A walk through Sidley’s Manhattan office to speak with its veteran lawyers reveals a much nuanced tale about the firm’s commitment to the city and the clients who have built businesses here. As Sidley commemorates its first 100 years in New York this year, partners in the office took time to share insight into the firm’s loyalty to the city and the highly sophisticated work for which the New York office is known.
Norm Slonaker, senior counsel in the New York office whose practice focuses on capital markets, had been a partner at the firm since 1973. As he describes it, Sidley distinguished itself early on in New York with a very simple concept: superior client service.
“There were always larger law firms that had been around longer,” Slonaker said. “The New York competition was very intense. Individual merit has become increasingly important,” he added. “It is about the quality of legal services. The day-to-day partner attention. That is why our clients have stayed with us, many of them for decades.”
The firm’s lawyers in New York have advised clients through the monumental challenges posed by Black Monday, the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, September 11, the Global Financial Crisis and the enactment of the more complex regulatory environment. The office, with more than 400 lawyers, serves Fortune 500 companies, sovereign governments, investment and commercial banks, insurance companies and multinational corporations.
Susan Merrill, a partner in the firm’s Securities & Derivatives Enforcement and Regulatory team and the former head of enforcement at Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), explains how the New York office is able to handle that formidable base of clients.“The energy in the office is palpable,” said Merrill. “This is a dynamic place with thriving practices. We all pull together to solve our clients’ toughest legal challenges. I think that’s what makes practicing law at Sidley in New York so rewarding.”
A firm with deep New York roots
Mike Schmidtberger, global co-head of the Investment Funds, Advisers and Derivatives group and managing partner of Sidley’s New York office, joined the firm as an associate in 1990 to build the firm’s asset management practice.
Schmidtberger recalls the merger of Brown & Wood and Sidley & Austin in 2001 as having a profound impact on the breadth of services the firm could offer. The merger effectively combined Sidley & Austin’s corporate, transaction, litigation and regulatory practices with Brown & Wood’s financial and investment banking representations.
“It really put us on the map in New York and raised the profile of the firm. Clients who were indigenous to New York really took notice,” Schmidtberger recalled.
He remembers being deeply impressed in witnessing the trademark collegiality partners often cite about Sidley.
The lawyers in Sidley’s New York office—indeed across the expanse of all its global offices—are bound together by a common culture of collaboration, he said. “That culture allows us to provide quality legal services for a vast array of different markets.”
The tenacity to rebuild
Pietrzak credits Sidley’s collaborative global environment with pulling the firm out of its darkest hours in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. That day, Sidley’s offices at One World Trade Center in Manhattan were destroyed when the Twin Towers collapsed during the terrorist attacks. The firm also experienced the unspeakable death of one of its own employees—Rosemary Smith, a switchboard operator.
Despite that tremendous tragedy, the New York office quickly rebounded due to help from across Sidley worldwide. As John Schwartz of the New York Times described it, “Sidley Austin’s people say they return day after day to the struggle to rebuild their practice—for many reasons. Because the work itself can be therapeutic. Because that is what they do. And, ultimately, because they think they send a message with every contract and brief.”
Having moved through such adversity along the path to growth in New York, Sidley is forever woven into the fabric of the city’s culture. The firm has championed programs through New York Cares and the United Way of New York as a way of giving back to the communities in which the office serves.
Such dedication to community is meaningful, of course, to the firm’s staff and lawyers, many of whom choose to remain at Sidley for most of their careers.
“Here I am, same wife, same firm,” joked Joe Armbrust, now a retired partner in the New York office. Armbrust, who is a former managing partner of the New York office, has spent his entire professional career with the firm, and was made a partner in 1976.
He mentions attending a recent celebration for secretaries and staff who were retiring from the firm’s New York office after more than 20 years of service.
“A lot of people feel very comfortable working here. The atmosphere makes it a nice place to be,” Armbrust said.
He finds himself bemused whenever he walks into a grocery store or drives down a highway. “I have worked with so many products and personalities in my time with Sidley that I can’t drive down Route 1 or go grocery shopping without seeing a company I did a deal with. It makes life very entertaining,” he said.
The next 100 years
Sam Gandhi, a partner in the Capital Markets group since 2002 and a member of the firm’s Executive Committee, is excited about the future of the New York office. “Like New York City, Sidley has faced great challenges and gotten stronger. In a time when the legal industry is facing its greatest difficulties and many firms are retrenching, thanks to our clients, our predecessors who built and grew this firm and the efforts of our lawyers, we continue to thrive.”