HWG triumphs at telecoms with an approach that's petite and elite, rather than large and in-charge.
SOMEWHERE in a parallel universe the very best law firms, serving the most well known clients, are rather different. Associates do stimulating work from the start and get treated with unflinching respect, even having a stake in the business' success themselves; everyone gets along too – of course, people still work exceedingly hard, but there's fun, frivolity and bacchanalia without the dark cloud of an hours target looming over them. And you can forget bureaucracy – people speak face to face and actually listen, whatever their rank. One other thing: these firms are tiny. That's no fault, however; in fact it's their defining feature. This is SmallLaw. Or rather SmallBigLaw.
We don't know if the founders of HWG took a trip to that universe nearly 20 years ago, but their firm, a DC-based telecoms boutique, is the spitting image. Telecoms work is king, and the firm earns itself a top ranking from Chambers USA in recognition. With this success, HWG is gradually increasing in size and diversifying its work – does this mean it's becoming more... BigLaw? “God I hope not! I really hope not," exclaims cofounder and managing partner Bill Wiltshire. “I feel we've really captured something here that a lot of firms don't have.”
The firm's boutique size is evident in the way the business is run. Interpersonal relations, discussion, and common sense are all valued, not the formulaic over-management you sometimes get at bigger firms. A prime example is work assignment, where “people have a general sense of how busy you are, and will knock on your door and ask.” Associates also took control, chasing the work they wanted, with the people they wanted: “Associates don't really have to specialize and you can drive the direction you want to go in,” said one associate who typified the frequent movement between practice areas, of which the main two are telecoms and litigation. Outside of matters which associates are fully involved in – “working with a set team” – they also picked up “one-off” assignments which partners need doing. “There's an email to associates and they coordinate among themselves to decide who is in the best position to take it on, deciding on both interest and availability.” This process of self-assignment is fairly unique.
“You can drive what direction you want to go in.”
Clients are typically high profile and international. Telecoms provides the largest share of work, but there's an increasing diversity on offer, of which associates get a fair mix. A glance at the firm's client list reveals big names like Google, Microsoft and Facebook, and the work can be niche, technical and specialized. Much of the work concerns “fairly high stakes proceedings involving the FCC, sometimes trying to change policy.”
Taking this complexity into account, it's perhaps more remarkable that associates get the responsibility that they do. “It's not the sort of place where you wind up getting into discussions about hierarchies.” Since “the teams are small everyone, whether a partner or an associate, has to do essential work,” and “you're always pretty close to the end product.” Associates get substantive work from the start and “partners are invested in giving increasing responsibility,” so the opportunity for depositions and court appearances comes relatively soon in comparison with most of BigLaw. One litigator gave an idea of what they'd handled: “I've been the primary drafter on court documents, on court filings, I've helped draft memos to clients – so there's been plenty of outward facing things but there's also the essential groundwork for cases. I've done doc review and research and all of those things which need to be done, but there's a focus at this firm about why you do everything. I wouldn't be complaining about doing doc review as I understand why it is so important.” The egalitarian approach “goes both ways.” While fairly junior associates had “led meetings at the FCC” and interacted with clients regularly, “maybe you'd do the normal tasks of a first-year when you're in your fourth year.”
“Partners are invested in giving increasing responsibility.”
Training & Development
The firm's approach to training “is pretty informal” and “learning by doing.” Associates were fully aware of “the expectation that the firm throws people in and they have to figure it out – the firm will be there to help and support.” This support is the crucial part: associates stressed that, while there wasn't much hand-holding or spoon-feeding, “partners help you figure it out. If you're confused you can go to their office and ask them about it.” Nevertheless, associates can still “seek out CLEs that would be useful,” though that's “self-driven.”
“Learning by doing.”
But HWG does add something a little different to the mix: its famous 'Anything But Law' and 'Nothing But Law' talks. There's one of each per month, alternating between the two extremes. The former features a presentation by someone from the firm on “a topic which is totally unrelated” to the profession, instead focusing on a personal interest. “We had someone talk about Quidditch and someone talked about fencing.” Associates appreciated “the value in things like this; it builds a sense of community.” The 'Nothing But' talks have “associates or partners talk about an area they are familiar with or a case they have worked on.” A recent example was “Telecommunications 101.”
