Snell & Wilmer LLP - The Inside View

Participation in its local community lies at the heart of this mannerly Southwesterner, which operates a strict “no jerk” policy.

“WOULD you buy furniture from a store called Unpainted Huffhines?” scoffs Nathan Arizona in the Coen brothers' 1987 gem Raising Arizona. Well, maybe you would think twice about an Unpainted Huffhines dining suite. But would you buy legal services from Southwest stalwart Snell & Wilmer? If you happen to be a high-flying businessperson in Arizona then yes, you probably would. Among its practices are those linked to the local area, like water rights, mining, gaming and Native American affairs, but it's not just regional outfits that flock to this Phoenix-founded firm. High net worth individuals and multinational corporations like Wells Fargo and Starwood Hotels also grace the client roster. Since it was established in 1938, Snell has expanded beyond the Grand Canyon State into Nevada, California, Colorado and Utah, gathering up a troupe of around 400 lawyers. This spread of western territory is complemented by an international outpost in Los Cabos, Mexico.

Sources were “drawn to the firm because of its reputation in the community” and noted with approval that “it's not a behemoth firm with thousands of attorneys, but it's big for Phoenix.” Look no further than Chambers USA for evidence of its prime place in this regional market – it earns a clutch of top-flight rankings in Arizona as well as recognition in other states. Indeed, interviewees outside the Arizonan capital described it as “the best big firm that hires associates in Tucson” and “the best in Las Vegas as far as BigLaw goes: it has the sophisticated clients and all the resources I was hoping for.” Over in Salt Lake City, “the quality of attorneys is second to none.”

The Work



Around two-thirds of the class we interviewed from were beavering away in the firm's capacious litigation department. Incomers get a say in what group they join. “Before you start they give you a form to fill out with your top three choices,” a source explained. “Some people might know from the beginning that they want to be in labor & employment and they'd go straight to that if the firm has a need for someone.” A hefty portion of associates take up a spot in the commercial litigation team, while another choice of destination is “the litigation pool” which “enables new associates to get any work that's litigation-related, like product liability, healthcare or labor. That way you can get a feel for what interests you most, and slowly start to find your place.” On the transactional side of things, attorneys are sprinkled across corporate & securities, real estate, bankruptcy, IP, tax, natural resources and finance.

"They trust you and push you to step out of your comfort zone." 

Work assignment is a fairly informal affair. “It just kinda happens. If you don't have enough work you're encouraged to solicit it, but we get a lot of emails from partners asking for someone with capacity to join a project. Over time you build up a network and develop a steady flow of work.” Associates reckoned that this “open market” system doesn't require excessively sharp elbows. “There's plenty of work to go around – it's not like there are attorneys all competing for assignments – so it works well.”

An interviewee who'd dived into the litigation pool had “gotten my feet wet on a real variety of different-sized matters.” Areas sampled include employment, IP, product liability and attorney malpractice. “On some cases it's just me and a partner, which allows me to take ownership, so I take the first draft of everything, do research projects and talk to the clients.” Commercial litigators weren't pigeonholed into a single field either. “The clients range from individuals or startups, to financial institutions and pharma companies.” One piped up: “In the beginning I focused on routine stuff like pleadings and discovery requests. Now I've just started my third year the majority of my time is spent researching and motion writing. At the moment I'm working on a complex motion for summary judgment in relation to a trade secret issue.” The responsibility levels shouldered by juniors are “overwhelming at times and you question whether partners really know what they're doing by giving you certain things to do! But they trust you and push you to step out of your comfort zone, which is the best way to learn.” Inevitably, “doc review comes with the territory of being a younger associate,” but sources made it clear that “it's a small portion of my practice.”

Meanwhile, transactional attorneys told us that “the level of client contact is really great. You start off by emailing and making phone calls rather than going to in-person meetings, but now I have a ton of exposure to clients.” Again, variety is the name of the game: “I'm rarely doing the same thing two days in a row.” For instance, the real estate team takes in work from “land developers, builders, hospitality clients, multifamily developers, restaurants and sports teams” and junior members handle “a lot of drafting of leases and sale and purchase agreements along with property diligence and title and survey reviews.”

