Kirkland & Ellis LLP - The Inside View

Driven associates thrive in this Midwest behemoth's entrepreneurial atmosphere: “It's Kirkland at its best.” 

YOU'RE a huge corporation facing a highly publicized multibillion-dollar lawsuit and federal prosecutors are gunning for you. You're going to need a firm with a formidable courtroom pedigree. Step up, Kirkland & Ellis – the “litigation juggernauts,” maintained one associate – one of BigLaw's most recognizable brands. The firm has been immersed in some of the biggest, headline-grabbing lawsuits in recent years. Kirkland has represented BP since the fallout from the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, for example, and acted for General Motors after a faulty ignition switch prompted a colossal recall of 2.6 million cars back in 2013.

It's unsurprising, then, that Kirkland earns top-tier Chambers USA rankings for litigation in its home city of Chicago, but the firm is far from a one-practice wonder. Its corporate team dominates Chicago's legal landscape – for over a decade it has earned the highest ranking Chambers USA can bestow on a firm – and Kirkland's antitrust, bankruptcy, IP, insurance, real estate and tax offerings are all among the cream of the crop too. Outside Illinois, Kirkland notches up a raft of nationwide Chambers USA rankings, alongside a whole host more for its work in California, New York and DC. Visit for the full rundown. 

The Work

Kirkland's free market system was recently deemed too “scary sounding,” so to calm the fraying nerves of incoming associates “they've rebranded it as an open assignment system.” The rebrand hasn't changed the process, but juniors reassured us that “although people arrive and think they will have to knock on doors, there is so much work going around that people tend to call you. Juggling projects can take some getting used to” but the open assignment system found favor with most of our interviewees: “I work hard enough, I don't need someone telling me who to work for,” one source stressed. “If I don't like working with someone or our styles don't click then I can avoid that option in the future,” another elaborated. “I can shape my career and the kind of work I want to do. It really works to your advantage.” Over half of Kirkland's 100-plus first-years head into transactional departments, and around a quarter slot into litigation. The remainder are divided between restructuring and IP.

“Juggling projects can take some getting used to."

Although some transactional subgroups – like funds formation – hire several newbies directly into their area, most deal-doing juniors begin life as generalists. “We're expected to take on one or two matters in every subset,” and sources had dabbled in M&A, debt finance, capital markets, private equity and funds formation. “My experience as a third-year is drastically different to when I first walked in the door. Back then I was just trying to get my head around what a transaction entails, conducting basic due diligence and handling very straightforward ancillary documents like certificates for closing. It picked up very quickly; by the fifth month I was running diligence and negotiating and drafting ancillary documents. Today I'm running deals, drafting and negotiating the main agreements and managing client expectations.”

Litigators tend to remain as generalists throughout their career. “The partners do a bit of everything,” so juniors don't have to move around much to experience areas such as antitrust, bankruptcy, trade secrets, securities, general commercial litigation and white-collar crime. One litigator told us: “Matters like the BP litigation require a small army of associates on doc review, but I've had only a very small number of cases where I've just sat behind a screen and done that. Most caseloads allow us to get involved with every aspect, from attending and leading depositions to managing the discovery process,” to legal research and brief writing.

Hours & Compensation

Kirkland routinely pays bonuses “significantly over market,” with juniors avowedly “pretty happy” with their windfall. All those dollars aren’t for nothing though: “There are three levels of busy. If it's quiet, I'm not here after 4pm. Normally it's relatively busy and I'm out by 7pm. If we're slammed I'll be here until 10pm when they turn out the lights in the hallway.” Even if that energy-saving measure seems like a good sign that associates might want to vacate the building, there can be little relief in the sanctuary of their own home. “It's hard to shut your brain off,” one source admitted. “It's easy to get sucked into working more than you would like; we're all hard workers so it can be a challenge to switch off.” Technology proves “a blessing and a curse; in a sense, unless I'm asleep I'm always on call. I get emails at all hours of the night until I go to bed and see more when I get up.” Even taking vacation “is sort of at your own risk.” While colleagues “try to be respectful of it, when you have knowledge people need they will email you questions.”

