"Even the youngest of the young exude professionalism."

"I came to BigLaw with low expectations of what my personal life would look like, but I've been pleasantly surprised."

Sullivan & Cromwell LLP


When it comes to doing the Wall Street shuffle, S&C is a star performer.

FROM the late 19th century to the present day, Sullivan & Cromwell has left footprints all over the upper echelons of the legal landscape. Steeped in prestige and suffused with the history of corporate America, this is one venerable legal institution. Back in the day, it helped to form the Edison General Electric Company, US Steel and the Panama Canal (advising the original Mr JP Morgan, no less). It might be a Wall Street old-timer, but stagnant it is not. Even in 1927, S&C was a step ahead of the global game along with Cravath – these two Americans sashayed into Paris and both set up shop there that year. By the 1970s, S&C wasn't afraid to dip a toe into the turbulent waters of hostile corporate takeovers, something the other Wall Street elite left to Skadden et al.

More recently, S&C emerged elegantly from the economic crisis with rising revenues and a wealth of work picked up from the world's biggest corporations and financial players. Names on its client roster include JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, ING, Microsoft... the list goes on. Dollar-wise, this firm is standing proud – it's one of the most profitable legal operations in the States. It has around 800 lawyers in 12 offices across four continents.

Associates Say

The Work 

Juniors join either the litigation or general practice group, while a few go into tax, and the estate & personal practice. Within litigation, “the clients are primarily major financial institutions.” Juniors “work on all sorts of large-scale regulatory investigations. These involve doc collection, review, production and management... it's a big eater of hours!” A bit of sleuthing might be necessary: “I do a lot of digging for facts – I'll go to the client's office and interview people informally, and then I'll look for documents in order to find answers.” As well as regulatory matters, there are plenty of “class action securities litigations,” ensuring juniors get busy with “research and drafting, plus preparing witnesses for interview.” Antitrust issues also crop up as well as arbitrations. One junior chirped excitedly: “I have a complete mix of work. No day is like before, for better or worse.”

The 'general' in general practice isn't misleading – associates have lots of scope to try out a whole range of different matters. “A big reason I came here is the generalist approach. I take it pretty far compared to most people,” exclaimed one. After around 18 months, transactional folk start to specialize in a couple of subgroups, but even then there's a focus on flexibility. An associate described his work as falling into “three categories: deals, corporate governance and working with the bank regulatory group.” Matters are leanly staffed, which spices up life for juniors. “I'm actually in the process of drafting a merger agreement right now. It's on my desk. I've never done it before, so it's a little nerve-racking, but I'm doing my best. It's exciting to take the first shot at something.”

When it comes to getting work, associates are neither spoonfed nor stranded in a free market. Litigators complete a monthly report detailing hours and availability, while those in general practice do so every week in their first and second-years (after that it's down to the discretion of the assigning partner). However, “around 60% of work comes through reaching out and developing relationships.” Sources agreed that “it's the best of both worlds. You're overseen but able to get the experience you want without being left to seek out work on your own.”

Training & Development 

Newcomers are welcomed to the firm with a week of orientation. “It's not really a substitute for being on matters, but some trainings can give, if not skills, then a level of comfort with the area and material. Particularly for me as there was a lot I didn't know about corporate law,” noted one interviewee. “So it was helpful to have somebody hold up an agreement and say 'this is what it looks like; here are the major provisions!' At least then it wasn't as scary and I gained confidence.”

There's an abundance of training opportunities after the initial sessions. “You don't even need to go outside to get CLE credits,” remarked a satisfied associate. Practice groups lunches are particularly popular. “They're the best training on an ongoing basis. Partners will discuss what's going on in that group – any new developments, structures or deals they've seen.”

Most feedback comes “in the form of comments” and corrections on documents: “When there was red all over the paper I thought I'd totally screwed up and would be fired at any moment! Then I realized that's how it goes at law firms and it wasn't a reflection on how I was doing the job.” Some seniors and partners are “very good about touching base and giving you a casual review.” 

