One of Chicago's oldest law firms has renewed vigor under its first female managing partner.
“CH-ch-ch-ch-changes,” the late, great David Bowie sang. Around the time he left this world in early 2016, this leading 150-year-old Chicago firm experienced changes of its own when a group of 22 partners led by its former chairman and managing partner left Schiff to set up a new firm. The move came after a record year financially (thanks in part to a one-off $32 million contingency fee in 2015), when Schiff's revenue soared almost 15% to $277 million and partner profits jumped 21%. Since then, current managing partner Marci Eisenstein – appointed Schiff's first ever female MP in 2015 – has led a renewed push for growth, albeit with some refocusing (seven existing and four incoming associates were let go following the partner departures, and more recently the firm closed its small Dallas office). “It was quite a shock but I don't know that there has been a major shift in focus,” associates told us. “We did lose a couple of elements of our litigation practice and we used to have a much larger products liability division, but a lot of groups were unaffected.” Marci Eisenstein confirms: "The partner departures were certainly unexpected, and they were followed by a necessary but painful reduction-in-force. We went through some necessary restructuring, but we came through it more unified, cohesive, and focused than we've ever been."
These things happen in BigLaw, and interviewees remained bullish about the firm, particularly its famously friendly culture which gives “a real sense that we are human beings.” A high proportion of senior attorneys, including Marci Eisenstein, have spent their entire careers at Schiff, and juniors believed this goal remains true today: “They are looking for people to be invested in the firm and to stay here for a long time.” There are openings for entry-level associates in several of Schiff's six offices spread around the country, and sources spoke highly of the decent responsibility and support they receive. The firm has also hired multiple lateral associates in the past year. Chambers USA singles out construction and environment as Schiff's strongest practices, and also highly rates its banking & finance, litigation, insurance, and wealth management teams.
Associates described the work assignment system as “a completely free market system. It can be challenging, you have to be comfortable with finding work, with putting yourself out there. On the other hand, they really do allow you and encourage you to try things out.” For up to a year associates are at liberty to remain “undesignated,” with no need to declare allegiance to a group. “To the heads of individual practice groups you can say 'hey, I'm looking for this type of experience' and they will direct you to partners. Also, partners will call you out of the blue sometimes or talk to other partners to get referrals on associates. It goes in both directions.” How long associates took to settle into one practice depended on their existing interests, but they felt “no pressure” to choose. “I'm not sure how people could start fully knowing what they want to do,” one associate mused.
“I'm not sure how people could start fully knowing what they want to do.”
General litigation has the most junior associates. Quite a few go to the environmental practice, and you'll find one or two in general corporate & securities, finance, private client, real estate, IP, energy & public utilities, labor & employment, and product liability. Though litigation sources spoke about some large scale cases, on smaller cases “it is typical to be staffed with just me and a partner. When something is in court, I will be in there addressing the court, or watching it, or doing a filing, or drafting for it. I'm drafting motions and discovery. It's harder to find these smaller cases but the opportunities are definitely out there.” Associates from many departments reported good client contact, like this finance source: “Even as a first-year it was my responsibility to call the client and update them. As a second and third-year I'd be walking through the agreement with the client, doing it myself about a quarter of the time.” Across the board, associates gave rave reviews about the amount they were entrusted with: “The thing I love about Schiff is that it is a place which will give as much responsibility as you are willing to take.”
Training & Development
Associates' ability to shoulder their high levels of responsibility rest in part on their legal writing. Schiff employs a full-time writing coach, Julie Schrager. “Any time I write anything over two or three pages I would send it to her. She gives a lot of suggestions: she's so thorough you can get 50-60 comments,” one associate reported. Stylistically, “she knows the partners really well and even knows what certain judges are looking for.” Importantly, “it's clear that it's outside the review process.” On that subject, there are annual formal reviews “where you sit down with your practice group leader and they give a summary of the feedback given to you.” Informally, “if you turn in work you get a lot of red ink – you see feedback that way. But you can also just walk into a partner's office or talk to associates after a deal and ask what you did well.”
“If you turn in work you get a lot of red ink.”
For litigation associates “there's almost too much training, to the point where we were still being trained in April, and by that point I'd learned it on the job already!” Over in finance, however, there's “no specific finance group training. The training I get is more from actual work.” 50 of associates' billable hours are designated “observational hours.” Many used them to “attend a meeting or a hearing or something where the client wouldn't pay for you to go, or you have no direct role, but it would be a good learning experience.” Associates we interviewed felt the firm has “made a lot of changes based on feedback from last year.”
