Revitalized pro bono, restructured bonuses and revamped training... when Sheppard associates speak, management listens.
SHEP's rep for maintaining a laid-back California cool within the pressures of BigLaw attracts attorneys “who value being congenial, social and having a life over sheer prestige,” according to associates here. But Sheppard Mullin proves that being relatively mellow isn't a barrier to ambition. It's been expanding steadily for years and – with a string of already well-established California bases – the firm is currently concentrating on building up its offerings in Chicago, New York and Washington, DC. Across the Atlantic, the Brussels office is swelling as Sheppard recently added an EU competition and regulatory practice there.
Some BigLaw firms have expanded too quickly, crashed and burned, but Sheppard's growth has been considered and cautious. Chairman Guy Halgren explains: “We've increased our revenue every year since 1992. We've never had a down year in 23 years, through thick and thin, throughout the financial meltdown, and we've done that without a merger or acquisition. We've recruited students out of law school and undertaken moderate lateral growth. That's our model for success and what we aim to do in the future.”
Well-regarded practices in Chambers USA encompass corporate, banking & finance, and litigation. More niche strengths include labor & employment, media & entertainment, government contracts (mainly out of DC), international trade, and Native American law.
Strategy & Future
Chairman Guy Halgren tells us that enlarging the firm's industry expertise is its current focus. Healthcare and insurance have been in the frame for a couple of years but, Halgren notes, “we've also added an emphasis on energy, games and social media, life sciences and hospitality.” Sheppard recently snapped up a three-partner IP team specializing in games and social media from Pillsbury Winthrop.
“Grow into our skin.”
"Our strategy remains to grow into our skin," Halgren continues. "We like our footprint and we aim to do more for our clients in each of our existing locations."
Business trial (general litigation) usually takes in the most newbies, closely followed by corporate and labor & employment. Some new attorneys also join government contracts, IP, finance & bankruptcy, and real estate. The route to jumping on board with a practice area varies between offices. Some bases – NYC, DC and Orange County – follow Sheppard's tried and tested method: newbies are generally allocated to one of three preferences submitted after the summer program. Several smaller hubs, such as Century City and Del Mar, hire juniors into a specific group. Meanwhile LA and San Francisco are currently experimenting with a new approach: “During your first four to six months as an associate you're in a general pool. Anyone can send you work until you decide which area you'd like to commit to.”
Business trial rookies tend to start out as generalists and can scoop up anything from construction, insurance or communications matters to white-collar crime, securities or privacy and data litigation. On smaller cases juniors do “anything from discovery to drafting documents.” Larger matters tend to see them handling “more research and drafting memos. You get a good experience in both situations. The bigger cases are intense while the smaller ones afford more responsibility from day one.”
“They put us out there early so we become comfortable.”
Labor-oriented labor & employment associates “assist labor negotiations and deal with arbitrations and unfair practices.” Those concentrating on the employment side tend to split their time between single-plaintiff harassment and discrimination claims, and class action suits on “meal and rest cases or wage and hour violations.” Employment sources had gotten to work preparing depositions, drafting and responding to discovery requests and motions. One interviewee added: “It's not unusual to appear in court at this stage in your career” to argue motions for summary judgments and hearings. “They put us out there early so we become comfortable.”
Sheppard's corporate attorneys encounter anything from venture financing and leveraged buyouts to M&A, IPOs and private equity matters. IP juniors can dabble in both patent litigation (patent infringement) and patent prosecution (applying for a patent). Anti-corruption, litigation, investigations and compliance matters are all up for grabs in government contracts.
Across practice areas, our sources didn't appear to have made much use of Sheppard's free market system to seek out work: “I can't remember the last time I had to tell someone I was slow and needed more tasks,” one inundated source reflected.
Hours & Compensation
Most of our interviewees had no trouble hitting the billable target of 1,950 hours although several acknowledged that discrepancies exist between practices: “Some can be slow and others are so busy the 1,950 is a joke!” Juniors tended to put in around ten or 11 hours a day at the office but were rarely disturbed once they'd left for home. “They understand we have lives and there's no expectation we're constantly attached to our phones. Once I'd been in the bath and didn't see an email for a couple of hours. I apologized profusely but they understood I was out of office.” This midweek respect extends to weekends and time off: "The last thing we want to do is disturb vacations as we know people need a break.”
