Where’s Waller? Kicking ass in Tennessee, that’s where.
KINGS of Leon allegedly once remarked that the best thing about living in Nashville was that no one knew who they were. In a city famous for its country stars, the internationally adored rock band went under the radar. Bur here in the unmusical world of BigLaw, all the Dolly Partons in the world couldn’t overshadow Waller, one of Nashville’s oldest law firms.
"A top firm in healthcare transactions.”
Founded in 1905, Waller’s footprint in the South is deep, with five offices spanning Tennessee, Texas and Alabama. Most juniors are recruited into the Nashville HQ, with just one or two joining the ranks in Austin and Chattanooga. Juniors who chose the firm were tuned into Waller’s “excellent reputationas a top firm in healthcare transactions.” This is what Waller is best known for: the firm sits at the top of the pile for healthcare in Tennessee in Chambers USA. It’s also ranked in Texas and Alabama and nationally. But we should point out that there’s more than healthcare on offer here. In Tennessee, Waller also has top rankings in banking and finance, environment, IP, labor and employment, litigation, and real estate.
Summer associates rank the firm's eight practice areas from one to five in order of preference. Providing the firm can accommodate everyone’s preferences, prospective juniors spend five weeks in each of their top two practices (in the pandemic, this was reduced to one). At the end of the program (and “if you do a good job”) the firm makes associates an offer in one of those two practices. The firm’s corporate, finance & restructuring, and trial & appellate groups accounted for about two thirds of associates on our list. Juniors also joined health, labor & employment, real estate, and tax.
Waller operates a free-market work assignment system. In corporate, a partner and a practice group manager coordinate to manage associates’ workloads. “We tell them how busy we are with a ranking of one to four,” a junior explained, “with one being ‘far too busy, don’t give me anything,’ to four being ‘give me everything.’” Litigation doesn’t have that in place, so workloads varied: “I reached my hours last month; my colleague isn’t even close.” Fortunately, they’re able to seek out work in those situations.
“Hundreds of emails rolling in!”
Corporate associates reckoned that healthcare-related work made up at least half of their responsibilities. Of that, one estimated that “about 30% is large-scale, high-volume leasing, mostly of medical office buildings,” while “the other 70% is acquisitions and sales.” Sources said that there was also “multifamily acquisitions, residential work, retail leasing, some manufacturing industry deals, tech work, and securities work for several banks available.” What juniors got to do day to day depended on the size of the deal. On “the deals under $5 million there aren’t a lot of investment vehicles involved,” so associates can have a lot more involvement “with a partner overseeing.” On bigger, “more complex stuff in the tens of millions, there’s a partner heading up” the deal and the “more junior-level stuff” includes “due diligence, assisting with preparation of documents, drafting, and keeping up with closing checklists, prepping signature pages and signature page packets.” On these larger deals, it was important for juniors to “keep track of things,” with “hundreds of emails rolling in!” On smaller matters, they got to do “first drafts of purchase agreements with partner input, as well as draft ancillary docs.”
Corporate clients: HCA Healthcare, TVV Capital Partners, Axia Women’s Health, Tri Star Energy. Represented a family-owned company in Texas in its $12 million acquisition by fire safety company Pye Barker.
“Real estate, environmental, and insurance coverage cases… everything except for healthcare!”
While the corporate cohort handled a lot of deals in the healthcare sector, litigators had a different experience. “It’s funny that we’re known for healthcare,” mused one litigious associate, “I haven’t done a lot of it. I’ve done more general civil litigation and worked on some real estate, environmental, and insurance coverage cases… everything except for healthcare!” Other sources had been involved in “First Amendment stuff, data privacy and security, government investigations (which are sometimes with healthcare providers), accounting cases, education and some general commercial disputes.” In short, litigators are “generalists: every day you’re learning something new.” Sources said that “research, drafting and some doc review” was standard fare for junior associates.
Litigation clients: KPMG, Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority, manufacturing company Winnebago Industries, North American Partners in Anesthesia. Represented healthcare education company MidlevelU in a copyright dispute of over $1 million.
Hours & Compensation
Billable hours: 1,900 target
Associates have to hit 1,900 hours for a bonus, but felt “there’s not a lot of top-down pressure to bill more.” One told us “if you’re a little short it’s not an issue, but they check in quarterly to see how you’re doing.” We actually heard of some billing well over 2,000, prompting one to tell us “the salary is satisfactory compared to other firms in Nashville, but I feel like we work similar hours to associates in New York firms.” For the most part, sources were happy with the salary they received, considering that it balanced against the relatively cheaper cost of living compared to places like New York or Chicago.
Associates certainly experienced their fair share of BigLaw demands at Waller. For the corporate lot, “there are some midnight finishes,” and the odd “all-nighter.” And while the firm “is respectful of people who have small children,” there “can be nights where you don’t hear from your client until 8pm before a closing.” If you “don’t want to keep those hours, the firm is happy to relocate you to somewhere with more regular hours” – though it doesn't happen often. Health was one group that reported less fluctuation in their schedules: “I work from 9am to 6pm, sometimes later and sometimes weekends, but I’m not burning the midnight oil.” The average from our survey was around 50 hours a week, with sources taking an average of eight days of vacation in the last 12 months.
