If the “pursuit of excellence” is your top priority, you'll find this New York stalwart a very suitable place to launch your career.
FOR chairman Joe Shenker, the most surprising thing about being at Sullivan & Cromwell is “how little it has changed [since joining in 1980] – in terms of our culture, approach to work and pursuit of excellence.” That pursuit especially attracted the high-fliers on our junior associate list, who flagged “the sharpness” of the firm's attorneys as a major pull factor. These learned lawyers keep S&C at the top, as exemplified by its array of top Chambers USA rankings in areas like corporate/M&A, capital markets, tax, litigation, financial services and real estate. Further proof of the firm's excellence comes via an inspection of its alumni ranks, which contain the likes of Jay Clayton (chair of the US SEC) Norris Darrell (former president of the American Law Institute), Peter Thiel (cofounder of PayPal) and international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney.
Its headquarters may be in New York, but S&C also has a further three domestic bases and nine offices across Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, giving the work an “international flavor.” Most recently, after a 16-year hiatus in geographical expansion, office number 13 opened its doors in Brussels. Shenker explains why: “We don’t believe in opening offices simply because other people are doing so, or based on a 'field of dreams.' We only launch new offices to respond to specific practice and client needs and we want each of our offices to be the best in its jurisdiction. Our opening in Brussels is the result of expanding cross-border work, and increasing European regulation.”
The Work & Pro Bono
Juniors are mostly split between two broad practices at S&C – 'general practice' and litigation. Only a handful on our 125-strong list had settled into the firm's tax and 'estate & personal' practices. Those in GP found that there was enough flexibility to allow both free-rein sampling of various areas and a more targeted approach: “I can say exactly what I want to do – I’m not forced into a bunch of areas I absolutely don’t want to do. We'refree agents for M&A, capital markets, restructuring – anything that falls under general practice for two years.” After two years, juniors choose a group to specialize in, but the majority also pick a secondary group to continue working in to maintain a broader practice. A centralized assignment system initially takes away the slog of having to find work, but functions more as a backup: “You are encouraged to ask for work. I've only got a few deals through the system. Most have come through partners or seniors knocking at my door.”
“I’m not forced into a bunch of areas I absolutely don’t want to do.”
Our GP sources had dabbled in debt offerings, leveraged financings, joint ventures, public and private M&A deals, and fund formations. One junior had recently been busy “helping a private equity client purchase a portfolio company” and “writing memos for banks on regulatory issues they could be encountering in the near future.” Is there a typical day? “You can typically expect to be on client calls or in meetings with partners, but it just really varies based on the deal.” On restructuring matters juniors were “helping to advise on the mechanisms used during the bankruptcy process, as well as reviewing court papers and drafting motions.” During real estate financings they were “assisting on the joint venture agreements between the financing party and the developer,” while on M&A deals they gained “exposure to everything from diligence to drafting various documents – it's pretty standard between your second and fourth year to really learn the finer details of drafting.”
The litigation practice also has a formal assignment desk. Litigators recommended a “forthright” approach: “The biggest mistake you can make with the desk is not to ask right off the bat for the type of work you want to do. I walked in terrified of being thrown onto a huge investigation that would keep me occupied for years, but the desk was very responsive in understanding what I wanted.” Other fears didn’t come to pass either: “I expected to move to New York and get shut in a room to do doc review for two years, but I’ve been able to do more interesting work.” We heard from juniors working on a case involving an automaker's diesel emissions: “I’m one of 50-plus associates on the matter. I’ve been involved in briefing attorneys, communicating with consumers, drafting summary judgments and motions to dismiss.” Another enjoyed their role as “the lead associate on one of the issues tied to an internal investigation at a bank – many of these are focused on alleged antitrust violations and money-laundering activities,and they can go on to produce civil work.” Other areas covered by the litigation group include white-collar, securities, product liability, arbitration, IP and labor & employment.
Juniors still had some time left over for pro bono. There’s no limit on how many pro bono hours associates can bill, and some had taken full advantage of that: “I’ve accrued a hefty amount of pro bono hours and it hasn’t been an issue. I feel comfortable putting time into it and it's been a highlight for me.” Our sources had worked on death penalty cases, immigration issues and matters that drew upon the Violence Against Women Act. GP associates found it easier to take on pro bono when they were summers, but did praise the firm for “creating a lot of opportunities and encouraging us – whether we can do it or not just depends on our schedule.”
