Kasowitz's "aggressive" litigators are as formidable as ever.
READERS should be in no doubt about this New York-headquartered firm's raison d'être: “Kasowitz is first and foremost a litigation shop.” Led by Marc Kasowitz – dubbed 'Kas' by his attorneys – the firm has maintained its tough reputation in the courtroom while navigating a challenging period. Kasowitz has seen its headcount drop in recent years: it conducted layoffs in both 2014 and 2015. A few lawyers also left to join DLA Piper and McKool Smith.
However, juniors were keen to point out that the firm has worked from “the top down” to improve associates' lives. An associates' committee was created and (to universal approval) bonuses were set firmly at market rate in 2015. This certainly put a spring in our sources' step, and in their opinion, Kasowitz has weathered the storm and emerged as a leaner and more productive outfit.
“It's the kind of place where if you seek out more responsibility you'll be rewarded for it.”
Chambers USA regards Kasowitz as part of 'The Elite' for its general commercial litigation prowess in New York. Fortune 500 companies like Ford, Comcast and News Corporation fill the books, and high-stakes cases can roll into the billions. The department is especially well known for its successful defense of insurer MBIA against 19 of the world's largest financial institutions in the wake of the financial crisis. Elsewhere, Kasowitz boasts some transactional capabilities in the form of small corporate and real estate practices.
Be warned: Kasowitz is not for the faint-hearted. “You need to be aggressive,” juniors agreed, highlighting the extent to which newbies have to be proactive and self-assured in order to thrive. “It's the kind of place where if you seek out more responsibility you'll be rewarded for it.”
The vast majority of juniors join Kasowitz's commercial litigation practice in New York. This may sound restrictive, but there's plenty of scope to diversify one's practice. As a source explained, “when you sign up to do litigation, you're exposed to around 20 niches,” including product liability, securities and antitrust. A tiny handful of juniors join smaller practice areas – like IP and transactional real estate – but are usually put there because of prior work experience or educational background.
“I've worked on cases where I've prepped Marc himself.”
In commercial litigation, an informal assignment system (“based on the relationships you made as a summer associate”) has been scrapped in favor of a more structured one. “Every Monday morning there is a pop-up you have to fill out before your computer will function;” in this associates explain what they're working on and their future availability. A slightly paternalist approach it may be, but it replaced an “inequitable system” that often meant “some people were slammed” while others “slipped under the radar.”
Despite a fairly rigid hierarchy, Kasowitz's associates are given responsibility early on. Newbies proudly declared that they'd drafted a mix of “discovery requests, motions and reviews,” attributing their success to the fact they showed willingness to tackle more substantive tasks. One source even boasted: “I've worked on cases where I've prepped Marc himself.” On smaller cases, “you have a lot more opportunity to work directly with partners and senior associates.” The likelihood of assisting with depositions also increases on these more modest gems. The bigger cases, meanwhile, are run “from the top with partners delegating – there are many layers between juniors and seniors.” For those just starting out, this can mean working through a pile of doc review.
Training & Development
New starters enroll at 'Kasowitz University', but don't fear: you won't have to cram for exams or join a sorority. It involves “mandatory CLE training via a series of workshops that take you through how a case works. They get everyone familiarized with the litigation process.” After graduating from Kasowitz University, on-site training becomes scarce. However, all lawyers are given “free membership to the Practising Law Institute” which is “a five-minute walk away” from Kasowitz's HQ.
Due to gripes over bonuses and how they're worked out, Kasowitz's review process has recently been revamped. Juniors now complete an online form and submit it to partners they've worked with. After their feedback has been collated, usually “a partner you haven't worked with delivers your review.” This “more regimented” system has been designed to ensure that those who don't receive full bonuses are given clear reasons why. We also heard that several juniors received above market rate bonuses this year.
“Appeals to confident, outgoing types.”
