With its egalitarian principles and plenty of perks, all's fun and fair in the Munger Games.
IF California-based Munger were a tribute in The Hunger Games, it would definitely be Katniss: a relatively small, highly-skilled operator that manages to regularly punch above its weight. Even discounting its close relationship with one of the world's largest and most famous investors – Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway – Munger still brings in deals that would make other firms four-times its size green with envy. Chambers USA awards laurels to Munger in various litigation categories like media & entertainment, securities, general commercial disputes, and white-collar crime, as well as other practice areas including labor & employment, energy regulatory, corporate/M&A, real estate and tax.
Munger's warrior credentials don't end there, and one attorney boasted “it is lean,” meaning “the ratio of partners to associates is low.” Its unique committee-based decision-making system gives every lawyer the same voting power and encourages them to decide on everything from office size to which new recruits to hire. All of this contributes to a “highly, unusually democratic and transparent” culture, with one proud associate exclaiming “sometimes it takes interaction with people from other firms to realize how equal it is here.” Although the Munger Games might not be the most thrilling, they'd definitely be the most fair.
Unusually in BigLaw, Munger doesn't allocate its fee-earners to specific, named practice areas. “One of the reasons I was drawn to Munger was because I heard they were more flexible in terms of practice area,” more than one junior associate told us. This allows attorneys to be more adventurous with the kind of work they get involved in, though most admitted that once you are “deep into litigation, it can be hard to switch.” However, “if you really want to switch the firm is very accommodating.” Most new associates will get involved in the litigation side of things, though every year a few juniors can be found in corporate.
“I heard they were more flexible in terms of practice area.”
Munger operates an informal work assignment system. For the first six months, “you are given a work coordinator who will come to you with a list of cases and ask if any sound interesting,” but after that “it is totally up to you to get work.” There are a couple of main ways an associate can get involved in a case: either “someone calls you on the phone and says: 'I need someone for a case,' or you reach out to them.” Help is also offered with the circulation of 'conflict checks' which arrive prior to a case and are seen by all lawyers. Most associates we spoke to were fans of the system: “It forces partners to be reasonable people to work with, because I could just say 'no',” one explained.
A lot of the work the firm does is for some of the biggest names in business. In Munger's Chambers USA Band 1-ranked media & entertainment practice, clients include all six of the major motion picture studios, all four of the major recorded music companies, and the trade associations of both industries. Over in corporate/M&A, the firm's relationship with Berkshire Hathaway – Charlie Munger is the company's vice chairman – continues to reap rewards. For example, co-managing partner Brad Brian highlights “representing Berkshire Hathaway in the $37 billion acquisition of Precision Castparts Corp” (the largest deal in Berkshire's history) as one of the most significant assignments of MTO's year.
Munger's own brand of egalitarianism permeates the firm, and attorneys told of an “unspoken rule not to mention hierarchy.” Nearly all major decisions at the firm “things like whether to move office, what kind of work we take on, who we hire” are made by a vote: “One lawyer, one vote – even new hires.” The firm administers the decision-making process through its many committees. “There are lots of committees” an associate admitted, ranging from a 'recruitment committee' to a 'sherry-sip committee' that organizes the firm's weekly get-togethers. One junior reckoned that “if the firm's primary aim was to make money it would have a different structure;” however, “its short-term loss is its long-term gain.”
“We are people before lawyers.”
The firm's focus is on being more “family than frat-boy friendly.” This is evidenced by the subsidized on-site daycare facility at the LA office where “at any time there are between ten to 15 attorneys' kids,” a move that one associate says “helps remind everyone that we are people before lawyers.” Co-chair of the recruiting committee Bethany Kristovich strongly agrees, claiming “I don't think I would have made partner without onsite daycare.” She also admits that having a family is a plus when it comes to getting hired: "At the end of the day, you want people who are healthy, well-balanced members of the community.”
MTO lays on weekly social events in the form of the 'sherry-sips' we mentioned earlier as well as an annual retreat, which usually takes place at a nice hotel somewhere in California. Unusually for a BigLaw firm, MTO encourages attorneys to bring their families for a long weekend that involves “a mix of programming, including speakers and opportunities to socialize.” Retreat activities include “anything from sitting by the pool and drinking to surfing.”
One thing that Munger definitely does not retreat from is pro bono work. “The firm treats pro bono like normal work,” meaning there is no cap on the number of pro bono hours attorneys can bill. Rather than having cases foisted upon them, associates are encouraged to go out and find work or pursue causes that are close to their hearts.
“The firm treats pro bono like normal work.”
