Snell & Wilmer LLP - The Inside View

Phoenix-born Snell spreads its wings over the Southwest, and associates here feel they have a real shot at making partner one day.

WHAT sounds more exciting – the raffish party town of Vegas, the glitz of LA, or perhaps the endless sunshine of Arizona? All three plus Colorado and Utah (and Mexico) provide a home to Snell & Wilmer attorneys. Associates were quick to sing the praises of their home city, Phoenix: “The location is terrific, we're downtown but on the outskirts so the traffic isn't crazy. The top floor of the building has amazing conference rooms with beautiful city views.”

Chairman Matt Feeney is clear that new recruits should slot comfortably into Snell's Southwest vibe. “Our credo is a focus on clients, our communities and each other,” he says. “With new associates, the first topic of conversation is always culture.” It's the “no-jerk” culture that drew many of our sources here, and “the sense that people really care about each other.” Also attractive were “amazing opportunities to work on business development,” and realistic partnership chances further down the line. Chambers USA hands out top rankings for the firm's corporate, real estate and environment work in Arizona, and commercial litigation both here and in Utah.

The Work

Snell's Phoenix HQ runs an open market system within practice areas, where “the emphasis is on the associate to manage their own schedule and seek out work.” Juniors agreed this “usually works fairly well. It takes some adjusting to, but you can find people you work well with and keep going back to them. One of the nice things is if you end up working with partners you don’t like, you don't have to go back.” Litigators reported some dips in work availability, but “it's managed well, and there's normally more than enough.” In smaller offices, work came directly from the top down. “It’s great because we get to handle ground floor stuff that's really important for training purposes.”

Industry specific sub-groups within commercial litigation include financial services, securities, product liability, election & political law, and natural resources. Enjoying “a good balance of smaller companies and Fortune 500 clients,” associates saw “everything from breach of contract and shareholder disputes to trusts litigation; it spans the spectrum.” First-years got stuck into “a lot of research and memo writing. There's some document review, but not a lot. As you get more senior you turn to more discovery-related tasks and take a stab at drafting motions. If you can handle it, you're off to the races!” Litigation's cyclical nature didn't faze gutsy juniors, who were typically “busy enough to pick and choose work. Things have never been so crazy you can't handle it.” Some felt litigators “need to be assertive” to get invaluable client contact, which varied by case.

“Things have never been so crazy that you can't handle it.”

Corporate attorneys “do a lot of middle-market M&A work.” With “a lot of substantive experience early on,” tasks might include “drafting ancillary documents and some lighter drafting on main purchase agreements,” as well as inescapable due diligence: “That's just what juniors do!” Increasing responsibility comes sooner rather than later: “They want you to interact with clients and manage deals as much as possible.” That doesn't mean being thrown to the wolves: one associate got “the sense they're trying to train me up by not just giving me super junior stuff.”

The labor & employment team typically sees “clients with large employee bases. We get involved with ICE investigations [Homeland Security] and I-9 procedures [eligibility to work in US].Days may revolve around “switching between drafting letters and memos, and doing legal research into federal guidance on an issue. Workload varies, but the trick in our practice area is to remain calm and realize things even out over time.” Over in real estate, juniors had tackled “anything from drafting complaints and development agreements to, rarely, document review. I have as much responsibility as I want but they don't ever put me in a situation I'm not comfortable in.” Work often crosses between practice groups and offices.


All newcomers have an office to themselves in Phoenix, and enjoy “a really nice location. The decorations are a little old and outdated, with an '80s Arizona desert feel, but the views are great,” with associates facing either South or Camelback Mountain. They're also treated to “funky, fun local art pieces,” attributed to a former partner. Other offices were similarly happy – Orange County voiced “no complaints” after a recent renovation – and reported a fair amount of collaboration with close neighbors (like LA with OC, and Denver with Salt Lake City). “Emails asking you to greet people who are visiting” fostered community feeling, and though “Phoenix is definitely the flagship,” associates felt “being elsewhere doesn't limit who you get to know at the firm.”