Hours & Compensation
The 2,000 billable hour target caused no issues for associates. “If you hit it you get a bonus and the amount is discretionary.” Some associates felt the movable element was “not particularly well explained,” nor was it “particularly conducive to transparency.” At least one associate felt “it should just be lockstep, then at least everyone knows.”
“There's the concept that you are a person with a family and a life.”
“I've had some late nights but it's not a regular occurrence,” said one associate. Most seemed content, suggesting their hours, though often long, weren't taking a severe toll on them. “There's the concept that you are a person with a family and a life,” so while weekend work wasn't unheard of, there's flexibility around face time. “If I have a doctor's appointment at 10am nobody will ask where I am. If you need to leave to pick up your kid from daycare, nobody is shaming you.”
Good news too on the pro bono front. Previously, “you had to get approved for all of your pro bono hours above 75,” but “they've got rid of that now.” Instead, the pro bono hours counting toward associates' billing targets are unlimited. Several reported doing over 200 hours, with one feeling “encouraged to do that. There was no mention of me having billed too many hours.”
“The firm has continued to promote a whole bunch of opportunities. It got to the point where I was turning things down as so many partners were coming up with really cool stuff,” gushed one associate. “We have a clinic with Chicago Volunteer Legal Services where we go monthly to meet with lower income individuals who need legal assistance.” Associates had worked on and run “a variety of civil matters, some family law, some benefits cases, and some landlord/tenant disputes.”
Pro bono hours
- For all attorneys: 16,943
- Average per attorney: 53
Beyond the writing coach, associates gave further evidence to suggest Schiff is an environment focused on long-term development. “I can say 'can I take the first draft?' Even if the partner knows they'll have to revise it, I never get a 'no,' I get a 'sure!' Because that's how you learn. That's something I've felt the most, that they are invested in the learning.” As a result “when you meet someone at Schiff, in a meeting or in the hallways, they will always tell you how long they've been at the firm – some partners have been here for 20 years and they are looking for that commitment.”
“It's friendly and easygoing without being particularly tight knit, rambunctious or energetic.”
“I would say it is a friendly place, but not an overly social place. I think everybody is friendly with each other in the hallway, everyone knows your name and a bit about each other. People's office doors are open, but at the end of the day most people go home to their families.” Most associates felt the same way: “I like the atmosphere here,” said a Chicagoan. “People aren't fussy about what you look like or whether I'm in the office all the time. It's friendly and easygoing without being particularly tight knit, rambunctious or energetic.” A big firmwide meeting is the highlight of the social calendar, traditionally combining a dinner, mixers, and business updates.
The Windy City headquarters are the most associate-heavy and their location within the landmark Willis (once Sears) Tower was a point of pride among its young occupiers. “I love the tower!” one declared. “It's very conveniently located and super-easy to get to.” Associates get an office each too. Those in offices beyond Chicago reported frequent and fairly seamless work across offices, but we still heard comments that smaller offices had a sense of independence, and don't always subscribe to the Chicago model: “They follow the beat of their own drum.” Beside the HQ in Chicago, there are offices in Ann Arbor, Lake Forest, New York, San Francisco, and DC.
Diversity “is a major concern of the firm,” agreed associates. “You can notice that among the summer associates there is a lot of diversity, and particularly in gender we do have diversity. There is a big focus on it. I think the challenge is to retain diversity: our diversity is much more among associates than in the partner ranks. But our managing partner is a woman and that is an important step for the firm to have made. It sends a strong signal about where we want to head.” Indeed, with managing partner Marci Eisenstein's help, the firm has done a lot to provide flexible parenting arrangements – there's even a specific New Moms Group. But as with so much of the legal profession, “the fact is we don't have many non-white attorneys.”
Strategy & Future
The partner departures and subsequent lay-offs created uncertainty, but the opinion of most associates was that: “It seems like the firm has figured out an equilibrium.” They felt Schiff was “really listening to associates' concerns” via meetings between partners and associates. Unlimited pro bono, the installation of WiFi and the matching of salaries have resulted: a process of “shoring up morale.” Going forward “everyone who is still here wants to be here, and that contributes to the atmosphere.”
Managing partner Marci Eisenstein tells us: "We've had a really terrific year, which we were not necessarily expecting after the events of January 2016. Certain practices had breakout years: our IP group tried 11 cases in 12 months. That's remarkable for any IP group, and more remarkable for a firm of our size."
Interview with Marci Eisenstein, managing partner
Chambers Associate: It's been just over a year since the departure of that big group of partners to Riley Safer – how would you sum up that past year? Has it been a good one or a bad one for the firm?