Many Big Apple firms try to water down their hard-nosed image but Kasowitz has always celebrated its more aggressive reputation. But what's it really like on the inside? Associates described it as a “top-down culture, with Marc K as the face and head of the firm.” While some name partners take a hands-off approach, Kas "really sets the tone in terms of collegiality" and holds meetings with associates to discuss planned changes. Given that Kasowitz is “geared toward litigation, it appeals to confident, outgoing types.” Many mentioned that it's also a firm “that values independence,” attracting those with an “entrepreneurial spirit: if you work hard and take on responsibility, you will advance.”
The layoffs put paid to the weekly happy hours partly out of sensitivity for those who lost their jobs; “there's a couple of things now and again, but nothing on a formal weekly or monthly basis.” Every year there's a firm outing which “traditionally involved Marc renting a country club for a day” with breakfast, lunch and dinner interspersed with “free golf and massages.” Last year the firm eschewed convention and the whole office spent an evening at Chelsea Pier “in this big restaurant on the waterfront.” There was still a lavish spread and lawyers were up till the wee hours “laughing and dancing to the band.”
“It's shinier, it's prettier, it's a much nicer office."
Like the firm as a whole, Kasowitz's Midtown HQ has also undergone something of a transformation –“it's shinier, it's prettier, it's a much nicer office generally.” Claustrophobics beware: this renovation also entailed a change in the office allocation system. Rather than giving all new lawyers their own window office, they now “share for a year and a half.” Next they're given their own windowless office, and then “it takes another two years to move back to an exterior one.” Those who had experienced the change admitted “it was hard losing the natural light” but they weren't too vitamin D-deprived: “The hallways are well lit because the exterior offices' doors are always open.”
Kasowitz has built up a national network of offices over the years, spanning California, Texas, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey and Washington, DC. However, these offices are significantly smaller than the New York mothership, and only a couple of associates on our list were based outside of the Big Apple.
Hours & Compensation
Reforms have also shed light on the firm's billing system. “There used to be a vague figure; people said it was 2,100 but no one really knew,” a junior explained. As part of the change-up “they decided to come up with clear criteria – it's now 2,150.” This target includes “pro bono, business development and recruiting hours.” Formalizing a target has helped to combat an opaque bonus system: “Historically bonuses were a black box. We heard a lot of things about them but most of it wasn't true.” The newly-formed associates' committee raised this issue and “worked with the partners to put together a bonus matrix.” Even for those without Morpheus-like levels of intelligence, the matrix is pretty simple: “On one side they have your reviews and on the other side they have your hours.” Associates must perform well on both fronts to get a full bonus: “If you hit your hours but get bad reviews, you won't get the full payout.” Those who are deserving always come out on top, we were assured: “I've never come across someone I thought would be entitled to a full bonus and then heard they didn't get it.”
“Very good about face time.”
After the reduction in staff, associates' workloads increased. This, coupled with the fact that most Kasowitz attorneys “never say no to work,” meant that a lot of our sources had a very frenetic first few months at the firm. This has since improved and many were happy to report that Kasowitz is “very good about face time,” so working from home has become more popular. Associates are given 20 days of vacation a year, although those hoping for a work-free break shouldn't get their hopes up. One diligent attorney told us: “I still take my BlackBerry with me on vacation and check it regularly.”
Pro bono is “always available” but associates aren't “pushed to do it.” Though officially pro bono hours count toward billables, juniors were unclear on how the system worked: “They say it counts but I never know how much to trust that.” There is a pro bono coordinator but insiders advised future newbies to make the first move: “He'll help out if you come to him.” The few sources that had done pro bono had mostly been involved in “asylum work,” though one attorney spoke glowingly of the help Kasowitz had given to the Hudson River Park Trust. Other potential avenues for pro bono assignments include Her Justice, Human Rights First and Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts.
