Irell & Manella LLP - The Inside View

Based in the City of Angels, this firm is heaven for would-be litigators...

ESTABLISHED as a two-lawyer tax firm during WWI, Irell & Manella's client base was originally the big names of television's youth. Since then, this Californian superstar has blossomed into an outfit of nearly 150 lawyers. The firm has kept to its media roots, nowadays representing film production companies such as Warner Bros. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. However, Irell's golden touch extends to a range of practice areas, including securities litigation, bankruptcy, tax and – notable in particular for the fabled work of Morgan Chu – IP. The firm ranks highly in Chambers USA nationwide (and top within California), for its IP work, and is similarly well ranked within the state for areas including litigation (particularly in securities), and media & entertainment.

It will come as no surprise, therefore, that the firm is highly selective. As hiring partner Jon Kagan tells us, "Irell is a platform for the best and brightest lawyers in the country." And thanks to its smaller size, it is able to offer associates work that many consider beyond their years: “Even in my first year, I've been able to do things you think of as 'being a lawyer.' I've been involved in how the case is going to progress rather than just being a supporting character.” Despite some instability at the firm at the beginning of 2015, when heavyweight partners John Hueston and Brian Hennigan took over 30 of Irell's lawyers to form their own firm, everybody we spoke to was positive about the future. "The one thing that has remained the same is that Irell has continued to be successful," Jon Kagan points out. 

The Work

"You're going to get early responsibility whether you want it or not!"

Everyone we spoke to agreed that Irell offers “unbelievable” levels of early responsibility. “They're very trusting. If you want to hide out at a big law firm, this is not the place to do it. You're going to get early responsibility whether you want it or not!” First-years spoke of tasks such as writing the first and second draft complaint for a Fortune 500 company, as well as “single-handedly writing a motion to dismiss for an entertainment matter.” One second-year added that “there's really no typical day here in my experience. I've done a lot of writing, drafting motions and discovery responses, preparing for depositions and taking depositions.” Of course it's not all as glamorous as this, and there is some doc review, although “by the time it comes around people are actually grateful for it because you can turn off for a bit!”

Some spoke to us about being pulled onto high-profile cases when first joining the firm. “I started in the discovery process, drafting parts of discovery motions. The bulk of what I did prior to trial was working with expert witnesses on reports, and testing products with them. It went from there into preparing the expert witnesses for trial.” When it got to trial, “I did opening and closing presentations, and I took one of our witnesses and defended their deposition.”

Training & Development

Newbies have a week-long orientation which teaches them “how to use the computer and other systems, what different departments such as the paralegals and document support team do, and where to direct requests for certain things.” Associates found this particularly helpful as “we have a lot of different support organizations within the firm that can be hard to navigate.” As the first year progresses, there are various training sessions on aspects such as “how to draft a discovery request, how to respond to a request, and how to cross-examine someone.” Newbies are also taken on a three-day retreat to a Palm Springs hotel. Afterwards, “we had to prepare a deposition and they hired actors to make it as real as possible,” while a partner sits in the room and gives feedback.

Juniors are assigned an older associate mentor each and share a partner mentor: "We go to lunch once a month" on the firm's dime. Feedback consists of a twice-yearly review, which provides “very useful constructive criticism, things such as 'these are the experiences we'd like you to get in order to raise your profile in the firm.'"


All but one of the associates on our list of junior interviewees headed to the firm's HQ in Century City, “a mini downtown.” There is “a mall across the street with a bunch of restaurants, and a farmers' market once a week.” When describing the building itself, newbies told us that “it's one of the less flashy buildings in Century City but it's perfectly comfortable.” Another pointed out that “we have a really nice in-house coffee machine.” Associates have their own office and are allocated two small budgets for furnishing and technology.

"I have three pieces of art on my wall that I certainly didn't buy! It gives my office more character.” 

