Kirkland & Ellis LLP - The Inside View

Kirkland has just climbed to the top of the Am Law 100. This should be a surprise to no one...

A NEW world record was made in 2017, when Kirkland toppled Latham from its perch atop the Am Law 100 with its revenue of $3.165 billion – the highest sum ever earned by a law firm. This figure was the big headline, but behind it lies the recipe for Kirkland culture: talent; entrepreneurialism; hard work. As should be apparent, the firm's lawyers aren't the type to revel in their bounty: 2017 was an extremely busy year in DC, with the addition of the entire roster of lawyers from elite appellate boutique Bancroft (including former US solicitor general Paul Clement); next it carved out a new territory for its kingdom by opening a Boston office in May 2017, enhancing its private equity clout in the process.

Coming in with the impression that Kirkland was “more energetic, young in spirit and cutting-edge” than similarly massive firms, associates “heard it was eat-what-you-kill. But when I got here I had a hard time imagining the people being aggressive – everyone was so nice!” Newcomers were also more than pleased with Kirkland's broad panoply of strengths – Chambers USA'stop-tierawards for bankruptcy, IP and investment funds are the jewels in Kirkland's nationwide crown, but other highly recommended practices include general commercial litigation, corporate/M&A, banking and finance, and antitrust.

The Work

Two thirds of the associates on our list were based in Kirkland's transactional group; around a sixth had joined the firm's litigation practice, while the rest were pretty evenly split between intellectual property and restructuring. Within every practice group the firm implements an open assignment system – “they don't like it when we say 'free market', but that's what it is.” However, associates tend to get staffed directly on a matter initially “to gain some traction.” This opinion on the system was commonly declared: “I don't get why people think it's intimidating – if they do, this probably isn't the firm for them. It's a good model that lets you seek out the work you want to do.” Juniors aren't completely cast adrift though, as practice group heads send out weekly surveys to keep an eye on associates' workloads.

The transactional group covers general corporate work as well as specialist areas such as investment funds, debt financing, international trade and employee benefits. General corporate associates are “supposed to try a little bit of everything as the firm doesn't want us pigeonholed too quickly.” Bread and butter work includes private equity and M&A deals.Lean staffing on these means “you really do get thrown in from the beginning,” with little shielding from client contact. Common junior tasks include producing first drafts of purchase agreements, conducting due diligence, negotiating schedules and running checklists. “As you enter your third year, they encourage you to flex your managerial skills a bit more. It's been a good balance of responsibility overall – I'm sure I'll look back and long for the day I was doing checklists!”

“It's a good model that lets you seek out the work you want to do.”

Alongside general commercial cases, litigators are free to dabble in product liability, antitrust, securities and white-collar matters. “Initially I was doing more general case management or administrative discovery work,” one third-year reported, “but now I'm the primary drafter of briefs and I recently took a deposition for the first time.” Massive international cases didn't involve “actual doc review – we were coordinating the teams of reviewers instead.” Interviewees found they got “a fair amount of client contact; it comes when it's appropriate and if they think you're capable.” They were also unanimously “happy with the experiences available; the only thing getting in your way of trying new things is the stage the case is at in the cycle.”

IP litigators deal mostly with patent work, but there's also a copyright and trademark subgroup where “you don't have to have as much of a science background.” Clients vary from pharmaceutical companies to software and mechanical outfits, and an equally varied work diet is normal: one junior “worked on four entirely different areas in my first year alone, which included false advertising and trade secret cases.” Many took advantage of Kirkland's broad national (and international) reach “litigating all across the country and in all the different courts – it's really cool.” One energetic source told us that they'd “spoken with clients, drafted summary judgment briefs and second-chaired depositions – within the first two years we're expected to take our own though.”

