Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP - The Inside View

Munger recently broke out of California to open a DC office with a headline-grabbing hire...

MUNGER's long been a West Coast legend, generating dazzling work out of two relatively small bases, in LA and San Francisco, while eschewing the BigLaw preference for national expansion. But 2016 brought a new DC office out of the blue. Even co-managing partner Sandra Seville-Jones admits “we had no plans to open an office.” However, the golden opportunity of bringing in former Solicitor General Don Verrilli to head the DC operation changed all that. “His being available was really the driving force,” says Seville-Jones. In fact, Munger's got form when it comes to big names. There's an ongoing relationship with superstar investor Warren Buffett for one, and plenty more household names line up as clients, including Walt Disney, Bank of America, and Warner Bros.

Chambers USA top ranks the firm's commercial, securities, and media litigation prowess, and its white-collar crime practice is also second to none. High rankings go to Munger's antitrust, energy, labor & employment, tax, real estate, corporate/M&A, and appellate work. Culturally, Munger sets itself apart with a uniquely egalitarian committee-based system: “A show of hands” among all lawyers settles most firm decisions. And with an almost 1:1 partner-associate ratio, genuine power lies in associates' hands. “We talked a lot before we opened the DC office, and we were involved in that decision,” one junior source revealed. As a result, “I feel integrated and invested in the firm.”

The Work



Munger doesn't allocate its fee-earners to specific, named practice areas. “At Munger there's an emphasis on being a generalist. I wanted to practice in a number of areas and not be siloed off into one group doing the same thing over and over again.”  That said, attorneys here do tend to develop areas of expertise over time. The vast majority of new associates stride into litigation territory, though you'll find one or two working on the corporate side.

“At Munger there's an emphasis on being a generalist.”

Munger's work assignment is informal. A work coordinator presents possible cases to associates in their first six months, but from then on associates take over, communicating directly with partners. Associates felt this suited “self starters,” telling us that “if you're the kind of person who will be sat there waiting for a partner to knock on your door and offer you the work you want – that won't happen.” Most liked “the open system,” though they believed “learning to navigate it takes time,” especially “balancing and predicting your workload.”

Associates had been involved in all sorts of litigation, creating some unique experiences – but their tasks remained similar. They could all recall drafting multiple motions and briefs and praised the fact that “doc review has been very limited. I don't feel I have many tasks which are those easy, fairly mindless jobs.” Some had to wait though, as in their experience “after eight to ten months there was a big jump in my level of substantive work. That came after I drafted my first motion to dismiss.” A lucky few had taken depositions and prepared witnesses, while others reported regularly being “the face of MTO to our client.” Lean staffing also left associates wholly “responsible for the discovery side of things: managing paralegals and overseeing document production.”

Culture



Two elements lie at the core of Munger's “distinctive culture.” Firstly, the firm's low leverage. A ratio of roughly 1:1 between partners and associates meant our sources were “dealing almost exclusively with partners.” The effects are best seen in the responsibility they're showered with, but associates also felt “in demand.” Having fewer associates up for grabs “instills a culture where partners have to be a little more respectful.” A second leveler is the firm's system of committees, which help put almost all major firm decisions to a vote. On hiring, office moves and plenty more besides an associate has as much power as a senior partner: “Open, democratic and transparent,” one called it. Within this egalitarian framework, associates described “a quiet place, with a lot of people in their offices working hard.” There's “an emphasis on really high quality work” – it's “definitely a work focused culture.”

“Open, democratic and transparent.”

Since the firm has a preference for recruiting those with clerkships under their belt, “there are less 'straight-through kids.' People are a little older. Almost all of the people I know here are married or in a serious relationship so it's not a crazy going-out-type culture. People shouldn't be expecting that.” There's even an onsite daycare facility at the LA office. Despite the stress of diaper changes and temper-tantrums, associates still described “a good amount of joviality.” There are weekly 'sherry-sips' (drinking-based get togethers), a firmwide retreat for lawyers and their families, plus we're told the firm has “four seats at the Staples Center,” where associates can take clients.

