Knot shore where to go? Well, if shipping finance or funds work appeals, you’d be wise to invest your time at this mid-sizer that sticks to what it’s good at.
“I THINK we are one of the few remaining mid-sized firms in New York that’s focused on what we do well,” says New York tax partner James Cofer. “Historically we have focused on industries that we are market leaders in, such as the investment management practice, maritime finance practice and securitization practice.” On the investment management side, Seward is known for forming the world’s first hedge fund in 1949; this reputation for savvy handling of funds is reflected in the firm’s Chambers USA rankings, which acknowledge Seward’s capabilities with hedge funds on a nationwide basis. Elsewhere, Seward rules the waves with its shipping and maritime finance work (and not just in the US, but on a global-wide basis too), and also picks up a Chambers USA nod for its corporate/M&A expertise, which is highly regarded. Its bankruptcy/restructuring work in the Big Apple is gaining traction in the rankings too.
The New York office takes on a mix of transactional and litigation work – the firm is marked in the former area for its experience on midmarket deals. DC is solely transactional-focused. The vast majority of our sources were based in the New York HQ, with only one taking up residence in DC. But what drew juniors to the firm? This interviewee was particularly drawn to Seward’s transactional clout, but quickly saw that a “lifestyle balance” was achievable here: “I enjoy sophisticated work, but I don’t want to be staying here all hours of the night! This is a firm that respects personal and family time.”
Strategy & Future
“This year the bankruptcy and restructuring group has been particularly strong,” says Cofer, “and that’s been driven by some of the retail bankruptcies we’ve had in the US. Our finance practice has also had a strong year, but we find that every year a different practice area tends to have a good year!” When discussing the internal make-up of the firm in the future, Cofer tells us that “what’s very exciting is that we have a really great group of younger partners who are very energetic. I think you’ll see a change in the composition of the partnership in the next five years – it will become younger and more diverse.”
Most of the juniors on our list were split between the investment management and corporate finance practices, while a handful were based in Seward’s litigation department. Associates settle into practice groups through the summer program: “You spend two or three weeks with each of the larger practice groups and then rank your top three.” Work assignment is generally free-market and relationship-based, but at the same time “senior associates or partners send out emails asking if anyone can help out.” Another junior told us that “as time goes on you get comfortable working with certain people and find yourself picking up work from them.”
Investment management newbies are all in the same boat: “We don’t have distinguished subgroups – we all do everything!” Whether it’s fund formation, structuring or some good ol’ strategic advice on day-to-day matters, Seward’s got it covered. The New York office is mostly focused on hedge funds whereas the DC office concentrates its efforts on mutual funds. For juniors, the learning curve consists of handling and overseeing many a legal document, as this source recounted: “It could be a partnership agreement, a subscription agreement or negotiations with investors.” Juniors also found themselves “handling filings and working on entity formations, as well as reviewing and updating fund offering documents.” Sources spoke of working with institutional hedge funds, institutional asset managers and private equity clients. One enthused: “I’m given a lot of freedom when communicating with clients – partners trust me.”
Investment management clients: Cedar Rock, Muddy Waters Capital, Whitebox Advisers. Represented Perella Weinberg Partners Capital Management in connection with the spin-out its energy asset management strategies.
“We have a niche clientele, which means we get lots of specialized experience and can better identify with our clients.”
The corporate finance practice primarily undertakes corporate and litigation work for commercial banks, investment banking firms and investment advisers. Subgroups include activist investing, business transactions (M&A/private equity), and capital markets and securities. Sources here told us that they spent time “reviewing and drafting contracts, taking numerous calls with deal parties, negotiating terms of contracts, maintaining correspondence with clients and interacting with senior associates and partners with regard to points in the deal.” Juniors in the structured finance group told us they mainly “coordinate the flow of funds across structured deals,” including “debt financing matters and secondary mortgage funding transactions.” An interviewee in capital markets spoke of working on a securities offering: “We helped raise money for a client so they could purchase more vessels for their fleet.” Interviewees commonly worked for shipping and hedge fund clients, with this attorney gushing: “We have a niche clientele, which means we get lots of specialized experience and can better identify with our clients.”
