This mighty Chicago firm has an ever-expanding roster of offices at home and abroad, but its "Midwestern attitude" isn't compromised.
"IT'S been a very exciting year for us," says Sidley Austin's management committee member Anne Rea. "Our strategy is to have a significant presence in the major commercial and financial centers of the world and we have been expanding and growing, which is always exciting for law students." It appears that 'downsizing' or 'consolidation' are not words in this Midwest megafirm's vocabulary. "In 2009, in the depths of the financial crisis, we opened our Palo Alto office," Rea tells us. "When many firms were retrenching, we were expanding." Growth continued with the opening of the energy-focused Houston office in 2012 and the securities-driven Boston outpost in 2013. Sidley further bolstered its ranks last year with two significant lateral groups: 11 securities enforcement partners switched over from Bingham McCutchen in April, while eight Weil, Gotshal partners (including seven women) took up residence in SA's Dallas office in September.
The firm's continued growth, its no-debt policy and its impressively diversified practice – a whopping 50 different areas pick up Chambers USA rankings – mean it can "weather the storms when downturns hit." Sidley's financials continued on an upward trajectory this year, with revenue hitting $1.6 billion, marking 7.4% growth. "The firm is willing to be aggressive in expansion because it's on a financially stable footing," an associate concluded.
Newcomers to Sidley "don't just come in as a generalists and progressively find a specialty. After receiving an offer you fill out a form indicating your three practice group preferences and also how much you want to go there. They're pretty good at adhering to people's choices and help direct your specialization in a meaningful way from the outset." Litigators, for example, might immediately be shipped off to the employment, IP or antitrust subsets. Corporate attorneys could find themselves immersed in M&A, real estate transactions or global finance. However, "nothing is written in blood. If you're unhappy you can change groups, or if another team needs help you can do work elsewhere." Anyone arriving in DC should bear in mind you will almost certainly go into litigation, which is the office's primary focus.
"You're helped to get on a few cases when you first get here," but work assignment, especially on smaller teams, is generally "very informal. There's a handful of partners and senior associates I usually work with so I keep in touch with them and see what they have in the pipeline, or I might get a phone call out of the blue." But "group leaders still keep track of what is being assigned so no-one gets overloaded."
"Sidley is a traditional large firm with more associates to partners so the level of responsibility is not overloaded at the start and progresses as you get more senior," sources agreed. Therefore, a third-year litigator in Chicago told us, "there was certainly doc review involved early on but now I have more experience I can draft things from start to finish – critical motions, witness scripts and depositions, for example." On the transactional side, we heard that "if something is brand new to you then of course the seniors are heavily relied upon as you're breaking ground. However, once I was able to prove myself I've been given the opportunity to handle aspects of a deal, draft the main operative documents and have a good deal of client interaction."
Regulatory work is big in DC and associates in this arena said "our practice has a lot of research and analysis assignments so from the very beginning you're asked to conduct that and put forth your findings in written form. There's a lot of complicated, ambiguous issues so it can be a struggle to get up to speed and the learning curve is high, but everybody is very willing to talk things through with you and answer questions. Because of that you're expected to just jump in and give it a go, which means you never feel like you're held back." In the firm's smaller offices and less heavily staffed practices, associates can expect even quicker progression.
Training & Development
Sidley offers a "robust and solid" training program. Firm orientation sees all new associates descend on Chicago for an "intensive bootcamp," which is later expanded upon for mid-levels. Transactional first-years from across the network also spend a few days in the Big Apple or Windy City for Corporate College, while a litigation skills series caters for different year groups. In addition, there are plenty of practice area-specific trainings, CLE sessions, and "writing or oral workshops where consultants offer guidance." Many of the training sessions are video-conferenced, allowing associates in the non-host office to benefit equally.
Despite this multitude of opportunities, sources emphasized that on-the-job training is the most beneficial: "Most of my training and experience comes from the people I'm working with," said one. "Anyone is willing to help you learn." Another remarked: "I've gained the most from being on a deal and having the partner teach me about a specific aspect one-on-one. Formal training is more general."
The Chicago HQ is impressively full-service –"it has a good reputation for everything!" – and has over 500 attorneys. The office is located in the heart of the City's 'Loop' business district, making it easily accessible for anyone commuting in. Associates also appreciate being "within two blocks of both State and Federal Court. It's so convenient, especially when the weather turns cold."
With more than 350 lawyers in total, the Midtown NYC office is an adept operator in the corporate arena and houses the largest portion of the firm's capital markets practice. A substantial litigation group of roughly 80 attorneys is also present. The DC office opened just over 50 years ago and is Sidley's third-largest. Its K Street location, "just two blocks from the White House," reflects its position at the crossroad of law and policy. The firm's US roster is completed by three offices in California (LA, Palo Alto and San Fran), two in Texas (Dallas and Houston) and the baby of the bunch, Boston, which opened in 2013.
Despite spreading its wings far beyond its Chicago roots, this is a firm where "the Midwestern attitude still comes through." In what ways? "There's no yelling or unreasonable deadlines," answered a second-year. "If you have to work at the weekend people are apologetic. There's respect for your personal time as Sidley wants you to be a happy and productive worker. While there are requirements that I push myself to meet, this isn't a pressure-cooker environment."
