Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis LLP - The Inside View

With its boutique charm and mastery of the telecommunications market, HWG continues to prove that size doesn't always matter in BigLaw.

WHEN a firm pays the highest first-year salary in the Chambers Associate guide (at least, until the recent BigLaw pay hikes announced in June 2016), the other hallmarks of a prestigious firm – like multiple locations and international ubiquity – become superficial details. Such is the case at pint-sized HWG: now entering the twilight of its teenage years, the firm is in rude health and bucking all the BigLaw trends. Unlike some teenagers, growing pains are not an issue, as the firm looks to increase recruitment into its tight-knit team, while maintaining its egalitarian principles. Managing partner Bill Wiltshire tells us: "We've been attracting an enormous amount of business. We just have so much work we need people here to do it."

This DC firm is renowned for its work in the telecommunications arena –Chambers USA awards the firm a coveted top-tier ranking in this area – but incoming associates should not consider this inhibiting. “If you are an HWG associate, you are going to do some telecoms,” although there is scope to explore other avenues. One source was keen to assure doubters: “I don't want to give the impression that you can't come here and focus on litigation and white-collar – we have partners and associates who spend most of their time doing that.”

The Work

The firm's boutique size is evident in the way business is run. Even so, you might be surprised at exactly how casual the firm is at times. If its assignment system were a dress code, well, it would be a 'no shirts' type of policy: a “pretty unique system” of “self-assignment.” Partners "will send an email with a general request. We then pull the partner off the chain and divvy up the work between whoever's interested.” That said, there is an “expectation that you will accept a project” when offered. This DIY system was universally lauded as “really helpful for new attorneys” because “it gives you the opportunity to break out of your practice if it's not exactly what you want to be in.” Hours are logged, but in our interview with management, the partners were at pains to stress that this information is rarely – if ever – used to assess productivity.

Clients are typically high profile and international, and most partners specialize in telecoms. However, this does not mean that there isn't a diverse variety of work on offer. A glance at the firm's client list reveals big names like Google, T-Mobile, Comcast, and Iridium Satellite. One source explained: “One thing you will learn at HWG is that even in the telecoms arena, work is highly specialized. I do telecoms work that I'm sure some partners here don't even know about.” Being on the “cutting edge of different sharing technologies” clearly has its benefits: "The nature of the work is varied and interesting; it's a very broad umbrella.”

“I was given an almost frightening level of responsibility when I started.”

HWG has obviously learnt a lot from its clients. Communication is key and management's expectations are made clear from the start. An erudite attorney told us, “I was given an almost frightening level of responsibility when I started. I say 'almost' because that is what I wanted.” Tales abounded of “relatively junior associates being told to argue in front of a court.” Another excitedly divulged that “my first week I was on a conference call with government officials and was the primary drafter on court documents.” This mature treatment was attributed to the fact that “partners here are very concerned with career development.”

Training & Development

Perhaps these high responsibility levels are a reflection of the fact that the firm “doesn't have a lot in the way of formalized training.” The firm's relaxed approach appears to work because attorneys are expected to be capable and to learn through being challenged rather than hand-held: “The HWG approach to teaching someone how to work on a transaction is to put them to work on a transaction.” This lack of formal training is also perhaps down to the high number of lateral hires at the junior end. There is, however, a “training CLE budget,” and all hungry attorneys have access to an “all-you-can-eat membership” to the PLI [Practising Law Institute]. Being leaders in a niche field reaps dividends for the curriculum –“the current president of the Federal Communications Bar is an HWG partner, which means that communications classes are usually geared toward things the firm is interested in, and we often host the classes.”

“How to make the perfect bagel..."

You can't profile HWG without mentioning their famous 'Anything But Law' and 'Nothing But Law' talks. Those adamant that training can't be fun should look away now. These sessions occur regularly and alternate between the two extremes. The former involve “a partner, associate or guest speaker coming in and sharing their personal interests with the group.” Notable presentations have included: “How to make the perfect bagel, the pleasures of Colombian cuisine, and how to enjoy a night at the craps table.” 'Nothing But Law' is quite the opposite and usually entails a partner or guest speaker talking about case law or something legal. This can include anything from “a law clerk who worked on a famous amendment case at the Supreme Court,” to “an in-depth look at privacy law.”