Training & Development



New recruits from across offices gather at the Phoenix HQ for a week of orientation that covers “the ins and outs of billing and client etiquette” followed by practice-specific training sessions. Throughout the year, there are further sessions “covering different topics every couple of weeks or so – yesterday there was a mock motion to dismiss where the partners served as judges.” Although satisfied with the amount of training on offer, juniors repeated the familiar phrase that “the best training comes from learning by doing.”

"Nobody's ever turned me away."

Associates agreed that support from more experienced colleagues isn't in short supply: “Most partners and senior associates are cognizant of the need to give prompt feedback, so you can learn from your mistakes.” Juniors are assigned a formal mentor, but “every day I go to different partners with questions because I know they have expertise in certain areas – nobody's ever turned me away.” Interviewees highlighted that 150 hours of training and shadowing can be counted toward the billable target.

Offices



Sources characterized the Phoenix office, located in the Arizona Center, as “a bright, cheery kind of place” and noted that the client meeting and waiting rooms have recently been spruced up. From the outside, “it's very beautifully landscaped, surrounded by shops and restaurants – it looks very Southwestern.” All newcomers have an office to themselves, affording views of either Camelback Mountain or South Mountain.

"A bright cheery kind of place."

The Salt Lake City branch, home to around 50 attorneys, is located “in the heart of downtown, with a beautiful mall just across the street and a Mormon temple on the corner.” Lawyers in Sin City work from “very well cared-for offices with fantastic, panoramic views of Las Vegas. From one side of the building you can see the beautiful new High Roller Ferris wheel.”

Culture



“One of the things that really sets us apart from other firms is the wonderful 'no jerk' policy. It runs from the top down and everybody buys into it,” raved a source, whose declaration was backed up chairman Matt Feeney. “We don't allow jerks around here,” Feeney confirms. “Good behavior is required!” Associates happily informed us that they're “also genuinely friends outside of work too.” In Phoenix, we heard that the culture “tends to be pretty conservative” particularly when it comes to sartorial matters. “We're the only firm in town that still requires a shirt and tie every single day. It's a pretty formal place and very professional.” Other offices take a slightly more relaxed approach: “In Las Vegas there's still a business formal dress code, but we can add a little more personal flair to it.”

"Everybody is rooting for you."

Being oppressed by a strict hierarchy doesn't seem to be part of the overall associate experience. “When I'm talking to partners and feel nervous, that's a reflection of my own insecurity rather than anything they're doing: it's easy to go into their office and ask a question. It doesn't feel like anyone's trying to test you.” A newcomer appreciated that “they don't put associates through a hazing process here. Everybody is here to help and rooting for you. I got an assignment the day before Thanksgiving but the partner said not to bother working on it until after the holiday. Nobody here is trying to break you or pull the rug out from underneath you.” One heartfelt associate emphasized that “people really come and make Snell their home. Everyone gives you the tools to succeed. I'm in it for the long haul.”

Across offices, the social calendar features happy hours and networking events along with “family activities, like a picnic at the zoo, ice skating, baseball games and a holiday party where someone dresses as Santa for the kids.” Winter festivities are also celebrated within departments, often with “a trip to a fancy restaurant like a nice steakhouse in Scottsdale.” In addition to firm-organized fun, “there are always informal happy hours. People will stop by your office and say 'hey we're meeting up to watch Monday night football – feel free to come along'.”

Hours & Compensation



Associates need to clock up 1,800 hours to be eligible for a bonus. There's also a 2,000-hour “aspirational” target. Of the former, interviewees reckoned: “It's certainly manageable. It's a good amount of work but not so much that you'd never see the light of day.” Some of our sources also “blew well past the 2,000-hour mark and still had time to see my spouse.” On average, juniors spend about ten hours in the office each day and appreciated that “you're allowed the flexibility and autonomy to manage your schedule.”

"It's a good amount of work but not so much that you'd never see the light of day.”

