Tough-as-nails Skadden provides the perfect setup for hard-working associates to blossom.
FOUNDED in 1948, Skadden spent the second half of the 20th century honing a shrewd commercial approach that set the precedent for BigLaw as we now know it. Capitalizing on the M&A boom of the freewheeling 1980s, the New York firm commanded high fees on corporate transactions by bringing Wall Street tactics into the boardroom, garnering a reputation for ruthless pragmatism and hard work that left clients counting their blessings, and Skadden counting the zeros.
Seen to be muddying the ever so white shoes of its market-leading competitors, the firm's modus operandi attracted some controversy, but was undeniably effective. Skadden now stands as one of the most revered and powerful brands on the legal circuit – a standing that was further bolstered in 2015 when it became the first ever firm to manage over $1 trillion worth of announced M&A deals in a calendar year. Its continued knack for success has seen it top Chambers USA for the number of first-class rankings it notches up, covering over 30 practice areas.
"You'll get more of an education here than you ever got at law school.”
Perhaps mellowing in its golden years, associates at the firm assured us that “the outdated assumption of Skadden as a big bad institution couldn't be further from the truth.” Admittedly, “you're expected to go to great lengths to keep clients happy, so the hours can be challenging,” but with that comes an acceptance that “to keep standards high the working environment needs to be functional. Sniping at one another is not conducive to that, so we're not the sort to engage in office politics.”
The hours may be tough, but considering the profile of clients, complexity of deals and “headline-grabbing cases” passing through Skadden's doors, “you'll get more of an education here than you ever got at law school.” Crucially, juniors felt that such an education set them up for an excellent career trajectory, wherever that may take them. The brand weight had associates “batting off headhunters,” but what really impressed was the fact that “the firm is realistic about partnership opportunities. What you'll get here is the opportunity to work hard and make some excellent contacts, and when you decide that you'd like to make a career move the firm couldn't be more supportive.”
Most newbies join Skadden's corporate & transactional group, where before deciding where to specialize those in New York have the opportunity pull two nine-month shifts in teams such as banking, corporate restructuring, finance, investment management, and M&A. Other offices offer more general corporate practices rather than a formal rotation. A handful of novices also slot into litigation & controversy or regulatory (which includes tax), though there's no rotation option in these groups.
"We learn by drinking from the fire hydrant!"
Wherever rookies end up they'll have access to a centralized work allocation system within their department, though it is worth pointing out that in smaller teams “people are more likely to just knock on the door and see if you've got capacity.” That's not to say that the same doesn't happen in larger groups such as M&A, but according to one dealmaker “most of our work comes through our group's assigning attorney. They'll meet up with you to see what you've got on and then spend ages making sure that workloads are balanced and cater to individual interests.”
“When it comes to the work itself, we learn by drinking from the fire hydrant,” one interviewee joked. “The hours are long and hard,” but any pressure comes “not from partners” but “from the cerebral challenge of the high-stakes work we take on.” Far from serving as small cogs in the corporate machine, sources felt “encouraged to reach out for help,” spurring a rate of development that “would be much slower without the intensity we experience here.” Greater responsibility is usually afforded on more nominal tasks, with juniors hinting: “It's inversely proportional to the size of the matter at hand.” That being said, “you bite off as much as you can chew, as partners do monitor you to see what you're capable of and how quickly you can advance onto more complex tasks."
Training & Development
To give them the confidence to go forth and prosper, Skadden's starters are immediately enrolled into the firm's four-week mini MBA program. It welcomes newcomers worldwide to New York for three days' briefing and a welcome dinner, all of which juniors found “really useful going forward, as you gain contacts in different offices from the get-go.” Thereafter, they head back to their home offices for the remainder of the program, which covers issues such as “financial modeling, marketing a business and reading financial statements.” Post-Fullbridge, associates are given a comprehensive heads-up on all things Skadden practice areas, core values, expectations and resources – thanks to a two-week stint on the firm's Associates Comprehensive Education program.
"You gain contacts in different offices from the get-go.”
