Are you mulling over which Cali firms have a national presence and more relaxed vibe? Sheppard should be top of your list...
“WE'RE one of the very biggest law firms in California, which in and of itself is the sixth largest economy in the world,” chairman Guy Halgren highlights to us. “On top of that, we have vibrant offices nationally and internationally, and a very nice business plan in place.” Indeed, Sheppard's “very nice” business has achieved revenue growth every year since 1992. In 2015 it jumped 10% and another 8.5% in 2016, breaking the $600 million mark for the first time. It's no wonder associates here said they're “more laid back” than peers at other firms or why “from the first day, everybody seems to be in a really good mood.”
“From the first day, everybody seems to be in a really good mood.”
A friendly atmosphere is one thing, but nothing motivates like success. “A lot of people have been here since they were summer associates,” junior interviewees pointed out. “You can expect attrition at most large firms, but the churn and burn model is not in place at Sheppard.” Guy Halgren confirms that “we want career people, and we make a lot of partners from associates every year. Fundamentally, we want people who will stay with us and finish their careers with us.” There are plenty of practices for aspiring attorneys to choose from, including litigation ('business trial'), corporate, labor & employment, IP, government contracts (mainly out of DC), finance & bankruptcy, and antitrust.
The bulk of newcomers shore up on the West Coast, primarily Los Angeles, Century City, Del Mar and San Francisco. A handful head to New York and Washington, and less frequently Chicago. The Big Apple base is “very clean and modern, with an unlimited supply of caffeinated beverages.” DC boasts a “spacious new building” after the firm relocated in 2014. Housed “on Bunker Hill like all the other law firms,” LA sources admired “lots of really interesting art” brought in by “a founding partner [Gordon Hampton] who was really into it.” Down the road in Century City, “the outside doesn't look phenomenal, but inside is very nice and warm-feeling.” Collaboration between offices is frequent, particularly across the Cali coastline (“in San Diego everyone has done something for LA”), but it “varies by practice group.”
“Everyone has done something for LA.”
Each office slots newbies into multiple different practice areas, some with less variation than others. DC is, unsurprisingly, Sheppard's government contracts hub while Century City is known for hosting the firm's media & entertainment group and Del Mar is an IP hotspot. Firmwide, the business trial and corporate teams (both well-regarded in Chambers USA) take the most new associates, with finance & bankruptcy coming in third place. Labor & employment, real estate and antitrust also attract incoming attorneys.
Litigators in business trial typically worked on “depositions, drafting motions and a range of pre-trial documents” with “lots of latitude to go out and get your hands dirty,” and “everybody gets the opportunity to work in every field.” Rookies tend to start out as generalists, but some offices have specialisms: “San Francisco deals extensively in construction.” A free market system of work allocation split opinion: “You can take more control over what assignments you want to be doing,” but it left some feeling frustrated “getting the same salary as someone doing less.”
“There are very few times when you're not doing anything.”
The local economy tends to influence the type of work carried out in finance & bankruptcy: “Real estate is specific to Orange County,” for instance. “The way the group operates means there's lots of communication,” and associates found it “pretty easy to form relationships.” They were kept busy with “contract and lease reviews, due diligence, sub-lease negotiation, survey work and drafting,” and “if you have time available, someone will jump in to fill it.” Labor & employment associates were more “up and down” workload-wise, but “if things ever get slow you know who to ask.” Their clients range “from the biggest in their industry to those owning one restaurant,” while Del Mar's IP team similarly “works with both the country's biggest tech companies and individual ventures.” IP associates embraced “the opportunity to work in both patent litigation and prosecution – nearly all other firms require you to choose one.”
Corporate juniors “primarily deal with M&A, though it varies from office to office,” encompassing a lot of “healthcare, financing and public” work. Everyday tasks include “due diligence, but also reviewing agreements and drafting ancillary and formation documents.” One corporate source enjoyed “lots of substantive experience, which is my favorite part of the job. Every day is different.” Across the board there was “a ramp up period for work load,” but associates were happy to get full plates. “There are very few times when you're not doing anything, and as you get experience you become better at managing your time.”
Newbies were commonly happy to take on cases great and small. “Not only working huge cases but a wider array of values is a good thing for a young associate, as you get more varied opportunities than you would on just multi-billion dollar cases,” they reasoned.
