Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP - The Inside View

Looking for a firm that's big on teamwork and busy all year round? You could go Farr at this New York institution.

IF we had a dime for every interviewee who described their firm as “collegial,” we'd be richer than the President. Juniors at Willkie were particularly quick to whip out this cliché, but had concrete evidence to back their claims: “Even people I talked to at other firms all seemed to echo that Willkie is a collegial place. People get along across different practice groups, you really do meet and mingle.”

When not mingling, associates are living up to the firm's rich 130-year legacy (it has counted Thomas Edison, Ulysses S. Grant and National League Baseball on its client roster), and several saw “a good reputation” as a big draw. Fast forward to present day and Willkie has a healthy crop of Chambers USA rankings in bankruptcy/restructuring and insurance in particular, as well as nods for investment funds, commercial litigation and other areas.

The Work

Litigation and corporate are the two biggest intake groups, followed by asset management, real estate, executive compensation & employee benefits, restructuring and IP. You begin as a generalist and work is distributed through formal allocation systems, “but if you want to get on a particular matter you can make a request to the assigning partner and they usually oblige.” Newcomers in several groups reported “in your first few years you get a wide range of experiences,” crediting the assignment coordinators with “making sure you get exposure to different types of work. I liked that because I was trying to find out what I really wanted to do.”

In corporate “the bread and butter is M&A, but insurance is also here and there's a fair amount of securities, private equity and capital markets work.” Handed the keys to the sweet shop, juniors got to pick and mix as “the firm gives you a few years to figure out what you're good at before specializing de-facto.” First-years saw some due diligence, “depending on deal size and how the team is set up,” but also got their hands on meatier drafting and research. “It's not that daunting to have lots of responsibility; everyone makes it clear the partners are there to answer questions.” The tight-knit asset management team (“there's a lot of teamwork”) deals with both private and registered funds. “The workload's overwhelming at times, but that's the nature of the job,” juniors reasoned.

“People are really reasonable, if you're drowning in work it's only temporary.”

White collar and FCPA [Foreign Corrupt Practices Act] cases make up a considerable chunk of litigation at Willkie, but there are also attorneys handling old-fashioned commercial litigation. DC in particular sees a lot of government investigations work, while New York handles more insurance and bankruptcy matters. Getting to grips with “a lot of document review and summarizing,” some juniors also had the chance to “take and draft interviews from meetings with the client and government.” Even after leaping into the deep end of responsibility, “people are really reasonable. If you're drowning in work it's only ever temporary.”

There was some frustration from sources in smaller practice areas who felt “work isn't leveled out across juniors; the group's dynamic and politics can limit responsibility.” A lack of flexibility also rankled some, who lamented “it's quite difficult to switch groups. It's frustrating having long periods with not much to do.” On the other hand, the restructuring group provided “good exposure” for associates, who got “a combination of debtor and creditor work. I've been given assignments I don't understand 100% but next time I'll have a pool of knowledge to draw on.” Likewise, over in real estate “people make a concerted effort to share the burden. On some deals I'm managing the transaction at a high level.”

Training & Development

Formal training programs “go over general concepts, but the nitty-gritty depends on your mentor.” The firm assigns a 'Career Adviser' partner to each newcomer. An initial orientation “isn't the most helpful thing, as getting it all at once isn't very practical,” but there's enough training thereafter for one junior to have “fulfilled all my New York bar credits within five months!” Performance reviews take place annually, with a midyear review for first-years. Satisfied that “it's difficult to know how you could do it better,” interviewees felt “you get a good idea of where you stand,” but noted “the firm would like to think it's a very open process. That depends on which partners you're working with.”

“It's difficult to know how you could do it better.”


The New York HQ is “currently remodeling, they've just opened up a brand new floor,” but there's already “a beautiful lobby, and most offices have really good views. The furniture isn't super-modern but it does the job.” Renovations have just finished in DC, introducing glass walls designed to “bring more light in,” which some felt was “controversial" now they'd lost their privacy. Less divisive was the introduction of office sharing for first-years, which “helps you get into the groove of things.”

“Pretty seamless.”

New York and DC frequently work in tandem, mostly within litigation as Willkie has only a few corporate attorneys in the capital. It's “pretty seamless working between the two locations: we rely on the knowledge that people in the other office have and we can connect straight to them.” The Houston office opened in 2014 to serve Willkie's longstanding clients; many are in the energy sector.

