A titan among law firms, Skadden rewards the determined and the ambitious.
FEW firms have as formidable a reputation as Skadden. It's a reputation so fierce that Skadden consistently features in industry surveys among the top four firms General Counsel dread facing. Aggression and an uncompromising attitude of throwing everything it's got at a matter make Skadden a firm clients want at their backs, whether they're negotiating tough terms of an M&A deal or batting off some seriously high stakes litigation. The firm's best known for its mega M&A deals – it made its name on these during the '80s – but it hauls in over 30 top-tier Chambers USA practice area rankings.
Skadden's success has made it one of the most recognizable BigLaw brands out there. “Its prestige” was repeatedly thrown out by our associate sources as the driver behind their desire to get a foot in the door. “I thought if I'm going into BigLaw to do M&A, I should go big or go home,” said one, with an attitude similar to that displayed by the firm. Punishing hours and high standards have given Skadden a reputation for being a tough place to work, but the rewards – “cutting edge deals” and “a great jumping off point” to positions elsewhere – still draw in associates in their hordes.
Skadden's corporate & transactional group soaks up around half of the annual intake of first-years. Outside of New York these deal-doers operate as generalists, while those in the Big Apple have the opportunity to pull two eight-month shifts in teams such as banking, corporate restructuring, finance, investment management, and M&A. “You jump in, learn how to swim, get a little bit comfortable and feel like you're really picking up skills. Then you rotate and have to do it all again. It makes you a better lawyer, keeps you on your toes and I think it's nice not to have to make a final decision on your group before you walk in the door,” one New Yorker told us. A handful of novices also slot into litigation & controversy or regulatory (which includes tax), though there's no rotation option in these groups. A centralized work allocation system exists in each department, though not every piece of work comes through it. Those in smaller groups were especially likely to rely on the old, informal, knock-on-the-door inquiry to recruit juniors onto matters.
“Keeps you on your toes.”
Skadden's M&A team is the largest within the corporate group. Unlike in the smaller transactional subgroups – such as corporate restructuring or investment management – task allocation in M&A follows “more of a structure and is based on seniority. That has pros and cons but I think at the end of the day having a more formal process prevents people from slipping through the cracks,” one junior reasoned.
First-years can typically be found reviewing and summarizing contracts, and preparing diligence reports. While the first few months can be diligence heavy, sources maintained a sanguine view of their experience: “Diligence allowed me to familiarize myself with the nature of a corporate contract and summarizing them meant I got to know the market practices and what to expect. As I've grown more senior I've drafted ancillary documents and made revisions on the merger and purchase agreements, but I think without the diligence expertise I wouldn't have been able to understand the nuance and finesse of the deal details.” Other sources had negotiated ancillary and non-disclosure agreements and even started working on negotiations for the purchase agreement: “I'm not negotiating the terms at this point but I'm doing some drafting and revising and reviewing those sections. I feel pretty good about my experience in M&A. There's a nice balance; people check in on me and help with the process but they know when to back off and let me handle things alone.”
Outside of the corporate sphere, associates were likewise pleased with their development: “It's a meritocracy. I never feel like I'm waiting for fifth year to roll around so I could finally take a deposition,” said one litigator with second-chair experience. “Juniors are expected to have a lot of responsibility for discovery and managing document review, assisting with depositions, preparing for oral arguments and brief drafting.”
Training & Development
Associate life begins with a four-week training program called ACE [Associates' Comprehensive Education], which starts with a two-week mini-MBA. The first three days see associates converge on New York. Once back in their home office, the rest of the program gives juniors a grounding in things like “calculating balance sheets and income flow statements,” which proves “valuable to understanding a client's business.” After this, associates spend two weeks on Skadden-specific training where “different practices give presentations on everything you need about their area,” alongside practice area focused general skills training.
Further down the line, group-specific training sessions are staged, and rookies receive annual reviews (biannual in their first year). Several juniors felt feedback was “an area the firm could work on. Informally, it's good person to person but there needs to be a better culture of providing feedback.” Another conceded: “They have made more of a concrete effort to improve this. Since I joined they've made strides but it's still a work in progress.”
