With its one-office model and Bostonian gentility, Choate is a good bet for self-starting associates...
“I'M very pleased and proud to report that 2016 has been the best year in the firm's history,” Choate's chairman Jon Nadas declares.These Bostonians have always managed to punch above their weight, but Nadas explains: “In terms of work, we've never received more interesting matters. In terms of talent – which is the key – I don't think we've ever had more success recruiting at all levels. And financially, our revenue is up 2.9% per partner and 10% overall.” So far, so good; and to what does Nadas attribute the firm's continued upward trajectory? “One of the most significant keys to our success is our 'under-one-roof' business model.”
Indeed, that very same thing was a big draw for many of the associates we spoke to. One particularly effusive source responded: “Choate is really great... it's like the dream. It's a big firm with sophisticated clients that does proper work. But it feels like a small firm where people really do take care of each other.” But that wasn't just the company line being toed with incredible diligence, it was a sentiment corroborated by most – “the model works really well. There's one office, with all the attorneys together in the same place and really a lot of interaction between the groups.” Once again, this is not mere hyperbole, as evidenced by wreaths of top-tier Chambers rankings for a plethora of practices, including antitrust, banking & finance, restructuring, and corporate/M&A.
Having a relatively small operation doesn't necessitate pigeonholing juniors. In fact, most Choate freshmen and women only have to choose between one of three broad umbrella departments when they join – litigation, business (as the corporate practice is known), or wealth management. There's also real estate, and patent. “You have two to three to four years to specialize... though I know several at those levels who still dip and dabble.” So, basically, it's up to you to find the work you want. And, though each team has an assignment partner for juniors (and one for seniors), “who pools assignments from all the other partners and sends them your way,” really “you have to be proactive if you want to meld your own practice – which shows the faith they have in juniors here.”
“When choosing a firm I looked on a macro level ..."
For those who pick the shade of the litigation umbrella, the main subgroups are IP, complex trial & appellate, white-collar, labor & employment, government enforcement, and insurance & reinsurance. Depending “on the size and complexity of a case,” juniors will be doing “doc review, briefing partners, drafting motions and practicing preparing exhibits for trial.” But really, as with other teams, in litigation it's all about “the smaller case teams which allow you to quickly ramp up the value added based on how well you've done on earlier assignments; because the groups are so lean there's not this whole raft of mid-level associates in the way of getting seriously substantive work.”
The business department is a similar story – “when choosing a firm I looked on a macro level and Choate has smaller, leaner deal teams where associates seem to have more client interaction than peers at other firms.” Over here, finance & restructuring, private equity, tax, and business tech are the main players, with the latter enjoying special success due to the richness of Boston's start-up scene. It's a mixed bag and “very collaborative. Everyone works on a lot of different things. They want you to be very well-rounded because the practice is so varied.” This means that juniors “do just about everything,” which includes “all the diligence inquiries, looking over all existing documentation, reviewing all the documents for the clients, and sitting in on all the partner's calls.”
As mentioned above, Choate's one-office model has a major impact on the firm's culture. One source described it as “like a specialized boutique firm that deals with big matters – sort of like an East Coast Irell.” Another opined that “its size means leaner staffing and more opportunity to do substantive work, with a workload that more accurately reflects my ability.” Interviewees felt the good vibes emanating as soon as they stepped foot in the office – “I got the feeling walking down the halls for the first time that everyone knew each other.” Yet another explained that Choate's culture was “all about team work, supporting others and working together to provide the best service for clients.”
“The first-years do a skit usually poking fun at the partners and then we have a big cocktail reception and dinner.”
After hearing so much about the tight-knit work culture, it was quite surprising that many felt that the firm wasn't the most social of places. Sources spoke fondly of the pizza and beer nights that take place every three weeks in the office, but apart from that it was down to the summer social flurry to sate the gregarious. A relative lack of formalized functions was attributed more to the fact that “we have a leadership that is not particularly 'fratty'” and “they try and keep socializing at a level that everybody, including those with young families, is comfortable with.” That said, those summer events should not be scoffed at. There's “usually a party at one of the big Boston museums,” and that's before mentioning the firm's annual day-long country club retreat – “the first-years do a skit usually poking fun at the partners and then we have a big cocktail reception and dinner.”
