Sidley Austin LLP - The Inside View

A global giant with a “family-friendly” culture. This prestigious, Windy City native will blow you away.

NOT many firms can claim to have helped produce presidential families, but Michelle Obama met her future husband during his summer at Sidley Austin back in 1989. Rather than aspiring to become the First Lady (or Gentleman), our junior interviewees were drawn to the firm’s “hospitable environment, in line with values I cherish.”Several highlighted Sidley’s emphasis on “recruiting, retaining and promoting women, which is valued at the highest level of the firm.”

Since the 2001 merger of New York’s Brown & Wood and Chicago-based Sidley & Austin, this $2 billion-a-year-grossing behemoth has firmly lodged itself among the US’ top ten firms by revenue. All ten of its American offices across six states recruit juniors. Around a third of each intake seek out the Big Apple’s bright lights; the Windy City HQ is the second most popular base; the rest spread across DC, the firm’s two Texas and four California offices (just a few opted for Boston). Chambers USA rates Sidley’s practice in most of its stomping grounds and hands the firm eight top rankings in Illinois alone. SA also earns nationwide top spots for (deep breath) appellate law, capital markets securitization, hedge funds, environment, financial services regulation, international trade and rail transport.

Strategy & Future



Even as Sidley plays the world stage (it’s got as many overseas offices as it does domestic), insiders were confident the firm wouldn’t lose its Midwestern character. “I do still think it’s humane,” one said. “Among big law firms, Sidley is a place that does care about work/life balance and it’s maintained a reputation for being more chill than some others.”  That does not mean time stands still at Sidley: “Management does a pretty good job of addressing associate complaints”according to a source in New York. “We’re moving from a traditional wood office to all glass with first and second-years in bullpens.”

“Management does a pretty good job of addressing associate complaints.”

The Work



Juniors at Sidley spanned a whopping 26 practice areas including real estate, tax, and global finance. Commercial litigation was the most popular group, with M&A in second. Work allocation is a pretty casual affair throughout the firm: New Yorkers and Texans theoretically use an assignment system until third year, after which associates go out and find their own work, though juniors told us it’s common to approach partners directly if you’re interested in something specific. Chicago  and DC are almost totally free market – newbies receive one assignment when they join to get them on their feet. Firmwide, associates were keen to highlight that “everyone works with everyone, so juniors get a broad mix of tasks.” Partners keep track of associates’ workload “so we're neither too slow nor overworked.”

TOP READ: Spotlight on Chicago: Office managing partner Teresa Harmon tells us why the city's growing tech market will cater for lawyers across the transactional-litigation-regulatory spectrum.

Litigation work varies by location at Sidley: there’s a “blurry line”  between securities and enforcement and commercial litigation in New York, but many associates act on investigations launched by state regulators. “It’s mostly because the SEC is focusing more on our type of client – banks and hedge funds.”  Given its political status, DC “is a general hub for investigations”so the litigation group there spend their days handling companies’ responses to government inquiries or subpoenas; Chicago doesn’t have a particular focus “although the work’s all for large for corporations.” Dallas-based sources were similarly involved in everything from employment trials to oil and gas disputes: “I took the first spin on a motion and was involved in client calls – getting to listen in was wonderful!”  Newcomers have been known to take a heavy client-facing role within their first three months at the firm and appreciated “that we don’t get taken off investigations once they reach a certain level of seriousness.”  Insider trading cases were less popular as they involve “an enormous amount of document review, but you’re an integral part of the team because you’re the one who knows all the facts.”

Litigation clients: KPMG, The Barack Obama Foundation, Walgreens. Acted for Huawei after a criminal indictment charged the company with sanctions violations, bank and wire fraud and obstruction of justice.

“The breadth of experience juniors get is why I chose this place.”

Juniors in the transactional end of the firm were mainly getting to grips with public and private M&A deals. “I’m still junior enough to be involved in a whole canopy of work,”  one of them assured us; examples include running $40 million deals “but simultaneously working on a $2 billion deal – the breadth of experience juniors get is why I chose this place.” Associates in Houston assured us that their practice isn’t only energy-driven and they can maintain a varied practice for their first few years (though they can specialize earlier if they want). They’d collaborated with colleagues in Chicago, DC  and New York, where capital markets and bankruptcy matters required juniors to “work with creditors and stakeholders daily, appear in hearings and interact with general counsels. There’s a lot of responsibility available even on big cases.”