Like the firm's assignment system, appraisals include an exercise in “self-assessment.” Every year one partner runs the review process and they start by “sending out requests for feedback and discussing it with you.” Associates will also receive a questionnaire in which they are asked about the cases they have worked on, whether or not they enjoyed them and what they learned. Partners then use this feedback for future work assignment.


“We have big conference rooms now!”

As HWG approaches the big 2-0, it can definitely boast digs to match its coming of age. It has been over a year since the firm moved into the Federal Communications Commission's old office and their new home “feels more like a big law firm." Most sources described it as “a lot more formal” and one source excitedly exclaimed: “We have big conference rooms now!” Crucially, the new office is in “the best food area of DC,” just south of Dupont Circle. Attorneys can offset burrito-induced guilt at the office's gym, to which all HWG employees have access.

Hours, bonuses and culture

High responsibility and a close-knit community mean that “all the associates are together in a hierarchy-less mass,” with only “one or two who are conspicuously senior.” Though there are clear perks to this collaborative culture, some juniors did suggest that “it might take a little longer to integrate here because there isn't much of a structure.”

“A lot of firms say they have a collegial culture but you can't not have that with a firm this size.”

Nevertheless, most agreed with one enthusiastic source who said: “A lot of firms say they have a collegial culture but you can't not have that with a firm this size.” Because of the layout of the office, “in the morning, when you go to the kitchen for a cup of coffee, you'll always end up having a ten-minute chat with somebody.” For those who see the law as a stepping-stone to another career, “the partners are very good about maintaining a relationship if you move on elsewhere; alumni regularly join us for drinks. It's a family vibe.”

No surprises that HWG is decidedly chill about billables. “They don't have an hours requirement. You work on as many cases as you feel you are capable of.” Although in some firms this can mean that lawyers are overworked, associates assured us, “nobody here is billing BigLaw hours.” Most agreed that “not having a target hanging over your head is empowering for an associate.” The bonus system complements this perfectly, which “allocates tracking points and bonuses are then paid out quarterly.” All employees including legal assistants accrue tracking points based on the firm's profits. The system gives all employees “an interest in the firm's success” “sort of like being a partner.” As an associate, “your salary stays the same but tracking points increase with seniority.”

“The firm is the proud owner of a large gong.”

"The firm is the proud owner of a large gong, which we now sound to herald significant victories or the start of happy hour" every Friday at 5 o'clock. There are also “monthly pizza lunches,” which one gourmet assured us involve “good pizza, not Domino's.” A unique innovation – and handy for washing down all that stodgy pizza – is the “office kegerator” presided over by a keg guardian “whose job it is to keep it stocked with beer that is good enough for the keg guardian to drink.” So that's pizza and beer – what happens next? You guessed it: bowling. “Mark Grannis takes bowling pretty seriously,” and every few months there is a “firm bowling night.” Apart from the obvious exercise benefits that these provide they are also the perfect opportunity for attorneys to sport their “HWG bowling shirts.” These are given out to every new lawyer emblazoned with the year they joined: “We now have 18 years of bowling shirts.”

Pro Bono and diversity

Because of the lack of billing targets, HWG treats pro bono hours “the same as your billables.” Nonetheless, associates we spoke to were unsure about how committed the firm actually is to pro bono work. If associates are interested in something they can, by all means, bring it in. And certainly at the start of their HWG careers, if partners feel an associate is lacking experience, they will put them on some pro bono; an exercise one junior described as a “mix of the altruistic and educational.” However, many of those that we spoke to had had a similar experience to the source who told us “I haven't done any pro bono yet.”