Restructuring work “involves a lot of travel, so we tend to bill more hours than other groups.” The length of cases means “the open assignment system is less relevant, but when cases do end after months (or years!) you're absolutely able to seek out what you want.” Kirkland primarily works on the debtor side of matters, representing “very large companies – we just did the Toys R Us bankruptcy, for example.” The group's work is far from child's play though, and juniors swiftly took on “a lot of discrete tasks,” which included “helping to negotiate a non-disclosure agreement and drafting motions to file in court.”

Training & Development

After completing an initial stint of general training, juniors begin practice-specific programs – the Kirkland Institute for Trial Advocacy (KITA) exists for litigators, while the Kirkland Institute of Corporate Practice (KICP) is there for transactional associates. These are “something the firm works very hard on”;full mock trials are on offer for KITA juniors, while multiple sessions every week are on the cards for KICP attendees – “it's basically unparalleled skills-based training.”

Juniors appreciated that the annual formal review process is “very personalized – it's all about how you've progressed and how you're rated against yourself, not others in your class. It's the most intense program I've heard of.” Associates list all the matters they've worked on and pick partners to review them; they get to read “all their comments, so everything is very open.”


Kirkland now has eight domestic offices stretching from coast to coast. Its Chicago birthplace is “a well-oiled machine – it's still driving things to an extent, though New York has rapidly closed that gap.” The Big Apple base is deep into “one floor at a time” renovations: “It was already nice but they're making everything nicer. The glass doors will be a nice alternative to the more traditional and opaque 'white shoe' architecture we have now.” Other locations are getting facelifts too – DC is currently “nice enough but a little old fashioned, so we're very excited about moving to a new space in 2019,” while the burgeoning Houston office (opened in 2012) has “grown so rapidly we had to relocate – the new building has a fully stacked kitchen and common area.”

“There isn't any trace of office hierarchy.”

Cross-office work is conducted “on a case by case basis,” but most found Kirkland “pretty collaborative” and didn't detect “any trace of office hierarchy.” Larger groups – like Chicago's and New York's corporate squads – tend to be more self-contained. “When I do need to call someone, their picture pops up so I know what they look like!” Other interviewees – including some Chicago-based litigators and Houston-housed deal doers – were getting actual face time with colleagues across the country, racking up frequent flier miles on matters involving multiple offices.

Culture & Diversity

Juniors acknowledged Kirkland's “reputation for being more cut-throat,” but emphasized the extent to which they'd been left “stunned by the collegiality” witnessed upon arrival. “It is an incredibly competitive place, but that competitiveness is channelled against other firms!” One put the firm's enduring image down to “the expectation that you'll maintain a high workload here,” while another simply dismissed it as the result of uninformed assumptions made by those “who are just jealous that they're not at this firm! It's not a sweatshop at all.” Others suggested that having a more junior non-equity tier of partners had created a “younger, more amiable” environment compared to what they described as “the very formal and stiff” vibe at some of New York's native hotshots.

The relative youth of the non-equity partnership also helps to “reduce the hierarchical feeling that you might get at other firms,” though some admitted that they “wouldn't go straight to an equity partner with a question.” Attorneys from different levels get to mingle at alumni shindigs, holiday parties and other events hosted by departments. “From the summer onwards they encourage you to interact with peers wherever possible.” There's “no expectation that the firm should be your primary social group,” but many associates enjoyed “getting together informally for a drink. There are opportunities for us to bond and discuss our experiences.”

“It is an incredibly competitive place, but that competitiveness is channelled against other firms!”

Kirkland's Women's Leadership Initiative regularly organizes events. At these, female associates were happy to see “that women are not only considered important, but are in positions of power.” We were told that two of the four Chicago representatives on the management committee are women. Other plus points included “constant” roundtable events and open forums, as well as “a much more gender-balanced partnership class this year.” Less positively, many admitted that “there's a lot of work to be done on the ethnic diversity front,” withsome dubbing their practice area “overwhelmingly white.” The firm began a recruiting initiative called ALLSA in 2008 to reach out to minority student groups across the country, and, according to juniors, “a very diverse 2017 summer class” suggests their efforts are starting to pay off.

