Skadden's multitude of practice groups slot into three areas: transactional, controversy and regulatory. Transactional contains the most attorneys and includes banking, corporate restructuring, finance, financial institutions, infrastructure finance, investment management, IP/IT and real estate (plus the firm's highflying M&A group). Most new starters join a single practice group, apart from transactional associates in New York, who get to rotate around two different practices before deciding on where to stay, with each stint lasting eight months. “Having that opportunity to learn about two areas was one of the aspects that appealed to me the most,” one insider remarked, “as it's hard to know unequivocally where you want to be in the beginning.”
Each group has some form of centralized system in place for juniors to get work, though the extent to which it's relied upon differs depending on where you are. In the smaller groups, for instance, “work allocation is slightly more informal – someone will usually just phone you up and ask if you have time to work on an assignment.” That's not to say the same doesn't happen in the likes of M&A, but sources agreed there's a bit more oversight in the bigger groups. Still, regardless of size, each team “ensures an equitable distribution of work” and “optimizes your development.”
Unsurprisingly, Skadden's workload is filled to the brim with “cutting-edge, high-quality” matters. But what might surprise you is that associates aren't merely left to handle all the minor tasks arising out of them: while the “regular grunt work” is virtually inescapable, there are also plenty of chances to delve into the more advanced tasks. “I've drafted the first cut of documents and interacted directly with clients,” a second-year told us, “albeit under supervision.” That wasn't just a one-off either: many had amassed more experience than they thought they would during their time at the firm so far.
On the whole, juniors see real value in both the gigantic matters and the smaller offerings. “I personally like being part of a large team with lots of attorneys,” opined one. “The tasks might not always be particularly glamorous, but it's still a good learning experience and gives you a glimpse of the big time.” And the leanly staffed cases? “You feel like you're contributing more on those, just because by nature you're handed a greater amount of responsibility.”
Training & Development
Newcomers undergo six weeks of formal training when they first arrive, half on Skadden’s Associates Comprehensive Education (ACE) course, then on its Fullbridge Program. The former is “more Skadden-specific,” encompassing things like partner-run presentations on the different practice areas and the key skills juniors need to get to grips with. The latter is akin to a “mini-MBA” and teaches “important business terms that many of us haven’t really come across before.” The Fullbridge program was considered more useful overall, namely by those who had “entered the firm with a non-business background.” Beyond these initial six weeks, there are several CLE sessions dotted throughout the first year, as well as other forms of training every month or so.
Most of the unsolicited feedback received by juniors had come from senior associates and counsel, rather than partners – though “many partners are amenable to giving you feedback if you actively seek it out.” As for the feedback itself: “No-one is shy about telling you if you’ve botched something up, but they’re also not afraid to tell you if you've done a task really well.”
Skadden's HQ is located near Times Square, which “could not be easier to get to and puts us right in the heart of everything.” You'll be pleased to know that the interiors of the office match the luxuriousness of the location: there's “a gym with personal trainers,” plus a cafeteria that serves “wonderful” breakfasts, lunches and dinners. If you're not looking to be stationed in New York then don't fret: the other major offices house the same facilities, meaning you can work off those scrumptious meals without having to leave the building.
The DC base is in a location to rival the mothership's, as it's only a short distance from the White House and has a rooftop overlooking the National Mall – “so we have an ideal spot for watching the inauguration or 4th of July fireworks.” The firm's other domestic offices are in Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Palo Alto and Wilmington, while its overseas outposts are in Beijing, Brussels, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, London, Moscow, Munich, Paris, Shanghai, Singapore, São Paulo, Sydney, Tokyo and Toronto. In 2013, Skadden closed its Vienna office.
All our sources had arrived at Skadden expecting a “highly demanding” environment and, sure enough, “the firm lives up to this reputation.” But at the same time, most of them were slightly shocked to discover that “the demands aren't nearly as extreme as I thought they'd be.” Take this associate as a prime example: “I'd read all the things people constantly say about here – that it's a sweatshop, that the attorneys are very hard-edged, blunt and even mean. Thankfully, I've found those labels to be completely unwarranted.” That doesn't mean you're going to be in for an easy ride, though. “It's crucial to understand that there's an expectation of excellence here, and that your first effort should be your absolute best effort. You come to learn what's required of you very quickly.”
According to juniors, one of the firm's defining attributes is its “sense of togetherness. You might need to call an attorney on the other side of the globe and you'd feel comfortable doing that – even if you'd never spoken to them before.” This ethos arguably comes from Skadden's self-sufficient growth strategy: “Unlike a lot of other firms, we don't grow through mergers. We're built from the ground up and that plays a big part in maintaining a one-firm mentality.”