Culture & Diversity

“Willkie does a lot to promote an 'all in this together' mentality even when it's super-busy,” reflected by the fact that associates don't sit by group. Those we spoke to thought that “adds a lot to the sense of camaraderie here,” so though “there are some nasty bits – we're lawyers after all! – the team atmosphere is unique and even at 2am when everything's miserable, you can joke with friends.” New Yorkers identified theirs as the “more intense” workplace, while firmwide “there's definitely a hierarchy, but we do have partners who care about your career development.” Even less dewy-eyed interviewees conceded “I don't know if any associates here are less happy than those at other places.”

“Even at 2am when everything's miserable, you can joke with friends.”

There's “a fair amount of socializing – if you want to go out for a drink with peers there's always an opportunity.” Events range from holiday parties to March Madness pools and the usual plethora of summer activities. One interviewee recounted: “Before the holiday season the senior associates spent the leftovers of their marketing budget on a group dinner for us juniors.” Not to be outdone, Willkie's management also stokes camaraderie with an annual state of the firm meeting covering financials, growth, practice areas for future focus and the general direction of the firm.

Befitting this transparency, “the firm has admitted they have a way to go with diversity.” Associates felt “New York is more diverse than DC.” The powers that be are aware of the situation, and the firm does have women's committees as well as cross-office mentoring programs aimed at DC associates. “We really are trying,” reported those involved in recruitment, and others felt “impressed that diversity is something the firm wants us all to be aware of.” Speakers at 'diversity lunches' have included Dr Brigitte Vittrup, associate professor of child development at Texas Woman's University. Such events lead sources to conclude “the firm takes inclusiveness seriously, and everyone's aware we need to do a better job.”

Pro Bono

There's no cap on the number of pro bono hours associates can treat as billable. As in previous years, corporate sources pointed out “it's harder for us to use our skills pro bono,” but “there's plenty of people in the transactional group who do an incredible amount, and the firm does a good job circulating opportunities targeted at us.” The firm organizes a dedicated pro bono week in October, and regularly partners with the Lawyers' Committee in DC, and Her Justice in New York which works with domestic violence victims – the two organizations regularly take a junior each for an externship. One associate told us while admiring the Willkie pro bono volunteer mug on their desk that they'd “gotten to do child custody and protective order cases. Pro bono is taken as seriously as anything else here.”

Pro bono hours

  • For all US attorneys: 30,663
  • Average per US attorney: 67

Hours & Compensation

Willkie also has no hours targets for associates. That doesn't mean anybody's shirking work as “people are competitive and want to say 'I billed X amount', and I think most people would hit a target if we had one.” Interviewees appreciated “it makes a huge difference when we're not busy, we can enjoy the lighter weeks.” Some argued “a requirement might force the assigning partners to make sure everyone has the same amount of work,” but most “generally have a sense of when we'll be busy or light” and could adjust their schedule accordingly.

“Most people would hit a target if we had one.”

Management had assured attorneys “point blank in an open forum they'd match market for associate salaries,” so when Cravath unveiled its new $180,000 and up scale there “wasn't any question the firm would match.” Associates get 20 days a year vacation, and partners “consider it part of your compensation, and vital to your work/life balance.” One source was even told “don't be an idiot, make sure you take it” in their annual review.

Strategy & Future

“The firm is conservatively managed,” according to juniors confident that “Willkie is run like a business. We're not going to suddenly go under. We weathered the last crisis, and something associates like about this place is the sense of job security.” That includes being clued in on future developments, for instance “management talked to us about the Houston office before it was opened.” Chairman Tom Cerabino tells us the firm's “blueprint for growth is built around six areas – M&A, private equity, commercial litigation, restructuring, asset management and antitrust. Houston has been very successful because we've managed to leverage expertise from other offices.”

“Associates like the sense of job security.”

Interview with chairman Tom Cerabino

Chambers Associate: What's been the most exciting thing that the firm has done over the past year?

Tom Cerabino: I think we've been able to continue our upward track maintaining and growing the business of the firm, at the same time paying attention to keeping hold of our cultural touchstones. A good year is one in which we've done both of those things, and 2016 fits the bill!

