Tons of telecoms, no hours requirements, and not a prima donna in sight. HWG ain’t your typical BigLaw firm – and that’s just how they like it.
Once upon a time, there were three BigLaw attorneys “who realized, ‘this isn’t the way life should be.’ So, they started their own firm with the philosophy that you don’t need to stay in the office when your work is done. You should go home and see your family instead.” And so, Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis was founded in DC in 1998, making it a relatively new kid on the BigLaw block. Like any millennial worth its salt, HWG doesn’t follow the status quo, according to its juniors today: “It’s very intentionally not a traditional BigLaw firm.” But that’s not to say HWG doesn’t get itself premium work. “We handle sophisticated matters for big-name clients," including some of the biggest names in the tech industry (you can probably guess who we mean).
It’s work with clients like these that’s earned HWG a top-tier ranking from Chambers USA for its telecom, broadcast & satellite work in DC. And its expertise is in high demand: Facebook brought on Roy Austin Jr., a former partner at the firm, in January 2021 as deputy GC and vice president of civil rights, not long after it faced criticism for its response to hate speech on its platforms. All new associates join DC, but there’s also a branch in Raleigh, North Carolina, which is home to a couple of litigation partners.
HWG is a strong performer across the board in our annual research. In 2021 they hit the US top 10 in Quality of Life; and Pro Bono.
Associates don’t join specific practice groups. Instead, “you can choose your own adventure.” Upon arrival, “you’re assigned cases, then you start getting work from relationships you form.” Associates pointed out just one downside of this free-market system: “When there's a big all-hands-on-deck investigation or transaction, you might have to jump in, even if it's not an area of particular interest to you.” Most of the work at HWG generally falls under the litigation or telecoms umbrellas, but that's not the whole story.
Juniors got broad exposure to tech and telecoms work, and the firm represents clients working with technologies including satellite, software, wireless communications and drones. A lot of the practice is centered on compliance: it ranges from researching compliance matters to preparing materials for clients to use to train their employees. Some associates are tied to particular clients, so they handle a bunch of issues for them. “Some of the work is one-off projects and some are ongoing matters,” one explained. “I’ve had twice-weekly meetings with clients dealing with all kinds of compliance questions.” This means associates were able to develop ongoing relationships with clients. We also heard of associates getting to draft reports on US telecoms policy for foreign companies.
Telecoms clients: Microsoft, EchoStar, Cisco. Advised SpaceX in its plan to build and operate Starlink, a system of up to 12,000 satellites that will provide fast broadband on a global scale.
“Interviewing the client to see what the real story is…”
On the litigious side, interviewees had been kept busy with government investigations and responding to government inquiries. Associates were responsible for interviewing witnesses, drafting memos and “interviewing the client to see what the real story is so we can represent them in the best light.” This type of work was often tied to telecoms too. “We handle anything to do with the Federal Communications Commission,” one told us. “You name it, we do it!” Lobbying the FCC to change certain rules is common, for example. Work for the firm’s ‘ethics’ practice entailed tasks “as mundane as handling exit agreements if a partner wants to leave a firm,” as well as more exciting responsibilities like “representing attorneys at disciplinary hearings.”
On any type of litigious matter, associates typically handle the discovery stage of a case by drafting interrogatory answers and responses to document requests, plus summary judgment motions. “I’ve done far less doc review than I would have gotten at a big litigation firm,” one reckoned. Another told us “I’ve only been at the firm for a couple of months, but I’ve been on calls with clients and communicated with them.” We even heard that “some juniors got to argue motions and appeals in court” before the pandemic.
Litigation clients: Tata Communications, The Gap, Google Fiber. Represented production company Black Country Productions in disputes regarding collaboration and licensing agreements.
Culture, Hours & Compensation
So, the firm’s founding partners set up HWG with a view to creating a different kind of culture. More than twenty years on, has it held on to what it set out to do? “Partners and associates make a real effort to keep that culture,” insiders agreed. “The firm encourages everyone to live full lives.” As one example, “we have a program called ‘Anything But Law,’ where someone in the firm talks about their hobbies. It’s a fun thing which sets a good example, like, ‘Hey, this partner makes times for his hobby so I can too.’” Another interviewee remembered that “a couple of years ago they sent a firmwide email saying that it is generally OK to log off your work email at a reasonable time unless there's something pressing."
“We have a program called ‘Anything But Law,’ where someone in the firm talks about their hobbies.”
- Billable hours: no requirement
There isn’t a billing target at HWG, but associates estimated they put in about 40 hours a week (our survey showed it was more like 44, which is still below the national average). At a recent firm meeting, a couple of the founding partners reportedly confirmed to associates that there isn’t an unwritten expectation either – they don’t want people stressing about a number or taking their foot off the pedal once they’ve hit a certain number. Managing partner Bill Wiltshire also “encourages us all to take vacation days” for mental wellbeing.
With a first-year salary of $178,500, base salary isn’t as high as other DC firms, “but our benefits package is very generous.” Moreover, “from first year you get a share of the profits.” Sources felt that “fosters a team environment because everyone is invested in the firm’s success, and everyone benefits from it.”
“There aren’t any prima donnas here!”
One associate enthused that “the lack of snobbiness compared to what I saw at a bigger firm was a huge relief. People are down-to-earth – even partners who are near the top of their practice areas!” Case in point, we heard everyone from named partners to legal assistants eats lunch together. “There aren’t any prima donnas here!” They described a family-friendly feel too: “People’s kids come in and say hi – and our healthcare plan covers family very generously!”