Training & Development
Following concerns in previous years about lack of formal training, the firm introduced “Shep talks” to cover “general topics,” providing a “how to do well in the job guide,” which was welcomed by associates. “Generally happy” with the new program, they acknowledged “it's difficult to cater to individual interests, and they do ask what we'd find interesting.” Some felt that “a lot of it is still train as you go,” but appreciated mid-year and ongoing feedback from assigned partner mentors. This however varied “depending on the partner, there's no consistent way they appraise work,” leaving some more satisfied than others.
Culture & Diversity
“Transparency” is a buzzword Sheppard loves to throw around, according to interviewees who were subsequently “pleased to be kept very in the loop. The firm prides itself on that.” Chairman Guy Halgren gives a yearly state of the firm address in January to all non-partners covering “financial stats, associate attrition and which practice groups are under or over-performing. It gives you a nice sense of where you are. The best part is the chairman takes the time to come to every office to do the presentation.” Juniors “went for lunch with partners” and “frequently dropped into their offices.” Despite “clear demarcation between new and longstanding people,” relationships “feel like more of a team than a boss telling you what to do.” Another source suggested partners do “a good job making us feel like we're not just minions!”
Associates considered Sheppard “fairly casual compared to stuffier firms” but acknowledged that “BigLaw will always be somewhat stressful.” Summer socials have included musicals, baseball games and days at the races. More informally, practice groups host “associate morale events” – code for after-work drinks – though sources clarified “we're not a party firm!” Yearly retreats bring together practice teams from each office, as well as groups like the Diversity and Inclusion Network, for “a great weekend to help put names to faces.”
“Sheppard is not just putting up figureheads.”
Associates registered “good momentum” and a “huge push lately” on the diversity front. Those who attended the firm's diversity retreat “enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity to discuss such topics. It's an issue for every firm, it's good that Sheppard is not just putting up figureheads.” The women's group “meets monthly to discuss business development and more casual themes. All the female partners attend, providing an opportunity for one to one talks where you're not afraid to ask questions.” Though some saw theirs as a “relatively white office,” juniors applauded the firm for “interviewing a lot of candidates from diverse backgrounds.”
Hours & Compensation
Matching the new Cravath scale of associate pay was unsurprisingly popular, “important to making associates feel equal” and “a nice little surprise.” We've previously reported on confusion surrounding Sheppard's bonus system, including grumblings from associates that bonuses didn't match market rates, but after “a few months of uncertainty,” juniors praised the firm for “clarifying prior discrepancies, and it put people's minds at ease. Sheppard's response time was poor, but it's encouraging that they're going to match the market.”
“You have time for a private life.”
A billable target of 1,950 hours is “reasonable given the general flow of work, as pro bono and training hours are included.” Daily hours vary by practice area, including “some work on weekends,” but associates agreed “you have time for a private life.” Vacation is “technically unlimited, and fairly flexible. In summer I took a bunch of three-day weekends.”
“A very large component of being a lawyer at Sheppard Mullin is pro bono,” and associates can clock unlimited hours toward their billable target, once they've billed 1,800 hours to clients. While it's possible to take on “any project you want,” asylum cases are common and “most people get involved with that.” Some associates signed up for more than others, and certain eager beavers had done “over 100 hours of pro bono” without feeling pressured to take on more paid work. One Shep talk is dedicated wholly to pro bono, pushing the program from the outset. First-years with more free time appreciated using it to fill their hours, though “if you're doing more than 30% pro bono, other work will be found for you.” Commitment to pro bono varied by practice area, but was fairly uniform between different offices.
“Most people get involved...”
Pro bono hours
- For all US attorneys: 29,630
- Average per US attorney: 39
Strategy & Future
Chairman Guy Halgren credits Sheppard's consistency to cautious expansion policies, and has “never believed in the idea of 'build it and they will come'. We are always in close contact with our clients, to know what they need from us.” Associates were “excited about the organization and where it's going.” In the immediate future, the East Coast looks likely to see the most growth. “New York and Washington, DC have certainly been our fastest growing offices over the last few years, and that looks set to continue – we're certainly not done in either city,” according to Halgren.
Interview with chairman Guy Halgren
Chambers Associate: Last year you told us that you've increased your revenue every year since 1992: what explains your steady success even through the financial crisis?
Guy Halgren: Not getting over extended, not chasing the latest thing, but taking a long-term view of our clients' needs. We've never believed in the idea of 'build it and they will come': we are always in close contact with our clients, to know what they need from us. So when we build a new office or start a new practice, we've done so having already identified our clients' needs.
