Litigation is the largest single department and takes on most juniors; corporate is the next biggest, followed by bankruptcy, IP and real estate. The litigation department is nationally top-ranked by Chambers USA for its advertising work and many cases have an advertising or media slant. But the practice also does a lot of general commercial work and is noted for its white-collar experience. In corporate “the deals aren't quite the kind that make the front page of The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal,” associates told us, but the firm handles interesting midmarket deals, often working with private equity sponsors. Bankruptcy has been taking on a disproportionately large number of juniors recently to work on a ton of major Chapter 11 filings – Hostess, Kodak, American Airlines and Washington Mutual – as well as related litigation and restructuring.
Most junior associates join the firm after receiving an offer from a specific department, although it does make some 'general' offers, deciding later where to place associates. Within departments juniors aren't pigeonholed into a specialty and can try out different areas, although some “veer naturally toward” doing more work in one area. Furthermore, “while each department has a formal assignment system, it is not used very often beyond your first few weeks,” one junior told us. “Most people end up with the work they have in a more organic fashion.”
Associates admitted that they “definitely do some of the boring work” – doc review, preparing binders, due diligence, updating closing checklists, and for bankruptcy juniors “reviewing the bills and time entries which are being filed to the court.” But mixed in with this, there are “more challenging opportunities.” For example: “On one large trial I drafted the cross-examination outline for one witness, and I was involved with preparing another witness to take the stand.” In corporate you might get to “have a first crack at drafting an agreement, while also having contact with the client and regulatory bodies.” One associate told us of another highlight: “On my first case, I sat in a meeting with six partners, discussing a matter at hand: they put suggestions to me and asked my opinion.”
Training & Development
Associate life at the firm starts with a week's introductory training, after which “the firm is great at offering CLE opportunities in-house and elsewhere.” Litigators appreciate the firm's writing program, whereby juniors complete a previously drafted brief, which is then extensively reviewed.
What feedback you get on your work “depends on the person you are working with” as “some may be too busy” while others “will ask what you got out of an assignment after you've completed it.” It's “best to be proactive” and associates felt the firm's open culture means “you always feel comfortable enough to ask questions.” Juniors are assigned a senior associate or partner mentor at the end of their second year. Sometimes this is “based on a relationship that is already formed” as “most people adopt informal mentors.” Annual reviews are seen as valuable and “partners and senior associates are pretty good at giving feedback.”
On the issue of career development and training generally, however, associates agreed: “The firm could do a better job of training juniors and improving our skill sets – there are times I wish I got more feedback.” Official sources tell us they're in the process of introducing a more comprehensive competency-based training program.
Kramer Levin is headquartered in the Americas Tower on Sixth Avenue near Times Square. “We have a very gorgeous atrium – it recently featured in a Natalie Portman movie,” one associate told us. “The conference room floors are very nice and there is a collection of beautiful modern art on each floor." As well as being wowed by their office's sleek look, our interviewees also said “the technology budget is terrific.” The firm provides funding for iPhone 5s and home laptops.
The 30-lawyer Paris office – opened in 1999 – focuses on corporate and finance matters. Unsurprisingly, Silicon Valley earns its keep mostly from IP. An associate commented: “We opened that office as we had a lot of IP business in California, and the office offered a real chance to grow that. Kramer Levin has had many opportunities to expand elsewhere in the country, but we have selected to maintain our New York focus.”
“I wanted to work at a place where I wasn't another minion chalked up on the totem pole,” said one associate, mixing their metaphors excitedly. “Things are more equitable than hierarchical here most of the time. I can walk up to any partner in my department, say hello and have a chat with them.” Another source agreed: “We don't have any yellers. I have a friendly banter-oriented relationship with many attorneys here, up to and including [name partner] Gary Naftalis.” Of course “the demands are there: sometimes the workload means you have no time for yourself” and “as a junior associate you do often do a lot of listening and watching to see how things work.” But as one associate puts it: “If you have to be in BigLaw, this firm is a wonderful place to be.”
Social events at the firm happen “from time to time, not on a regular basis.” Many associates choose to spend time with families outside the office. At the same time, one junior said: “I've made friends here who I see outside work. And there was a real camaraderie on my last case team – you could often find us going for drinks in a group.”