Culture-wise, it’s all plain sailing according to our sources. They described the culture as promoting “respect and diligence,” as well as real recognition of life beyond work. This interviewee beamed: “Given that people stay here for their entire careers, we get to know each other professionally at work and outside of work. People are genuinely interested in how your partner and kids are doing. This fosters a happy culture. Plus, the firm cares about more than just your hours.” On this note, others flagged the number of social events that S&K organizes, especially during the summer months when we heard of excursions to Yankees games, concerts and cooking classes, as well as wine tasting and small dinner receptions. We were also told of rooftop parties and a pretty special Super Bowl party.
“The firm cares about more than just your hours.”
The firm has an open-door policy, making casual communication a breeze: “Everyone’s doors are open, but if I’m feeling lazy, I’ll just call a partner with a question!”one junior joked. This source gave an example of the light-hearted atmosphere by recalling an occasion where “two partners were talking about coming into work wearing T-shirts with a picture of tuxedos on them.”
The firm’s mid-sized dimensions and smaller class sizes bode well for development: “They really focus on training and developing good attorneys instead of running through junior associates until they run out. They intend to develop us.”The training, we hear, is largely informal, which especially suited this source: “I prefer being able to sit down and discuss things rather than being lectured.”Yet, there are still a variety of programs for both personal and professional development, including opportunities to deliver business presentations and sign up for mentor projects. An example of the latter would be the regulatory mentor project, which sees “first-year associates researching what’s happening in the regulatory world and then giving a short presentation to partners.”
“Partners give the opportunity to flag any projects you’d like to work on and check you are receiving all the resources you need.”
During annual reviews, partners discuss juniors’ needs and the progress they’re making: “Partners give you the opportunity to flag any projects you’d like to work on and check you are receiving all the resources you need.” Looking ahead, “it’s clear they prefer homegrown partners,” a junior declared; "almost a third of partners started here as first-years, which encourages juniors to stay. If you do good work and develop strong client relationships, then after eight to ten years the committee will put you up for partnership.”
Hours & Compensation
Working 9am till 6pm is what a steady week looks like, according to corporate finance juniors. Busier days, however, can mean 9:30pm finishes, which sat well with this source: “Even on busier days I’m not working constantly.” For investment management attorneys, it’s more a case of 9am to 7pm, with finishing times of 10pm during more hectic periods with additional work at home. Hard work doesn’t go unnoticed: “If I stay late one night, a partner will notice and tell me to take it easy the next day.” There was some grumbling over the working from home policy: “You have to get remote work approved and have a genuine reason.” Still, associates said this caused for less “expectation to be plugged in on the weekends and evenings.”
“If I stay late one night, a partner will notice and tell me to take it easy the next day.”
Billable hours: 2,000 target
"As long as you hit 2,000 you are eligible to receive a bonus,” we were told. S&K allocates “four weeks of vacation, five sick days and two personal days”to associates each year. On the topic of vacation, one said that “no one fears taking those days. There’s a vacation calendar that goes around and people log their days.” In between vacations, associates can soothe themselves with some firm-scheduled “mindfulness programs, where they invite associates to mental self-awareness sessions and offer massages.”
Pro bono at Seward spans a number of areas, including urban poverty, employment matters, immigration and asylum work. All pro bono hours count toward billables and sources told us that they’re encouraged to pursue this line of work. A pro bono coordinator funnels matters to keen associates, but if there’s a particular cause close to your heart then you can always “ask the firm and they’ll let you explore it.” Training sessions are also on offer to further support associates: “Someone from a nonprofit organization comes in and explains what you need to do on a specific matter.”
Pro bono hours
- For all US attorneys: 5,258
- Average per US attorney: 31
Diversity & Inclusion
Some associates felt the firm could be doing more in this respect. A corporate finance junior said: “My group is diverse – we have women, people of different ethnicities and people from different backgrounds – but the firm as a whole is not great on diversity.” Associates felt more could be done, but the firm told us there is a dedicated diversity and inclusion committee. One source felt that more men should participate in the initiatives and bemoaned: “It’s a shame very few men turned up.” One assured, us, however, that the “leadership team is discussing how we can better recruit and retain more women and ethnic minorities. The firm recognizes this and is still improving.”
