Sullivan & Cromwell LLP - The Inside View

Perfection may be the aim at S&C, but "the culture is actually much more informal" than you might think.

"FROM our perspective, the economic crisis was very stressful, and caused a lot of pain," says chairman Joe Shenker, "but as lawyers it also ultimately gave us an opportunity to be involved in some amazing legislative and regulatory changes."

This high achiever steamrolled through the downturn, pulling in the punters trying to keep their heads above water as the financial landscape changed dramatically. "We are helping clients to reposition their businesses and assisting them with litigation that arose from the crisis," states Shenker, who also remarks that the balance of work has now begun to shift: "There was much more bailout work at the start, but transactional work has begun to pick up again." Both domestically and internationally, the firm was involved in some massive deals last year, not least AT&T's $48.5 billion acquisition of DirecTV. It got in on the act during the world's largest-ever IPO, acting as counsel to the underwriters as Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba was listed on the New York Stock Exchange for $25 billion.

The Work

Most of S&C's new starters begin life in the litigation or general practice groups, although a handful make their way over to tax or estate & personal. Joe Shenker tells us the aim is "to develop every lawyer here as a generalist counselor. While they will have areas of expertise, they need to have a generalist approach so that they'll know how to direct a client to a solution for any problem that arises." This means neither litigators or transactional associates are shoehorned into a particular subset of practice.

"My experience has been an embodiment of that system," remarked a third-year litigator. "I've worked on a variety of matters for a variety of clients. I just wrapped up an arbitration and have also worked on contract disputes, constitutional challenges, securities law – as that is what we do a lot of – criminal investigations and class actions." Their colleague chipped in: "It's what attracted me to the firm in first place. I like to be constantly challenged and having the same assignments over and over didn't pique my interest."

"I like to be constantly challenged." 

From corporate juniors: "You have 18 months before you have to express an interest in an area of practice, so I tried a patchwork of everything – M&A, securities, project finance, regulatory and corporate governance advice. Not only is it a great way to meet people from all over the department, but it really helps you to make an informed choice."

To get staffed on cases juniors can take advantage of a formal system. Rookies fill in a form listing their hours and availability, with associate development partners – in conjunction with an HR administrator – then making sure projects are assigned accordingly. "I relied on that at the beginning," reflected a general practitioner, "but very quickly I started to get most of my assignments from people I'd already worked with." Not everyone falls into this "repeat-business approach." A litigator said: "I actually receive the majority of my assignments through the formal system. It's just a preference thing – some people will do the exact opposite but I like to work for a variety of people on a variety of matters so it suits me better."

Litigators concurred: "If people recognize you're willing and have talent, they will give you specific assignments that aren't just straight doc review." One elaborated: "That does come up but a lot of it depends on what you show you can do. I've drafted final memos to our clients and was also responsible for interviewing an expert witness on one of my cases." Transactional juniors agreed that "you can get a lot of responsibility early on. Especially when it comes to talking to clients or opposing counsel – it can be a bit terrifying at the beginning!" However, "after six months you tend to get the hang of things and by my second year I was practically running a small deal by myself. No one gives you more than they think you can handle, and everyone messes up at some point, so you can't be afraid to take things on."

Training & Development

Rookies are expected to dip their toe into the fire as "S&C recognizes that the best training is through doing work. Despite the ton of formal talks and training lunches, partners put a premium on us getting that hands-on experience." Joe Shenker insists this is a key part of the culture: "To train our associates to be the best broad-based, all-around lawyers requires extreme on-the-job training. That means giving them high-level responsibilities at an early stage and having them very closely mentored by senior lawyers." But as our sources mentioned, the firm is far from neglectful when it comes to delivering formal training. "It's continuous and comprehensive," interviewees insisted. "You have at least one training session a week in addition to the practice group lunches that keep you up to date on current matters and interesting legal issues. There's never a shortage of CLE credits to go around either, so it really comes at you all the time."

"The best training is through doing work."

Culture and Hours

The intensive training schedule is not surprising considering S&C views perfection as the ultimate goal. "Our culture is highly professional," asserts Joe Shenker. "We try to do an excellent job in everything we do. The perfect is not the enemy of the good." His junior cohorts agreed: "It sounds cheesy, but S&C is motivated by a desire to excel," pondered one. "All my colleagues are committed to doing the best job on even the smallest of tasks. You need to develop a thick skin as your work can get heavily edited and your feelings will get hurt at first. It's never personal – it's all about getting the best final product." Another added: "People here are highly accomplished. They take a lot of pride in their work so don't accept typos in final documents and our formatting is very particular. Everything should be perfect – and that kind of mindset might drive some people crazy."

This attitude, coupled with a more than 130-year history, may lead to misconceptions about the firm's culture. "The firm has this stuck-up, ultra-white-shoe, old-school reputation," explained an insider, "but I don't think that's fair. People are a bit more professional than at peer firms, and we have funny quirks about how we style our letters, and that makes us come off more rigid than we really are. The culture is actually much more informal. The people on either side of my office just yell to each other – it's not a 'shhh' environment."

