"I think there's an active desire to avoid some of the more obnoxious aspects of other law firms."

"We're prepared to invest in each office, and make sure each is truly excellent."

- Ellen Dwyer, managing partner

Crowell & Moring LLP


This prestigious DC-based firm is just as renowned for its “quirky” culture as it is for its truly excellent work.

IF you were a law student back in 1979, and kept one eye on the legal press, you'd have likely read about 'The Split' – the headline-grabbing exit of 53 Jones Day attorneys, reportedly representing two-thirds of JD's DC office. The plan was to create "a democratic and more collegial" law firm, to quote Eldon H. "Took" Crowell, speaking in 2002. The result was Crowell & Moring, today a 450-attorney legal giant with a renowned government contracts practice – and a small flotilla of rubber ducks in its HQ fountain. And incredibly given Crowell's famous toy duck population, in spring 2013 a real duck actually laid some eggs outside the DC office's ninth floor conference room... see here.

When people think of Crowell [which rhymes with 'coal' not 'howl'], they think of DC and our government contracts work,” associates pointed out. That's inevitable, really. Two-thirds of all Crowellites work in DC, and its government contracts work is second to none. It's one of only two firms to receive Chambers USA's highest ranking for the practice seven years on the trot.

Beyond that, we have strong core regulatory practices – healthcare, antitrust and white-collar,” managing partner Ellen Dwyer tells us, “plus a litigation strength that spans all our offices, both in terms of traditional class actions, and trial work.” Within these areas the firm works for the cream of the crop, including AT&T, Du Pont and Marriott International.

The Work  

Unusually, newbies can choose two practice areas they'd like to start out in. The most highly populated are litigation and antitrust, although IP, international dispute resolution, government contracts, torts, labor and employment, healthcare, white-collar, international trade and others are also on the menu. Being in two groups simultaneously means that juniors have access to twice the work they might otherwise. And the options don't stop here: “They don't pigeon-hole you,” interviewees revealed. “They're very encouraging about trying out new things, and generally allow associates to flourish and find their desired practice area.” Juniors naturally tend to segue into one specialty, and make this formal by their third or fourth year.

Some groups including litigation have a nifty e-mail system, whereby juniors are matched up to assignments based on their capacity. If they make a good impression, they're often a shoo-in for repeat work. This is quite effective, but keep in mind: “Crowell is a firm that really encourages proactiveness.” One source explained: “The strategy of reaching out to partners dealing with particular cases is more informal and slow, but partners seem open to it. You can even approach someone from another group if needs be. You have to be a self-starter.” Those with an entrepreneurial streak will reap the rewards. “I've been very pleased with the diversity of work, and I've tried everything I wanted to try,” confirmed one.

It's a good thing they're so proactive as juniors are expected to get stuck into substantial work from the get-go. “What I really like about Crowell is that partners will give me an assignment fully well knowing they can do it better or faster,” grinned one source. For another: “From the day I arrived, I've been doing things I felt I'd never do so early in my career. Writing drafts of briefs and complicated motions.” This is partially thanks to the firm's lean staffing model. A junior noted: “I'm the only associate on many of the cases I'm on, so I often get thrown into things.” This is particularly true outside of DC, where juniors regularly work one on one with partners.

So, how do responsibilities differ between departments? In litigation juniors find themselves “with a large amount of fairly substantial brief-writing,” occasionally helping to prepare for depositions. Of course, there's the odd bit of doc review but this tends to wane in the second year. Antitrust work runs the gamut of transactional, criminal and civil matters. Juniors report managing doc review projects, conducting interviews and getting stuck into investigations. “The bread and butter of government contracts” is 'bid protest' litigation. These are objections filed by a party whose interests are to be harmed by a procurement procedure of the federal government, and involves “writing briefs and reviewing documents to a very quick turnaround” for clients including healthcare companies and defense contractors.

Training & Development  

There's a formal training program for first-years – a flurry of introductory 'boot camp' sessions spread across the first few weeks. After this “it's more learning on the job” which goes down a treat with Crowell's entrepreneurial types. “There's no substitute for actual work,” they agreed. They were keen to point out, however, that “they encourage us to be on the look-out for training opportunities informally, and my requests have always been approved when asked.

Mentoring has recently come under the spotlight at Crowell. New starters are currently assigned a “really helpful” senior associate mentor and a partner mentor, but management is eyeing up a new sponsorship scheme. “It's not about assigning people sponsors,” explained juniors. “It's more about give and take. Associates will also need to reach out and develop that relationship. It's about having another person in your corner – another resource to succeed.” MP Ellen Dwyer confirms: “It's very exciting, and we believe we're the first law firm in the country to adopt a sponsorship model in this way. We're doing it all with the goal of retaining our top talent."