“Significantly over market.”

Relief may come in the lack of a formal billing target. “Kirkland is as hard-working or intense as people are willing to make it; if you want to work lots of hours you can but if you don't, that's fine too.” Interviewees put the “sweet spot for maximizing a bonus and your work/life balance” at around 2,000-2,200 hours, but we spoke to several juniors billing well into the mid 2,000s. “I'm knackered,” one admitted. Other high-billers were quick to point out: “We went to top law schools and all strive to be the best. I feel no external pressure to work certain hours but everyone has an internal drive to work as much as possible.” In 2016, the firm announced pay rises for associates in all its US offices, not just New York.


High-billing, super-motivated... sources admitted that Kirkland can “sound daunting to some people. Inevitably you will find champions, mentors and people you click with and they'll help you through. People work hard when they have to, but the firm knows we cannot go 100 miles an hour 24/7.”

“You can find your niche.” 

Several interviewees noted their surprise at finding the firm “very different from its cut-throat reputation. There is a lot of team-based cooperation and so much work going around that we have to turn it down, not fight for it!” Another pointed out: “We may have a reputation for being tough-edged but I've found everyone very friendly.” The open assignment system “acts as a check on people treating each other the right way; if you're not nice, no one will work with you.”

While the drive to work hard seemed pretty consistent across the offices –“this place is made up of a lot of workaholics” – juniors did point out the difficulty of identifying other defining Kirkland characteristics. “There are 200 to 300 corporate attorneys in Chicago; you can find your niche in terms of the culture you like.” Those in smaller offices found it easier to spot trends. One junior reckoned DC is made up of attorneys “very much doing their own thing,” while over in San Francisco “we hang out together outside of work and the partners know everyone. People take my work for a week if I'm really slammed. The job can be very demanding but people don't express that in a negative way.”

Training & Development

“Kirkland puts its money where its mouth is when it comes to training; it's not something they just whack in the marketing brochure.” New starters are all flown to one office to spend several days learning “about tech, time entry systems and all that stuff,” followed by practice area orientations.

“It's a love/hate relationship.”

Ongoing practice area training sessions are delivered through the firm's Kirkland Institute program. The Kirkland Institute of Corporate Practice (KICP) covers “most of the different practice areas and deals you see in first and second year.” By the third year, sessions include topics such as “how to run a deal; it's less substantive legal training and more how to be a better associate.”

At the time of our calls, third-year litigators were about to get stuck in to their annual Kirkland Institute for Trial Advocacy program (KITA): first-years conduct cross and direct examinations while second-years stage a bench trial and third and fourth-years participate in a mock jury trial. “It's a love/hate relationship. They're really fun and we look back on them with fond memories but in the weeks leading up to it we're wishing we didn't have all this fake work when there is so much real work on our plates.”


HQ and mega office Chicago houses almost 600 attorneys in an “amazing office. There is no comparison.” New York is currently undergoing “mass renovations; we're turning the conference floor into two floors interconnected by a grand staircase.” DC has a few more years to wait before moving to new, smarter digs in 2019. In San Francisco it's all about what's outside the window: “The view is incredible. It's the best out of any of the offices,” and overlooks San Francisco Bay.

“There is no comparison.”

Despite the miles between them, juniors reckoned their offices were well integrated into Kirkland's US network. Although most cross-office interaction happens among the higher echelons, many interviewees still had the chance to work “pretty seamlessly” with other bases on cross-border deals or call upon remote specialists, such as DC's employment team.

Pro Bono

All pro bono hours are counted as billable and Kirkland expects every attorney to reach at least 20 hours a year: “Come October or November and the pro bono coordinators start hounding people who haven't hit the minimum.” Many in fact do much more than the 20.

“Act fast.” 