Offices 

If you want “fantastic views of the Statue of Liberty,” then S&C's New York HQ is the place to be. The downtown location near Battery Park is a big hit with associates. “Not being in Midtown with all the tourists is a huge perk! There's a nice vibe on the street.” Unfortunately, the office was “hit pretty hard by Hurricane Sandy,” and we heard on the grapevine that the office gym is still out of action (it'll hopefully reopen in September 2014, fingers crossed). That's not to say that these hard-working attorneys fear for the state of their abs: “We've got a great gym membership around the corner instead.”

Inside, there's a traditional look to the place, with dark wood, leather seats and Big Apple-themed artwork. “It feels like a library. I like it. It's law firm-y,” said one interviewee. But things aren't all austere around here, if 4pm “snack time” is anything to go by. Fruit, candy, chips and other flavorsome treats are laid on in the associate lounge every day. “There's no shortage of food at S&C. They feed us well,” confirmed a satisfied associate.

Snack time also takes place in the LA office, which is decorated in a similar style to the Manhattan base. However, some sources were a little bewildered by the recent arrival of some “modern furniture that doesn't really make sense.” Leaving aside issues of interior design, those in LA felt “lucky, because we get New York-type work without having to live there.” The 50-attorney DC office recently moved into a "nicer space," we heard.

Culture 

Given the firm's prestige and history, you might imagine an ivory tower replete with stuffed shirts, but according to associates the reality is very different. “I thought it might be very white-shoe, standoffish and uptight, but that's so not the case,” emphasized one junior. “It's a lot more down-to-earth than you might think from the outside,” said another. Instead, “if there's some sort of overarching culture it's one of professionalism. It's a place of high expectations and those who come here want to do great work, but they have a sense of humor about the whole thing.” Associates noted that “we work together and help each other out. People are very accessible.”

A junior elaborated: “It's not a fratty culture – it's not like everyone goes out and is best friends. Some firms promote themselves by saying 'look, I met all my bridesmaids here!' and I was like, I want a job, I already have plenty of friends. Here the atmosphere is professional. But actually I've made an incredible group of friends, even though I was so snobby about it! We go on vacation together and they're a wonderful source of support – because it's not forced, friendships are easier to develop. But there is zero pressure to go out.”

Annually, “there is a lawyers' dinner dance” plus regular firmwide cocktail receptions, while different subgroups put on their own happy hours fairly frequently. Certain associates take on the role of 'floor wizards' – “to give the floor a sense of community they have a budget to organize things, like special cupcakes one day or going out for coffee at 6pm on a random Tuesday.”

Hours & Compensation 

With no billable targets, “there's never any pressure around hours. I don't worry about it at all. Actually I couldn't tell you how many I've billed.” That's no lie – there's no way of knowing the number you've amassed (unless you do your own manual tally). This leaves juniors free to concentrate on the hefty tasks in hand and execute them with aplomb. Bonuses and salaries are market rate.

Associates were pretty sanguine about the time they spend toiling: “I came to BigLaw with low expectations of what my personal life would look like, but I've been pleasantly surprised.” Of course there are “periods when I'm very busy, working until midnight and all weekend,” but this is offset by “the months of leaving at 6pm or 7pm every day.” Juniors commented that “having to be available on your BlackBerry is probably the more difficult part.” As such, “it's a lot harder to plan for things during the week.”

Pro Bono 

Most associates we spoke to had taken on pro bono work. “There are a lot of great opportunities and it's very much encouraged. But it's up to each individual, it's not pushed on anybody.” One junior remarked: “They're trying to get more corporate associates interested in it, which is a trickier sell.”

Regular e-mails about projects are circulated by a “really helpful” pro bono coordinator. A source pointed out that “they recognize that it's the nexus between service and training; you do some good and learn a lot of skills. You'd never get to do a deposition on a paid case in your first year.” Associates had worked at a transgender name-change clinic in New York which the firm sponsors, as well as on immigration and divorce cases, a voting rights litigation and false arrest cases.