The firm made an effort to keep its culture in place while everyone worked remotely during the pandemic. For its holiday party, “everyone got together on Zoom and the firm paid for dinner. We had a virtual cocktail-making class too.” Some were disappointed that HWG didn’t offer a tech stipend for remote working, but those who joined during the pandemic were onboarded pretty smoothly. “Even though I wasn’t in the office I had loads of video chats,” one shared. “People definitely made an effort to get to know me.”
Associates reckoned “they’ve built themselves as a place people want to stay long-term,” with one saying: “I would not leave HWG to go to another law firm.” This is an ambitious bunch: half of our survey respondents intended to make partner and said the opportunity for promotion was the factor most likely to impact their next career move. Associates scored partnership achievability at HWG at 75 out of 100, which is higher than we see at most firms.
Associates can get a sense on their path to making partner at their annual review, where they also get feedback on their quality of work, responsiveness and collegiality. The firm doesn’t pile on formal training, but newbies are assigned associate and partner mentors when they join. “Associates work hand in hand with partners, rather than just being a cog in the wheel,” one explained. “It’s very egalitarian, which is the best kind of career development there is.”
Diversity & Inclusion
“The informality of routes into this firm means achieving diversity is a bit of a struggle,” one interviewee figured, though we heard that now “the firm is considering joining a pipeline program to get people from diverse backgrounds who have an interest in telecoms into the firm.” Associates told us the firm “has made D&I a huge focus and there’s been a concerted push to hire diverse laterals and legal assistants.”
HWG has a strong male to female ratio – at 30%, its women partnership exceeds the national average. Up until 2020, secondary caregivers only got four weeks of parental leave, which associates weren’t impressed with. Now though, all new parents get 17 weeks of leave, whether they’re primary or secondary caregivers.
Pro bono hours
- For all attorneys: 2,850
- Average per attorney: 52.8
Associates can bill an unlimited amount of pro bono hours, though we heard “there’s a less formal structure around pro bono here compared to some other DC firms, which is probably because we’re a smaller firm.” The type of projects associates are likely to work on may depend on what partners do. “Certain partners do certain types, like immigration or criminal justice reform.” Associates had been involved in amicus briefs for nonprofits, as well as projects via a tenants’ rights organization in DC. One case involved an appeal against revoking driving licenses for nonpayment of traffic fines. “We wrote a brief on behalf of experts who described how literacy levels are low among lower-income people,” an insider explained, “so they can’t effectively navigate the legal system to keep their licenses.”
Strategy & Future
Associates are given the lay of the land at an annual presentation about the firm’s finances, and praised leadership “for being transparent about the firm’s goals, one of which is to grow. They hired at least four people during the pandemic, so we’re definitely expanding!” Associates took comfort in the fact that HWG not only hired during the pandemic, but it also retained all of its existing staff, as it did in the 2008 financial crash.
The first stage: recruitment on and off campus
OCI applicants interviewed: undisclosed
Interviewees outside OCI: undisclosed
During OCIs, Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis looks for law students that have both the intellectual drive and the “esprit de corps that is the core of our firm,” according to hiring sources. The firm visits around 13 schools, but students who are interested in the firm are encouraged to reach out directly if HWG does not attend their OCI.
Partners at the firm typically conduct interviews. HWG has highly regarded practices in several fields, including white collar litigation, energy, ethics, and civil rights. For the 2021 summer program, the firm is concentrating its search on those with an interest in TMT (Tech, Media & Telecoms) or international trade. The firm will primarily be looking for candidates interested in practicing in those areas.
Top Tips for this stage:
“HWG’s small size and close-knit culture offers associates a fundamentally different associate experience than practicing law at firms with hundreds or thousands of attorneys. We enjoy meeting candidates who understand and appreciate HWG’s unique approach to the practice of law.” – Adrienne Fowler, hiring partner
Applicants invited to second stage interview: undisclosed
Typically, callback interviews at HWG consist of approximately five 30-minute office interviews with partners, and then lunch with two HWG attorneys. However, due to the global pandemic, hiring sources tell us this year's process is likely to deviate from the norm, although the number of interviews and breakdown of interviewers is likely to be the same. Questions during the callback stage do not differ much from the OCI stage.
Top Tips for this stage:
“First, do your homework and come prepared to talk about why you want to work at our firm. Second, the most memorable interviews are ones where the applicant illustrates their answers with stories and experiences.” – Adrienne Fowler, hiring partner
During HWG’s summer associate program, one partner and one associate are generally in charge of summer associates’ work flow and experiences. The firm aims to provide summers with experience on projects such as attending depositions or making court appearances, as well as in-person agency advocacy. The firm does not have formalized practice groups, so summer associates (like all associates) can take on projects in any area. A hiring source noted: “We have not designed a program with daily outings and scavenger hunts. We want to give our summer associates a real view of life at the firm: the great work, the casual gatherings, and the excellent colleagues.”
Top Tips for this stage:
“We encourage our summer associates to develop meaningful legal experience and personal relationships.” – Adrienne Fowler, Hiring Partner
The majority of current HWG associates joined the firm immediately after law school, or after doing a clerkship, but the firm does hire associates with two to five years of experience at other firms or in government – one or two such individuals join each year. The firm is particularly interested in mid-level associates with experience in project management, examining witnesses in court or in deposition, and advocating before an agency.
Fowler tells us: “Be yourself and don’t try to guess what your interviewers want to hear. Genuine answers that provide the interviewer insight into your passions are wildly more effective than rehearsed, generalized answers that might sound good in the abstract.”
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This Firm's Rankings in
USA Guide, 2021
District of Columbia
- Litigation: White-Collar Crime & Government Investigations (Band 5)
- Telecom, Broadcast & Satellite (Band 1)