Petite in size but a titan of telecommunications, DC boutique HWG offers a more “humane lifestyle” in the world of BigLaw.
IN the challenging plains of BigLaw, where work demands can often disrupt plans and schedules, HWG appears as something of a glistening oasis. Going back twenty years, three plucky attorneys said 'no more' to those more demanding BigLaw conditions and broke away from their enormous firm in Washington DC, taking with them their telecommunications expertise. The result was HWG. It soon secured its reputation as a telecoms hotshot, and began to branch into other areas, such as trial and appellate litigation, corporate, international trade, and energy. Two decades on, telecoms remains the firm’s crowning jewel, scooping the highest commendations from Chambers USA in DC. The firm also has a small branch in Raleigh, North Carolina, which opened back in 2013 with a focus on litigation and legal ethics.
“They've made the decision to be a different type of place.”
A lot has changed for the boutique in the last few years. “There were empty offices when I joined, then we needed renovations, and now those new offices are more or less full.” And shortly after our interviews, HWG moved into a bigger office space. The firm therefore appears to be in growth mode. Managing partner Bill Wiltshire – the Wiltshire of Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis – told us during our conversation with him: “As you get bigger, you have to take on more nation-building to make sure people remain connected the way you want.” He goes on to remind us of the founding partners’ sustained vision: “Notwithstanding what you hear out in the ether, you really can be a lawyer and have a life. It doesn't have to be a miserable existence!” Juniors were fully on board with that message: “They've made the decision to be a different type of place.”
‘Autonomy’ and ‘informality’ were the words on the tips of many tongues. During the summer program, sources found that “if you want to work on something in particular, you almost certainly can if there's space on any projects. You can just pipe up.” It was a similar story when associates returned to the firm full-time: “It’s about you taking charge.” While this ‘piping up’ assignment process proved to be appealing for our interviewees, we heard that two assignment partners had been appointed “to keep a finger on the pulse” for newer associates, so a safety net is in place.
HWG newbies (there are usually just two or three a year) tend to go to the firm’s biggest groups, telecommunications and litigation, but “no one’s tied” to one or the other. “Folks fresh out of law school are generally expected to do a little bit of both.” One associate explained how matters can be intertwined: “I'll give telecoms clients compliance advice, which will ultimately bleed into things that directly affect litigation matters.” Once through the ranks though, the blurring between the two wasn’t as prominent: “The more senior you go, the more focused and specialized you become.” And for juniors there’s still scope “to be a specialist – it just depends how you want to spin the wheel.”
“I’ve handled presentations in front of clients.”
On the telecommunications side, the firm does work ranging from traditional wireline rate regulation issues in front of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) “all the way to emerging wireless spectrum policy regulation.” For associates, a 50/50 split between regulatory and transactional work was fairly common. Our sources had contributed to the likes of the net neutrality deal, Alaskan telecommunications subsidies and the provision of licenses for services at FCC auctions and more. Day-to-day tasks included research and “drafting memos to clients with advice, sections of briefs and other motions, and comments to the FCC with other types of petitions.” There was client contact too: “I’ve handled presentations in front of clients and led a few client calls.”
Those looking to move away from the specialties of telecoms work can find seats at the litigation table, although it’s worth noting that a “fair amount of the work usually looks at issues connected to telecommunications.” About half of the firm’s appellate matters are connected to telecoms, for example. As well as appellate work, HWG’s litigation group handles trial litigation, white-collar work, and government investigations – juniors could get involved with all sides. “I'm currently preparing to go to trial, even though I came in to the case midway through,” one told us. “I'm also responding to motions, creating witness outlines, attending mediation, and drafting motions.” Associates were also the ones “digging through documents” when doc review arose.
Litigation clients: Telecommunications company Sprint, mobile marketing company Vibes Media and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Represented Florida State Attorney Aramis Ayala after she was removed from 25 death penalty cases by Governor Rick Scott following her decision to no longer pursue capital punishment.
Strategy & Future
Maintaining its strengths in telecoms is the center of HWG’s strategy, but associates also got the impression “there's a desire to develop a more outwardly robust appellate and energy regulatory practice.” Sources also told us “one thing that has really defined the firm in recent years is growth.” Associates felt the desire for growth in “practices over headcount” rang true with the firm's overall ambitions, as Wiltshire expresses the desire to keep the firm “looking and feeling the same as it is today.”
And how does HWG look and feel? “Everyone sits at the same table,” one source declared. Literally – partners, associates, and staff alike all gather to eat lunch together in a big conference room. Associates also felt “you're treated like an equal,” with one source musing that “when people look you in the eyes, you know you're valued and seen as integral.” In part, sources suggested this atmosphere was determined by the firm's manageable size. Of around the 50 attorneys in DC, 16 are associates, so “partners want to be nice because the associate pool is stretched thin!” Not that this was the only reason why partners were nice, we should add! Beyond this, associates felt it was the firm’s hiring strategy that helped create these positive cultural nuances: “If you maintain values, starting with a huge emphasis on people, you can achieve what we achieve.”
