Seward & Kissel LLP - The Inside View

If shipping and hedge funds float your boat, climb aboard this small but gold-laden galleon...

CELEBRATING over 125 years of successfully navigating the legal industry's sometimes stormy seas, Seward & Kissel (pronounced not 'sea-ward', alas, but 'soo-ward') employs around 155 lawyerly deck hands in New York and 12 in DC, making it one of the smaller ships in the BigLaw armada. But don't be fooled: when it comes to maritime finance and hedge funds, Seward can ignite some powerful broadside. Managing partner John Tavss tells us: “The past year has brought a big uptick in transactional areas, so shipping finance has continued to prosper. Our investigations and enforcement litigation have also looked strong, so we've increased our hiring at both entry and lateral levels. Whereas the last few years we've taken on 15 or so new associates, we'll be bumping it up to 18 this year.”

Seward remains a sturdy hull when it comes career development, too. A smaller inflow of associates and leaner staffing models than bigger rivals mean “lots of opportunities for one-on-one supervision with partners that are well respected in their fields.” Though “dedicated to providing opportunities for career development,” juniors here don't have to scrub decks into the early hours to prove their worth. Indeed, Seward provides a work/life balance that had interviewees shouting from the topmasts: “I make the same money as associates at Skadden or Kirkland & Ellis, but the hours are far more favorable.” Another ahoyed: “So many people at law school were desperate to be at a top 20 firm to satisfy their competitive streaks. I like to go home!”


"Jaw-dropping views onto the Hudson River and the Statue of Liberty."

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, but they liked the Lower Manhattan location for its waterfront calm: “Far less stressful than being in the heart of Midtown and surrounded by skyscrapers,” with “jaw-dropping views onto the Hudson River and the Statue of Liberty.” Being “just a short walk to Wall Street,” it's no surprise that a large part of the office's work caters to the financial industry. However, practices such as litigation, real estate, bankruptcy, and trust & estates/tax/ERISA are also on offer.

In DC, a handful of junior associates supports the 12-strong team. Focusing predominantly on investment management, the cohort is “less formally dressed than New York” and “still benefits from the support and resources you'd expect from a New York BigLaw firm.” The Capitol's office may be a minnow compared to New York's, but for juniors “work doesn't tend to overlap between the two offices, so most of the work you'll do is for partners and counsel based in DC.”

The Work

Upon receiving an offer of full-time employment, newbies state their practice area preferences. “For the most part everyone's choices are honored,” though it's worth pointing out that investment management and corporate finance take the lion's share, leaving a few to head to litigation, trusts & estates, real estate or bankruptcy. In 1949, S&K orchestrated the foundation of A.W. Jones & Co, the world's first hedge fund. Notching up high rankings in Chambers USA, the firm's investment management team continues to lead the field as far as hedge funds are concerned. Seward & Kissel's market share is second to none, servicing some 40% of the top 100 hedge funds based on assets under management. New starters are exposed to the full gamut of hedge funds work from day one, so expect to tackle “anything from drafting the offering documents to establish a new fund, to helping some incredibly lucrative clients with SEC compliance concerns.”

"It's not just editing and proofreading for years on end!"

“Almost entirely driven out of New York,” the litigation group is the beneficiary of a stack of clients from the funds practice. SEC civil investigations, contractual disputes and securities litigation are all common concerns, and interviewees were keen to point out that “Seward has made a concerted effort to grow its white-collar crime offering in recent years.” Budding litigators start by completing research tasks, but are “progressively entrusted with more responsibility.” A third-year revealed: “I haven't completely escaped doc review, but have had the chance to lead interviews and draft findings into a final report. It's not just editing and proofreading for years on end!”

Over in corporate finance, juniors are assigned to one of a number of subgroups, but “you're free to approach partners from other teams if there's something you'd like to try.” M&A, capital markets and real estate are some of the options on offer, as is maritime finance. Awarded top marks in Chambers USA, the market-leading shipping team assists clients worldwide on matters such as loan agreements, ship purchases and joint ventures. “It can be challenging to negotiate time differences,” pointed out one source. “A lot of shipowning companies are based in the Marshall Islands or the Bahamas. If a client based there wants to refinance their company to buy new ships then they'll commonly borrow from the US or the UK. The ships could be built in Korea, so you'll definitely work some late nights and early mornings when deals are winding up.” With so many jurisdictional particularities to keep up with, does it ever become too mind-boggling a process? “The transactions are complex,” answered one junior, “but we receive lots of advice from foreign counsel, and partners make a point of sitting down and visualizing the transaction on a whiteboard so everyone can keep track on what's going on. It's challenging, but really interesting work.” 

Hours & Compensation

Though hours can at times be unpredictable, they're rarely taxing. “Before I joined the firm, everyone I spoke to said that by New York BigLaw standards the hours are good,” recalled one respondent. “In my experience that's really been the strongest selling point. The pay is market, but we work fewer hours!” There's no formal billing requirement, though associates do qualify for a bonus by hitting 2,000 hours. “Bonuses are below market,” though sources described this as “a fair trade-off for a manageable working schedule.”

"It's not the kind of place where anyone burns out."

Most agreed that days in the office usually average out at around the ten-hour mark. However, interviewees felt that there's little pressure to stay in the evening if you're not busy. “People here judge you on your work, so there's no need to run around like a headless chicken until midnight to prove your dedication!”

When the vacation itch creeps in, juniors had “no concerns about taking the full 20 days off. As long as you clear with colleagues to make sure someone can cover for you, and occasionally check your emails for anything urgent, you're good to go.” It's no surprise then that lawyers believed “it's not the kind of place where anyone burns out.”

