A midsized Big Appler, Kramer Levin's “nice normal people” make it "a place where associates are generally very happy."
KRAMER Levin has seen a spread of lateral hires recently: "Two IP partners in the life sciences area, a real estate partner, a corporate partner, a fund formation partner and a commercial litigation partner," managing partner Paul Pearlman tells us. Such a number of additions is fairly uncommon at the firm, although he highlights that it isn't part of any particular growth plan, but rather a mix of opportunistic hires and gap-filling. Even so, Kramer has certainly expanded since it was founded nearly 50 years ago, with just six partners and eight associates to its name. The Manhattanite now has over 300 lawyers across nearly 30 practice areas in two offices. With advertising litigation being the apple of Kramer's eye – ranked number one nationwide in Chambers USA – the firm also takes the top spot statewide for its bankruptcy & restructuring and immigration work.
But while, as one junior enthused, the firm “works on cutting-edge, sophisticated deals and cases,” associates were also eager to highlight Kramer's pleasant working environment, and how much they “enjoy each other's company.” In the words of Paul Pearlman, "one of the things we try to do is maintain the best of both worlds: the collegiality and collaboration of a small firm, while practicing against and with the major firms out there."
"Older associates and partners would reach out to us."
On the summer program, “you can do as much or as little of any department's work as you like.” Some cautioned that the firm “does not give department-specific offers at the end of the summer, because they can't always know what their needs are going to be two years in advance.” Incoming junior associates find out what department they're in just before they join, and their preferences are taken into consideration. Around 20% of our interviewee list this year were lateral hires, reflecting junior-level opportunities for those wishing to switch from other employers. Kramer's litigation and corporate groups take the most juniors overall, while most of the rest go to intellectual property, real estate and creditors' rights (bankruptcy) teams. The remainder are spread around tax, immigration, environment, financial services, and the individual client group.
Most departments have a “hybrid system” of work allocation with an assigning partner coupled with the expectation that juniors do some door-knocking to get onto interesting cases. IP doesn't have an assigning partner, but “older associates and partners would reach out to us according to their needs.” In litigation, the work can be "very varied,” with a big focus on general commercial disputes, government investigations, white-collar defense, and false advertising cases (for example leaky diapers, 'odorless' deodorant and '99% natural' toothpaste...). Clients range from consumer products giants and big banks to small business owners. Litigators are also often brought in to "work on certain slices” of bankruptcy assignments and banking & finance matters. First and second-years get “a lot of doc review – it's just the way the legal world works at this level,” although by their third year, associates had “noticed the difference” in responsibility levels. “Now I'm doing an arbitration and attending hearings – generally getting very involved in the case.”
"As a first-year there was a lot of getting into the weeds."
Corporate deal-doers similarly discovered that “as a first-year there was a lot of getting into the weeds, reading contracts and doing due diligence. That has grown into leading the process more, like drafting the memo that goes to the client.” Associates reported doing much M&A work, mainly for private equity funds. Mid-market deals (those under a billion dollars) are “Kramer Levin's sweet spot.” Capital markets also features (including securities and public offerings), and cross-over with other groups includes restructuring: "Bankruptcy generates a lot of work for the corporate group.” Go online for info about the bankruptcy, real estate and IP departments.
Training & Development
New associates take part in an orientation week, which includes anything from “going over benefits and paperwork to computer training.” After this, the learning process is fairly informal, particularly in the smaller groups like IP and real estate, where it's more “learn by doing,” although there are regular practice group presentations. This doesn't mean newbies are just thrown to the lions, however. They're allocated mentors to guide them through the initial stages, and one real estate junior highlighted that “if I'm working with a partner on something, they'll definitely go out of their way to teach me how things work.” First-year litigation and corporate associates also mentioned “constant CLEs and presentations on practice-specific areas.”
"Go out of their way to teach me how things work."
