Slow and steady wins the race: this Californian firm’s cool approach leaves satisfied associates feeling invested in and integrated.
TURNING 90 is a big deal. It's an impressive feat in itself, but Sheppard Mullin also had a number of other achievements to look back on as it reached this milestone in 2017: ten domestic offices, a further five overseas, and a secure status as one of California’s best law firms. Its years of experience in the Golden State are reflected in its collection of Chambers USA rankings, which encompass areas like media and entertainment, litigation, labor and employment and corporate/M&A. On a nationwide scale, Sheppard's government contracts and Native American law practices come in for particular praise; its non-Cali offices can be found in New York, DC and Chicago.
“...not stagnating, and moving forward in a predictable way.”
Chairman Guy Halgren explains the approach behind the firm’s success: “We have a concept we use called ‘the 20-mile march,’ which came from business consultant and author Jim Collins: it involves sticking to a consistent plan, not chasing the next big thing, not stagnating, and moving forward in a predictable way. We generally like to target a 5-10% increase in production and attorneys per year. In terms of scope, we consider ourselves to be a strong national firm with international reach.”
For current associates, this approach was attractive – especially since it's seen the firm post growing revenue stats every year since 1992. But that's not all: for those returning to their Cali homeland after law school, Sheppard offered a local “power center – it's not like joining an East Coast firm's outpost in California, where the big decisions aren't made and you don't feel incorporated in the firm.” For those based outside the state, Sheppard has “the best of both worlds: the BigLaw experience and pay scale, but in the context of a smaller operation that's highly respected.” No matter the location, associates identified this firm-wide perk: “It's a place where you can push to develop your career and get responsibility early. It's not a firm with lots of institutional processes and hoops that take a longer time to jump through.”
Sheppard’s corporate, business trial and labor and employment groups take the bulk of new associates, while the remaining are divvied between IP, government contracts, finance and banking, and real estate. All departments have practice group leaders, but the extent of their involvement in assignment varies. For example, an IP source told us that their hands-on PG leader was “really awesome at making sure everyone's busy,” while business trial interviewees spoke of a more 'free market' system where PG leaders provide a safety net if necessary: “You can go to them if you haven't got anything going on.” Overall, sources noted that “industry groups are just as important as practice groups. You might find yourself doing various work for certain clients rather than certain work for various clients.”
The corporate group is a case in point: “Within our practice we have several industry groups, and I focus a lot of my work on healthcare,” one source revealed. Other juniors had worked on “a wide variety of deals, including mergers, asset purchases and reorganizations, as well as public company filings.” The industry focus can add a “regulatory component to what we do; I've drafted memos on federal and state healthcare laws, plus compliance with privacy and life insurance rules – a lot of the time it relates to the underlying transaction that's going on.” Those who focused on telecommunications worked for “satellite and cable operators” and contributed to “filings for FCC spectrum sales, but also conducted research for memos, assisted with negotiations and drafted documents.”
“...business development is very important, even at associate level.”
Sheppard’s business trial group covers various strands, including securities, insurance, professional liability, private wealth and bankruptcy litigation. The free-market system means that you see “a wide selection of cases,” with one source telling us they'd recently worked on “a securities class action, some contract disputes, False Claim Act cases and trusts and estates matters.” Another explained: “While we have some large institutional clients, we don't have the same number as, say, Cravath or Skadden, so business development is very important, even at associate level. It also means that smaller, multimillion cases allow us to cut our teeth on substantive work, like applying our research to writing first drafts of motions and entire briefs.”
In the “litigation-oriented” labor and employment group, recent shifts in California's laws have produced “a lot of class action work related to wage and hour issues.” Juniors mixed these with “single plaintive cases, which tend to involve harassment, discrimination and wrongful terminations. They're more interesting as there's an investigative angle to them; you're fact gathering and getting to know people in order to uncover the back story and office politics.”
Training & Development
Associates were optimistic about the training program Sheppard has been rolling out: “It involves structured presentations on the various aspects of being an associate and succeeding in a law firm – there's also some substantive legal stuff, but it's more general and not practice-specific.” However, we did hear of practice-specific training sessions “videoconferenced out of Cali,” and a focus on client development in several groups: “The partners really encourage us to take steps on that front, whether it's tagging along to networking events or attending a conference, for example.”
There is a formal mentoring program (which sees juniors paired up with a partner adviser) but juniors felt “the real strength here is informal mentoring,” with one enthusing: “I have several associates that I consider as mentors – they push me with bigger assignments and provide me with feedback. It's an organic thing, and I feel I can connect with anyone in the group.”
Culture & Offices
Almost 70% of the juniors on our list were based in Sheppard's Cali bases. Of these, the LA, San Francisco and Century City offices took on the most, and were widely praised for having a “family-friendly” feel: “I meet a lot of hard-working people, but everyone is also easygoing – just nice Cali people.” In the LA HQ, niceties are formalized via an annual'associate appreciation day,'the most recent of which saw “thepartners take us out to see Top Gun Live – it was a blast!” Others in Cali told us they were looking for “a BigLaw firm that's a little laid back, somewhere where people aren't just cordial but actually friends with you – and that's rung true so far.”
