Riding a wave of revenue growth out of 2020, here’s an international firm that knows how to keep its associates happy.
Whether they want to work in finance, litigation, corporate law or another practice area, most lawyers don’t want their whole lives to be consumed by their work. Not only does New York-founded Willkie boast expertise in all those areas and more, they also seem to have understood the message that ‘work isn’t everything’, more than some of their rivals. “Willkie treats attorneys as people first and lawyers second,” a junior told us. “That is kinda rare among big law firms.” The largest group of Willkie’s people can be found in New York, but it also actively recruits junior associates in DCand Houston, while Palo Alto welcomes some newbies too (San Francisco and, as of 2020, Chicagoround out the firm’s US presence).
New arrivals we spoke to proposed that “the firm represents an exemplary combination of commitment to doing excellent legal work, and to valuing people on a human level.” Eloquently put. One insider suggested that “people seem to want to stay at Willkie long-term… an incredibly good sign to me as an incoming associate.” Survey respondents overwhelmingly told us they felt they’d chosen the right firm after a few years at the job. As for quality legal work, Chambers USAawards Willkie a list of rankings stretching as Farr as the eye can see, including top spots in New York for insurance and general commercial litigation; and nationwide for investment funds regulation and compliance, insurance and mid-market private equity.
“Willkie treats attorneys as people first and lawyers second; that is kinda rare among big law firms.”
Strategy & Future
COVID-19 may have devastated the world at large, but the legal industry largely did well in 2020 and Willkie was no exception. “The firm had a record-breaking year,” associates explained – revenue leaped to $986 million in a 13.6% increase on 2019. Willkie also tripled the number of billion-dollar deals it advised on, despite mixed fortunes in the transactional economy; and opened its brand-new office in Chicago with a team brought in from Jenner & Block. Keen to share the spoils of success, the firm lead a market trend with a second round of special COVID bonuses in spring 2021.
Corporate financial services and litigation are the most common destinations for new associate arrivals, followed by asset management and finance. Different offices have their own alternatives on offer: these are often driven by the local legal markets. For example, Houston is a hotspot for corporate energy, while DC is known for communications, media and privacy among other areas. Assignment in all groups has a structured system: an online portal that lists first and second-year associates’ workloads, as well as assignment partners. “Every week we fill out what we’re working on and our availability,” an insider told us. “Having the system and partners takes a lot of the stresses around workload off our shoulders.”
Private equity is the hot area in corporateat the moment and a core of Willkie’s practice, but it’s not the sole focus in the group; M&A, funds, financing and restructuring, and insurance are all here too. The team provides counsel to clients in industries like transport, consumer goods and even biotechnology. “It’s a very exciting niche area in corporate law,” associates enthused. Their typical tasks included drafting resolutions, overseeing diligence andreviewing principal documents. Some juniors yearned for more control… “I’d like greater mastery over the substance of agreements we work on and the mechanics of the deal dynamics,” one said. They did go on: “That said, everyone at Willkie is understanding of the learning curve for corporate associates, so I'm very happy with the work that I'm receiving.” Another had a contrasting experience and found their supervisors gave them opportunities to take the wheel: “Senior associates encourage you to take ownership and responsibility over the matter and you truly feel like a part of the deal team.”
Corporate clients: Take-Two Interactive Software, Franklin Templeton, Atlas Holdings. Represented investment banks Centerview and PJT, acting as advisers to pharmaceutical firm Mylan in its $12 billion merger with Upjohn.
“Willkie is understanding of the learning curve… I'm very happy with the work that I'm receiving.”
The litigation group spans New York and DC; cross-office work is common, with cases spanning commercial litigation, contract disputes, andsecurities cases and investigations. Juniors also built their experience in white-collar cases, employment disputes, antitrust and mass tort litigation. Sources felt like they were afforded a colorful variety: “The litigation department works hard to make sure I am exposed to different types of cases, as well as different types of opportunities,” according to one. “If an associate wants to draft a summary judgment motion, for example, assignment partners will do their best to make sure you get that opportunity as soon as possible.” Many found investigations especially exciting, whether they were diving into whistleblower claims or historic environmental contamination. Sources were “running interviews, project management, data analytics and document review and communicating with clients.” Cases with smaller teams lead to more chances to draft briefs, statements and memos.
Litigation clients: Bloomberg, Goldman Sachs, Resideo Technologies. Represented more than 30 underwriters to Uber’s IPO in class action suits alleging a false and misleading registration statement.
