“The firm has the Southern culture that Georgians like, but you still get to work with huge international companies.”
"WHEN you say the firm's name to people in this state, they know what you're talking about,” associates told us proudly. Such is Alston & Bird's reputation in the Peach State that it's rated top by Chambers USA in no fewer than eight different practice areas here. Among Alston's seven other offices, Charlotte's IP group is one of three top-ranked in the North Carolina region, while DC houses a robust healthcare practice. Standout practices in California are construction, environment, and securities litigation.
Many of our sources hailed from Georgia themselves, and even those based in other states also appreciated the firm's unique Southern vibe – “a combination of local personality and big sophisticated work.” They were also hopeful of one day grabbing a slice of the equity peach pie – “in my interview the hiring partner said that Alston & Bird has one of the highest proportions of homegrown partners in BigLaw,” one explained. The firm's 1:1 ratio of partners to associates is uncommon at firms of this scale.
Many of the firm's entry-level associates swoop into the litigation & trial practice or IP litigation departments; one or two a year join securities litigation. The rest spread across transactional practices including finance, financial services & products, corporate transactions, and real estate. Once they're in a nest, Alston's baby birds are fed work from “a combination of systems, it varies a lot by group.” Most have some degree of formal allocation, but in many cases “folks don't rely on that. It's very entrepreneurial, which I think is a huge benefit because there is opportunity to seek things out.”
The litigation & trial group links juniors to partners or senior associates through work pairings, so “theoretically work can come down from the pipeline,” though it's easy to seek it out from others. White collar, antitrust, insurance, class actions and commercial disputes all fall into the broad team. Interviewees were “working all the aspects of a case – discovery, developing strategy, some research memos. It's really fun as a junior to feel like you're managing the project.” There was an element of jumping in at the deep end, as newbies are “really expected to hit the ground running – it's hard to know when to say no to something.” Smaller litigious groups such as product liability also provide “surprising responsibility. Partners forget what year we're in when they give us work.” Client contact “varies depending on the case,” those in smaller groups seeing more more quickly.
“I think I won the lottery!”
IP litigation covers “everything from patent trolls to competitor vs competitor, there's nothing in the practice area Alston doesn't take on.” Newcomers “have obviously done document review, which can be fine because it's mindless,” but were also trusted with “motions to transfer, writing portions for big briefs and summary judgments. Decisions are made by partners; associates get them down on paper.” Snowed in by an avalanche of patent infringements, the group was “struggling to find associates to fill the work that's coming in. We're definitely not sat here twiddling our thumbs!” Our sources considered the workload “sustainable at least for a few years, but if it doesn't slow down we won't get a very balanced life.” They were far more pleased by the hefty responsibility levels, and after a “feeling out period” were off and away with “a lot of autonomy that builds over time.” Several highlighted depositions as the next entry on their legal bucket list.
Public M&A makes up the bulk of Alston's corporate practice, with an additional dose of securities and some office specialties (startups in Silicon Valley, private equity in Charlotte.) Early on juniors tackle “mostly diligence, reviewing contracts and typing up summaries of important provisions,” as well ancillary documents. Several interviewees found “the workload the hardest adjustment – it's a little bit feast and famine. Overall it's fine, I'm not overwhelmed.” As in litigation, the rush provides challenging work quickly, and smaller transactional groups like construction lack “a typical big firm hierarchy, where work passes up the chain so the bottom only does a tiny part of the project.” One corporate source exclaimed: “I think I won the lottery! I'm very happy here. There's a good amount of being challenged but I'm not out here on my own.”
Training & Development
In yearly reviews, associates write self-evaluative memos and submit them to partners on the associates' committee, who then review their charges in categories including leadership, initiative and critical thinking. Pleasantly “surprised how in-depth the comments are,” sources told us “generally people are pretty good about constructive criticism and praise,” though noted “it is partner-dependent. I work for some people that just don't give feedback, which can be tough.” But more helpful mentors “want to sit down and explain changes they make. It's not like a partner will take a motion, put it in a black hole then submit something else.”