Culture & Diversity

The “notorious no jerk rule, a backbone of the firm,” means “everybody is happy to be here, and many partners and senior attorneys have come from ground level up. We're not all best friends but they do care professionally about younger associates.” Formality is a Snell tradition, from omnipresent suits and ties to “a serious mood – it's professional but not cold.” Some interviewees felt “the culture is changing a bit, and there's more pressure to be thinking about billing and business development,” but there was fun to be had too, particularly during summer associate season. Phoenix juniors tried their luck at a popular annual Hallowe'en casino night – “everyone wears costumes” – while other offices had traditions ranging from white water rafting in Colorado to harbor boat cruises for Californian attorneys.

“They're trying to help you grow as an attorney.”

At associate roundtables, “questions are submitted anonymously, and management answer in front of everybody.” Most subsequently had “faith in them to be transparent; they generally keep us apprised.” A few associates felt transparency was “a huge issue, and a lot of times we don't know what's going on at the top.” In a more general sense, though, partners were praised for “really investing in young associates. They're trying to help you grow as an attorney and take on more responsibility.” Juniors also unanimously commended the firm for laying out “a clear partner track: from day one they talk about it as a realistic possibility if you step up to the plate and develop your practice.”

Interviewees gave the thumbs up to the Women's Initiative for providing “multiple options for flexible schedules, and ramp up/down periods where you can remain on the partnership track without typical hour goals.” Snell is no stranger to typical BigLaw diversity issues: “The firm's going in the right direction, but it's not super-diverse with minorities.” Sources agreed: “Female representation at the top is still lagging, but people are very concerned about recruitment and retention of diverse and female attorneys.” The firm tells us it has a program that addresses these issues, as well as advancement. There's also a student diversity scholarship available (FAR program).

Training & Development

Initial associate orientation is followed by “practice-group specific trainings, developing skills and getting exposure to new kinds of work.” Universally happy with the levels of training, sources particularly valued the firm's business development portal, which chairman Matt Feeney told us has been “beefed up” recently. Annual evaluations with “everybody in the group evaluating your strengths and weaknesses” helped associates determine where they stood, though everyday feedback was typically seen as more helpful. “When I started there was a lot of one-to-one help, over time that's decreased but if I have questions everyone's willing to answer.” 150 hours of training and shadowing can be counted toward the billable target by first-years.

Hours & Compensation

With typical days running 8am to 6pm for most, “you absolutely have time for a private life.” Longer hours cropped up around trial period, but associates stressed “we don't have set hours. If you want to get out at 5pm, you may need to do weekend work; if you're more flexible, you might never have to.” Flexibility extended to vacation, for which there is no formal policy. “It's a matter of managing your workload to find time,” but some eager beavers needed encouragement – “they were pushing me to take time off. I didn't listen!”

“If you're working hard that's factored in.”

While 2,000 billable hours represent the “aspirational target” for all associates, actual bonus-eligibility now varies by office, ranging from 1,800 (Reno, Vegas, SLC, Tucson) to 1,950 (California). Most thought “you can hit it while maintaining a work/life balance, particularly when you gain more experience. But partners recognize they can't blame you for lack of work opportunities.” Snell's closed compensation system attracted mixed feedback – some “would appreciate more transparency to know what's expected and how things are rewarded.” Others “really like the idea, if you're working hard that's factored in.” One summarized: “I wouldn't be opposed to open compensation, but I think the closed system is pretty fair. Levels seem comparable even if nobody publicizes it.”

Pro Bono

Associates were unanimous in registering “a huge push for pro bono – they encourage you to do 50 hours, and it counts unlimited toward billables.” First-years were particularly happy to throw themselves in. One had “billed a couple of hundred pro bono hours. When you're younger that's great, but they want to see older associates focusing on paid work.” Early opportunities for client contact through pro bono were invaluable, something “the firm definitely encouraged.” Cases varied from immigrant and asylum cases to tenancy issues, and more specialist options including “helping a local impoverished children's charity with its employee handbooks.” Given a plethora of choice, “it's up to attorneys to find what they're interested in,” and though some found little that they wanted to pursue, they put this more down to personal preferences than lack of options.