The first stage: recruitment on and off campus
OCI applicants interviewed: 433
Interviewees outside OCI: 3
Seward & Kissel sees between 20 and 40 students per school/job fair, and attends over 25 on-campus programs and job fairs including Albany, Boston College, Boston University, Brooklyn, Cardozo, Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Fordham, GWU, Georgetown, Harvard, MABLSA Job Fair, Michigan, Mid-West Job Fair, NEBLSA Job Fair, NYU, Northwestern, Penn, Rutgers, Seton Hall, UNC, UVA, Vanderbilt, Vanderbilt, Washington & Lee.
Partners, counsel and associates conduct the interviews. The firm looks for “well-rounded, mature individuals of demonstrated intellectual capacity and promising legal ability” in prospective associates, according to the firm’s hiring partner, Christopher Riccardi. Interviewers will also want to see analytical ability, judgement and decisiveness in the students they interview. Good people skills are also important, so candidates with personality and character will fare well. Preparation, self-confidence and enthusiasm also helps individuals stand out.
Top Tips for this stage:
“Candidates who impress our interviewers are able to speak clearly and confidently and will be engaged in the conversation, providing sincere responses. They will be enthusiastic and demonstrate that they are the type of person with whom our attorneys would want to work with.” – Hiring partner Christopher Riccardi
Applicants invited to second stage interview: 136
Callback candidates come to the S&K office for two hours, and meet with a mix of four partners, counsel and associates (each of the meetings lasts for thirty minutes). The firm will also typically arrange for a lunch with two or three junior associates. Questions at the callback interview tend to be open-ended so candidates can answer freely, allowing the interview to become more of a conversation – and permit the candidate to do most of the talking. The questions will also require a candidate to show the ability to think about a subject area with focus and organized thought.
Before the callback interview, candidates should have a glance over their resume, as interviewers will go a bit deeper into their experiences detailed on the resume. The firm’s website is another resource candidates should use to prepare: to get an idea of S&K’s practice areas to be ready to talk about which areas interest them. After the firm makes its offers, successful candidates are welcome to come back to the office to meet with more attorneys.
Top Tips for this stage:
“A timely arrival suited in professional attire at the office for the interview is essential and a firm handshake makes a great first impression.” – Hiring partner Christopher Riccardi
S&K aims to give its summer associates a realistic overview of the firm’s practice during the ten-week program. Summers are encouraged to spend time in each of the major departments, but the firm tells us the program can be adapted to suit the interest of each participant. One key feature of the program is feedback: the firm provides summer associates with extensive feedback on their work, though both formal and informal evaluations throughout the program.
The program is also designed to allow summers to get to know attorneys through training and social events. Summers can mingle at weekly events such as dinners, cooking, a casino night, ball-games, billiards, and wine tasting. As for training, each department hosts a seminar to introduce the attorneys working in that group, showcase the work they do, and educates summers as to what would be expected of them if they ultimately joined as an associate.
Before the end of the program, each summer associate lets the recruiting department know their top three choices for placement, and the firm tells us it makes every effort to match the expressed choices with the firm’s needs. Most years, the firm achieves a 100% acceptance rate from its summer associate classes.
Top tips for the stage:
“Questions are encouraged and if a summer associate does not understand an assignment, he/she should seek clarification immediately. The summer associates should also take the opportunity to speak with as many attorneys as possible during their ten weeks at the firm.” – Hiring partner Christopher Riccardi
S&K typically hires between five and eight lateral associates per year depending on business needs, whether that’s increased work in a particular group, or to replace an associate who’s departed. Lateral hires generally have between three to six years of experience, and the firm tells us that its recent hires have come from “equally prominent” law firms and the government. In the past year, the firm has recruited laterals into its litigation, capital markets, real estate and business transactions groups.
“Our firm is a friendly place that has cheerful banter among its workers in a stress-free environment. Most of our partners have spent their entire legal careers at the firm, and so, because the partners have effectively grown up here together, there is a clear sense of trust, mutual respect and team loyalty. We are down-to-earth people, which sets the tone for a wonderful working environment.” – Hiring partner Christopher Riccardi
Becoming a lawyer at a mid-sized firm
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.
More on pro bono
Seward & Kissel is a corporate partner of Her Justice, which offers free legal services to women, many of whom have experienced domestic violence. On the more commercial advisory side, associates spoke of recently volunteering at a conference, “where we provided pro bono expertise for women looking to start their own businesses.” Attorney’s also worked on the Veterans Discharge Upgrade Program, which is delivered via the New York County Lawyers’ Association (NYCLA) and the Urban Justice Center. One source enthusiastically relayed how they’d “recently represented a navy veteran in front of the naval review board.”
