Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP - The Inside View

Unlike many firms, Willkie's usually busy in all economic weathers, evidenced by glowing financials year-in, year-out.

WILLKIE Farr & Gallagher was founded way back in 1888 as Hornblower & Byrne, with four lawyers in its single office. Multiple name changes later, Willkie has 650 lawyers in its nine offices around the world. Most are based in the US, New York in particular. The firm also has a good-sized Washington, DC office, and recently set up shop in Houston. Willkie has a long-running relationship with National League Baseball, and once counted Thomas Edison and a brokerage firm owned by Ulysses S. Grant as clients. Willkie continues to shine financially. The past several years have seen revenue rising steadily a few percent each year, and in 2014 it soared 14.5% to $640 million. It went up 2.8% in 2015.

Back in 2012, Willkie scooped up all 12 of Dewey & LeBoeuf's outgoing insurance partners, and its work in the insurance sector gets top marks from Chambers USA. Willkie's not a one-trick pony, however, and its private equity, corporate/M&A, investment funds, bankruptcy, tax, securities, litigation, and telecoms are among the other practices that pick up excellent rankings. “We're busy in all business cycles,” chair of the professional personnel committee Tom Henry tells us, “whether that's a distressed market led by bankruptcy or a frothy one led by a traditional M&A offering.”


“DC and New York operate to a large degree as one office,” an associate in the capital told us. “Generally DC associates are staffed on DC matters and vice versa,” the informant continued, “but you can be staffed on either Washington or New York matters depending on the firm's needs.” The ten-lawyer Houston office opened up in 2014 to serve Willkie's longstanding clients here, many of whom are in the energy sector. This Texas office sees a fair volume of referrals from NYC and DC.

"You can be staffed on either Washington or New York matters..."

“Post-renovation, it's going to be really nice,” said an associate of the soon-to-be-done-up DC office, “but right now it's a little dated.” No complaints about the location, though: “We're on 19th and K Street, there are three major metro stations within a two-block radius, and it's a ten-minute walk to the White House.” New York also gets top marks for its location: “We're located next to every subway, so that's really nice,” said a Manhattanite of the firm's Midtown base.

DC has a “smaller and more familiar” atmosphere, according to our sources there, and new associates get their own offices on arrival. This is in contrast to New York where newbies share offices for their first year. “It's a little irritating,” admitted one, “but you get your own office quickly enough.” Perhaps to make up for this, in New York 3.30pm every day is 'cookie time' in the office's attorney lounge. “It's hard to resist their siren song!” laughed an associate. The health-conscious among you may be interested to know that “they're diversifying cookie time,” with hummus and vegetables available on Tuesdays and crackers and cheese on Friday.

The Work

Litigation and corporate are the two biggest intake groups, followed by asset management, real estate, executive compensation & employee benefits, tax and IP. Departments operate a formal work assignment system. “It's nice not to have a free-market system,” one attorney ventured. “If my hours are low I can just go to the assigning partner and say, 'Hey, I have 15 free hours.'” Insiders also thought that the formality of the system helped prevent associates competing for work, as well as keeping them from getting swamped. “If all the partners were emailing me directly, I imagine it would be hard to say no,” opined a Washingtonian.

"We're not pigeonholed into a certain type of client."

“We're not pigeonholed into a certain type of client,” said an associate in DC, and this generalist approach holds for New York too, in both litigation and corporate. Asset management is split into “three big buckets:” private equity; registered funds; and unregistered funds. Much of it is the same “day-to-day work” that any junior associate would do, including “reviewing diligence documents to make sure the disclosures are current and proper,” but there are also “more substantive client-facing assignments” on offer, including sitting in on client calls and “direct interfacing.”

In addition to “traditional commercial disputes,” litigators can get involved in insurance bust-ups, FCPA investigations, securities disputes and antitrust work. Attorneys handling the old-fashioned commercial litigation cases will do traditional commercial litigation tasks such as “research, drafting memos, doc review, discussing case strategy and drafting parts of motions.” On the more specialized areas, the work can get a bit wacky – for example attorneys doing FCPA work can find themselves helping to interview whistle-blowers or trawling through employee emails. The latter was described as “fascinating” by one associate, “as you're reviewing emails that were sent years ago by people who had no idea that they could be checked.”


"It's not trite to say that there's a great camaraderie."

Contrary to what you might have thought, “it's not trite to say that there's a great camaraderie,” one of our sources enthused, at least not at Willkie. “It didn't seem as cut-throat as some of the other places I interviewed at," said another. Insiders attributed this to the firm's billable hours requirement; more specifically its lack of one. “We try to have each other's backs,” one told us, “but I can't help wondering, if we had an hours requirement would we be competing for work?” This camaraderie is not just between members of the same class year; while there's “an obvious hierarchy,” relations with partners and senior associates are also top-notch. “They try to help you become a better lawyer,” said a DC-er of the firm's bigwigs.