“...surprised how in-depth the comments are.”
Before they get into the nitty-gritty training, all new starters attend a week long orientation on the usual nuts and bolts. They then head back to school for litigation academy (“a two year program of talking through different topics with a well-respected retired litigator”), M&A college or IP training. Star pupils thought their education was “super-helpful, though a lot of it is learning as you go.” A mock trial “pulls it all together” for litigators. Transactional sources felt management had made “real attempts to come up with a good practical program” in recent years.
Culture & Diversity
Alston “has a reputation of being the happy law firm,” reinforced by its placement on the Fortune '100 Best Companies to Work For' 18 years in a row. Looking beyond the accolades, juniors suggested: “It's not entirely without problems, but overall I do think it's a good place to work. Everyone's highly motivated and wants to do a really good job.” In smaller offices, “the majority of people know each other,” and across the A&B flock “partners are really invested in wanting associates to succeed.” Several had got chummier with partners than you might expect – “we obviously get work from them and they are our bosses, but they'll also grab us to go to lunch. It's not like they're in an ivory tower ordering us around.” Noting that “one of Alston's principles is financial transparency,” associates were pleased to be kept in the know about the state of the firm's coffers.
“It's not like they're in an ivory tower ordering us around.”
A “surprising” social scene includes an end-of-week bar in several of the firm's bases, where “buddies always go and enjoy a drink or two.” Come the holiday season there are both office and practice group Christmas parties; some sources also attended “lots of social events with the women's and diversity committees, informal stuff like going to coffee or drinks.” On top of that, there's “a lot of pro bono and community service events – trivia games, talent shows. They make for a nice break in the work day.” Whatever they were getting up to, associates maintained “relationships that aren't exclusively work-based.”
As with most firms, the higher up the tree you look the less diverse things appear. Associates singled out the “fantastic” parental leave program for praise – “it's difficult to keep a tiny human alive then come back to work, but the firm is really supportive of working moms.” Alston & Bird is also “known for its good work with the LGBT community.” The Women's Initiative operates its own mentoring system; other minorities (LGBT, ethnically diverse) are also assigned a mentor. “A lot of the younger partners are very focused on diversity, and the leadership is very aware of it,” though interviewees noted Alston “still has a lot to do, but so does every firm. When you make diversity a big issue, you might not realize there's a way to go.”
Alston's Atlanta attorneys “in the heart of the legal community” have seen some big improvements to their office recently. “They've spent God knows what renovating the place, it's now all marble and glass. It looks like a magazine or PR firm office.” The firm is based in what was the IBM Building, a midtown landmark recognizable to Atlanta clients. Associates there felt “this is the hub, everyone knows it,” and that their base rules the roost over the firm as a whole – though colleagues in other locations protested that they do have distinct autonomy.
“It looks like a magazine or PR firm office.”
New York tackles cases with more of a financial bent, while government work is a greater focus in Washington, DC; the office is “at the heart of everything, a few blocks from the White House.” Because “all associates have a window,” they get a chance to enjoy the view – “certainly not the case everywhere.” A&B LA is also favorably located, next to Bunker Hill. Closest to the HQ is the Charlotte office – “the location is top notch. Charlotte in general is very affordable.” Good news for juniors, as starting salaries there and in Atlanta are $25,000 lower than the New York BigLaw standard. Overseas, Alston has offices in Brussels and Beijing.
Hours & Compensation
It's easy to disagree over money, and Alston & Bird associates had conflicting opinions about how their firm dealt with the 2016 market leap to the new Cravath salary scale. “They did terribly, to be honest,” one aggrieved party felt. “The firm was behind the ball. Atlantans felt slighted by the differences between offices.” Contrastingly, others argued A&B “realized change was coming and adjusted quickly,” and that “the firm took care of us, so associate morale is high.” Similarly divisive was a change in vacation policy. The shift from four weeks to “officially unlimited” leave “has pros and cons – it sounds nice in theory but can have the effect of making people take less.”
“They're aware we have lives and don't ruin our weekends.”