Pro bono hours 

  • For all attorneys across all US offices: 41,011 
  • Average per US attorney: 63.2

Diversity 

“Substantive conversations about diversity are happening from the partnership level through to the junior level. A high value is placed on an inclusive atmosphere,” reported associates. “The network for females is very strong, so I feel supported.” Others mentioned that “they have great success with LGBT lawyers – I was surprised by the numbers. Diversity networks are promoted for every cultural group and they bring in speakers pretty often. I've gone to events and they're very productive.” Of course, like most law firms “it isn't as diverse as we'd like it to be, but it's changing and going in the right direction.”

Get Hired 

Law school grades are “definitely important,” asserted associates. Academic clout aside, are there any other characteristics that unite S&C associates? “I can't see any outstanding pattern, personality-wise. People have all sorts of backgrounds and various levels of social competency,” noted an interviewee wryly. Some thought “as a whole people here are very type-A. Even the youngest of the young exude professionalism.”

Hiring partner Sergio Galvis cites “curiosity and intellectual engagement” as key qualities for an S&C associate, along with “analytical skills, judgment, excellent written and communication skills, ability to work in teams and leadership, which might show up in all kinds of ways – it's not just about being at the top of the class.”

Strategy & Future 

Chairman Joe Shenker tells us: “It's been a very busy year both in the US and globally. We've been particularly active in litigation, especially in our investigations around the world. We started our restructuring practice in earnest several years ago and this past year completed the Kodak Chapter 11 restructuring. There were many challenges but it turned into a very successful reorganization.”

Looking to the future, “the strategy is one of deliberate growth. In terms of new offices, there is nothing currently in the works – we generally respond to client needs and our growth and expansions are carefully thought-out and controlled in order to maintain our quality and culture."


Key Facts

Largest US office: New York

US offices: 4

International offices: 8

First-year salary: $160,000

Billable hours: no requirement

Summers 2014: 126 (103 2Ls, 19 3L pre-clerks, 1 1L, 3 SEOs)

Revenue 2013: $1.28 billion (+7.9%)

Partners made in 2014: 9

Chambers USA Rankings

    Band 1
  • Capital Markets
    ( California, Nationwide )
  • Corporate/M&A
    ( Nationwide, New York )
  • Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation
    ( New York )
  • Energy & Natural Resources
    ( Nationwide )
  • Financial Services Regulation
    ( Nationwide )
  • Litigation
    ( New York )
  • Projects
    ( Nationwide )
  • Real Estate
    ( Nationwide, New York )
  • Securities
    ( Nationwide )
  • Tax
    ( Nationwide, New York )
  • Band 2
  • Antitrust
    ( New York )
  • Environment
    ( New York )
  • Insurance
    ( Nationwide, New York )
  • Latin American Investment
    ( New York )
  • Band 3
  • FCPA
    ( Nationwide )
  • Wealth Management
    ( Nationwide )
  • Band 4
  • Banking & Finance
    ( Nationwide )
  • Investment Funds
    ( Nationwide )
  • Labor & Employment
    ( New York )
  • REITs
    ( Nationwide )
  • Band 5
  • Bankruptcy/Restructuring
    ( New York )
  • International Arbitration
    ( Nationwide )
  • International Trade
    ( Nationwide )

For each practice area, only the firm’s best ranking (with location) is shown. Any lower rankings (in other locations) are not shown. To see full rankings

Diversity

Partners (%)Associates (%)
Women1941
White8775
Black/African American23
Hispanic/Latin American35
Asian813
Mixed/Other14
LGBT63

Recent Work Highlights 

  • Helped Eastman Kodak to emerge successfully from Chapter 11
  • Represented Bank of Montreal in its multimillion-dollar claim arising from the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy
  • Represented Goldman Sachs over its position as financial adviser on matters like General Motors' $5.5 billion stock buyback from the US Treasury
  • Acted for Microsoft in a multibillion-dollar antitrust suit brought by software company Novell