McDermott Will & Emery LLP - The Inside View

McDermott serves up a sundae of health, corporate, tax and more – but how does it keep its associates so sweet? The answer isn’t ice cream, unfortunately.

MCDERMOTT still counts Chicago, where it was founded in 1934, as its largest office, but things have moved on a lot since then. “We have important lawyers and professionals all over the world, so there isn’t really a headquarters… unless you’re talking to the Chicago kids!” jokes chairman Ira Coleman. Add more of anything though, and things often get messy – so how does the firm, spread across 19 offices internationally, keep everything functioning as desired, and prevent a delicately arranged culture from melting away? “I buy everybody ice cream,” Coleman deadpans. In reality, however, that’s a perk McDermott is yet to offer. Instead, Coleman explains: “We really try to avoid folks who have a temper or who don’t treat people well. They flush out of our culture very quickly. We’ve chosen not to bring in impressive groups that didn’t match our culture, decisions we made very public within the firm.”

After the Windy City, McDermott’s most substantial domestic office is DC, where the healthcare group now surpasses Chicago's as the firm’s biggest. And healthcare is the apple of McDermott's eye: its serious renown sees it scoop top-tier Chambers USA rankings in five states (and nationwide). Unsurprisingly, the all-encompassing practice was the main appeal for many associates. “It’s unique to be an associate in a place where you can find an answer to any question. Everyone specializes as they move up within the firm, so there’s a specialist for every issue you might have.” On top of healthcare, the firm's areas of particular strength span tax, litigation, private equity and M&A.

Strategy & Offices

Despite the cultural criteria for bold lateral hires, the firm has found opportunities to grasp. Chairman Ira Coleman describes how “this year we added a five-person blockchain group from Debevoise, including partner Lee Schneider in New York. We think it's an important practice area, not just for cryptocurrencies, but also in our other power alleys, such as health and fintech.”

The firm's current US footprint marks it out as a firm with the ability to bring its specialties to bear on a state's legal marketplace (it's worth checking the firm's Chambers USA rankings to see what it does well in each location). Coleman hints the firm will continue to take advantage of that: “We partner with clients all over the world and are always looking at opportunities where it makes sense to establish a new office. In the near term, however, we’re particularly excited to be expanding our presence on the West Coast, in San Francisco this year.”

The Chicago office recently moved to a “much more open and cheery” space. “People walk into the lobby now and seem to be blown away. It helps us with our clients because, if the offices look this good, then the legal advice must be just as good!” Meanwhile, the “beautiful” DC office sits “right in the heart of the city,” just a few blocks away from Georgetown Law School. Besides Chicago and DC, the firm had junior associates working in New York, Miami, LA,  Silicon Valley and Boston.

The Work

At the end of the summer program, associates rank their top three practice areas, before receiving offers for specific practice groups. Once through the door, it’s up to them to find work through a free-market system that operates across groups. “It’s positive because if you want to do a type of work, you’re free to go and find it. But if you’re struggling, having more help and structure would also help associates who haven’t had a chance to identify which stream of work they’re interested in.” It did seem to have boosted collaboration, since associates described “a lot of cross-group coordination.”

“You’re part of a team that is working on transactions that are changing healthcare.”

They have a massive client list in the health sector,” said associates, and related work spreads through the firm. Associates in the dedicated healthcare industry advisory group told us: “You’re getting the most interesting work, pushing the field forward, and asking questions that haven’t been asked.” Sub-teams, labeled “affinity groups,” are numerous, but include digital health, health IT, privacy, private equity, fraud and abuse, managed care and nonprofit transactions. Thanks to the free market, associates “aren't boxed in,” but are “usuallyencouraged to pick whether you want to be mostly transactional or regulatory. It’s just such a big group otherwise!” Experiences were unsurprisingly varied, but one associate recalled “going from putting together ancillary documents to third-chairing transactions, to being on call all day with clients. I’ve done regulatory diligence for some of the largest healthcare deals in the country and it’s satisfying to know you’re part of a team that is working on transactions that are changing healthcare.”

Under the corporate umbrella, groups include real estate, securities, finance and bankruptcy, “but midmarket M&A is the bread and butter. The firm does deals as small as $10 million, though we have done deals as large as $1 billion plus. Private equity clients are predominant, but we also help companies with strategic transactions, often in the healthcare space.” Corporate work also extended beyond the actual transaction – associates had worked on “internal reorganizations of corporations where, after they made an acquisition, they want to restructure the company in a more tax-efficient way.” Unfortunately, associate responsibility wasn't through the roof: sources found themselves “mostly helping with diligence and ancillary document drafting.”