The assessment process consists of a yearly review (biannual for first-years), during which two partners “go over evaluations that people have submitted about you. They tell you their impressions of you and give you the opportunity to ask questions.”
The vast majority of juniors are based in Kramer's New York HQ, where they share an office for their first two years. “I don't know who I would talk to if I was here by myself all day!” one junior laughed. Associates dig the building's convenient Midtown location, "basically across the street from the Rockefeller Center," even if "on the downside it's close to Times Square." There's a “nice art collection: it's amazing, super weird, sort of modernist. It's definitely, like, got a flair to it!" Sources were less complimentary about the old cafeteria, but excited about its refurb: "We had kind of a crappy cafeteria and they just replaced that. It's really good!" Sandwich, soup, pizza, yoghurt, salads...the choice is yours. One attorney mentioned that the offices are located within the lower half of Manhattan's Americas Tower, so associates “don't get jaw-dropping views. You're not going to get a 66th floor office that takes your breath away.”
"I don't know who I would talk to if I was here by myself all day!"
The firm's only other domestic office, in Silicon Valley, has around 15 lawyers and specializes in IP litigation, particularly involving tech and life sciences. Kramer's single international outpost, in Paris, was acquired in 1999 as the unexpected result of Clifford Chance's merger with Roger & Wells. The Paris office of the latter firm decided not to participate in the transaction, so Kramer saw their chance: "We were looking to do something in Europe at that time to better service our clients," explains managing partner Paul Pearlman.
Almost all of our interviewees mentioned that Kramer's culture was one of the main draws for them. “For me it was important to be in an environment where it's more down to earth, and the people are personable,” one revealed. Has it lived up to expectations? “Definitely,” was the emphatic reply. “Obviously there are exceptions, but they hire people who you want to work with, grab lunch or a drink with.” A third answered: “You can walk into any partner's office and ask a question or get advice.” Talking of partners, one newbie bravely confided that “they're not gods! I know every one of the top partners in my group. You don't have to go through three levels of partners to get access to those guys.”
"People need to have realistic expectations."
Some felt that the firm's smaller size was part of the reason for this cordial environment. “I think Kramer Levin is right on the edge,” one associate mused. “If they put in another 100 attorneys it would feel a lot bigger, but as it is you don't feel like you're working for a giant corporation. You get to know people within your group.” But while getting along is important, socializing isn't necessarily a priority, as “people have lives, families, friends; we recognize the value of going home at the end of the day. If you need to run out early nobody's going to question it.” But don't fall into the trap of assuming the culture is laid back: “A lot of people think that it's some version of BigLaw but also a lifestyle firm, and it's definitely not,” warned one associate. “It's probably not as cut-throat as a lot of big law firms, but it is nonetheless a big law firm, and people need to have realistic expectations about that.” Another added: “People work until midnight. Someone canceled a vacation recently and was reimbursed – that sort of thing happens.”
Hours & Compensation
Associates need to rack up 2,000 hours to get 60% of their bonus, and 2,150 for the full sum. While many felt that this was too high, and that the firm is “off the market with that,” others thought it doable, particularly as “all pro bono and CLEs count toward it," as well as things like recruiting and helping promote diversity. Associates were also quick to highlight that “the firm doesn't penalize you if you don't meet the threshold. I was under last year and they acknowledged that my group had been slow.”
"The category of what's included in billables is much broader than at other firms."
Interviewees generally reported working around ten hours a day, and a few hours at weekends. All-nighters aren't unknown, and we heard of one or two marathon 100-hour weeks. “That's as bad as it gets though,” we were promptly assured. “The partner I was working with said that was one of the worst deals he's been on – a normal week would be 50 to 60 billable hours.”
There's no cap on pro bono at Kramer. It all counts toward the bonus. Real estate associates reported (unsurprisingly) working on landlord and tenant disputes, while the litigation group does a lot of work with the South Brooklyn Legal Services program (which also offers an externship). In another departure from the BigLaw norm, Kramer provides associates to work here on secondment: “They send someone to work for four months full-time,” one explained. Other initiatives include helping domestic abuse charity Her Justice, with which Kramer “has a longstanding relationship” supporting women who've been victims of violence, and offering child custody assistance.