Corporate clients: Starwood, General Electric, OMERS Infrastructure Management. Represented skincare brand Drunk Elephant in its $845 million acquisition by beauty company Shiseido America.

Pro Bono



We heard that associates “never have pushback on missing something billable for a pro bono meeting – I once had to go to an out-of-state detention center for a day and no one batted an eyelid.”  As part of “universal encouragement”of pro bono, the firm typically presents fresh-faced litigators in Chicago with a pro bono case once they arrive. Other common projects include updating privacy policies for nonprofits and volunteering at municipal courts to represent defendants who arrive for hearings without a lawyer. Dallas holds an annual service award lunch – attorneys who’ve done more than 200 hours pro bono that year get “a really nice glass award.”Although some juniors built “loads of substantive experience on pro bono, like doing depositions in my first month,”others told us: “A lot of associates are concerned because litigation takes a long time but we’re limited to 200 hours credit. We’re having an ongoing conversation with management about it.” Since our calls, Sidley has confirmed there's now no cap on associates billing pro bono once they've reached bonus eligibility.

Pro bono hours

  • For all (US) attorneys: 145,000
  • Average per (US) attorney: 78

Hours & Compensation



The firm told us that there's no base billing target for associates, but the ones we spoke to felt they needed to reach the 2,000 mark to be bonus-eligible. They suggested first-years “have a lot less control”over workflow “so a lot of people struggle to hit their hours. Firm management repeatedly assured us it’s totally normal to not reach 2,000 in year one.” Obstacles to billing aren’t always within the firm’s control either: “The government shutdown last winter definitely affected us and there’s not a ton to do if the agencies we work with are shut.” Sidley now allows credit for 50 hours of knowledge management activity and 25 hours of observational training, which comes with the double benefit of giving associates time to shadow senior colleagues. Knowledge management involves writing articles or helping clients understand legal changes, “that has to be done so it’s helpful that Sidley gives us credit for it. They really try to make it easy to meet the target and all they look at for juniors is hours, which is nice because we’re all just trying to show up and do a good job.” Despite confusion surrounding associates' billing requirements (or lack thereof), interviewees were comfortable with how the firm manages hours and workload.

“I like the people I work with, so I want to run into them in the hallway.”

Days at Sidley typically run from 8:30am to 6:30pm...ish. Transactional  newbies had pulled all-nighters “about five times in the past year,” whereas DC litigators pointed out that government bodies work 9-5 so “Sidley’s office is pretty quiet by half 6.”  Juniors sometimes need to log some extra hours from home, “but there’s no expectation to do that. It’s more just to tie up loose ends.”  Many also put in some weekend shifts to lighten the load during the week. A lack of facetime requirement encourages associates to work from home, though some prefer to be in the office “because I want be around for the partners’ conversations about their work. Plus, I like the people I work with, so I want to run into them in the hallway.”

Culture & Career Development



“Everyone’s doors are always literally open,” so associates “have no problem lounging in a partner’s doorway and randomly chatting while waiting for a meeting. They’re interested in your life outside the firm.” Despite the demands that come with the legal industry, interviewees enthused that “there’s a culture of really trying to protect each other's weekends as much as possible.”  Many in New Yorkhave also started doing ‘fire-side’ chats with partners “about how they grew their practice and progressed in seniority.”  The firm assigns rookies a partner and associate mentor when they first arrive and there’s “a lot of informal mentoring”  too, “partners go out of their way to ask what experiences I want.” Ongoing “robust” training can involve associates visiting other offices: Dallas hosts “litigation bootcamps" and Los Angeles puts on general corporate training. There aren't many other opportunities to network with colleagues and a source in New York noted that “though this is the biggest office, there’s a frustration as we can definitely feel like a satellite”of the wider Sidley operation.

“I appreciate that I can spend time outside the office with new joiners, mid-levels and partners.”