Respondents found six weeks of initial training “somewhat of an overload,” but agreed that “it demonstrates a commitment to our learning.” Further down the line, group-specific training sessions are staged, and rookies receive annual reviews (biannual in their first year). Interviewees did “appreciate having the opportunity to formally address any issues," but added that “partners here are extremely busy, so unless you're in a really small group you won't get a ton of informal feedback. It'd be nice to have more guidance on how our performance could affect our partnership prospects.”
The one thing that is for certain is that Skadden offers far fewer partnership promotions than associate hires. The firm's “refreshingly honest approach” toward this trend means that “there's no bullshit pretense that you'll make partner and live out the rest of your days here. Skadden's aim is to hire the best candidates to do great work before helping them jump onto the next opportunity.” Such support comes in the form of “sit-down sessions to produce five-year career plans” as well as “regularly updated job opportunities and alumni contact information posted on the intranet.”
Hours & Compensation
“More often than not you'll have something to do over the weekend.”
“When I speak to my friends from law school who are now practicing in other firms, I'm definitely leading the hours race,” one source revealed. For those in the Empire State, that means that “working until 10pm is pretty common,” with a late night defined as “anything after midnight.” Elsewhere one DC rookie moaned: “More often than not you'll have something to do over the weekend,” and interviewees in a number of different offices provided whispered accounts of “sleep-under-your-desk nights.” Be that as it may, “you'll never be asked to stay unnecessarily.” As one junior reasoned, “I have friends elsewhere who've been asked to stay until two on the off-chance that they'll be needed. No one would dare pull that here.” All the same, “the hours are undeniably long and doing them is different from reading about them. Bear that in mind!”
Skadden's hours target was recently increased from 1,600 to 1,800, and in June 2016 the firm raised the first-year salary to $180,000.
At Skadden, partners and senior associates hold “high expectations when it comes to quality of work.” Granted, as a fresh face you're bound to have a few stumbles, but newer associates were confident that “even if you were underperforming, I doubt people would be nasty or undermining. They'd probably just talk to you informally about the firm's expectations, and see if there was anything you wanted to discuss.” In fact, juniors in offices nationwide were keen to highlight a “lack of shouting” as one of the firm's true selling points. Of course, “it can be tempting to panic when last-minute assignments fall on your desk,” but “the engrained reaction is for everyone to pull together to ensure that the client gets what they're looking for. They're relying on us to provide in the heat of the moment.”
“Even if you were underperforming, I doubt people would be nasty or undermining."
To avoid such panic, you're going to need a good planner and the wherewithal to keep it up to date: “My colleagues here are some of the brightest people I've ever met,” gushed one interviewee, “but they're also some of the most organized.” A deal-doer added: “On a lot of deals one of my tasks was to keep updated document checklists to keep tabs on what stage everything is at. After a few months I found myself keeping similar checklists on other matters, even if I hadn't been asked to. It puts all of the work you're doing into context, maximizes your efficiency and helps to reduce your stress.”
“Skadden really takes pro bono seriously,” trumpeted one junior. “I was skeptical at my OCI because it's a claim that everyone tends to throw about, but there really are some good incentives to get involved here.” Pro bono counts hour-for-hour toward associates' hours target, and an award ceremony is thrown each year to recognize the firm's most prolific do-gooders. “There have been points where billing work has been slow, so I've put in a ton of pro bono hours to compensate,” recounted another source. “We're expected to do that instead of waiting for work to fall on our desk.” Opportunities are both transactional and litigious, with sources having drafted organizational documents for NPEs (nonprofit entities), helped on guardian ad litem cases for children in custody disputes, and represented victims of human trafficking.
"There really are some good incentives to get involved here.”
Pro bono hours
Like many law firms, Skadden's upper echelons could be more diverse, but at junior and mid levels diversity efforts were unanimously praised. As one ethnically diverse associate put it, “sometimes the challenges you face are overblown and sometimes they are very real. A lack of shared cultural references could in some circumstances hold you back, but Skadden acknowledges that and stages talks from high-standing partners with similar backgrounds. We'll discuss things like expectations of our parents versus your average American parents, and explore how that could affect your work. I really didn't expect Skadden to facilitate that dialogue.” “People here may be under stress, but their own identity is never the source.”