Even the traditionally tougher North East markets display Sidley's affable charm. "It has a reputation for its Midwest feel," reflected a DC rookie, "and that's largely true in the sense that people aren't high-strung here for the sake of it. Everyone wants to get the work done to the highest caliber and move about their business. Being a screamer is not a badge of honor." In the Big Apple: "Even though we're located in New York there's a Midwest, Chicago-type vibe. The work is demanding and hard but there's an appreciation from the higher ranks of what we put in. It's not an intimidating atmosphere."
With such an amenable working environment, it is perhaps a little surprising that Sidley does not boast one of the more active social scenes in BigLaw. "If there is a downside to our culture it is that it's not easy to make friends with everyone," commented a Chicagoan. "There are some people I'm close with but not that many I could go out and grab a beer with." A source in LA offered their perspective on why: "It's not a fratty place; it's a family-friendly firm – most people would rather get home than go out. We will do happy hours every two weeks but there's no pressure to go."
Hours & Compensation
Sidley doesn't issue a formal statement on billable targets, but associates generally agreed that for a salary increase they should hit 1,800 billable hours a year, with 2,000 hours (which can include pro bono once 1,800 billable is breached) making you bonus eligible. These benchmarks aren't troublesome for most associates, but "there would be no big ramifications" should you fall short: "For the first two years, especially in specialized groups, you do a lot of practice development to get up to speed so it is understood, not taboo, if you don't make it."
Associates believe Sidley to be "very committed to pro bono." A Chi-Town junior commented: "In my view I have unlimited opportunities. If I wanted to do something I could get it set up in a day. It's one of the hallmarks of working here." Pro bono coordinators will also circulate matters juniors can get involved with. The firm has many "longstanding relationships with nonprofits" in each of its locations, and our sources had worked with the ACLU in California and Illinois. Time was also lent to immigration, veteran and death penalty cases, with the latter particularly focused on Alabama. Other pro bono work included doing 501(c)(3) applications for chartered organizations.
Pro bono hours
Pro bono hours
Diversity is "something Sidley takes seriously but something it is still constantly working on." Consensus told us that "there are plenty of women here, but there is still an interest in seeing more become partners." Similarly, "there is a lot of room to improve in terms of ethnic minorities. There are very few Latino/Hispanic partners or African Americans." However, this is considered "not just Sidley's problem, but a law firm problem in general."
To help address any shortcomings the firm operates a Diversity Committee, a Committee on Retention and Promotion of Women, numerous pipeline programs, such as the Sidney Prelaw Scholar Initiative, and a Diversity and Inclusion Scholarship, which offers deserving 2Ls $20,000 upon joining the firm's summer program. The firm also operates an outreach program targeting minority and LGBT affinity groups on campus.
"In terms of background, most people are from one of the best law schools in the country and did pretty well," a third-year told us. "Even those not at the top law schools were top of their law school class. A lot of lawyers here also participated on law journals or undertook clerkships." This is a firm where strong academic pedigrees are the norm and that's reflected in the personalities of the workforce: "I am impressed by the intelligence of the people I work with," postured a second-year. "You can be discussing a deal and they can immediately recall a precedent matter from four years ago that matches perfectly with it."
Cochair of Sidley's hiring committee, John Kuster, looks for candidates with "a strong sense of self, confidence and enthusiasm. Not just for Sidley, but for the practice of law. They should also demonstrate a commitment to excellence that we can objectively see, so we can tell they will be a good fit for us." Thus, in line with the associate's view above, law journal and clerking experience are highly valued: "We are very interested in students who are actively pursuing an interest in the law as this will be their life's work," says Kuster. "If their extracurriculars are consistent with a commitment to the law, that is certainly attractive." A failure to show dedication to high standards is therefore a surefire way to come across poorly: "One thing that's unfavorable is when candidates list something on their resume and can't articulate anything about it," explains Kuster. "If you include something on your resume, be prepared to speak about it. It’s always better and we'll be interested in learning more about you."
Strategy & Future
"We are one of the largest law firms in the world and believe we are in the very top tier in terms of quality," declares management committee member Anne Rea. Sidley's recent track record tells you that it's always on the lookout for the next chance to flex some muscle. Not that size is everything: "We have strategic priorities that include expansion but we don’t expand for the sake of it," says Rea. "We do it if there are lawyers or locations that our clients would benefit from."
The firm is primarily focused on "deepening and strengthening" its expertise: "We want to increase our presence in key industries and practices that will drive the legal business," Rea explains. The demand for energy was cited as the "key motivation for opening in Houston," while the technology hub of Palo Alto will be another key area in the years to come. "Technology drives innovation, and innovation is the hallmark of the value the US contributes to the world," Rea remarks. "Capitalizing on that is something that will position us well for decades."