Assisting startups and nonprofits to incorporate, revise charters or draw up employment agreements proved popular among associates in the Windy City. San Franciscans have to “act fast” before the pro bono cases they want are snapped up by others. “We do a lot of work to assist veterans who have health or criminal issues or whose disability filings have been denied,” and the firm also sends some attorneys down to the local housing court twice a week. DC associates also have a hand in helping veterans or working on landlord/tenant matters, while in the Big Apple “the firm does a lot of asylum applications for LGBT individuals,” among other things. 

Pro Bono hours 

  • For all attorneys across all US offices: 103,846 
  • Average per US attorney: 72


“Diversity isn't our strongest point but I think they're prioritizing it heavily,” one East Coast source ruminated. “We hold diversity events such as dinners or happy hours, and the Women's Leadership Initiative (WLI) held a retreat to a country club for a day to chat about issues unique to women.” Over on the West Coast “the attrition rate for women in some groups seems to be steep but the firm has made several accommodations to women; they've introduced a mothers' room” in San Francisco and the office has an active WLI group.

“They've introduced a mothers' room.”

In Chicago, “the WLI and LGBT subcommittee are big here,” but associates did note that like most of BigLaw the firm “does skew toward white males. I think it's changing in the younger classes where there is a lot more gender and ethnic diversity.”

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Get Hired

Several sources felt that “the people who do well at Kirkland are self-starters.” Recruiters “try to hire people who are driven. The open assignment system treats you like an adult, so you need to be self-motivated to do well and succeed.” Others reckoned that assertiveness would make it easier for associates “to thrive” when seeking out work.

“Being wishy-washy about practice groups is a bad idea.”

One junior found that “associates here tend to be more outgoing than at other firms we come across; you don't need to be an extrovert, just demonstrate that you have a personality rather than being stoic." Another associate told us that when it comes to interviews: “Being wishy-washy about practice groups is a bad idea. It's better to be clear and say 'this is my goal, I have an interest in this and it's demonstrated by my resume'.” Go online to read our interview with recruiting committee vice chairs Beth Deeley and Jason Kanner.

Strategy & Future

“No more splashy hires.”

“We're in a conservative, slow-growth mode right now,” juniors believed, with sources predicting “no more splashy hires or new office openings.” (Back in 2014 the firm launched an office in Houston and hired so-called '$9 Million Man' (per year) IP partner Jim Hurst into Chicago.)

But Kirkland isn't standing still. Big Apple associates had noticed a steady “shift away from our focus on litigation” in the sense that corporate in particular (and public company within that) is going great guns right now (litigation is growing too). One junior confirmed: “Over the last couple of years there has been strong growth in our corporate group.”

Catching up with firmwide recruiting committee vice chairs Beth Deeley and Jason Kanner

Chambers Associate: What kind of questions do you ask during OCIs?

Beth Deeley: As those interviews are pretty short, we use them to get to know students. Some attorneys may ask them about experiences reflected in their resumes. We care about a candidate's enthusiasm for the type of work we do at Kirkland and we try to see if they have a sense of initiative.

Jason Kanner: We're really trying to get a sense of whether they would be a good fit at Kirkland but a lot of the interview is spontaneous; we'll react to what candidates put in front of us.

CA: What about callbacks?  

JK: We don't provide standard guidance on how to conduct interviews but generally I think our people are considering whether candidates are qualified, would be a good fit and are someone they'd want to work with.

BD: At a high level, some of the things we look for are an interest in our practice areas and offices, a sense of enthusiasm and thoughtfulness. Everybody understands second year law students generally do not have a lot of legal experience to draw from; they may have had a job over their first summer so we look at how they speak to that experience, communicate how they've taken initiative, how they are growing, and how they are thinking about developing their practice.

JK: If a candidate can walk me through their resume, show me things that led them in the direction of where they are now and how those experiences tie into their journey, it shows me they'll be a good associate. These are the best possible interview candidates as opposed to someone effectively who sits there and says, 'I went to law school because I didn't know what else to do'.

CA: Are there any extra curricular activities or summer work students could be doing during law school which would improve their chances at interview?