Wiltshire explains the thinking behind the firm’s hiring strategy: “If someone wants to work 3,000 hours a year and go to a cocktail party and name-drop where they work, don't come to us.” This isn't to say the firm's a stranger to cocktails and fun – informal weekly happy hours, pizza lunches, bowling nights and more, were all delightfully reported (there’s even a “partner who DJs” at office parties FYI). But you can forget 3,000 hours – associates said it's HWG's “humane lifestyle” that people come for, clarifying that “we do high-quality work, but there are conscious efforts to make this a place for people to pursue their careers without having to sacrifice their personal life.”
Hours & Compensation
The lack of an annual billing target is one such example of this approach. “It's something I've struggled to believe,” one mused; “I worry someone will notice if my hours are low one month, but what they say is completely true: there is no target.” Not only celebrated by our sources as it “takes the pressure off,” it also meant associates felt in control of their working patterns. “Nobody's clock-watching,” sources commended, “and people are open to flexible working hours.” A 9am to 6pm day was standard, with 8pm considered a late night in the office. On the litigation side, “I could be doing 12-hour days if I'm ramping up for trial.”
“The benefits are so good.”
Where hours aren't tracked, compensation becomes far more “egalitarian,” as this source explained: “Every associate is given 'tracking points.'” These lockstep points are based on class year and determine quarterly bonuses. Our sources championed the firm's overall comp package, and noted that “the benefits are so good.” Perks like employee-funded healthcare premiums and “great” retirement plans meant this positive bunch felt they had little to bemoan.
The firm counts pro bono hours the same as billable matters, so “you can take as much as you want,” with the caveat that “if we're stretched thin, the firm sends out emails and lets people know we're looking to staff paying matters.” Our sources had “never heard of anyone being told to tone it down,” so again, autonomy seems to be the key.
Associates pointed to “two types of pro bono. There are cases brought through programs,” be it obtaining restraining orders, representing tenants in landlord cases, or seeking federal voting representation. And the other type comes from juniors sourcing matters themselves. On one such occasion “I sent an email asking for attorney recommendations. Three partners replied, asking ‘Why don't you do it?’ The firm is willing to take this kind of case if it benefits me.”
Pro bono hours
- For all attorneys: 4,634
- Average per attorney: undisclosed
In keeping with form, HWG offers a rather relaxed approach to training: “Big firms walk you through a whole host of things; we just don't have that.” Instead, it’s more “learn on the fly” than theoretical learning, and many warmed to this more practical approach: “I’d rather attend a deposition than sit in a six-hour lecture!” Others admitted that while “it’s understandable the class size dictates we can't do training for two days, I’d like to see more.” Associates said the firm is soon to “standardize the on-boarding process,” and Wiltshire confirms “we have to be more intentional and are now working on more formalized training.”
“They'll help you ride that bike all the way, even if you start to fall.”
“There are no specific metrics” concerning the path to partnership, but you'd be wrong to think attorneys are left to flounder: “Every associate from the get-go is on the track, and they'll help you ride that bike all the way, even if you start to fall.” This track is laid out in more detail during annual reviews around third or fourth year, “where the conversation becomes more partnership-focused.”
Diversity & Inclusion
While the smaller size of the firm meant that “everyone recognizes the need to be sensitive,” HWG isn’t exempt from the legal industry’s diversity deficit. But it’s no chin-scratching exercise. The firm's reportedly doing “a lot of introspection” when it comes to recruiting. Because of the firm’s size “we go to a limited number of law schools, so we're trying to expand the pool we're recruiting from.” Equally, “frank and continued conversations” within the firm led to tailored implicit bias training sessions for “every rung of seniority.” In addition, women’s mentorship groups are reportedly active and beneficial.
Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis LLP
1919 M Street NW,
- Head Office: Washington, DC
- Number of domestic offices: 2
- Partners (US): 34
- Of Counsel (US): 6
- Associates (US): 17
- Main recruitment contact: Jonathan Mirsky
- Hiring partner: Jonathan Mirsky
- Diversity officer: Brita Strandberg
- Recruitment details
- Entry-level associates starting in 2019: 4
- Clerking policy: Yes
- Summers joining/anticipated 2019: 1
- Summer salary 2019: 2Ls: $3,500/week
- Split summers offered? Yes
Main areas of work
HWG is deliberately slimline. The firm is designed to offer clients access to top tier talent without unnecessary overhead, and to foster a close-knit community of lawyers dedicated to innovation and collaboration. HWG’s success in achieving these objectives has been widely recognized in legal rankings and by a corporate client base that includes market leaders, emerging enterprises and start-up companies, as well as Fortune 500 companies across a wide range of industries.
Chicago, Colorado, Duke, Harvard, Michigan, Northwestern, 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. HWG 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, litigation, and appellate practices.
This Firm's Rankings in
USA Guide, 2019
District of Columbia
- Litigation: White-Collar Crime & Government Investigations Recognised Practitioner
- Telecom, Broadcast & Satellite (Band 1)