Offices  

Crowell has seven offices in the US (including a Wyoming outpost), overseas operations in London and Brussels, plus affiliate relationships with local firms in Cairo and Riyadh. At present, however, it only hosts new associates in DC, New York, Orange County, San Francisco and LA.

When people think of Crowell, it's usually the DC office,” juniors agreed. The flagship – housed on Pennsylvania Avenue, right between Congress and the White House – contains the majority of the firm's US attorneys, and pretty much all of the firm's government contracts specialists.

New York doesn't have government contracts, but we do have pretty vibrant litigation and white collar groups," we were told. There's a “very Crowell feeling” to the place, but the smaller head count leads to “a really open, more casual kind of environment.

They refer to us as the California office,” a West Coaster explained. “White-collar is very big in LA, and antitrust is probably biggest in Orange County, but we're all very heavy on litigation.” While there's some self-generated work on the West Coast, “my sense is that it's all tied back to DC,” one source mused.

With offices ranging in size from 30 to over 300 attorneys, it's a challenge to keep a tight rein on them all. "Work-wise I feel it's very joined up,” said one non-DC source. “I never feel like a second-class employee.” In terms of communication, however, sources felt “it's very DC-centric. They micromanage certain things.

Culture  

Oh my god, there are literally ducks everywhere,” an associate shrieked. It's not your usual response when asked about life in BigLaw, but then Crowell is hardly your usual BigLaw firm. Some years ago, one cheeky associate dropped a rubber duck into the fountain in the firm's foyer. More soon followed, and they became a permanent feature – now also popping up on the website, in the hallways and on secretaries' desks.

I think there's an active desire to avoid some of the more obnoxious aspects of other law firms,” explained one DC junior. “I think it's because of the firm's history. We broke away from a big firm, and had an underdog mentality for many years. It's institutionalized. A lack of pretension and a high level of collegiality are fundamental to our identity.

If you need evidence, look no further than the social scene at Crowell. In DC and New York, it's all about the firm's infamous “cheap booze Thursdays” when everyone's invited for free drinks and chips in the office. “It's not infrequent to keep the party going with a couple of others, sometimes including a partner or some paralegals,” a New Yorker grinned. Orange County has monthly “wind-down” events, recently including “miniature golfing around the office.” Those on the West Coast also enjoy a regular “California office retreat in LA which mixes business and fun.

The last few years we've reported that Crowell's coveted culture may be endangered. One source concurred: “My sense is that they want to be known as a powerhouse firm with excellent work, not as the fun, rubber duck firm. It's losing its flair and distinctiveness.” It is certainly true that Crowell's not-so-feathery friends have been relegated to one page on its website. However, we're glad to report that the vast majority of our sources were positive about the firm's direction. “I don't think it's getting stale and corporatey. If it's moving that way, I haven't seen it,” noted one. “If anything the culture at other firms has changed to become more like Crowell,” argued another.

Hours & Compensation  

While 1,900 hours remains a firm target, there is also an “aspirational” target of 2,400 hours. These additional 500 hours can be racked up through “billables, pro bono, client development, attendance at lunches and committees, and seminars.” The consensus is that “1,900 seems doable, while 2,400 is a bit more difficult.” Juniors' main concern is that they'll miss out on a bonus or a raise if they're lagging behind. “It's kind of a black box right now,” says one. “Bonuses and salaries are both discretionary – it's very subjective.” Managing partner Ellen Dwyer explains: “There's no bright line rule about bonuses. The 2,400 target is part of assessment, but not surprisingly, decisions are based on associates' overall contribution to the firm.

Hours are okay for BigLaw, with most respondents exiting the office at a healthy(ish) 7 or 8pm. Some opt to work the odd evening or weekend at home, while others try to cram all their work into office hours. “If I was finished with work at 3pm, I'd leave,” explained one DC-er. “I'd check my e-mails periodically, but I don't feel like Crowell is a face time firm. People won't think you're weird if you come and go at different hours.” Plus, “you can have unlimited vacation time so long as you're hitting your billable targets.

Pro Bono  

If you don't hit the 50-hour target it's actually looked upon as less than favorable, as though there's a problem. The firm has a big commitment to pro bono,” juniors reported. Of course, any additional hours go into that 2,400 hour bucket, so “speaking in a completely selfish way, you can help yourself by doing more pro bono.” Cases are distributed by the firm's dedicated pro bono partner, who regularly e-mails opportunities to all attorneys. “When you first get here you fill out a form letting her know what you're interested in,” explained one. “That's how I got onto my last matter.