HWG's carrying a little more weight these days, and the addition of new personnel looks set to continue. “We're already maxing out where we are now,” says Bill Wiltshire, “but we have an option on the floor below us so we will be expanding! The location couldn’t be better.” The current office building used to belong to the FCC itself and is located in downtown DC. Its most prominent feature is a large central room, whose “primary purpose is that every day we are all in there eating lunch: partners, associates and legal assistants. It's not compulsory but a lot of us choose to and that is emblematic of the lack of hierarchy. Everyone knows each other and hangs out and eats together. It's also used for happy hours, 'Anything Buts' and 'Nothing Buts.'”
Associates put this fellowship down to “the tone set by the people who founded it. They make clear that they started it to be a place with a friendly culture where people like to work.” This is perpetuated because “it's kind of infectious; and if you hire people who value this culture it makes sense to keep it going.” It's tight knit, we certainly got that impression, and associates were appreciative of what partners did for them. “Partners are really treating you like a colleague rather than an employee. Part of that is your development; they're helping you learn as you go, part of that is giving you responsibility, but part of it is also just being friendly and, I want to say... treating you like a human.” Statements like this forgive the lack of formal mentoring or training opportunities. “It is still a pretty small place and it has a small place mentality – most stuff is pretty casual.”
“If you hire people who value this culture it makes sense to keep it going.”
Conversely, monthly pizza lunches, an annual picnic, annual karaoke, frequent bowling nights and weekly Friday happy hours mean that associates' social calendars can be altogether more serious. Happy hours take place in the office and are signaled with the ringing of an office gong, which also gets a sounding “when someone has had a success, big or small, maybe if they've won a case.” The bowling is “especially ingrained in the culture, there's always a big turnout for that.” As part of an old tradition “all people starting that year get a bowling shirt” emblazoned with their starting year. “It's really cool to see how long people have been here.”
Hours & Compensation
“People really appreciate their co-workers. That puts a lot of emphasis on living normal lives. People care about birthdays and vacations – you can take them and people treat them with respect, and if you have to leave the office it's something people take seriously.” Underpinning this is the fact that “there is no billing target at all. Every year management will give a presentation on how the firm is doing financially. Part of that presentation includes an average of what people worked, so people know the number, but they don't target it, nobody is looking at your hours.” Associates could regularly “be home for dinner. Stuff comes up, and I've certainly had days, weeks, months that have been much busier than that. Finishing your work to a high quality comes first, that sometimes means late nights but the firm is designed so that when work settles down, if someone has been crushed they should get to take it easy.”
“There is no billing target at all.”
The firm's bonus system bucks convention, allocating tracking points and paying attorneys quarterly. What they are paid “depends only on seniority and the firm's profitability that quarter, not on hours. It's a way of spreading the wealth.”
Pro Bono and Diversity
The pursuit of pro bono work at HWG is tacitly encouraged because “pro bono hours are treated the same” as any other billable hour, but our sources also told us “there's no pressure” around getting involved – some hadn't done any. Associates reported seeing both opportunities “which associates seek out themselves and find a partner to oversee it” and occasions where associates were “helping a partner with something they were already involved in.” In 2016 the firm did significant work advising Bread for the City, a charity aiding DC's vulnerable residents.
“It's a priority in hiring.”
As we checked in on the state of diversity at HWG, we were greeted with a common response: “They're working on it.” Associates with a few years under their belts could see progress, telling us “it's a priority in hiring to include that as a consideration.” One source informed us that “recent hires have helped ethnic diversity.” As well as telling us about flexible working options for parents and a new approach to interviewing utilizing objective criteria, chair of the hiring committee Jonathan Mirsky believes the firm's innovative tech clients gives diversity added importance: “They are looking for us to be diverse.”
Pro Bono hours
- For all attorneys: 2,236
- Average per attorney: 43
Strategy and Future
Bill Wiltshire says of the firm's expansion: “We're not aiming to increase our personnel just for the sake of getting bigger, but we'll continue to grow as we need people to service our clients' demands.” Those demands come in a number of new areas, appellate being one, energy being the other. “Although the firm began with a focus on telecoms, there has been more diversity in the type of work that has been coming in.” But he stresses his openness to change: “We don't put our thumb on the scale, we take our business wherever the clients are coming from.” If this sounds a little vague, one must remember how young the firm is. “Our executive committee decided last year that it was time to develop an overall vision of what we want to be when we grow up and we're still in the early stages of deciding that.”