BD: We don't have any set criteria or a check-list but writing for a law review or periodical or undertaking programs such as trial advocacy or moot court – activities oriented toward skill building, including those that are in a competitive environment – all look good on resumes. In terms of work experience, it's helpful to have some focus around where you want to go with your practice. Try to find opportunities after the first summer that allow you to build on skills that are relevant to practice areas of interest. From a litigation standpoint, government and judicial ex-tern experiences are helpful at showing you what you might see as a litigator and generally will give you a greater perspective on this area than your first year at law school.

JK: Any extra curricular activity, whether during law school, undergrad or elsewhere, where you can show you were dedicated, rigorous, challenged and worked hard is valuable.

CA: What kind of person thrives at the firm?

BD: People who come in with initiative and enthusiasm for what I'll call the craft. Someone who walks in very enthusiastically wanting to do the kind of work we do, really thrives here. We look for people with creativity who aren't afraid to put their ideas forward and take the reins. Those who are eager to get responsibility early on are the kind of people who are successful at Kirkland.

JK: To expand on that, we have a lot of attorneys and this a very diverse place where people have lots of skills and bring many things to the table but there are some things we do focus on. We look for people who are entrepreneurial and commercially minded. Part of being a good lawyer is being a trusted advisor; it's about more than telling the client what the law is. We have to give good, solid, commercial advice to the client too.

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

BD: An eagerness to do the work stands out to me. We make opportunities such as attending depositions and client meetings available whenever we can. One of our goals is to give associates a realistic view of what we do; I think the recruits who come in with enthusiasm and a real eagerness to participate stand out. Obviously we're looking at the quality of their work, whether they fit, are a team player and understand our ethos but the first principal is do they want to do what we do?

JK: Occasionally someone comes in with prior work experience and can distinguish themselves if they know something about business; if a summer worked at a major investment bank they’re more likely to know what they are talking about. However, that's highly uncommon and not expected at all. We also don't expect people to know the business of what we do as law school doesn't teach that. An eagerness to learn and participate makes us feel like they're happy to be here and it makes me happy too. We remember these people when they come back to the firm and we're excited to have them here knowing they'll do a great job.

CA: What does the firm do to encourage diversity in recruiting?

BD: Our diversity initiatives flow throughout the year; we liaise with a lot of schools and various law associations and work with diverse groups at these institutions to offer programming. We also offer resume review workshops and mock interviews at law schools; we're trying to keep ourselves constantly engaged with diversity groups. I think that puts us on the map and allows students to understand Kirkland's name and brand. We have a strong tradition of reaching out to a broad group of students and people in practice; I've always believed that casting the widest net will bring us the right talent and we try to do that not just during the recruiting season but throughout the year.

JK: We have numerous diversity programs for 1Ls where we will hire 1L summer associates at some of our offices. We also offer about a dozen firmwide diversity fellowships. We want to get the best diverse candidates here at Kirkland. We have a variety of affinity groups and events across the summer and we encourage everyone, not just diverse students, to get involved.

Kirkland's taste for formidable litigation

“I need to be challenged,” one Kirkland junior told us, as we discussed why they'd joined a firm that doesn't shy away from working on demanding matters. Kirkland's reputation as fierce litigators has made it one of the go-to firms to defend highly publicised and closely scrutinised cases surrounding issues that have caused public and media sensations.

Kirkland is currently representing General Motors in over 190 class action and personal injury lawsuits which emerged after the mass recall of 11.1 million cars due to a defective ignition switch. The switches were found to sometimes slip position from 'run' to 'accessory', resulting in the power to steering, breaks and air bags cutting out. After the defect caused a fatal crash, a GM engineer approved a switch design change in 2006 but it took a further seven years for the alteration to come to light and prompt GM to begin recalling affected cars. In May 2014 the auto-manufacturer was fined a whopping $35 million for delaying its disclose of the issue, despite knowing about the problem of faulty switches for almost a decade. Since investigations by Congress and federal prosecutors and investigators began, the ignition switches have been blamed for 124 deaths and 275 injuries and GM has set aside $625 million for compensation.