Pro Bono

With pro bono “treated the same as billable hours” many associates flagged it as a “favorite thing about the firm; if I'm looking for a new assignment it's realistic for me to choose pro bono work.” Kirkland asks all of its attorneys to hit at least 20 hours, and one who'd shirked their charitable responsibilities “got an email every two days telling me I needed to do it! I felt really guilty that I hadn't done enough.” The firm was perhaps happier with the interviewee who'd “put in 400 pro bono hours over a few months – the firm is giving me every opportunity.” Such opportunities include landlord/tenant work, immigration cases and attendance at specialized clinics; some transactional attorneys had also used pro bono to try their hands at litigating. As befits Kirkland's competitive reputation, the firm hosts “little competitions between practice areas, to see which one can do the most pro bono!”

Pro bono hours

  • For all US attorneys: 118,000+
  • Average per US attorney: 63.7

Hours & Compensation

There's no official hours target for associates, but most bill somewhere around 2,000 each year – “that's not a hard minimum, but it's in the right ballpark.” Bonuses aren't determined strictly by hours (“if you bill 1,800 you could still get one”) but by a combination of work quantity, quality and the feedback obtained during formal reviews. “Bonuses start at market rate and go up above that depending on performance – it's the fairest method as it rewards hard workers.” Workaholics can potentially get a bigger pay packet for logging more hours, but we heard from sources who'd gone beyond 2,300 and were “told in the review that it was too much: we're told to shoot for 2,100 hours, but saying no to work can be a challenge!”

“There's no face-time requirement to factor in.”

Every firm has its work martyrs, but Kirklanders told us that “most people here want a life outside work – the firm's culture doesn't glorify being in all the time.” Many found themselves working ten-hour days in the office on average. “There's no face-time requirement to factor in. A lot of people leave around 7pm to see their families and then log back on.” Juniors were also keen to highlight the extent to which hours can fluctuate, with late nights a fact of life in BigLaw. However, associates are encouraged to take vacations. “I took two separate week-long trips as a first-year,” one said, “and the firm recognizes the importance of recharging and tries not to make you work while you're out.”

Strategy & Future

“The Boston office opening came out of nowhere, and I didn't realize we were looking to expand like that!” one junior exclaimed, while pointing to the firm's impressive financials.Another highlighted Kirkland's broad practice as a reason for the firm's continued confidence in growth: “This is pretty clearly the best place for both private equity and restructuring work,” they declared, “so if the economy stays healthy we'll have a high volume of private deals, but if there's another downturn we'll get the best cases out of it.” 

Get Hired

“We're trying to get a sense of your people skills,” was the word from sources who'd ran interviews for Kirkland – “are you able to multitask and juggle competing demands in a professional, collegial manner?” While most felt “the process does feel pretty typical” among BigLaw firms, there are some Kirkland quirks. For one, “the word entrepreneurial comes up all the time – it's a necessary quality to have to operate in the open market system. The firm views itself as an innovative place and tries to select people that align with that approach.” This means that Kirkland's looking for candidates who are “willing to take on responsibility early – those kinds of people will naturally gravitate towards the firm.”

Interviews tend to start with a discussion of the candidate's resume. The interviewer usually highlights something interesting to discuss in more detail. Sought after qualities “depend on the group you're interviewing for,” but universal positives include “relevant experience and practical hands-on work. If you've done something with one of our clients, or a potential client, the firm really values that.” Experience writing for law reviews and journals is a plus for wannabe litigators. One associate recommended “calling the people that work here to get their perspective on things. I found everyone at Kirkland very helpful and they'll be excited to help you out if they can.”

One junior also told us that “this isn't as formal a place as other firms – I'm not saying walk into the interview super casual, but there isn't the same buttoned-up vibe that you get elsewhere, so don't try to emulate that.” As with every firm, personality plays a big role. “We want someone that will add to the culture here,” a source explained; “with the open assignment system you need to build up a good reputation or people won't want to work with you. Everyone at Kirkland is a good team player first and foremost.”