"Hours are not the metric of quality.”

Despite striving for perfection, S&C does not impose crazy billable hours requirements on its junior associates. In fact it imposes none at all. "We believe that hours are not the metric of quality,” asserts Joe Shenker. "We spend however many hours it takes to make the product right. It would be counter-intuitive to say to our clients 'it's not the hours, it's the product', and then demand from associates an hourly requirement. They need to spend the right amount of time to do their best work."

"I couldn't tell you how many hours I billed last year," chipped in a junior. "I don't worry about it because there's enough work that I will naturally bill enough for the firm to be happy. Nobody pays a lot of attention to it." A third-year's two cents: "It's about getting enough hours of training in, and becoming of value to the firm through learning. You have to make sure you're advancing at the appropriate pace."

Although they don't need to be constantly checking the clocks, sources admitted the schedule is still "quite grueling." We heard: "There's really no such thing as an average day. Sometimes I'll bill around eight hours, sometimes it's closer to 15. Sometimes I don't have to work at the weekend, but recently I put in 20 hours. It totally depends on a client's needs and the pace of the deals." The consensus is that "you always have to be available," but "the firm is very receptive to you working from home." A source informed us: "You're expected to be in the office during business hours but then no one cares when you leave the building and go home. They treat you like an adult. If you get the work done, nobody's coming to look for you."

Pro Bono

Associates praised S&C for being "very committed" to pro bono. One source said: "There's a special person at the firm (special counsel - pro bono, Jessica Klein) who is responsible for coordinating the many different programs we are associated with and blasting out emails asking us to join specific projects." One of S&C's stand-out partnerships is with the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund’s name-change clinic, which services low-income members of the transgender community in New York seeking to change their legal name to conform to their gender identity.

"Many different programs."

Pro bono hours 

  • For all attorneys across all US offices: 43,838 
  • Average per US attorney: 68


Diversity at the firm "is a priority that hasn't necessarily been realized. The essentials have been dealt with, but we're still not where we need to be." Associates said strong efforts were being made by the diversity committee, Asian, Black and Latino, and LGBT affinity groups, the women's initiative and recruiting team to improve the hiring and retention of diverse attorneys. "In terms of minorities the firm has made great strides," remarked one rookie, pointing to the strong representation of Asian attorneys in particular. A female source told us there are "fewer women here but I never feel like I am an outcast." The figures show a recent increase in women at partner level – which was noted by a few sources, and the incoming and summer classes are fairly equally split by gender.

"In terms of minorities the firm has made great strides." 

We were told about the firm's various diversity initiatives: "There are affinity groups, cocktail parties, talks and lunches with role model partners." There is dialogue on "what could be done to advance minorities within the firm," and we hear the efforts are making an impact. At the recruitment level, too, "they are committed to diversity and it is a priority" alongside S&C's task of “looking for the best candidates.”

Get Hired

Everyone at S&C boasts top credentials: "The common thread between us is that we all have good grades from a good law school," considered one junior. Joe Shenker says the quest for perfection starts from the bottom: "The goal is to recruit the smartest people from around the world. Our recruiting is global, and we have more students in our incoming class born in mainland China – albeit educated in the US – than were born in Brooklyn, New York." While intelligence is key, recruiters are also on the look out for "engagement in the subject matter and a career at Sullivan & Cromwell." An interviewee explained: "When you're comparing thousands of students, academic performance has to be exceptional but they also need to present themselves well and show a high level of interest and knowledge of the firm, its clients and the work it does."

"Good grades from a good law school."

Strategy and Offices

"We're not trying to be everything for everyone," reflects Joe Shenker, "but there are areas in which we are continuing to grow aggressively." These include energy – both exploration and distribution – project finance, infrastructure in developed and developing countries, IP and restructuring.

Strengthening these areas doesn't mean S&C is to forgo its "conservative business model" and infrequent lateral hiring. "We don't want to be in every geographic location," Shenker says, believing the firm is already well positioned with its eight international offices across Europe, Asia and Australia. "We want to build organically, and when we need to be in other locations we have relationship firms in those areas." For example, S&C is currently "extremely active" in Latin America "at the high-end of M&A and projects" by operating in conjunction with leading local outfits. Shenker adds: "We continue to be active in Western Europe in part as a result of the longer-lived economic crisis; we are extraordinarily busy in Asia, and so we will continue to build there."

"We don't want to be in every geographic location."

In addition to its eight overseas offices, S&C has four in the States – New York, DC, LA and Palo Alto. DC and LA have between 20-30 lawyers each while Palo Alto has about ten. S&C owns its 125 Broad Street location in Lower Manhattan. It took an absolute battering during Hurricane Sandy –"we were under about 30 feet of water" – yet was the first building to reopen in the financial district. A cool quirk of working here: 4pm snack time. "They have chips and candy, and recently added M&Ms, which was a great addition."

