As it celebrates its ten-year anniversary in 2022, this spirited litigation shop is “both a powerhouse boutique and a lean startup all at the same time.”
NYC is a focal point for many of the giants in BigLaw, but great law firms aren’t just decided by headcount. Enter Holwell Shuster & Goldberg – a litigation boutique made up of just over 60 lawyers working from a single base in the heart of the Big Apple. “We’re only ten years old and that comes with a startup-like culture,” an interviewee noted. “We’re a relatively small group of incredible people, building the firm up into what we want it to be.”
“…a smaller, more intimate environment where new ideas are welcomed and heard.”
HSG had strong foundations to build its reputation on: among its founders were esteemed litigators from Kasowitz – Michael Shuster, Daniel Goldberg and Dorit Ungar Black – as well as Richard Holwell, who served as a federal judge in New York’s Southern District Court. Chambers USA rates HSG’s general commercial expertise in the ‘highly regarded’ category in New York and gives kudos to the firm’s capabilities in areas like antitrust, securities, and insurance disputes. “I was looking for a firm where I could be a generalist,” an interviewee recalled, “where I could do both trial and appellate work in a community of associates where I could develop and grow.” Another detailed how they wanted to work on “top-notch litigation, but in a smaller, more intimate environment where new ideas are welcomed and heard.” Sound like you? Read on…
Strategy & Future
“We see ourselves as a leading, high-end litigation boutique,” says co-founding partner Michael Shuster, while partner Blair Kaminsky tells us that “we practice from this amazing niche, where we are this lean, collegial, creative boutique, but litigate in the top cases against and with the top firms.”
As the firm celebrates its ten-year anniversary in 2022, Shuster tells us that the future will be focused on remaining “true to our core founding principles, which were to have a genuinely collegial firm; a lockstep compensation system; to grow organically and internally (rather than by lateral acquisitions); to have a very strong pro bono practice; and to have a genuinely inclusive and welcoming environment.”
“I joined the firm eight-and-a-half years ago and since then we've grown from 12 lawyers to 60 lawyers, 87 people.” In 2021, HSG recruited 11 junior associates – its largest associate intake to date – seven of whom identified as diverse. For Kaminsky, this growth hasn’t got in the way of HSG’s small firm feel: “HSG is both a powerhouse boutique and a lean startup all at the same time.”
HSG only takes on a handful of associates per year. It should therefore come as no surprise that the firm’s hiring process is extremely selective; associates at the firm were quick to tell us that a number of lawyers had completed prestigious judicial clerkships prior to joining. “When you first join, you are assigned a couple of cases during your orientation week,” one source told us, “and these cases tend to align with your interests, which they pick up on during the interview process.” While oversight remains to make sure work is evenly distributed, sources told us that once settled, assignment “becomes a bit more organic. You are free to reach out to partners, and they are free to reach out to you.” This interviewee found that assignment is “usually pretty partner-driven, but you more or less get to work with the people you enjoy working with.”
“I don’t think you could be siloed here if you tried!”
Associates at HSG are put to work in its generalist commercial litigation practice: “The firm puts an intentionally big focus on letting everyone be generalists,” one associate explained. “My background was in a particular kind of litigation, but I wanted more variety in the cases that I was assigned. I don’t think you could be siloed here if you tried!” Interviewees spoke of HSG’s strengths in antitrust, mortgage-backed securities, real estate, appellate, professional malpractice, and financial services disputes. “Everything falls under the commercial umbrella,” a source enthused. “Someone asked me ‘Do you have an IP group?’ and we don’t, but I’ve certainly worked on IP matters before!”
This junior told us that they’d been able to work on “a lot of smaller matters that have come directly from partners or referrals into the firm – those cases are really hard, but fun!” What associates do “varies depending on the case: I’ve drafted motions to dismiss and complaints, and I’ve also taken part in strategy conversations. One of my fondest moments took place around five months in, when I shared an idea I had in a meeting that everyone liked, so they went with it!” Others told us that they’d been able to prepare deposition outlines, draft and refine briefs, and get stuck into substantial research assignments. “We have the same profile as a big firm, but we also take on smaller clients where we might work on a specific matter,” another junior pointed out. “At a large BigLaw firm you wouldn’t get to touch a small arbitration, but here you can.”
Commercial litigation clients: Chubb, HSBC, Visa. Acted as lead trial counsel to Visa in several antitrust actions over payment card swipe fees worth billions of dollars.