Interview with co-hiring partner Jason Kanner

Chambers Associate: How do you pre-screen those who have bid on your firm?

Jason Kanner: With the OCI process, students can submit their resumes through their schools. The types of things we're looking for include strong academic performance, an indication that the candidate is a strong self-starter, and that he or she has interest in one or more of our four primary practice areas. We get to know a lot of students through our recruiting and diversity initiatives, which allow us to maintain ties and develop relationships early in the process. We also liaise with different affinity groups at key schools.

CA: What questions do you ask during OCIs and callback interviews?

JK: The conversation tends to be organic, but we try to get a sense of the level of interest the candidate has in a particular office or practice area. We also try to get an understanding of someone's initiative, and whether they're energized and excited about the practice of law. We appreciate when candidates show enthusiasm and knowledge of our practice and when they can articulate why they want to come to the firm.  What we do is exciting and challenging, but also hard work; we're looking for people who have drive and energy.

CA: What makes someone stand out during an interview?

JK: It varies by candidate, but there are a number of things that can make someone stand out. If a candidate can talk about how their experiences tie into what we do, that shows that they've done their research and understand our practice. Candidates come from diverse backgrounds and have all done different things before law school. It's great when they can show how their experiences translate into skills that make a good lawyer.

CA: What type of person thrives at the firm?

JK: Generally speaking, those who take initiative and are self-starters thrive at Kirkland. Our open assignment system gives people early experience and allows them to drive their own career. Having said that, we are a firm of nearly 2,000 diverse attorneys who have a wide variety of work styles and who come from different backgrounds. Two senior partners may have completely different personalities, but are equally successful.

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

JK: First-years will have the most control over doing well academically. We do look for strong performance in school. Students can also get involved in skills-oriented offerings like moot court or the law review.

CA: Can you briefly outline your summer program – is there anything distinctive about it, or anything different to other firms that students should know about?

Summers benefit from our Kirkland Institute training programs – all students, whether they have an interest in corporate or litigation, are encouraged to participate in the program. The Kirkland Institute of Trial Advocacy involves mini trials, which even students on the corporate side tend to love. It's fun, and one of the things that really stands out. We also make sure summers get a taste of associate life at Kirkland. We offer opportunities to participate in and observe live activities, such as negotiations, deal closings, depositions, and hearings. We're giving people a real taste of life at the firm, rather than sticking them in an office writing memos.

CA: Roughly how many offers do you make and what is the take-up rate?

JK: The expectation is that all summer associates will get offers to come back and work for us.

CA: How can someone really stand out as a summer associate?

JK: Typically summers can stand out in the same way a junior associate would stand out – by doing exceptional work, working hard and having a great attitude.

CA: What's does the future hold for the firm? What is the strategy going forward?

JK: Kirkland is vibrant, dynamic, and growing – we have an exciting future ahead. The firm has done well across the market.  We've been busy, and you can see that from the amount of summers we've hired. We're less sensitive to any future economic downturns because we're so diversified.

Becoming a partner at Kirkland

A two-tier partnership structure isn't unique to Kirkland & Ellis, but the firm gives us a good example through which to explore the merits and drawbacks of the system. On face value, Kirkland makes more partners each year than many of its rivals, with 78 joining the non-equity partnership in 2018. However, this isn't the top of the ladder at the firm, and these hard-working attorneys will have to put in another few years of intense graft before cracking into the equity partnership and getting their hands on a slice of the firm's profits. The two-tier structure thus means associates have a shorter route to the title 'partner', but potentially a longer way to go before they can really reap the benefits of being one.