Juniors did feel the firm could improve its internal communication on issues like bonuses, billing and business plans. “The junior associates have requested greater transparency on how the firm is doing,” we were told. In reaction, the firm is engaging with the associates' committee to make improvements and has introduced an annual state-of-firm meeting with managing partner Paul Pearlman.
Hours & Compensation
“The bankruptcy department has the reputation for billing the most hours” – our interviewees there had notched up well over 2,000 in a year. Those in corporate were below that mark, with litigators somewhere in between. “You don't want to be known as the person who is billing well below the pack in your department,” associates agreed. “Your billables should reflect the work available in your area. There is certainly no cultural pressure to bill for the sake of it.”
Associates work long hours during busy periods: “In preparation for trial I was working six or seven days a week for two or three months,” a litigator said. But aside from these workouts, associates' hours sounded relatively reasonable to us. “I tend to come in at 9.30am and three out of five days I go home by 7pm,” one associate said. Another added: “Fortunately nobody is hung up on when you get in. My BlackBerry is always present, but if I want to come in early and leave early my colleagues are okay with that as long as the work gets done.” A third source said: “I do think everyone has to make a conscious effort to carve out time for friends, family and significant others. Most colleagues are good at understanding I have other commitments.”
Billing 2,000 hours gets you a bonus of 60% of the market rate and you have to hit a “relatively high” 2,150 hours target for the full Cravath-scale bonus. “I don't think I have seen that written down in a document,” a junior admitted, “but I have heard it from many senior associates.” The target-hours number can include pro bono, business development, writing articles and committee work, among other things.
An unlimited number of pro bono hours can count toward associates' bonus target. “The firm is generally supportive of pro bono,” an associate said. “But I have found certain departments place a greater emphasis on it than others.” All our interviewees had done pro bono, but litigators found more value was placed upon it. Transactional juniors have the opportunity to work on 501(c) incorporations, while we heard from litigators who had “contributed to an Amicus brief,” “defended a woman going through a child custody process” and “worked on a very time-consuming asylum case.” The firm also has links to LGBT rights charities like Lambda and midlevel associates can apply for an externship to South Brooklyn Legal Services.
Pro bono hours
- For all attorneys across all US offices: 23,376
- Average per US attorney: 70.3
“In terms of gender diversity the firm does a great job,” associates agreed. “But in terms of racial diversity, we could do better.” Another source added: “We are trying to improve: we have a diversity committee, a women's committee and several programs to encourage diversity.” For example, the firm takes on 1L SEO (Sponsors for Educational Opportunity) summers. There are also various affinity groups.
“There is an extraordinary LGBT presence and awareness here, and the firm is often labeled as gay-friendly,” associates said. Late founding partner Arthur Kramer was the brother of writer and LGBT activist Larry Kramer, and the firm works with numerous LGBT charities, all of which “percolates down” into associate life.
Kramer Levin holds on-campus interviews at just under 20 schools: all are either top-14 outfits or based in the New York area.
During interviews, “besides – most importantly – academics, the firm looks for a complete portrait of you as an individual. They look at your intellectual skills and interests.” Bear in mind that Kramer doesn't “look purely at the commercial aspects of the job – we have an ideas-based culture.” It's also important to be personable, analytical and goal-oriented, and have a broad outlook. The firm doesn't break down its departments by subspecialties, so generalists are valued, as are those with journal writing and work experience.
The summer program is “a harmonious combination of team-building social activities and work assignments.” Summers are encouraged to “take assignments from different areas” and to “get their feet wet working directly with partners.”
Strategy & Future
Is the opening of the California office a model for how the firm will develop in the future? “It came about as a combination of strategic planning and taking advantage of an opportunity which arose,” says managing partner Paul Pearlman. “We do not have any current plans to open new offices. However, we are not adverse to doing so, but it would have to complement one of our existing core practice areas.” Associates perceived “the culture isn't moving in the direction of a rapid expansion.”
Pearlman also hints that changes may be afoot to the way the firm is organized. “We are continuing to look at ourselves to make sure we are properly structured to provide the most economical and efficient service to our clients.” However, the firm's overall strategy is still the same as in previous years: “We want to remain an independent full-service firm, while adding breadth and depth to our practice areas.”