CA: Which particular sectors and areas have been most important in helping you achieve this?
GH: Honestly, every practice group has contributed. This past year each group was really firing on all cylinders, and it's very rewarding to see that kind of consistent performance across the firm as a whole.
CA: Where do the firm's East Coast offices fit into the story of your growth? Is the East Coast a potential future growth opportunity?
GH: New York and Washington DC have been our fastest growing offices over the last few years, and that looks set to continue – we're certainly not done in either city when it comes to growth.
CA: Associates greatly appreciate the State of the Firm address you give, how important is it to keep everybody in the loop about the firm's progress?
GH: I find it critical, and indeed I really enjoy it. We do it once a year, in January for associates and then in summer so the summer associates get it as well. It's very much a two way street – I talk to the associates obviously, but reserve significant time to answer their questions, so there's a lot of give and take. It's a conversation.
CA: Sheppard Mullin works in Native American law, a particularly distinctive sector. Where would you say that fits into the profile of the firm as a whole?
GH: It's one of our many specialty practices – we work in Native American gaming, finance, land use, general litigation, corporate, employment. It runs the whole gamut. We have many specialty practices, and a few others growing very fast are alternative energy, healthcare and insurance. Over the last year those have been very busy.
We are organized by practice groups internally, but our focus externally is on different industries and specialties. We want to distinguish ourselves from the competition in our knowledge of clients' businesses. Saying “I am a litigator” doesn't distinguish you, it's important to have some level of specialization.
CA: Last year you said that collaboration and collegiality were extremely important to the firm: how do you maintain that atmosphere in the naturally competitive environment of the law?
GH: Hiring the right people, first of all. When we're interviewing people, we're screening for those who like to work as part of a team. Moreover, we don't tolerate inappropriate behavior that could disrupt the collaborative environment at the firm.
CA: The firm raised associate pay this year, what prompted Sheppard to match the market-wide increase?
GH: Our clients expect and deserve the best attorneys, and we're not going to attract the best attorneys unless we pay competitively. In terms of lateral partners, we've attracted a lot who are coming from firms that are not paying associates market rate. They thus have real trouble hiring qualified associates.
CA: If you could give one piece of advice to a student looking to work at Sheppard Mullin, what would it be?
GH: There's a couple of things, which honestly are applicable to a lot of different firms. First of all, look at this as a career. What are the chances you're going to stay and make partner? We want career people, and we make a lot of partners from associates every year. Fundamentally, we want people who will stay with us and finish their careers with us.
In the profession generally, I'd also advise that you need to be very nimble and adaptable. There have been huge changes over the last five years, which look set to have double the effect over the next five. Technological progress and artificial intelligence are going to have massive impacts on all our practices. As such, new associates need to be flexible. Embrace change!
CA: Is there anything else we should know about Sheppard?
GH: We have consistent financial performance that is seldom matched. We have vibrant offices nationally and internationally. We are strong on the east coast and in Chicago. We're one of the very biggest law firms in California, which is the sixth largest economy in the world. And we truly are a good place to work.
Interview with chief human resources officer Bess Sully
Chambers Associate: What do you think draws candidates to Sheppard Mullin in particular?
Bess Sully:From a summer associate's perspective, we have smaller classes and it's a very individualized program in regards to types of work. The opportunity to work with a number of different lawyers is great. We're interestingly placed where we are, and even given the broad scope of growth we've had over the last few years, we remain a very strong California presence. That perspective is a unique one for new attorneys coming from a lateral or law school base.
This is a firm with real entrepreneurial spirit, we consistently make between 10 and 13 partners year after year. That's hard to come by in this day and age. People who really want to be a practicing attorney and want to be entrepreneurial will find this is a great firm.
CA: The firm's presence on the East Coast is growing: do you see more recruits coming from there in the future?
BS: Not really. We've always had a strong draw from the top East Coast law schools for both our East and West Coast offices, and had a pretty broad spread. The firm's ties to California are an attractive feature – I personally moved to California recently, and can certainly see the appeal! It does help to have East Coast representation in our East Coast offices, but it doesn't make or break at application.
CA: What does the firm do to encourage diversity in recruiting?
