Sullivan & Cromwell LLP:
Best Training Principal – Ben Perry

When Sullivan & Cromwell – founded in New York in 1879, with a London office since 1972 and its own home-grown English lawyers since 1999 – first won this coveted award two years ago, its newly minted UK trainee programme was in its very first year. It has bedded in now, but retains that feeling of freshness. Ben Perry, partner, training principal and worthy recipient of the Best Training Principal award, explains: “Our process hasn’t changed much, but one key difference is that when the students come to interview or are on the vacation scheme, they can now chat to former trainees who have qualified as associates. It’s nice to develop things in that way; everybody who has trained here has stayed on.” Kirsten Davies, trainee solicitor recruitment manager, agrees that there is no room for complacency: “We are constantly reviewing our processes, including how the trainees have found everything from induction to seat changes. We haven’t made massive changes, but we also ask the vac schemers for ways that we can improve and how we compare to other firms.”

Something that is unlikely to change dramatically going forward is the size of the trainee intake – it has increased from four to six this year, but everyone involved feels that there is virtue in keeping it relatively small. Trainee Abby McIntosh saw this as a real bonus: “At the law fair, I had a chat with Kirsten and an associate, and they were both very friendly and approachable; but what really hooked me in was the small intake – I felt that personally, it would suit me better. You still get high-quality, impressive deals and clients, working at the forefront of the market, but without having to be one of 90-odd trainees.”

Victor Siek, a first-year associate and one of the original cohort, agrees: “Although the intake is about to get slightly bigger, it still means that there are only ever one or two trainees in any one practice area, and each is assigned a different mentor. You have someone watching over you making sure that you get the right experience.”

The London office currently has a legal staff of around 80, made up of English, US and dual-qualified lawyers. Another bonus of this bijou size is the ability to take a nimble approach to decision making, as Ben explains: “We don’t have to overly formalise what we do; rather, we can observe how things run day to day. You can see what comes from that and change as necessary.”

Both Abby and Victor have enjoyed close interaction with partners throughout their training – another corollary of a small office, which allows for a non-hierarchical set-up and working philosophy. “Partner mentorship is the most important part of the training contract experience here,” emphasises Victor. “The number of junior lawyers within any one department is low, so partner contact is high. There is a great willingness among the partners to teach and take a long-term view to our development. I had a great experience in the project finance/leveraged finance team, where both partners took their role as mentors very seriously. I was involved with every one of their matters, and there was never a sense that they were inventing things to keep me busy or that I was being shunted off out of the way. And there are all manner of different lawyering styles in the office to observe up close – they’re all successful in different ways, so there is no lack of role models. They are top-quality lawyers and people!”

Abby concurs: “My first supervisor was great to work with; she explained things clearly and was a great source of support. I now share an office with a partner in my second seat and we work very closely; we talk every day about the things I’m working on, he lets me have a go at everything, and is happy for me to listen in on his calls. It’s a great way to understand how things work in terms of what clients expect of you and the level of advice you need to give. Trainees also get pulled onto all kinds of deal because these are small teams, and we work closely with associates and partners – there’s not a massive chain of superiority. Many of my LPC friends get a lot of direct contact with junior associates at their firms, but less so with partners.”

Kirsten adds: “Senior supervisors provide mentoring advice from day one and that is in place throughout the training contract. Because we’re a small office and there is a genuine open-door policy, anybody can go to speak to anyone. We want to bring out the best in our trainees.”

Part of that imperative is making trainees feel part of the firm from the point of hire – often some two years in advance of their start date. “I stayed in regular contact with Kirsten throughout my GDL and LPC, including her regularly checking in to see how I was doing,” recalls Abby. “My intake was all on the LPC together, so that was an opportunity to get to know each other really well and made the first day at the firm much less intimidating.”

There can be no doubt that the first couple of weeks in any firm can be daunting, but at Sullivan & Cromwell this is mitigated by a comprehensive induction process, which features a week in New York – surely the envy of many new trainees across the City. Abby reflects: “I felt completely happy and confident when I started; we had a week of training in the London office and then went to New York for orientation week, with the new worldwide intake of associates and trainees. It was very exciting!”