Of course, getting a job at Skadden doesn't guarantee you'll be there for the long haul, so what's particularly encouraging is that there's an excellent support system in place to help associates embark on a successful career – whether they stay there or not. “The firm treats its alumni like an Ivy League school does,” an interviewee asserted. “They work hard to ensure that you're on what is the best career path for you.” It's something that executive partner Eric Friedman feels is part and parcel of the Skadden experience, as he says: “The fact is many of our attorneys will go on to successful careers elsewhere. So, as long as we're positioning them for that success, we create a win-win situation.”
Hours & Compensation
Although there’s no official billing target at Skadden, insiders explained that the unofficial threshold for receiving a bonus is 1,600 hours. That may sound like a relatively low amount compared to the many other firms out there (especially in New York), but we were also told that “most associates shoot for a number north of 1,800.” Indeed, one added: “There's no way I could get away with just doing 1,600 hours, simply because there's much more work than that.” Ultimately, though, “as long as you're as busy as everyone else, no one will harp on at you about your hours.”
Any junior at a megafirm like Skadden should expect challenging hours, but the biggest challenge of all is the unpredictability. “You’re essentially always on call,” a source revealed. “Your BlackBerry is your electronic leash: if a partner says ‘jump’ then we all jump right away.” In fact, it’s apparently not uncommon to get what interviewees referred to as the dreaded “overnight request.” In one instance, an associate recalled “getting put on a conference call at about 10pm – while I was brushing my teeth!” Others told of “three or four 70-hour weeks in a row,” as well as weeks that come close to exceeding 90 hours.
Those horrific 90-hour weeks aren’t necessarily commonplace, however, and when associates are having a quieter period “people will tell you to go home and enjoy yourself, because your next week might be a lot more grueling.” And above all else, “the quality of work makes the hours much more bearable.”
Pro bono gets ample airtime at Skadden. “People are respectful of your pro bono commitments,” one associate noted. “They can’t occupy all your time, but they're still important and there’s no cap on how much counts toward your billable hours.” Such efforts to encourage pro bono seem to have paid dividends: many interviewees had done over 150 hours, with some even topping the 200-hour mark.
Opportunities can be picked up in several ways. There are weekly e-mails sent around to keep juniors in the loop, as well as a wealth of external programs “that operate through the firm.” An equally effective method is to ask partners if they have any pro bono matters on offer, which shows that getting assigned pro bono work “is a hybrid of the formal and informal.”
Pro bono hours
- For all attorneys across all US offices: 140,043
- Average per US attorney: 70.7
Associates spoke positively about the firm's efforts regarding diversity. “I really feel like the diverse attorneys are effectively supported,” said one, while others pointed to the various affinity groups present at the firm. We also heard that the numerous events put on to raise awareness “aren’t seen as an enclave for diverse attorneys; they cater to everyone.”
The importance of diversity within Skadden is a point that’s hammered home right at the start of associate life: “There’s a training session that outlines the history and culture of the firm, dispelling this myth that the founders were guys with chips on their shoulders as they couldn’t become partners at white-shoe firms.” In any case, what’s important is that “no-one here is excluded or hindered based on who they are; if you're good at your job then you'll get respect.”
While it's fair to say that Skadden looks for “exceptional candidates,” it'd be wrong to assume that you need to come from one of the very top law schools to stand a chance (even though many of the associates we spoke to had). Hiring partner Steven Glaser tells us: “We participate in job fairs where students from many different law schools can attend, and people who speculatively write into us are also considered. We only have so much time to actually visit schools, but we strongly consider applications from anyone if they have the credentials.”
And if you're wondering what not to do during the interview, heed these words: “There was a candidate who told me – a litigator – that he wanted to do corporate law, and it was my chance to convince him to be a litigator,” Glaser recalls. “To make things worse, he was holding a pen given to him by another law firm!” Top tip: choose your stationery wisely.
Strategy & Future
Given Skadden’s mammoth size and phenomenal rep, some might think it could afford to rest on its laurels. But in reality, the firm continues to raise the bar: “The Financial Times recognized us as the most innovative law firm in the US in 2013,” Eric Friedman says. “And we were number one by a fairly wide margin.” That also makes Skadden the first firm to receive the honor twice, helping to quash any concerns about complacency.
Setting his sights on the future, Friedman picks out Korea as a potential location of interest. “We’re seeing so much connectivity, with some of our Asian clients looking outwardly to other regions. It feels like a real opportunity to capture more work with an already established team and would be a further step toward cementing our presence in that market.”