Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP - The Inside View

Mighty minnow MTO regularly outswims far bigger fish to catch the best hires and land the juiciest assignments...

MTO's lawyers generally are some of the sharpest in the land (in the nicest possible sense). Even by BigLaw standards it's highly selective about who it plucks from the sea of applicants each student-fishing season. MTO boasts, for example, a high number of PhDs and former clerks among its ranks (in fact 70% of attorneys once clerked for federal judges, and 17 individuals for Supreme Court Justices). Moreover, two of MTO's lawyers were hooked by President Obama in 2013 to fill seats on the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals – not bad for a sub-200 attorney outfit with only two offices (both of which are a fishing rod or two's distance from the ocean).

Known for its litigation prowess, MTO achieves top rankings in several litigation and media & entertainment practices in Chambers USA. Its client list is like a who's who of Hollywood, including Warner Bros., Universal and Capitol Records. There are also rankings for the corporate/M&A, labor & employment and tax groups in California. Managing partner Sandra Seville-Jones says: “We've never been a firm only focused on litigation. There is a lot of cross-pollination between departments.” Some of MTO's biggest recent work highlights were again representing longtime client Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway in various investments. Read more about Buffett's close pal and MTO founder Charlie Munger in our Web Extras.

ASSOCIATES SAY...



 

The Work



Most junior associates by far in LA, and all in San Fran, join the litigation group; a handful in LA join the corporate team. "So you're either in general corporate or general litigation, and within each are partners that have expertise and you can align yourself with them to develop your own interests," an associate explained. Specializing in one or two areas is tricky for junior associates, as it's "all hands on deck." Interviewees in the smallish corporate group said: "There is scope with the different work available to fill up your plate with things you like." However, "you don’t really have the ability to say no to the megadeals. If after a couple of years you want to specialize, it can be difficult. This is something you should think about as an applicant. We have areas of expertise, of course, but it can be difficult to do exclusively one type of work." A litigator added phlegmatically: “The system suits a certain character. Remember, it can be more difficult to become a specialist here, but on the other hand you can be an expert in several areas.”

Munger's approximate 1:1 partner-associate ratio also contributes to this generalist work environment, as there simply aren't phalanxes of associates available to split up and take on the different types of work that come through the door. A litigation junior explained: "The original Munger model is that you come in as generalists, although you're starting to see increasing amounts of people finding their niche in the firm, developing skills and specialist knowledge that's unique to particular areas." Another said: "I think the way the system works is good, especially for junior attorneys. It gives them the opportunity to come in and test the waters and figure out what they like." This "alleviates pressure" compared to the alternative model at some firms of joining a specific subgroup from day one: "For a junior attorney, that's specializing without really knowing anything! That's why I like the generalist model." That said, we heard that patent and employment lawyers at Munger do tend to specialize a bit earlier than most.

There's a free-market system for getting work. Litigators receive their first assignments from a coordinator and are, to a certain extent, monitored during their first months. Corporate associates liked their informal system: “We're small enough that's it's never a faceless conglomerate. There are only about eight partners, and it's always going to be you and a partner on a typical deal. To have work formally directed would be stifling.” However, "at least in corporate, the same partners tend to come back to you, and it's unclear what work is going around. I think there could be more transparency." Litigators reported the importance of e-mail and informal meetings to sourcing work: "A lot of people just e-mail the partners to express an interest. We aren't leveraged – you don't have to answer to a senior associate who's a layer between you and the partners." At firm lunches, "you'll often sit next to a partner and sometimes you end up having conversations with just about everyone. Generally you can approach people quite easily." For more on work and responsibility levels, read our Web Extras online.

Training & Development



“There's the initial three-day orientation, but otherwise there's no formal training program,” associates pointed out. “It's the Munger way. You need to hit the ground running, which can be scary, especially if you're fresh out of law school. The legend at Munger is that most come here after clerkships, so know lots of stuff. But lots of people do come straight out of law school too, so opportunities for more training would definitely be beneficial." Despite the lack of formal training, the firm does arrange a well-structured program of informal events such as a new associate retreat, lunches for new attorneys ('Lunch and Learns'), lectures and sessions on topics like witness interviewing and drafting.

If associates are interested in external training, Munger will likely fund it, “but it's really about learning on the job.” Partner and cochair of the Recruitment Committee Sean Eskovitz says: “We hold numerous in-house training events and bring in outside experts, such as NITA for deposition training. In addition, our associates consistently work closely with senior lawyers. Given our 1:1 partner-associate ratio, there is a natural mentorship structure in place.”