Alston & Bird has no formal billable hours requirement but associates are bonus eligible at 1,950 hours (up from 1,900 before 2017). How easy it is to reach that “varies a lot by group,” but the busy people in IP and litigation felt “you'd have to be trying very hard not to hit your hours!” Juniors were glad not to be chained to their desks, as “there's no real face time requirement. Partners let you know what you need to get done and in what time.” Another plus was that higher-ups were “aware we have lives and don't ruin our weekends. I never get assignments at 5pm on a Friday to be done by Monday morning.” Weekend work “is on a when-needed basis,” and interviewees were often out of the office by 6.30pm.
Up to 150 hours of pro bono count toward the firm's bonus eligible target (before 2017, only 100 counted). Many took full advantage, and applauded “the firm's activeness in getting pro bono work to associates.” One junior had gone as far as to bill 250 hours one year, and 200 the next. Most matters are sourced through the firm's internal pro bono portal. Options have included “a project drafting wills for those who can't afford them,” and custody matters which provided “great opportunities for direct client contact.” The annual ABBY awards, a “big party and spectacle,” include prizes for those demonstrating outstanding commitment to pro bono. Interviewees who hadn't got involved chalked it down to time constraints: “I wish I'd had more time for it. I'm hoping to do more next year.”
“Great opportunities for direct client contact.”
Pro bono hours
- For all US attorneys: 49,514
- Average per US attorney: 64
Strategy & Future
“They're pretty transparent,” said one associate we quizzed about how open the firm was to sharing its strategy and future plans, “but maybe I'm just duped!” Colleagues agreed “Alston isn't one to over-promise,” and were certain of “no fears of having one pulled over on us, and suddenly being in deficit.” Associates had no knowledge of Alston spreading its wings to new territories any time soon, but were confident that they'd be the first to know, as “they're very careful before opening a new office, and get people's opinions on it.” Managing partner Richard Hays confirms: “We communicate consistently that growth is driven by investing in the people we already have, identifying our strengths and playing to them. To do so we've expanded business development to all levels of associates as well as our summer associates.”
Interview with Richard Hays, managing partner
Chambers Associate: As an introduction, what's been the most exciting thing that the firm has done over the past year?
Richard Hays: It's been a good growth year for us. We increased our headcount, revenue and profits, and it's exciting to see those key things. This was the first full year for our Beijing office, and it's been even more successful than we had envisioned. Not only has our Beijing office grown nicely, but we've seen a lot more work coming into our Brussels office.
Above all I would highlight our significant internal growth, which really does start at home. We recently advanced a large number of attorneys to partnership, and we have also experienced lateral growth in core areas.
CA: IP and litigation associates told us the firm has been very busy recently – what's prompted that, and how do you think those areas will develop?
RH: We have identified IP and technology as core practice areas in which to build more depth and scale, and we've done that over the last few years focusing in particular on patent litigation, technology, and IP transactions. We've seen more demand from our clients in those areas, partly through our privacy and cybersecurity practice. We react to our clients’ present and future needs, with any eye on what's going on in the economy around us. Over the last year, there has been continuing demand in the IP and technology areas, and we expect that to continue.
CA: How will Donald Trump's election affect the market? Are there any particular areas that you think we'll see a lot of activity in?
RH: Frankly, it's hard to tell. There have been a lot of surprises on the political front and I'd be reluctant to forecast anything. But fundamentally, where there is more activity there will be greater legal need. We've been focused on healthcare and believe that will be an active area for us. A lot of our Washington attorneys deal with healthcare public policy, and they've been very busy. I've already mentioned IP, that's something we remain bullish about. Finance, financial institutions, and government investigations will remain core practice areas for us. We'll take a look back in a year's time and see if my crystal ball proved accurate!
CA: What are the biggest priorities for Alston & Bird going forward?
RH: We've spent a lot of time and devoted a lot of resources to making sure lawyers across our offices have familiarity with our resources and understand the cross-office and cross-practice group capabilities of the firm. The types of matters we handle for our clients can't be handled by individual lawyers. More and more we're seeing the need for teams of lawyers to come together across various locations, and we've experienced great success in their ability to quickly and seamlessly do so. As such, we've launched initiatives to promote effective collaboration and understanding of our capabilities in order to meet client demands and fulfill their needs.
