McDermott Will & Emery LLP - The Inside View

The winds of change are circling around Chicago-born McDermott, which has a new chairman focused on growth and is hiring those in touch with their inner-Bruce Springsteen (we'll explain...). 

McDERMOTT may have started as a humble Chicagoan tax practice, but banish notions of hushed offices and intense folk poring over dry statutes; this is a bustling global outfit where, as new chairman Ira Coleman – elected in September 2016 – explains, “people can have fun at work – we say 'bring all your weirdness' and don't be a different person here to who you are at home.”

Associates agreed, adding that “there's not a one-size-fits-all” approach at the firm, which spreads its kooky know-how across ten domestic and eight international offices – seven in Europe and one in South Korea. In the US, McDermott's top-ranked healthcare practice is one of its star performers, but Chambers USA also bestows cream of the crop status on the firm's wealth management and food & beverages expertise. Other areas of strength include McDermott's perennial tax practice, as well as its corporate M&A, privacy, IP, commercial litigation and labor and employment work.

“We say 'bring all your weirdness.'”

Sources did point to McDermott's traditional rep as “a conservative Chicago firm,” but with Coleman at the helm it looks like any trace of that tag will be snuffed out once and for all: “We want to embrace and drive change, to be adventurous, creative and open-minded,” vows Coleman. And while many of our interviewees came to McDermott with a specific practice in mind, Coleman will be pushing a more collaborative model of specialization: “If you want to be good you've got to be a specialist, but you also need to learn to work in teams as our clients' problems are becoming increasingly complex and cross all kinds of practice groups.”

Strategy & Future

What else is on the agenda? “We're going to focus on the areas where we are indispensable to our clients, and make ourselves even more indispensable,” says Coleman. These areas, he adds, are known as the firm's “power alleys,” and cover “trial and big ticket litigation; private equity and M&A; and health.” Further focus comes in the form of McDermott's key growth markets in New York and London, but the firm will also be “continuing to grow out” its west coast practice – especially in Silicon Valley.

“We're going to focus on areas where we are indispensable.”

The Work

Every incoming associate joins a particular practice group. McDermott's corporate advisory group housed the largest percentage of second and third-year juniors (23%), followed closely by the firm's trial and health industry advisory groups. The remaining juniors were spread sparsely between a variety of groups, including private client, tax, regulatory and government strategies.

An informal approach to work assignment reigns across the practices. There is a safety net in the form of each practice's office head, who looks out for juniors in case they are under or over-burdened. The balance seems to be just right though, according to the majority of our sources: “There is plenty of work to go around, and to be honest I haven't had to ask anyone for work; people approach me with assignments.” Some groups also have a “busyness tracer,” so “if you're swamped you can indicate that you don't need any work, but if you're light you can give people the go ahead.” 

“There is plenty of work to go around.”

There are “two primary arms” in the corporate advisory group: “M&A/private equity and finance.” Real estate and bankruptcy also fall under this group – although fresh-faced juniors don't tend to have exposure to these areas. “Usually you're staffed on deals with two to four people. When you start out you draft more ancillary documents, like security certificates and escrow agreements, but as you progress on smaller deals it gets more hands-on and you start to produce first drafts of key documents like the purchase agreement.”

Over in the health industry advisory practice there are several 'affinity groups' to explore: “We have an antitrust group, a fraud and abuse group, a hospitals and health systems group, a digital health group – it really runs the gamut!” Juniors are encouraged to sample various areas before narrowing their field as they approach mid-level status. With lots to delve into, the work is unsurprisingly varied: “You might conduct diligence on transactions, or contribute to a compliance project by analyzing HIPAA policies, or work on getting an entity Medicaid certification.”

Trial juniors also start out with a broad remit. “You do a lot of commercial cases like contract disputes, as well as class actions, but you can also branch out into white collar work and collaborate with our private client group on fiduciary litigation.” Our eager-eyed sources found themselves “doing a lot of research and writing up memos for partners, but also drafting court filings like discovery responses and pleadings, combined with some interaction with clients.”