The firm also has its own used furniture and accessories room “which you can go into and pick from; I have three pieces of art on my wall that I certainly didn't buy! It gives my office more character.” The Century City office is currently undergoing a partial refurb. The Newport office was described as “fantastic. I have a full-ocean view and because of the downsizing [referring to the Hueston–Hennigan split] anyone who wants this view can have one!” Another added: “It was remodeled in 2012, and everyone who comes down to visit is very jealous.” This office is located across the street from Fashion Island shopping center, where there are “plenty of places to eat.”


“The culture here is intellectual and very friendly,” one associate enthused, another more bluntly remarking: “The stereotype of Irell is that we're a bunch of nerds, which works for me because I am one!” A nerdy colleague added that “going into a major law firm, I definitely expected more aggressive Type A lawyers who put themselves first, but here you see more helpful, thoughtful characters.” As a consequence, the firm has a “quirky vibe,” accentuated by the fact that “there's a lot of people who have had a variety of experiences,” from ex-military to people who have worked as agents in the entertainment industry.

“I come in to work to see other people because I genuinely like them.” 

Our interviewees spoke of a fair amount of socializing, many highlighting firm-organized events like the weekly happy hour, sponsored trips to concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, and the firmwide yearly retreat “in the Newport Beach area during the summer. It's an overnight stay at a nice hotel, with dinner and casino games.” Associates also enjoyed coming together of their own volition; we heard of juniors hosting dinner parties and having meals with partners. Despite the option to work remotely, “I come in to work to see other people because I genuinely like them.”

That said, because of the firm's flexibility for working at home, “the offices can be somewhat empty” come the day's end and many people “want separate lives.” Over in Newport Beach, we heard there were also vacant workstations, although for a different reason: around half the office's attorneys left early in 2015 due to the Hueston–Hennigan split. “It definitely feels different because a lot of the offices are empty, and a lot of people who I was very good friends with left,” one associate remarked. However, “there are so many fewer associates and roughly the same number of partners, so there's a tremendous opportunity to get lots of responsibility.”

Hours & Compensation

Most of our interviewees reported having no problems reaching the 2,000 hours needed in order to receive a bonus. They didn't feel huge pressure to reach this number, and “if you don’t you're not automatically in trouble – it's a target. They take into account the year, and whether you've done other things. That's another good thing about our size: people know where you are and whether you've been on a committee or something.”

"People will disappear for two or three weeks and nobody bats an eye."

Face time at the office is not a must, unusually even during usual work hours: “I'm at home right now but I'll go into the office later for a meeting,” one associate told us. The vacation policy is equally flexible, and “if things aren't busy, and your case is settled, people will disappear for two or three weeks and nobody bats an eye,” another revealed.   

Pro Bono

“Irell is really great about pro bono,” evidenced in part by the fact that “every hour you do is billable.” So while associates are encouraged to do 60 pro bono hours in their first year, many reported billing far above this amount: “I was in the multiple hundreds last year.” Pro bono commitments are kick-started in the summer, as the firm has a partnership with The Alliance for Children's Rights: "They set up an adoption day where they schedule cases for associates to handle.”

"On a pro bono case you are essentially the partner."

Once full-time at the firm, juniors described matters ranging from veterans' benefits rights cases, helping immigrant families get authorization to work, and aiding victims of mortgage fraud. Many juniors saw pro bono as a great way to gain more experience, as "on a pro bono case you are essentially the partner,” although partners are there to provide a safety net.

Pro bono hours 

  • For all attorneys across all offices: 19,196 
  • Average per attorney: 150


Unlike pro bono, our interviewees didn't have a huge amount to say about diversity, and associates admitted: “Honestly, it doesn't feel quite as diverse as it could." The consensus was that the firm is aware of this, and initiatives like a diversity committee and a new diversity scholarship are steps in the right direction. Another junior told us that “I'm part of a women's network which is working to create women-only events. We're planning talks on subjects like implicit bias.”

Compare law firm diversity stats>>

Get Hired

"Irell is a platform for the best and brightest lawyers in the country."