“Ben takes the time to talk things through and explain things – his door is literally always open!”

“We offer an extensive induction process, which dovetails with orientation in New York for all new starters,” adds Ben. “That has a great intangible benefit because it really helps the trainees feel part of the wider firm. I know this because I was lucky enough to do it when I joined!”

He goes on to explain how the first couple of months are then structured in such a way as to ease the new recruits into the world of work: “The key thing is for them to find their feet with their supervisors and settle into the daily routine of actual work. The temptation is to offer day-long swathes of training, but it’s at a point when they are already overwhelmed, so we prefer to let them get stuck into work. Alongside their supervisors, there is also a strong informal support network among the other trainees and junior associates, which builds naturally.”

Abby describes a project on her first seat that reflects what she has come to expect from the ongoing trainee experience: “It was a big debt raising on the Irish Stock Exchange; both the junior and senior associates were really busy, so the partner let me take it and run with it. I talked to the client a lot – he was always calling from Italy with lots of questions – and I was coordinating with the New York team and other colleagues in the office. I felt totally a part of the wider office team and very capable. I wasn’t just left to do the proofreading!”

More broadly, her expectations of life as a trainee have been roundly surpassed. “I’m learning a lot every day; I enjoy what I do and it is engaging and challenging,” she summarises. “I had expected to be working long hours, especially with the reputation that US firms have; but in a lot of ways the work-life balance is better than I expected. And compared to my friends who are working at magic circle firms, I don’t feel any different in terms of quality of work. The responsibility you are given makes you feel part of the team and as if you’re doing associate-level work.”

Slightly further along the line, Victor is at the perfect juncture to reflect on his training experiences: “You are very well prepared for this type of general practice by the training contract, especially having had the chance to interact with almost everyone in the firm throughout the two-year period. I can safely say that I have no regrets about my decision to accept a position here and think that this is a great place for a young lawyer to train.”

And so finally back to Ben, the deserving second-time winner of this award, and the many personality traits that make him perfect for the role. Victor details just a few: “There is a sense that this really matters to Ben – he was the architect of and soul behind this programme. He is a busy transactional lawyer, with his own practice, but he still manages to give so much time to trainees and junior associates. Soon after I started, I fell ill and Ben spent time finding me a doctor because I was new to London and didn’t know many people. He remembers everything about everyone and keeps in touch. Even when I was on secondment in New York, he popped in to see me whenever he was over and was in constant contact with the people that I was working with. I don’t think that it is common to have a partner who is so attentive.”

 “Ben takes the time to talk things through and explain things – his door is literally always open!” enthuses Abby. “He makes a lot of effort to organise events outside of work as well – for example, we recently went out for dinner with the vacation scheme students and Ben was talking to everyone, interested in knowing what we’re up to, both in and out of work. He makes sure that we’re happy and have enough to do, but checks that we’re not completely swamped.”

As a colleague and training programme collaborator, Kirsten has her own perspective on why working with Ben is so fruitful: “He is very accommodating of my sometimes ‘out of the box’ ideas and is always happy to talk things through. He invests such a lot of effort into the grad rec programme – at some firms the training principal is there in name only, but Ben is always on hand and totally engaged in what we’re doing.”

The man himself feels that the support he receives at all levels of the firm is part and parcel of his personal success: “It goes all the way to the top; the chair of the firm takes a very keen interest and is pleased to hear about accolades such as this. In the context of our office, every one of the 20 partners is involved to some extent. And unlike in some large firms, where people take on this role for a couple of years and then pass it on because it’s a massive time commitment, there is consistency here – Jamie Logie (co-head of the trainee team), Kirsten and I have worked well together for many years. It’s a reflection of what I’ve always thought the firm is good at – supportiveness and collegiality, and being a part of and benefiting from that.”

Kirsten reflects on the process she has helped to establish: “I have worked at other firms and I feel that I am very well supported here. It’s not a huge office, so the entire graduate recruitment process draws everyone in. It is a team effort and everyone has input into who we recruit – everyone wants them to be here, which is a great feeling for the individuals too. We have fantastic lawyers here in London, with great organic growth; now the first cohort of trainees has qualified, it’s nice to reflect on our successes.” 

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