“Very transparent and calculated expansion” has helped South Carolina-born Nelson Mullins break the Am Law 100 for the first time in 2017.
IN 2017, Nelson Mullins joined the ranks of the top 100 US law firms. Its impressive 18.4% increase in revenue between 2015 and 2016 propelled the ambitious firm up 15 places, placing it at 88th on the coveted Am Law 100. Chairman Jim Lehman says: “We feel like we were one of the best kept secrets in the Am Law200, so we're glad to see people can see what we've been doing and accomplishing for clients more now.”
Nelson Mullins' roots date back 120 years, to when founder Patrick Henry Nelson established the firm's current headquarters in Columbia, South Carolina. Today, the firm has done its share of growing: it maintains an extensive presence in its home state, but also boasts offices along the whole length of the East Coast, including the semi-recent addition of NY in 2015. Growth-mode didn't stop there, this time setting its sights further west with offices in Denver, and most recently in sunny LA. Juniors were attracted to the fact NM has “complex and interesting work from prominent clients, but it's not based anywhere like New York or DC. It has a Southern personality which is conducive to people being friendly and not cutthroat.” In Chambers USA, the firm performs best in the Carolinas, particularly in corporate, litigation and environmental work.
The firm is broadly divided into litigation and transactional, then associates might work for a more specific team within that. Assignment varies somewhat between offices and practices, but more often than not there is an assigning partner/team leader. But assignment is still pretty fluid: “Typically you start working with partners, who later ask you to get involved on projects. You have to check with your team leader on workflow and whether you have the capacity to take on that assignment.” Others described having a partner who “manages our group, and as things are coming in he deals out the work according to who is busy and who isn't.” Juniors reckoned “you're not micromanaged until things are overflowing.”
Just under two-thirds of the junior cohort can be found in litigation. General litigators could be “working on a few different things at once on any given day. You get a broad exposure.” Areas that crop up a fair bit tend to include commercial, product liability, premise liability and professional negligence, among others. Other sub-teams within litigation specialize in areas such as complex contract litigation, employment litigation and regulatory. “I've actually been most surprised at how hands-on it's been – I've been able to take leading roles in preparing depositions for important witnesses, and been in the room when they've been deposed. You're trusted to be client-facing, not just being kept hidden in the office.” Other junior litigators listed “drafting documents like motions to dismiss and motions for summary judgment” as well as research and initial case reviews. Some even mentioned “getting to attend mediations and hearings, and sit second chair for those.” Sources admitted: “Some assignments are more overwhelming than others, but at the end of the day I reckon I've had more experiences than associates at other BigLaw firms and I appreciate that.”
“I've actually been most surprised at how hands-on it's been."
Corporate takes the remaining third of juniors. Similarly to litigation, there are subgroups and teams under the wider corporate umbrella. “A lot of them perform overlapping work, but it's broken down like that to manage people's workloads better,” one interviewee reflected. Most groups do some form of M&A work (“mostly midmarket deals”) but there's also venture capital financing, preferred stock financing and debt financing. “From day one, I had drafting responsibilities. I just expected to come in and do due diligence, but that wasn't the case.” Juniors initially drafted disclosure schedules, board and stock consents, and other ancillary documents. As associates progress, they can “get more involved in drafting some of the main documents, like purchase agreements.” That's not to say associates never do due diligence: on larger deals, this is a common task for juniors, though as they move up, some third years have “taken on overseeing and coordinating the due diligence.” Many agreed “one thing I love about the firm is the high level of responsibility early on in our careers, especially in contrast to peers at larger firms, who still seem stuck in the back doing signature pages.”
“I haven't encountered a firm that is as committed to pro bono as Nelson Mullins,” one source claimed. Any hours after 20 count toward an associate's billables: “Other firms do pro bono, but we incentivize it – it makes sure people realize the importance of it.” Juniors got involved in a range of matters, including adoptions, disputes with landlords, domestic violence cases, appellate defense, veterans clinics and the unaccompanied minors project, to name a few. Pro bono clients are “treated as paying clients – the firm dedicates a lot of time to it.” That said, some found “it can sometimes be difficult, knowing big paying companies need stuff done too. Associates appreciate the commitment, but find it hard to balance it alongside the commitment to billable hours.” However, sources also found that their team leaders “do a great job of helping us if we want to take on a project, and help guide us through it.”