“It's up to attorneys to find what they're interested in.”

Pro bono hours

  • For all US attorneys: 14,085
  • Average per US attorney: 34.28

Strategy & Future

“Our expansion plans right now continue to focus on our existing offices first and foremost,” chairman Matt Feeney highlights. “Two offices in particular with a lot of opportunities are Denver and Los Angeles.” Walking the walk to back up the talk, “we increased the size of our summer associate program this year, a trend not embraced by all law firms.” Meanwhile, cross-pollinating work between practice areas represents a new-found strategy for the firm going forward. “We're now focusing on work moving from group to group and getting pretty good at breaking down geographical boundaries as part of that. It's been very eye-opening.”

Interview with chairman Matt Feeney

Chambers Associate: As an introduction, what's been the most exciting thing that the firm has done over the past year?

Matt Feeney: We've continued building on what we believe is an historical strength of Snell & Wilmer: we are a relationship-based firm. We remain committed to building and deepening relationships with our clients, our communities, and with each other. We've seen a lot of progress in all three areas over the past year. Focusing internally, we're still committed to organic growth. We increased the size of our summer associate program this year, a trend not embraced by all law firms. Our goal is to develop associates into self-sustaining partners, which requires a strong focus on career development. We have an online “Career Development Portal” that has extensive resources for building business and substantive legal skills for our associates. We're very excited about that, and beefed it up over the past 12 months. We also have a dedicated Attorney Development Committee, consisting of associates and partners throughout the firm, which identifies issues of concerns to our associates and recommends specific solutions to our Executive Committee. We take those recommendations very seriously.

I'd also say we're excited about our renewed focus on practice groups as our primary business units, and giving group leaders new tools to better manage their teams. Lastly on the internal side, we're focusing relentlessly on becoming more efficient in delivering legal successes. That includes analyzing efficiencies down to client level, focusing on thoughtful staffing of matters, and taking a hard look at our space requirements as our leases permit. At Snell & Wilmer, we have a strong value proposition for larger clients who see our cost structure as very attractive, with great lawyers able to deliver services at favorable rates compared to other larger national firms.

CA: Last year you suggested you're keeping an eye on the Texas market for potential expansion, any developments with that or any other expansion plans?

MF: Our expansion plans right now continue to focus on our existing offices first and foremost. Two offices in particular with a lot of opportunities are Denver and Los Angeles, but we're also looking elsewhere. With respect to Texas, we're still having conversations with firms there in order to establish a presence, but we haven't found the right fit yet. We've been close but for a variety of reasons it hasn't moved forward, though Texas is still on our radar going forward.

CA: Beyond that, what's the firm's general strategy for the next few years?

MF: Our focus has always been straightforward. We look for excellent lawyers who are also good people. If your firm has the right people you can focus on the right things, which are first and foremost building strong relationships with existing and potential clients. If we do that, we will inevitably be successful. We like our regional footprint and think we can serve our clients well from it. We provide significant support to our practice groups and continue to look for future growth opportunities through new practice areas – autonomous vehicles, battery storage, and drones come to mind. Of our existing groups, our natural resources practice in particular has seen continued growth, as well as IP prosecution and litigation. In the last year, we’ve seen a lot of growth in cybersecurity – earlier this year we had an important addition in James Melendres, formerly with the Department of Justice, who's been very busy; we've found cybersecurity is an area our clients have a lot of interest in. They recognize there are two types of companies: those that have been breached and those that will be breached, and want to understand how to prepare for that. Financial services litigation is also seeing a lot of growth, as a lot of institutions appreciate the way we handle their litigation matters.

CA: How much of the firm's work is done by multiple offices in collaboration, and how do you keep close connections between them?