It’s not a “party hard” firm, but Sidley hosts regular birthday celebrations, happy hours and lunches for attorneys and staff: “They've been good for morale.” The small summer intake means associates “become very close with others in your class year and that comradery continues once you start full-time.” Examples of associate hangs include mixology classes, weekend getaways and “going to a bunch of my classmates’ weddings.”Juniors also buddy up with seniors: “I appreciate that I can spend time outside the office with new joiners, mid-levels and partners.”  The New York office often dishes out tickets for events at Madison Square Garden, and the managing partner there has “revamped the policy so that partners don’t get first dibs at bringing clients to the more interesting things.”

One NY interviewee described SA as “the most Canadian-feeling firm on the street,”not due to any northern origins (it doesn’t even have a Canada office) but because “it’s a warm-hearted place and although the work is serious, it’s not as serious as a Kirkland or Latham.” Many also fancied their long-term prospects: “I look at the older lawyers and think these are the people I want to emulate, not only as a lawyer but on a substantive level. They embody the values I’d like to be able to embody someday.”

Diversity & Inclusion 



Each office has 1L mentorship programs for diverse students who meet Sidley lawyers to “get tips and tricks for OCIs.”  Chicago also offers mentoring and financial support to students from nontraditional (for BigLaw) backgrounds. Post-recruitment, the firm assigns each diverse associate a partner and associate mentor as part of the Diversity Mentoring Program; “first generation attorneys get a buddy too. Everyone here is pretty committed to diversity, it’s more than just lip-service"according to insiders in New York.  The Women of Color committee there hosts quarterly ‘Wind-Down Wednesdays’where attorneys “go to a bar and shoot the shit.” Houston’s  Women’s Committee runs video conferences involving female attorneys from different offices, but juniors were disappointed that “the partnership is still overwhelmingly white and male.”  New moms in Dallas  get their own mini fridge (for storing breast milk, not booze), and there's a dedicated Mother’s Room. Unconscious bias training is upcoming for lawyers at all levels; another new initiative means Sidley socials will “be less alcohol-focused, so we’ll go bowling rather than having a happy hour.”

“...we’ll go bowling rather than having a happy hour.”

Mental health “has become a much more prominent conversation topic in the past year” among associates after tragedies in the legal industry. Sidley has also hired a firmwide wellness director in May 2019. “We just had a program on mindfulness, burnout and how to improve and maintain mental health,”  though some noted that the firm seemed to prefer cure to prevention when it came to ameliorating stress. “This all runs counter to the pressure of doing your best work, so it feels palliative.”

Get Hired



The first stage: recruitment on and off campus

OCI applicants interviewed: approx. 2,400

Interviewees outside OCI: data not separated from figure above

Sidley interviews at more than 30 law schools and ten job fairs across the US. Each office decides on which schools it will interview at and how many students it will aim to see.

A mix of partners and associates conduct the OCIs. “We try to engage alumni of the law school where we are doing OCI,” says Jennifer Connelly, Sidley’s national legal recruiting director, “as we feel that fosters a natural connection with the students.” Interviewers use behavioral based questions, which, according to Connelly “allows us to best understand past decisions and how those decisions can help gauge future performances.” Interviewers also want to see candidates who can demonstrate their leadership skills.

Top tips for this stage:

“I'm looking for someone who I can see myself working late nights with.” a second-year junior associate

“Come prepared to talk about anything listed on your resume and be thoughtful regarding questions about the firms in which you are interviewing.” – recruiting director Jennifer Connelly

Callbacks

Applicants invited to second stage interview: 879

Callbacks also vary office to office, but candidates typically spend two to three hours in one-on-one interviews with partners and associates. There may also be a lunch or dinner with some junior associates. Behavioral questions are still on the table at this point, but interviewers will likely want more detail on candidates’ practice area interests. Connelly says that at this stage “we’re looking for candidates who stand out from the crowd – those who are able to best articulate their interest in the firm, while also demonstrating that they bring exceptional experiences and skills to their practice areas of interest.”