Training & Development
In recent years management has put professional development at the top of its list of priorities and this has meant lawyers “have more contemporaneous feedback from partners on a case, who have been told to provide feedback as often as possible.” This increased focus also manifests itself in Choate's mentorship scheme. All newbies are assigned two mentors – one mid-level associate and one partner – who are encouraged to spend a certain number of hours with them a month. However, “rather than this be burdensome, it's great to have allotted down time with people you don't directly work with, and I don't know anyone who doesn't really get on with at least one of their mentors.”
Hours & Compensation
It used to be that juniors were required to bill 1,900 hours to “be in good standing” but now there's only one target – the 2,000 needed to be bonus eligible. After that, “the managing partner [with input from partners] decides how big your bonus will be, and when you get your annual review [in March] a month later the reviewing partner will explain the reasoning behind it.” Despite the ultimate decision being taken behind closed doors, interviewees insisted “it's as transparent as it could conceivably be without them telling everyone what everyone else is getting paid.” The firm also sweetens the deal by allowing first and second-years to count up to 100 hours of on-the-job training and an unlimited number of pro bono hours (within reason) toward the target.
“The system allows for great flexibility."
Sources didn't sugar-coat the fact that Choate expects its lawyers to work hard, this being a fairly typical response: “On average I'm spending between 50 and 55 hours at the office every week.” That said, the firm does make sure rumbling bellies don't resound through the wee hours by buying attorneys dinner if they're in the office after 7.30pm. Moreover, for those who prefer homecooking, “the system allows for great flexibility. There's no face-time whatsoever and people with young families can go home and log on to the system very easily.”
“Sitting down right now and looking out of floor-to-ceiling windows at Boston Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean.”
Choate HQ has recently undergone major renovation and there was unanimous praise among sources for their fresh new digs. The firm has six floors of a skyscraper in downtown Boston and the renovation has seen the space turned into an open-plan, light-filled office. In other words, “it's all glass,” which initially meant “everyone was concerned about privacy.” However, most attorneys “stopped caring after a while,” and appreciated that “it's all soundproof and really is conducive to having person-to-person communications.” In fact, one source gave us cause for considerable jealousy when they described “sitting down right now and looking out of floor-to-ceiling windows at Boston Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean.”
As mentioned previously, there is no cap on the number of pro bono hours associates can count toward their billable target – something interviewees put down to the fact the firm “wants you to be a great attorney but also recognizes that you are part of the community.” Choate is a Boston institution and has a number of affiliations with charitable organizations in the city. One is the Citizens' Schools program – “where we go in and teach middle school students about constitutional law and in the end go through a mock trial.” Choate lawyers are also heavily involved with a local legal clinic called Lawyer's Clearing House that provides pro bono work to those on lower incomes.
Pro bono hours
- For all attorneys: 4,115
- Average per attorney: 35
In some respects Choate is ahead of the curve, diversity-wise: “We've got more female associates than male.” However, there is a recognition that when it comes to racial diversity, the firm has to improve. As Jon Nadas puts it, “it's a priority for us that to be a better organization, we need to be more diverse.” The firm has a diversity committee that includes senior people from various departments, and a diversity fellowship is on offer to 1L law students from diverse backgrounds. At the beginning of 2017, the committee invited Professor Jerry Kang from UCLA – a world expert on implicit bias – to come and talk to the firm.
Strategy & Future
“Choate is excellent at keeping the door open."
Partners are very open about whether or not associates are on the partnership track – “I've got a friend at quite a small firm in the city where, once you get hired, it's sort of understood that you'll stick around forever. That's not the vibe here – people leave laterally a lot, but at the same time, if they think you're doing a good job they will tell you. Also, people who are struggling are alerted to the fact politely.” For those that do leave, “Choate is excellent at keeping the door open: they have regular alumni events and the people who've left never say a bad word. They're back here the whole time.”
More on Training
New attorneys get a pretty comprehensive week-long induction on “all the nuts and bolts stuff” including “just getting all the lingo down and understanding who to go to for what.” After this the powers that be make sure there are regular educational opportunities for juniors. There are popular 'lunch and learn' sessions that “focus on all levels of the law.” For example, “in the acquisition space we recently had an insurance provider come in and talk to us about policies.”
Interview with Choate chairman John Nadas and recruiting head Elaine Bortman
Chambers Associate: What are your stand-out highlights from 2016?
