'The Governator' Arnie Schwarzenegger's famous proclamation that “California has the ideas of Athens and the power of Sparta” might be a touch grandiose, but California still boasts the highest population and highest revenues of any state...
THE distinctive perks of California living are pretty well documented: blissful weather, surfing, a laid back attitude and relentless positivity. As the writer Don DeLillo sourly quipped: “Californians invented the concept of lifestyle. This alone warrants their doom.” Since it birthed the hippie in the 1960s, the state has increasingly combined its trademark brand of Cali-cool with impressive corporate credentials. California's claim to being a modern-day ancient Greece largely rests on the shoulders of the technological philosophers of Silicon Valley and the bronzed gods of Hollywood. Thanks to these industries, the state's GDP now measures up to that of the world's richest countries: in 2014 it was the eighth highest in the world, with $2.312 trillion to its name, beating both Italy and Russia and rapidly approaching Brazil, whose GDP sits at $2.346 trillion.
Although working in BigLaw is never a picnic, California law firms tend to offer a lighter, brighter lifestyle than their out-of-state counterparts. Our California junior associates tell us that “instead of the older, stuffy dark-suit atmosphere in New York law firms that you see on TV shows, there's a lighter, brighter feeling here.” In a legacy of the hippies' famed contempt for the neck-tie, Cali-locals like Sheppard Mullin put the casual into dressing business casual – one associate there told us that “I tend to hide behind my desk in my leggings a lot of the time, and a lot of partners wear jeans every day.” California litigation stalwarts Quinn Emanuel put them to shame in the dress-down stakes, though. Their co-founding partner Bill Urquhart is on record as saying that "the only dress code we have is that you to have something between your feet and the carpet – and that's because our insurance company requires it!" The firm's even issued QE-branded flip-flops to summer associates in the past.
Californians are linguistic pioneers, responsible for spreading the 'valley girl' and 'surfer dude' speech pattern stereotypes in the 1980s, and we can blame California for the infiltration of 'like' as a multipurpose conversational filler, as well as other gems like 'hella,' 'totally,' 'awesome,' 'dude,' and the underused 'gnarly.' We wouldn't recommend pulling out any of the above words in court, but words like "relaxed" frequently come up in our conversations with junior lawyers over the years, many of whom feel that “people are more laid back here,” wherever their firm is headquartered. This could be down to all that glorious vitamin D, part and parcel of a “climate you can enjoy year-round.” Still, even at coastal offices, “lawyers are really focused on living their professional lives; it's not like we're at the beach every weekend.”
Indeed, don't get carried away with visions of short working days and long evenings spent lazing on the sand. Perhaps this corporate associate in Gibson Dunn's LA office sums up the Cali approach to lawyering best: “I leave the office around 7pm and work from home all the time. Most of the people I work with are good at not creating extra stress. They're flexible; they're not going to sweat someone's decision to work from home. You're given a lot of freedom when it comes to how and where you get your work done.” Note that the approach itself may be relaxed and flexible, but lawyers are still working those notorious BigLaw hours all the same. Turns out local lawyers save that sand-between-your-toes feeling for events like Sheppard Mullin's business trial retreat to Surf & Sand Resort on Laguna Beach.
A Tale of Two Cities
California was late to develop compared to other states, which makes sense considering part of its distinctive mythos is that people came there not out of necessity, but for the purposes of self-fulfillment and to put dreams into action. It's been shaped by two successive waves of self-starting, entrepreneurial energy, each of which has its own thriving hub. The first was the flood of movie-makers to Hollywood in the early 20th century. Initially they came to avoid paying Thomas Edison's fees (he had a patent on the movie-making process), as well as for the reliable sunshine and mild climate. As the studios grew through the 1920s and 1930s, writers, directors and technicians flooded in from around the world – with high numbers of displaced Jewish immigrants among their number – to create the world's first and most prolific movie industry.
Today, glamorous Hollywood clients flock to national firms' branches in Century City, the site of a former backlot for 20th Century Fox, for industry-specific services in areas like finance, employment and IP. One associate found the culture in Century City “more trendy than in our other offices, because when your clients are cool production companies and you've got models and actors coming in, you have a different sort of attitude and interests. It's a very casual, low-key atmosphere.” If it's entertainment-related work that appeals most, check out Chambers USA's top-ranked firms in the area, which include Akin Gump, Loeb & Loeb, Sheppard Mullin, Munger, Gibson Dunn and Davis Wright Tremaine.
Do robots dream of electric sheep?
The second wave of entrepreneurship shaping California's economy started in the 1940s and 50s, when the then dean of Stanford University encouraged graduates and academics to stay in the area to found businesses (this is how Hewlett-Packard got its start). A growing amount of hi-tech entrepreneurs powered by dreams of stardom on a rather smaller kind of screen stuck around, and the area became known as Silicon Valley. According to one anonymous Cali wit, the recipe for Silicon Valley was "take one great research university, add venture capital, and shake vigorously." Hollywood's supremacy is increasingly on the wane, but Silicon Valley goes from strength to strength. The speculation-driven industry is prone to booms and busts, but for now it seems to have seen off both the 2000–01 threat of the dot-com bubble burst and the more recent recession.