Pro bono hours 

  • For all attorneys across all offices: 1,779 
  • Average per attorney: 40 

As one associate put it: “We are committed to diversity, though I'm not sure you'd know that looking at our website.” But change is afoot. Jonathan Mirsky – HWG's head of hiring – mentions the work done by the firm's new 'diversity partner', Breta Strandberg, as evidence that they are moving in the right direction. This includes more flexible working hours used to appeal to women with families. As one proud attorney explained, “there are a lot of women. I feel like retention of women is something the big firms struggle with. I don't think they have that issue here.”

Compare law firm diversity figures>>

Get Hired

Most attorneys are involved in some way in the recruitment process. The firm has a ten-person hiring committee, of which three are associates. In order to be hired, a candidate must be unanimously approved under a 'one person, one vote' system. Jonathan Mirsky explains it thus: "As we try to form our consensus, associates are able to suss out information about our applicants because they are closer to that process."

"Judicial clerking experience is a big plus.”

One member of this committee had these words of encouragement for potential recruits: “I think it might frighten people off that we have a heavy focus in one area of law. I would encourage people to go ahead and apply; those criteria have nothing to do with your background or interest.” Since “a good majority of folks” join the firm as laterals, “judicial clerking experience is a big plus.”

Applicants should be under no illusion that the interview process is a walk in the park – it is several walks. Since the firm hires so few people, sometimes candidates are interviewed four times before being offered a position. “I think that says something about the firm. They are careful with who they hire,” they thought. Associates were quick to stress that the interviews “were never uncomfortable.” Most agreed that suitability came down to this: HWG has “two main hiring criteria: you have to have the potential to be a superstar attorney and you have to not be a jerk."

Strategy & Future

The firm places a priority on foresight, and management is very keen to hire lawyers it sees as having “partnership potential.” Through the points-based bonus system, associates are given an early taste of what it means to be a partner in the firm's success. But even earlier than that, expectations are made clear: “When you get your offer letter it has a bit about your partnership class.”

HWG is on the up and up, with the firm – among other things –“expanding into professional ethics.” New clients means more work, and the firm is “busier now than it historically has ever been.” When pressed on whether this success would lead to geographical expansion, Bill Wiltshire replies: "We've actually just opened a new office in Raleigh, North Carolina. Its very small right now, just one partner in fact but we're open to growing it."

Recent Work Highlights

  • Acted for Google, Microsoft, and Broadcom on a number of FCC wireless auction proceedings
  • Advised DIRECTV in its $67 billion merger with AT&T
  • Represented Comcast in large-scale FCC proceedings over wifi spectrum expansion, and by extension, successfully blocking Marriott's bid to stop the use of personal wifi in its hotels

Interview with managing partner Bill Wiltshire 

What highlights from the past year would you like to flag up to student readers?

We have been expanding our areas of practice, as well as our talent. Thomas Mason recently joined the firm to head up our legal ethics and malpractice group, and it has really taken off. We also brought in Julie Veach, a former bureau chief at the FCC. Both hires have given us great additional depth.

On the work front, we concluded the DirecTV/AT&T merger and filed amicus briefs in two cases leading to landmark Supreme Court decisions, one ensuring the availability of health insurance to millions of Americans, and the other vindicating the fundamental right for same-sex couples to marry.

What does the increased recruitment drive say about the financial health of the firm?

What we've always tried to do is bring in good people and that's always worked well for us. Over the past few years in particular, we've been attracting an enormous amount of business. We've been fortunate to attract really good people to help meet our needs. Right now we are recruiting more judicial clerks and laterals. Not only do candidates have to have an impressive resume, but also have a personality that fits in with the firm. We are very committed to maintaining the firm culture.

Any plans to open new offices? Or even expanding HQ? 

Our expansion is really more ad hoc - work comes in and we expand to meet it. We don't have grand plans to open offices around the world, or even around the country. In the last couple of years, we opened a new office in North Carolina. It’s small right now but we're open to growing it. Our partner in North Carolina's been bringing in a lot of business, particularly litigation matters.