Pro bono hours:
- For all (US) attorneys: 37,818
- Average per (US) attorney: 58
Training & Development
GP associates found that there were plenty of formal training opportunities: “During your first year there's a two-day boot camp where you cover the basics, and throughout the year there are sessions held every few weeks on relevant topics, like how Brexit might impact deals, or the anatomy of certain agreements.” Litigators, however, found the approach far more “hands-on: here you learn by doing, because every case is so different – if you don't understand something you just go and ask.”
Sources were positive about the formal review system: “Every time you work so many hours with a senior associate or partner, they get prompted to review you. At the end of the year all of their marks and comments are collected and you have a formal review.” While these reviews were deemed helpful, GP juniors highlighted the usefulness of “informal check-ins with partners at the end of deals,” and litigators emphasized the benefits of the firm's partner mentorship program: “We're paired with a partner mentor within the first six months to discuss how to develop our skills – around things like taking depositions, leading client meetings and speaking with agency.”
Hours & Compensation
While having no billing requirement “takes the edge off a bit,” we still spoke to juniors who “always watch” their hours “to make sure they're up enough: generally people say that if you want to make partner you should be billing 2,000 a year, but that's not an official policy, just a guideline.” Sullivan isn't the kind of firm that attracts slackers anyway: “Billing targets at other firms tend to be low and everyone here bills beyond them – we're self-motivated to find work and the firm is very busy.”
Ten to twelve-hour days were pretty standard: “Most people work from the office every day, and transition home to do more in the evenings. You have to use your judgment: people don't mind if you go home at night to log back on, but if you're just launching a new deal they might not be so happy.” One associate reflected: “The first six months were hard – my social life was in trouble. But a lot of us have learned what needs to be answered immediately and what can wait.” Sources did feel well compensated for their work though, and were big fans of the lockstep bonus system: “It's 100% based on your year and pretty much everyone gets one.”
Associates remembered hearing “horror stories about how scary, cutthroat and – for lack of a better word – mean New York firms were” in their law school days, but were “incredibly pleased with the respect factor and the number of good relationships you have with people here – it makes the job easier.” One junior explained how external perceptions of S&C being a more old-school 'white-shoe' firm still follow it around today, and added: “That stereotype might’ve been applicable in the distant past, but definitely not now.” On the whole our sources agreed that S&C promotes a “courteous and cordial” atmosphere. “Like any firm it has its crazies, but I’ve made really good friends!”
“...the respect factor.”
S&C is also “big enough for almost anyone to fit in; there are outgoing people, quieter people who spend all day in their office – so many different personalities and micro-cultures.” Formany, S&C's intellectual ethos stood out as the most discernible cultural strand. “We'rea bunch of client-friendly nerds!” one source joked, while another added: “It’s a very organized and detail-oriented place. Everyone tends to be a perfectionist, and it’s nice to know that everyone is as committed as you.”
When it comes to socializing, S&C is “more on the quiet side,” but the firm does host events for attorneys to let their hair down. For New Yorkers, the annual ‘SullProm’ was a highlight: “It’s a really fun formal event – there’s a band and you can bring a date if you want!” Over in LA, the associate group was close-knit: “Tonight we’re all going to a nearby hotel for an outdoor movie screening of Clueless.” Do the partners also go along to these nostalgic 90s teen movie nights? “Well, no… but it’s nice to have the chance to mingle without the pressure of your boss standing right there!”
You’ll find S&C’s New York HQ in the financial district. Associates were “incredibly grateful to be down here. There are some tourists on Wall Street, but nothing compared to the numbers in Midtown.” Inside, the decor “reflects our status as an older, established firm,” with one source affectionately comparing it to “an old school mansion.” However, renovations are “slowly but surely” underway, with some of the completed floors deemed “state of the art.” When junior get their own offices “depends on which group you're in – some of my GP friends already have them,” bemoaned one litigator. The views are worth waiting for, though: “From my office I can see the Statue of Liberty and the helipad where I watched the Pope arrive!”
Over in LA, associates loved being close to Beverly Hills and having their own offices from the start: “If you’re having the odd meltdown it’s really nice to shut your door.” LA residents also described their office as “less hierarchical because of its smaller size – we’re exposed to leadership opportunities earlier as a result.” They gave a thumbs-up to inter-office communication too: “It'stotally seamless, whether I’m dialing China, Japan or New York. Pretty much every case I've been on has been staffed across various offices.” The firm’s other US offices are located in Palo Alto and DC.
