Seward & Kissel LLP - The Inside View

A New York midsizer specializing in shipping and hedge funds: not the obvious backdrop for one of the happiest associate cohorts in our guide.

SEWARD associates are a happy bunch. When we asked them why things are going well for them their responses didn’t reveal any kind of magic formula or especially fancy perks – there aren't ball pits or PlayStations littering the office, for example. Instead, the firm's secret to success is humbler and much more lawyerly: associates justgenuinely like their job.” The reasons for this satisfaction soon became clear in our interviews:"You really do feel very involved in the assignments,” reflected one associate. Another added: "We're doing top-quality work, but the size isn't overwhelming." The firm is just shy of 180 lawyers, most in New York and a few more in DC. The size, associates told us, "means lean staffing," fostering independence in the juniors, who “generally work directly with a partner."

In addition, our annual research shows that firms with a certain specialist leaning are home to happier associates, and Seward is well known for its expertise in hedge funds and shipping work. These two pillars receive strong rankings in Chambers Associate, and Seward's reputation in the former is more than just well established– the firm set up the world's first hedge fund, A.W. Jones & Co., in 1949.According to managing partner James Cofer, these practice areas will remain key focuses. The firm will “continue to grow its capabilities in the investment management space. In the shipping industry we are looking for more things to do, whether that be restructuring debt, innovative finance techniques or capital markets.”

The Work



In the NY office, future associates list their top four preferences and are informed of their placement beforehand. The majority of incomers end up in investment management, with the next largest group going to corporate finance, leaving a few to head into litigation, employee benefits and tax. Things are less regimented in the DC office, which only offers places in investment management. It's a “much smaller office, you start out getting assignments from all the partners and then you find your own niche.”

“I love learning about how people from different countries run their companies.”

Seward's investment management group can claim an impressive market share, counting 40% of the top 100 hedge funds as clients, based on assets under management. The department does “a lot of structuring and launching of funds. We also deal with a fair amount of offshore counsel in the Cayman Islands and the UK, so we end up with a decent amount of international exposure.” The work itself might involve “reviewing and providing advice on marketing materials for our clients, or providing comments on their website disclaimers. A lot of time, however, will be spent drafting or revising.” DC associates found that their work was much more research-focused. The partners “point you in the right direction and then it's a deep dive. They trust you right off the bat but there are some strong personalities in this office, so you have to be assertive.”

Corporate finance includes capital markets, real estate, debt finance and the business transactions group “which is really an M&A group.” The team can be found running anything from high-profile shipping transactions to midmarket M&A work. Newbies spend their days “making sure nothing fell through the cracks. I was looking at underlying documents and contracts, as well as getting on calls on all times of day and chasing things down – it was great hands-on experience!” Daily tasks vary based on the niche. Those in distressed debt trading did some drafting “but not as much as other attorneys do,” while the international and shipping-focused capital markets lot faced the challenge of “coordinating with four different times zones," and this was seen as a bonus: "It's really great! I love learning about how people from different countries run their companies.”

The employee benefits group primarily focuses on ERISA. Clients are typically on the employer side, though the firm does on occasion act on the employee side. Sources told us there was “a lot of drafting counterparty agreements, and reviewing private fund documents. There are a lot of rules underlying the investment of defined pension plans so we help investment managers understand what those rules are and address any concerns they could cause.” While this may not sound like a laugh a minute, sources we spoke to thought: “It is excellent! The group is just the best. They are very good at being hands-on and spent a lot of time training me.”                                                                                                                                                  

Pro Bono



In New York, pro bono activity “depends on the department; for example, litigation recognizes it as part of your billable hours and is respectful of that.” Those on the transactional side found less opportunity, but we did hear that there's a dedicated transactional pro bono partner on hand to help these associates find relevant work. “The firm ensures that if you don't have 50 hours of pro bono by the end of the year you will have them, but the attitude toward pro bono is if you want to do it that's great but no one is going to bother you.” Those in DC felt they did less than their NY peers.The firm has a longstanding relationship with Her Justice, which marshals public-spirited lawyers to help low income women in NY, and we heard of divorce and immigration cases being taken on too.

“It's a very natural way to learn and individualize your work.”

Pro bono hours

  • For all US attorneys: 6,028
  • Average per US attorney: 35

Training & Development



Most training was delivered on the job, which sources welcomed. “It's a very natural way to learn and individualize your work. There could be more formal training but the system is effective.” Formal reviews occur at the end of each year, though as with the training, feedback was more readily available informally. But it's not all ad hoc: incoming associates have an introductory week that covers “how firm infrastructure works, who to contact to do what and that kind of stuff.” Litigators get biweekly informal lunches and those in employee benefits have weekly meetings at the start to cover the technical aspects of their work. In corporate finance, “it's more 'here is the work, try to figure it out.'” That doesn't mean that there's no formal training on offer here at all: we heard that the firm hosted 20 courses for its corporate finance associates over 2017. On a broader level, the firm also covers the cost of a Practising Law Institute (PLI) membership, which offers unlimited training courses.