Marci Eisenstein: We've had a really terrific year, which we were not necessarily expecting after the events of January 2016. Certain practices had breakout years: our IP group tried 11 cases in 12 months. That's remarkable for any IP group, and more remarkable for a firm of our size. With some opportunities a strong practice just took off and exploded, and now a lot of folks are interested in practising with them. It got a lot of attention and press and it's terrific that Imron Aly and Sailesh Patel, the young co-Practice Group Leaders in IP, get an opportunity to assume leadership.
Trials were at an all-time high in 2016, not just in IP, but across all of our litigation practices. We had more than 35 trials plus several arbitrations in commercial cases, products liability, IP, environmental, and antitrust. I've been here for 28 years and I can't remember a busier trial year for litigation.
The partner departures were certainly unexpected, and they were followed by a necessary but painful reduction-in-force. We went through some necessary restructuring, but we came through it more unified, cohesive, and focused than we've ever been as evidenced by having elected our most diverse executive committee ever, including two women, our first Latino attorney and our first member of the LGBT community. It's very exciting that we have that diversity reflected at the top level of our firm.
There's a tremendous amount of enthusiasm, optimism, and excitement around the firm. Younger lawyers assumed new leadership roles, including roles on important firm committees. Our clients have remained loyal to us. It was a strong year financially too.
CA: How did you keep your employees' morale up at the time of the departures? Did you consult with them through the process?
ME: I had to be extremely communicative with people to maintain their confidence. It's important for people to be confident, to trust their leaders. It was handled with transparency -- I met with folks early and often. I told them I would be forthright and straight with them. If I didn't have the answers, I'd tell them so.
Besides our employees, we had laterals and law students in the pipeline to whom we had extended offers. We communicated frequently and directly with them too, as well as with the law schools and recruiters in order to maintain confidence.
Our summer associates were understandably nervous when they came into the firm last summer. But we’d recruited a strong class, they did great work, and we were able to give offers to the entire summer class. One additional thing we did last year to bring everyone together and strengthen confidence in the firm was to hold a firm-wide meeting in June. Attorneys at every level – from the senior-most partners to our brand-new summer associates – came together and we were forthright about how we were doing and where we were headed. Associates spoke on panels, elder statesmen talked about law practice in the early days, practice group leaders presented their business plans, and a member of the Executive Committee gave a state-of-the-firm financial report. That reflected the culture and openness of our firm.
CA: What was the reasoning behind the closure of the Dallas office?
ME: These were amicable and mutual decisions: it was a good thing for us, a good thing for our former colleagues in Dallas, and a good thing for the firm they joined. It has allowed us to focus on our core strengths.
CA: What are your goals now as a firm going forward? What do you want the firm looking like in 10 years’ time?
ME: 10 years is a long time. But I'll tell you where we're going over the next few years. We will maintain our independence. We are an entrepreneurial firm, we know each other, we like each other, we're adept and agile at putting together the best teams to address problems and, candidly, we have a lot of fun doing that. And for those reasons, I think clients enjoy working with us.
We will focus on building on our areas of strength, and on building top practices. You've heard about IP, but Construction is another core practice, as are Environmental, Private Clients, Products Liability, Corporate, and Litigation. We will focus on building and growing laterally in those areas.
We're committed to maintaining a great firm culture based on collaboration and independence; where we know each other and work together extremely well in the interests of our clients. We will focus on recruiting top entry-level talent, and on empowering those young lawyers to build practices and become leaders.
CA: How do you see the Trump presidency affecting the firm? Are there any practices you feel will be particularly affected?
ME: None of us are quite certain yet how the Trump presidency will play out. People think it's positive for business and that means our clients will be doing things, but we're not sure what. We have an Environmental practice that is a marquee practice and I think we will see more private citizen suits in that area. There'll be fewer suits brought by the government and more by non-for-profits and private citizens.
Our Construction practice is unique. It focuses on project management and project controls. We put people on-site at major infrastructure projects, negotiating documents, and mediating to get clients' work done on or under budget. The Trump administration has talked about major infrastructure projects, which would provide real opportunities for this group.
CA: What do you think sets your firm apart as a place to work?
ME: This is a place where brand-new lawyers make a difference from day one. We're looking for people who want to be at a law firm where everyone matters. There's no being a cog in the wheel. Our teams are smaller, and every lawyer hired into our firm meets with me in my office on their very first day. So I know everyone. I'm aware of what each associate is doing, and we invest in training them. We are small enough that we know our people and can develop each of them, but we’re big enough to do sophisticated work. With the recent merger mania, with firms getting so big, we’ve become an alternative, because we offer opportunities that most firms can’t offer.
