This steadily diversifying telecom specialist reaps the cultural rewards of its slimline size.
AS HWG reaches its 20th birthday, it has plenty of reasons to celebrate. Cue the customary ringing of the firm's gong: a peculiar (but very real) ritual used to recognize firm successes, big and small. Attorneys must know its deafening clang well. Having cemented its position as one of the best telecom firms in DC – earning a top-notch Chambers USA ranking for its troubles – HWG has grown out of its boutique status, developing broader work in government investigations, criminal defense, civil litigation, appellate, privacy and energy.
What the firm lacks in size, it makes up for in quality. Its top telecom practice has big tech clients like Google, Microsoft and Facebook calling on HWG, and one associate described how, “looking at partners' bios, everybody has such an impressive background. I'm almost in a state of awe!” But beneath this rampant success lies a rarer triumph: a gong-worthy culture rid of hierarchy, but full of respect, inclusiveness and joviality. “Partners here have figured out how to build a firm that lets people have more of a work-life balance,” HWG's baby lawyers declared.
Telecom, which encompasses regulatory, litigious and transactional matters, provides the largest share of the firm's work, but there's an increasing diversity on offer, of which associates get a fair mix. “Transitioning between types of work is fairly seamless,” they told us. “Most juniors tend to do both telecom and wider litigation, and the assignment process is relatively organic, so you can steer your own path.” Newcomers get three or four initial assignments to kick off, then chat to partners or counsel to arrange follow-up matters. Sources explained that “once you've worked with a partner, they'll come back to see if you're interested in other things.” As a last resort, assignments are floated on an email chain and associates decide among themselves who has enough time and interest in the project to take it on – a quite uniquely democratic process.
HWG's modest size also provides some unique opportunities. “On my second day here I was in a meeting with the client and got asked a substantive question. I was a bit shocked, but it was amazing,” one junior said. We heard of several similar experiences: “I'd only just started and I was trusted to lead a client call – that's not something you'd get at a big firm.” Day to day, sources also kept busy with more typical legal research, finding themselves monitoring sector trends as well as drafting motions and oppositions. With sources in agreement that “you get an unusual amount of responsibility,” we wondered if juniors ever felt out of their depth? “There are definitely times I've been nervous but I don't think anybody gives me tasks I'm not capable of,” came the typical response. “I’m confident partners will help if I fall flat on my face and they understand I'm still learning. If I were somewhere else it would take me a lot longer to get the opportunities I've had.”
“I'd only just started and I was trusted to lead a client call – that's not something you'd get at a big firm.”
Most newbies focus on litigation cases that are “less technical and easier off the bat than FCC telecom matters.” Alongside representing huge telecom clients, the firm also backs prominent individuals and retail clients in disputes. “Because we're a smaller firm, there's more diversity in the work between defense and plaintiff sides,” said one source. “In both criminal and civil work, it's pretty wide-ranging.” Legal ethics cases are also available in the early going – sources reported assisting lawyers from other firms over internal conflict issues and the rigmarole that arises when partners want to leave their firm. Juniors still get a shot at some “really soft telecom work, with policy questions that don't require a lot of technical knowledge.” As they get a grip on the sector, associates can move towards more complex telecom projects.
Training & Development
A 'telecom 101' session giving first years a grounding in the practice area is one of the firm's monthly 'Nothing But Law' talks. These alternate with 'Anything But Law' presentations given by members of staff on their personal interests, offering a brief reprieve from the law. But beyond 'Nothing But Law,' “there isn't much formal training,” according to associates. “I don't want to spend three days in a classroom, but a little more structure might be nice,” said one. A more cogent annual review process was described as “helpful for working out what skills you need to sharpen.”
Culture & Pro Bono
HWG placed in the top ten for benefits and lifestyle in our 2017 associate data survey – so what's the firm's secret? “It's not nearly as hierarchical” for one – “there's really no differentiation between senior attorneys and juniors. When we meet in our communal space everyone sits at the same table and chats.” And with the firm's steady expansion has come a greater appreciation of what the firm stands to lose. “There's a danger that the culture will change, but management are very aware of that. They definitely don't want HWG to turn into a BigLaw firm.”
“They definitely don't want HWG to turn into a BigLaw firm.”
Monthly pizza lunches, bowling nights and karaoke are all fixtures on the calendar, while the “defining characteristic” of the social scene is a weekly Friday happy hour kickstarted by the ringing of that gong. “Most people go – we usually have a keg, wine, soft drinks and an assortment of snacks.” But there's no pressure: “There's no forced socializing. Most people here have families and are allowed to have other priorities outside work.” When they're not heading home to their families, lawyers have been known to bring their families to them. “It's not uncommon for someone to email and let everybody know their kids will be hanging out in their office.” Offspring, spouses and significant others are likewise invited to an annual barbecue and picnic.