Pro Bono

“Pro bono opportunities tend to be more litigious than transactional,” so many of our deal-doing sources hadn't taken on much. MP John Tavss was particularly keen to mention the firm's involvement with Her Justice, an organization that works in collaboration with New York law firms to provide legal services to indigent women. “Her Justice – like many of the pro bono organizations that we work with – works with us on cases and provides a lot of mentoring for those who wish to get involved,” he explains. “It's been of huge interest to our summers and junior attorneys, as it gives them an opportunity to try out the sorts of work – areas such as divorce, immigration and custody law – that we don't otherwise specialize in.” All pro bono work can be counted toward associates' billable hours totals.

Pro bono hours 

  • For all attorneys: 6,671 
  • Average per attorney: 31

Training & Development

To minimize any teething problems, juniors undergo a week of orientation training, covering all the basics such as how to bill, practice-specific seminars and a handful of CLEs. One third-year had observed “an improvement in preliminary training since my year began. It seems now that there's a lot more in place to introduce starters to their practice areas. For us there was a lot of figuring it out as you go along, but first-years are now taught a universe of information to make sure they're up to scratch from the very start.”

"You receive so much useful feedback throughout the year." 

Rookies receive formal reviews at the end of each year, although the consensus view was that “it'll rarely throw up any real surprises. You receive so much useful feedback throughout the year that you tend to know where you stand.” One corporate number-cruncher appreciated that “when you're working on a new kind of deal there are so many different things that can leave you guessing. Thankfully, partners are of the opinion that the only bad question is the one you don't ask, and if you do a good job on something they'll tell you.” Litigators felt similarly encouraged, with one recalling an early success story: “When I was in my first year, one of the reports I'd written led to a good result. The lit team holds lunches every other Thursday, and the leading partner gave me a shout-out for the work I did in front of the whole group. It was encouraging to know that if you do good work it will be recognized, even as a first-year.”


Such an approach paves the way for a culture that is “very much team-oriented. Partners are really interested in associates' development, and associates are keen to help out, so it's really not the kind of workplace where people are out to ruin your day.” Though “people are sociable in the office,” Seward is “definitely a go home after work kind of place.” Juniors tend to lead the line when it comes to socializing, but “if someone closes a major deal or gets married then we'll celebrate it over a few glasses of wine.”

"People are sociable in the office, but it's definitely a go home after work kind of place."

Naturally, the firm's 125th anniversary served as a perfect excuse to raise a few glasses. To find out more about S&K's big 125, head to our Bonus Features.


Interviewees judged the balance between male and female entry-level associates to be around 50:50, but “aside from that there's definitely some work to be done when it comes to diversity.” They lamented that “it's not an area that the firm seems to focus upon,” citing a lack of affinity groups, pipeline programs or participation in any diversity recruiting events. "I have no sense of whether or not we're making efforts," a junior admitted. "I assume we are." Consequently, some felt that “considering we're based in New York, the firm could be doing a much better job to encourage people of ethnic minority backgrounds into the firm.” The figures match up too, with a whitewash of Caucasian attorneys making up 94% of partners and 86% of associates. S&K's recruiting partner Jack Rigney counters such criticisms by pointing out that “though we do not have any formal programs in place, we are certainly aware that diversity in recruitment is important.” One associated concurred: "There has been an effort. It is clear that it's something that has been important."

Get Hired

"Showing an invested interest in the types of work we do can really impress at interview."

“We're not a full-service firm, and our work is tailored to specific industry sectors,” explained one junior, “so showing an invested interest in the types of work we do can really impress at interview. Demonstrable prior exposure through internships or industry experience shows that you already have sought out relevant practical exposure, which you just wouldn't get at law school.” Jack Rigney elaborates further, stating that “if you can quickly amass an intelligent understanding of the industry and its surrounding legal issues then you're off to a great start. Then it's a question of being confident when communicating with clients, and being productive and efficient while maintaining the integrity of your work. Throughout the application stage, applicants would do well to highlight examples of those kinds of qualities, because they are the sort of associates whom we expect to be very successful down the road.”  

Strategy & Future 

"Tenure and longevity here is better than most."

But regardless of rookies' aptitude and understanding, it's no secret that BigLaw in New York makes far fewer partners than it does associates. Jack Rigney believes that “tenure and longevity here is better than most. Many of our summers have made partner, myself included. But the fact that our attorneys may be able to develop industry contacts, and act for many of these as a key contact point on matters, means that they become very attractive to the industry. We understand that a lot of our attorneys will be presented with fantastic offers over the course of their careers, and the only promise we make is that if they come here they will be well trained and welcomed in a friendly environment. Our goal is to develop lawyers to be well positioned to stay and become partner, as well as being marketable enough to go on to do great things elsewhere, should they want to.”

You're only 125 once! More information on 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 recent 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 2040 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 2040,” 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 has made a $125,000 donation to neighboring Battery Park. The money will 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 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.

Seward & Kissel LLP

One Battery Plaza,
New York,
NY 10004

  • Head Office: New York, NY 
  • Number of domestic offices: 2
  • Partners (US): 52
  • Counsel (US): 20
  • Associates (US): 90
  • Summer Salary 2016 
  • 1Ls: N/A
  • 2Ls: $3067/week
  • Post 3Ls: N/A
  • 1Ls hired? No
  • Can summers spend time in overseas offices? N/A
  • Summers 2016: 17 (15 in NY, 2 in DC)
  • Offers/acceptances 2015: 17 offers, 17 acceptances (15 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: 10
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $180,000
• 2nd year: $190,000
• Clerking policy: Case by case

Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2016:
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.