Not only does big fish Simpson offer work on some of the meatiest corporate deals around, it is, crucially, a “pleasant place to work.”
FOR top dollar deals, one of the few law firms the denizens of Wall Street turn to is Simpson Thacher. Since its founding in 1884 by a couple of Columbia law school grads, the firm's cultivated a stellar pedigree. It's advised on the five biggest LBOs in business history, including the $44 billion acquisition of TXU by private equity kingpins KKR and the $39 billion buyout of Equity Office Properties by Blackstone. Simpson attorneys handled the four largest M&A deals of 2016, including ChemChina's $43 billion acquisition of Syngenta and Microsoft's $26.2 billion acquisition of LinkedIn. The beginning of 2017 saw the firm join forces with Microsoft again, advising it on a massive $17 billion bond offering.
To show for it all, Simpson's got a bulging collection of top-drawer Chambers USA rankings at national level for corporate, banking, private equity and real estate work. Simpson is strong at contentious work too, evidenced by premier rankings for securities litigation and insurance disputes.
The corporate department takes most junior associates, and litigators accounted for roughly a quarter of our interviewee list. The rest are sprinkled across real estate, tax and executive compensation & employee benefits (ECEB). A lone junior was assigned to 'exempt organizations' – tax-exempt entities like charities.
Before settling on a specific group, corporate novices go through a rotation system that allows them to sample three (out of four) different areas within the overall department. The four main groups are banking & credit, securities & capital markets, M&A, and fund formation, although smaller practices like real estate, ECEB and public company advisory can be rotation destinations. “It's an attractive system because it's tough at the outset to know what you want to do.” An associate who'd sampled private funds told us that “I was involved in running several mega fund closings, which entailed coordinating with clients, drafting and getting back to investors with comments on subscription documents. Plus I negotiated side letters and took a first cut at a partnership agreement.”
Over in M&A, “I’ve had a chance to work with strategic and private equity clients. Mostly I've been doing diligence work, but I've also drafted portions of documents like resolutions, parts of the SPA and a registration rights agreement,” noted a junior, adding that “I feel very much involved, and to the extent that there's time, people encourage me to take first draft at things. They don't shy away from giving you assignments.”
“The breadth and depth of experience is remarkable."
Meanwhile, litigators take a less structured approach to their Simpson salad days. “The firm's known for its generalist style and I was really drawn to that – it's a perfect place for young lawyer to train,” one reckoned. “The breadth and depth of experience is remarkable. I do insurance, antitrust and general commercial litigation, diligence on large transactions and regulatory work."
"Day to day, I often write research memos, draft legal analyses and memos for clients," told one litigator. "On the regulatory side I speak directly to clients and am on calls with the government.” A source revealed that “I'm working on one very large FCPA investigation that's been going for a few years now. I do a lot of document production and numerous witness interviews – I've been able to prepare outlines, meet the client and go over testimony. I've also been staffed to a compliance development case for an international client required lot of travel to South America for eight months, which was a little stressful at first but very rewarding.”
In most groups, “the workflow comes through an assigning partner system who keeps track of your capacity. You receive work from staffing folks and partners directly but as you get more senior people reach out to you on an ad hoc basis.” Juniors thought that “in theory the system works well. The centralized system means you don't have as much control over who you work with and there's not a lot of transparency in how and why things are assigned, but on the other hand it makes people less competitive, which is good.” One declared that “I like that Simpson isn't an eat-what-you-kill firm. That appealed to me at the time I applied and it's definitely lived up to the importance placed on it – I knew that working at a firm would be nerve racking as it was and I was concerned about having to network while I knew nothing. This way, you're at ease, you have work and show your chops by doing assignments. It's egalitarian in that respect.”
Training & Development
All new associates congregate at the New York office for a few days of orientation. “It's pretty comprehensive. There are some lecture-style sessions, some interactive ones like drafting practice, and presentations.” After this initial period, there are “lunchtime trainings within practices that partners in the group put together. I recently went to a government investigations practice lunch where partners discussed new cases and how they'll impact our practice. It was really interesting to hear what partners think especially as a lot come from government.”
“The learning curve is steep but that's not for a lack of people explaining things and teaching you.”
Rookies are assigned an associate and partner mentor. “In my experience they're very receptive to questions, but generally speaking I've found that I can reach out to anyone and to the extent that they have capacity they will help you out with queries, although obviously seniors are sometimes really busy and it's hard to catch them.”
A junior noted that “the learning curve is steep but that's not for a lack of people explaining things and teaching you.” First-year ECEB associates shadow a senior associate for a few weeks when they first start. “If I couldn't see how a certain task fitted into the bigger picture, then they'd always stop and explain,” said one.