Offices



The LA office is downtown in Bunker Hill, in the Wells Fargo Center. “We're quite high up in the building and have beautiful views overlooking the Hollywood Hills.” The corporate team is "kinda clustered on two floors, but everyone else is mixed together throughout the floors." Appearance-wise, “it's less modern-looking and more mahogany, as it's a slightly older office.” All associates have their own office and “consistent with the Munger democratic ethos, there are no corner offices.”

San Franciscans are on the 27th and 28th floors of a 40-story building, “with beautiful Bay views.” Interviewees were particularly pleased with the newly created snacks area: “There's some great chocolate on offer. We also get bagels on Friday, which is awesome.” People in both offices felt "united" with each other. An LA junior said of San Fran colleagues: "They are very present. We have firm lunches in which they're always present on the TV monitor. And firmwide meetings are truly firmwide – during hiring decisions, diversity discussions, everything... San Francisco is on the monitor. We travel a lot too." Another said: "San Francisco is growing. It used to be quite small but the perception is it's getting much larger. I think they are trying to make the unity of the firm relatively seamless."

Culture



“From its very inception, Munger has prided itself on equality,” interviewees told us of the firm's "democratic" ethos. “There are lots of examples – the 1:1 partner-associate ratio, for starters. Naturally you're aware of the partners, but there are no corner offices, you work with them daily and associates' opinions really matter.” Unusually, for example, the entire firm – associates and partners alike – votes on all those hired full-time. “Everyone evaluates each candidate, particularly the summers. It's so important to find the right fit.”

Part of that 'fit' is finding the best of the best. “We look for and have some of the best lawyers in the country,” one claimed. “There are very few attorneys that stand out as superstars here, because most people are exceptional.” Several agreed the vibe of the firm was almost academic: “There are certainly a lot of people walking around with PhDs and who are generally brilliant. But the nerdy enthusiasms are for things that are interesting, not for those who are impressed with themselves." Also, as "there are so many former clerks here, it's pretty run of the mill!"  

Hours & Compensation



Munger officially has no billable requirement, “but everyone tries to telepathically determine what partners actually want,” interviewees admitted. We're told the firm favors "quality over quantity, but then hours are always discussed in reviews and taken into account for bonuses.” Most thought that “the window of 1,900 to 2,100 is about fine. We get a monthly update of everyone's hours, so you know what other people are doing.” Some felt the need for a concrete figure to aim for: “It would be really nice to have a less amorphous number,” they said. “The firm could still clarify its expectations without a formal number – an example of how much those promoted to partner have billed over the years, for instance.” The firm's official word is that there is no target; it's simply merit-based. Some were happy with this: “There's a lot of nonsense around billing targets at certain firms and it discourages efficient time. If you're smart, looking for work and filling your time with pro bono, you'll be fine.”

Hours-wise, “we probably aren't at the level of our New York counterparts, but this is still BigLaw. Weekend work is common. There will be 14 to 15-hour days; however, Munger does give great flexibility.” One junior recalled: “You walk the halls of the office at 7pm, and you'll hardly see anyone. Lots of people have rules for being home for dinner with their families and it's totally fine.” Another added: “No-one's monitoring where you are, and it's so easy to log on from home.” Associates also assured us that they genuinely take their vacations.

Pro Bono



“MTO is absolutely committed to pro bono and the opportunities here are really amazing,” associates agreed. “The firm really supports pro bono and is sincere about it." The stats back this up – lawyers racked up a whopping 61.5 hours each on average last year. All pro bono hours count toward billable totals. “Everyone does something. A lot of partners do a significant amount. You have to make sure you're giving back to the community.” There are both corporate and litigation projects to take on, including licensing and developing agreements for startups, working with NGOs, supporting foster children, and asylum cases. “We also work with KIND [Kids in Need of Defense], representing children in immigration cases.”

Pro bono hours 

  • For all attorneys across all offices: 11,064 
  • Average per attorney: 61.5

Diversity



Munger consistently scores highly in various diversity tables, and associates agreed: “Although it's a challenge for all firms, Munger is placing a priority on diversity.” Munger supports a 1L diversity program and other projects, and there is a firm diversity committee. “The partnership is still heavily laden with white males, but there are a couple of young, diverse partners who are very involved.” Women are also doing well in the partnership, and interviewees said: “Munger makes real efforts to support women." Of the four partners made in 2013, three were female and in 2014 this rose to 100%, as two out of two promoted to partner were female. There's a day-care center on-site and “generous parental leave” policies.

Get Hired



Unsurprisingly, Munger “looks for the trifecta: where you went to school, top grades and demonstration of leadership.” Sean Eskovitz says: “We look for demonstration of academic excellence, a strong work ethic and leadership potential. We hire nationally, but focus primarily on the top national schools. We have several lawyers from the top California law schools, including Berkeley, Stanford, UCLA and USC. We genuinely look at candidates from other schools as well. If applicants have excelled in competitive environments and demonstrated other extraordinary qualities, we are always very interested in a application.”