"They send someone to work for four months full-time."
Meanwhile, others had worked on "assisting with an application for special juvenile immigration status," and we heard of lawyers setting up an organization for children from low-income backgrounds, teaching them computer skills in a summer school-style environment.
Pro bono hours
“The firm is really well known for its LGBT support, and you feel that. Some of the partners submitted amicus briefs for all the Supreme Court matters for the gay marriage proceedings, and some very interesting speakers came in to talk about that.” Elsewhere, led by the diversity committee “they're making an effort. We have an attorneys of color group, and we do events to promote diversity in recruitment.”
"The firm is really well known for its LGBT support."
In litigation, juniors felt that the male to female ratio “seems pretty even,” while over in the corporate and real estate groups, “there are definitely more men than women.” One corporate associate added that “for the last few months, there has been one female lawyer on my floor.” The firm is trying to change this, however: “There are almost too many women’s initiatives!” one junior joked. “I keep getting emails about meetings and I'm like, 'I can't go to another one!'” Overall, Kramer currently has 46% female associates.
According to Kerri Ann Law, Kramer's hiring committee chair, "people who are willing to seize the opportunities that they're given do well here. We want someone who we can put in front of a client, court or adversary, and know that they are able to handle themselves; someone who's going to thrive where they're a bit uncomfortable." And make sure you do your homework before the interview, as "we want people who are as interested in us as we are in them." This means coming prepared with thoughtful questions: "What they shouldn't say is: 'I've learned everything I can learn from your website, so I don't have any questions.'"
“Doesn't have an up or out system of promotion."
Most sources acknowledged that “the partner prospects are not great” at Kramer. One corporate junior added that “in my group it seems like there's more fluidity, compared to a traditional firm, with respect to where you are in the hierarchy,” due largely to the fact that Kramer “doesn't have an up or out system of promotion. A lot of people have come from in-house, or are laterals.” To counter this, however, "they are encouraging to people who want to leave to go to a smaller firm, in-house, or to the US Attorney's office, for instance. A lot of associates do leave, and we often hear about what they've been doing.”
Strategy & Future
"We don't necessarily think bigger is better."
"Our strategy continues to be the same: to remain independent and grow organically through selective lateral transactions. Depending on the year, we may be taking more or fewer laterals; it just depends on our needs and if laterals meet our requirements," MP Paul Pearlman informs us. When asked about specific areas, he responds that "we're always looking to expand some of the core practice areas, but again we don't simply look to expand for expansion's sake; we don't necessarily think bigger is better."
Kramer's crews: more on the practice areas
Kramer's well-known bankruptcy department is called the creditors' rights group, as the majority of the work is “on the creditors side; usually those clients are hedge funds who invest in distressed companies.” Despite its name, however, there is also some work with “companies who are going to be a Chapter 11 bankruptcy debtor.” The size of the deals is certainly impressive: “We work on generally the biggest bankruptcy matters in the US, in New York and Delaware where the biggest bankruptcy courts are,” one CRA [creditors' rights associate] proudly told us, adding that the deals tend to be in the billions of dollars.
So what's a typical day for a newbie? “I do a lot of like traditional research and writing,” one CRA informed us, adding that “I spend a decent amount of time doing due diligence, reviewing debt documents, analyzing them, and explaining them to partners.” That said, client contact is not uncommon, one first-year telling us: “I've spent a decent amount of time recently on the phone with clients – I don't think that's super common for someone in my year.”