The tax teams also housed a number of juniors. Given that these form a smaller group, our sources reported that “for better or for worse a lot of the work is substantive.” That included “writing opinions on the tax consequences of a merger or a restructuring. There's the planning stage where you figure out the plan of action with the client, then you spend a couple of months writing those opinions.” McDermott started life as a tax practice, and the group works with recognizable clients like Microsoft and ExxonMobil. It takes on cross-border matters, but still tackles issues surrounding SALT (state and local tax).

Hours & Compensation

Associates reported a ten-hour working day to be the most consistent, but ebbs and flows were a fact of life (though less so in tax and private client). Most associates were familiar with clients' demands forcing them to stay beyond 10pm multiple times in a month, but, importantly, sources felt “there aren't arbitrary deadlines. When I'm here late it's for a good reason. The partners aren’t clamoring for you to work weekends.” Still, a few wanted to have more options on where they worked: “I sound like such a millennial, but I would like to see more flexibility to work from home.”

The 2,000-hour target includes 100 pro bono hours and 75 hours of professional development – “you can use those hours to sit in on calls or negotiations.” That target was felt to be “very, very achievable” across groups, and further reward is given at the firm's discretion, but there was still some resentment around its timing: “They aren’t handed out until three months into the following year, so if you leave the firm in April you might get your bonus, but you had to wait that long to get it, and now if you go to another firm you’ve lost four months of the year.”

Training & Development

For their annual reviews, associates nominate partners to evaluate them, and also submit their cutesy-named ‘I Love Me’ memo, which is a chance for associates to “write down everything you’ve achieved over the past year,” or, in other words, “to write about how wonderful you are!” This self-evaluation gets submitted to the associate review committee, which is made up of partners across the firm, meaning “a corporate partner in London could be reviewing a health associate – all they have to go on is a piece of paper!”

While the reviews look back, juniors look forward, with an Associate Development Plan: “You sit down with your mentor and talk about the goals you want to achieve. It could be ‘I want to work with this partner’ or ‘I want to do a presentation to the practice group.’” Extra training is rolled out through MWE University. Session frequency varies by group (altogether, sessions focusing on a range of practices occur weekly), and attendance is “just short of compulsory.” One corporate associate vouched for them: “I try to go as often as I can because it’s helpful for the work that’s done here.” Another attendee from the health group was reminded of law school: “It doesn’t teach you how to do everything, but it’s useful for the background.”


“McDermott doesn’t play on some sort of ivory tower white-shoeism. It’s very much low key and enjoyable. I can get away with making fun of people!” Of course, "there are definitely high expectations, but then also a lot of individuals are more than willing to spend time going through a document with you highlighting what you did right and wrong.” This was echoed again and again by associates: “‘Go figure it out’ is not the tone that permeates our hallways.” Instead the firm paves an alternative route to high standards and loyalty. “My biggest fear is disappointing the partners because they’re too nice. There’s more pressure than if they weren’t.”

“My biggest fear is disappointing the partners because they’re too nice.”

Juniors could see the benefits of “working alongside folks in their seventies and everything in between. You have to be able to navigate different backgrounds, ages and practice groups – it provides a great opportunity to collaborate and learn.” However, they highlighted that “a lot of partners are married and have kids in the suburbs, which removes a social aspect. A lot of people travel with work, so if you love spending a lot of time with people in the office, that’s not something you’ll necessarily get.” The firm is seemingly looking to improve on its social offering with a newly-launched retreat to Colorado Springs, a first for the juniors. “We’ll all be flown out to Colorado for training events, presentations, and, if it’s anything like the partner retreat at the same location last year, there’ll be opportunities for golfing, horseback-riding, spa days and happy hours!” The DC office also recently launched a welcome committee to help integrate new attorneys “so that you’re not standing at a firm event alone with a drink hoping someone will talk to you.”


When we checked in with associates, they were proud to tell us that “all of the women partners are currently in Miami for a summit. They’re working on goals and initiatives related to closing the gap between women and men in McDermott.” Similarly, we also heard about “a diverse attorney summit this past year, which all of the racially diverse attorneys were flown out to.” And beneath these grand events, associates could point to some promising realities. A DC associate told us: “There is a group that supports young working mothers, who are helpful for navigating how to start a family while working. Some of the most recent people who made partner were young women with newborns – that certainly says something.” In fact, the firm promoted ten women to partner in the US for 2018. There is also a mentorship program for ethnically diverse lawyers and an LGBTQ affinity group.