John Nadas: I'm very pleased and proud to report that this has been the best year in the firm's history, by many measures. In terms of assignments, we are serving our clients on their most important and interesting matters. If you look at our talent – which is key – we have just completed one of our most successful seasons in terms of recruiting new associates from law school. This is something Elaine Bortman and her team have focused on – continuing to recruit the best and brightest. We also had a successful and active year in terms of lateral hiring of both associates and partners. In addition, the Firm put an enormous amount of effort into the development of our existing lawyers – both in terms of building a more developmentally-oriented review process as well as emphasizing the importance of real-time and project-based feedback. The emphasis of these efforts is on the professional development and growth of our attorneys.
Financially, we've never had a more successful year. In 2016, gross revenue hit $218 million, up nearly 8%. Profits per equity partner rose more than 9% to nearly $2.1 million. And revenue per lawyer, arguably the most significant metric, rose 11% to $1.41 million – one of the very strongest performances in the country.
Breaking it down by practice area, litigation had a particularly strong year. For instance, we represented HP in the state court in California in its claims against Oracle, which resulted in a $3 billion jury verdict in HP’s favor. In other litigation, we handled a significant and important matter for Dell EMC, did some very important patent litigation work for Akamai and handled a big case in life sciences for Momenta.
We have a deep and growing practice in intellectual property, representing leading companies and research institutions in all aspects of intellectual property strategy and working closely with our litigation and transactional lawyers. The IP practice includes more than 25 PhDs.
Our finance & restructuring group had another very strong year representing major financial institutions on some of their largest credits. The practice includes representation of leading financial institutions, private equity investors and team owners on a full range of professional sports team, league and stadium projects.
Our private equity practice continues to thrive, focusing on middle market transactions, typically between $100-500 million. To further strengthen this group, we recently brought in four lateral partners. In the PE space, much of our work involves close collaboration with our intellectual property and health care practices.
We have a unique wealth management practice. Like many firms with a rich and deep history, particularly in Boston, we always had a trust and estates practice. But we converted that practice into a multi-family office which represents wealthy families in their estate planning, tax, business and investment (through our wholly-owned RIA subsidiary) needs. With this unusual combination of offerings, wealth management clients are able to come to us for many services under one roof.
CA: What does being Boston-based give the firm?
JN: I think it is something special and unique. We are very fortunate and proud to be in Boston. It is part of a strategy we developed nearly 20 years ago -- to narrow the number of our practices to focus on a limited number of areas where we can serve clients at the very top of the market. This strategy also included the choice to gather all our attorneys under one roof, which allows us to better serve our clients by collaborating and delivering our service through tightly knit, well-managed teams. While some may confuse our one-office model for a regional practice, in reality we serve clients from this single Boston office all over the country and the world. On our projects, clients aren't asking “Who is nearby?”, they are asking “Who has the experience and expertise in my matters?” They reach out to us because of our experience and expertise, not our location.
Boston is a special, unusually vibrant community right now – that feeds into our expertise. For instance, our IP practice has a particular focus on life sciences. There isn't a stronger life sciences community, anywhere in the world, than Boston right now. That creates opportunities for us here and across many geographies. Our practices and success are enhanced by the fact that we are so deep in Boston. General Electric’s recent decision to move its headquarters to Boston is validating. The trends are drawing loads of talent and business to this region.
The start-up community and life sciences businesses in Boston are phenomenal. We've always had world-class universities but we'd struggle to retain graduates here. Increasingly people come here to get a world-class education and they are staying here, and that creates opportunities for us. If you were here and could look out the window, you'd see dramatic evidence of those opportunities -- a tremendous amount of construction going on right now. Boston is a wonderful home for us and we are very grateful to be here.
CA: How does your Boston-based “one office model” operation affect your approach to recruiting?
JN: It's a great question. The firms that grew up in Boston often have a reputation for being parochial and only hiring people from the city. We are not looking to hire people only from Boston. We are interested in people, regardless of where they come from, who want to live and invest in Boston. So we only try to find out whether people are sincerely interested in the city. In fact, we have people working here from around the country and around the world. We are focused on recruiting people with diverse backgrounds, perspectives and experiences.
CA: That brings me nicely to my next question, what does the firm do to encourage diversity in recruitment?