CA: What’s your long-term vision for Willkie?

TC: We categorize our firm as an elite international one, and what that means for us is to look to cover not everything within the law but a selection of core areas. Our blueprint for growth is built around these six areas – M&A, private equity, commercial litigation, restructuring, asset management and antitrust. We're looking to work in these high margin areas for sophisticated clients in select jurisdictions. Willkie Farr is not looking to be everything for everyone but target our approach more carefully, and that's something we've honed over the last few years.

CA: Of the six core areas you outlined, which do you see as having the greatest potential for growth in the next few years?

TC: I think looking at where we've been growing, for the most part it's been outside of our New York office. Houston and London in particular have seen substantial growth in the last couple of years. We opened in Houston at the end of 2014 and it's been very successful because we've managed to leverage a lot of expertise from our other offices. In London, we've just recently grown to the 50 lawyer mark which has been a slow but steady process, as we've added a number of pieces to the puzzle to compliment our New York offering. In terms of practice areas in those places, M&A, litigation and investigations have been very robust and I'd expect more growth there.

CA: How will Donald Trump's election affect the market? Are there any particular practice areas that you think we'll see a lot of activity in?

TC: That remains to be seen, people have a lot of guesses as to how that will impact business. Conventional wisdom suggests that M&A will be helped by tax relief or reduced regulation, but it's too early to guess how things will develop in a situation as unpredictable as this one.

CA: Associates were pleased to report a good level of transparency on the part of management: how do you maintain that in practice?

TC: When we're talking about the culture at our firm, one of the main elements of that is transparency at partner level for our associates. We've gone out of our way to give associates an insight into the inner workings of the firm from the time they're summers, so that they understand what we're about, the firm's business and our goals and strategies. We do things like open forums with associates each year on different topics, and we generally have a culture of openness, so I'm glad to hear them saying that.

CA: Beyond transparency, what do you think makes the culture of Willkie unique among big firms and how do you ensure that culture is maintained in practice?

TC: The two main elements of our culture are transparency and collegiality. I myself started at Willkie as a first-year and my co-chairman was a summer here, and throughout our careers here the collegiality aspect has been very apparent. It's very important that partners and associates work together cooperatively and we help each other out. Law is sometimes a stressful environment but we really try to encourage people to forge relationships to get through that, and treat each other as colleagues. We enforce that by setting the example from the top, and as with any organization if younger people see those senior to them behaving a certain way that sets the tone and it becomes the norm.

CA: How do you maintain good levels of communication between the firm's different offices?

TC: Part of the secret there is our size, we're not so big that we can't get to know each other across office and we talk regularly. There's also a lot of work shared across offices. Beyond normal everyday communications, the best way to ensure quality control is working together and we get so many opportunities because of our focused footprint. For example, Frankfurt and London do a lot of the same types of transactions as New York, and so they work together.

We also have different committees which meet regularly, bringing together leaders in different offices to share strategies. I think in a firm of our size it's easier to work together than it is at larger firms. Outside of the US we operate only in Western Europe, and not in Asia – that's a deliberate decision on our part so that we maintain a focused practice.

CA: If you could give any advice to a student looking to go into the law, what would it be?

TC: I think what's important is finding the area that interests you and pursuing that. When we take people into our summer program we give them the opportunity to sample various different areas, and we feel that's very important as we don't like pigeonholing people. It's important for associate development and their happiness, as well as the firm's investment, that people get into areas they're interested in and it's our job to expose them to those. As I've said we don't cover everything, but all those who come into a big corporate New York firm will be exposed to high end practice and it's a case of finding the right fit for both the associate and the firm.

CA: Is there anything we haven't talked about that you'd like our readers to know about the firm?

TC: Like other firms, we've had our share of lateral hiring and that's been part of our growth strategy. But compared to a lot of our peer firms we've really valued associates when it comes to promoting them to partner. It's important to provide associates with a realistic opportunity to become equity partners if that's what they want. At Willkie Farr we only have one tier of partnership, and everyone shares the equity – that's something very important to our culture here.

Interview with professional personnel committee chair Tom Henry

Chambers Associate: What do you think most draws candidates to apply to Willkie?