BS: More than half of our entry level associates every year are women, and every year over the last five there have been a greater number of women. Last year 40% of the class was diverse. We have an amazingly active committee and network, and a number of active affinity groups. While we're focused on diversity in recruiting, the real proof of our commitment is in retention and promotion, and what attorneys are doing once they’re here. We have an active program and lots of opportunities.
CA: What are the best and worst things that candidates can do at interview?
BS: The best things are somebody who is smart – that's something every law firm hires for, obviously – and having an understanding of what it means to be a practicing attorney. It really helps to have a proven track record of competitiveness and a desire to succeed, and any areas where they can demonstrate that are hugely helpful.
On the other hand, arrogance will not play well here. It's a California firm and has a California culture in many ways, and arrogance will just not work well as a part of that. But at the same time, you can't be too shy or timid either, you need a happy balance. Because of the entrepreneurial spirit at Sheppard Mullin, people need to be comfortable in their work. The people who are most successful are those who have the means of knowing what it is to be professional.
CA: How has progress been with the Rock Your Interviews program (to assist diverse candidates in the law firm recruitment process)?
BS: We've been doing it for 5 years now, and almost 400 students have attended in our offices across the country. This was primarily designed to help prepare diverse students for interviews with any type of legal employer, and it gives some students their first opportunity to visit a law firm and personally interact with its lawyers. A secondary benefit is that some students who attended these programs later applied to us through OCI, and a couple have been hired by the firm. From a student perspective, it's a helpful sneak peek into who our lawyers really are. If they're looking into different firms of similar size and shape, it's very helpful in understanding who the people are that work there.
CA: What's the most distinctive aspect of the Sheppard Mullin summer program?
BS: We have a very tight ratio of partners to non-partners, so summer associates get the opportunity to work with very senior lawyers, which is a really good thing that helps us to stand out.
CA: How can someone really stand out as a summer associate?
BS: I think it comes back to that entrepreneurial spirit again. We're looking for people who go above and beyond, focusing on the work and their work product. Really thinking about the questions and problems that are put in front of them. Coming up with solutions to those problems helps make a summer stand out.
CA: We've heard from associates about the Shep talks training program, what are the key features of that?
BS: It's my team's responsibility to run the Shep talks. They're our attempt to provide on demand, “just in time” training, an opportunity to readily digest pieces of information about being a professional at Sheppard Mullin. Our attorneys use the Shep talks for a lot of different things. We think they've been very successful, and will continue to use them for both laterals and entry-level associates.
CA: Finally, what can students do in their 1L summer to increase their chances of impressing in their applications and at interview?
BS: By doing something they're interested in and are excited about. When we interview people, we tend to try and find what they're truly interested in. I don't know how easy that is, but if you can find something you can talk about in an excited way, that's great. There's no perfect answer. We've had people who've been clerks for judges; worked at other large firms; taken up research roles; everything across the board. Regardless of the title of what they did, the people excited about what they've been doing are the ones who shine.
“Pretty standard questions” characterize Sheppard OCIs, covering how candidates got into law and why they want to join the firm. Associates who helped conduct interviews provided inside information: “It's really important that you're the kind of person lawyers want to be stuck in the office with late at night, or someone they can grab a beer with. We want to see people who have thought through what a career in law looks like – do you have the drive to succeed? Do you have the skills to navigate difficult personalities on both sides of a case? People skills are very important.”
While “good academic work is the prerequisite” to impressing, several interviewees advised “work experience with a firm or judge, anything law related, is especially helpful. When candidates come in, if they haven't done anything over summer it doesn't look great.” Being able to show “a wide range of experiences” is a big advantage, and don't be afraid to express interests beyond the law. One associate's interview went from discussion of their master's degree to chat about the Boston Celtics. “The best questions are those that begin broadly and let the candidate wander,” so feel to follow the conversation's flow.
Identifying firm culture is a crucial part of the interview process, and Sheppard Mullin is no exception. Associates advised “trying to get a feel of the culture on callbacks. A lot of legal work is pretty similar, what differentiates your experience is the people you're working with.” One took this approach and was very satisfied at Sheppard: “Plenty of my classmates chose a firm for prestige and weren't happy. At the end of the day, you get very similar opportunities, and you spend so much time at work you should find somewhere you'll be happy.” In Sheppard's case, “a lack of bluster or glitz” was seen as a big plus.