"The partners are making diversity a priority at OCI level."

Diversity at Willkie is “a bit like at law school,” we were told, in that “incoming classes have been more diverse, but there's still a lot of work to be done.” Associates agreed that making the firm's partnership more representative was key to making the firm as a whole more diverse. “A lot of diverse people are hesitant to come here because they're underrepresented at partnership level,” speculated one. “It's a cycle; if there aren't any female partners, women aren't going to want to stay long enough to make partner,” added another. The powers that be are aware of the situation, however, and juniors reckoned “the partners are making diversity a priority at OCI level.” The firm has women's committees, and one initiative singled out for particular praise was an “eye-opening” implicit bias talk.

Hours & Compensation and Pro Bono

“It didn't even occur to me how big not having an hours target would be,” admitted one lawyer, while another said: “I have almost unilateral control over when I get in.” While no billing target means no internal rivalry, it doesn't mean no work. As one insider put it, “no one is doing head checks at the start of the day, but getting out is harder.” A financier joked that in some of the busier departments attorneys “sometimes almost wish there was a billing target.” Day-to-day hours were broadly similar to those worked at other firms. In the words of one attorney, “I never leave before 6.30pm, but I rarely leave after 8.30pm.” Of course, deal deadlines and corporate timetables still apply, billable hours target or no, so some late nights are inevitable, and at least one attorney we spoke to had “a couple of nights where I've slept at the office.” That said, with no targets to hit, “there's less pressure to bill random hours.”

“My schedule has been so crazy.”

Not only is there no billing target, but there's no cap on the number of pro bono hours associates can treat as billable. A frequent email is circulated letting people know what opportunities are in the pipeline. The firm regularly partners with the Lawyers' Committee in DC, and Her Justice in New York which works with domestic violence victims. Interested attorneys can complete a three or four-month externship here. Back at the office, pro bono work can range in size from “small matters that juniors can handle with minimal supervision,” to large partner-led cases, and includes asylum cases, LGBT rights work, helping incorporate nonprofit organizations and assisting the government in preventing the exploitation of recent immigrants. While there's “a ridiculous number of pro bono opportunities if you have the time for them,” not all the associates we spoke to had time. “My schedule has been so crazy,” lamented one. Similarly, some transactional attorneys worried that they lacked the skills to “provide good pro bono advice.” These grumbles should become a thing of the past: 2015 saw pro bono hours billed at the firm jump by 50%.

In June 2016, Willkie was one of the first firms to announce increased associate salaries, with first-years in all US offices up to $180,000.

Pro bono hours 

  • For all attorneys across all US offices: 30,458
  • Average per US attorney: 62

Get Hired

“The OCI was more about my background,” recollected one New Yorker, “and about my knowledge of Willkie and what it does.” Instead of fishing for stock answers, the firm “puts the ball in the person's court” during interviews. “They asked a lot of open questions and let me speak,” recalled one former jobseeker. You'll need brains to work at Willkie – that's a given – but the firm also wants to make sure that new hires fit in with their colleagues. “It's really important to Willkie that they find a good personality fit as well as an intellectual fit,” explained another.

"Personality fit as well as an intellectual fit.”

Teamwork is also high on the firm's agenda, according to professional personnel committee head Tom Henry. “You'll be working with people in different departments, in different offices and with different strengths,” he explains, “so we want people who want to roll up their sleeves and be part of the team.” He also advises applicants to do their homework and find out more about the firm. Beyond this, though, there's no particular Willkie 'type': “We attract a broad pool of people,” he says, “but the better informed an applicant is, the better they'll do.”

Training & Development

Newbies kick off their time at the firm with two weeks of orientation in New York, “acclimating to the computer systems and learning how the support staff work,” and completing a 'mini MBA.' This is then followed by department-specific bootcamps covering issues unique to individual practice groups. In addition, there are regular lunchtime CLEs. “I think it would be helpful if it was all given again nine months later,” thought one source, because “you feel a little overwhelmed with information at the time.” The CLEs themselves cover everything from “the mathematics of how to certify classes” in antitrust litigation to “a talk from an investment banker on how to read a balance sheet.”

"A little overwhelmed with information."