Pro bono hours
- For all attorneys: 31,536
- Average per associate: 73
“I think because of its Southeastern roots, the firm has retained that Southern culture of friendliness and hospitality. We've not got so big that we've watered down our culture – we're not some faceless BigLaw firm.” As a result, “if you are a person who gets a bit too big for your breeches or you are disrespectful, you'll be rooted out very quickly.” More interviewees reckoned “it seems very flat in terms of hierarchy. The firm has intentionally made sure everyone is equal. All the offices are the same size – it doesn't matter if you brought in $500 million or $10 million to the firm.” Although, be reminded this is still a law firm with partners leading it – some hierarchy is inevitable.
“One time we did a zip line.”
"The firm is a place where everyone takes their work seriously, but not themselves.” Beyond the obvious requirements to excel academically, juniors reckon the firm looks for “people who would be pleasant to work with” as well as those who can “take initiative and seek out things beyond what is asked of them – someone who will go the extra mile.” Or as one source put it: “We don't want a robot coming in.” Overall, the aim is to have “someone who is presentable to a client, who works hard and enjoys what they do.”
Although associates are undeniably friendly and personable, many admitted that the social scene was a bit lacking. “Initially we tried to organize monthly associate nights out, which we did for a while. But then I think everyone got super busy, and somewhere along the way we dropped the ball.” That said, juniors are eager to “try and revive it.” The Atlanta office has “an awesome rooftop terrace, stocked with wine and beer. On Fridays, attorneys can go up there and hang out.” Other than that, there are regular events planned during the summer when summer associates are at the firm, which every attorney can attend. Examples have included baseball games, wine and beer tasting, and “one time we did a zip line.”
Columbia and Atlanta are the biggest of the firm's 17 US offices. Its presence in South Carolina covers Charleston, Greenville and Myrtle Beach in addition to Columbia, while North Carolina offices cover Charlotte, Raleigh and Winston-Salem. Other offices across the US can be found in Boston, Denver, Huntington, Jacksonville, LA, Nashville, NY, Tallahassee and DC.
On top of the much-loved roof terrace, the Atlanta office boasts “probably the best views in all of Atlanta.” Juniors also praised its location in Atlantic Station – “well positioned to avoid traffic.” One slight problem some pointed out was space: “We're expanding rapidly, so we're running out of space. I don't know what the plan is, but I heard we might be picking up another floor.” The Columbia office is “right on Main Street” in the top floors of a relatively new building.
Hours & Compensation
Nelson Mullins does things a little differently when it comes to hours. Instead of your traditional yearly billable hours target, attorneys at Nelson Mullins have a collection goal. In other words, “at the end of the year you are judged by the amount you billed out to clients, and money actually has to collect to be eligible for the goal.” Associates have a 1,900-hour goal, then that multiplied by their rate is their collection goal.
“The compensation is a bit more like how partners are compensated."
According to juniors, this unique system comes with a number of both pros and cons. “The compensation is a bit more like how partners are compensated. It makes more business sense to make sure the client pays, but then obviously if the client doesn't pay, you won't get your collection.” Others reflected that “in theory, if you bill 1,900 hours at your goal rate and every bit gets collected, you should surpass your goal. However, in reality that's not how it happens. It's a bit like communism – it sounds better in theory.” That said, some conceded that “if you hit your collection target, you may well have worked fewer than 1,900 hours.” Corporate attorneys generally found it easier to hit their collection target as they have higher billable rates; however, they also admitted there was a higher chance compared with litigation that money might not collect.
Average day-to-day hours find associates getting in between 8am and 9:30am, and leaving the office anywhere between 6pm and 8:30pm. If busy that becomes “drastically different.” When asked if there was much weekend work involved, juniors said: “Not every weekend. Maybe a few hours on a Sunday once or twice a month.”