Top tips for this stage:

“Reach out to the lawyers you met at OCI or to Legal Recruiting with any follow up questions you have about your visit.” recruiting director Jennifer Connelly

Summer program

Offers: 407

Acceptances: 130 

Sidley summers are encouraged to get experience in different practice groups – again, the program varies office to office. Connelly advises associates to “use every opportunity during the summer to meet as many lawyers and learn as much about the firm and the practice as possible.” There’s a centralized assignment system but summers can also take work directly from attorneys. At the end of the program, associates’ assignment to a particular practice group will vary – you guessed it – by office.

Top tips for this stage:

“It’s always a lot of fun, but it’s good to make sure all the summers know that they don't have to attend every single event.” a second-year junior associate

“Work on projects that interest you the most, but also take a chance to do something in a practice area that is unfamiliar to you.” – recruiting director Jennifer Connelly

Interview with San Francisco managing partner Sharon Flanagan



Chambers Associate: Tell us about the firm’s pro bono work. 

Sharon Flanagan: We devote a tremendous amount of time and resources to it; we completed nearly 145,000 hours of pro bono last year alone. Our cases span a wide spectrum, including immigration and veterans’ rights, but we’ve been really involved in challenging death sentences and the process by which they are given in Alabama. We’ve also had a really great run with Title VII cases affecting the LGBT+ community at the Supreme Court. I’m really proud of that work. 

CA: How do you think the profession has changed since you started out practicing as a lawyer? 

SF: We had greater boundaries between work and home life when I started practicing in ‘96, but smartphones have changed that. The good news is smartphones give us more freedom and means we’re not tied to our desks, you can check your email whilst watching your kid’s soccer game. This means we can deliver high-quality client service in a way that fits in with personal commitments.  

There’s also been tremendous progress with diversity and inclusion. Sidley always puts a premium on promoting the best possible talent. When I was a junior in the ‘90s we formed a committee for the promotion and retention of women which was followed by our diversity committees. The work of those groups in the past decade has had a meaningful impact: three of the seven people on our management committee are women. In terms of talent, 38% of our 2020 summer class come from diverse backgrounds and 54% are women, and 23% of the new partnership class are diverse and 40% are women.  

CA: What are the main challenges that law firms and their lawyers will have to navigate/adapt to in the future? 

SF: The changing technology. We’re still only at the beginning of this wave of change so we’ll see increased use in machine learning to do more routine work that lawyers used to do. We also have to think about how to keep bringing in the caliber of lawyers we need whilst balancing the increased use of technology to some of the junior lawyers’ work. We now use AI for doc review and the first cut of due diligence, which is a positive change because it’s not the most interesting work.  

CA: Is there a moment in your career that you consider to have been you big break?  

SF: One of the pivotal moments in my career was when I moved out to Northern California as a fifth year associate in 2000. I started in our Chicago office right out of law school in 1996. Chicago is one of our largest and most established offices and it was a terrific place to develop my skills as a lawyer. In 2000, I moved to San Francisco for family reasons. It was the height of the first Internet boom and a really interesting time to be here. When I arrived in San Francisco, Sidley’s office, which we had acquired in our merger with Brown & Wood, was very small and primarily focused on capital markets. It was exciting to help grow the office into the full service office that it is now. Then I was able to work with my San Francisco partners to launch our Palo Alto office 10 years ago.

We had a vision for what Sidley could be in Silicon Valley and it was challenging and thrilling to start that office and realize that vision. As a deal lawyer I am used to helping my clients acquire new businesses, and when we close they take on the task of integrating and running the new business. It was fun to see the perspective of what a new business looks like from the other side – being responsible for integrating a new office and then growing that office. We just celebrated our 10th anniversary last month and it’s amazing to see what we have built in that decade and we are excited for the decades to come.

CA: What's been the most valuable lesson you've learned in your career? 

SF: Take chances, risks and explore new areas early in your career. Lawyers aren’t traditionally risktakers, but leaning in on risk gives you potential for new opportunities.

CA: What do you hope the firm will look like in five years' time? 

SF: There’s increasing innovation around life sciences IPOs in China. The change in their legal structure means pre-revenue companies are now allowed to go public which is good for life sciences companies as they typically don’t have revenue for a long time. That means China will continue to be an important market for us; 20% of our lawyers aren’t in the U.S. and it’s critical for us to have a significant global presence to be a leading firm. I expect our private equity, M&A and capital markets groups will continue to boom and we’ll remain busy with high stakes litigation, including matters at the Supreme Court. The best work we do involves several disciplines; we bring lawyers together from around the firm to focus on a particular industry.