Is an interest in telecommunications essential for those wanting to join the firm?

We tell everybody: we're not hiring you solely as a telecom associate or a litigation associate or appellate associate, etc. If there is a need for your services in a specific area, we will put you there. As you advance, we expect people to gravitate towards one area of their choosing. But we really want people who come in to get a flavour for every aspect of the firm first.

Has 2015/16 changed the game in terms of making partner?

I don't think so. When we are hiring, we've always looked for people who are bright and interesting. We want great colleagues who are willing to chip in, work together well and have the right attitude. Those are the qualities we are looking for in a partner as well. We give our associates good feedback to let them know whether or not they are on track.

Tell us about the bowling shirts... 

Each year, every person who has joined the firm gets a shirt unique to the year he joined. There's an HWG logo on the back and it says: 'Smart lawyering is the next best thing to dumb luck'. Over the years, we have started adding the year number on the front as well, to help us keep track. We had a big bowling event a couple of years ago and there was at least one shirt from every year of the firm's existence in attendance.

Interview with hiring partner Jonathan Mirsky  

Associates said they were very involved in the recruitment process, how so?

There is a ten-person hiring committee of which three are associates. It’s one lawyer, one vote but we don't usually vote on anything because we reach a consensus on what to do. The reason the associates are involved is because I think it’s fair to say that as we try to form our consensus, they are able to suss out information about our applicants because they are closer to being a law student, judicial clerk, or associate in another law firm.

Are there any plans to increase the scope of your recruitment drive?

We interview at ten law schools – for a firm this size, that's a lot. In 2016, we have three summer associates: One from Stanford, one from Penn and one from Michigan. Each year we are only going to give out three or four summer offers. We only look to the summer program to fill part of what we do. It is judicial clerkship hiring season right now and that's where we're focusing our recruiting efforts. We're looking for more laterals – our recruitment is going to be the same way we've always done it, we're just intensifying our efforts.

We require exceptional academic achievement because our clients ask us to do complicated work for them. We don't do commodity legal work here – I recently interviewed (but we didn’t hire) a lawyer who had done a lot of doc review and most of his writing had been summarizing documents. Instead I need a new associate that can quickly get up to speed to get on a phone call with a client without me. There isn't a place here for somebody who isn't an exceptional lawyer: We don't throw bodies at things.

Isn't an interest in telecoms essential among recruits? 

It's helpful but by no means necessary. There was this famous NFL coach who said: We recruit the best football players and give them a position. Field vision, speed and strength matter more than whether you have been playing one position since high school. What we are really looking for is the best football player – we will find a position for you. We want juniors who are fantastic advocates – we'll give you the experience.

What does the firm do to encourage diversity in recruiting?

Well, it's something that's been on my mind a lot. We're doing a few things to make us look more like America. Some of what we're doing is making sure people know about the diversity of lawyers here. The same folks had been interviewing at law schools for a while. So now, for on-campus recruiting, we have incorporated an additional interviewer that demonstrates the diversity of the firm.

The second thing we are doing is making sure diverse lawyers know about the fact that we don't have a billable requirement and there is no face time requirement here. We hope this will appeal to lawyers who are the primary caregiver and are looking for more flexibility with child care. You can work from home if you can do so efficiently. Those arrangements are more easily tolerated than in large firms.

We have a diversity partner, Brita Strandberg. She is putting together a roundtable later this month for all of our associates to come up with ideas on increasing firm diversity. We know that diversity is as important to our clients as it is to us.

Some associates mentioned being interviewed up to four times before being offered a job. Is this standard policy and will this change as you increase the recruitment drive?

Yes, we interview pretty exhaustively. Summers will come through once. Judicial clerks and laterals will have a seven-lawyer interview on each of their first and second rounds, so every applicant (other than summer associate applicants) will meet with at least 14 lawyers. In some cases, if we think there are particular people you should meet with, we will make that happen. If they are unavailable at that time, we will bring you in again. Sometimes you might even meet 16 or more of our people during the process. We really evaluate our hires. That's not going to change.