Training & Development
“We have an associates' committee training program that puts on seminars about twice a month. They are either practice area focused, or focused on how to be a successful attorney.” These can cover topics from how to research effectively to how to bill your time. The firm also gives you billable credit for these sessions. “I think the practice area ones are the most successful because they provide substantive help with actual day-to-day assignments.”
“The firm acknowledges the issues with diversity and constantly works to improve it.” Many expressed that diversity has been “identified as a core value for the firm” and that “they're always look at recruiting diverse candidates.” Juniors felt the main issue was surrounding retention, especially of female attorneys. To tackle this, sources highlighted participating in a “diversity panel that brainstorms ideas of how to better recruit but also retain diverse lawyers.” Another initiative is the women's leadership program – “where equity partners take on the mentoring of a female partner to get them to equity partner.” There have also been Women and Business Development webinars, led by female partners, discussing what women need to do to garner more business. Nelson Mullins also offers a diversity scholarship to students from diverse backgrounds.
Strategy & Future
Juniors praised the firm's transparency when it comes to its strategy. “The firm has done an excellent job of building organically, and building through smart business sense – not just for the sake of it. It's very calculated expansion.” Sources also highlight the firm's range of practices, meaning “if one industry contracts a bit, the firm doesn't have all its eggs in one basket so we're not going to just collapse. Other areas of the business can pick up the slack.” Chair Jim Lehman adds: “We feel like we're on a good path now. We'll likely continue to grow and continue with the strategy we developed ten years ago as it has continued to work well.” He speculates in saying: “I expect we'll be larger, though I don't expect we'll be expanding internationally. We'll continue to grow domestically with additional lawyers and maybe additional geographies.”
When asked what might make a candidate stand out at interview, hiring partner Jim Rogers reflects that "those interviews that leave you really wanting to get the person back are ones that stand out – the ones that are effortless, where there is a nice easy flow of conversation on both sides." He adds: "It helps a lot when people show genuine interest in the firm, and that the interest doesn't feel artificial." As a summer, Rogers explains: "We're looking for a fit - where the individual seems to understand, appreciate and like our culture." While at the firm, Rogers emphasizes "the best thing that anybody can do to impress is to do top-quality legal work. Somebody can stand out more if they display the ability to take an assignment and add to it in a valuable way."
Juniors that have helped with recruiting added: "Most of the interviewees usually have great credentials, so I don't care about them because they're usually all great. I want to get to know the personality: why they want to practice, what their end game is, and whether they're enjoyable to be around." Others looked for "if they're actually going to be able to do the work – do they seem to have that work ethic? Do they seem personable? Do they seem to want to be here?"
Interview with chairman Jim Lehman
Chambers Associate: What highlights from the past year would you want to flag up to student readers interested in your firm?
Jim Lehman: We had a really exciting year last year. We grew some important practices that helped us continue to establish a great reputation in those areas, for instance, in healthcare and the automotive industry. We're pleased with the geographic expansion too – we grew in key markets such as California and Denver, as well as expanding in New York.
We got a lot of great feedback about moving into the Am Law 100. We feel like we were one of the better-kept secrets of the Am Law 200, so we're glad that people can see what we've been doing and accomplishing for our clients. We've had some great trial victories – of which two trials were important nationally. In league tables we've ranked very highly on the East Coast for a number of private equity and venture capital deals we've closed. Overall it's been a great year.
CA: Given that readers wouldn't be joining your firm for another couple of years, what's the general strategy going forward, and what do you hope the firm will look like in a couple of years?
JL: While I expect we will be larger, I hope we won't look a lot different. When I joined the firm, we had shared cultural values that we still share today. We will work hard to maintain those as we grow. I don't expect we'll be expanding internationally, but we'll continue to expect to grow domestically.
CA: Where in particular will the firm be investing? Any plans to open new offices?
JL: Over the last year we've been contacted about several opportunities from firms that would like to join us. In the next two years, I expect we'll open an additional office or more and will certainly continue to grow key practices.