“If they smell a fake, they don't like it.”
Just over a sixth of our juniors were in the New York office, which sources summed up as “not stodgy or ultra-conservative, but still work hard/play hard; it's not abnormal for one of our secretaries to gather everyone around at 5pm on a Friday and say 'we're gonna have some scotch' – whoever's available to chat is welcome, and it's all very natural and comfortable.” Over in DC, interviewees also felt the Cali vibe infusing the office, making it stand out in comparison to more 'traditional' East Coast firms: “It's pretty casual and not too buttoned-up, with partners willing to talk to associates and interact with them socially. We're not a hard-partying bunch though – a lot of people want to finish the working day and go home to their families.”
Minority associates approved of what they saw as a culture of open-mindedness: “I interviewed with firms with higher diversity numbers, but Sheppard felt like the firm I could be most comfortable being myself at. They value authenticity; if they smell a fake, they don’t like it.”
One source wanted “more time spent on unconscious bias training to further address why some attorneys don't get the same caliber of work,” while another suggested this solution: “Every minority associate needs both a mentor and a partner sponsor that really stands up for them and ensures they are getting exposure.” Juniors did feel that the firm's good intentions were evident, with one interviewee – a member of a diversity network – telling us: “We have phone conferences once a month to talk about the progress we've made in recruiting, to share any concerns we've had – we have some well known partners in the group, and whenever there's been an issue immediate action has been taken by the firm leadership.” The firm also told us that a diversity mentorship scheme is currently being devised.
Hours & Compensation
The majority of our interviewees had enough work to allow them to reach Sheppard's 1,950 billing target, which makes them bonus eligible. Once juniors bill 1,800 hours to standard clients, they can use 150 hours from any mix of pro bono, business development and educational activities to get them to the desired figure. Juniors also spoke of “proactive partners” that step in to assist if they notice an associate billing lower hours. A full market bonus is paid out if associates reach 2,000 hours, while 10% above market is awarded at 2,200 and 20% above market is dished out at 2,400. Discretionary amounts are also paid out to recognize the likes of client originations and other work conducted on behalf of the firm.
Ten-hour stints in the office were fairly normal because “it’s BigLaw and there are expectations,” but our sources still felt there was time for life outside of work: “I’m going to a basketball game tonight and went to a hockey game last week. I’m not here 24/7.” Associates described “a culture of boundaries, which encourages us to have a work/life balance.If someone has an important event,there’s an understanding it will be respected.”
Associates were pleased with the firm’s pro bono commitment: “My practice group has a 100% attorney participation goal and they really do push it.” Juniors identified both specific pro bono coordinators and partners that “constantly send out opportunities,” so getting staffed on matters wasn't deemed difficult. Asylum cases were common among the juniors we spoke to, with one highlighting their experiences “asthe lead attorney for two hearings,drafting a 35-page brief, and going to a declaration for several witnesses.”
Pro bono hours
- For all US attorneys: 28,669
- Average per US attorney: 38
Strategy & Future
Chairman Guy Halgren tells us that over 2017 “the continuing growth of our healthcare and energy work in particular has been impressive.” Geographically, “our strategic plan has focused on growing our New York and DC offices to the level of at least 100 attorneys in eachby 2018, and we’re right on track.” Halgren adds that Sheppard will continue to adjust to broader technological changes in the industry: “We hired our first chief innovation officer this year; he is responsible for bringing together all the different AI resources for attorneys to use in their practices.”
Current associates advised interested students to "keep in mind how proactive they encourage us to be about seeking opportunities and procuring informal mentorships.” Sheppard was described as a place that's ideally suited to self-starter types with an entrepreneurial approach.
Sources added: "In terms of bolstering your resume, you always want a solid summer internship during the summer after your 1L year. Have something you can point to in the interviews – a couple of interesting stories, an interesting case, a motion you wrote – something you can discuss with the attorneys as a point of conversation, but also to highlight the set of legal skills you’re developing."
What's a big no-no at Sheppard? Chief HR officer Bess Sully tells us: "The candidate who has not done any homework about our firm and is not aware of our major practice areas will have a tougher time."
Sully tells us a bit more about how the callback process works: "We give all candidates a short description of the broad competencies we consider really important to the firm and ask them to be prepared to discuss them. We want to understand how a candidate may build on our values and how the firm can assist the candidate in his or her career development."
On the topic of diversity, Sully adds: "We are committed to diversity from the very top down. We believe a more diverse workplace results in the best work product for our clients and the best learning environment for our associates and staff. We have relationships with different diversity groups on the campuses we recruit from. Last year in San Francisco we invited a number of local law schools from the surrounding area to participate in the pride parade and walk with our float! It was a great opportunity for students to meet not only attorneys but staff as well. I think that speaks volumes about inclusion at Sheppard; it's a really great firm!"
More from Sheppard Mullin's chief HR officer Bess Sully
Chambers Associate:What are your entry-level recruiting plans for the next year or two?