Being a big fish in a smaller pond doesn’t equate to big attitude, according to this associate at least: “I’ve worked at other, smaller firms and I had to deal with more ego and frustration there than at Waller.” Juniors liked that “there are still people around from when the firm had just 20 people!The firm still has that feel of friendliness.” Of course, it’s still a “hard-working” environment, “but people treat you as a human.” Even when inevitable mistakes happened, associates described partners’ attitudes like this: “‘Let’s evaluate what we can do as a team to fix this.’” One associate appreciated the extensive feedback from partners who “sit me down and go through my draft line by line.”
“It’s personable, but not personal.”
Pre-pandemic, “we would have Thanksgiving get-togethers, and you’d go up and introduce yourself to seniors – they were interested in getting to know you.” This was not to say that there was “a ton of intermingling” on the go. “I don’t hang out with anyone outside of work,” said one, while another distinguished that “it’s personable, but not personal,” at Waller, adding that friendly “watercooler talk” was the norm.
Diversity & Inclusion
While sources acknowledged that Waller was “not one of the most diverse places,” largely due to its location in the South, they added that the firm was “very open to diversity.” What did that mean in practice? For one it was partners’ “willingness to invest in me as a person, even if I don’t look like them. I work with partners who go above and beyond to make me the best lawyer I can be.” Of course, “the fairy tale would be that there is no implicit bias, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t there,” one admitted, before going on to praise the firm’s unconscious bias training. In addition to a general mentoring program, Waller has a diversity mentoring system “to help people from different backgrounds feel comfortable and develop their careers.”
“I see a lot of women who have been successful here.”
In terms of gender, “I see a lot of women who have been successful here and had children.” Some noted there was “room for improvement in terms of gender at partnership level, and definitely in terms of race.” Encouragingly though, associates said the firm “doesn’t feel like an old boys’ club,” and the women we spoke to were optimistic about staying and progressing at Waller long-term.
More than one interviewee pointed out that “we don’t have an ‘up or out’ policy, which encourages people to stay” at the firm. Some observed that attorneys who leave the firm often go in-house with firm clients and continue working with the firm – “I think the firm loves it when that happens!” But juniors very much had the sense that Waller “wants us to grow into good stewards of the business.” Or in other words, “they’re very transparent about trying to turn associates into partners.”
“People make partner every year.”
This was evident in the firm’s headcount, where partners outnumber associates by more than 60. One found it especially encouraging that “people make partner every year, and people go from junior to equity partner ever year.” A couple also highlighted some encouraging words they heard from the top: “Our firm chair always talks about there being two rules: get the work done and be the future owners of the business.”
Strategy & Future
We got a word in with firm chair Matt Burnstein as well. He tells us the firm is going strong in the face of COVID-19: “Initially there was a sharp uptick in labor and employment and healthcare regulatory, and a downtick in corporate, but all have reverted to the mean.” He continues: “We’re bullish about our future, particularly in our areas of strategic focus,” namely healthcare, financial services, private equity and real estate. “We’ve hired lateral partners in each of our offices since the pandemic began,” he says.
Associates told us “we get an email every couple of weeks” outlining pro bono opportunities. “I don’t know that it’s necessarily a focus,” one critiqued, summarizing that “if attorneys have time, they’ll take on a case. We’re not discouraged, but there’s no pressure to do it.” Much of the firm’s pro bono practice is community-oriented and done through partnerships with organizations such as the Nashville Pro Bono Program and the Nashville Bar Association. The firm also takes Protection Order cases from Legal Aid.
Pro bono hours
- For all (US) attorneys: 4,667
- Average per (US) attorney: 17
The first stage: recruitment of interested candidates
Waller seeks out candidates who plan to set up long term in one of the firm’s south-eastern offices. Associate sources emphasise the importance of this: “There are a number of questions asked that are directed to determining whether somebody would settle in Nashville or use this as a stepping stone to lateral to a larger city later on.” Recruitment, however, spans several locations beyond Nashville. The firm accepts resume collections from just over 30 law schools and supports web applications. In addition, the firm participated in a variety of minority job fairs. “At this stage, we’re mainly looking to gauge the candidate’s interest in Waller and in the city they have applied. We want to ensure their interests match up with our practice areas and evaluate if they would be a good fit at the firm,” explains director of entry level recruiting Michelle Parsons.
“If I had a friend applying to Waller, I’d tell them to make sure they demonstrate on their resume – in one way or another – an indication of having a desire to work in the healthcare industry since so much of our work has a healthcare nucleus.” – a junior associate
Successful candidates partake in callback interviews, which together last between three to four hours. The interviews are split into 30-minute blocks. Candidates will also undertake a behavioural interviewing component in one of the blocks. Each block typically consists of two attorneys interviewing the candidate. At this stage, interviewers are looking to “delve a little deeper into the candidate’s background and interests, and what they are looking for in a firm and career.” As with the first stage, the firm encourages candidates to ask specific, practice area-focused questions to the panel of attorneys. Parsons suggests candidates do their research: “Attorneys are always impressed when a candidate has taken the time to research their specific practice area and even a particular matter.”