Snell uses a closed compensation system. While some thought this “very fair,” others felt that “it only benefits a handful of people at the top.” According to Matt Feeney, “when two people compare compensation, the only thing you can be sure of is that one person is not going to be happy. The closed system leads to a collegial working environment. I always say that the First Amendment doesn't stop at our doors and that associates are more than welcome to talk to each other about compensation, but we discourage it. Nothing good comes of it.”

Pro bono & Diversity



“There's no cap on the amount of pro bono hours you can work in a year,” we heard. “It's counted hour for hour toward your billable target as long as it's approved by the firm. They encourage us to get involved in lots of cases to get as much experience as we can.” All of our sources had been involved in pro bono, working variously on prisoners' rights cases, consumer disputes, guardianship matters and immigration issues.

When it comes to diversity, interviewees recognized that “there's a long way to go.” Many praised the women's initiative (“they've been great as far as motherhood and maternity leave is concerned”) but felt that “there should be much broader racial diversity.”

"There's no cap on the amount of pro bono hours you can work."

Pro bono hours 

  • For all attorneys across all US offices: 15,315 
  • Average per US attorney: 36.6

Get Hired



“The firm looks for people with Midwestern values, people who are hard-working and respectful,” agreed associates. “Obviously they want bright people, but also someone who's personable and involved in the community.” Matt Feeney adds: “We're a relationship-based firm: we focus very hard on relationships with our clients, with our colleagues – both lawyers and non-lawyers – and relationships with our communities. We take all three of these elements very seriously. Anyone thinking of becoming a lawyer at Snell needs to recognize that this is a service profession and to thrive here you need to be excellent at building relationships.” Overall, “we're looking for people who are excellent lawyers and good human beings.”

"Excellent lawyers and good human beings."

Strategy & Future



Matt Feeney took the reins as chairman in March 2015, following John Bouma's 30-year tenure at the top. Feeney's first year has seen Snell “strengthen various practice groups and offices, especially our natural resources group, which is a fairly broad group that covers different disciplines, including environmental, water, oil & gas, and utilities. Our goal is to become one of preeminent natural resource firms in the West, and we're heading in that direction. We've also strengthened our IP practice on both the prosecution and litigation side.”

"Our goal is to become one of preeminent natural resource firms in the West."

Looking to the future, the firm remains opportunistic but cautious about expansion. “We've been looking seriously at opportunities in Texas over the past three or four years, but so far nothing has presented itself that justifies us taking that step so we're approaching that market prudently. We're a debt-free firm so everything comes from cash flow.”


Interview with Matt Feeney, chairman



Chambers Associate: What have been the major highlights for the firm over the past 12 months?

Matt Feeney: First let me mention personal highlights: I assumed the chairmanship of Snell & Wilmer on March 1, 2015. John Bouma had been chairman for over 30 years and he was an excellent leader, so it was a very important transition for the firm. From a business perspective, the firm has done a very good job strengthening various practice groups and offices. We've added some good lawyers over the course of the year, especially in our natural resources group, which is a fairly broad group that covers different disciplines, including environmental, water, oil and gas and utilities. We've really bulked up that practice area. Our goal is to become one of pre-eminent natural resource firms in the West, and we're heading in that direction. We've also strengthened our IP practice on both the prosecution and litigation side.

In terms of offices, LA is at the top of the list. We've added a lot of good people there, it's our newest office – it opened in 2009 – and it's in a growth mode. We think there are a lot of opportunities in our Denver office, where the emphasis is also on growth. We have a good footprint across the West and our practice is local, state, regional, national and international. It's important that we like the cities in which our offices are located: they are growth cities and great places to raise families, so we attract good people to the firm.

CA: What's the firm's strategy for the future? Are there any office openings in the pipeline? Any particular practice areas that will expand?