“We are a hungry firm due to our relative newness in the legal field,” one source remarked, before adding: “People are not apathetic or indifferent here, and we work hard. Partners are, on the whole, closer to associates generationally, so there’s also more of an understanding that there is life outside of work. The name partners encourage associates to take their full vacation time.” Others also underlined this point: “There aren’t generational differences in what the partnership wants us to do, and that makes for a very positive work environment.” And fortunately, this is something that hasn’t been lost during the shift to remote working: “They’ve gone out of their way to communicate in this virtual environment what HSG is.”
“People are friendly nerds, and that’s the vibe that I joined for!”
With a number of attorneys coming from academic backgrounds, associates felt that the cultural life was rich with different interests: “People are friendly nerds, and that’s the vibe that I joined for!” This source emphasized the “very strong sense of ‘team’ at HSG, which makes working here sustainable and enjoyable. Associates’ voices and views are valued, and we speak up in strategy meetings and on client calls.”
“At a smaller firm, the impact of any individual associate on the firm’s overall outcome is much higher,” one source told us, “so the incentive is there for partners to take an interest in associate development.” And take an interest they do. “The proof is in the pudding,” said this junior, “in that the firm gives you substantive responsibility from the get-go, like taking depositions. That’s a function of being a boutique – associates have an eye on what is happening at all times when the teams are lean.”
Associates are formally assigned a partner mentor, but interviewees tended to agree that “development is more or less informal: a lot of it happens in practice when you are assigned matters.” This source felt that HSG had got the balance just right between guiding juniors gently and pushing them beyond their comfort zone: “I was on client calls right away, but at the beginning I was observing how the partner managed the call, then we would have a discussion about the dynamics that were in play, and then I led the next call and received feedback on it.” The firm is clear from the off that it intends to promote attorneys to partner from within: “And that’s all they want to do. It’s been so beneficial, because you want to be valued in your job and you want to be part of the conversation.” Our survey recorded a higher percentage of associates intending to make partner compared to the market average that we collect.
HSG clocks more pro bono hours per attorney than over 96% of the firms we survey. The firm has worked with organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the International Refugee Assistance Project, and the New York Office of the Appellate Defender. “The time-keeping software that we use doesn’t make a distinction between pro bono and billable hours,” one associate told us. Not that it would matter if it did, as the firm places no cap on the amount of pro bono its attorneys can participate in. “I’ve told partners that I don’t have time for a billable matter because my pro bono matter is ramping up, and there’s never been an issue with that,” a source remarked.
If juniors want to get pro bono on their docket, “you can reach out to organizations on your own, join something that’s already happening, or communicate an interest that you want to pursue to the firm.” We were told that HSG “pretty much always green lights” pro bono projects that associates have sourced themselves. “There’s a really wide range of matters” to get involved in, with one associate telling us that they’d done pro bono trials and appellate cases on the Second Circuit. Immigration work is “incredibly rewarding: I’m representing a client who is facing deportation to a country that he hasn’t been to in 50 years, and we believe he is protected under certain provisions in the constitution.”
Pro bono hours
- For all attorneys: undisclosed
- Average per attorney: undiscloed
Hours & Compensation
Billable hours: no requirement
“I had some concerns about not having a billable hours requirement when I first joined,” said one junior, “because I was worried about expectations being stupidly high.” Any concerns that associates had were quickly set aside, however: “The firm certainly doesn’t have a hard billable requirement and it doesn’t have a soft one either!” How much people work, we heard, “has more to do with your general work personality, what cases you’re on, and when they blow up.”
The main takeaway from our calls was that trials mean bursts of long hours, but fortunately “trials don’t happen that often, so the work-life balance here is really reasonable.” What’s more, “because we’re a small firm, you can see the busier periods coming – we get a heads-up when a trial is going to happen.” Our survey respondents reported an average estimate of 49 hours worked in the previous week and 14 days of vacation taken in the previous 12 months.
Diversity, Equity & Inclusion
One thing that stands out at HSG is that wherever you’re from, there’s probably someone at the firm who speaks your language. Between the firm’s lawyers, the languages spoken include English, French, German, Hebrew, Hindi, Italian, Romanian, Russian, and Spanish. “One of the places where I’ve seen the most change is in recruiting,” one associate noted, “there’s a pretty robust intention behind it and certainly a lot of email traffic about it.” In addition, the firm reconstituted its D&I committee in 2020 with the purpose of making it more representative: “We also sought to add Mike Shuster – one of the firm’s founding partners – so that we would have a founding, management-level partner on the committee,” Kaminsky adds. To further signal its commitment beyond the firm, HSG often matches contributions associates make to social justice organizations.