Performance reviews take place annually, with a midyear review for first-years, although “you only hear anything at the midyear point if there's something wrong.” Even at the annual review, associates told us, no news was good news. “In practice, you go in and they're like, 'You're doing a good job, goodbye,'” said one. When there is substantive feedback, it is often delivered “using the sandwich method – they'll say, 'You did well on this, not so good on that, and well on this.'” Feedback is sought on every matter that the reviewee spent 25 billable hours or more on over the previous year, and reviewers rate associates as meeting, exceeding or failing to meet expectations.

Mentoring abounds, and begins during during the summer program, where each fledgling legal-eagle gets both a partner and an associate mentor. These are deliberately chosen from “random” departments, as “summers don't know what group they want to be in.” Upon arrival full-time, each new associate gets a partner and associate mentor within their chosen group. “The seniors I worked with were very willing to sit down and teach you things you didn't get formal training on," recollected one source.

Strategy & Future

“We went into 2015 knowing we'd have big shoes to fill, and we exceeded our previous records,” says head of the professional personnel committee Tom Henry. He credits this to the firm's ability to do “transformative, multijurisdictional deals,” but also to the fact that Willkie "does 'collegial' better than other firms." A bold claim, given how often we hear that word, but Willkie deliberately scatters lawyers from different practice groups across the firm to foster idea-sharing.

As we mentioned at the start, Willkie is confident in its ability to operate in both calm and choppy economic waters. The firm's decision to open an office in energy hub Houston at a time of low oil prices is an example of this, according to Tom Henry. "Energy work forms a growing part of our M&A and private equity practices," Henry explains, "but because of the disruption of the energy markets, we can also bring our restructuring and bankruptcy expertise to bear."

Interview with Tom Henry, chair of the Professional Personnel Committee

Chambers Associate: What highlights from the past year would you like to flag to our student readers interested in your firm?

Tom Henry: 2014 saw record growth for our firm, so we went into 2015 knowing we'd have big shoes to fill. I'm pleased to say that we exceeded our previous records. It was the best year we've had across multiple disciplines, practice areas and geographies. A great example of where we're able to amplify our abilities in M&A and private equity across borders with the purchase by Hudson's Bay Company – the oldest company in North America and owner of Saks, Lord & Taylor, Gilt and more – of the German department store chain Kaufhof. Willkie teams in New York and Frankfurt worked together with a client from Canada who was doing deals in the US to deploy capital in Europe. We also worked across disciplines, combining M&A and real estate capabilities to close large real estate financings of Hudson's Bay Company's stores. We don't work on cookie-cutter transactions, but instead focus on big, transformative matters.

CA: What's your long-term vision for the firm?  

TH: We're very deliberate in the way we grow both our headcount and number of offices. Energy work forms a growing part of our M&A and private equity practices but because of the disruption of the energy markets, we can also bring our restructuring and bankruptcy experience to bear. We're busy in all business cycles, whether that's a distressed market led by bankruptcy or a frothy one led by traditional M&A. This gives us a 360 degree view of how transactions work through cycles.

CA: What would you say Willkie's core practice areas are?

TH: As I've already touched on, the firm is driven by our corporate M&A and private equity practices. These are recognized year in and year out as among the best in the US. In particular, our insurance transactional practice is considered the best in the country, our restructuring practice has been renowned for many years and our SEC regulatory enforcement and securities litigation groups are top-tier. Our FCPA practice is one of the more prominent in the industry, and spans multiple locations across the US and overseas.

CA: What are you looking for in a candidate? Or, to put it another way, what sort of person thrives at the firm?

TH: We look for self-starters, for motivated people who can demonstrate an interest in what they've done academically. We also want you to be team-focused. You'll be working with people in different departments, in different offices and with different strengths, so we want people who will roll up their sleeves and be part of the team.

CA: What can students do now to increase their chances of impressing you in their applications and at interview?

TH: We attract a broad pool of people, but the better informed an applicant is, the better they'll do. Make sure that you do your homework. It's not easy, but firms can be distinguished from one another, so the students who stand out will be the ones who can identify what makes Willkie different. Talk to our people on campus, talk to the people who have been through our summer program, and talk to the people in your career centers. They're your best objective resource. To the extent that it's possible, students should make sure that they can identify their long-term goals; it'll help you distinguish yourself. Additionally, the more clearly students can identify how they'll be a good fit, the better they'll do.

CA: Can you define the firm's character or culture?

TH: We have a culture that is open, transparent and involves associates in our day-to-day management. Associates sit on our various committees, ensuring the firm is run by its population, rather than by a top-down management model. Getting attorneys involved in management from an early stage means they develop management skills as they learn the practice of law. Willkie does 'collegial' better than other firms because we get our associates involved early. In our offices, we don't sit by practice groups – we're one firm, not a collection of different practice areas. Over time, neighbors become colleagues, who become friends. Our intranet – called WillkieNet – reports various milestones and deal highlights. It's regularly updated so that people know in real time what's going on throughout the firm. These are just a few examples of our open, transparent culture that fosters getting on together and liking each other.