Tom Henry: Some of the hallmarks we're known for are our openness and transparency. When people meet Willkie attorneys they quickly realize we enjoy what we do and who we do it with, and we're happy to share that experience. That makes our interviews pretty dynamic and easy-going. Another thing that's appealing is our ability to bring in self-starters and entrepreneurs. We want people to take ownership of matters, and quality candidates are those who drive their own careers. Willkie is a place with a culture set up for attorneys to take their own skill-set, learn on the job and make a career for themselves.

CA: What’s the scope of your recruiting drive, which law schools do you primarily recruit from?

TH: We have a traditional slate of top law schools nationwide we follow for US recruiting, and we cast a wide net. Participating not just in OCIs but job fairs, we touch more than 25 law schools with a primary focus in the northeast and mid-Atlantic. We also go to Northwestern, Michigan, Duke and the University of Texas. In addition to the typical top international schools, we also look at local schools in large metropolitan areas. We're not just wed to a couple of places, but we're consistent in where we hit, and people like to recruit at the schools they themselves went to.

CA: What does the firm do to encourage diversity when recruiting?

TH: Diversity is particularly important here at Willkie, and I'll give you results to prove it – our incoming summer class for 2017 is 1/3 diverse, which is higher than many of our peers. That's an intentional demonstration of our commitment to maintaining and improving the manner in which we recruit students. For OCIs we have specific academic standards but we also go to diverse schools such as Howard. Some of the job fairs we attend have higher female proportions than the national average, and this upcoming summer's class is also majority female. That was also intentional and a chance to make sure we're striking at least a 50/50 associate gender balance.

Diversity is something we take seriously not just when recruiting, but also when it comes to retention and promotion. We have a working group and task force for diversity that meets and discusses what we can to promote it. Bias training is something we've put particular focus on. When we then go on to promotion, we can again look at data – of the three partners promoted in the recent class, two were women. That's again a good sign of our commitment to diversity.

CA: So what can a candidate do to impress at interview?

TH: We really look for people who are self-starters, motivated, and can speak about what's on their resume. On that point, we want to delve in deeper to find how much passion that person has. We're also looking for people who can explain why Willkie is on their slate of firms and have done their homework on us, as that makes for an easier connection with the interviewer. It's important for candidates themselves to ask good questions so as to demonstrate they know more about the firm than just what's in Chambers Associate reviews and the like. That demonstrates good though and that the candidate will take client matters seriously, which is very important.

CA: Last year you told us you'd like candidates to be team-focused: what activities can they get involved in that best demonstrate that?

TH: There are a number of ways, working in a team setting or in extracurriculars – whether that's a team sport, club or any kind of team-oriented pursuit. The other aspect is displaying in interviews the right temperament for teamwork. We want to find highly intelligent people who present themselves as someone you can get along with working late at night or occasionally at weekends. A big part of demonstrating this is in attitude and the enthusiasm they show in a one-on-one situation.

CA: How important is it to have an idea of what you want to do when you start at the firm?

TH: It really doesn't matter as we expect those who come in for summer to understand generally what we do here, but our expectation is that they'll learn what the best fit for them will be during the process of summer. We offer a wide range of practice areas and don't expect people to know what they're all like until they've tried them. Summer works on a rotation system, and only at the end do we solicit associates' preferences of where they'd like to go. Business needs will of course mandate how many people go into each area, but at the end of the day the individual will have a big say in that too.

Throughout summer we check in on summers to check if they want to do something they hadn't listed at the start. We try to make summer an à la carte experience where they can pivot into things they hear about during the process and get as broad an experience as they possibly can.

CA: What makes your summer program stand out from those at other firms?

TH: We want to balance exposure to our firm and its core practices with client exposure, so people have a better understanding of providing professional service to our clients. It's also important for summers to understand the people they're working with and get as many different connections in as many settings as possible. Finally, everyone comes from all over the country to New York, and hold many events around the city from downtown to Yankee Stadium and a yacht cruise to get them familiar with it all. We do this so after 10 weeks they're not only ready to hit the ground running professionally, but understand our culture so it's as easy to start the job as it can be. At Willkie we're very conscious of each individuals needs, making them feel welcome at the firm and in the city.

CA: Do you have any final advice for someone looking to apply to Willkie?