While attending diversity events, associates noticed “a number of partners who are extremely committed. It’s the sort of issue you think only young lawyers care about – it’s nice to know that upper management cares too.” Our female sources were happy with an 'office hours' initiative that sees “female partners blocking off time every week for us to stop by and discuss whatever we'd like to discuss – it's a way for us to connect and socialize.” Female associates also found it encouraging that “male attorneys attend lunches and roundtable discussions” about gender diversity.
“I have faith in the firm.”
“It doesn't feel particularly diverse from an ethnicity standpoint,” sources agreed, but “the firm is clearly making an effort to improve that.” There are various associate affinity networks that implement initiatives and programs. A member of one told us: “I have faith in the firm. They've put in place a peer mentoring program that pairs first and second years up with more senior lawyers, plus I've attended conferences and monthly social events.”
Strategy & Future
“As new financial developments occur, we expand our practice areas to accommodate them,” chairman Joe Shenker tells us. With that in mind, Shenker adds: “Our technology work continues to grow – for example, bitcoin didn't exist ten years ago and now I get asked questions about it all the time.” Alongside a promising amount of fintech work, Shenker anticipates “being involved in some interesting government spending plans tied to infrastructure development in the US.” The result of the 2016 presidential election also means that “there will be regulatory and tax law changes” for S&C's attorneys to advise on.
"When I was a student, I remember reading that if you have perfect grades, you'll pull through at Sullivan & Cromwell – and that's still true to get in the door." Embrace your inner Hermione Granger ("You could have got us killed, or worse – expelled!") while studying at law school, we say. "Grades are first and foremost, by far, the most important thing," juniors reiterated, but they added: "Obviously personality is still a vital factor." And that personality is certainly marked by intellect. "One thing I noticed when I was interviewing for a position here was the sharpness of the S&C lawyers compared to those at other firms. They were very 'crisp' and organized. If you can portray that in return you'll find somewhere to fit in here." Chairman Joe Shenker drives this idea home: "We seek out well-rounded individuals with high IQ, high EQ, and a desire to have an interesting professional, creative life. It is important for lawyers to have broad knowledge in life, as in work: that is what enables them to be the best counselors and colleagues.”
Anything to watch out for? Associates told us that "one mistake people make is assuming that once they have an interview they've got the job locked down. S&C does have a pretty high offer rate, but I've seen people not really prepare and it becomes obvious in interviews."
Interview with chairman Joe Shenker
Chambers Associate: In 2017 you launched a new office in Brussels – the first one since S&C's 2001 opening in Sydney. What prompted this expansion?
Joe Shenker: As a general matter, we don’t believe in opening offices simply because other people are doing so, or based on a 'field of dreams.' We only launch new offices to respond to specific practice and client needs and we want each of our offices to be the best in its jurisdiction. Once we open, it’s a long-term commitment.
Our opening in Brussels is the result of expanding cross-border work, and increasing European regulation. Cross-border M&A has become an increasingly large part of our clients’ business: there has been a rise in cross-border mergers in every industry, from financial services to energy and natural resources, from pharma and healthcare to industrial and consumer products. The phenomenon of globalization seems inexorable to us. One important locus for that is, of course, the EU and Brussels. We have practiced EU regulation at our London office for a long time, but obviously the Brexit vote will move the UK out of the EU. Moreover, by opening our Brussels office we seized the opportunity to work with a top practitioner, Michael Rosenthal, who we have known for more than 20 years.
All in all, it was the combination of practice and regulatory needs, Brexit and – most important – the ability to recruit someone we felt would meet the same standard of excellence that is delivered in our 12 other offices.
CA: How would you define Sullivan & Cromwell’s culture?
JS: As the pursuit of professional excellence in a meritocratic, diverse environment, where people are respected for innovation and creativity. There’s no 'one size fits all' approach here; we seek out well-rounded individuals with high IQ, high EQ, and a desire to have an interesting professional, creative life. It is important for lawyers to have broad knowledge in life, as in work: that is what enables them to be the best counselors and colleagues.
Our philosophy is to keep moving, keep dynamic and keep having fun as we do our jobs. My job is reasonably stressful; I practice full-time and manage full-time, but I enjoy every day I work. I enjoy the people I work with and the clients I work for – that doesn’t mean everything is 100% great all the time, but it is very fulfilling. My goal is to make sure everyone who works here has the same experience.
CA: You’ve been at the firm for 38 years. How has the firm changed since you joined in 1980?
