"The rubber ducks are here to stay." 

Ellen Dwyer, managing partner

"They give people a varied experience. You're not put in a box for convenience's sake." 

Crowell & Moring LLP


With its flocks of rubber ducks, government contracts supremo Crowell & Moring adds a splash of fun to the BigLaw pond...

WHAT famous 'break-ups' spring to mind from the past few decades? The breakup of the Beatles? The Warsaw Pact countries splitting from the USSR? Britney/Justin Timberlake, Tiger Woods/Elin Nordegren, Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes? Well, in 1979 the legal press in a certain part of the country was awash with headlines about 'The Split'. That year, 53 lawyers left Jones Day's Washington, DC branch to set up their own firm, specializing in government contracts. Among the departures were Eldon H "Took" Crowell and Frederick Moring. Today, the firm that bears their names has over 500 attorneys in two European and seven US offices, many of which house a jaunty bunch of rubber ducks as well as a host of formidable legal practitioners.

Speaking in 2002, the late 'Took' Crowell stated that “our main hope was to create a democratic and more collegial atmosphere.” Thirty-five years since its foundation, the firm has serious legal clout – as evidenced by top Chambers USA rankings for government contracts work over nine consecutive years. But it also cultivates – internally not externally, we must stress – an air of light-heartedness (see below for more on those rubber ducks). “We don't take ourselves too seriously, but we're a serious firm doing good legal work,” associates repeatedly told us. Aside from government contracts, Crowell & Moring is respected for practices including antitrust, healthcare, environment, international trade and white-collar crime. Heavy-duty clients include Lockheed Martin, DuPont and BAE.

Associates Say

The Work 

New associates join two practice areas after submitting a list of preferences, usually developed on the summer program. “I got my first and second choice and I know many of my colleagues did too. There's enough diversity of interest to go around,” noted one associate. Litigation and antitrust have the highest number of juniors, though there's also healthcare, government contracts, IP, international dispute resolution, corporate and white-collar among the departments on offer. “Crowell recognizes that coming out of law school you might not be sure what you want to do, so they give people a varied experience. You're not put in a box for convenience's sake.” Of course, on a pragmatic level, “if one group is slower you can offset that by picking up work from another.”

The lack of pigeon-holing doesn't stop there. “You're welcome to pursue interests outside the two assigned groups and approach partners for that type of work. It can be challenging, because groups like to look after their own, but it's not a source of tension in any way. My reaching out has always been fruitful. The walls between practice groups are very porous.” Typically associates narrow their focus and concentrate on one specialty after three or four years.

In terms of actually getting work, certain groups have an e-mail system “to show what's on your plate and if you have room for more.” However, more informal channels of work spring up for associates after they've established themselves with partners. “Now I've been here a while, it's a relatively easy process. Partners call me and say, 'Can you pitch in with this?'” reported juniors. Every group has a staffing partner “as a backstop if things get slow” but overall, “if you're the entrepreneurial or proactive type that benefits you. The firm's very receptive to that.”

Bid protests "are a major part" of government contracts work."We represent companies that win and lose, so we protest and intervene.” A source recalled: “There was one big protest at the Court of Federal Claims – that's how I cut my teeth. First I did all the grunt work: redactions, research and proof-reading. But then I got to write protests. It's a love-it-or-hate-it type of litigation – I love it! Even though there's a grueling schedule.” In the white-collar and antitrust departments, sources “primarily worked on investigations, both criminal and civil. I've prepared witnesses for deposition, created interview outlines and made a formal presentation to the DOJ.” Most interviewees noted happily that “doc review times don't go on forever.”

Training & Development 

Introductory 'bootcamp' sessions take place every couple of weeks for new recruits. Topics covered include filings, citations and drafting motions. Opinions varied on the usefulness of such sessions. “It was more a nuisance than helpful – we wanted to jump in and work!” exclaimed one. However, most thought at least some were valuable. Certain groups might supplement the bootcamps with their own practice-specific sessions. Besides this, “they do a great job offering extra training opportunities,” associates told us. “They bring in a terrific writing coach. I had a session on time management that's almost completely changed the way I work."