Hours & Compensation
Juniors up to and including their third year are granted up to 100 productive work hours such as shadowing on “a client call where a partner doesn't want to bill your attendance,” creating internal training presentations or writing articles. Juniors can put all 100 of these hours toward reaching the firm's 1,800 billable target, as well as billing an unlimited amount of pro bono hours. “Given all that, 1,800 is more than achievable,” sources told us.
The 1,800 target came into play in 2015; before that the unofficial goal was 1,600 hours. “There was some consternation! 1,600 is ridiculously low for BigLaw but people were expecting a pay rise with the increase to 1,800 and were upset that didn't happen.” But since Cravath increased base salaries in June 2016 and Skadden followed suit, “no-one's complaining any more.”
Twelve-hour days were common occurrences for our sources. “I get in at 9.30am and then stay until anything from midnight to 4am,” proffered one interviewee. “One week I left at 3am, 4am, 8am, 2am. It wasn't fun but I did feel efficient – I didn't spend too much time sitting around not billing anything.”
Culture & Offices
By far the largest concentration of Skadden lawyers reside in the New York office, followed by DC, Chicago and then LA. The firm also has domestic bases in Boston, Houston, Palo Alto and Wilmington.
“Walk through walls for our clients.”
Skadden “gets a reputation for being cutthroat and a sweatshop,” acknowledged one California source who disagreed with this assessment. “Maybe that's the case in New York?” And what did New Yorkers think of that? “I hate hearing it,” one groaned. “Frankly it's not true!” In fact, across the board, most interviewees were keen to dispel the idea of a “ruthless” environment. “It's a firm with high standards and people understand and meet those. Work comes first and we will walk through walls for our clients but at the same time we all have lives and people are respectful of that,” a Chicago source reflected. A Los-Angelite protested: “Skadden LA doesn't deserve the sweatshop label at all.” That being said “this is not the place for people to be afraid of taking care of themselves. You are not super-coddled,” one New Yorker told us, while a colleague elaborated: “The more you take on the more work you get. It's okay to have boundaries. I didn't know that in the beginning and I got a little burned out. You have to be responsible for yourself. It's fast paced and intense.”
While the drive for excellence permeates across offices, our sources did pick up on a few differences between their bases. Several Chicago associates felt their office “reflected the Midwest culture. People are a bit more open and easy to talk to. We recognize everyone has families and other commitments and there has to be a balance.” Of course “there are nights when you're working late but people are grateful for it.” In DC, “people are more likely than those in New York to leave at 6pm and log on from home. In New York they tend to stay later.” The same goes for LA where “people get in sooner and try to leave earlier; we don't have the New York mentality of being in the office late.” LA's smaller size also means “people are more familiar with each other across practice areas” than in larger offices like DC or New York, “and it's a bit more informal and laid back.”
“Excel without being competitive.”
New Yorkers maintained that the vast scale of their office left the culture in the Big Apple “kind of what you make it.” That said, one source told us: “Generally I've been treated respectfully. Friends have worked under those who feel work is the most important thing above anything else happening in someone's life, but people have been supportive and accommodating toward me. I don't feel like my peers are my competitors. Overall we're focused on trying to do a good job and excel without being too competitive.” And on being tied to their desks longer than their counterparts elsewhere? “Skadden's not known for its work-life balance, but to do anything on this level you can't really expect to have one. You have got to work hard to do the best work.”
“Skadden definitely encourages pro bono; we have so many incentives to do it. There are no billable restrictions on it and they all count toward the target which is great if things are slow. As a junior there will inevitably be lulls in deals and whatever spare time you have can be filled with pro bono,” such as clemency petitions, landlord/tenant and asylum matters, assisting non-profits with incorporation, or drafting operating agreements. “It's allowed me to draft more motions than I can count and I've argued half a dozen times in court. I'm basically running the case,” enthused one junior. A corporate associate told of the benefits of using it to widen their skill set. “I tried the litigation side. It really helped maintain my writing and client interviewing skills.”