Our top priorities are anchored in our knowledge that you can't be a great firm without great lawyers. We communicate consistently that growth is driven by investing in the people we already have, identifying our strengths and playing to them. To do so we've expanded business development to all levels of associates as well as our summer associates. Our previous efforts focused solely on partners; we've broadened it because we see all of our lawyers as long-term investments. We're continuing to develop our 'A&B University', and the internal programs we have for training and developing lawyers are a top priority. One example of our commitment to training our lawyers is our program that places litigators into government service for several months to gain experience in trial work. We encourage those who want that experience to be assertive about getting it.
CA: How do you ensure that the firm's culture bridges all of its offices?
RH: Our partnership is committed to communication and consistency, and we look to those who've been here for a long time to help preserve our culture. Cultural commitment must come from the leadership down, and we continually focus within practice groups and at partner retreats on the areas in which we are most proud. We take pro bono work and diversity seriously, and we're honored to be one of only two law firms on Fortune's “50 Best Workplaces for Diversity” list. We have highlighted and communicated internally how proud we are of this accomplishment, which is a reflection of the strength of our culture firm-wide.
Teamwork is always at the forefront of my mind as it is a core value of the firm and has been a top priority for several years. In a recent review of our 2016 accomplishments, I was very pleased to see that more than 40 of our top 200 clients drew on lawyers from seven or more of our ten offices. That level of cross-office and cross-area collaboration is a big part of what firms need to do to be successful, and I am proud of what we are seeing.
CA: If you could give one piece of advice to a student looking to become an attorney at the firm, what would it be?
RH: My advice would be to seek out the areas that are most engaging for you and that also offer the steepest learning curve. I like to spend time with our younger lawyers. I find when they come out of law school they're extraordinarily eager to learn. I place a huge priority on getting them work that engages them. The more challenging the work is, the greater the sense of personal satisfaction. Seeking out engaging work and gravitating towards an environment that offers it is the route to success.
I would also echo that lawyers at every level from day one should fully appreciate how important they are to client relationships and the firm's work product. The sooner they take a personal ownership of their work, and draw on the full resources of the firm, the better.
CA: Is there anything else we haven't covered our readers should know?
RH: I think it is an extraordinarily exciting time to begin a legal career. There are a lot of changes going on around us – political, economic, and social. The law, and lawyers, are at the center of those changes and it is wonderful to be in a profession that not only has a front row seat, but that is also able to influence it in a meaningful way. The role that lawyers play has never been more important.
Interview with professional personnel partner Liz Price
Chambers Associate: What qualities do you look for in candidates?
Liz Price: We seek well-rounded, highly motivated and creative individuals who are committed to the practice of law in a collegial, team-oriented environment. We're not looking for people who just want to punch a clock, but those seeking to be part of our firm in a meaningful and complete way. We want new associates to come in with an appetite for sophisticated and meaningful work, and personal and professional growth and development.
CA: How can someone stand out in an interview?
LP: Candidates who are authentic and who can demonstrate the qualities stated above (enthusiasm, creativity, and a desire to learn and grow) tend to stand out in our process. We also appreciate candidates who can speak to how their past experiences have impacted their academic, professional and personal endeavors.
CA: The firm introducing some additional summer associate training programs in 2015. What did they entail?
LP: We have a hybrid approach to training that includes utilizing our own attorneys, outside consultants and plenty of “learning by doing.” Examples of our training programs include the Business of Law, negotiations skills, hands-on writing exercises and client service projects.
CA: How successful have the new programs been?
LP: Our training programs are very effective and the feedback is universally positive. Our summer associates are hungry for training and a more realistic summer associate experience. We provide that by encouraging them to stretch in their assignments, to engage in firm and community activities, to experience practice activities outside the office – whether that's attending a client meeting or hearing – and to ensure they get exposure to what lawyers do on a daily basis.