The firm is in the early stages of developing a sponsorship program – for more details see our website. Meanwhile, incoming associates are assigned a senior mentor and a partner mentor. “It's either going to work or not based on how you get along with that person.” Of course, unofficial mentoring relationships flourish naturally. Getting feedback is also personality-dependent to an extent. “It's hit and miss. Some partners are phenomenal and seek you out, and others are like black holes – you submit something and never get anything from them again.” Once again, it pays to be proactive: “Partners are busy, so they might not always go out of their way, but any time I've asked for feedback they've always been very encouraging and happy to help.”

Offices 

Crowell has offices in DC, New York, LA, San Francisco, Orange Country, Anchorage and Cheyenne, plus outposts in Brussels and London and affiliations with firms in Cairo and Riyadh. The DC headquarters are located on Pennyslvania Avenue, nicely ensconced between Congress and the White House. There's a gym, canteen and roof terrace. Recently, the latter provided a home for a fittingly feathered family. “We actually had real life ducks and ducklings on the terrace! It was really fun and delightful, we were all huddling around to see them. They were safely removed after a while.”

Culture 

Several years ago, a certain daring individual dropped a rubber duck into the fountain in the DC office reception. Since then, the ducks have really come home to roost. “Oh my gosh, ducks!” exclaimed an associate when we inquired about these mascots. “They're everywhere!” Across offices you'll find all manner of “costumed ducks” perched in attorneys' offices, on secretaries' desks and in the water features. There's a Statue of Liberty duck, a diploma duck, a pilot duck, a Christmas-themed snowman duck.... “I have ten right now. There are 75 in reception,” a New York associate told us. All this is symbolic of the fact that “we don't take ourselves too seriously. The ducks bring a bit of levity and keep egos in check. I don't want to say the culture's playful because that sounds flaky, but there's a sense that people want to have fun when they're here and an awareness that you can only do good legal work if you enjoy coming to work.”

Of course there's a balance to be struck between the seriousness of the legal business and the more light-hearted atmosphere. “We want to draw a careful line between being casual and not being a bunch of goofballs!” And while ducks are heavily present internally, “they made a good decision not to base external advertising on them. Put it this way, I've got ducks in my office, I don't want them on my business card.” Reassuringly, managing partner Ellen Dwyer confirms: “The rubber ducks are here to stay.”

On the social side, there are weekly 'cheap booze' Thursdays (the drink's free). Everyone is encouraged to attend by “a funny e-mail that gives a humorous account of the week at the firm.”

Hours & Compensation 

The billing target is 1,900 hours – within this, 50 hours can be pro bono. Hitting the 1,900 mark brings eligibility for a bonus. Beyond this, there's a 2,400 hour 'all-in' target. “The extra 500 hours can include just about anything – billable work, pro bono, committees, lectures, trainings or speaking on a panel,” associates told us. Overall most saw both the billing target and 'all-in' number as “absolutely realistic.”

Compensation at the firm is discretionary after the first year – salaries and bonuses are discussed at annual formal reviews. The relative opacity of the bonus system didn't seem to bother associates unduly. “I'm not going to let my happiness depend on it,” said one sagely. Juniors seemed content with their daily schedules, with work rarely dominating weekends or evenings. Average office hours tend to range from 8.30am until 6.30 or 7pm.

Pro Bono 

Historically, the firm has a strong commitment to pro bono. Back in the day, Took Crowell encouraged summer associates to take a bus trip into the poorest DC neighborhoods, visiting shelters and soup kitchens and fostering the idea of attorneys as public servants. 'Took's Tours' still go on today. The firm was also the first in Washington to have a partner fully committed to pro bono.

All our sources had taken on pro bono matters. “I did 175 hours this past year,” said one. “Nobody blinked an eye at me putting in the hours.” Others who found themselves swamped with billable work were able to organize “lower-hour, shorter bites.” Practically speaking, “it's a great opportunity to gain experiences you wouldn't otherwise have, like drafting and standing up in court.” Juniors had worked on immigration cases, landlord-tenant disputes, veteran disability cases and representing psychiatric patients.