The firm also hit the top twenty in our survey for pro bono. Pro bono hours are treated the same as billables, and juniors recalled that “during our orientation we were encouraged to either go and find our own opportunities or find something a partner is working on that we'd like to jump into.” Landlord/tenant cases are HWG's specialty: “they'refun and easy, and you get good experience on your feet in court.” Disciplinary work for pro bono organizations is also on offer, as are child custody disputes. In one recent example “the firm expected the case to be a quick demonstration where the CPS [Child Protective Services] would soon back down. It ended up going all the way to trial, and at no point did partners decide it would become too much work. That demonstrated a lot of commitment.”
Pro bono hours
- For all attorneys: 3,593
- Average per attorney: 108
Associates also saw a strong commitment to diversity on HWG's part, if not such tangible results so far. “As a smaller firm we're only bringing on two or three associates each year,” sources pointed out. “Diversity does factor into our hiring but we often struggle to find ethnically diverse candidates.” Things are looking rosier on the gender front: “It's a great firm for women and we have less trouble retaining female attorneys than many peers. It's probably because HWG is so good with flexible working.” A 23% female partnership is indeed above the average for firms listed in Chambers Associate. “Diversity is an area where the firm is demonstrating a lot of improvement,” chipped in another source. “Like all firms, most partners here are white men but there's a clear goal of hiring more diversely.” Commendably, HWG already smashes industry averages with a 10% LGBT partnership.
“It's a great firm for women and we have less trouble retaining female attorneys.”
Located in downtown DC, the current office building has been a telecom hub for a while – it used to belong to the FCC. “The location is convenient, right at the heart of Washington,” and while HWG “doesn't have an in-house restaurant or anything like that, it's a perfectly attractive place to work. The firm has gone out of their way to put artwork on the walls and every attorney gets their own office.” Juniors reported that their fast-growing firm had “stuffed the space almost to capacity.” It's a good problem to have, and at the time we went to press, HWG was preparing to take over an additional floor of the building to make sure everyone gets their personal space.
Hours & Compensation
Sticking with a straightforward attitude of “doing the work that needs to be done,” the firm doesn't set a billing target for its associates. Those we spoke to agreed that “hitting a certain number of hours really isn't something anybody thinks about here – if anything, people are worried about working too much!” Lawyers still have busy days of course, which can become busy nights. “The latest I've worked until was 11pm,” a source confirmed. “That was on a tight timeline. During slower periods I'll only work a standard nine to five.” Another suggested that “even staying until 8pm is pretty rare.”
“If anything, people are worried about working too much!”
The firm's bonus system bucks convention, allocating tracking points and paying out quarterly.Most “really liked it. As with many things at HWG it's geared toward long-term planning.” Bonuses are calculated based on the firm's profitability each quarter, and management “makes sure it gets feedback from associates on how the system is working. It's unconventional, but it makes you really feel part of the team. When we do well it's not just the partners profiting.” On top of that, associates also get “technically unlimited” vacation, which all felt encouraged to dip into.
Strategy & Future
The firm's telecom practice still produces about 50% of its workflow at present, but the percentage is steadily dropping. Managing partner Bill Wiltshire explains “that's not because we're doing fewer telecom matters, but because of the growth in the number of projects in other areas.” Going forward, Wiltshire suggests HWG is “looking to add complementary practices related to the federal government which add to our current core strengths in telecom, litigation, international trade, energy and ethics.”
As with all interviews, “it's primarily about fit” at HWG. The firm wants to get to know its candidates as people. Before it gets to that though, multiple sources described how “one thing that really differentiated HWG is that pretty much everybody who interviewed me had read at least some of my writing.” They found that “the firm definitely emphasizes strong skills. That side gets scrutinized carefully. Any sloppiness in your writing can be a big issue.”
Interviewers aren't mandated to ask any particular questions, but some we spoke to suggested “the biggest red flag is somebody that comes off arrogant. One summer candidate had good substantive experience but spent too much of the interview showing off their knowledge.” Instead, prospective associates should make clear that they are “somebody who is excited about being a lawyer, and someone who recognizes the uniqueness of this firm.”
But what's the best way to demonstrate they've got what it takes? “We like to see people taking on leadership positions,” interviewees said, “but we want to make sure they've built up diverse experiences. Doing something beyond working at a law firm over summer is important.” Beyond grades, “hiring decisions come down to personality and your potential as an attorney. The firm has cultivated a really pleasant culture and they wouldn't bring somebody in who could detract from that.”