Interview with Bill Wiltshire, managing partner
Chambers Associate: What have been some highlights from the past year?
Bill Wiltshire: We have had some big recognitions over the past year. As a firm, we were recognized as one of the best places to work in D.C. by The Washington Post and Washingtonian Magazine and honored for our pro bono contributions by Bread for the City. We saw an increase in individual recognitions as well, including for a number of associates for their exemplary legal work.
We've had a number of people join the firm recently coming out of the administration. Roy Austin joined out of the White House – he's a litigator focusing on big data. He was involved with a number of DoJ [Department of Justice] projects overseeing local police departments involved in civil rights issues. That is an area that has a lot of political significance, and people take very differing views on it, but he was able to navigate those issues successfully.
Sam Walsh joined from the Department of Energy and our energy practice continues to get bigger. Scott Harris was general counsel at the Department of Energy before he came back to the firm and we had other folks working in the DoE area, so having Sam on the team fresh out of the department is another building block. That practice was already growing but now it's growing faster. We are definitely interested in growing it. We started in telecoms and then branched into litigation, but telecoms is complimentary to our energy practice. There are wires in both, pole attachments, and the same sort of administrative regulatory issues in both. We see it as a great growth opportunity.
Although the firm began with a focus on telecoms, there has been more diversity in the type of work that has been coming in. It's healthy competition for people growing and building practices. We don't put our thumb on the scale, we take our business wherever the clients are coming from.
CA: Is the firm targeting growth in terms of personnel?
BW: We are not aiming to increase our personnel just for the sake of getting bigger, but we'll continue to grow as we need people to service our clients' demands. We're in the enviable position of being able to talk to people with outstanding credentials and pick the best fit, as well as having those people accept our offers and helping us to grow.
CA: You must be getting close to filling your office...
BW: We're already maxing out where we are now, but we have the option on the floor below us so we will be expanding! The location couldn’t be better.
CA: What is the long term strategy (if there is one)? Do you know what kind of a firm you want to be in 10 years time?
BW: Our executive committee decided last year that it was time to develop an overall vision of what we want to be when we grow up and we're still in the early stages of deciding that. As with most decisions, it's something we will socialize around the firm as we want everyone to have a voice and a shared vision. Above all, the many things which have guided us in the past will continue to be important: a collegial atmosphere, great clients, nationally known practices and practices that are interrelated.
CA: Can I get your thoughts on the new administration and how you think the firm will be affected by its new approach?
BW: The interesting thing is that we have a President and a congress that are very de-regulatory, but to achieve that you have to go through a regulatory process. Affecting any change creates a lot of activity. So there will be clients on all sides of any number of issues. When there is that activity, there is the opportunity to navigate clients through it. Right now in Washington there is a lot of change and everyone is trying to get an idea of what's going on and the possibility of influencing that process. We can help clients to shape the change or to hold onto what they have, or re-purpose it, or think what nobody's yet thought. So for the practice, it's broadly positive.
CA: We've always praised the culture of the firm, but do you foresee yourself becoming more conventional at all, more similar to Big Law firms, because of your success, especially if you grow larger?
BW: God I hope not! I really hope not. One of the things we pride ourselves on is the collegiality of the place and how we treat each other, while still excelling at the practice of law as a profession. We serve clients but in a way where we're happy to be here and enjoy being with our colleagues. I feel we've really captured something here that a lot of firms don't have. We're very conscious of that when hiring and when making other decisions about the firm – we are thinking about atmosphere front and center.
CA: Do you think Big Law firms should look at how they approach things – is there something wrong with the profession?
BW: It's hard to say – all I know is that for the last 19 years I have been here, and I like the way we do things. You read stories, you read things in the press about other firms. I do think the model of working people for lots of hours doing tasks they don't enjoy doing – that is not a model I ever want to be a part of or offer to incoming people. I can't imagine why they would go with that if there was an alternative.