Pro Bono



“One way the firm walks the walk is that people have no problems with me doing ridiculous amounts of pro bono. Others have spent 50% of their time on it and there hasn't been a peep from anyone about it.” In fact there's no cap: “It's treated the same as billable hours, it's given the same credit, it's displayed on time reports,” and associates felt free to take advantage. “The firm doesn't badger or force –  some by choice or by circumstance haven't done any – but it's embedded in the culture of the firm to give back.”

“It's embedded in the culture of the firm to give back.”

Associates praised MTO's “longstanding relationship with Kids in Need of Defense [KIND]. It's good because we get to run with cases, we get client contact and we can argue in court or the immigration office.” The firm is also open to associates sourcing work themselves. One associate sorted their sports club's organizational documents and the firm famously aided unlawfully-arrested Ferguson protesters in 2014 after an associate rallied the partnership to their cause.

Pro bono hours

  • For all attorneys: 28,273
  • Average per attorney: 146

Training & Development



Unlike most rival firms with their comprehensive training programs, “the focus is not on formal training.” Instead, Munger favors learning on the job. “You get an assignment and then talk to associates and partners to figure out how to do it.” Associates found thispretty effective,” more so than “putting us in front of a projector for a week.” They explained that “because you're working so closely with partners you need to get to know how they work. There's no exact way of doing anything.” That said, there's still an initial retreat for new attorneys and optional “workshops every so often.” Firm lunches two times a week also beam presentations and discussion to all offices via videolink.

Keeping associates on the straight and narrow are twice yearly formal reviews. “The feedback is pretty detailed. They do a good job of talking to the people you've worked with and letting you know where you stand.” Associates also get an associate and partner mentor to “help you navigate the environment.”

Hours & Compensation



Munger's bonus system is holistic, with “no formal rubric, no 'work this many hours and get this many positive reviews,' but pretty much everyone gets paid bonuses.” There's no official billing goal, but associates felt that the 1,800-hour mark was regularly cleared. “Some people here are workaholics, but it's not a crazy-hour firm.” As we often hear from West Coasters, the work-life balance at Munger is “probably as good as you could expect.” It is “still BigLaw, so there are last minute things which mean late nights and weekend work sometimes, but I can't complain too much.” Associates were used to leaving around 6pm having rocked up to work around 9.30am – not too shabby – but most also logged on once they were home. “They're flexible about the when and where,” enabling associates with families to get home for a bedtime story or three.

“They're flexible about the when and where.”

Offices



The brand new DC office is based a short trundle from both the White House and Supreme Court, an apt home for its new head. When we went to press, three associates had been hired so far, but we're told “the DC office already connects by videolink during lunches.” The original West Coast duo can “work pretty seamlessly,” with some San Franciscans finding that “most cases involve working with people in the LA office.” However, some LA associates claimed little to no significant contact with San Francisco.

Change is also afoot in LA. Employees need only cross the street to their new premises, again on South Grand Avenue. “Over the past year there were a lot of meetings about design choices,” with the committee system giving associates a say on the details. “One big decision was about the glass doors of the offices and how opaque they would be.” The dramatic conclusion? “You can only make out someone's outline.” Unlike most big firm attorneys, Munger associates are given their own office as soon as they start work, moving to a larger office after two years. In a continuation of the democratic theme, this upgrade leaves juniors with the same sized offices as partners.

Diversity



Diversity was the one area in which all associates agreed the firm didn't live up to its high standards. “I think like all firms we could be better at diversity. Part of it is a pipeline issue, finding law school students who meet the standard and want to be in LA. But we've also had some retention issues.” Associates were sure, however, that a “desire for change” exists. Some associates suggested that “because it's so democratic and bureaucratic it can be hard to get things done. People spend time looking at the issue but I don't know how close that gets us to a solution.” Recruiting co-chair Carolyn Hoecker Luedtke explains “we're trying a variety of things,” and points us to a number of initiatives. The MTO Fellows Program aids a group of students to succeed at their law schools and there's also a new summer program for 1Ls.

“I think like all firms we could be better at diversity.”

Strategy & Future



Co-managing partner Sandra Seville-Jones is adamant the firm's “not trying to achieve anything different from what we are usually: bringing bright lawyers into a low-leverage environment and trying to solve distinctive problems.” She does however let slip that “I'd like to see us spend some time working in privacy and data security.” As for the DC branch, that'll be “just another MTO office, solving our clients' toughest legal problems.” Seville-Jones explains that “of course, we anticipate the appellate practice being strong, but with somebody like Don who has handled many complicated cases, it’s about more than just appellate."