So how easy is it to get to each level? “Kirkland doesn't hire people they don't think have a chance of becoming at least a non-equity partner,” one associate revealed. “It's very meritocratic and if you're doing a fantastic job you'll have a good shot.” Another felt the two-tier system helped speed up the talent pipeline: “Because you can get to be a non-equity partner by year seven, people feel becoming a partner is more realistic and so you're incentivized to try harder.” There's no hiding the fact that a sizable chunk of associates will jump ship (in house, to another firm or outside BigLaw) before that point, and between the non-equity and equity partnerships there's another slimming down. “It's easy to say 'yes I want to be a non-equity partner', but quite difficult to say 'I aspire to be an equity partner,'” one source reckoned, while another confirmed: “The road can be hard, and some people are very open that they're not interested in reaching that top level. But the firm gives you a clear idea of whether or not you're in the picture for each stage.”

Kirkland's associates felt the firm's growth was a good indication that partnership classes would only get bigger in the future, and looked to recently-appointed partners who've been with the firm since the summer associate level as models for their own progress. The two-tier partnership structure has pros and cons, but both are pretty clear to incoming associates at Kirkland.

Kirkland & Ellis LLP

300 North LaSalle ,
IL 60654

  • Number of domestic offices: 8
  • Number of international offices: 5
  • Partners (US): 838
  • Associates (US): 1,000
  • Contacts 
  • Hiring partner: Jason Kanner
  • Diversity officer: Rina Alvarez
  • Recruitment details 
  • Entry-level associates starting in 2018: 251
  • Clerking policy: Yes
  • Summers joining/anticipated 2018: 1Ls: 25, 2Ls: 255, SEO Interns: 3
  • Summers joining/anticipated 2018 split by office: Boston: 9, Chicago: 66, Hong Kong: 1, Houston: 27, London: 2, Los Angeles: 14, New York: 95, Palo Alto: 9, San Francisco: 33, Washington, DC: 27
  • Summer salary 2018: 1Ls: $3,462 weekly 2Ls: $3,462 weekly
  • Split summers offered? No
  • Can summers spend time in an overseas office? Yes, the London office has a summer program.

Main areas of work

  Kirkland’s main practice areas are corporate, intellectual property, litigation and restructuring.

Firm profile

  Kirkland & Ellis LLP is a 2,000-attorney law firm representing global clients in private equity, M&A and other complex corporate transactions, litigation and dispute resolution/arbitration, intellectual property, and restructuring matters. The firm has offices in Beijing, Boston, Chicago, Hong Kong, Houston, London, Los Angeles, Munich, New York, Palo Alto, San Francisco, Shanghai and Washington, DC. The firm’s principal goals are to provide the highest-quality legal services available anywhere; to be an instrumental part of each client’s success; and to recruit, retain and advance the brightest legal talent. 


 Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2018:
Baylor; UC Berkeley; UC Hastings; UC Davis; UCLA; Boston College; Boston University; Cardozo; University of Chicago; Columbia; Duke; Fordham; George Washington; Georgetown; Harvard; University of Houston; Howard University; University of Illinois; University of Michigan; New York University; Northwestern University; University of Notre Dame; University of Pennsylvania; Santa Clara University; USC; Southern Methodist University; Stanford; University of Texas; Tulane; Vanderbilt University; University of Virginia; Yale.

Recruitment outside OCIs:
Some offices participate in local/regional job fairs for schools we also visit on-campus. They are not included in the list of job fairs below.
University of Arizona/Arizona State University; Brigham Young University; Cornell University; Emory University; Washington University - St. Louis; Bay Area Diversity Career Fair; Boston Lawyers Group (BLG) Diversity Job Fair; Cook County Bar Association (CCBA) Minority Job Fair; Lavender Law Career Fair; Midwest-California-Georgia Consortium (MCGC) Interview Program; NEBLSA Job Fair; On Tour Interview Program (OTIP); Patent Law Interview Program; Southeastern Minority Job Fair; The Law Consortium Recruitment Program.

Summer associate profile:
Kirkland looks for candidates who show a record of outstanding academic achievement, evidence of initiative and a desire to assume early responsibility. Kirkland values individuals from diverse social, economic, cultural and personal backgrounds. The firm looks favorably upon law review, moot court and other indicators of intellectual curiosity and drive.