The first stage: recruitment on and off campus
Number of OCI applicants interviewed 2022:undisclosed
HSG is now participating in OCI at select schools. In the summer, the firm also sends letters to various law journal/reviews as well as student resource groups that introduce law students to the firm. HSG is accepting resume applications from students interested in the firm’s newly established summer programme, or a full-time associate position.
Successful candidates are interviewed at the firm’s sole base in New York and sit in front of a panel of partners and associates of different levels. These interviews may span across a few days or be wrapped up in one. Founding partner the Hon. Richard J. Holwell tells us the budding litigation boutique is on the hunt for “talented, creative, strategic lawyers.” Holwell also shines some light on the interview questions: “The questions we ask are geared toward confirming a candidate’s interest in litigating at a firm like ours and ensuring that we hire top talent. Our close-knit, collaborative, roll-up-your-sleeves culture is important to us, and we look for candidates who share that spirit.”
“Be yourself. We are looking for colleagues who we will enjoy working with over the long term, and the best way for us to assess that is if you are genuine and relaxed during the interview.”– Richard Holwell
“The firm has a pretty eclectic group of characters and people do well to be themselves here. So be sure to offer your opinion, whatever that may be.”– a third-year associate
Offers 2022: undisclosed
The summer program at HSG allows summers to step into the shoes of first and second-year associates by working on deposition preparation, brief drafting and legal research. A partner dedicated towards structuring the summer is in place to assign a mix of work alongside creating networks with lawyers over a range of antics, including the usual happy hours. Holwell encourages potential candidates to “make the most out of your summer, dig in to your assignments, solicit feedback, and take advantage of the opportunities we offer for you to work and socialize with a diverse group of lawyers at the firm.”
“Be confident in your abilities, make a strong personal impression, and enjoy the give and take of discussing and working through challenging issues with your colleagues.” – Richard Holwell
“Take the mask off before you come here.” – a second-year associate
The firm's founding partner leaves us with some food for thought… "HSG is a non-hierarchical meritocracy where the value of one’s ideas counts far more than one’s seniority level," Holwell suggests.
The View From the Top: Interview with Firm Leaders at Holwell Shuster & Goldberg
Chambers Associate: How would you describe the firm’s current market position?
Michael Shuster, Partner & Co-Founder of Holwell Shuster & Goldberg: We see ourselves as a leading, high-end litigation boutique. Essentially, we are a firm that can and does try cases, represents a wide variety of clients, has a very active pro bono practice, is very focused on diversity and inclusiveness, and has a strong culture of collegiality and mentorship. But fundamentally, in terms of our position in the marketplace, I would say that we see ourselves as a leading high-end litigation boutique.
Blair E. Kaminsky, Partner: We have a really strong track record of litigating alongside - and adverse to - the top firms in the city, and the country. So, we practice from this amazing niche where we are at this lean, collegial, creative boutique, but litigate in the top cases, against and with the top firms, and we're very, very fortunate.
CA:Are there highlights from the past year or in the firm’s immediate future you think our readers should be aware about?
MS: So we hired 11 associates last year, which was significant growth for the firm. I think 7 out of those 11 self-identify as diverse. We had a big trial last year for our client, McAndrews and Forbes against News Corp in federal court over the summer, principally in July. And that was actually a live trial, taking place in court during COVID. We had a large team, and associates played a key role, and even handled witnesses in court.
Vincent Levy, Partner: We had another trial in December which was supposed to be in person in Switzerland, an arbitration with Gibson done on the other side, that was led by the London team. This ended up being done remotely because of the Omicron rise. But again, we had one of our mid-level associates taking testimony of one of the fact witnesses, with the lead partner on the other side handling that witness. Our legal team was here in New York, and the other side, as I said, was Gibson Dunne, based mostly in London, but also in the US, and witnesses were basically everywhere in the world.
BK: Just one more note on the trial over the summer, which is that in addition to our associates taking a lead role, our summer associates were enmeshed in the trial team down at the trial hotel. I met one of them for lunch one day, and he was working on evidence that was going to be presented in court the next day. Our summer associates played a real role.