Sidley Austin LLP

One South Dearborn,
Chicago,
IL 60603
Website www.sidley.com

787 Seventh Avenue,
New York,
NY 10019

  • Head offices: Chicago, IL; New York, NY
  • Number of domestic offices: 10
  • Number of international offices: 10
  • Worldwide revenue: $2.219 billion
  • Partners (US): 563
  • Associates (US): 828
  • Contacts  
  • Main recruitment contact: Jennifer L Connelly (jlconnelly@sidley.com)
  • Diversity officer: Sally L Olson
  • Recruitment details 
  • Entry-level associates starting in 2020: 155
  • Clerking policy: Yes
  • Summers joining/anticipated 2020: 161
  • Summer salary 2020:
  • 1Ls: $3,700/week
  • 2Ls: $3,700/week
  • Split summers offered? Case by case

Main areas of work



Services: Corporate and finance; employment; international trade; IP and technology; litigation, disputes and investigations; regulatory and government affairs; restructuring; tax
Industries: Agribusiness; energy; financial services; hospitality; insurance; investment funds; life sciences; media and entertainment; real estate; REITs; technology

Firm profile



 Sidley provides a broad range of legal services to meet the needs of our diverse client base. The strategic establishment of our offices in the key corporate and financial centers of the world has enabled us to represent a broad range of clients that includes multinational and domestic corporations, banks, funds and financial institutions. With over 2,000 lawyers in 20 offices around the world, talent and teamwork are central to Sidley’s successful results for clients in all types of legal matters, from complex transactions to ‘bet the company’ litigation to cuttingedge regulatory issues.

Recruitment



Law schools attending for OCIs in 2020:
University of California, Berkeley, School of Law; The University of Chicago Law School; Columbia Law School; DePaul University College of Law; Duke University School of Law; Fordham Law School; Georgetown University Law Center; The George Washington University Law School; Harvard Law School; UC Hastings College of Law; Howard University School of Law; University of Houston Law Center; University of Illinois College of Law; University of Iowa College of Law; Chicago-Kent College of Law; UCLA School of Law; Loyola University School of Law; Loyola Law School, Los Angeles; University of Michigan Law School; University of Minnesota Law School; New York University School of Law; Northwestern University School of Law; University of Notre Dame Law School; University of Pennsylvania Law School; University of Southern California Gould School of Law; SMU Dedman School of Law; Stanford Law School; The University of Texas School of Law; University of Virginia School of Law; Yale Law School

Recruitment outside OCIs:
Southeastern Minority Job Fair, Penn Regional Job Fair, On Tour Interview Programs, Vanderbilt Job Fair, Bay Area Diversity Career Fair, Cornell Job Fair, Loyola Patent Job Fair, Lavender Law Career Fair, NEBLSA Job Fair, Midwest-California-Georgia Consortium, CCBA Minority Job Fair, BC/BU Job Fair

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.

Social media



Recruitment website: sidley.com/careers
Twitter: @SidleyLaw
Facebook: sidleyaustinllpofficial
Linkedin: sidley-austin