Willkie’s asset management group advises private and public firms, banks and insurance companies on issues ranging from fund formation to regulatory compliance. Juniors declared that “Willkie has one of the top asset management practices in the nation,” a claim backed up by its strong showings in the Chambers USA rankings. While there was the odd wish for a “lighter workload,” associates in this group suggested “hours are better here than in some practice areas like the general corporate team.”
Hours & Compensation
There’s no formal billable hours requirement for associates, though the firm does keep a careful eye on their hours via regular partner meetings. Interviewees told us they’d received several types of reviews with senior associates and also done ‘upward’ reviews of partners they’d worked with. “Because we don’t have a billable hour requirement that is tied to our salary, billable hours are only looked at to make sure associates are performing at their class level,” sources explained. During reviews, associates can figure out their bonus amount and raise any concerns. First-year salaries match the New York market in all offices, and we heard that many received multiple bonuses in 2020.The firm also offers a healthy four weeks’ vacation each year; and 18 weeks paid and 18 more unpaid of parental leave.
“Billable hours are only looked at to make sure associates are performing at their class level.”
A typical day for many sources ran from 8am to 6pm, but some practices like labor and employment and corporate were impacted by the COVID-19 effect. “The group has been extremely underwater,” a source in the latter felt. “A lot of us felt enhanced pressure in 2020 due to the stresses of the pandemic.” Some chalked these more turbulent hours up to the firm “waiting too long to hire a new class of lawyers” as the market adapted to the effects of lockdown restrictions. This wasn’t an issue exclusive to Willkie, and most felt that hours had been reasonable pre-COVID.
“The firm has high expectations balanced with training, mentorship and hands-on experience,” juniors said. “All this enables associates to meet the Willkie standard without pressure, any theatrics or an imposed sense of internal competition.” Though some kinds of work just need doing, we heard “partners are very receptive to the needs and development of associates” when there’s time available. One source added: “I feel lucky to work with people who take the time to explain tasks and answer any of my questions.” Survey respondents unanimously felt joining Willkie was good for their personal development.
“I’m treated as a future asset to the firm.”
Newly arrived juniors and laterals receive a partner and associate mentor; beyond this, the firm hosts in-house CLEs and an associate bootcamp. During the latter everybody spends two weeks developing their skills depending on their practice area. Intensive stuff, but our sources found the best training came on the job: “Most of my career development happens as part of the team.” When it comes to appraisals, associates weren’t aware of specific metrics they must achieve in order to progress. One explained that’s “very intentional. Willkie doesn’t want associates to have to match up against a piece of paper.” Taken alongside the suggestion that “partners are super open to working with junior associates, and midlevels always take the time to answer any questions,” interviewees felt the firm took their best interests into consideration. “Associates aren’t just cogs in the machine,” one noted. “I’m treated as a future asset to the firm.”
Willkie attorneys get stuck into pro bono matters ranging from organized crime cases to corporate governance for nonprofits. Hours spent on pro bono are uncapped; associates can also bring in their own opportunities, provided they can find a partner to approve them. New York interviewees enjoyed a “really varied” pro bono practice and high levels of responsibility on domestic violence cases and providing corporate advice to startups. There and elsewhere, “a lot of immigration work has been coming though the firm since the change in policies” brought in by the Biden administration. What tasks do pro bono cases involve? On a wrongful arrest, one associate spent their time “researching relevant case law and facts.” Another recalled their time on a federal investigation: “I took charge of the summary judgment and drafted a substantive part of the brief.”
Pro bono hours
- For all (US) attorneys: 39,701.4
- Average per (US) attorney: 62.2
Here as at many firms, associates insisted the structure is “non-hierarchical” where possible. “Willkie is unusually human,” one told us, highlighting that senior attorneys set the standard for how colleagues should interact with each other. “It comes from the top down: partners genuinely want to get to know you, which you take with you in all your interactions with the firm.” Another gave a blunter, but similarly happy assessment: “I always feel like I’m working for a team rather than a death bot I can't look in the eye.” Though they’re based in the largest office, New York juniors said “even the most accomplished partners are down to earth. Obviously, they expect great effort and work product, but they go about the pursuit of excellence in a friendly and collegial way.” Down in Houston, mutual respect was the common thread: “I really liked that assistants weren’t in a corner somewhere but were introduced as important colleagues, whose work was fundamental to the firm's success.” As for DC, a small office size with around 80 attorneysmeant juniors felt they could get to know colleagues personally.
“Even the most accomplished partners are still down to earth.”
“I was amazed at how many folks stayed at the firm for their entire careers,” an interviewee said. Before COVID-19 sent everyone to remote working as a default, casual chats in the office hallways were common and we heard “people genuinely enjoy each other's company.” To keep the vibe going even as chats went virtual, Willkie maintained an active social calendar throughout the pandemic including happy hours, mixology classes and video game sessions. The folks in New York might be the most anxious to get back into the office… word is “they have the best snacks!”