JN: As a firm, we believe that we’ve become a better organization as we’ve become more diverse. We have a Diversity & Inclusion Committee that includes people from senior management. That Committee is very active. For instance, earlier this year, as part of a diversity series, we brought in a speaker, Jerry Kang from UCLA, who is the world expert on implicit bias. He spoke to all of the partners and associates in the firm. In June, in continuation of the series, we will bring in Joanna Barsh – a well known author and consultant with expertise on the topic of women leaders. The Committee also continues to think about how we attract, develop, retain and promote people from all backgrounds. For instance, we have a Diversity Fellowship for 1L students, which is a particularly good way for us to recruit talented and diverse students early in their law school career..
CA: What qualities does the ideal Choate candidate possess?
JN: That's a very important question – what makes people successful here? Of course, we want people who are very intelligent, with the highest ethical standards. We're also looking for hard workers. We all have lives outside of work, but we want people who are interested in working hard and developing their skills as attorneys and are ambitious.
One of the keys to our success and model is the 'under-one-roof' concept. We think this gives us a special opportunity to build highly effective teams. So, we are looking to hire people who are interested in working in that team-centric model. We are also looking for people that can understand our clients and serve them well. That's very important for us.
And we are looking for people who are grateful. Working here is a wonderful opportunity. You work with very smart people on very interesting projects, you get paid well, and we have beautiful workspaces. People who are successful here are people who appreciate our good fortune and are grateful for that, and grateful to the community for giving us this opportunity.
EB: That was a great list. Another really important thing for us – we want people that come in with positive energy; who operate within the system but also who work to make it better. We want someone that is going to care about the institution and be a positive force to help us get to the next level. In my mind that is maybe the thing that really matters, that's what distinguishes the great from the good.
CA: What does the firm offer young lawyers that is unique?
JN: I never say anything bad about our competitors. But I do think we are quite different in the market. The fact is we are practicing at the highest level in a number of exciting and growing practices. We are quite focused and we're doing it all from one office, which allows us to give young lawyers more responsibility, earlier in their careers.
Over the course of the summer, and when associates return full-time, we put them on teams, we give them good opportunities to grow and develop as lawyers and we do it all from a nice place – Boston. I think we disprove the notion that bigger is better. We are not for every great law student; there are some who want the biggest. But, we've built a very unusual place in the market for new lawyers who are really interested in what we offer, and how we deliver it.
EB: The one other thing I would add is that this is a very caring organization. I think it's tied to the fact that we're under one roof and work so closely together – working together to collectively “up our game.” I don't know how many other law firms have such a collective mission. For me, it's not just about bringing in young people and having them move up to the next thing. The adjacent point is the way we invest in our people. For example, last summer, we brought in a panel of alumni for the associates to meet and learn from. We want our associates to understand how we will be part of their careers whether they become a partner at Choate, or move on to another great opportunity. We maintain these strong relationships with our wonderful alumni; I think that's a bit unusual.
CA: What effect will the Trump administration have on the legal market?
JN: I really don't know, but it will be disruptive. I think there's going to be more work. Politics to one side, I'm not really concerned that it will adversely affect our business. In fact, I think it will result in more work for firms like this one. CA: Any advice for our young readers who are just starting their careers?
EB: I would suggest that they do their homework on what really matters to them and spend some time understanding how firms are different. They ought to be introspective in terms of what they want. At many firms they'll get good work. The thing that will be different is how they experience the day to day and how quickly they will develop as lawyers. We want the people who really understand who we are and how they fit in our model. Candidates who do that – it's good for them and good for us.
JN: One more thing. We don't measure our success by American Lawyer surveys, but we are proud that three years in a row our summer program has been named the best in the country in the summer program survey.
Choate gets a makeover
Completed “on schedule and just about on budget,” Choate's recent office makeover brings a smile to the face of chairman John Nadas. Camped up in Two International Place – the glowing crown in Boston's night skyline, and tenth-highest skyscraper in the city – Choate's new-look HQ was completed just before Thanksgiving 2015. Architecturally-speaking, Two International's circular tower is already pretty striking, but according to associates, Choate now boasts the domestic pizzazz to really flaunt the firm's BigLaw credentials.
“No one really takes the elevator anymore!”