“The number-one thing is grades,” one source declared. “People here are universally very, very smart.” Irell has a lot of associates who have had careers in non law-related sectors. Hiring partner Jon Kagan explains the intention behind this: "We have people who have been passionate about teaching children, or about pursuing an acting career. We want someone who can demonstrate that, once they get in here, they will transfer that passion over to the work they're doing."

A proactive attitude is also important, as you need to be able to “take control of your career, find your own work and partners to work with,” according to an associate. In Jon Kagan's words, "there are two main features that I really look for in a candidate: creativity and passion." To find out what he means by this, go online.

Strategy & Future

Irell is certainly not adverse to expansion: "Over this past year, we've added partners to our practice, and we're open to adding more. For us, it's really about finding the right people," HP Jon Kagan informs us. That said, the firm generally focuses on "promoting from within," and will continue doing so. "As far as firmwide expansion goes, our growth has always been organic." 

Interview with Jon Kagan, hiring partner

Chambers Associate: What do you look for in a candidate?

Jon Kagan: There are two main features that I really look for in a candidate: creativity and passion. The law can be very dry and rule-based. You don't need to be terribly creative to just follow the rules. Because of the sophistication of our clients and the complexity of the legal problems, the matters we do don't lend themselves well to just looking in a book to find an answer. The nature of our practice and problems means we need creative thinkers who can really problem solve and think outside the box. When they hit a brick wall, they don't just get stumped, but instead they think of a thousand other things they can do in order to get results.

The other thing I really look for is passion or drive. The interesting thing is that nobody, or at least very few people, are going to have a passion for law when they first come to a law firm; the law is not the sexiest thing in the world! Passion is something you develop once you start practicing. As an IP litigator I read IP decisions and developments as they come out, so in some strange geeky way I'm very passionate about IP law. But I've also been passionate about all sorts of other things throughout my life. We're looking for people who also pursue their passions and have drive. We want someone who can demonstrate that, once they get in here, they will transfer that passion over to the work they're doing. We have people who have been passionate about teaching children, or about pursuing an acting career. I love talking to people in interviews about their passions – it's exciting. I think “when they get in here, they're going to become a passionate geek just like me.”

CA: So how can someone really stand out as a summer associate?

JK: If you're a summer associate, I think it's more about mistakes to avoid, and that lends itself to the assignment. If you're given an assignment that has a clear answer, there's really not much you can do to stand out; you can give the right answer, but we would expect that. We're very surprised if people get the wrong answer.

Fortunately for our summer associates, the projects we give very rarely have simple answers. If it's simple we already know it. If there's not a clear answer, associates have the ability to stand out. All summer associates will go and research the problem and find out there's no clear answer. The average summer associate will come back and say “there's not a clear answer.” That's good – they'll get points for doing their research correctly. A stand-out summer associate will say, “there's no clear answer, but here are some other options.” It really boils down to being results-oriented rather than task-oriented, having a proprietary interest in the case. We want a summer associate who looks at an assignment as having a client who needs to solve a problem. It's their job to solve that problem – as opposed to just being given the question and answering it.

CA: There was some instability at the start of the year due to the Hueston-Hennigan split, do you have any comments on this?

JK: Irell is a platform for the best and brightest lawyers in the country. Over the years, there have been times when people head off on their own. Obviously we wish everybody who's been here success. When people split off, some are more successful than others, but the one thing that has remained the same is that Irell has continued to be successful. In terms of long term stability I have no worries.

CA: What is Irell's plan moving forward into next year then?

JK: With the Hueston-Hennigan split we lost some lawyers who do general litigation work, mainly white-collar. While we still have general litigation attorneys here, over this past year, we've added partners to our practice, and we're open to adding more. For us, it's really about finding the right people.

We've also expanded our transactional practice recently. We have a really great group. As far as firm wide expansion goes, our growth has always been organic. We generally focus on promoting from within, so we're going to continue doing that.

CA: More generally, what does Irell offer to new associates that is unique?

