan & Cromwell:
Best Recruiter - US Firm in the City
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To US lawyers, there is no such thing as a trainee. Maybe this stems from old American values of independence and individualism; but whatever its origin, a spirit of enterprise is essential for anyone hoping to train at a US heavyweight such as Sullivan & Cromwell (S&C).
Established in New York in 1879, S&C has since become one of the elite global US firms. Its illustrious 130-year history includes too many landmarks to list, although involvement in the construction of the Panama Canal in the early 20th century and contributions to US affairs both before and after World War II both deserve a mention. Today, S&C is one of the world's leading commercial outfits, with some 800 lawyers working out of 12 offices around the globe. Since the firm set up shop in London over 40 years ago, the City has come to regard it as a peer of the magic circle, despite the much smaller size of its UK operation. This is because each office can tap into the expertise of the wider firm, as well as the internationally renowned S&C brand, to help shepherd through deals in any jurisdiction.
This integrated approach is reflected in the S&C recruitment programme – no matter where in the world they are hired, new starters complete their induction at the firm's New York headquarters. Trainee recruitment in London began only in 2011; yet despite being relatively new to the game, S&C has almost instantly become an exemplar of best practice. "We work as a cohesive whole from the chairman down," says Ben Perry, one of the two partners in charge of recruitment at the London office. "In terms of recruitment, this means that our lawyers lead the way and that you can expect more direct contact with real practitioners during the process than almost anywhere else – every vacation scheme and training contract interview is conducted by a partner, rather than a member of HR."
"Our key attraction, from an aspiring lawyer's perspective, is the opportunity to be part of a small intake," he continues. "This means being exposed to high-quality work and responsibility at an early stage."
One of those trailblazing trainees whose imagination was piqued by S&C's USP was Ashwin Pillay, who first encountered the firm at university: "I was reading through one of the recruitment magazines that gets sent round to law students and S&C had a one-page spread, explaining that the firm is huge in the United States and is involved in the biggest deals around the world, but had a small UK office that was recruiting trainees for the first time. I wanted to be involved in headline-making deals, but was not so keen on joining an intake of 120-plus trainees. The ad just seemed to be screaming, ‘This firm is perfect for you'."
The opportunities presented by a cohort of this size likewise appealed to current trainee Rosemary Stefaniuk: "That is why I applied to several US firms – all sold themselves on the similar basis of offering high-quality work as part of a smaller intake. In the end, S&C's reputation and fantastic clients won out. Meanwhile, most of my friends ended up at magic circle firms and their experiences seem to be slightly different to mine. We probably work on fewer deals, but are a lot more involved in each one, so I think the level of responsibility we have is higher on balance."
Since day one, the firm has based its recruitment strategy on these twin cornerstones of close personal attention and guaranteed quality work. The main architects behind its award-winning programme are Ben, fellow partner Jamie Logie and trainee recruitment manager Kirsten Davies. However, there is also a lot more involved in this success story. "We have a small team, but we draw on the input of everyone in the firm, from partners to trainees, in shaping our recruitment process," explains Kirsten. "After our first summer vacation scheme in 2011, we immediately sought the opinions of that first cohort of candidates to see what we could be doing better. Our programme is still growing, so getting feedback from people who have been through the process is crucial. Today, our current trainees and associates get involved in our campus activities and when candidates come to be interviewed by showing them around, taking them out for out a coffee and so on."
I have since found out that the vacation scheme is an accurate representation of the training contract.
Jessica Edge, one of the firm's trainees, recalls the first time she met these S&C ambassadors: "It was actually in a room in a pub: Ben Perry came, along with some associates. It was quite a small event, so I got to speak to Ben and the other lawyers quite a lot. It was really relaxed and informal, which helped me to find out a lot about the firm."
Jessica was glad to discover that the application process would prove just as straightforward. Candidates are requested simply to submit a CV and cover letter – no lengthy online forms, video presentations or psychometric tests. "It was a lot more straightforward than at other firms," says Jessica. "The interview process was also handled really well. It wasn't scary at all; Kirsten met me when I arrived and took me through everything before we began, and the partners were really friendly."
That same ethos is reflected in the firm's approach to vac schemes, as Ben explains: "Vacation schemes have become very slick and professional at many firms, but in one sense that actually takes something away from those who attend, because while group exercises and playing out fictional scenarios are great, the best preparation is to see what the world of work is actually like. That thinking has certainly informed our own vacation scheme, which suits the smaller size of both our office and recruitment team."
And the evidence would suggest that it also suits would-be trainees. "The vacation scheme was the deciding factor in my decision to join the firm," enthuses current trainee Liz Botcherby. "The culture really stood out – everyone knew who I was because the office is quite small and everyone talks to each other. It was very different from other firms I visited."
"What really impressed me about the vac scheme here was that I was able to get involved in the firm's real client projects," adds Ashwin. "We weren't just given busy work to see how we got on around the office – it really felt like we were junior lawyers already, rather than visitors who were being sold the firm."
"I have since found out that the vacation scheme is an accurate representation of the training contract," he continues. "We don't learn by watching and although there is a safety net, there is also real responsibility. The work we do adds value to each deal. There is just no concept of trainees in the United States. If you're dealing with a US partner, you will be treated in exactly the same way as the partner's associates. That's scary, but it's also really good because it enables you to have responsibility early on."
And trainees enjoy plenty of support as they begin tackling these new challenges: "We appreciate that the transition from academic study to legal practice can be pretty daunting, but open and friendly mentoring is part of our culture, so we closely support our trainees as they learn and develop," says Kirsten. Ashwin would agree: "The day before I started, I got very nervous and started to wonder if I knew anything at all, but as soon we started, most of us were seated with either a partner or an associate – I was actually sat with a trainee from the year above – and the atmosphere was really welcoming. No question is seen as too stupid and seeing senior associates and even partners asking questions of their colleagues reassures you of that. We have a culture of asking each other for input and advice."
The recruitment team is equally open to input and is continually fine tuning its processes with one eye on potential changes in the pipeline, such as the Training for Tomorrow consultation on the future of legal training. "Ben, Jamie and I are members of various boards and other forums, so we have our ears to the ground to see how the process develops, how other firms are going to approach it and what any changes will mean," says Kirsten. Ben, for example, is on the City of London Law Society's Training Committee: "One of the good things about that is that I am able to get involved in the debate that will shape the process over the next few years. We will be well prepared to adapt as and when new developments occur."
This adaptability means that the firm should remain a persuasive proposition for tomorrow's budding lawyers. "Sullivan & Cromwell offers great-quality work and our small intake is a massive attraction for candidates," sums up Kirsten. "This means that the responsibility and partner contact that our trainees receive are much more involved than at some other firms, where trainees receive tasks through a dense corporate hierarchy, sometimes never seeing the partner overseeing their team face to face. Most of our applicants know this – that's why they apply, so it's fair to say that we attract a certain type of person. However, the only way to get a true sense of the firm is to come and meet us for a vacation scheme or interview. If our kind of environment sounds right to you, we would love to hear from you."