Pro bono hours
Diversity is an area in which progress has been fairly moot, according to juniors. While the firm supports minority organizations (such as the Cuban American Bar Association) and sponsors a variety of networking events, many sources wanted to see more robust initiatives established internally. Aaron Marks insists that “diversity from our perspective starts with leadership” and pointed to the fact that Hector Torres – a Hispanic lawyer – is a name partner. On the gender front, sources were hopeful that a recent “mostly female” class will provide the firm with more senior women lawyers in the future.
“Really focuses on a candidate's personality.”
Just to make it crystal clear: “It's important to know that Kasowitz, unlike other New York firms, is a litigation shop. You're not going to get through the interviews if you don't have a strong reason why you want to do litigation.” If you tick that box it's important to note that the firm also “really focuses on a candidate's personality.” For anecdotal evidence: “Marc said this – if there are two candidates and one has a higher GPA but the other is a nicer person, they will take the latter.”
In 2015 – after two years of reduced class sizes – the firm hired more summer associates: a sign, our sources hoped, that the days of layoffs are far behind Kasowitz.
Strategy & Future
Aaron Marks had this to say about the firm's future: “I think in ten years' time we'll still largely be doing what we're currently doing. Maybe we'll be a little bigger but not much. We'll still be litigation-focused and New York-centered.” In terms of practice areas, he added: “I can imagine that the ever-expanding world of privacy litigation will only continue to grow. Otherwise IP and banking will continue to be fertile ground.”
“The ever-expanding world of privacy litigation will only continue to grow.”
We did have to mention that elephant in the room though. Here's Marks' take on those layoffs: “From our perspective we were looking at what we thought the future held for us. We acted smartly to keep our headcount at a manageable level.���
Interview with hiring partner Aaron Marks
What highlights from the past year would you want to flag up to student readers interested in your firm?
We represent private equity firm TPG – one of the equity buyers in the Caesar's chain – in probably one of the highest profile bankruptcy cases of the last ten years. We also represent Ford in a number of international antitrust cases against suppliers from around the world. We represented the AMC network in a major lawsuit brought by the creator of The Walking Dead about profit participation in the show. So there's been a lot of work on significant cases.
What's your long-term vision for the firm? What do you want it to look like in 10 years' time?
I think in ten years' time we'll largely still be doing what we're doing. Maybe we'll be a little larger, but we’ll still be litigation-focused and New York-centered.
Have last year's lay offs affected the recruitment drive?
It really hasn't. I think the lay offs were perceived as smart. Since the summer, the economy has been choppy and other firms are feeling this too. In terms of litigation and corporate work – from our perspective we were looking at what we thought the future held for us. We knew it was smart to keep our head count at a manageable level. Since the lay offs we have focused on quality of life issues for our associates. We've been listening to their views – for example, they were much happier with the bonuses this year. Generally there is a high level of morale at the firm. We're dealing with the volatile economy well and prospects are excellent. Plus, we are also very busy now.
Any plans to open new offices? Are there practices that you view as growth?
There are no current plans to open any additional US offices. I can imagine that the ever expanding world of privacy litigation will only continue to expand. Otherwise, I'm sure IP and banking litigation will continue to be fertile ground.
Has 2015-16 changed the game in terms of making partner?
Not here. It remains the same even though it’s not a set formula. Making partner at our firm is not formulaic for us, and is more of a touch and feel process. Is this somebody who we believe can run cases? Somebody who will attract business and someone we want to be partners with in a very long time?
Roughly how many associates do you take on each year?
Each September we have a class of first years – this year I think we had 16 or 17. And we also take on associates through lateral hiring – we hired about half a dozen lateral this year. They are usually in the mid-level range with a couple of years at one of the larger firms.
What does the firm do to encourage diversity in recruiting?
We've got a fairly diverse group of attorneys. Diversity from our perspective starts with leadership. One of our named partners – Hector Torres – is Hispanic and our head of IP is African-American. We also seek diversity through recruiting, including, for example, by participating in the Northeast Black Law Student Association (NEBLSA) Job Fair and receiving resumes from Howard University, and the NYU and Georgetown Diversity Resume Collects.
What are you looking for in a candidate?