“I apologized profusely but they understood I was out of the office.”
In 2015, we heard some grumblings from associates that bonuses didn't match market rates. Soon afterwards, Sheppard restructured bonuses to bring them into line with the industry standard. Payouts now correlate to a tiered structure over and above the 1,950 hours. In 2015, the firm pushed back the annual bonus announcement to March (the billing cutoff takes place in September), which is really late. In 2016, it announced in January (the official line is that it announces bonuses during the first quarter). Although several juniors considered this late announcement a “downside" one suggested that "maybe we did it to ourselves.” Sheppard floated the idea of shifting the billing year end from September to December to associates but, chairman Guy Halgren tells us, “people did not want that pressure round the holidays so they overwhelmingly chose not to move it.” Go online for more from Halgren on bonuses and other changes.
Training & Development
Associates are driving forward changes in the firm's training program after previous concerns over scant sessions. We heard chief talent officer Bob Williams has “brought in a group of younger associates to brainstorm ways Sheppard could improve its formal education. The group's realizing it's not an easy thing to solve.”
“They've definitely made an effort to improve things.”
The firm's not completely reliant on Bob Williams and co to come up with a final plan, though. The number of formal training sessions in each department have already been upped. “They've definitely made an effort to improve things,” one associate clarified. “One of our practice area meetings was converted into a training session.” Go online to find out what other training Sheppard offers.
Alongside bringing associates on board to help improve training, the firm also runs an associates' council to raise any issues with management (it was this council that represented associates' views during bonus wrangling). Every few months the committee comes together to “complain about everything,” joked one source. “There are no partners in there and a handful of associates are tasked with going to the firm's management and acting as the middle men” to liaise over any concerns. “Whether things actually change is a harder decision but we can voice our opinion,” they reasoned. More informally, “the partners don't dismiss us as juniors. Even in my first year they wanted to hear what I had to say on how things were handled.”
“Partners aren't stuffy and inaccessible.”
New Yorkers in particular highlighted a “strong sense of community. The partners aren't stuffy and inaccessible, and I've never once felt they consider me beneath them. We have a staff appreciation week, which speaks volumes. They want to make this a happy place.” This attitude appears to extend to the “very jovial” DC office: “People have a good time here. Throughout the day we stop to have a chat or grab lunch together.” We even heard of juniors building extra time into their schedule to accommodate socializing.
Sheppard's known for its California cool attitude but West Coast juniors were keen to differentiate between offices. Del Mar “is one of the most relaxed. We do a ton of work but there's not a lot of stress.” Vying for 'most laid-back office' is Century City – where “partners take a vested interest in juniors” – and Orange County, which “is more easygoing than LA.” But even in the firm's Los Angeles HQ you'll find plenty of variation: “Labor & employment has a ton of happy hours. There's so much socializing it's like a fraternity. In business trial the emphasis is more businesslike.”
The bulk of Sheppard's juniors are in the West Coast offices. LA takes on the most each year, with the rest spread around Century City, Del Mar and San Francisco. You'll also find a few others scattered between Orange County and Palo Alto. New York and DC each take a handful of first-years with one newbie occasionally popping up in Chicago.
“Everything but entertainment.”
LA handles “everything but entertainment” while other offices have more specialized focuses. DC is, unsurprisingly, Sheppard's government contracts hub while half of Del Mar's attorneys work on IP. Century City is best known for hosting the firm's media & entertainment group.
Juniors reported a fair amount of inter-office collaboration on projects, particularly among offices in the Golden State. Annual practice area retreats bring everyone together for a weekend of sun on the California coast, although government contracts ignore this tradition and jet off for the bright lights of Vegas.