JK: We hire people who we think are going to have a long career at Irell so we give them training very early on. People here get much more substantive work early on and investment from partners in their training from day one. As a partner, if I’m at a firm where I know that most of the associates are going to be gone in two years, there's very little incentive for me to invest my time in those people. At Irell, my incentive [as a partner] is to get involved in the training of every person who comes in the door and to get them real, substantive work. In this way, the associates are showing me what they can do, and I'm showing them how to be a lawyer. I think that's the big difference between Irell and other firms that we are often compared to.

As an example, we had a jury trial a couple of months ago, and several different associates took witnesses at that trial. For the firm we were up against, the only people who took witnesses in front of the jury were partners. That reflects the different philosophies that firms have; Irell is a firm that really does want to teach associates how to be lawyers as soon as they start.

If you look at the sophistication of legal work we do, and compare us to other firms doing similar work, most of the other firms that are mentioned in the same breath are much larger. They have multiple offices across the country, more associates per partner and offer less responsibility to juniors. I think we're in a sweet spot, so for the right kind of law student – one that wants responsibility, and wants to do sophisticated, high-end work – we're a great fit. But we're in the minority. What we do, and the way we're organized, is very different from most firms. So if you want the big New York firm experience, you've got a lot of of choices, but if you want the type of experience that Irell offers, you really have very few choices.

Irell & Manella LLP

1800 Avenue of the Stars,
Los Angeles,
CA 90067-4276

  • Head Office: Los Angeles, CA
  • Number of domestic offices: 2
  • Number of international offices: 0
  • Worldwide revenue: $199,850,000
  • Partners (US): 44
  • Associates (US): 64
  • Summer Salary 2016 
  • 1Ls: $3,080/week
  • 2Ls: $3,080/week
  • Post 3Ls: $3,080/week
  • 1Ls hired? Yes
  • Split summers offered? Yes – first half of the summer only with a six week minimum
  • Summers 2016: 20
  • Offers/acceptances 2015: 20 offers, 15 acceptances. Some offers are outstanding to students who have accepted judicial clerkships.

Main areas of work
Antitrust, appellate, art, bankruptcy reorganization and creditors’ rights, class action defense, cyber liability and privacy, debt finance, entertainment litigation, insurance, IP litigation, IP transactions, litigation, media and entertainment transactions, mergers and acquisitions, patent, copyright and trademark, private equity and venture capital, professional liability defense, public offerings and private placements, real estate, securities law and corporate governance, securities litigation, tax and white collar defense.

Firm profile
Irell & Manella is a full service law firm with offices in Los Angeles and Newport Beach, California. Our unique practice and culture offers opportunities for talented law graduates to excel early in their careers. The quality of our work and the flexibility of our organization attract associates with the highest qualifications. Irell’s preeminent reputation brings clients to us from around the country and abroad and allows us to concentrate our physical presence in a single metropolitan area ensuring firm cohesion and a minimum of bureaucracy.

Recruitment details
• Number of 1st year associates: 6
• Number of 2nd year associates: 17
• 1st year associate salary: $180,000
• 2nd year associate salary: $190,000
• Clerking policy: Yes

Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2016:
Law Schools: Berkeley, University of Chicago, Columbia, Harvard, Michigan, Northwestern, NYU, Stanford, UCLA, UC Irvine, USC, Yale Job Fairs & Interview Programs: Duke Regional Interview Program, Lavender Law, Loyola University Chicago Patent Law Interview Program, Los Angeles On Tour Interview Program (Otip), Penn Regional Interview Program

Summer details  

Summer associate profile:
We recruit the top candidates from the top schools. Consideration is given to participation in law school activities, undergraduate record, previous work experience, references and other factors. We look for individuals who are motivated, creative, show leadership, have a strong work ethic and are serious about being a lawyer.

Summer program components:
Our summer program is designed to allow summer associates to explore the various areas of our practice. Summer associates have the opportunity to participate in a mock wrongful death trial that is tried to a jury and presided over by a judge. Each summer associate is assigned a mentor and a work coordinator. Feedback is provided on each project by the assigning attorney and each summer associate has a mid-summer review to deliver additional feedback about his or her progress