Like many law firms, Skadden's upper echelons could be more diverse, but at junior and mid levels diversity efforts were unanimously praised. As one ethnically diverse associate put it, “sometimes the challenges you face are overblown and sometimes they are very real. A lack of shared cultural references could in some circumstances hold you back, but Skadden acknowledges that and stages talks from high-standing partners with similar backgrounds. We'll discuss things like expectations of our parents versus your average American parents, and explore how that could affect your work. I really didn't expect Skadden to facilitate that dialogue.”
“People here may be under stress, but their own identity is never the source.”
The firm also hosts a wide range of affinity groups. Beyond representing women, ethnic minority groups and LGBT attorneys, there are also groups for veterans and parents. “People here may be under stress, but their own identity is never the source.”
Skadden's strong diversity showing is boosted by a widely cast net during hiring. “The firm was founded by a bunch of Jewish guys who couldn't get white shoe jobs back in the day,” regaled one keen historian. “There are a lot of concrete signifiers of that today. Skadden recruits well outside of the top 15 law schools, so as long as you're top of your class, you'll always be in with a shot.”
"Skadden recruits well outside of the top 15 law schools."
With spotless client service the name of the game, Skadden would-bes are advised to run all applications under the microscope before hitting the send button. “If I see a typo on a resume it's a huge red flag,” revealed one associate who'd helped with recruiting. “It shows a lack of attention to detail, which is absolutely fundamental if you want to get anywhere at Skadden.” Equally important is the ability to impress clients, so “if the conversation falls dead at interview or you're the type to eat marinara with your hands, you may want to look elsewhere.”
Strategy & Future
When strategy came into conversation, interviewees expressed frustration at Skadden's reticence to show its hand. “We'd like there to be a little more transparency when it comes to big decisions,” said several interviewees. “When our hours targets were changed I ended up hearing about it via Google.”
“We'd like there to be a little more transparency when it comes to big decisions.”
So what does executive partner Eric Friedman feel the future holds for Skadden? “Our key focus has always been to secure great client outcomes,” he says. “The continued growth of our practice and geographic reach is what helps us deliver the best possible service, and we'll continue to take that approach in the years ahead.” Looking to delve a little deeper, we wondered if he had any key areas in mind. We didn't hear of any immediate plans, but were assured: "We're continually looking to develop our resources and tap into new opportunities if they'll benefit our clients.”
Bottom-dollar blues: Skadden's new productive hours target
Following a minimum hours requirement increase from 1,600 to 1,800 hours, Skadden's associates had plenty to say on the subject. “Had we not all been expecting a pay bump then the hours raise wouldn't have come as such a surprise,” one rookie nagged. “Bonuses may have grown, but salaries have remained the same since 2008. In the face of an improving market, Skadden's looking very strong and very busy. When the firm called a big meeting in New York, everyone was expecting good news.”
“It's not that anyone has an issue racking up 1,800 hours,” another junior continued. “Most of us area already billing well over that, and if the firm saw a pay rise as too generous then it could have instead implemented a variable bonus structure to account for people billing way over 2,000.” Considering the cost of living, New York was unsurprisingly the source of most of the moaning. None of our sources welcomed the news, but a respondent based in one of Skadden's smaller offices did scoff: “There has definitely been some bellyaching in the media about it all. I do have friends who think it's a dumb move, but we get paid a lot of money and 1,800 hours is still quite low considering our salary. In our office we saw some of the quotes floating about on the internet and passed it around to laugh at the entitled New York kids!”
What does executive partner Eric Friedman make of all the commotion? “To ensure they are bonus eligible, associates need to amass a combined 1,800 productive hours a year," he explains. "This can consist of billable and pro bono work, as well as up to 100 hours of thought leadership, business development, knowledge management or shadowing. We shifted from a 1,600 billable hours requirement to an 1,800 productive hours requirement because attorneys wanted more exposure to those types of activities, and for their efforts in those areas to be recognized and valued. It's not tied to a theoretical change in our structure. It's just a shift that takes into account the various contributions of associates. In a very busy environment, we consider 1,800 productive hours a target that is both fair and manageable."