Stanford still feeds plenty of its hi-tech expertise into Silicon Valley: its graduates are responsible for eBay, Netflix, LinkedIn and Instagram, each of which got its start with dizzying sums of venture capital investment. The Valley has a reputation for throwing billions around in relaxed style, with megabuck deals sealed on a handshake. Law firms targeting the silicon dollar tend to set up outlets in Palo Alto. The area has a distinctive atmosphere: one White & Case junior based there told us that “we adopt a Silicon Valley mentality, so we work hard and play hard too. People from our New York office make fun of us and say we shouldn't be dressed in business casual, but if you meet a client in suit and tie here they'll laugh you out the room!”
"People from our New York office make fun of us and say we shouldn't be dressed in business casual."
Quinn Emanuel's Bill Urquhart reports that there has been "a literal explosion of new tech companies in various hotspots across the country. For example, there is an area called Silicon Beach in LA which has attracted startups like Snapchat, as well as more established hi-tech companies like Google and big internet game companies like Electronic Arts." The city's location and Hispanic cultural heritage mean that work often has a Latin American slant. Urquhart also tells us that "our Los Angeles office provides lawyers the rare opportunity to do exciting work in Southern California where people go to relax, head for the beach and lay under palm trees." As another BigLaw source based in Los Angeles raved, “within two hours you can go to the desert, the beach or snow-skiing in the mountains.” This might be true on weekends, but as the US's second largest city, Los Angeles inevitably has a frenetic feel. One source felt that “the best thing about working here is the diversity and richness of the city's culture, and the worst thing hands down is the traffic.”
Over in San Francisco, California's alternative heritage lives on in the form of health foods, organic farming and various eco movements. The state's environmental policies and targets are the strictest in the US – the city bans all its retailers from handing out plastic bags – and it has been named the greenest city in the US and Canada. In a less concrete (and potentially spurious) legacy, one survey found that 63% of Californians actually have hugged a tree. In any case, the area is a center for environmental law and green businesses like solar energy generation. Like LA, San Francisco is home to growing numbers of hi-tech businesses, including internet oversharers' favorites Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter. There's also plenty of corporate and finance work courtesy of the Financial District, home to the headquarters of national players like Wells Fargo, Gap and Levi Strauss.
San Fran has plenty of work for aspiring lawyers, but a move there comes with a mighty price tag. In its recently published National Rent Report, Real-estate rental website Zumper found that of the one million active, one-bedroom listings it had analyzed, six of the 20 most expensive US cities for renters were in California. San Francisco and its surrounding areas were deemed the most expensive place to set up camp in the entire country, a position that has pushed up prices south of the Golden Gate City to promote the San Jose and Oakland metros to fourth and sixth place respectively. So while those starting salaries at BigLaw firms appear to be very generous, it's worth bearing in mind those dollars won't stretch as far as they could elsewhere, especially when it comes to housing. And if you're looking to buy? Well, San Francisco is one place where that'll be quite the challenge. The city's real estate market has reached dizzying heights, with the average homeowner’s annual income standing at a nationwide high of $147,996. To put this into perspective, the salary required to buy a home in St. Louis, Missouri is $34,778.
Of California's law school options, Stanford is arguably the most prestigious – it tends to come in the top three in various US law school rankings – and University of California Berkeley is not too far behind. Other respectable showings include UCLA, the University of Southern California (Gould), Loyola and Southwestern. Successful Cali-grads have a host of well-established local law firms to choose from: Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, founded and headquartered in San Francisco, is one of the state's largest and oldest firms, while other prestigious California outfits include Morrison & Foerster (MoFo), litigation giant Quinn Emanuel, Gibson Dunn, and Sheppard Mullin.
There are also a host of boutiques catering to California's key industries, such as top-flight IP boutique Finnegan and property specialists Allen Matkins. And many BigLaw firms from across the US have Cali outposts, often in Silicon Valley or nearby San Francisco to profit from the area's surging tech industry. Los Angeles is also a desirable location thanks to its strong links with the Latin America market, while some large firms like Simpson Thacher use a Palo Alto base to extend their business further west. At this ST office one associate told us: “We're very much Asia-facing on both the litigation and transactional side. We work on a lot of price-fixing issues with Asian companies.” Elsewhere, Orange County increasingly entices firms with its booming property market.
One for the money
California's government has one of the highest debt burdens in the US – partly a function of the state's 'bad debt' fueled housing crisis. The state's individual income tax system is broken down into ten brackets, and the top rate, at 13.3%, is the highest in the entire country. Economic challenges in recent years have included deep cuts at state government level, a surging birth rate that outstripped job levels, continued stagnant demand for housing in parts of SoCal, and a stronger dollar hurting California's tech exports. Still, sectors of California's economy are booming, and the state continues to lure in big businesses. As Bill Urquhart tells us, "Northern California wasn't hurt by the recession as much as Southern California because of the strength of the tech industry. Construction is a big part of the Southern California economy. That segment of the economy really suffered. That industry has rebounded. Thankfully, I think the recession for the most part appears to be behind us in both Northern and Southern California." All the signs point to a positive future for the Golden State. Of all US states, California leads the pack when it comes to revenue growth in the agriculture, manufacturing and technology industries. Workers' pockets have been a big beneficiary of this growth: in 2015 Californians' personal income increased by 6.3%, which was faster than any other US state.