Interview with Dave Blickenstaff (chair of the law student recruitment committee) and Lisa Brown (professional development partner)
Chambers Associate: What's the scope of your recruitment process?
Dave Blickenstaff: We do it two ways. Some schools we visit on campus, in person. Then there's a bunch of other schools where we collect resumes. Our “in person” interviewing includes a couple of job fairs in Chicago. One is patent related and the other is a minority job fair run by the Cook County Bar Association.
We aren't hiring for every office every year. For this August's recruiting we are looking for only two offices. But when we go to a school it's not like we only want New York office associates to come out of that school. If I were recruiting at the University of Chicago and met a candidate who wanted to come to New York, and we were hiring there at that point, it would be fine. It's not restricted.
Will the partner departures in early 2016 or the closure of the Dallas office mean you're looking to recruit fewer associates?
First let me say that the 2016 departures and the Dallas situation are unrelated. In 2016 we had some lawyers break off, mainly from Chicago, and set up a new firm. The closure of the Dallas office was independent of those events and was a mutual decision to part ways.
In terms of numbers, neither event is going to make a huge difference in our hiring. Last summer we had 13 summer associates in three offices. Those folks were hired before the early 2016 departures, but all of them got offers and all accepted.
The 2017 summer class is the essentially same size. We have 12 second year law students, and we certainly hope that all of those folks will do well, receive offers, and accept them. We also added a couple of first years, so the class will actually be 14 instead of 12. So basically the numbers are the same year to year, despite the changes in overall firm personnel.
Now if you look back, there were a few years when we had larger summer classes. We’re not likely to return to those levels in the near term. We are keeping our hiring in balance and scaled to our size so that the people we're bringing in have opportunities.
CA: What does the firm do to encourage diversity in recruiting?
DB: We have a diversity committee which includes executive committee members and practice group leaders. It's a wide ranging committee with a wide ranging mission. There are subgroups focusing on diversity from the perspective of gender, racial ethnicity/national origin, veterans, LGBT, and attorneys with disabilities to promote diversity of all kinds firm-wide. That's not new, it goes back 10 or 12 years. So we're paying it a lot of attention at the highest level.
On the recruiting side – again not a new thing – we have an interview format which is different from most. It's an hour long panel interview which gets in-depth on the candidate's record. The reason I bring it up in the context of diversity is that the panel forces you to get past first impressions, past unconscious bias. You can only get so deep in a traditional half-hour interview– it’s more of a first impression. Our panel is an hour long with specific questions which provide the candidate more opportunity to speak, so we learn more about the person.
More recently, we've started an initiative, pairing up with Ford Motor Company to hire a joint summer associate. A first year from Howard University will be spending most of her summer here in Chicago but also a few weeks with Ford in Michigan. Howard is a historically black university, and we went there in an effort to broaden our diversity. We've not paired up with a client like that before – it should be a great opportunity.
We've also joined other law firms and corporations in the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity, which is a commitment to foster diversity in the profession. You designate someone as an LCLD scholar and there is a meeting they go to which is designed to network them with other members of the initiative.
Lisa Brown: Half of our summer associates this year are diverse, including LGBT, veteran, and racially diverse summer associates.
DB: We've also had another women and a Latino partner join our seven-person executive committee. Diversity in firm leadership has an impact and sends a signal: it shows that diverse lawyers are valued here and can reach the highest levels.
CA: Tell us more about this distinctive interview approach?
DB: In the panel interview we ask questions that aren't based on 'what would you do if…’ or 'here's a legal situation, how would you tackle it?' They’re behavioral interview questions regarding their experience, the work they have done, and the leadership positions they have held. It's not hypothetical. It's designed to probe for the skills we want to see in our lawyers.
What we want is analytical ability, the ability to communicate, to work on teams, to form relationships and the experience having done that. We ask candidates to tell us about their past work experience. We try to get them to give us detail that goes beyond their resume, beyond a casual chat.
The panel interview format is not a secret. It’s described on our website, and we explain it when we call to invite people for callbacks. People aren't blind-sided.
CA: What qualities do you prize in a candidate? What are you looking for?