 

Get Hired



As we've mentioned, Munger hires a lot of associates who have done judicial clerkships; as they put it, “it's the rule rather than the exception, but there are definitely some people who don't.” Associates felt this was because “they prefer individuals who have seen behind the scenes. Munger prides itself on competing for the best and most successful candidates, and those tend to do clerkships.”

Since existing associates play such a critical role in recruitment, having a “real voice” on all new candidates, it might pay to take heed of their preferences. “There is healthy discussion before and after the vote and people often reconsider. Even fairly junior people are pretty comfortable sharing their opinions.” One associate expressed a preference for “interesting life experiences. Even though we like good grades I've seen those with amazing grades get no offer because they were too nerdy even for us. It's about a combination of good grades and a person that they can put in front of a client, and someone who has drive beyond just books.” Finally an associate stressed that the firm “is interested in taking people with different backgrounds in order to have a diversity of opinions.”

Who is Charlie Munger?



Founding MTO partner Charles Munger is one the US's most intriguing and influential men. Born in on New Year's Day in 1924, in Omaha, Nebraska, Munger studied math at the University of Michigan, served in the US Army Air Corps, trained at Caltech and read law at Harvard Law School.

In 1962, along with six colleagues, he founded Munger Tolles & Olsen. Throughout his time at the firm he worked as a real estate lawyer, eventually leaving to concentrate on his investments. Munger is known for several things beyond the law – most notably his philanthropy and long-term friendship/investment partnership with billionaire Warren Buffett.

Munger is a major benefactor of the University of Michigan and Stanford Law School. In 2007, he made a $3 million gift to the UofM Law School for various improvements to the buildings, including the Reading Room. In 2011 he made a further gift, donating $20 million for renovations to the Lawyers Club Housing complex – covering most of the $39 million cost. In 2013 he donated a $110 million gift to fund a residence designed to foster a community of scholars for graduate students. The gift includes $10 million for a graduate student fellowship.

Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger have been friends since the 1970s, and Munger's been Buffett's right-hand man at Berkshire Hathaway since 1978. There are however stark political differences between them. Buffett has been a long-term supporter of the Democrats, while Munger is known to be a Republican.

Munger is also a successful investor in his own right. Munger is known for his somewhat controversial comments, such as the 2011 CNN Money interview, in which he argued the financial industry should be downsized by at least 80%. His perhaps most famous quote was spurred on by Buffett. Munger said: “The best advice I ever got from Warren was to stop practicing law. Warren was very derisory about my chosen profession, which had been in my family for a couple of generations. He thought it was all right as a hobby, but as a business it was pretty stupid.”

At 92 years old, Munger remains a mighty force in American society and is showing very few signs of slowing down. Munger was recently quoted as saying that President Trump "is not wrong on everything. Just because he isn't like us, roll with it. And if there is a little danger, what the hell, you're not going to live forever anyway."

Interview with MTO Co-Managing Partner Sandra Seville-Jones



Chambers Associate: What have been some highlights from the past year which you think student readers would be interested in?

Sandra Seville-Jones: I think our highlight is that for the first time we have opened an office on the East Coast. We have been in LA since our founding and 25 years ago opened in San Francisco. We recently asked former Solicitor General Don Verrilli to join us and along with Michael DeSanctis who is a lateral from Jenner and Chad Golder from the Justice Department to open the DC office. It’s the most exciting thing for us!

CA: In previous years you’ve been more reserved when talking about expansion – what changed in the last year?

SSJ: It was Don Verrilli becoming available and us talking to him. We are very much about the people who are part of the law firm. When a person of Don Verrilli’s standing comes out of government and you talk to him and you see the person he is – his being available was really the driving force. We had no plans to open an office, but we’ve known of both him and Michael for a long time – we were aware of their reputations. We shouldn’t have any trouble attracting great recruits to that office.

We are a consensus-driven firm and we’ll all be involved in the main decisions. We have a firm meeting to vote on people joining us and that was no different with Don, Michael and Chad: they came and interviewed with a broad range of people in both offices.

CA: It’s quite a big step for the firm, how do you intend to ensure its success? Will it have much of an effect on the LA and SF offices?

