Seward & Kissel LLP - The Inside View

If investment funds and shipping law put the wind in your sails then plot a course for the island of Manhattan, the home of Seward & Kissel.

FIRST things first, it's pronounced 'soo-wood' and not 'sea-ward'. Ironically, this mispronunciation would be more apt as S&K's prowess in all things maritime and shipping finance has been buoyed up by top marks from our sister publication Chambers USA in recent years. High marks also go to S&K's hedge funds work, which it's most famous for. In fact, the firm (founded in 1890) set up the world's first hedge fund, A.W. Jones & Co., in 1949.  Expertise in these two areas were key reasons that associates picked the firm in the first place: “Not only is its reputation in funds incomparable, but I'd heard horror stories of New York firms being cut-throat and there was none of that here.”

This is partly due to S&K's careful growth strategy. While some firms have expanded over seas, S&K has kept things anchored in the US, opting to run a two office operation out of New York and DC alone. Managing partner Jim Cofer tells us that “we're happy being US-centric and from a strategic perspective we have a number of great relationships with non-US firms. This way, clients end up with folks who are at the top of their game from around the globe.” Associates liked this approach: keeping numbers down in the flagship gave Seward a “boutique firm feel that still does high-speed work. I think it's our biggest selling point. We're not a huge a firm so everything is leanly staffed and you get stuck in with work as soon as you start.”

The Work



“You list three practices and most people get their first choice.” Investment management takes the lion's share of new juniors, leaving a few to head to litigation, business transactions, corporate finance, global institutional finance, capital markets, ERISA, and maritime. “In my class six went to investment, four to corporate, two to litigation and one went to global banking.” Different year-groups painted similar pictures. When it comes to work assignment, there's no formal system: “Sometimes people just approach you and see if you're free.”

“It's a lot of hands-on experience very early on.”

Seward & Kissel's market share is second to none in the investment management sphere, servicing some 40% of the top 100 hedge funds based on assets under management, and representing 13 of the top 100 private fund mangers. New starters are exposed to the full gamut of hedge funds work from day one, so expect to tackle “everything from fund launches to researching questions on compliance.” New York insiders estimated that their “department does about 80% hedge funds, 15% private equity and about 5% mutual funds.” Regardless of the type of fund greenhorns were staffed on, they had “drafted offering documents, prospectuses, subscription agreements  – and we're the go-to people for client calls.”

Over in litigation, SEC civil investigations, contractual disputes and securities litigation are all common concerns. Budding litigators “do pretty much everything, but there's a lot of employment, tax, IP and maritime lit.” White collar work has been on the up. Insiders explained that “it's mostly securities stuff like company valuation issues or insider trading and embezzlement. The majority of cases are when the government investigates a big financial institution like a bank, we help them launch internal investigations and cooperate with governmental requirements.” Tasks might include a cornucopia of “client interviews, note-taking and memo research.” While most found themselves lumped with discovery for a lot of their time, sources pointed out that “it's expected.”

Business transactions is another popular destination for newbies. Juniors are assigned to one of a number of subgroups, such as M&A, capital markets and real estate. Maritime finance and other transactional shipping work also feature. Here lawyers are likely to assist clients worldwide on matters such as loan agreements, ship purchases and joint ventures. More generally, associates had done anything from “drafting board consents to registration and rights agreements.” One rationalized: “I'm not going to lie, it's a lot of due diligence. But even though it's grunt work, it's really important foundational work for these deals.”

Pro Bono



Sources were keen to describe their work with HerJustice, an organization that works in collaboration with New York law firms to provide legal services to indigent women. “We tend to deal with contested divorces, domestic abuse and battered women cases.” Asylum matters also took up a healthy chunk of time. “It was a pretty solid experience. I and two colleagues interviewed the client, wrote the brief, drafted expert affidavits and then went to a full hearing at the immigration court.” Not only is this a good cause, but insiders felt that “taking the lead on these cases equips you with skills for your billables and I think partners are more willing to put you on things that would traditionally go to seniors.” All pro bono work can be counted toward associates' billable hours totals.

Pro bono hours

  • For all attorneys: 8,820
  • Average per attorney: 39

Training & Development



Juniors undergo a week of orientation training, covering all the basics like how to bill, practice-specific seminars and a handful of CLEs. Corporate newbies have sessions explaining “what a stock purchase agreement looks like and getting all the technical vocab down.” Litigators tended to have “informal discussions on important legal developments every two months. We also had a jury trial CLE – that was great.” Most liked the informal approach, with a few even commenting that the “week orientation was too long, I was ready to get out of there by day two.” S&K’s more laid back approach was a definite hit when it came to mentorship: “We don’t have a mentorship program per se; we naturally work closely with the partners and everyone is willing to help.” Formal reviews are at year-end. Normally the partner you’ve worked with most will take you through the conglomerated feedback from other supervisors. Everyone was certain that “if there are any real problems, they address it with you before your review.”