Pro bono hours
- For all US attorneys: 152,616
- Average per US attorney: 97
“I feel like it's moderately diverse for a big firm, but it's not the most diverse place, especially among the senior attorneys; most of them are white men,” one junior told us. “But the firm is trying to change it.” Chicago, for example, recently brought on a diversity manager to help efforts in the Windy City.
Elsewhere there are numerous events for attorneys to attend. The New York women's group meets once a month “to brainstorm initiatives and discuss what issues women face.” We also heard associates in New York launched a book club co-sponsored by the firm's affinity groups. “For African American month we read Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me and did a close reading of a Beyoncé music video.” Cultural events also took place in LA, where the firm screened historical drama Loving, based on a 1960s Supreme Court case concerning an interracial couple. Skadden holds plenty of other diversity events across the firm; recent sessions included a talk by civil rights activist Connie Rice in DC and a conversation with journalist Soledad O'Brien in New York.
Strategy & Future
“We continue to aspire to be the go-to firm for our clients on their most important legal issues, and to be the go-to firm for top talent. In order to achieve those objectives we need to be in the right markets with the right mix of practices,” executive partner Eric Friedman tells us. That's meant “building out some of our international capabilities,” including Hong Kong and London. The firm also brought on board “Kenji Taneda to build out our Tokyo corporate team and we're continuing to round out some of the international practice depths.”
We interview executive partner Eric Friedman
Chambers Associate: Which practice areas have been particularly active this year or experienced notable growth?
Eric Friedman: We've been active across the board with strong growth in many areas. To drill down on just one example, global government investigations continues to be very active and a practice where we continue to invest in growth. Earlier this year we brought in Steven Kwok who joined us in Hong Kong. He was an assistant US attorney with the Southern District of New York and last posted in the US Embassy in Beijing as the Department of Justice's representative in China.
Elizabeth Robertson joined us a couple of months ago to expand our English-law, white collar government investigation expertise and Tara Reinhart, former head of trials for the Federal Trade Commission, just rejoined us in our Washington DC office. So if you look at three of our most recent lateral partner additions we have continued to focus on building out the strength of our global government enforcement practice.
CA: What's the firm strategy going forward?
EF: It hasn't changed, we continue to aspire to be the go-to firm for our clients on their most important legal issues, and to be the go-to firm for top talent. In order to achieve those objectives we need to be in the right markets with the right mix of practices, which goes back to building out some of our international capabilities. As well as the additions mentioned above, we've hired Kenji Taneda to build out our Tokyo corporate team and we're continuing to round out some of the international practice depths. All of this is designed to help us realize our strategy.
CA: What makes Skadden stand out from its competitors?
EF: Ultimately I think the combination of our culture, excellent client service, innovation and talent development coupled with our mix of practices and geographies. We think we have a unique platform that offers clients expertise in the major financial centers around the world, within a breadth of practices that enables us to deliver the best outcomes for them.
CA: What do you think junior associates should really take advantage of during their first few years at Skadden?
EF: We offer our Associate Comprehensive Education program to our new associates; it's a mix of the way we like things done, the skills beyond a law school education – public speaking, team leadership, matter management – and a mini-MBA all wrapped into one. We start that on day one before they get distracted by client work; it helps them hit the ground running and quickly immerses them in the way we and our clients expect things to get done. From the start we have a keen emphasis on formal training but my broader message for junior attorneys is to be flexible, be proactive and give each project your best effort; performing great work attracts more work, more work means more experience and a quicker development. Don't pigeonhole your expectations or your experience too early in your career. Build a broad foundation, work with different people on different types of projects, build skills, build confidence – doing so will create new opportunities.
CA: Which offices or regions have performed particularly well?