SSJ: Of course there will be challenges; we aren’t a firm that opens a lot of offices so the challenge is doing something we aren’t used to. The challenge will be making sure we integrate people three time zones away into the firm culture and having them get to know us. That will be challenging and we are working on it. They have been out here visiting and we will be out there.

We totally expect that we will be working across offices. Just like we work across LA and San Francisco, we expect Michael, Don and Chad to be working with partners here, and for partners to work with associates across offices. There is no better way to integrate offices than working together. When you’re trading ideas and writing briefs together, it cements the relationship.

With respect to the focus of the office, there’s no particular focus; it’s just another MTO office, solving our clients’ toughest legal problems. Of course, we anticipate the appellate practice being strong, but with somebody like Don who has handled many complicated cases, it’s about more than just appellate. It’s about having cases and complex problems which Don can bring his intellect to in order to help clients solve those problems.

CA: Would you look at opening another office in a similar fashion?

SSJ: Never say never. I think if there are other people who so fit our culture and have the types of credentials that these three folks do, then we would take a serious look. It is a unique set of circumstances here but they could come up elsewhere. But we’re not out there looking and we weren’t before.

CA: Going forward with these three offices – what’s the strategy for the next five years?  Will it mean the growth of any particular practice areas?

SSJ: We’re not trying to achieve anything different from what we are usually: bringing bright lawyers into a low-leverage environment and trying to solve distinctive problems. I don’t think we are planning to make any significant changes to our business model, but I’d like to see us spend some more time working in privacy and data security. The DC presence and presence in San Francisco could work great. I think there is synergy there and I think it will continue to be an exciting practice as we move forward.

CA: How do you see Trump’s presidency affecting the firm?

SSJ: I think for our clients, in a change of administration, the uncertainty comes from what regulations they will face. There is uncertainty, for instance, about the direction of subsidies and regulation of energy...we are like everyone else in that we are guessing what the focus of the administration will be. But there have been changes before and we’ve come through those changes. This might be a little different but we will see what happens.

CA: Associates talked to us a lot about the democratic system the firm has in place – they praised the approach, but they also highlighted that it can slow down important decisions. Would you agree with that judgment?

SSJ: They’re right – it does slow decision making. That’s part of the price of having a democratic culture. There are pros and cons of it. But for us, we value the discussion and soliciting all views and we eventually get to the decision even if it does take a little longer.

But not every decision goes to the whole firm. There are decisions made in practice groups about their direction that don’t go to firm. The recruitment in the DC office, us moving across the street to a new building: they go to the whole firm. When somebody wants to work on an area in a practice, they don’t have to wait to decide that’s what we all want to do. So it’s very individualized as well as democratized. People can move between practices and develop practice areas rather than waiting for the mother-ship for permission.

With regards to decisions surrounding the office move, the best thing is to hear that attorneys are getting a little too much information rather than having them saying 'why did you pick that building?' The opposite happened. From my perspective, maybe we went a little far in sharing a lot of material but I’d rather it erred on that side.

CA: What attributes do you think are critical to an associate thriving at the firm?

SSJ: I think a lot of different people succeed in their own different way. But I’d take ownership, if I had to pick one attribute. Ownership of your career, of matters you work on in the free-market system, ownership of the committee system and ownership of your involvement outside of the firm. We want someone who has the mentality that I’m now at that place where I will make my own decisions and chart my course. That’s who we are looking for. That’s not to say they aren’t getting advice from mentors, that they’re being thrown in without help. It’s just that we want people with a sense of themselves: where they want to go and what they want to do.

Interview with MTO recruiting co-chair, Carolyn Luedtke



Chambers Associate: What's the scope of your recruiting drive?

CL: We get our associates 3 different ways – one is through our summer program. We do OCIs at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Chicago, Michigan, Stanford, Berkeley, UCLA, Howard, NYU and USC. We go on campus to those schools, but we also have strong relationships with others where it's possible for them to submit résumés for our summer program. That would be schools like Northwestern, Loyola, Georgetown, Duke, Penn, University of Texas, and UC- Irvine. For our summer program we have a focus on California and the top 10 schools. We've just opened in DC, so we are assessing whether to take people for there.