CA: Any advice or words of wisdom for our student readers as they try to enter the legal profession?
BW: Remain open to possibilities. When I was in law school I never dreamed of doing telecoms work. I came out to be a litigator. I only serendipitously stumbled into telecoms and found it was everything I wanted to do. Some of the biggest decisions in my career were made by happenstance. People should just keep an open mind and remain receptive to possibilities.
Interview with Jonathan Mirsky, head of the hiring committee
Chambers Associate: In the past you've spoken about hiring from a combination of your summer program, judicial clerkships and laterals – what balance are you currently hoping to strike?
JM: We don't make a plan in advance because we’re looking for the best lawyers, whether those lawyers are in law school, clerking, or at another firm. We want to hire great associates coming directly out of law school, but unlike summer programs at large law firms, we do not look to our summer program as the primary source of our new lawyers. While we welcome summer associates back directly after law school, we also see our summer program as a way to introduce ourselves to law students who later become judicial clerks.
Judicial clerks will always be an important part of our hiring. Judges hire top academic achievers, and more generally I think the experience of drafting bench memos, orders, and opinions is very useful even for lawyers who don't litigate. Our clients look to us for detailed analysis of regulatory and other issues, and the kind of training and experience a judicial clerk receives in chambers is very valuable for that too.
Associates who come to us after clerking for both a district and appeals court judge are going to be ahead of somebody just graduating in terms of lawyering experience. But new lawyers here without a clerkship are not disadvantaged in the opportunity to do the work they want to do. New lawyers are asked to step up and take on responsibility regardless of what they were doing before joining us.
We hire laterals to fill a specific need. For lateral hiring, the sweet spot is lawyers who have worked for a large law firm for two or so years, and have figured out the direction they want to take their career. As we don't have a long partner track there will always be a place for laterals in that sweet spot. It's an alternative to hiring someone from a judicial clerkship.
For those who are more junior we are looking to hire according to the approach of a certain old NFL coach. If someone is just graduating or finishing a clerkship, we are looking for the best football players – we will find them a position to play. If someone has practiced for five years, then we'll be looking at them to fill a specific position on our team.
Our firm’s economic model does not contemplate juniors spending countless hours looking at documents for big M&A or document-focused litigation. We have an active trial litigation practice, and we have a very robust government enforcement and corporate investigations practice which is very Washington orientated. But those practices are not as document intensive as comparable practices at larger law firms. That means someone straight from law school needs to step up and take significant responsibility in a case or matter very quickly.
CA: What is the aim of the summer program?
JM: Our aim is to give a realistic look at what it is like to practice law at our firm. Summer associates come here to meet our great colleagues, get a flavor of the types of work we do, and to understand what we are trying to achieve for our clients and as a firm. Once people come here and work with us, we know that they will want to work with us more. The type of lawyer who succeeds here has the type of personality we want to work with – somebody confident, creative, friendly, and flexible.
CA: We spoke to you last year about your diversity efforts, but can we get an update? And do you think you're making progress?
JM: I do think we are making progress. Diversity in hiring is one of the two most important things to me as chair. The other is to make sure that the new associates are more talented than the partners. If I can succeed in hiring associates that make us look like the rest of America, I will have achieved what I set out to do when I became chair of the hiring committee.
One thing we have done to promote diversity in our hiring is to make sure that the criteria we are using to evaluate candidates are as objective as possible. There is a tendency in any workplace to want to hire people who are like you. By setting objective criteria, and by asking the interviewers to respond to questions about how a candidate can help us serve our clients, we put the evaluation focus on the skills and qualifications needed to be a successful lawyer: their achievements, their persuasiveness in the interview, and how their interests show their passion. By focusing on objective criteria we push back against the implicit tendency to hire people who are just like the interviewer.
We're also insistent that our interviewers on campus show our diversity, and the firm as a whole has also done a lot with flexible working arrangements. Together, we believe these steps make us more appealing to diverse and non-traditional applicants.
Diversity is important to our clients. We pursue it because it is morally right, but a lot of technology companies also think diversity is very important and they are looking for us to be diverse.
CA: As the firm has starting branching into energy, will you look for associates with an interest in that field?