We're really looking for confident self-starters that are competitive people. Ultimately, litigation has a baseline skill set requirement due to the amount of research and writing involved. To succeed, someone has to be willing to engage in contentious situations. Someone with a bit of moxie really.
What can students do now to increase their chances of impressing you in their applications and at interview?
Obviously doing well in school is important. There is not a particular extra-curricular path, though obviously moot court and law review help. We want someone who shows a genuine desire to work hard and shows a real interest in litigation in particular. We see a lot of students who really aren't sure what they want to focus on; which is fine, but we tend to do better with the educated consumer that has already made a decision that they would rather do litigation.
Can you very briefly outline your summer program?
Over time our summer program has become more and more embedded in the fabric of the city. Its always been a fairly small program – less than 20 students – and we try to make it very personal. As time goes on, more and more young partners have wanted to get involved. We don't take the summers to Broadway shows – we give them real New York experiences and they seem to have a great time. Whether going to people's homes or fun restaurants – we maximize our opportunities to get to know them and for them to get to know us.
Any advice or words of wisdom for our student readers as they try to enter the legal profession?
I would say get knowledgeable about your options. Obviously there is a lot of information out there as to what it’s like to practice in the different fields. Try to figure out what you want to focus on early in your career. If you have a desire to do first-rate litigation work, please send us an email.
Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP
- Head Office: New York, NY
- Number of domestic offices: 9
- Number of international offices: N/A
- Partners (US): 96
- Associates (US): 134
- Summer Salary 2016
- 2Ls: $3,077/week
- Post 3Ls: $3,077/week
- 1Ls hired? Case by case
- Split summers offered? Case by case
- Can summers spend time in overseas office? N/A
- Summers 2016: 9
- Offers/acceptances 2015: 6 offers, 6 acceptances
Main areas of work
Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman LLP, one of the largest litigation firms in the country, represents clients in high-stakes lawsuits involving antitrust, commercial banking, complex financial products, creditors’ rights and bankruptcy, employment practices, entertainment, environmental, matrimonial, insurance recovery, intellectual property, international arbitration, mass tort and product liability, real estate, securities and white collar criminal defense litigation. The firm employs a decidedly aggressive approach to litigation and strives to achieve the most favorable results for its clients by focusing from the beginning of each case on preparation for trial. While litigation remains our core focus, the firm also represents clients in real estate transactions and corporate and government affairs matters.
Our success in implementing uniquely creative and successful legal strategies across practice areas has brought us clients with exceptionally interesting and challenging work. Such clients include leading companies in the high-tech, manufacturing, chemical, computer, energy, entertainment, consumer products, pharmaceutical and telecommunications industries, as well as major hedge funds, private equity firms, commercial banks, real estate developers and investors, regulated utilities and individuals.
• Number of 1st year associates: 15
• Associate Salaries 1st year: $180,000
• Number of 2nd year associates: 16
• Associate Salaries: 2nd year: $190,000
• Clerking Policy: Yes
Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2016:
Columbia, Cornell, Fordham, Georgetown, NYU, NEBLSA Job Fair and Penn
Summer associate profile:
Strong academic achievement, outstanding judgment, character and personal skills. Commitment to the practice of law and potential for growth.
Summer program components:
The primary objective of our summer program is to provide quality work assignments and professional experiences reflective of the depth and complexity of our practice. Summer associates learn about trying cases and drafting legal documents, motions and agreements and are exposed to courtroom appearances, depositions and client meetings. Our program provides an experience as close as possible to that of a first-year associate, as well as the opportunity to gain insight into the work and culture of the firm. Summer associates participate in formal training programs, a partner lunch series and an associate mentor program, all of which assist with acclimation to the firm. Summer associates receive ongoing feedback from the attorneys with whom they work and are provided with formal mid and exit reviews. The firm coordinates various charitable events during Give Back week. Kasowitz also hosts social events providing summer associates and our attorneys the opportunity to get to know one another in an informal environment.