JS: What is most surprising is how little it has changed – in terms of our culture, approach to work and pursuit of excellence. It obviously has changed in terms of the breadth of our practice. There are new areas, for example derivatives: when I started there was barely such a practice concept and we now have a very large and exciting futures and derivatives practice. There also has been a rise in technology-related work across areas such as media, pharma, consumer goods and retail as well as of course fintech – most recently tied to our clients requiring advice on cryptocurrency and blockchain issues. Internally, our use of technology has also changed drastically – we are now very tech-focused and continue to push onward with AI.
Over those 38 years we have also become more engaged in cultivating offices with significant cross-border capabilities. We have expanded our recruiting 'net' to recruit from basically every part of the world, which has given us an extraordinarily diverse population of lawyers. Smart people come from all places so, with this approach, we have a better chance of attracting those with the highest IQ and EQ. Our head count has also grown – the number has tripled since I've been here – but at a steady rate. I view that as a hallmark of our firm: to maintain steady, organic growth while not abandoning our culture.
Sullivan & Cromwell LLP
125 Broad Street,
- Head Office: New York, NY
- Number of domestic offices: 4
- Number of international offices: 9
- Partners (US): 137
- Associates (US): 476
- Main recruitment contact: Milana L Hogan, Chief Legal Talent Officer
- Hiring partner: Sergio J Galvis
- Diversity officers: David Braff and Tracy Richelle High, Partners, Co-Chairs of the Diversity Committee
- Recruitment details
- Entry-level associates starting in 2018: 79
- Clerking policy: Yes
- Summers joining/anticipated 2018:
- 1Ls: 5, 2Ls: 129, 3Ls (pre-clerks): 15, SEOs: 3 (anticipated)
- Summer salary 2018:
- 1Ls: $3,958.33/week
- 2Ls: $3,958.33/week
- Split summers offered? Yes
- Can summers spend time in an overseas office? Yes
Main areas of work
S&C interviews at top law schools around the country. Our lawyers are alumni of more than 135 law schools.
Recruitment outside OCIs:
Hiring for Sullivan & Cromwell’s US offices is handled by each individual office. Hiring for S&C’s Asia and Australia offices, and of US-trained applicants to our European offices, is coordinated out of the New York office. Please send an application package consisting of a cover letter, resume and transcript to the appropriate office:
• New York, Europe, Asia, Australia: firstname.lastname@example.org
• Los Angeles: email@example.com
• Palo Alto: firstname.lastname@example.org
• Washington, DC: email@example.com
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.
This Firm's Rankings in
USA Guide, 2019
- Capital Markets: Debt & Equity (Band 2)
- Litigation: General Commercial (Band 4)
- Antitrust (Band 2)
- Bankruptcy/Restructuring Recognised Practitioner
- Corporate/M&A: The Elite (Band 1)
- Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation (Band 1)
- Environment: Mainly Transactional (Band 2)
- Insurance: Transactional & Regulatory (Band 2)
- Litigation: General Commercial: The Elite (Band 1)
- Litigation: Securities (Band 1)
- Litigation: White-Collar Crime & Government Investigations (Band 1)
- Real Estate: Mainly Corporate & Finance (Band 1)
- Tax (Band 1)
- Corporate/M&A (Band 2)
USA - Nationwide
- Antitrust (Band 3)
- Banking & Finance (Band 4)
- Capital Markets: Derivatives (Band 1)
- Capital Markets: Equity: Manager Representation (Band 2)
- Capital Markets: Investment Grade Debt: Issuer Representation (Band 2)
- Capital Markets: Investment Grade Debt: Manager Representation (Band 2)
- Corporate Crime & Investigations (Band 1)
- Corporate/M&A: The Elite (Band 1)
- Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation (Band 2)
- Energy: Electricity (Transactional) (Band 3)
- Energy: Mining & Metals (Transactional) Spotlight Table
- FCPA (Band 5)
- Financial Services Regulation: Banking (Compliance) (Band 1)
- Financial Services Regulation: Banking (Enforcement & Investigations) (Band 1)
- Financial Services Regulation: Financial Institutions M&A (Band 1)
- Insurance: Transactional & Regulatory (Band 3)
- Investment Funds: Registered Funds (Band 4)
- Projects: LNG (Band 1)
- Projects: Mining & Metals (Band 1)
- Projects: Oil & Gas (Band 3)
- Real Estate (Band 2)
- REITs (Band 4)
- Securities: Litigation (Band 1)
- Securities: Regulation (Band 3)
- Tax: Corporate & Finance (Band 1)