No need to hedge your bets with this New York midsizer, where associates help keep the place shipshape.
“Happy.” That's how associates typified their experience at Seward & Kissel – happy with their responsibility levels, happy with the office atmosphere, happy with the hours. So it's no surprise the firm came fourth in Chambers Associate's nationwide associate satisfaction survey in 2018. Interviewees also liked Seward for being “slightly smaller and different from BigLaw” as well as for "being a steady ship." This is an apt metaphor given that the firm's highest Chambers USA ranking comes for its shipping finance practice (the group is also recognized worldwide by Chambers Global). In the US, Seward also ranked for its investment funds work and for corporate M&A in New York.
At the time of our research all juniors were based in the Big Apple (DC has just 12 lawyers in total). Around half were in the investment management group, with the other half split evenly between corporate finance (where the firm's shipping work can be found) and litigation or trusts and estates. There's “no centralized allocation system,” but partners are mindful to “keep an eye on your workload.” There's scope for autonomy too. “If there are things I want to get experience on, I can ask and it gets given to me,” one source asserted.
"You're supposed to be the point person on the launch."
Seward & Kissel helped form the world's first hedge fund in 1949 and today this field is still one of the firm's top strengths. The investment management group works for 45 of the top 200 hedge fund managers in the world, handling fund formation, regulatory compliance, SEC/CFTC registrations, and fund-related M&A deals. For juniors, "typical tasks are talking to clients about updating their offering documents, making the changes they want, and running new ideas up the flagpole." Another interviewee told us: "Today I'm hopefully going to send out comments on an offshore finance memorandum," adding: “You're supposed to be the point person on the launch, whether that means finding the newest and brightest laws or changing the documents. Working with smaller clients means you work closely with the partner but the onus is on you to deliver a good product for the client." Isn't this quite demanding? And aren't all the issues around hedge funds quite complicated to understand? “You kinda just learn the process over time,” one interviewee reflected. Another told us that Seward's supportive atmosphere helps: "My favorite thing about the firm is that I can bounce a question in anyone's direction, drop by a partner's office, or ask an associate."
Investment management clients: Axonic Capital, Brigade Capital, and Discovery Capital. Advised London-based Caledonia Investments on the establishment of a $100 million Cayman Islands-based offshore feeder fund.
In corporate finance an “umbrella of subgroups” keeps associates sheltered from the storm of stagnation. These small subgroups include banking and finance, asset finance, securitization, capital markets, real estate, transportation finance and more. Oftentimes, when you join as a junior “everyone is in a pool available to work in any of those groups.” Then from their third year on, associates tend to join either the shipping, transactions or capital markets group. However, there is also the option to specialize earlier if an associate wishes to. “I'm typically the only associate staffed on a deal,” one source told us. Another reported: "My tasks include drafting documents, doing the first-level review of documents, handling signature pages, inputting comments, and pinning down documents and details needed and who they need to go to," one interviewee told us. "In my first or second month there was a deal we worked on with well over 100 different documents which was pretty insane. But it was fun having to get down with all of that beginning." Another junior said this level of responsibility is "something of a double-edged sword. Coming out of law school I didn't know how to be a corporate attorney and I had to learn by doing. But I could always go to senior people for support.”
Corporate finance clients: iM Global Partner, Sandler O'Neill and Partners, and UBM. Advised oil tanker company Scorpio Tankers on its merger with Navig8 Product Tankers and the acquisition of Navig8's operating tankers.
The trusts and estates practice handles estate planning, litigation, and charitable giving for high net worth individuals and families. Juniors told us that work surrounding valuable art and collectables proved particularly interesting. One said their personal highlight so far was “doing an estate and gift tax audit to the IRS where I was very involved in all the legal writing.”
“I think that working a lot with midlevels and in smaller teams creates a place where you know people and their working styles well,” one junior said when we asked about firm culture. Another informed us: “I was looking for a midsize firm where I'd have a better sense of belonging than at one of the big firms.” Interviewees felt they were “part of an institution here and not just a number.” One reflected: “We look for people who are easygoing. There aren't a lot of big egos here, which I think is by design.” Another source added that many partners could clearly recall what it was like to be a junior themselves: “There's an understanding that the world won't end if we make small mistakes. An 'I was once you' mantra builds respect as partners put themselves in your shoes.”
Interviewees said Seward is “not a party firm,” and although “people are willing to hang out,” we also heard that “there's no pressure to socialize outside of work, as people want to go home to their families at the end of the day.”
Perhaps there's a bit of a family feel in the office too, as one junior told us that more senior colleagues “see us as their children and want us to succeed.” This is by no means a daycare center, but rookies do feel looked after. For example, management “responded to juniors' request for more feedback opportunities, so now we have reviews twice a year.” It's up to associates to push for their own personal progression. One told us: “For a stretch of time the majority of my work was on a specific type of finance deal. It got to the point where I was close to mastering it on my own, but just doing one thing is not the best scenario for long-term development. So I discussed with a partner about getting more varied work and things began to change. More variety came after I spoke up with my concern.”