Pro Bono

As we mentioned, associates can bill up to 100 pro bono hours, but once they hit the 2,000 target, the cap for pro bono is removed. Up until a couple of years ago, the firm didn’t have a cap at all. One associate felt that: “As someone who’s extremely proud of our pro bono work, it would be nice if we were still following that practice, but I understand it was a business decision to improve the health of the firm.” However, associates were clear that they felt the firm supported their pro bono escapades: “They’ll champion someone who just won a pro bono case equally to someone who just won a big regular case.”

Matters associates had worked on included adoption work and a case focused on special education. There are also programs such as Partners in Reading: “You pair up with a third grader and hang out for an hour reading. Either you read to them, or, if they feel up to it, they read to you.”

Pro bono hours

  • For all US attorneys: 37,388
  • Average per US attorney: 47.4

Get Hired

McDermott visits around 40 schools and a further ten job fairs, but hiring partner Eric Gilbert tells us: “We historically have found we have more traction at schools that are based locally to our offices. We are going to expand the footprint of schools we recruit at to attempt to feed multiple offices.” When weighing up applications, Gilbert says his interest lies in candidates’ interests. “It shouldn’t take up a significant portion of your resume, but knowing what you’re interested in helps as a conversation starter. I’ve seen people talking about learning aboriginal languages and trying to climb the Seven Summits. Generic interests such as ‘I like to travel’ or ‘I like to read’ aren’t nearly as helpful for an interviewer.”

Beyond that “scholastic achievement is important, but it’s not the end-all. We don’t have a set GPA requirement (just guidelines we generally follow). It is just as important to show activity on your resume – prior work experience, things you’ve done in the community, at law school or undergrad, an internship you’ve had previously. The more experience you can show/describe shows the firm that, one, you’re well rounded, and two, this isn’t the first time you’ve had work experience. Just to be clear, it’s not a prerequisite to have had a full-time job, but we want to see you’ve been in formal settings and worked.”

Gilbert tells us there isn’t a set list of questions for a McDermott job interview, but he gives us a few pointers. “I think if I were to ask what you think you need to improve on, a generic answer like ‘I’m too attention-to-detail-oriented’ is a scripted answer. I’ve been practicing for 12 years, and if I didn’t think there was room for improvement I’d never get better – so I like candidates to think critically, and I like to see people who know they’re not perfect.” He recalls one interviewee who particularly impressed him with their answer. “Last year I was talking to someone who’d not had a lot of work experience but had had an internship as a 1L. They quickly realized they had an issue with organization. They weren’t used to multitasking, which is a very different experience at law school than at a firm. It’s having to take notes for three classes versus having five or six partners reaching out to you directly, and trying to figure out who you prioritize. Seeing how they acknowledged an area for improvement and the steps they took to improve/resolve that issue showed great judgment.”

If you’ve got your eye on McDermott, juniors who’d taken part in the recruitment process encourage you to “go to any sort of events offered at your school where a McDermott attorney is attending. Introduce yourself, get the business card, and follow up. It doesn’t have to be ‘let’s have coffee,’ it could just be, ‘Hi, I met you at this event and I thought this aspect of presentation was interesting. Thank you.’ When you interview at OCIs or callbacks, you can then draw upon that. I really leveraged that during the interview process, not during the interview itself, but before the end I would say I saw so-and-so speak at an event.”

And one final piece of advice from Gilbert: “I think it’s very important to always understand that it’s an interview. People sometimes say things in the interview that are not appropriate in a work setting and that can really raise a red flag. Is this somebody I would want to walk into a reception with? What happens if someone has a drink at the reception and gets too comfortable too quickly? It’s important to remember it’s an interview. You will be representing your firm in the future, so it’s very important to be mindful of that.”

Interview with chairman Ira Coleman

Chambers Associate: What is the current focus for McDermott going ahead?

Ira Coleman: We’recontinuing our growth in our power alleys – health, tax, litigation, private equity and M&A – and we’ve had some exciting lateral growth. This year we added a five-person blockchain group from Debevoise, including partner Lee Schneider in New York. We think it's an important practice area, not just for cryptocurrencies, but also in our other power alleys, such as health and fintech.I think we are certainly going to continue to build and strategically invest with particular focus on leveraging our health, life science and private client areas. Transactions is a big area for us in general.

What new associates should know is that we’re really becoming more than just lawyers to our clients. We’re trusted strategic advisers, and part of this partnership with clients is trying to figure out how to best offload some tasks that are better done either through automation, or through third-party service providers. We really focus on training our young associates to be the best strategic advisers they can be to clients, meaning that we try to teach them the business of the client, and give them opportunities to learn directly from the client. We think this is what makes law firms and lawyers more successful as they grow: that they know a lot about the client’s business and they perform only those most important tasks that the client can’t get performed at a lower price or bring in-house themselves. We’re focusing on high-value legal services.