CA: How can someone stand out on the summer program?
LP: We strive to create an environment in which the summer associates see each other as teammates, friends and colleagues. Individuals stand out by doing excellent work, demonstrating a fit with our culture by participating in the firm community, and showing a strong sense of teamwork with their fellow classmates. We host our summer associates from all over the country at an annual retreat in Atlanta to ensure camaraderie across all offices and practice groups, further providing each summer associate the opportunity to demonstrate the qualities stated above and to experience what we believe is a uniquely collegial and supportive environment.
CA: Is there anything else students should know about the summer program?
LP: We encourage summer associates to take on pro bono work and are pleased that 100% of our class took on a pro bono matter in 2015. While not a requirement, it is important to the firm that we continue the tradition of giving back that has been a hallmark of our culture since our founding in 1893.
“Our focus is on personality, we can look at a resume and tell if a person is capable.” OCIs for A&B are geared toward “finding out if a candidate will be a good fit, and that they definitely want to be here. There are people I interviewed I could tell didn't really want to be in Atlanta. Something like that will make the firm not want you” if you are applying to this office. Commitment to a location is something many firms look for, and different places have different specialisms – for instance, “in DC a government work background is helpful for understanding what we're doing, whether that's internships or full-time work. That will give you an understanding of who the potential clients could be.”
Juniors reported “we like to see good grades and an interest in a specific field.” Being able to explain why you want the job sounds like an obvious necessity, but it's often overlooked. “We want people who can talk about their experiences. You have to be a sociable person as part of the job is spending time with the clients and maintaining relationships.” Down the line, that means “being able to bring in new business,” and it's never too early to think about the partnership track if that interests you. Overall then, Alston & Bird is looking for “people who are capable, but who we want to with then go for a drink with afterward.”
Clerkships are one way to impress; externships are another that one A&B junior “would definitely advocate. On the litigation side, it gives you more of an understanding of everything involved.” Another felt the quickest route to impress was “showing you're committed to something. You don't have to be the president of an organization – one interviewee we were really impressed with was a stand-up comedian who'd been with a troupe for eight years. That showed he was dedicated to something.” For more technical areas like IP, technical work in the field is a great experience to get. If that's not your bag, think outside the norm – “we look for unique people with different life experiences, there are no rigid boxes you have to check.”
Human trafficking pro bono at Alston & Bird
Life can be far from peachy in the Big Peach. Recent statistics complied by the FBI marked out Atlanta as a human trafficking hub thanks, largely, to its well-connected transport network and the numerous conventions held in the city, which draw in plenty of potential clients with time and money. It's estimated that a whopping $290 million a year is generated each year by the hidden sex trade in the city, which exploits both adults and minors.
While government agencies chase down and prosecute pimps, traffickers and individuals who've forced victims into servitude, Alston's attorneys assist newly freed individuals with applications for legal status in the US. Cases are referred to the firm through the Georgia Asylum and Immigration Network (GAIN) but the firm also works closely with local social services: Tapestri – an organisation which aims increase access to services for human trafficking victims and raise social awareness of human trafficking in the local area – and New American Pathways who support to refugees to settle and integrate into the local community through cultural orientation and support in areas such as education and careers.
We caught up with Alston & Bird's pro bono and community service director Cheryl Naja to learn more about the firm's efforts.
Chambers Associate: How did this pro bono opportunity come about?
Cheryl Naja: All of our offices engage in a variety immigration matters but attorneys in the Atlanta office responded to a long-recognized unmet legal need in the Atlanta area. By joining together with a group of attorneys in the community, volunteers were able to work with a local nonprofit to help launch a human trafficking pro bono project that got underway in 2008. Unfortunately the Atlanta community has been ranked among one of the biggest markets for child prostitution, sex trade and labor trafficking and in response to the ongoing critical needs the Alston & Bird continues to expand pro bono efforts in this area.
CA: People often associate human trafficking with the illegal sex trade, but what other situations do you come across?