DB: Ownership is the word that comes to mind. There are others, of course -- analytical ability is fundamental, and relationship skills -- but ownership sets people apart. The candidates we see are strong students, and they’ve demonstrated their ability to succeed in the school environment. That's not the same as being a practising lawyer. We need people who will step up and consider the client’s problem to be their problem. The way you become a great lawyer is by making your clients’ problems your own. At the beginning you may only have a small piece of the transaction or the litigation, but you must seize that piece and have the drive toward providing a solution; to be where the buck stops. We have an environment with small teams where juniors go to court and interact with clients early on. We will train them and guide them, but they need to have the desire to take responsibility.
LB: Another reason why ownership is important here is that we are looking for people to make decisions about what they want to do. Summer associates have a lot of flexibility about assignments – they can pick and choose. Similarly when new lawyers join, we don't place them into a practice group so they must decide 'who do I like working with? What am I suited to?'
As Dave Blickenstaff explains, Schiff takes a particular approach to interviewing. One associate recalled that “first you have an interview with a partner, then there's a panel with three or four partners and each one asks you about a specific part of your life and your professional skills. That's about an hour long, then after that you do an hour long written exercise. Then I went off for lunch with an associate and I really liked it: everyone was very friendly. It struck me as a place where I could grow. I liked that teams are a bit smaller. There are a lot of partner interactions and I get an opportunity to do a lot of good work. I think that is one thing they conveyed.”
Another associate complimented the writing task and panel section, telling us “it made it more substantive and made me feel that I was not being graded on my ability to small talk or whether I was just lucky in connecting with a partner. I was being graded on objective skills, on legal reasoning.” The writing task saw associates “given some legal document and asked to translate it and write a letter to a client in layman's terms. It was mainly a test of how to distil a complex, wordy legal situation and put it in normal language.”
Schiff impressed one associate because “during OCIs with other firms, stray comments really grated on me and I didn't get any of that at Schiff. They seemed like decent people just doing their work and they seemed genuinely interested in me and my career, they weren't all about fulfilling quotas. I appreciated that everyone I met offered up assistance and seemed genuine, even if I had crossed it off my list.” As for what the firm's looking for, one associate felt that “they hire a variety of people. Client contact people and others who sit behind their computers and write and research and I think they are looking to hire both of those.”
Schiff Hardin LLP
Willis Tower ,
233 South Wacker Drive, Suite 6600,
- Head Office: Chicago, IL
- Number of domestic offices: 6
- Number of international offices: 0
- Partners (US): 82 (IP), 65 (EP)
- Associates (US): 87
- Summer Salary 2017
- 1Ls: $3,450/week
- 2Ls: $3,450/week
- Post 3Ls: N/A
- 1Ls hired? Case by case
- Split summers offered? Case by case
- Summers 2017: 14
- Offers/acceptances 2016: 12 offers, 12 acceptances
Schiff Hardin was founded in Chicago over 150 years ago and is now a full-service national firm with over 300 attorneys in six offices. Schiff Hardin is recognized for its strong litigation and transactional work and its cutting-edge intellectual property, environmental, and construction practices. Clients range from Fortune 100 corporations to privately held companies, financial institutions, public utilities, government entities, and individuals. Schiff Hardin lawyers embrace several core values: a commitment to excellent work and superior client service, strong team spirit, and a belief that diversity benefits both the firm and its clients. The firm encourages new lawyers to explore different practice areas before they choose a practice group. Schiff ’s lean staffing and extensive training programs allow associates to take on significant responsibility and have a front-line role early in their careers.
• Number of 1st year associates: 11
• Number of 2nd year associates: 17
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $180,000
• 2nd year: Tier-based
• Clerking policy: Yes
Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2017:
Chicago, Chicago-Kent, Fordham, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Northwestern, Notre Dame. The firm collects resumes at several additional schools and all applicants are welcome to contact the firm at schiffhardin.com.
Summer associate profile:
Schiff Hardin recruits law students who have a record of leadership and achievement in school, work, and extracurricular and community activities; strong analytical, interpersonal and communication skills; the ability to work independently and on a team; and the drive to gain experience and succeed in a client-service business.
Summer program components:
Schiff Hardin summer associates get a realistic look at what it’s like to practice law at the firm. Associate advisors, partner mentors, social events, and weekly meetings integrate summer associates and give them a feel for the firm’s culture, practice groups, and management. From day one, summer associates gain experience in the areas of law that interest them by doing real work for real clients. They also learn by observing depositions and trials and attending negotiations and client meetings. Summer associates receive feedback after each assignment and a midsummer review. Finally, summers receive training, including group writing, research and corporate drafting workshops; litigation and communications skills training; business development training; and one-on-one sessions with the firm’s writing coach.