This was certainly the case with the much-fêted work the firm did defending the First Amendment rights of protesters in Ferguson in 2014. An associate saw unlawful arrests on the news and approached a senior attorney; someone got in touch with the Missouri ACLU and senior partners circulated an email encouraging junior attorneys to get involved. Less famous, but equally important, is the work Munger does for groups like Kids In Need of Defense (KIND) –“an organization that matches young asylum seekers with pro bono attorneys.”
Pro bono hours
Training & Development
Munger's desired recruits must be 'self-starters' and this is reflected in the provision of training and development. Unlike most rival firms with their comprehensive training programs, Munger favors learning on the job. This is apart from an initial retreat for new attorneys and a litigation training day. During this time, associates undergo fairly intense training – a process sources described as “a lot at once – so you query how effective it is.”
“We have some fantastic writers here.”
There are opportunities to hone skills and enhance knowledge, but the onus is very much on the lawyer to be proactive about exploiting these. One Friday every month there are writing workshops where “attorneys are encouraged to bring a piece of writing which a senior partner will then go through with them.” Those who had attended these insisted “writing workshops are fun because we have some fantastic writers here.” These workshops are complemented by weekly firm lunches where guest speakers have included “inspirational lawyers and museum curators.”
Assessment at Munger takes the form of twice yearly reviews. Associates are assigned a reviewer – usually a partner they have never worked with – who then speaks to their mentor as well as partners who have worked with them. The process is described as “pretty robust and mostly positive, not at all intimidating,” though it is “fairly intricate” and also involves a written questionnaire as well as a presentation with the partnership and your personal reviewer.
All associates are assigned two mentors when they join: one a partner, and the other a more senior associate. “Those mentors are supposed to be a resource for everything from 'how to get out of the parking lot' to more formal stuff like 'how to draft a witness statement.'” After two years at the firm – by which time you will have hopefully mastered the skill of parallel parking – you are allowed to pick a new mentor from one of the senior partners.
Hours & Compensation
Munger's bonus system is holistic and is tied to the review process, though sources stressed it is less opaque than it might seem. Recruiting co-chair Bethany Kristovich describes it as “both qualitative and quantitative.” In a similar vein, there is no official billing goal. There is “an unspoken target of around 2,000 hours. But it's not something someone will chide you about.” Every month management will circulate a list of how many hours each attorney has billed and if they feel someone has exceeded what they deem to be a lot, “someone will call you and check you are alright.”
“You can't help but realize that we are paid a lot of money."
Associates we spoke to felt that Munger's special brand of California-casual style targets set it apart from the more demanding New York firms: “Part of the reason people choose this firm is because its not a big New York firm and our flexible bonus structure allows this.” Nonetheless, there is an unspoken understanding of the level of work expected from attorneys; as one source put it, “you can't help but realize that we are paid a lot of money. I think you should bill enough to justify your salary.”
Munger has two offices, one in Los Angeles and one in San Francisco. Though LA is the home office, and it deals with the vast proportion of the firm's cases, efforts are made to promote a “one-firm mentality.” This means every time there is a firm lunch or guest speaker, the other office is on video link and encouraged to participate in discussions. However, since most of these take place in LA, it can feel “a little impersonal” on the San Francisco side. Associates also confirmed that “one of the challenges of being in SF is being visible in LA.”
“Junior associates have the same size office as Ron Olson.”
Unlike most big firm attorneys, Munger associates are given their own office as soon as they start work. There are two sizes of office, 'small' and 'big', and after two years all associates move to a 'big office'. This means that, “relatively junior associates will have the same size office as Ron Olson – a name partner,” a policy that will continue when the firm moves to new premises in LA.
While a lack of diversity in office size is a positive, a lack of diversity in staff is not. Unfortunately, like most big US law firms, diversity at Munger is not great. “It's something that the firm cares about. I've seen that in our voting and internal discussions,” but “the execution is often hard.” The MTO Fellows Program is a step in the right direction, a “one-year initiative aimed at preparing 20 to 30 aspiring diverse students for admission to and success in law school.” And before you ask, yes it does have its own committee.
“Life experience is valued a bit more here.”
Munger's high standards are evident from its OCIs. One associate explained her reason for choosing the firm: “They had one of the higher GPA requirements – high standards appeal to me.” Though this might not be everybody's yardstick, another source added “life experience is valued a bit more here.” Bethany Kristovich notes that “some sort of leadership experience is always a plus” before reiterating “more generally, we are looking for people who know what it means to lead."