According to one junior, “in addition to being charitable I see it as a training opportunity.” This seems to be the consensus at Crowell. “I've signed up for things purposely to get specific skills,” admits another. “I double-check with a partner on how to proceed or filing for full approval, but I'm essentially running cases. I'm left to do what I want on them.” Interviewees reported standing up in court, doing motions, second chairing a jury and writing briefs.

Pro bono hours 

  • For all attorneys across all US offices: 31,681
  • Average per US attorney: 68

Diversity  

It's a problem in BigLaw generally, but they're struggling with diversity and could definitely improve,” noted one source. “If you look at the stats it's pretty well balanced in terms of men and women,” another explained, “but when you look at their positions it's quite lopsided.” Around a fifth of New York partners are women. Fortunately, the firm's Women Attorneys' Network is very active, meeting up regularly for lunches, presentations and workshops.

Crowell's Diversity Council holds a monthly lunch in DC – “anywhere between seven and ten people attend,” and there's the occasional guest speaker. Ellen Dwyer explains: “I'd say that our diversity efforts are less initiative-driven. To me, it's more about sustaining a culture that ensures diverse lawyers have the opportunity to develop professionally and build relationships both internally and externally with clients.

Get Hired  

Each year we're pleasantly surprised by the hodge-podge of people who wind up at Crowell. They hail from a range of law schools and previous careers, and are quite a well-traveled, international bunch. A notable proportion have a public interest background: “I think that's probably a signal to Crowell that you'll fit in well,” pondered one source.

I know the firm is pushing for candidates from the top ten schools, and being more restrictive on who they're interviewing,” we're told. However, our sources agreed that applicants have to bring more than just good academics to the table. “It's more important that people think they'll fit in with the culture, and will be light-hearted and pleasant to be around.” They also noted that “you can't be the type of person who'll run over someone to get to the top. If someone says they'll do anything to succeed, it'd be a turn-off.” For more details about interviews and the summer program at Crowell, see the Web Extras.

Strategy & Future  

Crowell has a “three-prong strategy” for growth, according to Ellen Dwyer. Firstly, it's looking to build on its regulatory practice. This is a pretty broad-ranging project encompassing everything from energy law to healthcare. The firm nabbed a team from healthcare supremo Epstein Becker & Green in 2011, and one from Locke Lord in 2012, bringing the firm's tally up to over 70 healthcare practitioners. “Consistent with our focus on our regulatory bench, we recently recruited Cheryl Falvey, the former general counsel of the US Consumer Product Safety Commission," Dwyer explains. That's in addition to bringing Eric Edwards on board, a government relations expert with deep experience in the financial sector. The goal is to "continue to build out our public policy practice," she explains.

The firm's litigators should also expect to step up. On this front, Crowell acquired four new tax controversy partners in 2012. Finally, Dwyer explains, “we're committed to increasing and enhancing our transactional heft.

Don't expect a raft of new Crowell offices, however. “We're always open to exploring our geographic scope, but as it makes sense strategically,” she adds. “We're prepared to invest in each office, and make sure each is truly excellent, which may make us more conservative on the geographic expansion of the firm in the short term.


Key Facts

The Facts  

Largest US office: Washington, DC

US offices: 6 (plus Wyoming) 

International offices: 2

First-year salary: $160,000 

Billable hours: 1,900 target 

Summers 2013: 24 (23 2Ls, 1 1L)

Revenue 2012: $349.4 million (+6%) 

Partners made in 2013: 7

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
  • Antitrust
    ( District of Columbia )
  • Climate Change
    ( Nationwide )
  • Corporate/M&A
    ( District of Columbia )
  • Intellectual Property
    ( District of Columbia )
  • Band 4
  • Construction
    ( California )
  • International Trade
    ( Nationwide )
  • Band 5
  • International Arbitration
    ( 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 (%)
Women2054
White9078
Black/African American33
Hispanic/Latin American17
Asian510
Mixed/Other12
LGBT14

Recent Work Highlights 

  • Successfully represented government contractor ACADEMI, previously known as Blackwater, when accused of using excessive force and fiddling expenses in Iraq and Afghanistan 
  • Represented UTC in its $18.4 billion acquisition of Goodrich, a global supplier of services in the aerospace and defense industry 
  • Provides the American Benefits Council, a trade associate of Fortune 500 employers, with regulatory guidance in relation to employer-sponsored health arrangements including the PPACA 
  • Represents four current and former executives and employees of Fannie Mae in connection with the ongoing government investigations into the subprime market collapse
  • Represents Khan Resources, a Canadian company, in an arbitration seeking $200 million in damages from the government of Mongolia, who it claims unlawfully invalidated mining and exploration licenses for a valuable uranium mine