JM: We started our firm focused around the FCC; now I would say our focus is on a lot of Washington orientated work, energy included. Our energy practice has grown recently but other Washington orientated practices are also growing, like appellate. Our appellate practice is led by a lawyer who has argued many Supreme Court cases as a member of the Solicitor General’s office. We have a number of our associates working in that practice because we don’t have “appellate only” associates. We also give a lot of international trade and investment legal advice, where we deal with foreign investment in the US. If foreign investment receives greater scrutiny under this Administration, we expect to be doing more of that work. We also represent clients in our growing government enforcement and internal investigations practice. So it's fair to say that our energy practice is growing, but our other Washington practices are also expanding. Associates should initially think of themselves as Washington lawyers rather than telecom lawyers, international trade lawyers, energy lawyers, or appellate lawyers.
A Washington lawyer needs a strong interest in policy and policymaking. Associates should have an interest in the way government entities interact with each other, and how legislation, independent regulatory agencies, and Executive Branch agencies relate to our clients’ businesses. We deal with lawyers from the Department of Justice and the Department of Energy and many other Federal government departments and agencies so associates should be interested in how Congress and the agencies interact and how we can impact rulemaking and enforcement of rules and laws. That interest makes a Washington lawyer.
CA: Do you try and gauge from candidates their long term commitment to law and to the firm?
JM: Yes and no. When I interview I'm thinking: does this candidate have the talent to be partner? If not, then we don't want them as an associate here. People tend to come here and stay. Others pursue other opportunities in Washington: we have people leave for government positions, for instance to join the U.S. Attorney’s Office or the FCC. Other associates may go in-house or into private practice – people do leave here for those opportunities. When we interview, we're not thinking about whether this person will stay for the long term, we're just seeing if the candidate has what it takes to succeed and stay here and become a partner if that is what they want to do. We will support associates in doing something else if that interests them.
CA: What's the one quality you value most in candidates?
JM: The ability to persuade. Ultimately we are hired by our clients to solve problems and we largely solve them by persuading someone to do something they don't want to do. A lawyer here should be able to persuade people in writing and in face to face meetings – and also through their analytical ability. We sometimes persuade people and solve problems by thinking better than others do.
This firm, like many, likes to take people who've completed clerkships, since it provides “lots of hands on experience with the court system.” One associate felt “you have to be very picky about who you hire; they have to be qualified, be at the top of their class and have all of those standards and credentials one would expect. Since we're so small we also have to look for people who have the right fit, who are go getters and can deal with clients from the first day of the job. It's not always easy to find and we have been flexible about how we find that.” Hence there's a good mix of associates hired from the summer program, clerkships and as laterals. For those who are a little more fresh faced, they can be reassured that “they are not expecting you to have experience in the different practice areas, especially telecom. They just want interest or willingness to learn in those areas and for you to be up for helping out with the needs of the firm as they come. They say it consistently, that the emphasis is on smart, capable people – those people can learn a subject.”
Associates told us the firm “has consistently said it doesn't take much to spoil the atmosphere, so they try very hard to find people that are not only good lawyers, but who will work in teams, can make sacrifices and think in a cooperative manner.” As defenders of these standards, some associates get a spot on the hiring committee. “It's very important to have associates on the committee. There are two on there and they fill in the other associates on what is going on if there is a decision on hiring strategy. It's very important and pretty typical for partners on the committee to consult associates on what they think.”
Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis LLP
1919 M Street NW,
- Head Office: Washington, DC
- Number of domestic offices: 2
- Number of international offices: 0
- Partners (US): 32
- Of Counsel (US): 4
- Associates (US): 16
- Summer Salary 2017
- 1Ls: N/A
- 2Ls: $3,500/week
- Post 3Ls: N/A
- 1Ls hired? No
- Split summers offered? Yes
- Can summers spend time in overseas office? N/A
- Summers 2017: 2
- Offers/acceptances 2016: 3 offers, 2 acceptance (1 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.
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.
• Number of 1st year associates: 3
• Number of 2nd year associates: 2
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $178,000
• 2nd year: $189,000
• Clerking policy: Yes
Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2017:
Chicago, Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, Michigan, Stanford, Virginia
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.