EF: As is the case every year, I never cease to be impressed by the number of "first-of-its-kind" or "largest" deals and significant cases that our attorneys work on. This isn't something a firm can plan for; essentially, it just happens. But we have long been very intentional in working to ensure each of our worldwide offices is well-positioned to achieving the very best client outcomes. In 2016 – to name just a few examples – Skadden advised on:
- The largest debt issuance by a foreign bank into the US
- The first-ever issuance by a foreign commercial bank of Chinese "Panda" bonds
- The fastest billion-dollar prepackaged restructuring in history
- More resolved federal securities cases as defense counsel than any other law firm
- The first and second- largest-ever technology M&A deals
- The largest US IPO of the year
- The largest-ever going-private deal for a Chinese company listed in the US
- A first-of-its-kind summary judgment victory in Southern District of New York
- The first exchange offer in Brazil involving Global Depositary Shares
- The largest US healthcare IPO in nearly two years
- Some of the world's largest and most complex commercial and investment treaty disputes
- The year's largest share capital increase in the French stock markets
- The largest bankruptcy filed in 2016
- The largest-ever unitranche debt facility in Europe
- The largest European capital markets debt restructuring in recent history
- The largest semiconductor deal of the year
I'm proud of these achievements for our clients – and as you might guess, I'm looking forward to the 2017 list!
Recruitment at Skadden
Recruitment at Skadden kicks off pre-OCI when the firm begins its campus outreach to first-year law students. “We may send people to campuses to host lectures on certain topics, co-teach a class, participate in interview training, set up social events or make use of our affinity group connections,” hiring partner Howard Ellin tells us. “We have an open invite for rising 2Ls to come meet people in our offices and several hundred take up the offer every year to attend a reception. After that we're happy to work with them in terms of what makes sense for interviewing, to getting the process started so that it can proceed as smoothly as possible. Some schools prefer us not to interview their candidates before OCIs while others are happy for us to do it, so the process is a little bit varied.”
If you're attending one of these cocktail events the firm is looking for “no one thing in particular,” Ellin says. “We're all trying to gain knowledge about each other to start the process rather than sitting there thinking about rigid criteria.” Regardless of whether you meet the firm here or during the OCI season recruiters are “very much focused on whether candidates are really interested in working for us and the work we're doing,” says Ellin. “Know why you're applying to us and what you want.”
We asked associates with recruiting experience about their thoughts on who's coming through the door. “I think Skadden attracts people who are a little bit more coarse and brash – I don't mean offensive but people are not the most quiet or subdued,” one source told us. “The type of people who do well here are those who have a certain level of intensiveness and directness to them.” We can't comment on how well those people do but we certainly found them among our interviewees at the firm, coming across many who didn't bother to sugar coat things: “You need the ability to work well with others; you can be the best in your school but if everyone hates you at law school you won't be able to fit in here.” Another told us: “You will not make it at Skadden if you are not driven, diligent and a self-starter.”
That's the don'ts, now onto the dos. One associate with recruiting experience told us of being impressed by “someone who goes above and beyond. That can entail different things for different people – for some they've taken the hardest classes and done well, others have worked on the law review, done moot courts, externships or clinics. The second thing I'm looking at is how you talk about your experience. Can you discuss it intelligently and tell me what you learned and took from it? We need people who can both do the work at Skadden and learn from their experience. It's not good if you have someone with a great resume but they can't talk about it or they're arrogant.” It also works in your favor to “show you've done your research, know what we're strong in and know who are the movers and shakers in a group,” said another.
Go to chambersandpartners.com for a full run down of who's big in what. Our source also likes those “who seem excited. I remember how people make me feel, not what they said. I'm already so busy that if someone is low energy and the talk is dull I just feel kind of 'eurgh'.”
Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP & Affiliates
Four Times Square,
- Head Office: New York, NY
- Number of domestic offices: 8
- Number of international offices: 14
- Partners (US): 297
- Counsel (US): 203
- Associates (US): 852
- Summer Salary 2017
- 1Ls: $3,500/week
- 2Ls: $3,500/week
- 1Ls hired? Yes - Skadden 1L Scholars Program
- Split summers offered? Yes – splits must spend at least 8 weeks with Skadden for first half
- Can summers spend time in overseas office? Case by case
- Summers 2017: 216
- Offers/acceptances 2015: 188 offers, 163 acceptances, 13 offers open for 2018 or later