CA: What has the firm done and what does it plan to do with respect to the challenging economy?
JL: We embraced the idea that the 2008 recession changed the legal industry. I believe clients want more predictability, more flat and alternative fees, and nontraditional staffing. Law firms will have to embrace technology to provide more efficient services. We organize our firm around teams and expect our teams to be more nimble than larger traditional practice groups and be able to set the best strategy and react to a disruptive environment.
CA: What's your long-term vision for Nelson Mullins? What do you want it to look like in five, ten or 20 years’ time?
JL: I guess I would say to stay the course. We've been proactive in responding to challenges the legal industry has faced. I believe we've invested in the right practices and embraced the change to alternative fees and alternative staffing models to give us a competitive advantage. I feel like we're on a good path now. As we continue to grow, I don't see any major shifts in that trajectory. We're continuing with the strategy we developed ten years ago, and it has continued to work well.
CA: How is the revenue split between contentious and noncontentious work?
JL: It's probably 60:40 contentious to noncontentious.
CA: How would you define the firm's character or culture?
JL: We work very hard to have a very direct conversation about who we are and how we treat each other. A couple of buzzwords seem to describe us well: 'entrepreneurial' is a word all partners use and talk to associates about; 'collegial' is how we treat each other – we're fundamentally a partnership and we act like that. From a client perspective, we're solution architects – problem solvers rather than just process-oriented lawyers. It's also really important that we're committed to our community and our profession. We have a partner who is about to be a federal judge, and our partners and associates serve on community boards.
CA: Any advice or words of wisdom for our student readers as they try to enter the legal profession?
JL: I always tell our young lawyers to find out what they enjoy and do it. I think that working as a lawyer is challenging and can be stressful, but it's a lot more enjoyable if you do something you love.
CA: Anything else to add on associate life?
JL: From the moment a lawyer walks in the door, they're working with small teams that basically become their family at the firm. It's their safety net to ensure development and mentoring. We're not the kind of place where someone comes in and is assigned to a monolithic group of 150 lawyers. Associates can get lost there. They can't get lost at Nelson Mullins, and that's something that greatly distinguishes us.
Interview with hiring partner Jim Rogers
Chambers Associate: Firstly, how do you pre-screen those who have bid on your firm?
Jim Rogers: From initially going through the resume, obviously academic performance is important. As a student interviewing as a second year, we love to see participation in law reviews, moot court and other types of activities like that. Then there's the intangibles: sometimes people have got unique work experience, or have a scientific background, and that makes them very interesting to us. We have several practices that really love to see candidates that have got some type of scientific background, whether that is engineering, or something more like biology or medicine. Military experience is always something that is nice; although hardly a criterion, it serves as something that would stand out.
CA: About how many students do you see at each campus or does it vary?
JR: It varies. We've got 17 offices within the firm with very different hiring needs depending on the size. Usually it's somewhere around 20 students at each campus. If we're there and have invested time to go we would usually see as many qualified candidates as we can.
CA: How many get called in for a second interview?
JR: That depends on the offices that the candidate is interested in. Our smaller offices will hire one or two summers a year, so we're not going to bring that many back. But the offices that are larger – where you have 16 or so summers – we bring back more.
CA: Are there any locations where you don't tend to hire summer associates?
JR: In the past couple of years, Myrtle Beach and Raleigh have had no summers. But it's a year-to-year decision based on projected hiring. The LA office, for instance, is still very new so there's not been any summers there either.
CA: What does the firm do to encourage diversity in recruiting?
JR: We do several things. We have a diversity scholarship where we can award up to three $10,000 scholarships a year. These scholarships are only awarded to second-year law students. To qualify, they need to spend eight weeks with us over the course of the summer, then at the end of that period, they can collect the scholarship money. Also, all of our interviewers who go to OCIs get some sort of heads up on looking for diverse candidates. Last summer we did something new that went over really well – we called it a diversity mini-retreat. We had all the summers, firm-wide, who self-identified as being diverse come to Columbia for half a day. They heard from a member of the executive committee, the chair of the diversity committee, and from a panel of diverse lawyers from different offices within the firm. We also had some small group sessions with them and talked about their concerns.