Interview with managing partner Bill Wiltshire
Chambers Associate: What's been the most exciting thing that the firm has done over the past year?
Bill Wiltshire: It's always gratifying to be recognized by external ranking agencies like Chambers USA, and we've also been declared one of the best places to work in DC by the Washington Post and other publications. Work-wise, we've recently won a number of interesting appeals. HWG represented someone involved in 2007 Blackwater incident in Iraq, and got his first-degree murder charge overturned. We also represented Northstar when it was disqualified for a small business credit worth billions of dollars and helped the company avoid a multi-million dollar penalty, and we also obtained FCC approval of the Windstream-Earthlink merger.
One of the cases we've been most proud of was a smaller pro bono matter handled by newer partner Roy Austin. He represented the parents of a child whom CPS attempted to take away because he'd suffered a broken bone, despite no signs of abuse. The Child Abuse Pediatrician who made the finding of abuse never even examined the child or met the parents. We represented the family pro bono and got the case dismissed. Afterward, the tenant in our building who had brought us the case unexpectedly gave us a $20,000 check to be used to cover expenses incurred in future pro bono matters.
Finally, Stephanie Wiener has joined the firm as a lateral partner having worked at the Department of Energy and in the FCC chairman's office. She has extensive experience in the area of net neutrality.
CA: What do the recent changes surrounding net neutrality mean for HWG's future?
BW: Any time that there's change, people will be looking for advice and that's what we provide to our clients. There's nobody better positioned to help navigate what's coming – these changes have created a brand new world in that sphere. The next step is seeing how the big ISPs react and what other people in that ecosystem do, but however it plays out people will need attorneys to evaluate options and guide them through the next steps.
CA: Last year you told us the firm was still developing its overall vision. How has that come along since?
BW: We're continuing along the path we've taken before, maybe with more insight gained from experience. Going forward, we're looking to add complementary practices related to the federal government which add to our current core strengths in telecom, litigation, international trade, energy and ethics. HWG is recreating what used to be known as a 'DC practice' – all the regulatory agencies are here so you can organically work within many areas that all complement one another. Last year we continued to diversify our practice, and although telecom remains our largest practice area, others are growing fast. Even within the telecom sphere we're expanding into new areas like data privacy and cybersecurity. We've recently had a number of litigation cases stemming from the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, regulating how telemarketers can communicate.
CA: At present, how much of the firm's work comes proportionally from the telecom field, and how much from others?
BW: It's currently about 50/50, but the proportion of non-telecom work is increasing all the time. That's not because we're doing fewer telecom matters, but because of the growth in the number of projects in other areas.
CA: How big and broad a practice do you see HWG evolving towards?
BW: We're not focusing on size – our ethos is that if it fits what we're doing, we'll take it. Our targets for expansion are practice areas that complement what we already do and work before other regulatory agencies we're not currently involved in. What's great about this area of work is you don't need 100 people to do well, just a couple of the right people. We're not the kind of firm clients come to when they want to throw bodies at a problem.
CA: As the firm expands, how do you ensure new arrivals to the firm fit with the existing culture?
BW: It's a reinforcing feedback loop. On our side, we're always looking for people who have the same vision for the future that we do. Attorneys can go to other places if they're looking to work really long hours or maximize the amount of money they can make. If you're looking to do great work for great clients with similarly motivated attorneys, you can buy in. The people who do come here already share our vision.
CA: What challenges do you foresee for smaller and more specialized firms going into 2018 and beyond?
BW: We're about to celebrate our 20th anniversary, and our business model still appears pretty unique. Our culture hasn't only survived the passing of time, it's thrived. I think our model will continue to work for another 20 years and beyond. The challenges in 2018 will be the same as every year – continuing to provide a great service to our existing clients, and introducing ourselves to new ones.
Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis LLP
1919 M Street NW,
- Head Office: Washington, DC
- Number of domestic offices: 2
- Partners (US): 32
- Of Counsel (US): 5
- Associates (US): 13
- Main recruitment contact: Jonathan Mirsky
- Hiring partner: Jonathan Mirsky
- Diversity officer: Brita Strandberg
- Recruitment details
- Entry-level associates starting in 2018: 4
- Clerking policy: Yes
- Summers joining/anticipated 2018: 2Ls: 3
- Summers joining/anticipated 2018 split by office: Washington DC: 3
- Summer salary 2018: 2Ls: $3,465/week
- Split summers offered? Yes
Main areas of work
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.
This Firm's Rankings in
Chambers USA Guide 2017
District of Columbia
- Telecom, Broadcast & Satellite (Band 1)