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.

Debra Franzese: When I was looking for summer associate positions, I sought out a firm where I could work on both interesting projects for clients and also have a high degree of responsibility as a junior associate.  I wanted to have an opportunity to learn from and work directly with partners on teams that are staffed more leanly.  I found that at the firm and it is a large part of why I have spent my entire career with Seward & Kissel.  As a partner, I work directly with junior associates on a wide variety of complex projects and seek to provide them with opportunities to expand their legal skills. 

Kevin Neubauer: I came to Seward & Kissel as a summer associate and have spent the majority of my legal career at the firm – I served as in-house counsel in the legal department of a large private equity firm for 2 years before returning to Seward & Kissel.  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, all while working with market-leading clients.  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. 

Anthony Tu-Sekine: Lawyers who do superb legal work for their clients will always stand out. People come to us for our expertise and our response times.  While we are a full-service firm, we are not all things to all people; clients come to us because of our expertise in financial services, funds, shipping, financial regulatory work, and blockchain, to name a few.

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

Robert Gayda: The work at a mid-size firm at the junior level will typically be broader in scope than it would at bigger firms.  Large deals at big firms will typically be staffed with a number of associates, and each associate will likely work on discrete issues.  At a mid-size firm, a deal would typically be staffed with only one or two associates – so those associates are more likely to see the full spectrum of issues on a given deal.  This broader exposure heightens the level of responsibility in my view.

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.

DF: The typical working hours are difficult to predict because they are driven by the needs of our clients so they can vary depending on the timelines for various projects.  However, we do want all of our associates to have a good work-life balance and work to adjust staffing on projects to achieve that. 

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.

ATS: About 50% of my work is international in scope.  Often, the hardest part to coordinate are time zones.  My European clients are 4-6 hours ahead and my Asian clients are 12 - 13 hours ahead, so it can be a real challenge to manage schedules.  On the legal side, we have very close relations with law firms in most major jurisdictions whom we know to be experts in their field of practice.

How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected the type of work your practice does?

DF: The pandemic hasn’t had a significant effect on the type of work we do for our investment management clients.  However, we have had a number of clients look to launch opportunistic investment funds and there are also some issues we have focused on regarding clients’ employees working from home, including cybersecurity and confidentiality.  Overall, our core work of providing legal, regulatory and business advice to our clients and assisting them with fund launches has continued throughout the pandemic. 

RG: Restructuring, and specifically bankruptcy, has been very slow since around mid-2021.  After the market stabilized thanks mainly to government aid provided in response to the impact of Covid-19, an abundance of liquidity, either coming from the government or from the private market has kept many companies afloat.  Many of these would have filed for bankruptcy or required a significant restructuring if cheap money was not readily available.  The gradual reopening and return to normalcy (or at least the “new normal”) has also helped to alleviate pressures on some businesses.  There are some issues on the horizon, however, which could cause an uptick in restructuring activity such as the global geopolitical uncertainty we have seen recently and rampant inflation.  The response to inflation will inevitably be increased interest rates, which may make it more difficult for struggling companies to find a lifeline.  If this comes to pass, it is possible that the lull we have seen in restructuring as a result of the government response to Covid-19 may come to an end in the 2H of 2022.   

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.

ATS: The firm’s culture is for associates to learn as they work alongside the partners and take on responsibility early and often. Because our work is specialized and sophisticated, it takes training and supervision to get our associates up to speed.  We take training very seriously because without it, our associates cannot progress and our success as a firm depends on that.

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?

KN: 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? 

KN: 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.

RG: When interviewing an associate, I am looking for someone that is excited about what they do, and is willing to take responsibility and ownership of a situation.  As I am sure many have mentioned, mid-sized firms like Seward & Kissel present associates with the opportunity to do substantive work at an early stage in their careers – deals are staffed more leanly, and junior associates will most certainly have the opportunity to roll up their sleeves and really get involved.  When given that chance, I want to see an associate take advantage of that, and attack the situation with some energy.  Moreover, I want somebody that takes ownership – they want to solve larger case problems and not simply do the work allotted to them to get it off of their desk.