Training & Development

It's all goal, goal, goal at McDermott: each year associates compile a career development plan using a set of key competencies tailored to their class year and practice. “It's a really helpful exercise. Everyone picks five goals from the list of competencies, which is incredibly detailed: it has every law you should be learning and every document you should be drafting.”

“Everyone picks five goals.”

“There's a lot of great training,” to help juniors tick off those goals. McDermott University hosts sessions “at least once a week: you can pick and choose what you want to attend, whether it's a general training on public speaking or a webinar on a legal update of interest.” These are supplemented by quarterly practice group trainings, which are class-tailored and mandatory. “For example, all the trial associates went to DC for a two-day deposition training, while the corporate juniors gathered in New York for a two-day negotiation exercise.”


Together Chicago and DC housed 60% of the juniors on our list. Sources still considered the former to be the symbolic heart of the firm: “When people think about McDermott they think of Chicago; the firm leadership is by and large here, and we're still the largest office in the network,” confirmed one Windy City resident. Juniors here were looking forward to their imminent move to the brand new River Point skyscraper, a “sleek, curved building with glass interior walls!” The atmosphere was deemed “more chillax” than the “serious” DC office – the next largest. “That's more a reflection of the DC vibe as a whole though,” clarified an associate here.

New chairman and former head of the Miami office Ira Coleman clearly has an eye for a good layout: “Ira designed the entire office – it's modern and beautiful and overlooks the ocean!” one Miamian raved. The office is set to become a template for the rest of McDermott: “Ira wants to replicate the Miami culture throughout the firm. It's warm and friendly; we go on boat trips together and Ira takes us all out for happy hours after work!” Elsewhere, associates were spread quite evenly between the New York, Boston, Houston, LA and Silicon Valley offices.


Ira Coleman may well wish to replicate the Miami culture throughout the firm, but he might not have to do much as the pervasive atmosphere sounds pretty warm already. “People here are smart and nice,” commented one Chicagoan: “We work quickly and diligently but partners will make it clear when something is urgent and when it's not.” A colleague in New York agreed: “At my last firm the firm-scheduled happy hours felt like work, but here they're always nice. Plus, people get together of their own accord too; this past Friday all the corporate associates got together for an informal lunch.”

“This isn't a firm that chews you up and spits you out.”

It all reflects a culture where people stay for the long haul, as this LA-based junior suggested: “A lot of the partners started as summers and have gone on to found new offices. This isn't a firm that chews you up and spits you out; they want to see you learn and grow.” Others pointed to the firm's mentorship program as evidence of this. “When you start you're assigned a mid or senior-level mentor, and you have an ongoing dialogue with them about your day-to-day work and where you want your career to go.” McDermott's cohort group system also scored praise for breaking down barriers: “Once a quarter you meet up with people from different practice groups – usually two partners and five associates – and the associates get to discuss their likes and dislikes, the steps they can take to move forward.”

Hours & Compensation

All associates work to meet a 2,000 hour billing target each year. Most deemed this “pretty reasonable” across the locations and practices. To help them get there, juniors can count 100 hours in pro bono and 75 in professional development toward the target.

“Frankly, it's a lot of money.”

On average, associates aimed to bill seven to eight hours a day, equating to around ten hours spent in the office or working from home. Of course, “it all depends on how busy it is”; as matters heat up in groups like corporate, healthcare and trial, working 12 to 15 hours for a short spell is typical.  Other groups, like tax and private client, tend to be “more stable – so you can expect to work from 9.30am to 7.30pm most days.”

In 2016, McDermott implemented lockstep compensation and matched Cravath's latest salary hike. “Frankly, it's a lot of money,” chirped juniors, who also liked the shift to lockstep: “It's much easier, as everyone knows how it works.” Hitting 2,000 hours grants associates a market-rate bonus,  but a discretionary element means there's more up for grabs: “It's not clear how much more you'll get, but extra hours and good reviews are taken into account.” It also means that those who don't hit the 2,000 hour target can still bag a bonus if they've consistently produced quality work.