Interview with New York managing partner James Cofer
Chambers Associate: How would you describe the Seward & Kissel’s current market position?
James Cofer:I think we are one of the few remaining mid-sized firms in New York that’s focused on what we do well. Historically we have focused on industries that we are market leaders in, such as the investment management practice, maritime finance practice and securitization practice. We are focused on our strengths: the securities, corporate, maritime and litigation practices. Our position is focusing on what we do well and strategically growing these areas.
CA: Could you tell me which practices have been performing especially well recently?
JC: This year the bankruptcy and restructuring group has been particularly strong, and that’s been driven by some of the retail bankruptcies we’ve had in the US. Our finance practice has also had a strong year, but we find that every year a different practice area tends to have a good year! It is greatly influenced by our clients’ needs and the current market.
CA: Have there been any recent developments at the firm over the past year that you could tell me about?
JC: One of the most prominent developments would be our lateral hiring; we’ve added two new partners including Rhona Kisch, who has joined our real estate practice. Rhona will make the group even stronger and bring a high level of energy. Robert Kurucza joined the investment management services in the Washington DC office. He brings a long career of experience in the financial space and continues to allow us to expand. We also added two counsel to the firm. Christopher Carlson joined the DC office to assist in the investment fund area. Philip Moustakis joined the litigation group – he was recently working in government as a senior counsel at the Securities and Exchange Commission. It’s a very exciting time for the firm.
CA: What do you hope the firm will look like in five years' time?
JC: What’s very exciting is that we have a really great group of younger partners who are very energetic. I think you’ll see a change in the composition of the partnership in the next five years – it will become younger and more diverse.
CA: What are the main challenges that law firms and their lawyers will have to adapt to in the future?
JC: It’s an increasingly competitive legal market. One of the main challenges we must adapt to is continuing to show clients the value of our service and offering. It is interesting to see how technology will play into a lot of what lawyers do.
CA: Why is law an attractive profession for students to join today?
JC: Law is an attractive profession because students really get to learn and think about problems in the world of business. Law is a profession that’s driven ultimately by the desire to do something good for society, as evidenced by the level of contribution that we see in our pro bono practice from lawyers. Not all matters that are high-profile are necessarily the most important; I think that is something quite unique to the profession. Furthermore, law brings a lot of flexibility. There are many different avenues you can go down, which I think is also attractive.
Seward & Kissel LLP
One Battery Plaza,
- Head Office: New York, NY
- Number of domestic offices: 2
- Partners (US): 51
- Counsel (US): 32
- Associates (US): 80
- Main recruitment contact: Royce Akiva (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Hiring partner: Christopher Riccardi
- Recruitment details
- Entry-level associates starting in 2020: 11 (NY: 10, DC: 1)
- Clerking policy: Case by case
- Summers joining/anticipated 2020:
- 2Ls: 11 (NY: 10, DC: 1)
- Summer salary 2020:
- 2Ls: $3,461
- Split summers offered? No
Main areas of work
Our New York office participates in the following OCI programs:
• Boston College
• Boston University
• George Washington
• Midwest California Consortium
• NEBLSA Job Fair
• New York University
• Seton Hall
• University of North Carolina
• University of Pennsylvania
• University of Virginia
• Vanderbilt Job Fair
Our Washington, DC office participates in the following OCI programs:
• Boston College
• Boston University
• Cornell Job Fair
• George Washington
• MABLSA Job Fair
• University of Pennsylvania
• University of Virginia
• Washington & Lee
Summer associate profile:
We rely heavily on our summer program for our hiring needs. The primary goals of the program are to provide summer associates with a realistic, broad-based view of our practice and an opportunity to become acquainted with our attorneys through our informal mentoring program, training sessions and social events.
Summer program components:
Assignments are from our practice areas. Training: weekly seminars, practice group meetings and in-house training sessions. Feedback is given formally at the middle and end of the summer program.
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This Firm's Rankings in
USA Guide, 2020
- Corporate/M&A: Highly Regarded (Band 5)
USA - Nationwide
- Investment Funds: Hedge Funds (Band 3)
- Transportation: Shipping/Maritime: Finance (Band 1)