The Big Interview: Joseph Shenker - Sullivan & Cromwell chairman

Sullivan & Cromwell's lawyers are hard-wired to cast their intellect far and wide, and Joe Shenker is no exception. S&C's leader gives his opinion on the firm's place in a "more global" legal profession, and why "globalization is inexorable."

Joe Shenker Sullivan & CromwellChambers Associate:  How would you describe the firm's current market position? 

Joseph Shenker:  I think we are in as good a place as I could have hoped for. Our work largely consists of interesting multi-disciplinary problems which call upon teams of lawyers who cut across practice areas, geographies and skill-sets. This plays well to our network of offices, which are located in the commercial centers of the world, and to our multi-disciplinary and dynamic cross-training approach. 

CA: Are there any broader trends (whether political, economic, technological) that are currently shaping the volume or type of work conducted in your firm's practices? 

JS: From a “political and economic” standpoint, we are in turbulent times. We have seen a spike in volatility in the world's financial markets, doubtless driven in part by increasing protectionism in both developed and emerging economies. Notwithstanding that, we remain dedicated to our long-term belief that the free movement of goods, services and people creates economic prosperity for everyone – and so are our clients. Our clients are playing for the long-term and the expectation is that no matter what the short-term tensions might be – and the resulting market turbulence – globalization is inexorable.  

There are a couple of broader “technological” trends affecting our practice and I would divide them into two buckets. 

"Our representation of technology companies is not limited to our Silicon Valley/Northern California office."

First, technology companies, and other companies that are increasingly engaging in technology pursuits, are becoming more important to our practice mix. This is true not only for our M&A and Capital Markets practices, but also in our IP practice, which of course involves patent protection, litigation and licensing.  For example, we represented Amazon in a number of major acquisitions which were particularly interesting as they involved branching out into new areas. We represent Intel in a large number of matters.  Our FIG practice has become particularly active in fintech and crypto-currency. Our cybersecurity practice has been growing. Our representation of technology companies is not limited to our Silicon Valley/Northern California office; in fact, each of our offices around the world have major involvement with technology companies located or operating there. 

Second is technology’s effect on our delivery of services. According to third-party studies, we have among the highest – if not the highest – “technology spend” among our peers. We are fanatic about ensuring that our lawyers are provided with as much technological assistance as possible, whether it’s knowledge management, remote access or artificial intelligence. Although the last is in its infancy – especially within the legal profession – I believe we are on its cutting edge and will see exponential progress.  

CA:  What is the strategy going forward? Are there any areas you have earmarked for growth over the next year? 

JS: We expect to keep doing what we're doing because, thank g-d, it is working well. I do expect our technology (including cyber-security), restructuring, private equity, M&A, high-yield and leveraged finance practices will continue their strong trajectory of growth. 

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

JS: It has become more global and it involves many more law firms. When I started practicing there were a small group of New York-based law firms that dominated Capital Markets and M&A activity, certainly in the US. Since then, many law firms whose home base is outside New York, and even outside the United States, have grown their practices and the array of law firms we see on the other side of the table has changed and will continue to change as we see more and more firms from the emerging economies. 

Our recruiting has also evolved along with this – we are far more global in our recruitment and seek out the “best and brightest” from all over the world. We are anxious to ensure we have a diverse workforce in terms of the backgrounds and points of view we bring together here. 

"I’ve encountered every type of deal in every region of the world. I’ve worked on litigation, M&A and joint venture work in probably every continent (except Antarctica)."

What has not changed, however, is our training and mentoring goal, which is to educate our lawyers to be as broad-based as possible. Over the years I’ve been practicing, many firms have become more specialized, whereas we continue to practice as we have before: to be multi-disciplinary and give our lawyers as much responsibility as possible from the day they get here and as they advance in their careers. Our client and deal teams are pretty evenly divided in number between partners and associates. My experience and training involved working closely with partners in small teams, and my goal is for every lawyer coming here to have the same experience. 

CA: Why is law an attractive profession for students to join today?  

JS: First, because it is intellectually challenging: our clients seem to bring us only difficult problems, which require new and creative solutions. Second, and as a result, you get to meet and deal with interesting and bright people. Third, you have the ability to actually help people with their problems, and there is nothing more thrilling than that. Finally, especially in these turbulent times, you do have the opportunity to “do good” as a lawyer through pro bono and community involvement. I had lunch last week with a client I’ve worked with for 30 years – an investment-banker-turned-CEO-turned sports entrepreneur. I was moved to hear from him how his experience of working with Sullivan & Cromwell led him to advise his children to go into law because, he said, he envies us for how interesting every day must be. 

CA: What do you consider to have been your big break?  

JS: Choosing Sullivan & Cromwell.  

When you're a student, you don't know that much about choosing a law firm, and I was no exception. I had no idea how dynamic the practice here would be. When I look back on my experiences, I realize I’ve encountered every type of deal in every region of the world. I’ve worked on litigation, M&A and joint venture work in probably every continent (except Antarctica). I never expected to find that; nor did I expect to find such a respectful and lateral organizational structure. Everyone who comes here is treated as an “equal” because everyone has the same intellectual toolkit and every view and approach is respected. We spend almost every day dealing with interesting problems and smart people – both internally and externally. I could not have envisioned that in advance and, ultimately, that’s why I’ve stayed here. 

"We are not looking for assembly-line workers; we are looking for people who will have the IQ and EQ to relate to new problems, clients, cultures and regions."

CA: What achievement are you most proud of? 

JS: Not messing up the management of this firm!  My goal is to leave it in at least as good shape as I found it, and thus far I hope I’ve achieved that. I’m also proud of maintaining an environment that gives each person coming through the door the opportunity to have the same experience that I have had here. 

CA: Looking back at your career and the knowledge you've gained, what advice would you give to students who are about to enter the legal industry? 

JS: To make sure you have as well-rounded and broad education and experiences as possible before you come here. We are not looking for assembly-line workers; we are looking for people who will have the IQ and EQ to relate to new problems, clients, cultures and regions. The only way to do that successfully is if you are a well-rounded individual before coming here, and continue that development while here.


Interview conducted by assistant editor Natalie Bertram. First published June 2019. 


Read more about a career at Sullivan & Cromwell