Becoming a lawyer at a mid-sized firm

Battery Park

Don't believe everything you hear: bigger isn't always better. There are many benefits to practicing at a mid-sized firm, as the folks at Seward & Kissel know very well.

What appealed to you most about joining a mid-sized firm?

Noelle Indelicato: Having previously worked at a large company, I actively sought out a mid-sized law firm. I wanted to avoid becoming a “face in the crowd,” and I wanted to know that I would receive meaningful work early in my career. For me, it’s the best way to learn. I knew I had made the right decision as early as my time as a summer associate, when both partners and associates were clearly making an effort to get to know me.

Abhijit Kurup: A mid-size firm can offer the same (or better) quality of work as a large law firm, while providing a closer-knit environment. At a mid-sized firm, people know each other across practice groups and the partners are very accessible to the associates. 

Andrei Sirabionian: The right mid-sized firm offers the best characteristics of both large and small firms. If they’re like Seward & Kissel, they have the resources, support, and cutting-edge matters of top-tier large firms, while also offering the collegiality and training associated with small firms.

Christopher Riccardi: I came to Seward & Kissel as a summer associate and have spent my entire career at the firm.  I wanted a firm where I would be exposed to substantive areas of practices from the beginning of my career, where projects would be staffed leanly and where I could take on a higher level of responsibility earlier in my career than if I had been one of many junior associates at a large firm.  I found that at Seward.  We care about the development of our associates, both professionally and personally, and put a lot of time and resources into their development. The majority of our partners have spent their entire legal careers at the firm (i.e., straight from law school and in most cases, having been part of our summer associate program). Our size allows our attorneys to get to know each other very well and the ties among Seward & Kissel lawyers, both past and present, remain long and deep.

How might Seward & Kissel’s strategy differ to a larger firm’s? What kind of clients does the firm target?

Craig Sklar: As a mid-size firm, we focus our efforts on what we do well, and unlike some other firms, we do not try to be something to everyone. The clients we target are the ones that need sophisticated legal advice and representation in our core competencies. While much of our activity is in the middle-market, our clients range from privately held start-up and emerging companies to large investment funds, banks, financial institutions and public companies.   

Rhona Kisch: Many partners at Seward & Kissel, including myself, like working with clients that value sustained attention from partners overseeing their matters. This model allows us to create deep, advisory relationships with our clients. Understanding our clients and easy access to partner involvement, regardless of industry and size, allows us to efficiently offer strategic guidance on deal and JV structures as well as investment and financing options.​

How does a mid-sized firm manage to stand tall in New York and DC, home to the world’s biggest firms?

CS: By being focused on what we do best, we have established a reputation for excellence in certain industries and practice areas, where we are recognized both nationally and internationally.   Our clients seek our assistance in these areas and our focus enables us to work on complex and sophisticated matters opposite much larger firms that oftentimes do not have the same expertise that we possess.  Our size also allows us to be nimble and not get bogged down in large firm bureaucracy. 

Rita Glavin: Lawyers who do superb legal work for their clients will always stand out. Clients need a lawyer who they can trust, who delivers superior work-product, is responsive and can anticipate what’s coming around the corner. Big firms do not own the market on that kind of lawyer.

What type of work might you get exposure to at a mid-sized firm? How does the level of responsibility differ to bigger firms?

AK: It never feels like I work at a “mid-sized” firm, since opposing counsel on our transactions are almost always from large law firms. I feel that I have access to very high-level work, but without the risk of “not being seen” due to the size of the firm. Our smaller size also leads to associates working across a wide variety of matters, without having to specialize too narrowly. In terms of responsibility, autonomy is encouraged, but no one is left unsupported. Associates have a good deal of control over their practice and developmental progress. I had wanted to negotiate deals at a very early stage of my career, and now I negotiate directly with partners from other law firms all the time. At Seward & Kissel, at least, I think we maintain a healthy balance of oversight and self-sufficiency.

RK: There are fewer bodies at a mid-sized firm. Consequently, we invest more in training our talent. Associates get called on to contribute earlier and at a higher level of responsibility than they would in larger groups. 

CS: When associates work in a mid-sized firm like Seward & Kissel, that necessarily has fewer attorneys per practice group than most larger firms, matters are staffed more leanly.  This gives associates the opportunity to take on much more meaningful work earlier in their careers than they might elsewhere. For instance, associates in a corporate group do not just get stuck doing research memos or conducting due diligence. Instead, they get to participate in conferences, negotiations, drafting sessions, closings, etc. from the get-go and interact with clients and adversaries.

In other departments, such as litigation, they may work on drafting briefs, attending depositions and trials, etc. Feedback is given in real-time which allows the associates to hone their skills quickly and therefore progress faster. And, unlike other firms, we do not have artificial constraints that a junior associate has to report to a mid-level associate who reports to a senior associate, etc. Oftentimes junior and mid-level associates are working directly with partners and may even take the lead on certain matters.

What do the typical working hours look like?

NI: There are no “typical” hours, since clients and deal timing dictate our deadlines to a large extent. That said, partners do care about associates’ well-being, and take it into consideration when assigning projects. There’s a sincere belief here that everyone is better off when attorneys maintain a healthy balance between their personal and professional lives.