Real estate work is divided into general real estate and a condominium practice, a “specialty sub-section” of the group. Associates reported a lot of responsibility: “I work almost primarily with partners and very senior associates.” Direct contact with clients is also commonplace, “mostly by phone because most of our closings happen through escrow at this point.” There's overlap with other groups, particularly bankruptcy, although “our land use department is really heavily tied in as well.” Day-to-day tasks include working on purchase and sale agreements, as well as editing and revising documents and leases, with one associate adding “I'm on all the conference calls.”
Over in IP, associates described “a very diverse set of clients. We're currently representing a smaller client in a patent litigation suit, and we also do defensive suits against patent infringement lawsuits for bigger clients” such as pharmaceutical and telecommunications companies. One junior added, however, that they're seeing an increase number of smaller clients in their group, “which is great because we have a lot of matters that are more likely to go to trial, so it's good for developing that skill set.”
Responsibility levels in IP vary according to the matter at hand, but generally the feeling was that, as the teams are usually quite small, “you get more complex work earlier on.” One associate informed us: “I do mostly litigation work, and also a little bit of transactional work; it's nice to have that mix because I wanted to have experience in both to develop a more rounded set of skills.” Being on “three or four teams at once” means that IP juniors “spend a lot of time in smaller groups with a more team dynamic, which definitely helps you learn more quickly.”
Interview with Paul Pearlman, managing partner
Chambers Associate: What's been happening at the firm over the past year?
Paul Pearlman: One thing that has happened, which is a little out of the ordinary for us, is that we brought in six lateral partners this past year. Some were opportunistic and some were strategic, but if you look over our history we have typically hired no more than one or two laterals in most years. Indeed, we did not bring in any lateral partners in 2014. There was no particular reason for that, it's just that we did not identify anyone in 2014 who was the right fit for us. This year, however, we saw a number of candidates that made sense to us: two IP partners in the life sciences area, a real estate partner, a corporate partner, a fund formation partner and a commercial litigation partner.
CA: Are these lateral additions part of a broader strategy of expansion?
PP: Our strategy continues to be the same: to remain independent and to grow both organically and through selective lateral transitions. Depending on the year, we may be hiring more or fewer laterals, and that's not because we actively decided to grow or not, it just depends on our needs and if laterals meet our requirements. A cultural fit is also important, because we pride ourselves on our culture and our workplace environment, so we will pass on somebody who we don't believe will fit in. We're looking for somebody collegial, who is going to work collaboratively with others. Many of the laterals we have brought in have had some sort of prior relationship with partners here – either they've worked with them or they were together at a previous firm – and overall we've had a pretty high success rate with the laterals that we have brought in.
CA: Are there any particular practice areas that you're looking to grow?
PP: We're always looking to expand some of our core practice areas, but again we don't simply look to expand for expansion's sake; we don't necessarily think bigger is better. In certain areas we may get presented with an opportunity where we're not looking to grow, but which is a good strategic fit, and in other cases we have a need and will specifically look for someone. For instance, the last lateral who joined us a couple of weeks ago is in the fund formation area, and we've been looking for someone in that area for a while. We do a lot of work for funds in terms of transactional, litigation and real estate matters, but we never had an extensive practice in fund formation. The same goes for private equity; we have performed some formation work but it hasn’t been a significant part of our practice, and often clients want somebody who's been doing it day in, day out. We found someone that does both private equity and hedge fund formation, so we were able to satisfy two needs with one hire.
CA: Is there anything that you would flag up as being unique to Kramer Levin?
PP: The thing that immediately comes to mind is our size. When you look at the Am Law 100, we are among the smallest firms in terms of numbers, so you can look at Kramer Levin as either a big 'little firm' or a little 'big firm'. In addition, we're still relatively new – we haven’t even reached our 50th anniversary, so we're a first generation firm. One of the things we try to do is maintain the best of both worlds: the collegiality and collaboration of a small firm, while practicing against and with the major firms out there. That allows us to have a feel and culture that is a little different than other places. Also, the vast majority of our attorneys are in New York. We have an office in Paris with 40 or 50 lawyers, and in Silicon Valley with about 15, but approximately 85-90% of our lawyers are in the New York office. So having most of the firm in one office is also different than most of our competitors.