As part of the firm's “recommitment to doing as much pro bono as possible,” Sheppard recently scrapped its hours cap. Unlimited pro bono now counts toward the billable target across the firm, bringing everyone on par with Sheppard's Big Apple base (limitless hours have been around for several years there). “The firm has made an effort to underscore that all offices should be doing pro bono.”
“An effort to underscore that all offices should be doing pro bono.”
And are they? One San Franciscan reckoned their office had recently seen “a substantial increase in the amount of pro bono hours billed. We receive constant emails from our office's coordinators.” And Del Mar's pro bono committee “tries to make lots of different types available” to engage everyone. Immigration, asylum, housing rights, family law and adoption matters all frequently crop up firmwide.
Pro bono hours
One interviewee surmised: “I would say it feels diverse for BigLaw. Of course the numbers are what they are especially at the partnership level,” where 91% are white and only 17.6% are female. Still, juniors noted that Sheppard “is very transparent about the figures and they've definitely made diversity a priority.” When attorneys in the capital recently moved into new office space, for example, the women's group successfully lobbied for the addition of a 'wellness/nursing room', a multipurpose room for people who may not be feeling well and need to rest, as well as nursing mothers who may want to pump. Several sources also acknowledged “the big push in recent years for the LGBT program.”
“Transparent about the numbers.”
Sheppard's 'Rock Your Interviews' events answer all the tricky questions diverse aspiring attorneys may have about law firm recruitment with the hopes of snapping up a few of them for the firm's summer program. The proof is in the pudding though and Sheppard's “already seeing people who attended sessions come through OCIs.”
“Our whole approach to interviewing is to hire people who will succeed in our firm over the long term,” partner and chief talent officer Bob Williams explains. “Students can go through law school and not have much of an idea about what practice is like or the amount of work involved. Someone who understands this is less likely to leave the firm early.” Juniors with recruiting experience underscored the importance of “asking thoughtful questions to demonstrate you've done your research.” So dig a little deeper than just the firm's homepage.
“Real responsibility and real management capability.”
Prior work experience or a career can also be advantageous, Williams stresses, as candidates who demonstrate “real responsibility and real management capability” impress. Read more from Williams on our website.
Interview with chairman Guy Halgren
Chambers Associate: Which areas of the firm are you most excited about at the moment?
Guy Halgren: For the first time since the financial crash in 2008, every part of the firm and every office is busy. Everyone is doing well but in particular our corporate group had a second tremendous year in a row and litigation has really come back from 2008.
CA: When we spoke last year you mentioned the firm wanted to focus on growing its expertise in the healthcare and insurance industries. How is that coming along?
GH: Those two sectors are doing extremely well and we've also added an emphasis on energy, games and social media, life sciences, and hospitality. These practices are growing in offices across the country.
CA: What's the firm's general strategy for the next few years?
GH: Our strategy remains to grow into our skin. We like our footprint and we aim to do more for our clients in each of our existing locations.
CA: The firm restructured its bonus system last year and also shifted back the time it announces them. What was the reason behind that?
GH: We want to always make sure we're competitive with our peers in the market. In our previous structure we were announcing the bonus so early that the market hadn't yet developed, so we moved it back to remain competitive. This year we announced our bonuses in January.
I spoke with associates in every office and we had many conversations regarding their preferences. By leaving the end of the measuring year in September and not making decisions until early the next year, there is a longer gap between finishing the year and paying the bonus. We gave associates the option of ending the measuring year in December instead but people did not want that pressure around the holidays so they overwhelming chose not to move it.
CA: We also heard you got rid of the cap on pro bono hours. What inspired that change?
GH: We decided to reinvigorate and rejuvenate our pro bono program and took the lid off the credit that associates could receive. We didn’t want any hindrance on doing pro bono work. Since we've lifted the cap, the hours have increased by 50% across the firm, for both partners and associates. Our partners did a lot more pro bono than in previous years and across the firm the number of people doing pro bono went up 58%. Additionally we're devoting more resources to it; we have a pro bono coordinator, have made our pro bono partner position more formal and we've been increasingly talking about it to encourage partners and associates to engage.