Hours & Compensation
There isn't a set billing target at Simpson, something sources thought helps to foster “a positive environment, where we work hard and support one another. I often speak to friends at other firms who seem hyper-focused at hitting a certain number.” That said, Simpsonites aren't exactly kicking back and relaxing. “Obviously you wouldn't feel comfortable if your hours were low every single month, most people probably hit around 1,800 to 2,000. I don't feel stressed, I just get there organically.”
“A combination of adrenaline and coffee.”
Some juniors thought that, if anything, “the problem is there's too much work and you have no control and feel overburdened. I’ve billed an incredibly high number of hours. Things are leanly staffed which means you get more experience and that's a benefit, but the downside is that you are really really stretched. There's usually no solution other than to manage everything...people are very understanding of the fact that it's busy, but ultimately you'll be working a lot of late nights and weekends. It's very unpredictable, especially in M&A, and I work late or at weekends often without notice. Anyone who tells you they have a great work/life balance is lying!” Another insisted that “we certainly come in expecting to work a lot of hours, but also the people here are respectful of vacation time or when you have other obligations. It's do-able to manage your personal life and still be on top of work.” Despite “hugely intense bursts” of work, during which sources are fueled by “a combination of adrenaline and coffee,” there'll often be “a period where not much is happening for a few days.”
“Polite” was the word on everybody's lips when we asked about the cordial Simpson culture. “It's a very pleasant place to work where people understand that the profession can be particularly demanding. It's certainly a reserved place, very polite,” confirmed a junior, who concurred with others that there's occasionally a bit too much politeness: “People aren't very direct. A lot of communication is by email and phone rather than face to face and people tend not to give you constructive criticism until they get frustrated with you, which comes off like you're being scolded when actually they're totally in the right but didn't say anything to you beforehand.” That said, each year we detect a distinctly supportive culture here.
The Simpson social calendar isn't exactly chock-full but most saw this as a positive. “One of the things I like is that there's never expectation go out for drink every Thursday or Friday, or 'forced fun' that's tied to career advancement. People here work hard and then tend to go home but I've definitely made a lot of close friends here and we go out and grab coffee or get lunch, but I like that it's not expected.” One summarized the situation: “You know how you have your settled-down friends and then your crazy party friends. Simpson is like the former.”
The New York HQ is “not super fancy” but associates had “no complaints” about office esthetics. Recent renovations mean that attorneys now have glass offices. “Some people got scared at first because of privacy issues, but actually folk are mindful and don't stare weirdly into your office. I like it because there's more light.” The cafeteria is a big hit. “It's fabulous – the food is delicious and highly subsidized so I eat here every day. There's a grill, a salad bar, lots of fresh fruit and baked goods.”
Simpson's second largest office is in Palo Alto. The offices in DC, Los Angeles and Houston also hire entry-level junior associates.
“The firm's tried hard in past few years to address the lack of diversity,” mused an associate. “The summer class this year was more diverse than mine and we now have the first black partner in New York for very long time, which is appreciated by attorneys of color.” There are active affinity groups for women, LGBT and ethnic minority attorneys, which “bring in speakers to educate partners on implicit bias and organize events” such as a theater trip to watch “a one woman play called Notes From The Field which was heavy stuff and far to the left on the matter of social justice.”
Juniors reckoned that pro bono “is taken very seriously and not sidelined. That's the culture here: a deep institutional commitment to serving others is part of the fabric.” There's a pro bono coordinator “who's wonderful and very engaging – the range of things on offer is extensive and if you find a project you're passionate about you can present it to the firm and they'll support you.” Corporate associates had taken on projects “supporting small businesses or minority-owned businesses, helping with contract issues, entity formation for non-profits and regulatory compliance issues.” Litigators mentioned that “there's always a ton of immigration work that can be done.”
Pro bono hours
- For all US attorneys: 47,492
- Average per US attorney: 62
Academic excellence is obviously a priority, but the firm doesn't just let anyone with a raft of A-pluses through its doors. “They try hard to get the fit right and listen to associates' opinions of candidates when we meet them during callbacks – they send juniors out to lunch with candidates, so we're thinking 'are you a weirdo?! Are you nice?!'”
“The firm has a certain cut-off for academics – you have to meet a standard – but beyond that we recruit people who want to learn and work hard, for the most part, and people have other interests outside of work,” an associate advised. “They want to recruit impressive people who can interface well with clients and who have a genuine interest in the work we do.”
Strategy & Future
Chairman of the executive committee Bill Dougherty tells us that “2016 was a very good year – we had solid activity across the board.” Although no other offices are in the pipeline, Simpson will “continue to invest in our core strengths, including our funds and real estate groups which are doing extraordinarily well. We don’t have plans to open any new offices, but expect to continue to expand our regulatory capabilities with a few strategic hires in our DC office, and we’ll continue to expand our Houston office as we remain very optimistic about that market.”
Interview with Bill Dougherty, chairman
What have been the major highlights for the firm over the past 12 months?