Offices



Most new Seward & Kisselers head to the New York HQ, located in Battery Park Plaza. Not all are lucky enough to have their own office – “we normally transition first-years into the firm by making them share with second-years” – but they liked the Lower Manhattan location for its waterfront calm. “We're pretty much the last office on the edge of Manhattan, so we have this great view. We all have windows, which really makes a difference on a long day because you actually get to see outside.” Sources told us that the décor had just been updated, which most were happy with, but left a few querying the choice of art work. “It just seems a bit weird. There's this painting of a pig surrounded by money – I don't quite get it!” But if that's the only bone of contention, then newbies have nothing to worry about.

“You get to actually see outside.”

DC is noticeably smaller with around 15 lawyers in total. Focusing predominantly on investment management, “there's a strong mutual funds and capital markets practice there,” MP Jim Cofer explains. “Forty years ago the DC office was much more New York-centric and depended on New York for work. Now DC is the strongest it's ever been.”

Hours & Compensation



Most agreed that days in the office usually average around the ten-hour mark. However, interviewees felt that there's little pressure to stay in the evening if you're not busy. “It's rare to work past 10pm. People are normally in until about 7.30ish.” Obviously, because the bulk of their practices have a transactional tenor, sources were quick to qualify that “some months are busier than others, and it depends on the matter you're working on.” There's no formal billing requirement, though associates do qualify for a bonus by hitting 2,000 hours. “It means you really don't have to kill yourself to reach it. I just do my work and if it happens it happens.”

Associates were keen to explain that at junior levels “the bonus is in tiers depending on how many hours you're over. The first tier is $10,000, the second tier is $12,500 and the salary goes up to $190,000 for second-years. If I’m honest, they pay me so much money for something I find pretty enjoyable.” Despite being considerably smaller than many rival New York-based firms, Seward pays its associates the market rate.

Culture



“I know the word ‘collegial’ is brought up a lot when you describe law firms and I hate it, but it really is collegial here...” Most put this down to the smaller intake, allowing lawyers “to get to know everyone.” Others were more pensive and explained that “it’s such a hard concept to define, but let me put it this way: No one is going to destroy your schedule for their own work or give you something and just leave.” 

“We turned a conference room into a casino.”

The occasional social helped things along too. Events are usually centered around the holidays and schmoozing the new summer intake. “There was a really cool poker night. We turned a conference room into a casino, it was so much fun.” However, most people were keen to stress that S&K’s social scene is more of an “impromptu drinks type.” Some go the extra mile (literally): “A bunch of us go hiking, and these people have really become my friends.”

Diversity



Interviewees judged the balance between male and female entry-level associates to be around 50:50, but they admitted that “it doesn't feel particularly diverse. In fact it's almost exclusively white.” The figures match up too, with Caucasian attorneys making up 93% of partners and 83.5% of associates. However, sources reasoned: “That might just be the nature of being a lawyer in New York. It's a problem for the whole profession.” To date, there are no affinity groups (for example, a women's forum), and associates considered that “it's probably not one of the firm's strong suits, but they are trying. At least we've all come to the firm with different life experiences, which I think goes a way to helping.”

Strategy & Get Hired



“People who ask a lot of questions about the firm to demonstrate their enthusiasm are the ones that tend to do well in interviews,” insiders advised. “I hate it when I leave ten minutes for candidate questions and they're like 'nope I got nothing'.” So to prep a list of insightful queries and do your homework. You might start by researching what the firm has in store for the future. MP Jim Cofer tells us that “we're not trying to be all things to all people, but focus more on our industry expertise and do more work for those clients.”

Interview with managing partner, Jim Cofer



Chambers Associate: What have been some of the highlights at the firm in the last 12 months?

Jim Cofer: There's a few things. We added a significant new broker dealer capability in DC through the hiring of Marlon Paz, who's an  SEC alum . His knowledge and government experience has really enhanced the DC office and has supplemented our capability in general which we're very happy about. Forty years ago the DC officewas much more New York-centric and depended on New York for work. Now DC is the strongest it's ever been. Back in New York, we had the second annual private funds forum for over 600 folks at NYU. There were a variety of presentations from our attorneysand other professionals within the hedge fund industry. Our focus for the last few years has been in the investment management area, so we are expanding the depth of our offering. We're also building up our business transactions group which has been part of our strategic plan for over a number of years and obviously our litigation group continues to get high profile assignments. For example, we've just been brought on as Stephen DiCarmine's lawyers. He's the former executive director of Dewey & LeBoeuf who's facing multiple charges relating to the 2012 collapse of his firm.