Pro Bono

Those extra bonus-bumping hours can come in the form of pro bono: “Once you hit your 2,000 hour target, you can count all pro bono as billable – a huge incentive, plus you get to help people!”

“People here do quite the range.”

There are pro bono coordinators in each office, and in some cases within practice groups too. “In Chicago,” for instance, “the healthcare pro bono rep makes sure everyone steps up to meet their 20 hour target each year – he'll say we have this percentage of people who've met it and this percentage who haven't, which gets people moving!”

“People here do quite the range,” juniors stated. Indeed, in Boston we heard of associates running a domestic violence clinic; in New York sources had given their time to Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts; and in Chicago the American Health Lawyers Association received a lot of help from the firm.

Pro bono hours

  • For all US attorneys: 46,993
  • Average per US attorney: 46


Sources flagged the “excellent LGBT committee and affinity group,” and also had good things to say when it came to the representation of women at the firm. During the latest partnership promotion round, 47% (16 of 34) of new appointments were women. The larger offices have formal women's initiatives, like the one in New York, where “we do charity fundraisers, holiday parties, talks, poker nights – it's great to develop relationships with the partners.” In the smaller offices, like Miami, “there's not a formal initiative, but all of the women know and support each other.” Sources did feel, however, that there's “still a lot of work to be done” when it comes to racial and ethnic diversity: “I'm one of only a handful of lawyers of color in my office,” one associate commented.

Get Hired

“Why does he need to practice?”

When it comes to catching McDermott's attention, the more Bruce you are the better. After observing Springsteen vigorously preparing for a concert in Philadelphia, chairman Ira Coleman thought: “'Here's Bruce, 67 years old, worth hundreds of millions – why does he need to practice?'  And the only reason is because he's passionate: every night he wants himself and the band to perform better than the night before. I want to hire people like that – people who want to constantly get better.”

Aside from emulating New Jersey's finest, you better come down to earth too, as humility is a key virtue at McDermott:  “You can't ask someone straight out in an interview whether they're humble or not as they'll say 'of course I am!'” quips Coleman. “So what I do – even if someone's come through all of the interview rounds with the highest ratings – is ask our receptionists and staff if the candidate was nice to them. Nobody gets through if our receptionists and staff don't think they're nice.”


Interview with McDermott's Chairman Ira J. Coleman

Chambers Associate: You took the leadership reins in September 2016. Can you tell us more about what you will be focusing on as McDermott's Chairman?

Ira Coleman: I was elected on a platform of change, and I'll be focusing on what I'll call the happiness factor. I believe that people can have fun at work and that they shouldn't have to leave their personalities at home. We say 'bring all your weirdness to work' and don't be a different person here to who you are at home. That, we feel, allows people to create true friendships at work that in turn create better performing teams; people will do things for a 'colleague,' but they'll do anything for a friend – it doesn't feel like a burden, it just feels like you're helping out. I've witnessed that in the way our associates cover for each other when they go on vacation, but that level of looking out for each other also crosses age groups and department lines.

CA: A Miami-based associate said that you would be looking to replicate the office's culture across the firm. Is that true?

IC: Yes, but let me tell you wherethat culture came from. The former chairman of the firm invited me up to a meeting in the Boston office (which he was head of at the time). He invited me to his house, introduced me to his family and treated me not like a colleague, but like a lifelong friend. He made me feel so welcome and showed me a whole different way of viewing things. I thought: 'this place is different to any other law firm I've seen.'