TH: I can't emphasize enough how much we value each individual as an entrepreneur. The best example of that is recently one of my colleagues, a senior associate, was recognized in the media for their pro bono representation of Iranian girl whose visa was in jeopardy as a result of Donald Trump's first executive order restricting migrants. Not only did she put together a team to represent her, she flew to Istanbul to meet this girl and her father so she could fly them back herself, meeting a team of lawyers and making sure they'd get through border security. This is a place where we encourage cases like that which make a difference, it's the most valuable experience one can have. She's just one example of the self-starters who make a difference here.

Get Hired

“There are three qualities we're looking for in new recruits” said associates involved in interviewing candidates, “competence, effort and personality.” Because “how hard they work is shown by their transcript,” conversation tends to focus on the latter quality. “Part of the interview is definitely devoted to making sure a candidate can talk confidently about work they've done, also that they can carry a conversation and read social cues.” The approach tends to be somewhat personalized to the interviewee as “it's up to the attorneys doing the interview to come up with questions,” though typically “it's really standard. Generally callbacks especially are about if you'll fit.”

As candidates tend to be reviewed “more on an individual basis,” our sources didn't think “there's a magic bullet – whether you're a quieter or more gregarious person, they'll find value in you and give you a chance.” Acknowledging “sometimes things do jump out when I'm reviewing resumes,” some felt “the firm is interested in people with commercial and business knowledge. Having familiarity with that could definitely help.” On the other hand “in DC we do a lot of government stuff, and a lot of people basically have the same resume! More than any one thing we actively look for pre-law school experience.”

When looking at firms it can help to have an idea of what area of law you're interested in,not only to narrow your search but because “having a better idea of what your career will look like means you can hit the ground running,” which will impress interviewers. It also helps to think long-term: one interviewee confided “I wish I'd honed in more on exit opportunities. It would also be helpful to have learned about personalities within groups.”

Major League Baseball and Willkie

You can trace Willkie's roots back to 1888, when it was founded as a four lawyer, one office firm named Hornblower & Byrne. In the 129 years of its existence the firm has attracted a smattering of house name clients – none more famous than National League Baseball. The Senior Circuit of Major League Baseball first employed the firm's services in 1933, and Willkie has served as regular counsel since.

The United States' national sport has lead to more than few run ins with the law, from the 1919 match-fixing Black Sox Scandal to 2006 Mitchell Report alleging that a large number of players were using performance-enhancing drugs. Perhaps most notorious is the relationship between baseball and federal antitrust laws. In 1922 the Supreme Court heard the case of Federal Baseball Club v. National League, a dispute over apparent monopolization of the sport by Major League Baseball. A unanimous decision declared that baseball should not be classified as interstate commerce and thus is not subject to the Sherman Antitrust Act (prohibiting anti-competitive business activities).

Since that ruling, baseball's unique exemption from antitrust laws has held firm, despite no other sport receiving such special status. Flood v. Kuhn (1972) maintained the status quo primarily on a stare decisis basis, following a past precedent even if that precedent was incorrect in the first place. But that's not to discredit the achievements of Willkie's lawyers: a team consisting of Louis F. Carroll, Mark F. Hughes, Louis L. Hoynes, Jr., Barry Rona, Robert J. Kheel, who argued for the defense and reaffirmed the exemption. The firm has also been involved in sales or acquisitions of multiple National League teams including the Chicago Cubs, Washington Nationals and Montreal Expos.

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): 140
  • Associates (US): 338
  • Summer Salary 2017  
  • 1Ls: N/A
  • 2Ls: $3,077462week
  • 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 2017: 60
  • Offers/acceptances 2016: 63 offers, 52 acceptances

Main areas of work
Antitrust and competition; asset management; business reorganization and restructuring; communications, media and privacy; commodities and derivatives; corporate and financial services; environmental; energy; 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: 51
• Number of 2nd year associates: 52
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $180,000
• 2nd year: $190,000
• Clerking policy: Yes

Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2017:
Brooklyn, Columbia University, Cornell, Duke, Emory Fordham University, GWU, Georgetown University, Harvard, Howard University, NYU, Northwestern University, St John’s University, Tulane, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, University of Texas, UCLA, UVA, Vanderbilt, Washington University, 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 and attend department overviews. 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 sumer associates to get to know one another, our lawyers and the city.