Recent Work Highlights
Recent Work Highlights
Training & Development
New starters are assigned both an associate and partner mentor. The relationships are considered "helpful," with the associate contact providing "informal guidance about how things work, such as hours or when to wear a tie," and the partner offering counsel on "long-term career development." Interviewees, however, concurred that "ultimately you find de facto mentors through the organic relationships you establish. I can reach out to my mentors if I have questions, but I've also connected with people who are closer in seniority to me who can give you the real advice."
Hours & Compensation
There is a "general lack of face time" at this family-friendly firm. "Nobody is keeping track of where you are and when, so as long as you are responsive to e-mail there is that flexibility," commented a junior. "Partners remember what is it like to be an associate."
A typical day for juniors might constitute ten to 12 hours in the office, with late nights and weekend work somewhat rare: "I was in the office after 10pm about 10 times in the last six months," recalled a DC junior. "That's usually the result of having a lot on my plate rather than people dumping things on you. There's no fire-drill style here."
However, the realities of life at a major firm still ring true: "If we're busy and we're closing, then corporate law can throw up some truly crazy work schedules," remarked one of NYC's financial associates. "But you know what you're getting into going into BigLaw."
Associates advised that "one of the most important things for candidates is to have a good reason why they are applying to our firm and their chosen city. We want to hire individuals who will be looking to stay here, so if you're coming in from another state we like to know why." It also came across that interviewers like to see a certain degree of dynamism: "Candidates should be passionate and willing to work toward a goal," remarked one. "If we don't see that they care about anything it's not going come over very well." Another commented: "They can impress me with an energy about what they are hoping to do."
For those who progress to the summer program, one source suggested "the key to success is not being afraid of taking on a project when you've never done it before. Ask questions, engage with it and anticipate what people want. Feel free to suggest alternative options and don't be afraid to get stuck in there because it is a process. If you're at a big firm it is not always going to be easy to figure it out, and that can be scary and make people timid. You stand out if you don't seem cowed by it."
Management committee member Anne Rea talks about the firm's 'no-debt' policy
"It seems like people joke about the no-debt thing," reflected an associate. "But as I have more experience of how law firms operate as a business, I can now see that anything they do, they know what they are operating with. That means the firm has the potential to take some risks and is willing to be aggressive in expansion because it's financially on a stable footing."
Member of the management committee Anne Rea explains why Sidley follows the 'no-debt' approach: "It is unusual for many firms," she says. "While we could access lines of credit we don't believe in borrowing. We want to invest for the long term, so our approach is not to take out every dollar we can, but to use a substantial portion of our revenue and invest it into building the firm and making it something better than when each of us joined. We take a long-term approach."
"Our revenues are used not only to pay partners, but to invest in the younger lawyers who are joining the firm. The strategy also benefits us when downturns hit because we can weather those storms. Whereas other firms found it challenging to pacify the banks when the crisis hit, our strong and stable no-debt financial approach allowed us to come through relatively unscathed."
Sidley Austin LLP
One South Dearborn,
787 Seventh Avenue,
- Head Office: Chicago, New York
- Number of domestic offices: 9
- Number of international offices: 10
- Worldwide revenue: $1,601,000,000
- Partners (US): 604
- Other lawyers (US): 913 (includes counsel and associates)
- Summer Salary 2014
- 1Ls: $3,100/week
- 2Ls: $3,100/week
- Post 3Ls: $3,100/week
- Split summers offered? Case by case
- Can summers spend time in overseas office? No
- Summers 2014: 111
- Offers/acceptances 2013: 101 offers, 78 acceptances to date
Main areas of work
Antitrust; bankruptcy and restructuring; capital markets; communications; complex commercial litigation; employment and benefits; energy; environment; ERISA; FDA; financial institutions regulatory; global finance and corporate governance; healthcare; insurance; international trade; investment funds; IP; life sciences; M&A and private equity; privacy; products liability; real estate; securities and derivatives enforcement and regulatory; securities litigation; technology; transportation; trusts and estates; venture capital; white collar.
Number of 1st year associates: 115
Number of 2nd year associates: 88
Associate Salaries: 1st Year: $160,000
2nd Year: $170,000
Clerking policy: Yes
Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2014:
Berkeley, Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, De Paul, Duke Fordham, Georgetown, George Washington, Harvard, Howard, Houston, Illinois, Iowa, Kent, Loyola, Loyola – LA, Miami, Michigan, Minnesota, New York University, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Pennsylvania, Stanford, Texas, UC- Hastings, UCLA, USC, Vanderbilt, Virginia, Washington University, Wisconsin, and Yale.
Summer associate profile:
Sidley seeks candidates who have demonstrated academic success and possess strong leadership and interpersonal qualities. The firm looks for a diverse group of individuals who are motivated by highly sophisticated legal work practiced in a collegial and supportive environment.
Summer program components:
Sidley’s summer associate program is an invaluable window into its practice and firm culture. Participants select projects that interest them and perform legal work under lawyer supervision. An essential component of Sidley’s summer program is the opportunity to learn and develop professional skills. Hands-on training includes detailed reviews of each summer associate’s work product, as well as more formal training programs such as writing seminars, a mock trial, and a mock negotiation exercise. Each summer associate is assigned senior associates and partners to provide guidance, and each participant receives a formal review at the midpoint of the summer program.