CN: Modern day slavery, or human trafficking, may come in many forms. Our attorneys have represented women, men and children who have been exploited in a number of ways. One of our clients was recruited to come to the United States for a vacation experience. Upon arrival her passport was taken from her and she was forced to work as a domestic servant for several years until she was able to escape. Another client came to the U.S. to marry someone with a promise of starting a new life. When she arrived in the U.S. she spoke no English and was completely dependent on her new spouse. Immediately her passport was taken from her and she suffered years of physical and emotional abuse before seeking assistance.
While the clients’ stories are all different, there are similarities. The clients we serve have been exploited, traumatized and have faced various forms of abuse. Our attorneys are glad to be a part of the healing process. By assisting victims of human trafficking through the legal process, our volunteer attorneys are helping clients take steps to overcome painful circumstances in order to begin their recovery.
CA: What else does the firm do to support victims of human trafficking?
CN: Our staff members also assist clients by organizing a variety of volunteer projects. We have held events to package “house warming kits’ packed with household basics, made blankets, organized drives for a variety of basic needs and helped with home furnishings. For Alston & Bird our work assisting victims of human trafficking is more than just working on the legal matter. We want to follow them through to help our clients start the path to their new life.
Alston & Bird LLP
One Atlantic Center ,
1201 West Peachtree Street,
- Head Office: Atlanta, GA
- Number of domestic offices: 9
- Number of international offices: 2
- Worldwide revenue: $730,579,255
- Partners (US): 345
- Associates (US): 366
- Summer Salary 2017
- 1Ls: $3,000/week (ATL, CLT, RTA) or $3,5000/week (DFW, LAX, NYC, SVA, WDC)
- 2Ls: $3,000/week (ATL, CLT, RTA) or $3,5000/week (DFW, LAX, NYC, SVA, WDC)
- Post 3Ls: N/A
- 1Ls hired? Yes
- Split summers offered? Yes, first half required
- Can summers spend time in overseas office? No
- Summers 2017: 55
- Offers/acceptances 2016: 43 offers, 42 acceptances
Main areas of work
Alston & Bird provides a full range of services to domestic and international clients. Our core practice areas are intellectual property, complex litigation, corporate and tax, with national industry focuses in healthcare, financial services and public policy.
Founded in 1893, Alston & Bird is a leading national AmLaw 50 firm. Counseling clients from what was initially a local context quickly expanded to regional, then national levels and now spans a global economic environment. Alston & Bird has overlaid its broad range of legal skills and business knowledge with a commitment to innovation and technology. Alston & Bird has been ranked on FORTUNE magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list for 18 consecutive years, an unprecedented accomplishment among law firms in the United States. The recognition speaks to the culture of the firm and the environment in which we practice law and provide service to clients. Alston & Bird has been consistently recognized as a US law firm providing superior client service in the BTI Most Recommended Law Firms. This recognition results from interviews with approximately 300 corporate counsel at Fortune 1000 companies.
• Number of 1st year associates: 39
• Number of 2nd year associates: 45
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $155,000-$180,000 (based on location and patent bar membership)
• Clerking policy: Yes
Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2017:
American, Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Emory, Fordham, Georgetown, George Washington, Georgia, Georgia State, Harvard, Hofstra, Howard, Loyola, Mercer, Michigan, NYU, Northwestern, SMU, Stanford, Texas, UC Berkeley, UC Hastings, UC Irvine, UCLA, UNC, USC, Vanderbilt, Virginia, Wake Forest, Washington & Lee
Summer associate profile:
Our lawyers have diverse backgrounds, varied social, cultural, civic, and educational interests and our summer associates are no exception. We value hard work, scholastic excellence and strong interpersonal skills.
Our summer program provides students with substantive work for real clients, handson training opportunities, lawyer pairings to help foster relationships and a firm-wide retreat. Summer Associates work closely with their mentors to identify projects from our database that will allow for an authentic experience based on their legal interests. In addition to formal training programs, we offer out-of-office experiences to attend depositions, client meetings, hearings and other hands on learning experiences. Associate contacts ensure that summer associates have plenty of opportunities to interact with attorneys throughout the summer.