MF: That's an excellent question. A tool we recently developed is tracking the work traded among our practice groups; we call it our import/export chart. On a monthly basis, practice group leaders see who their best “internal clients” are on a practice group – by – practice group basis. In my area, corporate and securities, we know on a monthly basis how many hours are 'delivered' by other practice groups to our group and how many hours we deliver to other practice groups. Our practice groups are our business units, and we're now focusing on work moving from group to group and getting pretty good at breaking down geographical boundaries as part of that effort. Leaders work across all offices, and tracking the work that's going in and out of them has been eye opening.

CA: How do you try to ensure the firm's culture remains consistent even as it grows and expands?

MF: I'm a firm believer that you have to continue to beat the drum of culture incessantly. While many firms have backed away from holding annual retreats, we haven't – bringing everybody together to talk about what makes Snell & Wilmer what it is, is critical. A saying we use a lot is that if you have a firm bound together solely by dollars, you don't have a law firm at all; you have a collection of sole practitioners. When you are bound together by shared values, you have a real law firm. We celebrate our culture, which is defined by our credo, focusing on our commitment to clients, our communities, and each other.

When we compensate our partners we ask them what they have done in those three categories. When you align compensation with firm values, it strongly reinforces the culture, but you need to keep talking about it as well. There's a lot of change in law firms right now, with people leaving for other opportunities, and you can't assume folks coming in know the culture. At our new associate orientation, where we spend the better part of a week in Phoenix, the first topic of conversation is always culture.

CA: Many associates we spoke to praised the firm for providing realistic chances of making partner. How do you ensure the partner track is clearly laid out?

MF: It's a difficult thing to do because there has to be a subjective element in the process by its very nature. As much as we all would like to say “here are the boxes to check”, it doesn't work that way. So what we do on the first day an associate joins us is to tell them that our goal is to make them a self-sustaining partner. We want people to develop their careers here, hence the Career Development Portal, and if you talk about these concepts early on, associates gain a focus on building relationships in the firm, with clients, and with the community. You have to give associates opportunities to feel like they're part of an integrated firm, and teach them how to go out and build relationships. For example, that extends to giving them dollars to take people out to lunch and ballgames. I feel good that we try hard to support associate business development, and I think they believe we're trying to make everybody successful.

CA: Finally, if you could give one piece of advice to a student looking to go into the law, what would it be?

MF: Focus on relationships, because we are in a relationship business. Building connections is the way to be successful as a lawyer, and successful and happy in life.

Get Hired

Like many other firms, OCIs for Snell & Wilmer are typically geared more towards personality than legal skills or experience. “Resumes often speak for themselves, you often learn a lot more about candidates asking about their interests than how well they did in their first year.” Our sources who had conducted interviews for the firm suggested “they're more of a friendly conversation, definitely not structured. I focus on 'can I see this person fitting in? Will they work hard but ask questions? Will they get involved in activities and be a positive part of the firm?'This focus was even more true at the callback stage, as “the assumption is if they've gotten a callback, they're qualified enough.”

Practical experience was highlighted as crucial, judicial clerkships and writing for journals consideredgood examples. One associate suggested “a lot of people don't take the time between undergraduate and law school to build practice experience. Make the most of your summers to work in an industry and get that experience.” Given Snell's focus on an open partner track, it's unsurprising that “people think things like business development are very favorable, but others are very adamant on grades and percentages.”

The firm's open market system means it's “very interested in individuals who are internally motivated and like an entrepreneur, who are willing to do the necessary internal marketing to thrive within the system.” Nonetheless, a less bookish source believed “the best advice is to have a standout fun personality, if you do it will leak out.” When looking for which firm fits you, culture-proud Snell & Wilmer associates had this advice. “A lot of larger firms have similar clients and capabilities. The culture was something I tried to pay attention to, gleam anything you can in that sense.”

The Valley of the Sun

Everybody loves a nice hot day, right? The Phoenix Metropolitan Area – otherwise known as the Valley of the Sun –  is seriously sunny most of the year. Midsummer, the average peaks above 100°F, and the highest on record was a scorching 122°F. For those who can take the heat, Phoenix is an exciting place to be a lawyer. Not only are you guaranteed beautiful weather, but the city's one of the fastest growing in the country.

