"I'm in the middle of a bajillion depositions. The experience I'm getting is the best!" 

“People want to work where they are comfortable interacting in a supportive environment. This will keep clients coming to us.”

- Anne Rea, management committee member

Sidley Austin LLP


This big, friendly giant of the Midwest expects a “commitment to excellence,” and in return offers juniors “astronomical personal growth.”

CALLING this a Midwestern firm undersells Sidley somewhat: it’s massive. It ranks in the top ten globally by revenue – a whisker under $1.5 billion in 2012 – and is home to over 1,700 lawyers internationally. The Midwestern identity is still important to its attorneys, and despite Sidley’s global standpoint, the firm’s straight-talking, genial temperament is part of the package and a factor in its success.

In 1866 the firm opened for business in Chicago. It made a name in insurance cases following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and in securities too, after the firm’s role in resuscitating the sector after the Great Depression. A series of name changes, office openings at home and overseas, and a merger with New York’s Brown & Wood in 2001 brought the firm into its current incarnation. Sidley retained its financial and corporate leaning throughout, and excelled in litigation along the way. Today, the firm is “balanced equally between litigation and transactional work,” confirms management committee member Anne Rea, "and we also do significant regulatory work."

Sidley wins top-tier Chambers USA rankings in everything from environment to hedge funds, adding weight to Rea’s observation that “the firm’s approach to remain highly diversified” was its secret to staying recession-proof. Sidley’s distinctly measured approach to expansion and refusal to take on debt also contribute. Revenue is higher than ever, and partner profits jumped 12% to $1.8 million in 2012. New practices are emerging in its tech-focused Palo Alto office and in its energy-driven station in Houston, which opened in 2012.

The Work 

"The department you shortlist at interview stage is usually the one you get," juniors told us. In Chicago the focus is on litigation, corporate and finance work, with litigation spread over a whole range of subgroups covering topics like finance, securities and IP. A litigation junior commented: "The variety of work is extreme," and another chimed, "I'm in the middle of a bajillion depositions. The experience I'm getting is the best!"

The litigation associates we spoke to were overwhelmingly upbeat, although a few mentioned that "the level of responsibility is not very high." No great surprise at a firm of this size, but associates did get a buzz from tasks like "getting ready to depose witnesses, building a case, writing briefs for a case in trial. But of course there's the usual doc review." The picture is the same in DC, where junior litigators will usually join the 'civil, criminal and constitutional' litigation group.

Sidley's insistence on variety early on delighted our corporate interviewees, too: "It isn't as compartmentalized as at other firms." Our sources had worked on M&A deals, securities and private equity assignments in the same year. While the work in this arena was heavy on the doc-review and due diligence, Chicago and New York associates were exposed to "high-level debt offerings and IPOs." Private equity cases offered up "more responsibility; you can work on the main transaction documents and take the point in client contact." Meanwhile, an investment products junior boldly declared theirs to be "one of the best groups in the firm," provided you're suited to "work of a very technical nature." Responsibility levels shot up in the smaller offices and more niche practice areas. Find out more about these areas online.

Work assignment "is a hybrid of formal assignment and free market," concluded one associate. Each department has someone in charge of assignment, but each has its own approach to using them; the larger ones are usually more formalised. However, there is an expectation that "after your first year you should have built up a rapport with partners" to arrange your work more organically. Associates assured us that this "is an easy process" and they generally favor it because "it gives you control over your career. I can go after the cases I want."

Training & Development 

On joining the firm, transactional associates from across the offices are whisked away to (or just stay in) the Chicago mothership for three days of Corporate College: "Training sessions, seminars and break-out sessions. They tell you a bit about every practice area – it was really interesting.” Associates from outside of Chicago especially relished the opportunity to feel included.

After the initial training period, Sidley also organizes regular, practice-specific sessions, which cover the practicalities of doing the job. Again, the firm tries to include the associates in smaller outposts by telecasting any training they missed. In the same vein, Sidley also runs a training website: 'Lawyer Training & Professional Development Resources'. “We laugh about having to do so much training,” joked one source, but added, “it’s very effective.” However, “at a firm of this size” associates often find training sessions “can be overwhelming,” and most find they progress quicker by "doing the real thing.” They welcomed the “collaborative approach among associates: if you e-mail round your peer group with a question, someone will respond from personal experience.”

Interviewees’ experiences of associate mentors ranged from “he’s been a great sounding board for advice” to “I have no relationship.” Some reported getting on like a house on fire in a manner akin to Michelle and Barack Obama back when Michelle mentored the president-to-be on his summer program at Sidley. Reports on partner mentors were equally varied: they are assigned and do make themselves available, but most “developed relationships with people I’ve worked with.” Sources did, however, unanimously confirm that “at Sidley there’s a culture of grooming us to become partner.”