We are not like a big firm. I worked in one. What's the difference between Davis Polk, Simpson Thacher and Sullivan and Cromwell? Not a huge difference. They're fantastic firms, but it’s a unique and different experience coming to this firm. It’s therefore important that potential recruits meet a lot of our people.

I really evaluate every candidate: Is this a person who could one day be a partner at this firm? We are never going to hire for the short term. Lawyers have obviously left here, but they have never left for another D.C. firm.

In an interview I ask myself: Does this person have the writing skills, smarts and persuasive oral advocacy skills to become a partner? To be able to argue to a jury or a judge or a regulator?

What are you most looking for in a candidate? 

If you're a student, you must do well in law school. But it’s more than just getting good grades. I've always been impressed with students who are successful in moot court, to me that is much more impressive than the law review. However, if you were the editor in chief of the law review, that's great. Because most of all we're looking for leadership, so being on the editorial board is noticed.

When candidates submit a writing sample we want them to really take time to write it and look over it before sending to us. A lot of students just recycle their 1L legal research and writing class piece. It seems to me that if you are a judicial clerk, you can really put your best foot forward by not simply recycling material from when you first were learning legal writing. Judicial recruits and laterals should put forward a recent and superior writing sample.

Also, do something interesting in your 1L summer. Working at another law firm doesn't stand out to me. Do something that really shows your interest in the law.

Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis LLP

1919 M Street NW,
Eighth Floor,
Washington, DC,
Website www.hwglaw.com

  • Head Office: Washington, DC
  • Number of domestic offices: 2
  • Number of international offices: 0
  • Partners (US): 26
  • Of Counsel (US): 3
  • Associates (US): 15
  • Summer Salary 2016  
  • 1Ls: N/A
  • 2Ls: $3,000/week
  • Post 3Ls: N/A 
  • 1Ls hired? No
  • Split summers offered? Yes
  • Can summers spend time in overseas office? N/A
  • Summers 2016: 3
  • Offers/acceptances 2015: 3 offers, 1 acceptance (2 other summers clerking after graduation)

Main areas of work
Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis is a boutique law firm, meaning we focus on solving fairly specialized legal problems extremely well. We have excellent trial litigators who handle government investigations and criminal defense matters as well as complex civil litigation. We also have an exceptional Supreme Court and appellate litigation group as well as one of the leading legal and government ethics practices. However, the firm started out as a telecom and technology firm and that is still our primary area of practice. We handle just about any kind of matter before the FCC, representing companies both large and small that are involved in all kinds of different technologies, from satellites to wireless phones to undersea cables to the Internet.

Firm profile
Work is an integral component of our lives; we gain personal and professional satisfaction from high quality legal advocacy, writing and critical thinking. We enjoy practicing together, working hard and giving our clients the absolute best representation. At the same time, we love our families and our friends and take pleasure in any number of avocations. Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis is a place where smart, dedicated attorneys do work of the highest quality and still live a normal life. Because this is central to the culture of the firm, we have no set billable hours requirement and no aspect of associate compensation is tied to the number of hours billed.

Recruitment details
• Number of 1st year associates: 2
• Number of 2nd year associates: 2
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $168,000
• 2nd year: $175,000
• Clerking policy: Yes

Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2016:
Chicago, Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, Michigan, Penn, Stanford, Vanderbilt, Virginia, Yale

Summer details
Summer associate profile:
We seek associates with superlative writing ability and a record of the very highest academic achievement. We will only hire a summer associate that we fully expect to become a superb lawyer and a trusted colleague.

Summer program components:
We treat summer associates like brand new associates. This means that, although summer associates necessarily require a different level of training and supervision, they will be doing the same work associates do, with the same people and under the same conditions. Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis associates are expected to perform as lawyers, not assistant lawyers and we want our summer associates to aim for the same high level of creativity, initiative and skill. Summer associates can expect to work in our telecommunications and technology, criminal defense and litigation, and appellate practices.