AS: A successful corporate practice is going to have relatively long and often unpredictable hours. Clients come to us and put trust in us for their most complex transactions, issues and questions – i.e. instances when they really need “outside” legal help that their in-house lawyers may not have the bandwidth to handle or have expertise in. As such, they control the timeline and set deadlines. Accordingly, there is no set start/end time to a work day. However, lap-top computers, digital conferencing and good rapport with our group members allows for efficient work and flexibility.

How do macroeconomic events affect mid-sized firms differently to large firms? What does the firm to do navigate and adapt to the changing political and economic landscapes?

CS: By having offices in NY and DC and focusing on U.S. legal matters, we are not as exposed to adverse global events that might negatively impact larger firms that have a number of offices around the globe. That said, we are still able to work on sophisticated cross-border matters through our strong network of local counsel all over the world. In addition, we have a number of diverse practice areas – some that correlate with larger economic cycles and others that don’t. With a number of these areas, such as investment management and maritime, we provide “cradle to grave” services, so that there is always some type of work for us to do for our clients (e.g., general corporate work, capital markets, financing, M&A, litigation, bankruptcy and restructuring, etc.) depending on what part of the economic cycle they happen to be in at the time.

Mike Timpone: Many of the considerations with respect to navigating the changing political and economic landscapes are the same for both large and smaller law firms.  As a firm we are constantly monitoring these trends to make sure we are providing our clients with the advice they need in their respective areas of interest. Our attorneys not only follow legal developments in their areas of practice, but also closely monitor the developments in the business of our clients so that we are able to understand their business and provide them with the practical advice that will truly assist them in their planning.

How much of the firm’s work is international in scope? When you do have cross-border work, how do you coordinate with work in overseas jurisdictions?

MT: It varies across practice area, but the shipping practice in particular has an international aspect to almost all of its transactions.  We advise many foreign companies that are listed on stock exchanges in the U.S. or looking to tap the U.S. markets for capital requirements. These companies come to us for legal advice as well as business insights in industries, like shipping, that we know extremely well. We have established key “best friend” relationships with foreign law firms that allow us to refer and receive referrals seamlessly.

AS: In my capital markets practice, the vast majority of my work is for clients based in Europe, Asia, or the Caribbean – or has some other international connection. That may be atypical, but international elements are very common to engagements in our Bankruptcy and Reorganization, Business Transactions, Capital Markets and Corporate Securities, Corporate Finance, Litigation, and Maritime and Transportation groups.

What approach does the firm take to training its junior associates/mid-level associates?

NI: Seward & Kissel uses a combination of formal and informal training. Last year, the firm had more than 60 internal courses on substantive topics. However, most training takes place “on-the-job.” Associates get a level of responsibility early on and that requires them to learn.

RG: We staff matters leanly, such that associates work closely with the partners, are involved in every aspect of the representation, and get experience quickly. The firm’s culture is for associates to learn as they work alongside the partners and take on responsibility early and often.

CS: One of the most important responsibilities of our partners and senior attorneys is to work with our associates to enable them to develop the skills necessary to successfully engage in the day-to-day practice of law and to hone their development in their particular areas of expertise. These goals are attained through selection of assignments, working on entire matters from beginning to end and participating in negotiations and meetings with clients and adversaries (rather than just working on distinct parts of transactions or litigations), project-by-project review and constructive feedback. Formal performance reviews are also conducted with all associates.  In addition, lawyers in each practice group routinely discuss current developments and matters in progress. On-the-job training is supplemented with internal seminars and training programs, as well as encouraging attendance at programs outside of the firm. In addition, we routinely send our associates to industry conferences and events.

What does the career progression look like at Seward & Kissel? Where could a junior associate be in five years’ time?

CR: We don’t put any artificial constraints on how quickly an associate can progress.  With our lean staffing, partners and senior associates are eager for more junior associates to accept significant responsibility for managing a client relationship. At the same time, we make sure that junior associates who need more training get it so that they are not in a position to fail. Practically speaking, a quickly progressing fifth-year associate more than likely already has regular client contact on his or her matters, with responsibility for not only helping to manage the client relationship, but also for supervising more junior associates, and even first-chair trials or lead transactions.

MT: Seward & Kissel is unique in that many of our partners have spent their entire legal career here, which speaks volumes about the firm’s legal practice and culture. After five years, a junior associate should expect to be taking the lead on complex transactions, supervising junior associates and reporting directly to the partner in charge while being client facing on the majority of the client interactions.

How should an applicant approach an interview for a firm like Seward & Kissel? What are you looking for from potential associates? 

CR: When we interview candidates, we’re asking ourselves whether this person could be a member of the next generation of lawyers to lead the firm. At a minimum that requires an excellent academic record, but also we look at a candidate’s resume as a whole in an effort to determine whether this person might have the maturity and ability to handle the responsibility that the firm likes to delegate to its junior attorneys. We also like to see candidates who have researched the firm and have genuine reasons for wanting to work at Seward & Kissel.

AK: I think Seward & Kissel does a good job of attracting bright, hard-working candidates who are easy to get along with. Of course, an impressive academic background is essential, but we really look for a personality match as well. Being confident and enthusiastic in an interview goes a long way, as does being able to talk about interests outside of law.