Offices



Associates in the Battery Park Plaza offices were impressed by their milieu: “It's beautiful. It's been renovated recently and it's all cherry wood-colored furniture with various artworks.” And while some took issue with the quality of the view from their window – “just a bland, black office building”others enjoyed resplendent panoramas "out to Brooklyn and to the Statue of Liberty.” Generally junior associates share offices up until their third year. DC Associates were equally chirpy about their workplace: “Everyone loves our modern office! We have half a floor down in the Mount Vernon area and we have a lot of happy hours in the kitchen.”

Hours & Compensation



Sources in litigation and corporate finance reported 9am to 9:30am start times and end times between 6pm and 8pm. Late nights for litigators could last until midnight, and a few in corporate finance reported doing a deal closure on just three hours of sleep. Those in the employee benefits group found their hours to be slightly lighter around deadlines.

There is a billable requirement of 2,000 hours to get a bonus but it is not a “minimum to stay employed; I have never felt any push that I have to get it.” Generally associates felt sufficiently compensated for their efforts, particularly given the recent bump first years received, matching the market rate of $180,000.

“They really have let me run with things and I have learned a lot about how to be an attorney.”

Culture



To learn that “the firm is a face-time place in the sense they like you working from the office and not home" seems at odds with what you'd expect from one of the most satisfied associate cohorts. However, "you do see people every day and it is bustling in the office.” The close contact with senior lawyers was also appreciated, particularly as partners were willing to “keep you in the loop and walk you through any questions you have – though when they give you work they expect you to figure it out.” Regular partner mentorship has a big impact on associate satisfaction, our research shows. “They really have let me run with things and I have learned a lot about how to be an attorney.”

Firm social events occur mainly during the summer associate program, which includes “a baseball game, a retreat to the Wintergreen resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains (for those based in the DC office), a restaurant night, bowling, a trivia night." There are also happy hours and lunches, and most socializing is informal: “People are sociable around the building.”

Diversity



"We want people from different backgrounds. Not only is it the right thing to do, it provides better service to our clients.

The firm is “enthusiastic about increasing diversity but the vast majority of lawyers are white. They are starting to make an effort to get more diverse candidates but right now it does not show up in the numbers.” One source believed “the firm is starting a diversity initiative but I am not exactly sure what that will involve,” and another said: “I think we are trying to start a women's initiative but as of now nothing has been formally created.” Associates seemed unclear, so we turned to Jim Cofer for the firm's line on the initiatives: “We have a diversity initiatives committee and an associate-led women's initiative. We want people from different backgrounds. Not only is it the right thing to do, it provides better service to our clients.”

Strategy & Get Hired



One hint for those eying up a junior associate position: do your homework. “One thing I am surprised by is the lack of basic research about the firm. For example, the DC office does not do hedge funds, it does regulated funds. If candidates interview with some knowledge about regulated funds, that would make them stand out.” For those wondering what the future holds in store there should not be too many surprises. According to Jim Cofer, “we are not trying to be all things to all people, we try to be focused on particular practice areas and will continue to do more things for people in our current industries."

Get Hired



Sources highlighted three things Seward & Kissel interviewees should be aware of. First, while no particular background is required to work at the firm, “if you have any background working in the financial service sector, that's useful. As far as classes, plan to take securities regulation and don't be intimidated by that. Now that I am doing the work it is not this crazy intense experience people think it is. It's really accessible material once you dig in.”

Second, interviewers don't like rote-learned answers: “We have casual conversations and are interested in somebody who wants to be themselves. You always ask: 'Is this someone I want to be with at 2am in the morning?'” This is where a financial services background can help, as one source discovered: “My interview was more of a conversation. Partly because of my background in the financial sector, we were able to talk about some new developments.” Finally, be able to clearly answer “why Seward & Kissel? If you can't articulate a reason it's difficult to recover after that.” Managing partner James Cofer elaborated further that “what is consistently impressive is people who have knowledge of the firm and the industries we work in, and can tell us why they want to work within them. It is impressive when somebody has an understanding of the investment management industry, and at a minimum is enthusiastic and willing to learn about it.”

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): 53
  • Counsel (US): 20
  • Associates (US): 92
  • Contacts  
  • Main recruitment contact: Royce Akiva (akiva@sewkis.com)
  • Hiring partners: Christopher Riccardi, Jack Yoskowitz, Sharan Calay
  • Diversity officer: Marlon Q Paz
  • Recruitment details  
  • Entry-level associates starting in 2018: 11 (NY: 10, DC: 1)
  • Clerking policy: Case by case
  • Summers joining/anticipated 2018:
  • 2Ls: 11 (NY: 10, DC: 1)
  • Summer salary 2018:
  • 2Ls: $3,461
  • Split summers offered? No

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



Law Schools attended for OCIs in 2018:
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
■ Vanderbilt

Our Washington, DC office participates in the following OCI programs:
■ Boston College
■ Boston University
■ Georgetown
■ George Washington
■ 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.

Social media



Recruitment website: www.sewkis.com
Facebook: Seward & Kissel LLP
Linkedin: Seward & Kissel LLP

This Firm's Rankings in
Chambers USA Guide 2017

Ranked Departments

    • Bankruptcy/Restructuring Recognised Practitioner
    • Corporate/M&A: Highly Regarded (Band 5)
    • Investment Funds: Hedge Funds (Band 3)
    • Transportation: Shipping/Maritime: Finance (Band 1)