Addressing associates' frustration, we questioned whether structured bonus targets would be added for high billers. “From our clients' perspective we do not believe that it would be appropriate to make a linear connection between bonus opportunity and intensity of hours," he answers. "Any additional bonus compensation will be performance-based. We want to see associates producing good quality work, being responsive, enthusiastic about providing the best possible service to clients, and having a supportive attitude toward both clients and Skadden colleagues.”
For years after the global financial crisis, there was little more than a whisper in Biglaw about salary rises. The last rise was in January 2007 when Simpson Thacher provided a $15k bump for first-years, setting the BigLaw standard at $160,000. The best part of a decade later, in June 2016 Cravath announced it was increasing associate salaries, with first-years getting $180,000 and second-years $190,000. Skadden and other BigLaw rivals quickly matched Cravath.
Skadden employs around 1,700 lawyers across 22 offices worldwide. Eight are based in the US – Boston, Chicago, DC, Houston, LA, New York, Palo Alto, and Wilmington – with another 14 stretching over 12 jurisdictions and four different continents. A number of our sources had visited sister offices, both domestic and further afield.
The New York mothership is in Times Square, a location that “may sound great, but can actually be quite chaotic. When you've pulled a 14-hour day the last thing you need is to be hassled by a street performer dressed as Elmo.” Fortunately the office lease expires in 2020, and Skadden has already arranged to move to newly-built digs in Manhattan's West side. “All of the institutional admin – IT, time management, client billing, etc. – is run out of New York,” but beyond that rookies nationwide concurred: “Each individual office has the autonomy to bring in its own work and pursue its own niches based on the local business landscape. When it comes to strategy, no one is waiting for New York to give them a tap on the shoulder.”
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): 310
- Counsel (US): 175
- Associates (US): 852
- Summer Salary 2016
- 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 2016: 215 (2 3L, 180 2L, 33 1L)
- Offers/acceptances 2015: 191 offers, 157 acceptances, 20 offers open for 2017 or later
Main areas of work
Antitrust, banking, complex mass torts/insurance litigation, corporate finance, corporate restructuring, energy and infrastructure projects, executive compensation and benefits, financial institutions, intellectual property and technology, investment management, litigation (including international arbitration, patent litigation and white collar crime), mergers and acquisitions, real estate, regulatory, structured finance, tax, trusts and estates.
Skadden attorneys work on bet-the-company issues around the world for leading Fortune 500 corporations, financial institutions, governments and cultural, educational and charitable organizations. Communication and expertise across our offices enable us to provide unparalleled service to our clients. Our attorneys, spread among 23 interconnected offices around the world, are engaged in more than 60 practice areas, many of which are specialized. We also encourage pro bono work, providing chargeable time credit. With fostering professional growth as a primary goal, our attorney development partners and Training Committee ensure that associates receive appropriate training and mentoring from the start of their careers. Our Diversity Committee promotes crosscultural appreciation and competency through diversity and inclusion seminars, lunches, and our Facets diversity publication and lecture series. Our widely regarded summer associate program is designed to provide substantive practical skills training, exposure to various practices, as well as a sense of what it is like to be an attorney at Skadden.
• Number of 1st year associates: 185
• Number of 2nd year associates: 170
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $180,000
• 2nd year: $190,000
• Clerking policy: Yes
Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2016:
Berkeley, Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, Michigan, NYU, Northwestern, Penn, Stanford, Texas, UCLA, USC, Vanderbilt, Virginia, Yale
Summer associate profile:
The breadth of our practice and the success it has enjoyed is largely due to the capabilities of our attorneys. We look for candidates who combine intellectual ability with enthusiasm and creativity. Successful candidates display high academic achievement in their law school and undergraduate education. Law Journal and/or Moot Court participation are preferred.
Summer program components:
One of the most comprehensive programs of its kind, our Summer Associate Program (offered in our Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Palo Alto, Washington, DC, Wilmington, London, Hong Kong, Toronto and Tokyo offices) drives our hiring efforts. Summer Associates are assigned to active deals and litigations, providing them with work experiences similar to those of full time associates. For more information visit: www.skadden.com/recruiting.