Offices 

“The office feels warmer than a lot of firms,” mused one Windy City associate. “It’s a lighter kind of pine they chose, and I think it makes the difference in the mood.” Others said that “floor-to-ceiling windows” also help, as do “views of the river north and Trump Tower.” The views generally improve the longer you stay at the firm, but until that point you can keep yourself distracted in the office gym, or dine on “pretty adventurous” fodder in the cafeteria, where “the new chef gets rave reviews.”

The Midtown-based attorneys we spoke to in New York were either basking in renovated surroundings or waiting for the revamp to reach their floor, but all had “very few complaints” about the prime location and the same subsidized café and gym services as offered in Chicago.

“We’re two blocks north of the White House, the location is terrific!” DC associates exclaimed, though they were less effusive about the view: “I can see some sky and another building.” While juniors get their own office, those we spoke to in the ‘atrium office’ felt uneasy that “everyone can see into your office – it’s like a fish bowl.”

Associates generally approved of their milieu at other outposts. In LA you “have a view towards the ocean (if the smog is cooperating);” while in Houston the recent move to new premises means “we’re all kind of giddy right now,” in part because this prime downtown site is so “unnervingly high,” joked one source.

Culture 

“There are no screamers” here at this “friendly, Midwestern firm.” Indeed, Midwestern values pervade the firm’s culture, we were repeatedly told. What does this mean to the uninitiated? “Not showy, a belief in hard work, niceness.” One interviewee added, “I worry that I’m one of the meanest people at Sidley! People here are too nice.” 

Many told us how this elite firm contrasts with BigLaw expectations: “We're not trying to edge each other out. I don’t feel a sense of competition between us.” Instead, the firm “stresses collaboration during the summer scheme,” which evidently resounded with juniors: “I don’t consider helping out a friend billable time,” said one; another told us, “I was really overworked, so a senior associate took my case on.” 

A cozy, public-spirited place this may be, but don’t expect daily happy hours: “It’s not exceedingly social, it’s more family-oriented.” Most welcomed how “un-frat-like it is.” Nevertheless, a social life does still exist. It might range from “drinks, concerts or dinner” to firm-arranged societies covering topics like “fashion, health and fitness, cooking classes and women’s events.”

Hours & Compensation 

To be in line for a pay rise, associates told us that they had to bill 1,800 hours in a year. “A further 200 makes you bonus eligible,” they thought, so 2,000 is the real target (the firm doesn't confirm or deny this number). Happily, “nobody has difficulty making their bonus.” While there was mild concern that the bonus criteria are “opaque,” most knew that both “performance and hours contribute.”

None of our interviewees had difficulty taking their assigned 20 days’ vacation, and all spoke highly of the firm’s flexibility: “I can work from home and the partners don’t raise an eyebrow.” On hours, “the downsides are typical of any BigLaw firm:” the large majority of our interviewees would clock off by 7pm, and “sometimes sign back on at home after dinner until 10 or 11pm.” Another junior said, “people are appreciative when you pull an all-nighter, and they try not to kill you,” and all reported that midnight sessions and weekend work were a rarity. The firm demands dedication, but is also forgiving, and recognizes that people have lives outside of work.

Pro Bono 

Associates told us that after the first 1,800 hours, which must be billable, Sidley then allows the next (bonus eligible) 200 hours to be pro bono (or a mix). The firm has pro bono coordinators but there’s no obligation to do it. Those who volunteered told us what “wonderful opportunities” they were afforded: “I represented a prisoner on a medical lawsuit.” Another represented a “client on death row.” The litigators in particular reveled in the extra responsibility: “I did oral advocacy, dealt with judges, argued in court, and was able to draft my own motions.” The department you join makes the difference; some in corporate told us “there really isn’t a culture of pro bono.” The truth, however, was that opportunities are there for those who want them.

Pro bono hours 

  • For all attorneys across all US offices: 101,277 
  • Average per US attorney: 61.7

Diversity 

“They take it seriously,” an associate told us on gender equality. “They have done a good job of promoting women partners,” said one female source. It was fitting, then, that in 2012, Sidley took the Chambers Women in Law award for the ‘most innovative law firm’. While some associates were concerned that “ethnically, Sidley is not that diverse,” most assured us that this is more “a symptom of the legal market – the firm makes the effort for minorities.” The firm has a chief diversity officer and assigns diversity mentors to minority associates. Anne Rea explains: “This is to help expose our diverse lawyers to leadership.” One associate enthused: “My mentor is a pretty senior partner in my group.” 

However, one mentee moaned that the mentorship scheme seemed superficial, and that it “wasn’t really a substantive mentor relationship – you develop real mentors by working with people.” Nevertheless, the effort was welcome, and associates indicated how the firm is at the forefront of the diversity movement in law: “They bring in speakers on unconscious bias,” confirmed one; “they hold monthly seminars, career advancement panels and all-women events.”