Since the turn of the millennium, the Metropolitan Area's population has jumped by more than 1.3 million to become one of the 15 largest in the States. After troubled times during the recession, Phoenix has bounced back to rank fifth nationally for economic growth. The city may be booming, but nearby natural wonders remain unspoiled, including the Camelback and South Mountain which can both be seen from Snell & Wilmer's HQ.

Early sunrises mean Phoenix can be “more of an early morning place,” so coffee might be essential! Attorneys from out of state would also be wise to note that sunny Arizona is the only state to not observe Daylight Savings Time, effectively alternating between Mountain and Pacific time. Associates we spoke to weren't deterred, and found “collaboration is fairly routine” between the firm's offices once they'd navigated the trick time differences.

Snell & Wilmer LLP

One Arizona Center,
400 East Van Buren Street ,
AZ 85004-2202

  • Head Office: Phoenix, AZ
  • Number of domestic offices: 8
  • Number of international offices: 1
  • Partners (US): 210
  • Associates (US): 147
  • Summer Salary 2017  
  • 1Ls: $2,211-$3,077/week
  • 2Ls: $2,211-$3,077/week
  • Post 3Ls: $2,211-$3,077/week
  • 1Ls hired? Case-by-case
  • Split summers offered? Case by case 
  • Can summers spend time in overseas office? No
  • Summers 2017: 23 
  • Offers/acceptances 2016: 29 offers, 26 acceptances

Main areas of work
Appellate, banking, bankruptcy, business and finance, class action, commercial litigation, construction, election and political law, emerging businesses, employee benefits and executive compensation, environmental and natural resources, estate planning and taxation, financial services and securities, franchise, government investigations/criminal defense and government related litigation, healthcare, intellectual property, international, labor, mergers and acquisitions, municipal finance, professional liability, product liability, professional liability and tort liability, public utilities, legislation and real estate/land use.

Firm profile
Founded in 1938, Snell & Wilmer is a full service business law firm with more than 400 lawyers practicing in nine locations throughout the western United States and in Mexico, including Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona; Los Angeles and Orange County, California; Denver, Colorado; Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Los Cabos, Mexico. The firm represents clients ranging from large, publicly traded corporations to small businesses, individuals and entrepreneurs. Snell & Wilmer and its lawyers have been recognized by clients and peers for exceptional legal skills, ethical and exemplary business practices with various distinguished awards.

Recruitment details
• Number of 1st year associates: 24 • Number of 2nd year associates: 13
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $115,000 - $160,000
• Clerking policy: Yes

Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2017:
Arizona State University; Brigham Young University; Notre Dame; University of Arizona; University of California Irvine; UCLA; University of Colorado; University of Denver; University of Iowa; University of Kansas; University of San Diego; University of Nevada Las Vegas; University of Southern California; University of Utah; Vanderbilt; Virginia; Pepperdine; Loyola Los Angeles; Washington University in St Louis; University of Michigan

Summer details
Summer associate profile:

Snell & Wilmer seeks candidates who not only demonstrate high academic achievement, but also are social, energetic, unique, genuine, motivated, have a sense of humor, and enjoy working with their friends and colleagues and are committed to their communities. We desire diverse individuals who want to resolve new and exciting legal challenges, who enjoy working as part of a team and who will uphold our valued firm culture. In other words, we want great people who will become great lawyers.

Summer program components:

The firm appoints several senior associates to coordinate the program and assign summer associate projects. In addition, each summer associate is assigned a mentor, a partner reader and a reality partner. Summer associate mentors are responsible for making the summer a positive experience for each summer associate. Partner readers provide invaluable feedback on two written assignments a summer associate completes. The “Reality Snell & Wilmer” program matches summer associates with a partner who brings them into other cases and transactions, as needed, to simulate the day-to-day reality of working as an attorney.