Strategy & Future
There doesn't seem to be a clambering for the exits at Munger, and there is recognition that the hard work demanded by the firm is more than reflected in the ethic of its lawyers. Most sources generally agreed that "people who leave usually don't go to another firm" because “coming to Munger opens many different doors.” On the whole, associates we spoke to saw their immediate future with the firm, most echoing the view that “people know what it takes to make partner. I have a mentor, they will let me know if I'm on the right track.” Another said – referring to the partner/associate equilibrium –“I think my odds of making partner here are better than at any other firm.”
“We are definitely looking to expand our presence in Silicon Valley.”
In terms of the firm's long-term future, co-MP Brad Brian puts it like this: “We are a national and international law firm based in LA and SF. Many years ago, we decided not to open multiple offices but instead to focus on our core offices, and from here we handle cases all around the world.” When pressed on whether this left the door open for any more offices, he says: “I would never say no to anything and we are looking to expand our presence in Northern California, in Silicon Valley, where we already have a significant presence.”
Interview with co-chair of the recruiting committee Bethany Kristovich
Chambers Associate: How many associates do you take on each year?
Bethany Kristovich: Usually between 15 and 20.
CA: What's the scope of your recruiting drive?
BK: We interview on campus at somewhere between ten and 12 law schools. We focus on the top law schools, including the Ivy League schools and those in California.
CA: What does the firm do to encourage diversity in recruiting?
BK: We have a number of diversity initiatives. We have a 1L diversity program: every summer we hire between four and six 1Ls who work with us for half the summer. We're different in that we consider diversity to encompass a number of things including socio-economic background. When devising the program we thought very carefully about it and decided that we wouldn't offer 1Ls a job at the end of it. We decided that we didn't want those entering the program to be stressed out about getting a job at the end of it. This makes our summer programs not quite as high-stakes as other firms'; the fact that we are not evaluating people for final offers means we can get to know them a bit better. Then, if they want to apply for a full-time position later on, we consider their performance in the program and how they have grown since the summer. We've recruited a number of diverse lawyers this way.
We have also been partnering with LAUSD debate leagues to address pipeline issues. A lot of talented but disadvantaged kids are not going to college and then law school. Students who do well in debate teams go on to college and ultimately become lawyers in much higher numbers.
CA: What makes someone stand out in an interview?
BK: One of the things I love to see is energy and enthusiasm, people who are genuinely interested and energetic. I have been in favor of hiring people who are nerdy and quiet as well people who are outgoing and loud. You know, people with some sort of energy. More generally, we are looking for people who know what it means to lead – some sort of leadership experience is always a plus. This can mean work experience, military experience, anything really. The practice of law is not always easy. You have to work hard, we don't want someone who is going to fall apart at the first sign of adversity. I always ask myself: is this a person who I think is tough?
CA: What are you looking for in a candidate? Is being family-oriented a plus?
BK: I talk about family all the time in interviews. I don't think I would've made partner without the on-site daycare – it made coming back to work a dream. Some recruits feel uncomfortable asking questions about being able to balance a family, as they feel it might hinder their chances. But then I start talking about the daycare facilities affirmatively because I want people to know that, at the end of the day, we want people who are healthy, well-balanced members of the community.
CA: What can students do in their 1L summer to increase their chances of impressing in their applications and at interview?
BK: I guess this sounds silly, but just enjoy your summer and learn as much as you can. What impresses us is someone having taken any job and found something cool or fun about it. Researching and writing is also a great way of spending your time so that you hit the ground running.
CA: Can your briefly outline your summer program?
BK: Sure. We have a little bit of a different approach. The reason to come to Munger is that we have the most interesting work and great colleagues. We don't do endless activities around town. The program is more work-focused and I think this appeals to the type of person who is attracted to Munger.
CA: How can someone really stand out as a summer associate?
BK: The people who really stand out as summers are people who have an attitude of trying their best. Better attitude is respected here. People aren't perfect – some schools teach writing, some do not. We don't necessarily rate them on their performance at the time, instead we evaluate their potential and what they might be able to do years down the road. Do they give their best?
CA: What is the firm's approach to lateral hiring?
BK: You know, our lateral hiring is interesting. My sense is that it is a little smaller than other firms. We tend to bring people in through the summer program and train them, mentor them and hope they stay. By and large, people don't leave here to go to other law firms.
CA: How does the bonus system work?
BK: Bonuses are not based on how many hours you've billed. Instead we have a range and people get a number based on both quality and quantity. It is because we're a bit smaller that we can have this approach. The bonuses are generous and people are generally unsurprised with what they receive.