Summer associates “rotate through three practice groups, but it's very flexible. People who wanted to change groups got the chance.” Many were “dabbling in different practice areas – summer helped flush out what I wanted to do, as I was all over the map going in.” The firm's mock trial program was particularly popular, but it's not all fun and games. “All the associates and partners were really down to earth, and all open about their experiences. Nobody sugar-coated anything, they made it clear you hit the ground running.”
The Native American niche
More than 500 Native American tribes are federally recognized by the United States. Within their lands, indigenous communities have the ability to enforce their own laws, levy taxes and license activities. Relationships between tribes, states and the federal government have evolved over time through a series of legal battles, many of which were resolved by the Supreme Court. One example was the 1978 Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe case, which firmly established that tribal courts lacked the authority to punish non-indigenous peoples.
Even today, it is unclear where the authority of federal jurisdiction ends and tribal law begins. National attention was drawn to the conflicting but coexisting systems of sovereignty recently, when the Standing Rock Sioux tribe protested against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, arguing that the oil pipe would threaten their drinking water and create other environmental concerns.
Gaming is perhaps the most controversial sector of Native American law. Following the 1988 Indian Gaming and Regulatory Act, it is extremely difficult for state governments to block or even limit gambling on Native American lands. Bingo halls and casinos have become lucrative cash cows for many (though not all) tribes – unencumbered by regulations limiting maximum bets, they have come to dominate the market. The two biggest casinos in the US, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, are both tribally operated within a few miles of one another in Connecticut. But it's California, home of Sheppard Mullin, that's seeing the fastest growth in Native American gaming.
Tribal law is a distinctive specialization for the firm, which handles cases relating to sovereignty, water rights, art law and labor and employment issues as well as those concerning the Gaming and Regulatory Act. Sheppard's work in the sector “runs the whole gamut,” according to chairman Guy Halgren.
Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP
333 South Hope Street,
- Head Office: Los Angeles, CA
- Number of domestic offices: 10
- Number of international offices: 5 (Shanghai, Beijing, Brussels, London & Seoul)
- Worldwide revenue: $607,167,000
- Partners (US): 336
- Associates (US): 287
- Summer Salary 2017
- 1Ls: N/A
- 2Ls: $3,462/week
- 1Ls hired? No
- Split summers offered? No
- Can summers spend time in overseas office? No
- Summers 2017: 33
- Offers/acceptances 2016: 28 offers, 28acceptances
Main areas of work
Sheppard Mullin is a full service Global 100 firm. A broad range of practice areas, including counter-cyclical practices, has allowed the firm to succeed through up and down economic cycles. Primary areas include antitrust; business trial; corporate and securities; entertainment, technology and advertising; finance and bankruptcy; government contracts; intellectual property; labor and employment; real estate, land use/ natural resources and environment; tax, ERISA and trusts and estates and white collar criminal defense. Clients are in industries ranging from aerospace and banking to entertainment and e-commerce and from real estate and retail to high tech and high fashion.
Founded in Los Angeles in 1927, there are now about 750 attorneys practicing in 15 offices (7 in California, and Chicago, New York, Washington, DC, Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul, Brussels and London). The firm remains a true partnership which governs itself through an elected, representative democracy. Stability is enhanced by skillful administration, excellent cost control and no firm debt. Core values include transparency in financial operations and governance, civility in the daily conduct of its business, advancement and celebration of diversity and inclusiveness and a vigorous pro bono program.
• Number of 1st year associates: 30
• Number of 2nd year associates: 35
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $180,000
• 2nd year: $190,000
• Clerking policy: Yes
Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2017:
Berkeley, Columbia, Fordham, George Washington, George Mason, Georgetown, Harvard, Hastings, Howard, Loyola (Los Angeles), NYU, Southwestern, Stanford, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UCLA, USC, USD, USF, Virginia, Vanderbilt. Plus 3-4 job fairs (regional and/or diversity).
Summer associate profile:
High academic achievement is a precondition to employment. But the firm is interested in more than that: it seeks associates who will succeed over the long term. It looks for associates who have the personal traits needed to become outstanding practicing lawyers: self-awareness, drive to succeed, capacity for hard work and an ability to work well with other people.
Summer program components:
The Summer Program gives students a realistic view of the way the firm practices throughout the year. Assignments include meaningful work on behalf of clients with partners and associates in litigation and/or transactional practice groups. All offices conduct clinical training programs. Pro bono projects are assigned to those who express an interest. Social events offer exposure to the geographic area of the particular office.