Pro bono hours 

  • For all attorneys across all US offices: 35,229 
  • Average per US attorney: 72

Diversity 

“They talk about diversity all the time,” commented a junior wryly. “It's too early to determine how things will play out in terms of retention and promotions. Partners are mostly white males but the associate ranks have more females and are not as white.” Juniors noted that “there are a handful of female partners who are vocal and awesome and take their position as role models seriously. I feel very supported and encouraged.” In addition to the Women Attorneys' Network, Crowell's Diversity Council oversees different groups for ethnically diverse and LGBT attorneys. “Ensuring we have diverse lawyers in our ranks is an important mission of ours and relates directly to our new sponsorship initiative. There's a deliberate and ongoing effort on our part to be inclusive and to work hand in hand with diverse lawyers,” says MP Ellen Dwyer.

Get Hired 

How to become a Crowellite? “Don't be an asshole!” exclaimed an associate. Others elaborated: “If you want to show off about how stressed you are, that won't go down well here. There's a premium on personality.” And while “they want someone who's serious about the work they're doing,” a genuine team spirit is key: “They're not looking for gunners who want to shine at the expense of their colleagues.”

Ellen Dwyer summarizes: “The person who's going to thrive here has a sense of humility; that's a big value here. Being proactive and comfortable building relationships with individuals is essential, while excellence is a given.”

Strategy & Future 

“We're pushing two areas: litigation and our regulatory practice. On the regulatory front, we've brought on a number of folks and built our energy practice, which was a big move,” Ellen Dwyer tells us. In the summer 2013 the firm welcomed a nine-member energy team from Dickstein Shapiro into the fold. The healthcare practice was strengthened in 2012 by a three-partner team from Locke Lord, while four new tax controversy partners were added to the ranks as well. There are no imminent plans for new offices, Dwyer says. “We're focusing on building our brand and talent in our current offices.”



 

Key Facts

Largest US office: Washington, DC

US offices: 7

International offices: 2

First-year salary: $160,000

Billable hours: 1,900 target

Summers 2014: 18 (15 2Ls, 3 1Ls)

Revenue 2013: $359.15 million (+3%)

Partners made in 2014: 5

Chambers USA Rankings

    Band 1
  • Government
    ( Nationwide )
  • Insurance
    ( District of Columbia )
  • Transportation
    ( Nationwide )
  • Band 2
  • Bankruptcy/Restructuring
    ( District of Columbia )
  • Environment
    ( Alaska, District of Columbia )
  • Healthcare
    ( District of Columbia )
  • Litigation
    ( California )
  • Band 3
  • Climate Change
    ( Nationwide )
  • Corporate/M&A
    ( District of Columbia )
  • Intellectual Property
    ( District of Columbia )
  • Band 4
  • Antitrust
    ( District of Columbia )
  • Energy & Natural Resources
    ( Nationwide )
  • International Trade
    ( Nationwide )

For each practice area, only the firm’s best ranking (with location) is shown. Any lower rankings (in other locations) are not shown. To see full rankings

Diversity

Partners (%)Associates (%)
Women22.556.2
White91.476
Black/African American3.23.2
Hispanic/Latin American1.68.4
Asian3.210.4
Mixed/Other0.052
LGBT1.13.2

Recent Work Highlights 

  • Successfully defended a $20 billion government contract awarded to United Health Military & Veterans Services for an army personnel healthcare program
  • Represented DuPont in a $919.9 million suit against South Korean textile company Kolon – the latter stole trade secrets of a bullet-proof vest material
  • Represented CSX Transportation over claims of fixing fuel charges – this was the largest antitrust case pending in the US, valued in excess of several billion dollars
  • Acted for BAE Systems in a carve-out transaction to separate its commercial armored vehicle business unit from the military and construction armored vehicle side of the business – the spun-off business was sold to The O'Gara Group