Diversity & Inclusion
Mentoring, initiatives and specific training for diverse associates are all coordinated by a firmwide D&I Committee. Willkie also has a specific Women’s Professional Development Committee (WPDC) that works toward empowering female attorneys. “I’m part of a strong female support system,” one told us. There’s been a renewed push lately on retention and promotion for women and ethnic minorities, with juniors suggesting “the efforts are clear and genuine, not just for appearances.” A diverse attorney said this: “The firm is serious about diversity and has taken the necessary steps to address it. I feel welcome as a diverse associate.”
Motherhood is one of the top reasons for women leaving their careers. Willkie aims to give new parents the resources they need to make it work. “A coworker was made partner just after coming back from nine months of maternity leave,” an insider revealed. “It made me feel reassured I could take as much time as I needed when I became a mother without it affecting my career.” To keep on top of the mental health of all attorneys, the firm hosts a ‘Willkie Wellness’ series including webinars and online yoga.
“It made me feel reassured I could take as much time as I needed… without it affecting my career.”
The first stage: recruitment on and off campus
OCI applicants interviewed: Undisclosed
Interviewees outside OCI: Undisclosed
Willkie interviews at approximately 30 schools on campus and at a handful of job fairs. The number of students seen at each campus varies. Professional personnel committee chair Antonio Yanez tells us that on-campus interviewers are typically “attorneys with significant interview experience and often are alumni from the school.” Questions tend to focus on candidates’ skills, attributes, interests and prior experience: “Our goal in the on-campus interview is to gauge the candidate’s abilities and their interest in Willkie.”
Top tips for this stage:
“Be prepared, show a genuine interest in the law and be ready to discuss your career goals.” – Antonio Yanez, partner professional personnel committee chair.
Applicants invited to second stage interview: Undisclosed
Candidates interview at the callback stage with four to five attorneys, who are usually a mix of associates and partners: “We aim to match the candidates' interests with the attorneys with whom they interview,” says Yanez. Callback interviews are a “deeper dive” than the on-campus interview, and at this point Willkie is focusing on how the candidate’s skills match their hiring criteria: “Throughout the interview, attorneys are thinking ‘would I want to work with this person on my matters?’ Be prepared to talk in detail about everything on your resume,” Yanez advises.
Top tips for this stage:
“Demonstrate that you are interested in the work, motivated to work hard, have an understanding of the firm, and explain why you are interested in working with us.” – Antonio Yanez, partner and professional personnel committee chair.
Summer associates work with attorneys across the firm. In New York, summer associates rotate through three departments. In the DC, Texas and California offices, associates work in particular practice areas. All of the US summer associates come together in mid-May to meet with firm leaders and to “learn about the firm on a macro level,” Yanez explains. As well as working for clients (both paying and pro bono), summer associates participate in interactive training programs like a corporate negotiations seminar, a mock arbitration seminar and a presentation skills workshop. Each office hosts events and activities that “provide our summer associates with an opportunity to get to know each other, our attorneys and the Firm,” says Yanez.
Throughout the past decade, over 90% of Willkie's summer associates have returned as junior associates. Throughout the summer, Willkie has an ongoing dialogue with each summer associate about their practice area of interest. Yanez tells us that “department assignments are made based on both summer associate preference and departmental staffing needs. Every effort is undertaken to ensure that summer associates are pleased with their ultimate department placement.”
Top tips for this stage:
“Get exposure to quality work and get to know as many attorneys at the firm as possible. Be open-minded and embrace the opportunity to learn and absorb information in a new professional environment.” –Antonio Yanez, partner and professional personnel committee chair.
Number of laterals: 50
Yanez says that “of our new associate hires in any given year, about 65% are returning from our summer program and the balance are lateral hires.” That 35%, Yanez says, typically comes “from top-tier firms in the Am Law 100.” The firm hires laterals “based on department needs. But most often we hire at the mid-level.”
A parting top tip from Yanez is to “be ready to talk about yourself and be honest about what you are looking for in a summer/postgraduation job.”
Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP
787 Seventh Avenue,
- Head Office: New York, NY
- Number of domestic offices: 6
- Number of international offices: 6
- Partners (US): 206
- Associates (US): 407
- Main recruitment contacts: Christie Bonasera, Director of Legal Recruiting (NY/CA); Jeanine Thomas, Senior Manager, Legal Personnel & Recruiting (DC); Tiffany Piccirilli, Senior Manager, Legal Personnel & Recruiting (TX/IL)
- Hiring partners: Tiffany Lee (CA); Amanda Amert (CHI); Jeffrey Clark (DC); Sameer Advani, Jared Fertman, Bradley Friedman, Matthew Haddad, Shaimaa Hussein, Claire James, Andrew Mordkoff, Jeffrey Pawlitz, Jason Pearl, Mark Proctor, Danielle Scalzo, Kim Walker; Robert Jacobson (TX).
- Diversity officer: Kim Walker, Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer
- Recruitment details
- Entry-level associates starting in 2021: 81
- Summers joining/anticipated 2021:
- 1Ls: 9 , 2Ls: 83
- Summers joining/anticipated 2021 split by office:
- NY: 56, DC: 10, Houston: 6, CA: 8, IL: 13
- Summer salary 2021:
- 1Ls: $3,653
- 2Ls: $3,653
- Split summers offered? No
- Can summers spend time in an overseas office? Case-by-case
Main areas of work
Brooklyn Law School; Columbia Law School; Cornell Law School; Duke University School of Law; Fordham University School of Law; The George Washington University Law School; Georgetown University Law Center; Harvard Law School; Howard University School of Law; NYU School of Law; Northwestern Pritzker School of Law; Notre Dame Law School; St. John's University School of Law; Stanford Law School; UC Berkeley Law; University of Chicago Law School; University of Houston Law Center; University of Illinois College of Law; University of Michigan Law School; University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School; The University of Texas School of Law; University of Virginia School of Law; Vanderbilt Law School.
Summer associate profile:
Willkie seeks motivated individuals who have excelled academically. We are looking for candidates who possess ambition, maturity, strong communication skills and the ability to work collaboratively.
Summer program components:
Willkie’s summer program is a terrific introduction to the firm. We offer summer associates the opportunity to work side by side with our attorneys in practice areas of their choice. We offer departmental rotations during the course of the summer. In addition, summer associates participate in a presentation skills workshop, mock arbitration and corporate negotiation training seminars and attend department overviews. Summer associates are evaluated twice during the program: once at mid-summer and then at the end of the program. In addition to giving an introduction to life as an associate, we offer a wide array of social events with the goal of helping our summer associates to get to know one another, our lawyers and the city.
This Firm's Rankings in
USA Guide, 2021
- Insurance: Insurer (Band 4)
- Technology: Transactions (Band 3)
District of Columbia
- Environment: Mainly Transactional (Band 4)
- Litigation: General Commercial: Highly Regarded (Band 2)
- Telecom, Broadcast & Satellite (Band 2)
- Litigation: General Commercial (Band 5)
- Antitrust (Band 4)
- Banking & Finance (Band 4)
- Bankruptcy/Restructuring: The Elite (Band 3)
- Corporate/M&A: Shareholder Activism (Band 2)
- Corporate/M&A: The Elite (Band 4)
- Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation (Band 3)
- Insurance: Dispute Resolution: Policyholder (Band 3)
- Insurance: Transactional & Regulatory (Band 1)
- Intellectual Property: Patent (Band 5)
- Litigation: General Commercial: Highly Regarded (Band 1)
- Litigation: Securities (Band 3)
- Litigation: White-Collar Crime & Government Investigations: The Elite (Band 5)
- Private Equity: Buyouts (Band 2)
- Real Estate: Mainly Corporate & Finance (Band 4)
- Real Estate: Mainly Dirt (Band 5)
- Tax (Band 3)
- Banking & Finance (Band 5)
- Corporate/M&A: The Elite (Band 5)
USA - Nationwide
- Banking & Finance (Band 4)
- Bankruptcy/Restructuring: The Elite (Band 3)
- Corporate/M&A: The Elite (Band 4)
- Derivatives (Band 2)
- Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation (Band 4)
- Energy: Electricity (Regulatory & Litigation) (Band 5)
- Energy: Oil & Gas (Transactional) (Band 3)
- ERISA Litigation (Band 3)
- FCPA (Band 3)
- Financial Services Regulation: Broker Dealer (Compliance & Enforcement) (Band 4)
- Hedge Funds (Band 4)
- Insurance: Transactional & Regulatory (Band 1)
- Investment Funds: Regulatory & Compliance (Band 1)
- Private Equity: Buyouts: High-end Capability (Band 3)
- Private Equity: Buyouts: Mid-Market (Band 1)
- Private Equity: Fund Formation (Band 3)
- Registered Funds (Band 2)
- Securities: Litigation (Band 4)
- Securities: Regulation: Enforcement (Band 4)
- Tax: Corporate & Finance (Band 4)