The other thing I was going to add is that this year is our 10th anniversary. I joined the firm 8 1/2 years ago and since then we've grown from twelve lawyers to 60 lawyers, 87 people. The firm has come a really long way, and managed to maintain the culture that Mike described, which is quite something. HSG is both a powerhouse boutique and a lean startup all at the same time.
CA: How has the firm weathered the pandemic, and has it affected the firm’s long-term strategy?
MS: No, it hasn't had an impact on the long-term strategy. I mean, we're grateful that, purely in terms of financial performance and growth, we came through it very strongly. We had a great year last year. We had meaningful growth in the size of the practice and the firm's revenues. And as I mentioned, in lawyer headcount.
Candidly, and I don't think this is specific in any way to our firm, but the pandemic has been hard on people individually. Of course, it's been hardest on people who are immunocompromised or having to care for their family and so forth. But for people who spent so much time isolated, people who were working from home over this long period, one of the things that it’s reinforced to me is the importance of having a nurturing environment. It’s absolutely vital that we make sure that we're paying attention to the human side of the human beings that work at the firm. I don't think that's a change for us, but I think it certainly reinforces the importance of that going forward. More than anything else, we need to have flexibility. Not just in the way people work, but we need to be sensitive to what their needs are in their personal lives, and what exigencies they're facing in their personal lives.
CA: As you approach the ten-year anniversary of the firm, what is the greatest challenge facing the firm in the next decade?
MS: First of all, let me say candidly that I think the thing we're proudest of, over the 1st 10 years, is the success we've had in recruiting. We've managed to remain true to our core founding principles, which were to have a genuinely collegial firm, a lockstep compensation system, to grow organically and internally (rather than by lateral acquisitions), to have a very strong pro bono practice, and to have a genuinely inclusive and welcoming environment.
I think the biggest challenge going forward for the next 10 years is to maintain all of those elements of our culture and make up that make us who we are, that make the firm a place where we all want to be. It’s a firm that has attracted so many highly credentialed and high character people, and I think as we grow, as we continue to be busy, as we work on cases, it's a question of keeping true to our core principles and values. So far so good, but that's something that one has to be very vigilant about. All those good things are hard to put in place and easy to lose, and that's just the way it is.
CA: Are there particular pro bono highlights from the past year that you think our readers should be aware about?
VL: We were recognized by Law360 as 2nd among firms with fewer than 100 lawyers, and 7th out of all firms of all sizes, in our pro bono practice. Given the size of our firm, that speaks volumes in terms of impact per lawyer. I think that it also speaks very highly of what we do, and the firm's commitment to pro bono, both as a matter of professional responsibility and attorney development. To mention some of the things that we've been doing over the last year, we've had a long-standing partnership with the ACLU, litigating a gender and pregnancy-based discrimination case against Frontier Airline that's ongoing, and is now in discovery. We've also partnered recently with the NAACP Legal Defence Fund, and we're set to bring a case to trial involving voting rights that was supposed to happen and got postponed, I think on account of the pandemic again. We've pursued multiple appeals in the federal courts, have authored more than half a dozen amicus briefs in the federal appeals courts, and the Supreme Court of the United States. I think if you take a step back and think about how many lawyers there are at the firm, and just the number of things that we've done, it speaks volumes in terms of our commitment and what we value as a firm.
CA: Does the firm have any set targets with regards to diversity?
BK: I don't think we have hard targets, but we place a serious focus on diversity, inclusiveness, and the welcoming culture at the firm. We have a robust D&I committee that we relaunched during the pandemic, we reconstituted our D&I committee to add Mike so that we would have a founding, management-level partner on the committee.
MS: We reconstituted also to make the committee more representative. Now, it's not just partners or even lawyers, we've got staff attorneys, we've got administrative staff on the committee. So it's representative across the entire firm.
BK: It's a flat structure. So we have a rotating chair system so that the administrative folks, and lawyers at every level are leading the committee, and taking turns leading the meetings. We are really launching a programming that is inspired by not just the partners, but people from across the firm. We've also launched over the last 14 months or so four affinity groups, one for women, one for LGBTQIA+ and allies, one for first generation professionals, and then we also have an Asian equality task force. So we have four affinity groups that we launched in the past few months or past year or so.
MS: I should say that everything we’ve launched is at the initiative of lawyers or others at the firm. None of none of this is top down.
BK: Over the past year or so, we started celebrating different months. We celebrated Pride Month, Women's History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, and right now we’re celebrating Black History Month. And we've done all this in the midst of the pandemic, and it's really helped to drive exactly the culture that Mike was describing earlier. And a large number - 7 out of 9 of our associate hires in 2021 were women or otherwise identify as diverse.