Since 2010 Kirkland has also been representing BP in the fallout from the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill, after a drilling rig exploded and subsequently sank in April 2010, with the loss of 11 lives. By the time the well was finally sealed five months later, the US government estimated that 4.9 billion barrels of oil had leaked into the surrounding area, causing massive damage to the environment and local economy. In subsequent litigation Kirkland were able to prove that only 3.19 million barrels of oil had been discharged, reducing the Clean Water Act penalty served on BP from $18 billion to $13.7 billion. The firm also secured a ruling which stated that BP was not grossly negligent in its attempt to stem the flow of oil and helped BP to secure a class settlement with the Plaintiff's Steering Committee in March 2012 to resolve legitimate economic loss and medical loss claims.

With all that experience behind the firm, it wouldn't have surprised many legal commentators when news outlets started reporting in September 2015 that Kirkland & Ellis would be representing Volkswagen, after it emerged that the car manufacturer had fitted vehicles with emission test cheating devices. The so-called 'defeat device' software was able detect emissions testing (rather than normal driving) conditions and switch to low power and performance mode to reduce emissions. Once out of a laboratory setting, vehicles resumed their normal power mode and emitted 40 times the US legal limit of nitrogen oxide pollutants.

So far Kirkland have remained tight lipped about their involvement in the case; an Environmental Protection Agency notice of violation which copied in Kirkland partner Stuart Drake was the source of media speculation on the firm's involvement but Kirkland have declined to comment on whether they have been appointed by Volkswagen to handle the EPA matter.

Kirkland & Ellis LLP

300 North LaSalle ,
IL 60654

  • Head Office: None
  • Number of domestic offices: 7
  • Number of international offices: 5
  • Partners (US): 700
  • Associates (US): 740
  • Summer Salary 2016  
  • 1Ls hired? Some offices 
  • Split summers offered? No
  • Can summers spend time in overseas office? Yes. The London office has a summer program.
  • Summers 2016: 146
  • Offers/acceptances 2015: 133 offers, 112 acceptances

Main areas of work
Kirkland’s main practice areas are corporate, intellectual property, litigation and restructuring.

Firm profile
Kirkland & Ellis LLP is a 1,600-attorney law firm representing global clients in complex corporate, dispute resolution and arbitration, intellectual property, litigation, restructuring, tax and technology matters. The firm has offices in Beijing, Chicago, Hong Kong, Houston, London, Los Angeles, Munich, New York, Palo Alto, San Francisco, Shanghai and Washington, DC. The firm’s principal goals are to provide the highest-quality legal services available anywhere; to be an instrumental part of each client’s success; and to recruit, retain and advance the brightest legal talent.

Recruitment details
• Number of 1st year associates: 140
• Number of 2nd year associates: 180
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $180,000
• Clerking policy: Yes

Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2016:
UC Berkeley; UC Hastings; UCLA; Cardozo; University of Chicago; Chicago – Kent; Columbia; Duke; Fordham; George Washington; Georgetown; Harvard; University of Houston; Howard University; University of Illinois; University of Michigan; New York University; Northwestern University; University of Notre Dame; University of Pennsylvania; USC; Stanford; University of Texas; Tulane; Vanderbilt University; University of Virginia; Washington University; Yale

Summer details
Summer associate profile:
Kirkland looks for candidates who show a record of outstanding academic achievement, evidence of initiative and a desire to assume early responsibility. Kirkland values individuals from diverse social, economic, cultural and personal backgrounds. The firm looks favorably upon law review, moot court and other indicators of intellectual curiosity and drive.

Summer program components:
Kirkland offers summer associates a realistic view of their future as lawyers at the firm. From day one, summer associates are allowed to choose challenging assignments that are of interest to them through Kirkland’s open assignment system, including pro bono matters. Each office offers summer associates substantive, practicespecific training, writing workshops and numerous seminars on a variety of topics. Kirkland also hosts ample social events for summer associates. By the time they leave the firm, summer associates have a feel for Kirkland people, practice areas and culture and have a foundation on which to choose Kirkland to begin their careers.