MF: In terms of strategy, we are always looking at opportunities for expansion. I don't think a week goes by when we're not presented with opportunities to acquire firms, or to be acquired. We're not interested in the latter; we like being independent and we have a unique culture here. Our current focus is to build out our existing offices. Both LA and Denver come to mind as places that are seeing a lot of growth. Las Vegas was hit very hard by the recession, but it's coming back and there are good opportunities there. We've been looking seriously at opportunities in Texas over the past three or four years, but so far nothing has presented itself that justifies us taking that step. It's a market that a lot of law firms are in or looking at, so we're approaching that market prudently – we're a debt free firm so everything comes from cash flow. We're careful about our partners' dollars.

CA: What qualities are you looking for in a prospective junior associate? What advice would you have for a law student thinking of joining the firm?

MF: We're a relationship-based firm: we focus very hard on relationships with our clients, with our colleagues – both lawyers and non lawyers – and relationships with our communities. We take all three of these elements very seriously. Anyone thinking of becoming a lawyer at Snell & Wilmer needs to recognize that this is a service profession and to thrive here you need to be excellent at building relationships.

CA: Associates told us that the firm has quite a conservative culture and promotes mid Western values – hard work and politeness...would you describe the culture in this way? How would you define it? How do you promote it?

MF: Our culture is fairly easy to define. This will sound repetitive but that's okay. Our culture is focused on our commitments in three areas: to clients, to each other (we don't allow jerks around here and require good behaviour!) and our commitment to our communities. We are very interested in giving back to our communities, so we give billable hour credit to those who provide legal services to the poor. We want people to be involved in their communities and passionate about what they do, whatever that is, whether it's involvement in local music, museums or charities.

CA: The firm uses a closed compensation system. What are the benefits of that system as opposed to lockstep system?

MF: At the partnership level, I like to call it a private compensation system. In our view, compensation is a private matter between that partner and the compensation committee; it's no one else's business. Law firms are one of the few businesses in the world that make compensation public within their businesses so, in terms of businesses generally, we're more in the norm. Our partners only consider whether their compensation is fair. In an open system, even if someone thinks their compensation is initially fair, they will inevitably compare it with someone else's. When two people compare compensation, the only thing you can be sure of is that one person is not going to be happy. The closed system leads to a collegial working environment. I've been here for 32 years and I've never once had a conversation about compensation with anyone but the compensation committee. There isn't a hierarchy that develops in some open compensation firms. People who have joined us tell us what it's like to be in a system where everyone's compensation is known. Our focus is on what's best for the client. At the associate level, I always say that the First Amendment doesn't stop at our doors and that associates are more than welcome to talk to each other about compensation, but we discourage it. Nothing good comes of it.

CA: Is there anything else you'd like to add? 

I would sum it up this way. We're looking for people who are excellent lawyers, good human beings, and interested in building relationships.

Snell & Wilmer LLP

One Arizona Center,
400 East Van Buren Street ,
Phoenix,
AZ 85004-2202
Website www.swlaw.com

  • Head Office: Phoenix, AZ
  • Number of domestic offices: 8
  • Number of international offices: 1
  • Partners (US): 212
  • Associates (US): 158
  • Summer Salary 2016  
  • 1Ls: $2,211-$3,077/week
  • 2Ls: $2,211-$3,077/week
  • Post 3Ls: $2,211-$3,077/week
  • 1Ls hired? Yes
  • Split summers offered? Case by case 
  • Can summers spend time in overseas office? No
  • Summers 2016: 30
  • Offers/acceptances 2015: 15 offers, 14 acceptances

Main areas of work
Appellate, banking, bankruptcy, business and finance, class action, commercial litigation, construction, emerging businesses, employee benefits and executive compensation, environmental and natural resources, estate planning and taxation, financial services and securities, franchise, government investigations/criminal defense, 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 and ethical business practices with various distinguished awards.

Recruitment details
• Number of 1st year associates: 15
• Number of 2nd year associates: 13
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $115,000 - $160,000
• Clerking policy: Yes

Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2016:
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

Summer details
Summer associate profile:
Snell & Wilmer seeks to hire diverse individuals with the long-term potential to become partners at the firm. We are interested in candidates who have demonstrated high academic achievement, initiative and involvement in non-academic experiences or extracurricular activities and possess strong interpersonal and communication skills.

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.