“More variety came after I spoke up with my concern.”
When the topic of the path to partnership raised its head, many of our interviewees seemed to scratch theirs. “I don't really know how it works,” one source admitted. Even taking into account the firm's small size it makes up very few partners: two in 2019 and one in 2018. “If it's something you want, it can be done,” one junior concluded. “The junior associate experience here is all about finding what you want long-term from the firm.” Associates are reportedly kept up to date on their development via quarterly meetings with the head of the firm, plus during their biannual associate evaluations.
Strategy & Future
Speaking of the long term, we wondered if Seward's small size and 'steady ship' approach would continue into the future. “We know what we're good at,” one associate believed, “so we will continue to build on those strengths.” Managing partner Jim Cofer added the view from the top: “Through direct hiring and laterals, we want to expand what we can do for our existing clients and the industry base we know well.” The firm recently hired a new derivatives partner from Sidley Austin, and Cofer highlights blockchain and cryptocurrency as other growth areas. Seward doesn't have a presence abroad at the moment, but it does have an alliance with British law firm Simmons & Simmons.
Hours & Compensation
Associates have to hit 2,000 hours to be bonus-eligible. Certain 'non-client hours' – including pro bono, administrative tasks, CLEs, firm events, and more – can also go toward this target. The target seemed to be attainable for most of our interviewees.
We heard there's a “cultural expectation that during regular business hours people should be in the office.” But the firm has recently “taken big steps with its tech” and associates can now also log in and work remotely if need be. Juniors reporting working from 9am to 7pm or 8pm in the office – “or maybe 9pm if I need to prep something,” one immediately added. Another reported: “I worked fairly late a few times on large matters. The latest I've stayed is around midnight, 1am or 2am, but nothing crazy.”
“During regular business hours people should be in the office.”
On compensation we heard there was “frustration about not matching [the Milbank scale] over summer 2018.” One source reasoned: “My view is that it's a trade-off for the lifestyle we get here. We're treated very well, both in terms of the hours and the environment. I like being here, and I have no plans to change that based on the salary.”
Juniors said pro bono is “important to the firm” and reasoned that “being in New York helps because you can do any type of pro bono work you want.” This includes domestic abuse, immigration and veterans cases. The firm's based by Battery Park in Lower Manhattan, so “the courts are close by, and if there's something you're interested in you can do it.” One source reported: “We spend lots of time e-mailing about the little victories, and whoever's responsible will be celebrated by peers.” Generally, all pro bono hours can count toward the billing target.
Pro bono hours
- For all US attorneys: 4,490
- Average per US attorney: 27
Diversity & Inclusion
Under half of Seward's associates are women and just one in ten partners are (that's six people by our count). The representation of minorities is no better. While associate said diversity is “a real priority for the firm” and “at the forefront of partners' minds,” they struggled to pin down concrete strategies. Many did mention events held by the recently formed women's initiative –“it was so inspiring to see so many men attend,” one source said. But like in the industry at large, robust solutions are still wanting. Associates hoped a generational shift would help. A female junior told us: “There's no sense of me being treated differently among my peers. I wouldn't expect anything less given the era I grew up in.” The firm told us that it is in the process of broadening its OCI schedule in order tackle diversity at the recruitment stage.
Seward & Kissel LLP
One Battery Plaza,
- Head Office: New York, NY
- Number of domestic offices: 2
- Partners (US): 51
- Counsel (US): 32
- Associates (US): 80
- Main recruitment contact: Royce Akiva (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Hiring partner: Christopher Riccardi
- Diversity officer: Marlon Q Paz
- Recruitment details
- Entry-level associates starting in 2019: 11 (NY: 10, DC: 1)
- Clerking policy: Case by case
- Summers joining/anticipated 2019:
- 2Ls: 11 (NY: 10, DC: 1)
- Summer salary 2019:
- 2Ls: $3,461
- Split summers offered? No
Main areas of work
Our New York office participates in the following OCI programs:
• Boston College
• Boston University
• George Washington
• Midwest California Consortium
• NEBLSA Job Fair
• New York University
• Seton Hall
• University of North Carolina
• University of Pennsylvania
• University of Virginia
• Vanderbilt Job Fair
Our Washington, DC office participates in the following OCI programs:
• Boston College
• Boston University
• Cornell Job Fair
• George Washington
• MABLSA Job Fair
• University of Pennsylvania
• University of Virginia
• Washington & Lee
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.
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This Firm's Rankings in
USA Guide, 2019
- Bankruptcy/Restructuring Recognised Practitioner
- Corporate/M&A: Highly Regarded (Band 5)
USA - Nationwide
- Investment Funds: Hedge Funds (Band 3)
- Transportation: Shipping/Maritime: Finance (Band 1)