Alongside academics, MTO looks for strong analytical ability and presentation skills, as well as for candidates who “really enjoy the law and are excited about ideas,” Eskovitz continues. “Most of our people thrived in law school and love intellectual pursuits,” associates agreed. “That doesn't mean we're strange and antisocial though! Munger also wants to see that 'sparkling' personality.” For more about getting hired, see our website.

Strategy & Future



“In terms of trial work, we've had a blockbuster year,” says managing partner Sandra Seville-Jones. “We represented Transocean in federal court in New Orleans over the oil spill, JC Penney in the case involving Martha Stewart Living, Philip Morris in a class action case in San Diego, and in a federal court case in Minnesota on behalf of Wells Fargo. One of our lawyers argued in the Supreme Court, in a case for Abbott Laboratories." On the transactional side, "we handled the Berkshire Hathaway acquisition of Heinz, which was obviously a gigantic food deal." Other big news includes partner Jeff Bleich returning to the firm in 2013 after his stint as US Ambassador to Australia. 

International expansion is one area of growth. "Although we handle several multijurisdictional cases, we want to expand our capabilities. Jeff's experience in Australia will be of great help. We also hope to grow our presence in Silicon Valley.”

Recent Work Highlights

  • Defending Google in a patent infringement suit filed by Unwired Planet alleging the infringement of ten patents
  • Representing Bank of America in the $10.5 billion suit filed by AIG
  • Acting for Capitol Records in a suit brought by the estate of Ricky Nelson
  • Representing the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA to form a YouTube art channel
  • Advised Berkshire Hathaway in its $500 million acquisition of mail-order toy and novelty vendor Oriental Trading Co.


The Work



Corporate is a smaller department, “but is still very important to the firm,” associates affirmed. The client base is relatively mid-market, with a healthy dose of public company work. “Everyone's involved with M&A to some extent,” alongside capital markets, corporate governance, and funds & investments deals. Litigation encompasses the full range, including general commercial, antitrust, securities, mortgage and financial institution work. “Our entertainment & media work is still top of its game and we've had so many interesting cases,” associates agreed. “Our trial team has been incredibly busy.” The San Fran office also enjoys “a robust practice, with all the trimmings,” but particular mention goes out to its IP practice: “There's a lot of Silicon Valley based work here.”

Litigators said of the free market system: “It's part of the Munger brand. If you're really outgoing, the system will probably work well for you, but there are attorneys out there who struggle to find work and others who are overworked.” One said: “It allows enterprising associates to do work they're interested in, but there are certain faults.” Interviewees agreed: “Having a database to get a sense of what cases are out there, or some sort of overview of an equal distribution of hours would be good, but a fully formalized system goes against the freedom of the firm that associates inherently love.”

No matter the trepidations of the system, associates raved about the levels of responsibility they were given. “We get substantive work to a terrifying extent,” one laughed. “You're gonna get opportunities here that you never would at a bigger firm.” Litigators had assisted on depositions, drafted motions, cross-examined witnesses, written briefs, filed in federal courts and done “tons of research.”

Transactional associates had negotiated documents, finished mark ups and drafted elements of deals, among other things. “Yes, there's a level of grunt work, you do put in your dues, but we don't have the man power for the juniors to be stuck on lowly work,” interviewees stressed. “There's a great degree of trust given to associates. It's of course challenging, but also very rewarding if you're up for it.”

Culture



MTO “is probably more relaxed than firms in New York,” but Munger's base is in “professional downtown LA. The dress code is business casual and on Friday it's fully casual, but this is BigLaw.” The professionalism is reflected in the social life as well. “There's a firmwide holiday party, but otherwise, there isn't much going on,” interviewees said. “We do hold three catered lunches a week, though. On Mondays we'll have a outside speaker, on Wednesday one of the partners will give a talk, then Thursday is either a specific corporate or litigation lunch, or simply social.” 

Get Hired



The firm recruits through standard OCIs and “approximately 20% of applicants are called back,” Sean Eskovitz says. The callbacks for summers are over half a day, and applicants are put through five to six interviews. “Interviewers will typically engage applicants on substantive matters. They want to see an applicant's ability to analyze and articulate. These sessions are more than a meet and greet.” The firm also considers applications from interested and qualified students who did not interview on campus.

For full-time offers, the callback process takes the entire day. “The interview process is rigorous because we're looking to hire people with whom we'll want to work for years to come. Given our business model and the genuine promotion and opportunities it creates for our associates, our decisions are never short-term economic choices. We're at a size where we can afford to hire all of the best young lawyers we can find and, ultimately, promote them to partner. This feature continues to distinguish MTO in this economic climate.”