CA: Who conducts OCI and callback interviews?  

TH: We want to get our young lawyers involved in interviews at an early stage. Once they join us full-time, associates are a part of the team, and that's also true for the recruitment process. Interviews are performed by both partners and associates, but sometimes a well-informed associate who's been through the process might be a better resource than a partner. When candidates come to visit us, everybody is involved.We think our culture is one of our firm's greatest strengths and having a good mix of people involved with the interview process means that candidates can sense our collegiality.

CA: What questions do you ask during OCIs?  

TH: It's conversational. We don't ask 'gotcha' questions. We want to see that candidates are conversant in the topics on their resume, but the process shouldn't be intimidating. We also want to make sure that we answer all the candidate's questions.

CA: Do you have any stories of people performing particularly well at interviews? Or any horror stories?

TH: No horror stories – I think careers centers generally do a good job at making sure that candidates know what to expect. People tend to do the best when they're themselves. Scripts and canned answers work less well than people who can speak and behave naturally. Of course it's a professional setting, and candidates need to be confident in who they are, but the fact that they're getting interviews with firms like Willkie shows in itself that others are confident in their abilities.

CA: What's your approach to judicial clerking and lateral hiring?

TH: We encourage judicial clerking – think it adds to attorneys' skill sets and we support it formally. Lateral hiring is on an 'as-needed' basis. We're fortunate in that we have a longer retention rate than some of our peer firms.

CA: What does Willkie offer that is really unique?

TH: What helps distinguish us is our commitment to ensuring that people are rewarded and recognized for hard work. Culturally, we make sure that people have the right balance between working hard and a life – the associates want a work-life balance and, frankly, so do the partners. We're all in it together. To that end, we have no billable hours requirement. We expect the same of all our associates – if they put their best foot forward, we commit to providing them with the best work regardless of whether they plan to stay for four years, eight years or 40 years. 

Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP

787 Seventh Avenue,
New York,
NY 10019-6099
Website www.willkie.com

  • Head Office: New York, NY 
  • Number of domestic offices: 3
  • Number of international offices: 6
  • Partners (US): 136
  • Associates (US): 295
  • Summer Salary 2016  
  • 1Ls: N/A
  • 2Ls: $3,077/week
  • Post 3Ls: N/A
  • 1Ls hired? Yes
  • Split summers offered? Yes, details by office
  • Can summers spend time in overseas office? Case by case
  • Summers 2016: 62
  • Offers/acceptances 2015: 74 offers, 67 acceptances

Main areas of work
Antitrust and competition, asset management, business reorganization and restructuring, communications, media and privacy, corporate and financial services, environmental, health and safety, executive compensation and employee benefits, government relations, insurance, intellectual property, litigation, private clients, real estate and tax.

Firm profile
Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP was founded more than 125 years ago upon principles that still characterize our practice today. Our founders and memorable colleagues, like Wendell Willkie and Felix Frankfurter, established a strong foundation of integrity, innovation, pragmatism, flexibility and intellectual agility designed to continually meet the ever changing business needs of our clients. We continue our tradition of excellence by keeping nimble, working collaboratively together, with respect and professionalism, and by integrating this philosophy into our client relationships. Our clients not only rely on us for our creativity, skill, leadership, decisiveness and highquality work, but because they know we are solution-oriented and we get the job done effectively and efficiently.

Recruitment details
• Number of 1st year associates: 54
• Number of 2nd year associates: 49
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $180,000
• 2nd year: $190,000
• Clerking policy: Yes

Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2016:
Brooklyn, Columbia University, Cornell, Duke, Fordham University, GWU, Georgetown University, Harvard, Howard University, NYU, Northwestern University, St John’s University, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, University of Texas, UVA, Yale

Summer details
Summer associate profile:

Willkie seeks motivated individuals who have excelled academically. We are looking for candidates who possess ambition, maturity, strong communication skills and the ability to work collaboratively with others.

Summer program components:
Willkie’s summer program is a terrific introduction to the firm. We offer summer associates the opportunity to work side by side with our attorneys in practice areas of their choice. We offer departmental rotations during the course of the summer. In addition, summer associates participate in a presentation skills workshop, mock arbitration and corporate negotiation training seminars. Summer associates are evaluated twice during the program: once at mid-summer and then at the end of the program. In addition to providing an introduction to life as an associate, we provide a wide array of social events with the goal of helping our summer associates to get to know one another, our lawyers and the city.