This means developing better technology or developing outside lawyers who can help out. For instance, an associate right now might work with a project manager to help automate sticking points on deals that might take up a lot of associate time. If there was a way to move it forward in a better project-managed format, then we want to train our young lawyers to do that, and help them to work with these non-lawyer professionals to provide a better service to clients. We also want to work with associates to be at the forefront, both in training and the use of non-attorney professionals, to help increase their efficiency.

If you’re doing more meaningful work, and feel you’re making a difference, you’re happier and more satisfied at your job – and if you’re satisfied and happier with your job, guess what happens? You do better work, and if you do better work, the clients like you better, and if clients like you better, they refer you to more high-value work, and the virtuous cycle continues.

CA: What is the relationship like across offices?

IC: Well, we started in Chicago but we're an international firm now. We have important lawyers and professionals all over the world, so there isn’t really a headquarters… unless you’re talking to the Chicago kids! We operate in practice groups and we cross-train, so at any given time Miami could be working with Chicago, London or Paris.

CA: Are there any plans to open any new offices?

IC: We partner with clients all over the world and are always looking at opportunities where it makes sense to establish a new office. In the near term, however, we’re particularly excited to be expanding our presence on the West Coast, in San Francisco this year. Maybe we'll open an office in the new city Amazon picks for its second headquarters (if we’re not already there).

CA:And how do you promote the culture across all the different offices?

IC: I buy everybody ice cream. No – really we try to enforce the no-jerk policy. We really try to avoid folks who have a temper or who don’t treat people well. They flush out of our culture very quickly. We’ve chosen not to bring in impressive groups that didn’t match our culture, decisions we made very public within the firm. People within the firm knew we were speaking to a big group with great economics, but after many of us met with them, including some younger lawyers, the decision was made not to proceed because we thought they wouldn’t be additive to our culture. They were aggressive and their reputation was that they didn’t mind yelling and berating legal assistants, paralegals and young associates, and we said, ‘we don’t want them.’

I would also say culture comes from within quite a bit. The things we value and do every day represent our culture. A lot of the cohort are friends – they spend a lot of time together outside the office, they really love each other, they help with childcare, they go on vacation together –  so I think that strengthens our culture. Everybody is a success here at McDermott, and they could probably be at any other firm but they want and choose to be here, so we treat them as such and try to spend time and effort continuing their growth and development. And that goes for the youngest associate, or the lowest-level staff member.

CA: What advice do you have for law students trying to enter the legal profession?IC: I don’t think having a career as a generalist litigator is something I’d recommend to my kid. I’d say, specialize in something. Be a healthcare litigator or a white-collar criminal defense litigator. I think it’s now more important than ever that young people find a passion for a certain industry to really help them drive their career path, because our clients are demanding deep industry knowledge. If you want to be successful in this business you really have to be a trusted adviser. The best way to do it is, one, care about your clients, two, understand the industry, then lastly, provide excellent legal service. And I don’t think you could start to focus too early on those areas.

When young people are making their decisions about law firms, I think these really smart kids make decisions based on silly things. There’s got to be something more than choosing an area you think you’ll love, or that you think is really interesting based on your life experiences to date, otherwise we’d all be international lawyers and environmental lawyers and work on social causes. Those things are all important and excellent, but the vast majority of lawyers help their families and communities and those less fortunate by practicing more traditional law most of the time, and then picking some wonderful pro bono projects to get involved with that satisfy their passion for helping others. And if I could give some final advice – if you don’t do any mindfulness training, you should be doing it at least a couple of times a week.

McDermott Will & Emery LLP

444 West Lake Street,
IL 60606-0029

  • Head Office:  Chicago, IL 
  • Number of domestic offices: 10
  • Number of international offices: 8 (plus a strategic alliance in Shanghai)
  • Worldwide revenue: $925,470,000
  • Partners US: 472
  • Associates US: 245
  • Contacts 
  • Main recruitment contact: Erika Gardiner, Senior Legal Recruiting Manager (
  • Hiring partner: Eric Gilbert
  • Diversity officer: Anthony Upshaw, Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion
  • Recruitment details 
  • Entry-level associates starting in 2018: 34
  • Clerking policy: Yes
  • Summers joining/anticipated 2018: 48 (1Ls: 6, 2Ls: 41, 3Ls: 1)
  • Summers joining/anticipated 2018 split by office: Boston: 3, Chicago: 14, Dallas: 1, Los Angeles: 2, Miami: 3, New York: 10, Silicon Valley: 3, Washington, DC: 13
  • Summer salary 2018: 1Ls: $ 3,461/week 2Ls: $ 3,461/week
  • Split summers offered? Yes
  • Can summers spend time in an overseas office? No

Main areas of work

 Antitrust and competition, corporate, employee benefits, energy, financial institutions, government strategies, health, intellectual property, private client, state and local tax, trial, U.S. and international tax, white collar and securities defense.