BD: 2016 was a very good year – we had solid activity across the board. IPOs were down a little bit in the US, but up elsewhere, particularly out of our Tokyo office. Highlights for the year included closing the $67 billion Dell-EMC transaction – it signed in late 2015 but the bulk of the work was done in 2016, including a large, complex financing involving a tracking stock and a $20 billion bond offering, that required the co-ordination of many offices and disciplines. We represented Microsoft on its acquisition of Linkedin, as well as on about $33 billion of its debt financings.
We're representing ChemChina on its $43 billion acquisition of Syngenta, which was signed in 2016 but is expected to close this year. We also worked on Tyco's merger with Johnson Controls. Our real estate group has remained incredibly busy, with Blackstone buying the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village complex in New York, and selling large stakes in some of its other real estate investments. Litigation was very active – a highlight was the successful defense of Alibaba in securities litigation connected to its ipo.
So 2016 was a very good year with healthy levels of activity in all offices and practice areas. 2017 is off to a strong start. Recently, we've been representing Ant Financial in its acquisition of Moneygram, and Petsmart on its acquisition of Chewy.com.
What's the firm's strategy for the future?
BD: We'll continue to invest in our core strengths, including our funds and real estate groups which are doing extraordinarily well. We don’t have plans to open any new offices, but expect to continue to expand our regulatory capabilities with a few strategic hires in our DC office, and we’ll continue to expand our Houston office as we remain very optimistic about that market.
What qualities do junior associates need to succeed at Simpson Thacher?
BD: We pride ourselves on our collaborative, team-oriented approach to our client’s matters, and we look for recruits who we think will operate well in that environment. We want people who are eager to help and support their colleagues - people we can imagine ourselves working well with. Associates we recruit have demonstrated that they’re hard-working and smart, so we’re interested in individuals who also are upbeat and ambitious. We train our attorneys extremely well, and know they will get more substantive work much earlier in their careers than in years gone by. We will keep pushing better and more challenging work down to more junior levels, so we look for people who are eager for and up to that challenge. That should serve us well because most our future partner talent will continue to come from our associate ranks.
Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP
425 Lexington Avenue,
- Head Office: New York, NY
- Number of domestic offices: 5
- Number of international offices: 6
- Worldwide revenue: $1,301,539,056
- Partners (US): 152
- Associates (US): 605
- Summer Salary 2017
- 1Ls: $3,500/week
- 2Ls: $3,500/week
- Post 3Ls: $3,500/week
- 1Ls hired? Yes
- Split summers offered? Yes, case by case
- Can summers spend time in overseas office? Yes, subject to need and relevant language skills
- Summers 2017: 118
- Offers/acceptances 2016: 129 offers, 105 acceptances; 10 open for 2017/2018
Main areas of work
Simpson Thacher to help them address their evolving business challenges. The firm is consistently ranked as one of the world’s leading advisors for mergers and acquisitions, capital markets and banking activity, as well as private equity fund formation and investment management. The firm’s litigation practice encompasses every type of complex litigation and is recognized as one of the most comprehensive, trial-ready litigation practices in the country.
Simpson Thacher also has leading innovative practices in the areas of antitrust, IP, tax, bankruptcy, real estate, executive compensation and employee benefits, exempt organizations and personal planning. Further, pro bono work is critical to the firm’s identity and its record in this area is unparalleled.
Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP is one of the world’s leading international law firms. The firm was established in 1884 and has more than 900 lawyers globally. Headquartered in New York City, the firm has offices in Beijing, Hong Kong, Houston, London, Los Angeles, Palo Alto, São Paulo, Seoul, Tokyo and Washington, DC. The firm provides coordinated legal advice and transactional capability to clients around the globe. Our focus on client needs is the hallmark of our practice and we value excellence in client service in all respects.
• Number of 1st year associates: 97
• Number of 2nd year associates: 103
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $180,000
• 2nd year: $190,000
• Clerking policy: Yes
Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2017:
Berkeley, Brooklyn, Cardozo, Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, Davis, Duke, Emory Fordham, George Washington, Georgetown, Harvard, Howard, Michigan, NYU, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Pennsylvania, Santa Clara, St John’s, Seton Hall, Stanford, Texas, Tulane, UCLA, USC, Vanderbilt, Virginia, Washington University, Yale
Summer associate profile:
The firm looks for candidates with distinguished records of achievement, demonstrated leadership potential, a commitment to excellence and the ability to work cooperatively with clients and colleagues.
Summer program components:
The Simpson Thacher Summer Program is both challenging and satisfying. Summer associates work on assignments from all practice areas side by side with partners and associates on client projects of substantial complexity. Summer associates participate in frequent formal training programs geared to their needs and are also invited to attend other firmwide training programs. Summer associates have partner and associate mentors and are given prompt and specific feedback. At the end of the summer program, summer associates will have a thorough understanding of the firm’s work and culture.