I modeled the Miami office on that culture, and grew the office with people that I wanted to be friends with. One of the key virtues that helps to build this culture is humility. You can't ask someone straight out in an interview whether they're humble or not as they'll say 'of course I am!' So what I do – even if someone's come through all of the interview rounds with the highest ratings – is ask our receptionists and staff if the candidate was nice to them. Nobody gets through if our receptionists and staff don't think that they're nice.

CA: Are there particular practice areas that you'll be looking to grow?

IC: As part of our new strategic plan we spent 18 months pouring through data and analytics, and in the end thought: 'hey, let's play to our strengths!' So we're going to focus on the areas where we are indispensable to our clients, and make ourselves even more indispensable. We're calling these areas our 'power alleys,' and they are: trial and big ticket litigation; private equity and M&A; and health. Our key strategic growth markets are New York and London, but we'll be continuing to grow out our west coast practice.

CA: You've mentioned ongoing growth there – can we expect any new office openings in the near future?

IC: We are strategic and opportunistic; if the right group came along in one of our power alleys then we'd certainly entertain talks. But we're not growing for growth's sake – the emphasis is on those key practice areas and geographies that I mentioned.

CA: Some associates said that McDermott has traditionally been known as “a conservative Chicago firm.” How do you think the firm today compares to that label?

IC: We might have been more that way in the past, but not now. We want to embrace and drive change, to be adventurous, creative and open-minded. The pursuit here is centered on growth and learning: I want my associates to be able to look in the mirror each year and think 'I'm progressing and I'm worth my new billing rate.' We want to challenge them to constantly grow professionally.

CA: With that in mind, what kind of person are you looking to hire as a junior associate?

IC: I'll tell you a story. I went to see Bruce Springsteen in Philadelphia last year during his 'The River' tour. I flew up, did all the Philly things, ran the Rocky steps etc... Then I got a surprise invite to Bruce's sound-check, so we go to the Wells Fargo Center and proceed to watch Bruce practice with the band on stage for two hours before the concert begins; he regularly stops to correct the band and practices right up until it's show time, where he plays for a further four hours! So I'm flying home and I'm thinking 'here's Bruce, 67 years old, worth hundreds of millions – why does he need to practice?' And the only reason is because he's passionate: every night he wants himself and the band to perform better than the night before. I want to hire people like that – people who want to constantly get better, who are energized and excited to pursue growth.

In summary I would say we are looking for those who are humble, adventurous, creative and open-minded; folks who are interested in being part of a fun environment and embracing a little weirdness; and those who want to build open, honest relationships and positive teams.

CA: Sources gave McDermott University a big thumbs up. Can you tell us more about it?

IC: McDermott University goes hand-in-hand with what I've been saying. It's my job to ensure that all incoming associates have excellent opportunities and all the tools necessary to make themselves better. This is an apprenticeship business, after all. I owe my associates that kind of environment, so I want them to use McDermott University and be adventurous and creative so they hit the bullseye on one day becoming equity partner.

We also use the University to help forge that positive team spirit by hosting sessions on negotiating strategy and how to utilize and support staff across the team.

CA: Many of the juniors we spoke to had a clear sense of what practice area they wanted to specialize in before joining McDermott. Are you especially seeking those who know what they want to do?

IC: We don't want to speak down to our young associates, as sometimes you think you know what it is you want to do, but the day-to-day practice of it turns out to be different to what you expected. A lot of people say that they want to become environmental lawyers and save the planet, and then see what their daily work entails and realize that it doesn't live up to that. It's the same with trial lawyers; people discover that it's not about constantly standing up in court and arguing a case, and actually involves doing a lot of preparatory work behind the scenes – that changes their point of view. There are so many ways to get exposed to different areas that you never even thought about, and we're comfortable with letting our associates work through that to find the area that works for them.

CA: Are there any trends that you feel will affect not just McDermott, but the legal profession more broadly?