Culture and Hours

A source told us: "People give you open and honest feedback. They aren't brutal – nobody would tear you down for no reason – but they're not overly nice either. I'd rather that than them being kind to my face then trashing me in my review."

Taking all four weeks vacation on offer is also "very much encouraged." A tax associate explained: "The policy doesn't allow you to carry over too many days. In our group you're expected to bring in cover for matters when you do go away, but that's so you're not being hassled while you're on holiday."

Pro Bono

"I've found the pro bono work very rewarding," commented a junior. "I've managed to do things I never thought I would at this stage of my career. I've drafted briefs and argued motions; I even brought an appeal at the Supreme Court!"

Robert MacCrate and the MacCrate Report

Most 93 year-olds would be content to don some comfy slippers and take things easy. Robert MacCrate, though, isn't your average nonagenarian. Although retired from practice, he continues to serve on many boards and is still active at Sullivan & Cromwell as a senior counsel. In addition to serving as a partner for the firm he initially joined in 1948, MacCrate had many other appointments that keep his resume looking healthy. Two of his biggest gigs were serving as counsel to New York Governor Nelson D. Rockefeller (who would later serve as vice president under Gerald Ford) and as special counsel to the Department of the Army for its investigation into the My Lai massacre, where hundreds of unarmed civilians were killed during the Vietnam War.

MacCrate is perhaps best known for his service as president of both the New York State Bar Association and the American Bar Association (ABA) during the late 1980s. He later chaired the ABA Task Force on Law Schools and the Profession, which issued a report, widely known as the MacCrate Report, in July 1992. While it declined to attack the dominant law school teaching methodology, it did encourage law schools to actively provide courses that would teach fundamental skills and values to those students who planned to go into a "relatively unsupervised practice setting."

It called for a practice-oriented, rather than theory-oriented, approach. Specifically, it pushed for mandatory externships with government agencies, judges, or pro bono legal assistance clinics. In addition it encouraged state Bar associations to alter the Bar examination to focus more on practice-oriented skills rather than rhetoric and legal maxims. 

The report is widely viewed as the template for modern legal education in the US, but many traditional and high-ranking law schools neglected to adopt many of its recommendations. While it listed the skills and values any good lawyer should have, it also gave law schools the flexibility to decide how and if they should be taught. Because of this resistance to practice-oriented legal education, many have called into question the existing law school ranking system, criticizing it as being outdated and failing to reflect an ability to produce competent attorneys.

Sullivan & Cromwell LLP

125 Broad Street,
New York,
NY 10004-2498

  • Head office: New York, NY 
  • Number of domestic office: 4
  • Number of international offices: 8
  • Partners (US): 136
  • Associates (US): 443
  • Summer Salary 2015 
  • 1Ls: $3,076/week
  • 2Ls: $3,076/week
  • Post 3Ls: $3,076/week
  • 1Ls hired? Yes
  • Split summers offered? Yes
  • Can summer spend time overseas? Yes
  • Summers 2015: 130 (108 2Ls, 5  1Ls, 14 3L pre-clerks, 3 SEOs)

Main areas of work

Sullivan & Cromwell brings a multidisciplinary approach to providing the fullest and most comprehensive legal advice to our clients. Our global practice includes four main groups: General Practice (corporate), Litigation, Tax, and Estates and Personal. Our lawyers are trained to be generalists through broad exposure to a wide range of challenging legal matters, many of which have a significant cross-border component. A substantial number of S&C’s clients are non-US commercial enterprises and government entities, and many of our US clients retain us for international matters. Our lawyers serve our clients through a network of 12 offices in New York, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, Palo Alto, London, Paris, Frankfurt, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Beijing, Melbourne and Sydney.

Firm profile

S&C has the most broadly and deeply trained collection of lawyers in the world. They thrive in our working environment, which is characterized by commitment to clients, leadership, professional development, broad experience, teamwork and commitment to community. Associates at S&C typically acquire leadership skills as lawyers more quickly than they would at other law firms, as they are given early responsibility for managing transactions, counseling clients and representing their interests in dealings with other parties. To supplement this on-the-job experience, we provide comprehensive training programs for associates as well as formal mentoring programs.

Recruitment details

Number of 1st year associates: 77

Number of 2nd year associates: 68

Associate salaries: 1st year: $160,000 

2nd Year: $ 170,000

Clerking policy: Yes

Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2015:
S&C interviews at top law schools around the country. Our lawyers are alumni of more than 135 law schools.

Summer details
Summer associate profile:

We are actively seeking people whose intellect, character, motivation and other attributes promise to make them outstanding lawyers.

Summer program components
Training/Orientation: All summer associates participate in a formal orientation program, as well as a wide variety of training programs and skills workshops.
Advising/Assigning/Evaluations: Summer associates are assigned a partner advisor and an associate advisor, from whom they receive assignments. They are also matched with a junior associate, who is there to help with day-to-day matters at the firm. In addition, each summer associate is assigned to an Associate Development Partner, who oversees the distribution of summer associate assignments.
Events: Every summer, S&C organizes a variety of events, including professional opportunities, social events and charitable events.