CA: Where do you see the firm in the next 20 years?

JC: We're not trying to be all things to all people, but focus more on our industry expertiseand do more work for those clients. We have a leading shipping practice and our capital markets and maritime finance work is really strong. Banking and securitization are the areas that we are growing because it's all part of our plans to grow strategically. We have invested in our future, we've made a number of younger partners in the past six years and they have gone on to become market leaders in our core areas. In 20 years, we've never had a partner leave to go to another firm, so in 20 years time we know that these new partners will be in the prime of their careers and we hope to continue this tradition.

CA: Are there any plans to expand the firm internationally?

JC: We're happy being US-centric and from a strategic perspective we have a number of great relationships with non-US firms. This way, clients end up with folks who are at the top of their game from around the globe. We're really focused on strengthening our relationships with good friends networks. We're keen to remain globally competitive, so a lot of firms we work with don't have a US presence. We're working with the largest Norwegian law firms for example, taking care of their US shipping needs. In London, we work a lot with Stephenson Harwood and Holman Fenwick Willlan who have a real prominence in the shipping space, so that works really well. And of course we have an alliance with Simmons & Simmons in the investment management space which has been very successful.

CA: What are the hot practices at the firm right now?

JC: We've seen very nice growth in the business transactions group.  In the investment management area there’s a lot of transactional work, the same as there is in shipping. There's a lot of M&A style matters and we've helped to sell  everything from wineries to veterinary clinicsover the past few years. But in all we do, you get individual attention from the partners.

CA: Do you have any words of wisdom for our student readers, both in general and on how to navigate the interview process at Seward?

JC: All firms look at law school grades. Beyond that, we look for people who are interested specifically in the type of work we do and who we think we'd enjoy working with. The cultural aspect is really important here. We tend to operate an open door type of firm with ego free people.

We go to a varied range of schools so that we can recruit a wide variety of associates. A lot of our associates normally come to us from Fordham, Boston College, Vanderbilt, Virginia, and Michigan. It's a real cross-section of schools, we don't just recruit from the top five. After this we like to assume that every summer hire is going to get an offer from us and that's been true for the last several years, at least for the last five, every single summer has accepted our offer.

My final advice would be to talk to folks at your school who have been summers here. It's the best thing to do because it gives a real insiders view.  We've talked to folks who’ve done just that and it really made us feel like these people knew what we were about. Show us you really want to work here. But for the other firms you look into, work out what area you want to work in and narrow down from there, get to know them and you have to target your search because it's the only way to do it.

You're only 125 once! S&K's big birthday bash



1890 marked the birth of some true American institutions: Sequoia and Yosemite were established as National Parks; Eisenhower was born in Texas; Idaho and Wyoming became the US' 43rd and 44th states. But for New York, promise for a bright future was marred by legal controversy and social unrest. In Auburn Prison, convicted murderer William Kemmler was the first person to be legally executed using an electric chair, sparking fury in the Supreme Court from the godfather of alternating current himself, George Westinghouse. And in NYC, photojournalist Jacob Riis' seminal study of Big Apple squalor How the Other Half Lives shocked the middle class into social consciousness, paving the way for a wave of social reform for the slums of the Lower East Side.

One legal institution that weathered such storms and lived to tell the tale is Seward & Kissel, part of the Big Apple's legal furniture as far as shipping and hedge funds are concerned. Born in 1890, the firm celebrated it's 125th birthday in 2015, and it certainly didn't go unfêted. Held in September, the anniversary celebrations brought together SK's staff, clients, alumni and chosen New York dignitaries in the courtyard of the firm's Battery Park HQ. A commemorative milestone was unveiled to mark the burial of a time capsule, containing future legal relics such as a BlackBerry, a 2015 billing rate sheet, a bowling pin from a summer social and the Articles of Agreement for the world's first hedge fund, penned by the firm in 1949.

The capsule is due to be opened in 2140 to mark the firm's 250th anniversary celebrations, a move which was met with praise from S&K's young guns. “I like that the firm expects to be around to in 2140,” lauded one rookie. “It's shows ambition, and reinforces the sense of pride we get from being a part of a stable firm with a long and successful history.” There were plenty of celebratory freebies to snap too, ranging from “some very popular embossed Seward & Kissel duffel bags,” to “yummy hors d'oeuvres and luxury cocktails.”