CA: What should students bear in mind about Sheppard and what it's looking for in future associates?
GH: We pride ourselves on being a nice place to work. At the same time we want associates who are ambitious and hard-working. Collaboration and collegiality are extremely important to us.
CA: Is there anything else students should know about the firm?
GH: We've increased our revenue ever year since 1992. We've never had a down year in 23 years, through thick and thin, throughout the financial meltdown and we've done that without a merger or acquisition. We've just recruited students out of law school and undertaken moderate lateral growth. That's our model for success and what we aim to do in the future.
Interview with partner and chief talent officer Bob Williams
Chambers Associate: Sheppard has offices across the US. Do you like people to have a link with the geographic area they're apply to?
Bob Williams: It's not a precondition to our offer of employment but I would have to say it's a factor. A number of the cities in which we practice are real destinations. We try to hire for the long term and it's helpful if a person knows what they're getting into. If they've lived in the geographic area before their impressions of what life is going to be like in that area are realistic. But we certainly have lots of people in our various offices who have transplanted from other parts of the US.
CA: Who conducts your interviews?
BW: Normally we send a two attorney team for each interview room and try to achieve a balance as to junior and senior associates and male and female. We also look for one of those two to practice litigation and the other to practice on the transactional side so we have a balance for every student we see. Usually 20 to 25% of those interviewed will be asked to return for a second interview. At call-backs we try to have a cross section of the firm on the schedule so it's less planned and structured.
CA: What questions do you ask?
BW: We've tried to identify factors that predict success in our firm. Our whole approach to interviewing is to hire people who will succeed in our firm over the long term. We're quite different from a lot of large firms in the US where they expressly or implicitly only hire students for a span of years and everyone understands the young lawyers are going to leave. That's not our approach at all. We want students to stay, succeed and advance, so we try to identify factors that predict the ability to succeed in the long term. We organize the questions around giving the students the chance to explain his or her candidacy and demonstrate the skills that we think are predictive of long term success.
CA: So what does makes someone stand out at interview?
BW: We look for people with outstanding academic achievement. Looking past that, factors which are very helpful are maturity, work experience in a leadership or management role, experience in the city and some idea of what lawyers do. That may sound trite but students can go through law school and not have much of an idea about what practice is like or the amount of work involved. Someone who understands this is less likely to leave the firm early.
CA: Any there any types of work experience you look for in particular?
BW: No. If someone has real responsibility and real management capability that's very helpful. Military service as an officer, for example, is outstanding, because military officers are instructed in leadership and management. Work in a financial institution or corporation as a management trainee or at a junior management level is also very useful and helpful.
CA: Last year we spoke with the firm's diversity committee about Sheppard's 'Rock your Interviews' program to assist diverse candidates in the law firm recruitment process. How is it going?
BW: We're very happy with it. The program is an outreach to students in their first year of law school and we've seen quite a few students show up for interviews who met us through 'Rock your Interviews'. We think it's a success.
CA: Talk us through the summer program. How can someone stand out?
BW: Our program is ten weeks long. The first two weeks are entirely training. After that we have eights weeks in which students receive projects from lawyers. They need to do a good job on their projects, to be someone who we think validates our choice in hiring them and who will be a long term success in the firm. Having said that, the overwhelming majority of summers do receive permanent offers of employment and our summer associate programs have the same number of positions as we have vacancies for permanent employment. We don't have a "survival of the fittest" competition for a few places.
CA: We heard from associates in LA that first-years are now unsigned for a few months before joining a group. Is that the case?
BW: We're doing that this year as an experiment in LA, San Francisco and Orange County. The young lawyers who arrived this year are in an unassigned pool for distribution of projects. I think we'll do the same again next year if it's successful. It's better than trying to assign people to a practice area within the eight weeks of summer in which summer associates are engaged with our practice groups. I think that's too short a time.
CA: In the past we've been told by junior associates that they'd like more training. This year we heard you've personally met with a group of associates to try and improve formal education. How is that process going?
