Sullivan & Cromwell LLP
Published February 2011
2011 Vault Ranking: 3
Sullivan & Cromwell is one of the oldest and most prestigious New York law firms. Founded in 1879, the firm’s history is tied closely with that of American industry. The firm had a major role in the founding of Edison General Electric, U.S. Steel, and the financing of the Panama Canal. At the beginning of the 20th Century, the firm became one of the first U.S. firms to establish an international presence. The firm now consists of over eight hundred attorneys at twelve offices spread over four continents.
Throughout the twentieth century, both the firm and its attorneys have routinely been in the forefront of industry and politics, for better or for worse. Through its Berlin office, Sullivan and Cromwell engaged in business with a number of Nazi-era corporations, including I. G. Farben, the manufacturer of Zyklon-B. On the other hand, it was a former S&C partner, Rogers Lamont, who was the first American to die in combat in World War II, at the time as a member of the British Army in 1940. Other famous S&C alums include John Foster Dulles, Arthur Dean, and Chief Justice Harlan Stone.
Mergers and acquisitions became an important part of the corporate world in the 1970s. Most leading white shoe firms would not work on hostile takeovers, leaving the work to newer upstart firms, like the then fledgling Wachtell and Skadden. Sullivan & Cromwell was an exception to this, becoming a key player in many deals throughout the late twentieth century.
The firm is not the largest in the world, only in the top twenty firms in terms of gross revenue, but it is one of the most profitable. Sullivan & Cromwell is second only to Wachtell in revenue per lawyer.
Sullivan & Cromwell has a very diverse array of practice areas, nearly all of which are among the top of their respective fields. The firm is likely most well known for their capital markets practice. This is tied closely with very strong practices in private equity, corporate governance, mergers and acquisitions, and project finance. In litigation, the firm is similarly strong both in general litigation as well as a variety of specialties, including antitrust, intellectual property, labor, and others.
The firm is ranked extremely well by Chambers and Partners, with national Band 1 or 2 rankings in Antitrust, Capital Markets: Debt and Equity, Capital Markets: Derivatives, Corporate/M&A, Employee Benefits, Energy: Electricity, Energy: Mining, Financial Services Regulation (assorted), Insurance, International Arbitration, Projects, Securities Litigation, and Tax.
The firm also features a number of strong regional practices, particularly in its New York office, such as Latin American Investment, White Collar Crime, and Real Estate.
Sullivan and Cromwell relies heavily on grades and screening interviews to make the first cut for applicants. Though somewhat impacted by the economy, the firm was very much among those for whom callbacks tended to be formalities, designed more as a ‘get to know you’ exercise. In terms of fit, associates report that commitment, engagement, and preparation are all things that matter. On the other hand, most attorneys with the firm are not flashy, bombastic, or have anything to prove. Smart and mellow makes the best candidate.
The summer program itself is relatively standard. Associates work 13 weeks, expected to complete six to ten projects. There appears to be no strong face time requirements, and most summer associates are out of the office by 6:30 P.M. Though summers are issued BlackBerrys, weekend work is uncommon. The standard fare after work social events in New York are present, such as Broadway shows and Shakespeare in the Park. The two things that do perhaps make the S&C summer experience slightly unique are first the splitting option. Summer associates are given the option of working in one of the firm’s overseas offices for four to six weeks (if space allows), or to split between two of the firm’s domestic offices.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, all of the firm’s 2009 graduates started in the Fall of 2009, and all 2010 graduates started on time in the Fall of 2010.
Compensation and Benefits
Sullivan and Cromwell has been a follower in compensation in New York, matching the standard lock step $160,000 scale for associate salary. The firm also generally follows the market-level bonuses in New York. While this is a significant sum of money, it has tended to cause some consternation among associates. Most, if not all, associates are aware that the firm’s revenue per lawyer is second only to Watchtell. However, associates are still only paid the same as they would be at virtually any other large firm, regardless of firm performance. There is no formal billable hour requirement, but the informal expectation is between 2,100 and 2,400 hours.
The firm was a market leader in increasing paid maternity leave to 18 weeks, and provides paid paternity leave of four weeks. Further, primary caregivers (of either sex) can take additional unpaid leave for up to six months. Associates are given four weeks of vacation annually, but they are expected to be available during vacations, but most associates generally use the majority of their vacation time.
There is a single partnership track at the firm averaging seven to eight years. However virtually all associates contend there is virtually no chance at becoming partner, and even less than that if you are a lateral from another firm. Though hard work would be required anywhere, the three major factors identified by attorneys at the firm are unrelated to work product: politics, being in the right practice group at the right time, and being a woman or minority. The four of the most recent five associates that were made partner were women. Two partners in the past five years have been working reduced hour schedules at the time.
The culture of the firm can be easily identified when you review employee satisfaction numbers. Nearly all of the satisfaction employees reported in the Vault Survey was tied to their work. If you are an attorney at Sullivan and Cromwell, you are there because you wanted to be among the best and brightest, and to throw yourself into complex, high end, innovative legal work, regardless of your practice area. In the words of one junior associate, “Social functions are not why I came here.”
The firm has a reputation for being stuffy, formal, and overly professional. While everyone is generally respectful and pleasant to one another, this is still a white shoe firm that bleeds green. You are respected and treated like an adult, but you are expected to be smart and be able to handle the hard work and long hours that come with the territory. All personality types are welcome, but if you are forewarned, “crybabies are best advised to close their doors if they need a good cry.”
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