Not content with mere self-congratulation, the firm made a $125,000 donation to the neighboring Battery Park Conservancy. The money was to be used to adorn the newly refurbished park with a shed-load of funky blue chairs. Further generous investment came via the establishment of a $1,000 index fund, whose proceeds will be cashed in to fund the firm's 250th anniversary celebrations in 2140. Any leftover dough will be donated to the New York City Bar Association, and there ought to be plenty to go around: providing annual returns average out at around 7%, the investment could end up being worth over $4.7 million. A nice treat to look forward to........... in 123 years.

More on getting hired



“Ask questions about the firm in your interview, because that's one of the ways we assess if you're actually interested in our firm.” This was extolled by most of the associates we spoke to. But where to start? “There's a load of information out there on our firm. If you can't think of anything to ask after a quick google search, I'm gonna judge you!” Sources also advised that finding out as much as you can about a firm is not only a good way to get an arsenal of questions, but is also a great way of finding out “if you actually want to go there. Find out if a firm runs a crazy sweatshop set up or are you going to enjoy working there? Here we definitely don't hate our lives” Managing partner Jim Cofer goes one step further and suggests that candidates “talk to folks at your school who have been summers here. It's the best thing to do because it gives a real insiders view.  We've talked to folks who’ve done just that and it really made us feel like these people knew what we were about. Show us you really want to work here.”

He continues,“all firms look at law school grades. Beyond that, we look for people who are interested specifically in the type of work we do and who we think we'd enjoy working with. The cultural aspect is really important here. We tend to operate an open door type of firm with ego-free people.” Associates joined in and after stressing that legal work experience “like internships” can't hurt, they told us that you should “be yourself in an interview, it sounds cheesy, but we know how smart you are, we want people who are going to fit personality wise, because our success is built on the congeniality of all our groups.”

Cofer finishes up by telling us the Seward rationale behind the summer associate offers they make. “We like to assume that every summer hire is going to get an offer from us and that's been true for the last several years, at least for the last five, every single summer has accepted our offer.” So if you get onto the summer program, have a real think about if this is the place for you.

 

Seward & Kissel LLP

One Battery Plaza,
New York,
NY 10004
Website www.sewkis.com

  • Head Office: New York, NY 
  • Number of domestic offices: 2
  • Partners (US): 57
  • Counsel (US): 21
  • Associates (US): 104
  • Summer Salary 2017 
  • 1Ls: N/A
  • 2Ls: $3,461/week
  • Post 3Ls: N/A
  • 1Ls hired? No
  • Can summers spend time in overseas offices? N/A
  • Summers 2017: 18 (15 in NY, 2 in DC)
  • Offers/acceptances 2016: 18 offers, 18 acceptances (16 in NY, 2 in DC)

Main areas of work
Investment management, corporate finance, global bank and institutional finance, litigation, maritime and transportation finance, capital markets and securities, business transactions, bankruptcy and corporate reorganization, real estate, taxation, trusts and estates, employee benefits, aviation finance, employment law, government enforcement and internal investigations and executive compensation.

Firm profile
Seward & Kissel offers our New York associates the broad experience and training of a large practice in the context of a moderately sized firm. We offer our Washington, DC associates a focused experience concentrating on our Investment Management, Corporate Finance and Capital Markets practices in the context of a small office environment.
Our associates have the opportunity to work on a wide range of challenging and stimulating matters within the practice areas of our particular offices.

Recruitment details
• Number of 1st year associates: 17
• Number of 2nd year associates: 16
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $180,000
• 2nd year: $190,000
• Clerking policy: Case by case

Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2017:
Our New York office participates in the following OCI programs: Albany, American, Boston College, Boston University, Brooklyn, Cardozo, Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Fordham, Georgetown, George Washington, Harvard, Midwest California Consortium, New York University, Tulane/Washington University/Vanderbilt Job Fair, Michigan, University of North Carolina, University of Pennsylvania, University of Virginia, and Vanderbilt.
Our Washington, DC office participates in the following OCI programs: Boston College, Boston University, Georgetown, George Washington, University of Virginia, Washington & Lee.

Summer details
Summer associate profile:
We rely heavily on our summer program for our hiring needs. The primary goals of the program are to provide summer associates with a realistic, broad-based view of our practice and an opportunity to become acquainted with our attorneys through our informal mentoring program, training sessions and social events.

Summer program components:
Assignments are from our practice areas.
Training: weekly seminars, practice group meetings and in-house training sessions. Feedback is given formally at the middle and end of the summer program.