MS: And when Blair says that we've celebrated this, we do this by having events. One example was a table read of significant literature bearing on black history. Last week we did a very substantial exercise, re-enacting a famous case called the Korematsu case from World War Two that related to the evacuation and internment of Japanese Americans from the West Coast, which was done at the initiative of the Asian equality task force. And there were in particular two women staff attorneys who took the lead on putting that together, which was an immense amount of work. And then virtually the whole firm was in attendance. Dan Goldberg, another founding partner, and I argued on opposite sides of the case. It's a commonly re-enacted case. So when we say we celebrate and observe these months, it translates into concrete events.
CA: How has the rise in legal technology affected the firm?
BK: We’ve obviously been remote for the past two years, or partly remote for the past two years, and that’s involved utilizing zoom and video conferencing. But I was going to talk more about how we utilize technology in eDiscovery, because we focus on using artificial intelligence and predictive coding to make our document review more efficient, to focus our lawyers on the key documents in the case instead of clicking through lists and volumes of documents. And so we work with the best and the brightest in the industry so that we can identify and focus on key documents very quickly.
MS: I mean, one of the things we never wanted was to have associates spending a lot of time, more time than necessary, reviewing documents. It's drudgework, and that's one of the reasons that we initially developed a large contingent of staff attorneys, which have become a big and important part of the firm. And we've had a lot of success with it, and in using that technology, it enables a firm like ours to hold its own in massive document cases.
CA: Do you have any advice for those about to enter the legal industry?
MS: The answer I should give you is that if you're a young litigator starting out, you should go to a litigation boutique! This you're going to get the best experience, the most direct experience. But one thing that young lawyers should realize the importance of staying in contact with the people they've gone to law school with, the people they’ve gone to college with that they've come to know. One of the ways to be successful as a lawyer is to have a network of people who know you, who you know, whose careers are going to grow in the same time frame as yours. And I think that's very important. The other thing is, work hard, but pay close attention to your mental health and overall wellbeing. This is an important career, but it's not everything. It's balancing work with friends, family, and health.
BK: The only thing I'd add is to advocate for yourself. At HSG, sometimes we don't need to. Mike came to me and said, “Hey, Blair, do you want to have your first argument?”, but we have associates who will come to us and say: “This witness looks great for my first deposition” and we really welcome that and encourage that. And I tell young lawyers to do that because not everyone will be as lucky as I was to have Mike hand me my first argument on a platter. But the opportunities are there, and people should ask for them.
Holwell Shuster & Goldberg LLP
- Head Office: New York, NY
- Partners (US): 17
- Associates (US): 23
Main areas of work
Holwell Shuster & Goldberg leads—and achieves winning results—in high-impact, complex commercial disputes with the greatest financial and legal stakes. The firm specializes in the following areas of complex commercial litigation: antitrust, appellate, arbitration/mediation, bankruptcy litigation, distressed debt and fund litigation, intellectual property, pro bono, securities litigation, transnational litigation, and white collar and internal investigations.
Since its founding in 2012, HSG has become one of the most influential and respected litigation boutiques in the country. The firm is known for its ability to try high-stakes commercial cases, both domestic and multi-jurisdictional, and for the quality of its legal scholarship and writing. As the firm has cemented its capacity to handle matters of any size, it has retained characteristics important to its identity as a nimble litigation firm. HSG has likewise remained equally adept at representing both plaintiffs and defendants, and continues to offer clients and referring law firms relatively few conflicts of interest to navigate. Clients interviewed by Chambers remark that HSG lawyers “are incredibly smart, passionate and responsive,” and “are uniformly dedicated to providing the most on-point legal guidance and the highest-quality service.”
Our lawyers are the best in the business. They graduated at the top of their law school classes, and more than 70% of our partners and associates have served clerkships on domestic or international courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. Many of our lawyers have distinguished themselves in other ways as well—in academia, industry, and prior practice at some of the nation’s finest law firms. We have an active D&I committee and are proud to celebrate our lawyers’ diverse backgrounds and perspectives. We are also deeply committed to giving back through a significant investment in pro bono work and other community initiatives.
This Firm's Rankings in
USA Guide, 2022
- Litigation: General Commercial: Highly Regarded (Band 3)
- Securities: Institutional Plaintiffs: Mainly RMBS Litigation Spotlight Table
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