IC: The willingness to change how we deal with the traditional associate/partnership structure is out there. The realization that excellence, energy and drive can come in many forms is growing; it's a positive change that we are embracing, whether that's in the form of having people work off-site, at our clients or part-time. We're also committed to enhancing our professional management, so that our lawyers can maintain their focus on delivering excellence. Exploring alternative ways of doing things is a trend we are seeing more of.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is another growing trend. These are increasingly common thoughts: 'If I'm an associate how will this affect me? How can I make sure I'm not obsolete?' We are watching it and we want to be cutting edge.

We also see collaboration as a big driver. If you want to be good you've got to be a specialist; you've got to be narrow and deep. But you also need to learn to work in teams as our clients' problems are becoming increasingly complex and cross all kinds of practice groups and areas. Our lawyers need to collaborate with other McDermott attorneys, as well as in-house representatives and other external professionals. Only teams that collaborate well can ensure that they are indispensable to the client. It's a huge trend: law firms that collaborate are much better at retaining their clients compared to those that favor siloed teams.


McDermott Will & Emery LLP

444 West Lake Street,
IL 60606-0029

  • Head Office: Chicago
  • Number of domestic offices: 10
  • Number of international offices: 8 (plus a strategic alliance in Shanghai)
  • Worldwide revenue: $908,692,000
  • Partners US: 474
  • Associates US: 220
  • Summer Salary 2017 
  • 1Ls: $3,462/week
  • 2Ls: $3,462/week
  • 1Ls hired: Yes
  • Split summer offered: Yes
  • Can summers spend time in overseas offices:  No
  • Summers 2017: 41
  • Offers/acceptances 2016: 32 offers, 32 acceptances

Main areas of work
Antitrust and competition, corporate, employee benefits, energy, financial instituations, government strategies, health, intellectual property, private client, state and local tax, trial, U.S. and international tax, white collar and securities defense.

Firm profile
McDermott Will & Emery is an integrated, international law firm with recognized strength in tax, private equity, mergers and acquistions, health care, high-stakes litigation and many other key areas of transactional and regulatory law. We emphasize and foster long-term, industry-focused client relationships with multinational companies, rising entrepreneurial firms, investors and capital providers and many of the world’s wealthiest families and individuals. In word and deed, we value integrity, effiency, diversity, pro bono and community service.

Recruitment details
• Number of 1st year associates: 26
• Number of 2nd year associates: 24
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $180,000
• 2nd year: $190,000
• Clerking policy: Yes

Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2017:
American University, Boston College, Boston University, Brooklyn Law School, Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Fordham, George Mason, George Washington, Georgetown University, Harvard, Howard, Illinois, Indiana University, Loyola Chicago, New York Law School, New York University, Northwestern, Santa Clara, Southern Methodist University, Stanford, University of California (Berkeley, Davis, Hastings, Irvine, Los Angeles), University of Chicago, University of Florida, University of Miami, University of Michigan, University of Notre Dame, University of Pennsylvania, University of San Diego, University of Southern California, University of Virginia, William & Mary, Yale.
Summer details

Summer associate profile:

McDermott strives to hire well-rounded candidates who maintain a balance of academic, as well as personal and professional successes. The ideal summer associate candidate is someone who possesses the drive to tackle new challenges and embrace new experiences, takes an active approach to building relationships with attorneys and staff, has a collegial attitude and acts with integrity.

Summer program components:
Our program offers summer associates a realistic introduction to the practice of law and dayto- day life as a McDermott associate. The summer associate program provides meaningful responsibility and feedback that is consistent with a junior associate experience. Summer associates are given the opportunity to accept assignments with many of our practice groups during the summer. This allows summers to experience the type of work they are interested in first-hand and ultimately steer them toward the type of work they enjoy. Our conservative hiring apprach allows students access to a number of substantive assignments and matters. Summer associates receive formal feedback during a mid-summer evaluation and a final review in addition to informal feedback over the course of the summer. Each summer associate is assigned an associate and partner level mentor to provide guidance throughout the summer, explain firm policies, address any questions or concerns and to assist in the transition from law school to life in a law firm.