This Firm's Rankings in
USA Guide, 2020

Ranked Departments

    • Banking & Finance (Band 4)
    • Bankruptcy/Restructuring (Band 4)
    • Capital Markets: Debt & Equity (Band 3)
    • IT & Outsourcing: Transactions (Band 3)
    • Labor & Employment (Band 4)
    • Life Sciences (Band 4)
    • Litigation: General Commercial (Band 4)
    • Litigation: Securities (Band 2)
    • Litigation: White-Collar Crime & Government Investigations (Band 3)
    • Media & Entertainment: Transactional (Band 3)
    • Corporate/M&A (Band 4)
    • Corporate/M&A (Band 4)
    • Real Estate (Band 3)
    • Tax (Band 3)
    • Antitrust (Band 5)
    • Environment (Band 1)
    • Healthcare (Band 2)
    • Healthcare: Pharmaceutical/Medical Products Regulatory (Band 1)
    • Intellectual Property: Litigation (Band 2)
    • Litigation: General Commercial (Band 3)
    • Litigation: White-Collar Crime & Government Investigations (Band 3)
    • Telecom, Broadcast & Satellite (Band 2)
    • Antitrust (Band 2)
    • Banking & Finance (Band 1)
    • Bankruptcy/Restructuring (Band 2)
    • Corporate/M&A & Private Equity (Band 1)
    • Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation (Band 2)
    • Energy & Natural Resources (Band 3)
    • Environment (Band 2)
    • Healthcare (Band 3)
    • Healthcare: Pharmaceutical/Medical Products Regulatory (Band 1)
    • Insurance: Dispute Resolution: Reinsurance (Band 1)
    • Insurance: Transactional & Regulatory (Band 1)
    • Intellectual Property (Band 1)
    • Litigation: General Commercial (Band 1)
    • Litigation: Securities (Band 1)
    • Litigation: White-Collar Crime & Government Investigations (Band 1)
    • Real Estate (Band 2)
    • Tax (Band 2)
    • Technology & Outsourcing (Band 3)
    • Bankruptcy/Restructuring (Band 5)
    • Corporate/M&A: Highly Regarded (Band 2)
    • Insurance: Transactional & Regulatory (Band 2)
    • Intellectual Property: Patent (Band 4)
    • Litigation: General Commercial: Highly Regarded (Band 3)
    • Litigation: Securities (Band 3)
    • Real Estate: Mainly Corporate & Finance (Band 3)
    • Tax (Band 3)
    • Banking & Finance (Band 3)
    • Capital Markets: Debt & Equity (Band 4)
    • Corporate/M&A (Band 3)
    • Appellate Law (Band 1)
    • Banking & Finance (Band 5)
    • Bankruptcy/Restructuring (Band 4)
    • Capital Markets: Derivatives (Band 2)
    • Capital Markets: Equity: Manager Counsel (Band 2)
    • Capital Markets: Investment Grade Debt: Issuer Counsel (Band 3)
    • Capital Markets: Investment Grade Debt: Manager Counsel (Band 2)
    • Capital Markets: Securitisation (Band 1)
    • Climate Change (Band 3)
    • Corporate Crime & Investigations (Band 3)
    • Corporate/M&A: The Elite (Band 4)
    • Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation (Band 4)
    • Energy: Electricity (Regulatory & Litigation) (Band 5)
    • Energy: Electricity (Transactional) (Band 4)
    • Energy: Oil & Gas (Regulatory & Litigation) (Band 3)
    • Energy: Oil & Gas (Transactional) (Band 2)
    • Environment (Band 2)
    • ERISA Litigation (Band 2)
    • Financial Services Regulation: Broker Dealer (Compliance & Enforcement) (Band 1)
    • Financial Services Regulation: Consumer Finance (Compliance) (Band 2)
    • Financial Services Regulation: Consumer Finance (Litigation) (Band 3)
    • Healthcare (Band 3)
    • Insurance: Dispute Resolution: Insurer (Band 3)
    • Insurance: Transactional & Regulatory (Band 2)
    • Intellectual Property (Band 3)
    • International Arbitration (Band 2)
    • International Trade: Customs (Band 1)
    • International Trade: Export Controls & Economic Sanctions (Band 5)
    • International Trade: Intellectual Property (Section 337) (Band 4)
    • International Trade: Trade Remedies & Trade Policy (Band 1)
    • Investment Funds: Hedge Funds (Band 1)
    • Investment Funds: Registered Funds (Band 3)
    • Leisure & Hospitality (Band 4)
    • Life Sciences (Band 2)
    • Privacy & Data Security (Band 2)
    • Product Liability & Mass Torts (Band 2)
    • Projects: LNG (Band 2)
    • Projects: Power & Renewables: Transactional (Band 3)
    • Real Estate (Band 2)
    • REITs (Band 2)
    • Securities: Litigation (Band 3)
    • Securities: Regulation (Band 2)
    • Tax: Corporate & Finance (Band 3)
    • Transportation: Rail (for Railroads) (Band 1)