The second way is via clerkships – we recruit a lot from clerkships. The recruits usually come from the top 25 law schools but if it is someone who has been with a federal judge and they're from the top of their class at a good law school we would be excited, so its more open in terms of law schools.

We also do hire laterals who are changing geographies or who have a particular expertise we need. It's less common.  Sometimes laterals come through head-hunters, sometimes not.  They are traditionally from strong law firms, US attorney's offices, or other positions in government.

CA: Have you started recruiting for the DC office yet?

CL: We have the benefit of a lot of applications for DC and we are hiring, but we're still deciding how many people we will hire this year.  DC won't have a summer program initially.  It is too small right now, just like SF doesn't have a summer program.  But we'll revisit that as the office grows. We are excited about the opportunity to recruit pioneers to build the DC office, and recruitment for that office will be very competitive because we will have limited spots as we grow the office consistent with our philosophy of keeping a 1:1 ratio and having close integration between our offices.

CA: From speaking to the associates it seemed most had done a clerkship – what is the reasoning behind it?

CL: I guess a few things: it is excellent training.  It's on the ground legal training on how the law works in practice.  There is no better way to learn how to write a great brief than to read dozens and dozens of briefs and to learn first-hand what effective (and not effective) writing looks like.  Also, judges provide an intense education and mentoring experience.  Clerking gives an opportunity to apprentice with the best legal minds in the country.  It's also important to have connections with judges, it's a way to become a part of the legal community.  Finally, people who like Munger like law school and they like the law. Clerking is an intellectual exercise in the law applied to actual cases – you get to be an apprentice for a year.  We have found that generally, people who like clerking and choose to clerk will succeed at Munger.

CA: And what is the firm currently doing to promote diversity through it's recruitment?

CL: We're trying a variety of things. We have a diversity summer program for 1Ls, which takes up to four students from diverse backgrounds.  It's a recruiting measure but it's also an effort to give diverse law students exposure to a career in a law firm. This year we are innovating. We are giving 1Ls the opportunity to spend part of their summer either at a public interest organization or in-house at a Munger client, with their salary for the time away paid by Munger.  We are teaming with our clients on this program, as our clients are also very interested in promoting diversity.  The 1L program is a lot of fun and has resulted in successful long term recruits who come back to Munger after law school.

We've also got the Munger Fellows program, which is trying to increase the pipeline of diverse lawyers by sponsoring young persons from underprivileged and diverse backgrounds in applying to law school.  The program provides help in studying for the LSAT, preparing applications such as essay writing workshops, panels on what to expect in law school, and so on.

We also work with the Urban Debate League which we sponsor in San Francisco and LA. That's another pipeline initiative to promote speech and debate in urban public schools so that a diverse group of high school students will start considering careers in the law.

We do an annual diversity report and have engaged a consultant to make recommendations on how to be better in how we think about diversity within our firm and the profession.

CA: Does the democratic system apply to the hiring of new associates?

CL: Yes. It’s very transparent and very democratic. When a candidate comes into the office, their résumé is distributed to all attorneys so that everyone has an opportunity to look at it. After the candidate interviews, the interviewers will fill out an assessment and the committee, including brand new lawyers and more senior lawyers, discuss the candidate after reading the evaluations. We then present candidates at a firm wide lunch where everyone sees the résumé and hears a summary of the reviews. There is then a firmwide discussion and vote. It's one lawyer, one vote. We need a consensus of the lawyers to extend an offer.  It's very democratic and very transparent.

The firm's transparent about everything but partner compensation and reviews. It's transparent about our retirement policy, financial performance, and recruiting – it's part of the tradition. Democratic discussion is how we transmit and build firm values.  Everyone hears things talked about which are important.  For example, if more senior attorneys talk about the importance of a candidate’s demonstrated leadership and commitment to making a difference in the organizations to which they belong, people will hear that discussion and see that leadership and being a difference-maker is an important attribute for success at our firm.  That's one way that we reinforce and build our firm culture.  If that discussion about what matters in choosing new colleagues was done behind closed doors and not open to everyone, then we would miss out on the benefit of the group discussion about what we value in colleagues and what we see as important attributes for future success. 

CA: You mentioned leadership as being something you were looking for last year – why is it that that is so important to the firm?