More about Charlie Munger



 

Founding MTO partner Charles Munger is one the US's most intriguing and influential men. Born in on New Year's Day in 1924, in Omaha, Nebraska, Munger studied math at the University of Michigan, served in the US Army Air Corps, trained at Caltech and read law at Harvard Law School. In 1962, along with six colleagues, he founded Munger Tolles & Olsen. Throughout his time at the firm he worked as a real estate lawyer, eventually leaving to concentrate on his investments.

Munger is known for several things beyond the law – most notably his philanthropy and long-term friendship/investment partnership with billionaire Warren Buffett.

Philanthropy 

Munger is a major benefactor of the University of Michigan and Stanford Law School. In 2007, he made a $3 million gift to the UofM Law School for various improvements to the buildings, including the Reading Room. In 2011 he made a further gift, donating $20 million for renovations to the Lawyers Club Housing complex – covering most of the $39 million cost. In 2013 he donated a $110 million gift to fund a residence designed to foster a community of scholars for graduate students. The gift includes $10 million for a graduate student fellowship.

Munger's late wife, Nancy B. Munger, and his daughter from a previous marriage are alumni of Stanford University. In 2004, the Mungers donated 500 shares of stock valued at $43.5 million to build a graduate student housing complex. It now houses 600 law and graduate students.

Buffett 

Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger have been friends since the 1970s, and Munger's been Buffett's right-hand man at Berkshire Hathaway since 1978. There are however stark political differences between them. Buffett has been a long-term supporter of the Democrats, while Munger is known to be a Republican. Munger is also a successful investor in his own right.

Munger is known for his somewhat controversial comments, such as the 2011 CNN Money interview, in which he argued the financial industry should be downsized by at least 80%. His perhaps most famous quote was spurred on by Buffett. Munger said: “The best advice I ever got from Warren was to stop practicing law. Warren was very derisory about my chosen profession, which had been in my family for a couple of generations. He thought it was all right as a hobby, but as a business it was pretty stupid.” At 90 years old, Munger remains a mighty force in American society and is showing very few signs of slowing down.

Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP

355 South Grand Avenue,
Los Angeles,
CA 90071-1560
Website www.mto.com

  • Head Office: Los Angeles, CA
  • Number of domestic offices: 2
  • Number of international offices: 0
  • Worldwide revenue: $247,350,000
  • Partners (US): 88
  • Associates (US): 99
  • Summer Salary 2014  
  • 1Ls: $3,080/week
  • 2Ls: $3,080/week
  • Post 3Ls: $3080/week
  • 1Ls hired? Yes
  • Split summers offered? Yes
  • Summers 2014: 26 2Ls/3Ls; 4 1Ls (1Ls are not eligible for offers)
  • Offers/acceptances 2013: 22 offers, 5 acceptances (unlike other fi rms, we do not have offer deadlines)

Main areas of work




For more than 50 years, Munger, Tolles & Olson attorneys have been partnering with clients on their most important and complex cases and deals. With offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco, we maintain a national and international practice. Our principal areas of practice include litigation, white collar, trials, corporate, labor and employment, environmental, real estate, financial restructuring and tax.

Firm profile




Munger Tolles has purposefully maintained a low-leverage environment. We believe our one to one overall partner to associate ratio empowers all of our nearly 200 lawyers to make a difference in developing and implementing strategies to obtain the best results for the client. We are involved in some of the most high profile legal cases in the country and count among our clients Bank of America, Wells Fargo, LinkedIn, Facebook, Transocean, Edison International, Verizon, KB Home, LG Display, Yucaipa Cos. and Berkshire Hathaway.

Recruitment details




Number of 1st year associates: 3

Number of 2nd year associates: 14 

Associate salaries: 1st year: $160,000 

2nd year: $170,000 

Clerking policy: Yes

Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2013:
Berkeley, Chicago, Columbia, Georgetown, Harvard, Howard, Michigan, NYU, Penn, Stanford, UCLA, USC and Yale.

Summer details




Summer associate profile:
We believe that our firm can be a platform for individuals who want to actively solve their client’s issues and become partners in our one-tier partnership. We look for those who have demonstrated excellence and leadership in their prior pursuits and who bring both intellectual curiosity and a sense of individuality to an already extremely talented and diverse group of lawyers.

Summer program components
Our summer program will provide you a realistic idea of what it is like to practice law at our firm. You will do meaningful work and work closely with attorneys in various practice areas. Each summer associate is assigned a work coordinator and social advisor. Your work coordinator will find assignments that are of interest to you and provide guidance and facilitate feedback during the summer. Your summer will include invitations to attend our weekly lunches, training programs, social events and practice group meetings.