Bess Sully: We don’t expect anything to change drastically. I think we’ll likely become more and more focused on the various practice groups people are interested in. We are seeking students that may not know exactly what they want to do, but have some idea of where they want to go. I do expect we’ll continue to add to our incoming Fall class sizes, by hiring more clerks and a handful of 3L students.
CA:How important is it for candidates to be able to demonstrate their potential for business development?
BS: I think at an interview level – and as an associate moving up through the ranks – there's a constant evaluation of the potential to develop business. We don’t expect mid-level and junior attorneys to bring in business – though it’s happened. Our approach is more ‘is this somebody who – from a core criteria and competency perspective – we believe has the potential to enjoy being a business developer?’ It’s something most people have the potential for, and some people have more fun with it than others. It’s not a skill they can teach you in law school.
We have recently been moving toward more professional skills-based training, like, for example, management and communication sessions for summers. We have formulated a special development plan that junior and mid-level attorneys follow – it's an ongoing document they work on as a precursor to creating a business development plan. It does echo business development in that we're encouraging associates to lay foundations at a very junior level.
CA: Could you give us a brief outline of your summer program?
BS: We have a ten-week program and the vast majority of summers get offers – we basically make the number of summer offers that we anticipate turning into full-time offers. If, for some reason an offer is not made, it’s not because we have over-hired. I think we will be making some changes in 2018, which will include bringing all of our associates together for an orientation program – most likely in LA.
Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP
333 South Hope Street,
- Head Office: Los Angeles, CA
- Number of domestic offices: 10
- Number of international offices: 5
- Worldwide revenue: $671,101,000
- Partners (US): 324
- Associates (US): 281
- Special counsel (US): 75
- Staff attorneys (US): 52
- Of counsel (US): 49
- Main recruitment contact: Sally Bucklin (email@example.com)
- Hiring partner: Bess Sully (Chief Human Resources Officer)
- Diversity officer: Carol Ross-Burnett (Manager of Diversity & Inclusion)
- Recruitment details
- Entry-level associates starting in 2018: 30
- Clerking policy: Yes
- Summers joining/anticipated 2018:
- 1L: 1-2; 2Ls: 28
- Summers joining/anticipated 2018 split by office:
- LA (Downtown): 6, LA (Century City): 4, Costa Mesa, CA: 2, San Diego, CA (Downtown): 3, San Diego, CA (Del Mar): 4, San Francisco, CA: 3, Palo Alto, CA: 1, Chicago, IL: 1, Washington, DC: 4, New York, NY: 1-2
- Summer salary 2018:
- 1Ls: $3,462 per week
- 2Ls: $3,462 per week
- Split summers offered? No
- Can summers spend time in an overseas office? No
Main areas of work
Major Industry Focus: Aerospace and defense; blockchain technology and digital currency; construction; energy; fashion, apparel and beauty; food and beverage; healthcare; hospitality; insurance; life sciences; private wealth; retail.
Columbia, George Washington, Georgetown, Harvard, Hastings, Howard, U. of Illinois, Loyola (L.A.), U. of Michigan, Notre Dame, Southwestern, Stanford, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UCLA, USC, USD, USF, Virginia, Vanderbilt; plus several regional/ national/diversity job fairs.
Summer associate profile:
High academic achievement is a precondition to employment. But the firm is interested in more than that: it seeks associates who will succeed over the long term. It looks for associates who have the personal traits needed to become outstanding practicing lawyers: self-awareness, drive to succeed, capacity for hard work and an ability to work well with other people.
Summer program components:
The firm’s 10-week summer program is structured to give students an idea of what life is like as an associate with the firm. Our summer associates do meaningful, billable work and work closely with partners and associates in various practice groups. Summer associates are given opportunities to attend depositions and court appearances, participate in conference calls and negotiations, draft documents and sit in on meetings. All summer associates work on at least one pro bono project. We also offer comprehensive transactional and litigation training programs. Attorney mentors assist the students in a variety of ways throughout the summer, and we plan a well-balanced calendar of social events that gives students the opportunity to get to know our attorneys outside of the office as well as enjoy the geographic area in which they are working.
This Firm's Rankings in
Chambers USA Guide 2017
- Antitrust (Band 3)
- Banking & Finance (Band 4)
- Bankruptcy/Restructuring (Band 3)
- Construction (Band 4)
- Healthcare (Band 3)
- Insurance: Insurer (Band 3)
- Labor & Employment (Band 2)
- Litigation: General Commercial (Band 5)
- Litigation: White-Collar Crime & Government Investigations (Band 3)
- Media & Entertainment: Litigation (Band 3)
- Media & Entertainment: Transactional (Band 2)
- Native American Law (Band 2)
- Real Estate Recognised Practitioner
District of Columbia
- Telecom, Broadcast & Satellite Recognised Practitioner
- Healthcare (Band 4)
- Corporate/M&A (Band 4)
USA - Nationwide
- Government Contracts (Band 2)
- Native American Law (Band 3)