CL: We don't just want people to passively sit in their office and execute their work. We want people to be leaders: with their clients, within the firm and in their communities. We ask ourselves: 'is this a person who has made a difference – in their college, in a job, in a community organization, in church or on a sports team? We want people who demonstrate passion and enthusiasm for something – people who dive in and make an impact.  People who prefer to sit and receive assignments and just execute on those assignments are not as happy at Munger as people who want to come and really dig in and be a part of a team and part of solving our client’s biggest problems.  We want people to lead as Munger lawyers, so we look to see whether they’ve done that before in their lives. 

CA: Is there anything else you want to see from a candidate?

CL: The ability to deal with adversity – that's something not everyone has. We like to see people who, when faced with a challenge don't crumble but rise to the challenge.

My other big thing is passion and enthusiasm. I like to see someone's eyes light up about something. Great if it's law, but it could be about anything.  It could be a passion for a sport that they participate in, or a passion for a political issue they’ve advocated for, or a non-profit they support.  If we see energy about something, we can imagine that energy translating to building our firm and being an owner here, to solving our clients’ problems, and to developing an expertise and a practice in the law that will be great for Munger’s future. 

CA: Has anything changed about your summer program for this year?

CL: We've made a concerted effort to make it smaller. It's now going to be around 14 or 15 2L summers and then around 4 1L summers, whereas we previously had 22-30 people. We're also asking people to start on one of a small number of start dates around the same time so that the summer class is at the firm, for the most part, at the same time – we want a cohesive class with more focus and energy.  As a result, we are no longer allowing second half splits and we only allow first half splits if they can spend a significant amount of the summer with us.

We heard feedback that people's best friends when they ultimately joined the firm were the summers they were with. The goal is the summer class forms a cohesive unit, a support network, and we started to lose that as it was more diffuse.

 

 

 

Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP

350 South Grand Avenue,
Los Angeles,
CA 90071
Website www.mto.com

  • Head Office: Los Angeles, CA
  • Number of domestic offices: 3
  • Number of international offices: 0
  • Partners (US): 85
  • Associates (US): 96
  • Summer Salary 2017  
  • 1Ls: $3,461/week
  • 2Ls: $3,461/week
  • Post 3Ls: $3,461/week
  • 1Ls hired? Yes
  • Split summers offered? Yes
  • Summers 2017: 15 2Ls, 4 1Ls (1Ls are not eligible for offers)
  • Offers/acceptances 2016: 20offers

Main areas of work
For over a half century, attorneys from Munger, Tolles & Olson have been partnering with clients on their most important and complex cases and business deals. We maintain a national and international practice. Our principal areas of practice include bet-the-company litigation, and trials, class actions, white collar defense and investigations, corporate, labor and employment, environmental, real estate, financial restructuring and tax.

Firm profile
Munger Tolles has for decades intentionally maintained low-leverage. We believe our roughly one-to-one partner-to-associate ratio empowers all of our 200 lawyers to make an impact in the work we do for our clients. We are involved in some of the highest profile cases in the country and count among our clients Bank of America, Wells Fargo, LinkedIn, Facebook, Transocean, Edison International, Verizon, KB Home, LG Display, Yucaipa and Berkshire Hathaway.

Recruitment details
• Number of 1st year associates: 5
• Number of 2nd year associates: 14
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $180,000
• 2nd year: $190,000
• Clerking policy: Yes

Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2016:
Berkeley, Chicago, Columbia, Harvard, Howard, Michigan, Stanford, UCLA, Yale

Summer details
Summer associate profile:
Our firm serves as a platform for individuals who want to actively solve their client’s problems. We look for law students who have demonstrated excellence and leadership in their prior pursuits and who bring both intellectual curiosity and a sense of individuality to an already extremely talented and diverse group of lawyers. Unlike other law firms, where it has become common to expect that young lawyers will stay only a short time before moving on to other endeavors, we only hire lawyers we believe have the potential to ultimately join our (one-tier) partnership.

Summer program components:
Our summer program will provide you a realistic idea of what it is like to practice law at our firm. You will work closely with attorneys in various practice areas, doing meaningful assignments. Each summer associate is assigned a work coordinator and social advisor. Your work coordinator will find assignments that are of interest to you and provide guidance and feedback during the summer. Your summer will include invitations to attend our weekly lunches, training programs, social events and practice group meetings.