CA: What types of questions do you ask during OCIs and callback interviews?
JR: It's very dependent on who the interviewer is. We don't give out sample questions to interviewers; it's really very unscripted and free-flowing. At some point we always talk about the law firm and offer the candidate the opportunity to ask questions. It can really go in any direction depending on the candidate and the interviewers.
What makes someone stand out at interview?
JR: It's the interviews you leave, where you really want to get the person back – the ones that are effortless, where there's a nice easy flow of conversation on both sides. Not where the interviewer or interviewee has that feeling that they are struggling to think of what to say next. Obviously it helps a lot when people show genuine interest in the firm too.
CA: What are you looking for in a candidate? What type of person thrives at the firm?
JR: We are a large firm of over 550 attorneys, so obviously we have all kinds of people. I don't know that there's a buttonhole that everybody is going to fit into. Over the course of the summer, we're looking for a fit, where the individual seems to understand and appreciate things like our culture, and vice versa. The best thing that anybody can do as far as impressing goes is to do top-quality legal work while they're here. Someone could stand out more if they display the ability to take an assignment and add to it in a valuable way.
CA: Can you briefly outline your summer program – is there anything distinctive about it, or anything different to other firms that students should know about?
JR: They can be very different office to office. In larger offices it obviously has more structure. Each office handles it differently according to their need and the number of people there. In Columbia, where we tend to have the most summer associates, those summers are all assigned to a team of attorneys while here. That works really well in larger offices, having a home base where their offices are located in the midst of the team they're working for. The Atlanta office will usually split them up into whether they're more interested in corporate work or litigation work. It's the same type of situation in Greenville.
We try to get something on the calendar fairly close to once a week. We try to do things in the homes of partners as much as we can – that always seems to be something that summer associates enjoy. Here in Columbia, we did one of those escape rooms. We try to do things that expose summers to the city that they're in – for example in Atlanta, they go to a Braves game. We also try to have some educational lunch sessions, close to once a week. We always have one session with the managing partner, who describes generally how the business runs and how it's governed. Others like the head of litigation or head of corporate will come and talk generally about what's going on in their respective departments.
Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP
Meridian, 17th Floor,
1320 Main Street,
Main areas of work
■ Boston College
■ Boston University
■ Charleston School of Law
■ Emory University
■ Florida State
■ George Mason
■ George Washington
■ Georgia State
■ Mercer University
■ New York University
■ Ohio State
■ University of Florida
■ University of Georgia
■ University of Kentucky
■ University of Mississippi
■ University of North Carolina
■ University of South Carolina
■ University of Tennessee
■ University of Virginia
■ Vanderbilt University
■ Wake Forest University
■ Washington & Lee
■ West Virginia University
■ William & Mary
Summer associate profile:
Job description: The firm’s summer program is designed to give summer associates a comprehensive view of the firm’s practice while giving the firm an opportunity to evaluate the skills of the summer associates. In evaluating applicants, consideration is given to undergraduate and law school academic performance, extracurricular activities and leadership skills, as well as other experiences and accomplishments.
Qualifications: In evaluating applicants, consideration is given to undergraduate and law school academic performance, extracurricular activities and leadership skills, as well as other experiences and accomplishments.
Summer program components:
For associates who join us post-law school graduation, our associate development process includes bringing new associates onto established practice teams, a formal mentor program pairing new associates with experienced attorneys, and robust programming developed by our Associates Committee designed to advance professional development of associates across the firm. Associates receive training on business, marketing, and a range of substantive issues, and work side-by-side with experienced colleagues.
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This Firm's Rankings in
Chambers USA Guide 2017
- Corporate/M&A (Band 4)
- Healthcare (Band 2)
- Corporate/M&A (Band 1)
- Corporate/M&A: Banking & Finance (Band 1)
- Environment (Band 2)
- Litigation: General Commercial (Band 1)
USA - Nationwide
- Product Liability & Mass Torts (Band 3)
- Litigation: General Commercial (Band 3)