“As with the initial interview, make sure you have good questions to ask your interviewers.” – Michelle Parsons, director of entry level recruiting.
The summer program at Waller acts as a hybrid internship for both 1L and 2L students. Although all summers will be able to work on projects across any of the firm’s eight practice areas, 1Ls will be focusing on one practice group, while 2Ls focus on two. Alongside being assigned “learning-based core practice projects and engaging in live client matters, summer associates also have opportunities to attend depositions, trials, hearings, negotiations and client conferences,” enthuses Parsons. This approach seems to be working as we hear that the majority of the 2L summers return to Waller as first-year associates. “Dinners at attorneys’ houses, watching minor league baseball and Top Golf” are just some of the social outings Waller has on offer during the summer.
“Definitely seek out the summer program. For the most part folks are extended an offer to join as an associate. Be open to taking feedback on board and networking.” – a second-year associate.
“Get to know your fellow summer associates, as they will be your colleagues and fellow partners one day. Get to know as many attorneys as you can and impress them with your work product.” - Michelle Parsons, director of entry level recruiting.
Waller’s summer program was shortened to five weeks in 2020 and was fully virtual because of the pandemic. “Every summer worked with one practice group in 2020 rather than the usual two,” explains Parsons. At the time of publication, Parsons said Waller would be running a full “ten-week program in Nashville in 2021,” which would allow summers to “experience two practice groups.” Parsons added that while the firm was “hoping to do some small outdoor events, safety is a priority” and the majority would likely be virtual.
With 70% of its annual associate appointments coming from lateral hiring, it’s worth keeping an eye on opportunities at Waller, especially if you’re one for healthcare. “Waller will continue expanding our healthcare, private equity, white collar, real estate/construction and finance/bankruptcy sections with lateral associates addressing existing needs, and lateral partners to grow and diversify our client base,” explains Parsons. Attorneys with experience ranging from one to 20 years, and those who are at AmLaw 200 firms or nationally recognized boutiques will be considered.
Michelle Parsons leaves us with some important wisdom to follow: “This may sound cheesy, but be yourself. You do not want to start out your career pretending to be someone you are not!”
Nashville City Center,
511 Union Street,
- Head Office: Nashville, TN
- Number of domestic offices: 5
- Partners (US): 155
- Associates (US): 124
- Main recruitment contacts:
- Michelle Parsons (email@example.com)
- Bobby Weiss (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Hiring partner: Katie Stenberg
- Diversity officer: Michelle Parsons
- Recruitment details
- Entry-level associates starting in 2021: 15
- Clerking Policy: One year of credit for relevant practice areas (Evaluated on case by case basis)
- Summers joining/anticipated 2021: 21
- 14 - 2L / 7 - 1L
- Summers joining/anticipated 2021 split by office:
- 10 - 2L - Nashville / 6 - 1L - Nashville;
- 2 - 2L - Birmingham / 1 - 1L - Birmingham;
- 2 - 2L - Austin
- Summer salary 2021:
- 1Ls: $1,650/week
- 2Ls: $2,000/week
- Split summers offered? Yes
Main areas of work
University of Alabama, Belmont University, Duke University, University of Tennessee, University of Texas, Vanderbilt University
Recruitment outside OCIs:
We offer resume drops at Alabama, Belmont, North Carolina, Samford, Tennessee, Texas, Vanderbilt, and Virginia. We are also participating in the Sunbelt Diversity Job Fair in Texas and the virtual Southeastern Minority Job Fair.
Summer associate profile:
Waller recruits students who are diverse in thought, background and education, especially those with strong ties to the five Southeastern cities in which we are located. Individuals who have a record of academic excellence and are motivated to learn and be integrated in a collegial environment excel at Waller.
Summer program components:
Waller’s Summer Program combines mentoring and learning based core practice projects with the opportunity to engage in live matters and other assignments with attorneys across all practice groups and offices.
Based on completed client matters, the core practice projects offer students first-hand experience with actual assignments and client relationships, providing unique insight into the students’ future roles at the firm.
This Firm's Rankings in
USA Guide, 2021
- Healthcare (Band 2)
- Litigation: General Commercial (Band 3)
- Banking & Finance (Band 1)
- Bankruptcy/Restructuring (Band 1)
- Corporate/M&A (Band 1)
- Environment (Band 1)
- Healthcare (Band 1)
- Intellectual Property (Band 1)
- Labor & Employment (Band 1)
- Litigation: General Commercial (Band 1)
- Media & Entertainment (Band 2)
- Real Estate (Band 1)
- Bankruptcy/Restructuring (Band 5)
- Healthcare (Band 5)
USA - Nationwide
- Food & Beverages: Alcohol: Southeastern United States (Band 1)
- Healthcare: The Elite (Band 4)