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.
Philanthropy 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.
Munger's late wife, Nancy B. Munger, and his daughter from a previous marriage are alumni of Stanford University. In 2004, the Mungers donated 500 shares of stock valued at $43.5 million to build a graduate student housing complex. It now houses 600 law and graduate students.
Buffett 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.
Interview with co-managing partner Brad Brian
Chambers Associate: What highlights from the past year would you want to flag up to student readers interested in your firm?
Brad Brian: On the corporate side, we represented Berkshire Hathaway in the $37 billion acquisition of Precision Castparts Corp. We also worked on the merger between Kraft and Heinz. On the litigation side, we were involved in a case for the UCLA health system, which was actually tried by one of our associates – a classic example of how we like our associates to take the lead in huge trials. In 2015, we worked with a huge array of household names including: Bank of America; Wells Fargo; Facebook; NBC Universal; LG; Occidental Chemical; and Morgan Stanley, among many others all over the country and the world.
CA: Any plans to expand?
BB: We are a national and international law firm based in LA and San Francisco. We decided not to open multiple offices but instead to focus on our core offices. And from here we handle cases all around the world. Nonetheless, I would never say no to anything and we are looking to expand our presence in Northern California, in Silicon Valley – where we already have a significant presence.
CA: What's your long-term vision for the firm?
BB: Interesting question. A lot like it looks now. We have a one-to-one partner-associate ratio. That is unique and it serves us well, it attracts the best clients. They get access to the partners they see – the people you meet are going to be your lawyers. In the future I expect our core business will be the same. We have a desire to expand in tech, while in the financial sector we've worked with Wells Fargo and we can build on that. In the area of international law – we have lawyers specialized in international investigation and arbitration.
CA: Obviously Munger is known for its transparency and egalitarianism. What is the strategy behind this structure? How long has it been in place?
BB: When the firm was first started, it was started with some basic principles. One was to hire the best people. Two was to promote them. And three was to be as transparent and egalitarian as possible. We have found that transparency and democracy spreads respect and loyalty. The only decisions we make in which associates are not involved is who makes partner and partner compensation. Associates decide on who we hire, whether or not we move offices. It’s the best way to operate a business and it is certainly not detrimental to short term profits and it means we recruit the best people.
CA: What would you say are Munger's core practices?
BB: I think we're problem solvers. I say that because it cuts across practice areas. People come to us to solve problems. Either at the beginning or at the end – we see ourselves as problem solvers.
CA: What defines the firm's character or culture?
BB: Our pro bono work. We are consistently ranked among the top pro bono firms in the country. The firm has been committed to this work since we were founded. Four lawyers at the firm have served as presidents of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. As a business, we have an unwavering commitment to helping people in need.
CA: What's the balance like between LA and San Francisco? Obviously LA is the bigger office, are there any plans to make the balance more equal?
BB: I think it’s impossible to predict the future, we have a very strong base in LA and we're not about to change that. It’s hard to predict whether the proportions will change but percentage-wise San Francisco will probably grow.
CA: What was Munger like when you joined and how has it changed?
BB: I was the 49th lawyer when I joined in 1981. In some ways it was very similar – open, democratic and with a one-to-one ratio. There have been a couple of changes as the firm has gotten older. In the early days, people left in their 30s and 40s – they had other opportunities but maintained a close connection with the firm. We still have that but I think more people stay until retirement now. The firm is family-oriented now with more established client relationships – in short, we are more successful. The firm is older, almost by definition that engenders lifetime client loyalty. Of course that throws up new challenges but that is one of the reasons I took on the co-managing partner job. Our business model is fresh and young. We have some great young partners and associates who are creating incredible relationships. However, we don't see age as a negative, we see it as a positive and we've got tons of lawyers in their 40s and 50s as well.
CA: Any advice or words of wisdom for students applying to Munger?
BB: Look, just get as much hands-on experience as you can. Seek out opportunities to work with lawyers or on any cause that is close to your heart.
Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP
355 South Grand Avenue,
- Head Office: Los Angeles, CA
- Number of domestic offices: 2
- Number of international offices: 0
- Partners (US): 90
- Associates (US): 116
- Summer Salary 2016
- 1Ls: $3,461/week
- 2Ls: $3,461/week
- Post 3Ls: $3,461/week
- 1Ls hired? Yes
- Split summers offered? Yes
- Summers 2016: 20 2Ls, 3 1Ls (1Ls are not eligible for offers)
- Offers/acceptances 2016: 29 offers
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.
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.
• 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 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.