I would also add that we have been having a very, very busy year across a number of practice areas, including those that many firms say are slow for them. One of the many things that make us unique is that virtually every one of our practice areas has its own independent business base. Obviously we work together on many matters, but each department brings its own business to the table. That means that whether the economy is up or down, as a firm we tend to remain busy and don't have the wide variations that are experienced by many other firms.
CA: What was the rationale behind opening an office in Paris as opposed to, say, London?
PP: Obviously it is not a new office since it has been with us since 1999. Prior to joining our firm, the Paris office had been part of Rogers & Wells. That firm was being acquired by Clifford Chance, and the office in Paris decided they didn't want to participate in that transaction. We had previously brought in a few partners from Rogers & Wells so they contacted us to see if we were interested in acquiring them. Interestingly, we were looking to do something in Europe at that time to better service our clients. We decided that they would be a good fit, in part because many of the lawyers in the office had been trained in New York and they continued to practice in the New York style. In reality, at the time we were more likely to have done something in London rather than Paris, but this opportunity came along and we are glad it did.
The opening of the Silicon Valley office in 2011 was again a mixture of both opportunity and strategy. We have a meaningful IP practice, and we had been doing a fair amount of work for clients in Silicon Valley. Some of our attorneys were out there regularly to see clients, working out of shared office space. We were presented with an opportunity to hire two partners who were looking to leave their firm, so it made sense from both their and our perspectives.
CA: Any advice or words of wisdom for our student readers hoping to work for Kramer Levin, or more generally enter the legal profession?
PP: We're a great firm to work at, and because of our size, we bring in much smaller incoming classes than many other firms. That allows the attorneys who start here to get a broader and better experience. There's a tendency for people to go for the biggest name to put on their resume, but I believe that coming to a firm like ours gives associates a better learning experience at a young age, and provides them with a better foundation as they move forward.
Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP
1177 Avenue of the Americas,
- Head Office: New York, NY
- Number of domestic offices: 2
- Number of international offices: 1
- Worldwide revenue: $332,000,000
- Partners (US): 95
- Associates/Other (US): 215
- Summer Salary 2016
- 1Ls: $3,077/week
- 2Ls: $3,077/week
- Post 3Ls: N/A
- 1Ls hired? Case by case
- Split summers offered? Case by case
- Can summers spend time in overseas office? No
- Summers 2016: 15
- Offers/acceptances 2015: 12 offers, 11 acceptances
Main areas of work
Bankruptcy and restructuring; capital markets and M&A; commercial and white collar litigation; employment litigation; finance and banking; immigration; intellectual property; investment funds; real estate; land use and environmental; securitization; tax, employee benefits and individual clients.
Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP is a premier, full-service law firm with offices in New York, Silicon Valley and Paris. Firm lawyers are leading practitioners in their respective fields. The firm represents public and private companies - ranging from Global 1000 to middle-market and emerging growth companies - across a broad range of industries, as well as funds, institutions and individuals.
• Number of 1st year associates: 13
• Number of 2nd year associates: 18
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $180,000
• 2nd year: $190,000
• Clerking policy: Yes
Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2016:
Benjamin N Cardozo, Brooklyn, Columbia University, Fordham University, Georgetown University, Harvard, Hofstra University, New York University School of Law, St John’s University, University of California at Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, Yale
Summer associate profile:
We seek lawyers whose academic achievements, journal writing, and prior work experience demonstrate exceptional ability, motivation and potential for leadership.
Summer program components:
Our summer program offers a realistic experience. We fully involve summer associates in day to day practice and assign work comparable to that given to junior associates. Summer associates participate in our departmental meetings, firmwide events and training programs and are given opportunities to attend court hearings, discovery proceedings, negotiating sessions, closings, pro bono matters and client meetings.