BW: I'm delighted you heard as it indicates our associates took notice of it! We have an ambitious education program but it's hard to conduct it across our nine US offices. The best program is one that is presented personally but that's hard to do without sending someone to every office so instead we make videos. The enthusiasm of our associates to sit in their own offices and watch a video is tepid at best. I'm trying to create an education program which will do a better job of pulling people in.
We've convened a group of second-years and thrown the floor open to them to capture their ideas. I'm really encouraged so far; it's just starting at this stage but the promise of the idea is to have an educational program from the grassroots up rather than from the top down. I would really like to put associates in charge of content so they would dictate what they want to learn, rather than doing something we think they should experience.
The associates have also recommended changes in format. We thought our programs ought to qualify for CLE credits, so the sessions would be an hour long. Our young lawyers say that an hour is too long; they want bite size representations – for example, ten minutes on how to do this or that task. They want something much more practical rather than encyclopedic. That's the direction we want to go in and now it's up to the associates and myself to try and implement it. I think we will end up relying on short videos which outline, for example, what you need to know to file a complaint in court. We're also looking to present programs from one location but with a live audience in other locations. There will be people in each place who can pick up on the discussion and follow up on it. We want to reduce the degree to which the program is dry and comes across as a video from long ago and far away.
Training and Development at Sheppard
Past grumbles about the amount of formal training at Sheppard have prompted chief talent officer Bob Williams to sit down with associates and rethink what's on offer. “We have an ambitious education program but it's hard to conduct it across our nine US offices,” Williams tells us. “The best program is one that is presented personally but that's hard to do without sending someone to every office.”
Associates acknowledged that geographical hurdles and the distribution of associates across a wide variety of practice areas posed challenges to any improvement. “I don't know what more training would look like,” one admitted. “Perhaps there'd be more formal sessions for first-years. Once you're in a group, peoples' needs to start vary,” especially in smaller offices where juniors are more thinly dispersed between practices.
So what's currently on offer? First, newbies strap in for a “crash course on the basics of how the firm works.” The next three months see first-years attend eighteen, recently launched 'Shep Talks'. The twice weekly, half hour sessions cover topics like 'The Business of a Law Firm:Law Firm Economics', 'Keys to Success for Young Associates' and 'The Norms of Behavior (Internal and External) at Sheppard Mullin'. Once associate life is underway, there's plenty of CLE training on offer so juniors have “no problem meeting requirements.” Sheppard also “makes a lot of training available on a self serve basis” through it's online library. This resource is broken down by practice area and offers insights on “everything from writing settlement agreements, to how to manage a case and discovery,” one litigator proffered.
Aside from that, formal training is left to the whim of individual practice groups, so you'll still find some groups, like government contracts, which are “more hands off” than others. Labor & employment keeps its associates busy with regular “one hour video conference training sessions broadcast across our offices.” These cover things like “attending depositions or undertaking discovery with an eye towards writing summary judgments and motions.”
Additionally associates here attend “two practice area meetings a month; one on class actions and the other on labor and employment law.” Business trial associates can make use of Sheppard's new 'litigation university' offering “a handful of hours with a partner. It focuses on a particular subject like briefs or arbitration. It's definitely helpful; the in-depth outlines are especially good to reference.”
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: $559,500,000
- Partners (US): 294
- Associates (US): 279
- Summer Salary 2016
- 1Ls: N/A
- 2Ls: $3,080/week
- 1Ls hired? No
- Split summers offered? No
- Can summers spend time in overseas office? No
- Summers 2016: 31
- Offers/acceptances 2015: 32 offers, 30 acceptances
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: 31
• Number of 2nd year associates: 36
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $180,000
• 2nd year: $190,000
• Clerking policy: Yes
Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2016:
Berkeley, Chicago, Columbia, Fordham, George Washington, Georgetown, Harvard, Hastings, Howard, Illinois, Loyola (Los Angeles), Michigan, NYU, Northwestern, Southwestern, Stanford, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UCLA, USC, USD, USF, Virginia. 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 with both a transactional component and a litigation component. Pro bono projects are assigned to those who express an interest. Social events offer exposure to the geographic area of the particular office.