Summer program components:
Kirkland offers summer associates a realistic view of their future as lawyers at the firm. Summer associates are allowed to choose challenging assignments that are of interest to them through Kirkland’s open assignment system, including pro bono matters. Each office offers summer associates substantive, practice-specific training, including a mock trial, negotiation workshops and presentations on a variety of topics. Kirkland also hosts ample social events for summer associates to help them get to know our attorneys and their fellow summer associates. By the end of the summer program, summer associates have an understanding of Kirkland’s culture and practices, which gives them a strong foundation on which to begin their career at Kirkland.

Social media

Linkedin:Kirkland & Ellis

This Firm's Rankings in
USA Guide, 2019

Ranked Departments

    • Banking & Finance (Band 1)
    • Capital Markets: Debt & Equity Recognised Practitioner
    • Corporate/M&A: Private Equity (Band 1)
    • Intellectual Property (Band 3)
    • Litigation: General Commercial (Band 2)
    • Antitrust (Band 3)
    • Environment: Mainly Transactional (Band 1)
    • Intellectual Property: Litigation (Band 3)
    • Litigation: General Commercial (Band 1)
    • Litigation: White-Collar Crime & Government Investigations (Band 4)
    • Antitrust (Band 1)
    • Banking & Finance (Band 2)
    • Bankruptcy/Restructuring (Band 1)
    • Corporate/M&A & Private Equity (Band 1)
    • Environment (Band 3)
    • Insurance: Dispute Resolution: Policyholder (Band 1)
    • Intellectual Property (Band 1)
    • Labor & Employment: Employee Benefits & Compensation Recognised Practitioner
    • Litigation: General Commercial (Band 1)
    • Litigation: White-Collar Crime & Government Investigations (Band 1)
    • Real Estate (Band 1)
    • Tax (Band 1)
    • Technology & Outsourcing (Band 2)
    • Private Equity: Buyouts (Band 3)
    • Bankruptcy/Restructuring (Band 1)
    • Corporate/M&A: The Elite (Band 2)
    • Intellectual Property: Patent (Band 1)
    • Intellectual Property: Trademark, Copyright & Trade Secrets (Band 2)
    • Litigation: General Commercial: The Elite (Band 2)
    • Litigation: Securities (Band 3)
    • Media & Entertainment: Litigation (Band 2)
    • Real Estate: Mainly Corporate & Finance (Band 3)
    • Tax (Band 2)
    • Banking & Finance (Band 4)
    • Capital Markets: Debt & Equity (Band 4)
    • Corporate/M&A (Band 2)
    • Environment Recognised Practitioner
    • Advertising: Litigation (Band 2)
    • Antitrust (Band 3)
    • Appellate Law (Band 1)
    • Banking & Finance (Band 1)
    • Bankruptcy/Restructuring (Band 1)
    • Capital Markets: Equity: Issuer Representation (Band 3)
    • Capital Markets: High-Yield Products (Band 3)
    • Capital Markets: Securitisation (Band 4)
    • Corporate Crime & Investigations (Band 2)
    • Corporate/M&A: The Elite (Band 2)
    • Energy: Electricity (Transactional) (Band 3)
    • Energy: Oil & Gas (Transactional) (Band 2)
    • Environment (Band 4)
    • FCPA (Band 3)
    • Intellectual Property (Band 1)
    • Intellectual Property: Trademark, Copyright & Trade Secrets (Band 2)
    • International Trade: Intellectual Property (Section 337) (Band 2)
    • Investment Funds: Private Equity: Fund Formation (Band 1)
    • Life Sciences (Band 3)
    • Outsourcing (Band 3)
    • Private Equity: Buyouts (Band 1)
    • Product Liability & Mass Torts (Band 2)
    • Real Estate (Band 3)
    • Securities: Litigation (Band 4)
    • Tax: Corporate & Finance (Band 2)