“Our floors are quite small,” grumbled last year's associate interviewees. “I know everyone on my floor, but there's no central area for everyone to meet up, so we don't see so much of our other colleagues.” For Nadas, this was a key consideration when remodeling the workspace: “Our priority was to create very open space, with lots of natural daylight," he explains. "That's consistent with our commitment to creating a transparent work space and organization. We also wanted lots of collaborative space to facilitate our approach to client service. We're stronger for having everyone here in the same place, so we wanted the layout to encourage as much interaction and collaboration as possible.” Associates praised the interior stairwell as a particularly effective tool in achieving both aims. “It has to be the highlight,” delighted one rookie. “Our building is circular and the glass staircase meanders seamlessly through the six floors we occupy. People are always congregating there, and it gets lots of light as all of the walls are made of glass.” Falling on the window side of the building, the staircase is privy to “amazing ocean views,” so it's hardly surprising that “no one really takes the elevator anymore!” There are also “several specifically-designated collaborative spaces, which make it much easier to get together and chat over a draft, or just shoot the breeze for five minutes.”
The firm's investment in collaborative space has helped alleviate juniors' sole concerns for the new get-up: “We now take interior offices, so our individual workspace has significantly shrunk.” As you may have guessed, an interior office does mean no windows, but rookies weren't too perturbed. “Three sides of our offices are made of glass, so you're never lacking for light,” said one. What's more, rookies are bumped up to a window room after their fourth year, so it really is isn't all doom and gloom for Choate's young guns.
If all else fails, there's always the firm library, which went largely unscathed under the renovations. “It's a great resource as it has an excellent selection of books, beautiful views of Boston Harbor, and is right next to the cafeteria!” one caller scoffed.
Choate Hall & Stewart LLP
Two International Place,
- Head Office: Boston, MA
- Number of domestic offices: 1
- Number of international offices: 0
- Worldwide revenue: $218,543,735
- Partners: 96
- Associates: 68
- Other Attorneys: 15
- Summer Salary 2017
- 1Ls: $3,462/week
- 2Ls: $3,462/week
- Post 3Ls: $3,462/week
- 1Ls hired? Yes, through the firm’s 1L Diversity Fellowship program, through which Fellows receive a position in Choate’s summer program and are eligible for a stipend of up to $10,000
- Split summers offered? No
- Can summers spend time in overseas office? N/A
- Summers 2017: 19
- Offers/acceptances 2016: 12 2L offers, 12 acceptances
Main areas of work
Private equity and M&A, life sciences and technology companies, intellectual property and related litigation, finance and restructuring, government enforcement and financial litigation, insurance and reinsurance, complex trial and appellate, and wealth management.
Choate is one of the nation’s premier law firms. Choate conducts its national and international practice through a single office model, with all lawyers under one roof in Boston. The firm’s associate-to-partner ratio is low, affording junior lawyers opportunities to play important roles on matters and facilitating rapid career development. Lawyers know each other well and work together in dedicated client teams. That familiarity, proximity and continuity allows them to share knowledge easily and respond to clients’ needs efficiently, seamlessly and immediately.
• Number of 1st year associates: 15
• Number of 2nd year associates: 12
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $180,000
• 2nd year: $190,000
• Clerking policy: Choate offers compensation and progression credit, as well as a one-time clerkship bonus, to candidates who join the firm immediately following the completion of a federal district or circuit court clerkship or a federal or state supreme court clerkship
Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2017:
Boston College, Boston University, Columbia, Cornell, Georgetown, Harvard, New York University, Northeastern, Suffolk, University of Virginia, Yale and UConn
Summer associate profile:
Choate seeks candidates who have a record of academic excellence and professional achievement. In addition to academic success, we seek candidates who are committed and who offer perspectives and talents shaped by a broad range of socioeconomic, racial, ethnic and personal backgrounds. We value proven leadership, dedication to team success, a strong work ethic and the ability to approach challenges thoughtfully and creatively.
Summer program components:
Choate’s summer associates are involved in real work with real clients from day one. In recent years, summers have performed legal and factual research, drafted memos and briefs, helped prepare transactional documents, conducted diligence and managed deal closings, assisted in fact gathering, drafted estate planning documents, observed depositions and trials and worked on pro bono matters. Each summer associate is matched with a junior associate, mid-level associate and partner mentor, who provide guidance and feedback. The summer training program provides the opportunity to develop professional skills, learn about working at the firm and work with writing and communications coaches.