Firm profile

  McDermott Will & Emery is an integrated, international law firm with recognized strength in tax, private equity, mergers and acquisitions, health care, high-stakes litigation and many other key areas of transactional and regulatory law. We emphasize and foster long-term, industry-focused client relationships with multinational companies, rising entrepreneurial firms, investors and capital providers and many of the world’s wealthiest families and individuals. In word and deed, we value integrity, efficiency, diversity, pro bono and community service.


 Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2018:
American University, Boston College, Boston University, Brooklyn Law School, Columbia, Duke, Fordham, George Mason, George Washington, Georgetown University, Harvard, Howard, Illinois, Loyola Chicago, New York University, Northwestern, Santa Clara, Stanford, University of California (Berkeley, Hastings, Irvine, Los Angeles), University of Chicago, University of Florida, University of Miami, University of Michigan, University of Notre Dame, University of Pennsylvania, University of Southern California, University of Virginia, Vanderbilt, Washington University, William & Mary, Yale.

Recruitment outside OCIs:
We attend several regional and IP focused job fairs outside of OCI programs at law schools. We also accept write-in applications.

Summer associate profile:
McDermott strives to hire well-rounded candidates who maintain a balance of academic, as well as personal and professional successes. The ideal summer associate candidate is someone who possesses the drive to tackle new challenges and embrace new experiences, takes an active approach to building relationships with attorneys and staff, has a collegial attitude and acts with integrity.

Summer program components:
Our program offers summer associates a realistic introduction to the practice of law and day-to-day life as a McDermott associate. The summer associate program provides meaningful responsibility and feedback that is consistent with a junior associate experience. Summer associates are given the opportunity to accept assignments with many of our practice groups during the summer. This allows summers to experience the type of work they are interested in first-hand and ultimately steer them toward the type of work they enjoy. Our conservative hiring approach allows students to access a number of substantive assignments and matters. Summer associates receive formal feedback during mid-summer evaluation and final review in addition to information feedback over the course of the summer. Each summer associate is assigned an associate and partner level mentor to provide guidance throughout the summer, explain firm policies, address any questions or concerns and to assist in the transition from law school to life in a law firm.

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This Firm's Rankings in
USA Guide, 2019

Ranked Departments

    • Healthcare (Band 1)
    • Litigation: General Commercial (Band 5)
    • Litigation: White-Collar Crime & Government Investigations (Band 3)
    • Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation (Band 2)
    • Antitrust (Band 4)
    • Healthcare (Band 1)
    • Insurance: Insurer (Band 2)
    • Intellectual Property: Litigation (Band 4)
    • Intellectual Property: Patent Prosecution (Band 2)
    • Intellectual Property: Trademark, Copyright & Trade Secrets (Band 2)
    • Tax (Band 2)
    • Corporate/M&A & Private Equity (Band 2)
    • Healthcare (Band 1)
    • Antitrust (Band 2)
    • Banking & Finance (Band 4)
    • Bankruptcy/Restructuring (Band 5)
    • Corporate/M&A & Private Equity (Band 3)
    • Healthcare (Band 1)
    • Intellectual Property (Band 2)
    • Labor & Employment Recognised Practitioner
    • Labor & Employment: Employee Benefits & Compensation (Band 1)
    • Litigation: General Commercial (Band 3)
    • Litigation: White-Collar Crime & Government Investigations (Band 1)
    • Tax (Band 1)
    • Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation (Band 2)
    • Healthcare (Band 1)
    • Intellectual Property (Band 3)
    • Litigation: General Commercial (Band 3)
    • Corporate/M&A: Highly Regarded (Band 4)
    • Tax (Band 4)
    • Tax Recognised Practitioner
    • Tax (Band 3)
    • Technology: Outsourcing (Band 1)
    • Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation (Band 4)
    • Food & Beverages: Alcohol (Band 1)
    • Healthcare (Band 1)
    • Life Sciences (Band 4)
    • Outsourcing (Band 2)
    • Privacy & Data Security (Band 3)
    • Privacy & Data Security: Healthcare Spotlight Table
    • Tax: Controversy (Band 2)
    • Tax: Corporate & Finance (Band 3)