Get Hired 

“We look for quality. That’s the most important factor that differentiates us,” Anne Rea says. “This means lawyers who demonstrate excellence in education and achievement, evidence of leadership and goal setting.” Secondly, the firm looks for “presence and presentation skills,” which, Rea explains, “are important for inspiring confidence in clients and interacting successfully with them.” She also stresses “focus and commitment,” adding: “This is not an issue of working long hours, but a commitment to excellence: doing a great job, not just a good job.”

If our interviewees gave any advice on how to get in, it would be “to talk passionately about your area.”  “They are concerned about the right fit,” one source told us. So what is the Sidley type? “I don’t think they are looking for the intense sort of person like at the New York firms.” There was some debate over whether Sidley has a “nerdy intellectual culture;” not all agreed, holding instead: “You need to be interested in your work – and really friendly!”

Strategy & Future 

Sidley’s winning formula, Anne Rea tells us, “has been to use our financial success to invest in expanding our offices to create opportunities.” Prudent expansion is crucial to this firm, which “doesn’t take on bank debt,” affirms Rea, but focuses on investing profits in the firm’s growth.

Launching a Houston office in 2012 signals Sidley’s “significant commitment to our energy practice,” says Rea. In addition to traditional energy work focused on oil and gas, there's also an emerging “alternative energy practice in LA and DC – solar, wind, geothermal – we are investing in the full spectrum.” She also indicated that technology is “another clear growth area” and the sole focus of the Palo Alto office, opened in 2009.

Rea’s view is that the firm “will continue to become increasingly global.” Indeed, the firm sank roots in Asia over 30 years ago, invested in Singapore, and in early 2013 Sidley was appointed one of only four international firms to be offered a license to practice local law in Singapore.


Key Facts

Largest US office: Chicago

US offices: 8

International offices: 10

First-year salary: $160,000

Billable hours: undisclosed

Summers 2013: 113 (109 2Ls, 4 1Ls)

Revenue 2012: $1.49 billion (+5.7%)

Partners made 2013: 26 (23 in US)

Chambers USA Rankings

    Band 1
  • Appellate Law
    ( Nationwide )
  • Banking & Finance
    ( Illinois )
  • Capital Markets
    ( Nationwide )
  • Climate Change
    ( Nationwide )
  • Corporate/M&A
    ( Illinois, New York )
  • Environment
    ( District of Columbia, Illinois, Nationwide )
  • Financial Services Regulation
    ( Nationwide )
  • Insurance
    ( Illinois, Nationwide )
  • Intellectual Property
    ( Illinois )
  • International Trade
    ( Nationwide )
  • Investment Funds
    ( Nationwide )
  • Litigation
    ( Illinois )
  • Media & Entertainment
    ( Illinois )
  • Products Liability
    ( Nationwide )
  • Real Estate
    ( Illinois )
  • Transportation
    ( Nationwide )
  • Band 2
  • Antitrust
    ( Illinois )
  • Bankruptcy/Restructuring
    ( California, Illinois )
  • Communications
    ( Illinois )
  • Energy & Natural Resources
    ( Illinois, Nationwide )
  • ERISA Litigation
    ( Nationwide )
  • Healthcare
    ( District of Columbia )
  • Labor & Employment
    ( Illinois )
  • Life Sciences
    ( Nationwide )
  • Privacy & Data Security
    ( Nationwide )
  • Tax
    ( Illinois )
  • Band 3
  • International Arbitration
    ( Nationwide )
  • Leisure & Hospitality
    ( Nationwide )
  • Securities
    ( Nationwide )
  • Technology
    ( Illinois )
  • Telecommunications
    ( District of Columbia )
  • Wealth Management
    ( Nationwide )
  • Band 4
  • Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation
    ( Nationwide )
  • Latin American Investment
    ( New York )
  • Projects
    ( 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 (%)
Women21.344.7
White91.975.1
Black/African American1.54.1
Hispanic/Latin American1.24.7
Asian4.613.5
Mixed/Other0.82.6
LGBT2.42.8

Recent Work Highlights 

  • Advised Nationstar Mortgage on its $4.2 billion purchase of mortgage servicing assets and receivables from Residential Capital, which was undergoing Chapter 11 treatment 
  • Counsel to the underwriters of Restoration Hardware Holdings $124 million IPO
  • Acted for Cerveceria Nacional Dominicana in its sale to Companhia de Bebidas das Americas (AmBev) for $1.238 billion
  • Represented Southern Union against the United States in successfully overturning a court ruling, including multimillion-dollar penalties
  • Sidley acted for Fox Television Stations in securing a victory against the FCC, ruling that the regulator's indecency standards were unconstitutionally vague