Winston & Strawn is embracing growth, modernity, and its associates too.
CHICAGO has produced some pretty big names over the years – generous Oprah, wizened Harrison Ford, unique Kanye… and seminal pop-punk band Fall Out Boy. But long before these folks were so much as a twinkle in their parents' eyes (even Harrison Ford), Winston & Strawn were building a Chicagoan legal legacy. Since 1853 the firm has branched further afield: there are now 16 bases in total, with international sites in locations like London, Paris and Dubai, but the firm still plays a pivotal role in the bustling Windy City. Chambers USA demonstrates the firm's expertise in Illinois, recognizing its credentials in areas such as labor & employment, transactional media & entertainment, IP, commercial litigation, white-collar litigation, and corporate M&A. Beyond Chi-town, highlights include an energy regulation practice in California, a shipping regulatory practice focused in DC, and a sports law team in New York.
Historically though, Winston's “great reputation for litigation” has been at the fore, and that had appealed to a lot of the juniors we spoke to. But this is changing. One transactional source noticed how “at the time of interviewing, the firm didn't have that robust of a corporate practice, but since I've joined they've been acquiring more corporate groups, so it's turned out to be a great decision.” As well as a new Dallas office, the firm brought in a number of energy lawyers, all of which underscore the firm's hefty appetite for growth. It's not done yet.
Over half of juniors could be found in litigation, a quarter in corporate, with the rest split between labor & employment, tax, real estate, energy, and employee benefits. The majority of groups gain work through a free-market system. “You, the associate, are in the driver's seat. It's a matter of you approaching folks to engage with them. You can explore different types of matters and figure out what the firm has going on.”
And this isn't just limited to an associate's office: cross-staffing was rife throughout the firm's network. One junior recalled: “I had an interest in antitrust work, but there wasn't much of that in my office. I expressed my interest and they were able to put me in touch with people in other offices.” Juniors appreciated that “you have control over your work – the type, who you work with, the workflow. You are responsible for your career path early on.” Alternatively, if juniors are struggling to find work, “a safeguard” comes in the form of assigning partners.
“You, the associate, are in the driver's seat.”
Litigation associates usually keep things quite general when they start. They're free to focus on specific subgroups down the line if they desire, but the free-market system means the work they've picked up so far “doesn't preclude you from branching off.” So sources had sampled heavily across a “wide array of litigation matters”: complex commercial litigation, securities work, white-collar and regulatory work, antitrust, IP, and appellate. “You name it, we probably do it,” one added. And, as a large firm, “theclientele runs the gamut of large corporate and institutional types – banks, insurance companies, electronics companies, steel producers and pharmaceutical companies, to name a few.”
Litigation juniors had reason to be happy. “I've had a fair amount of substantive work early on. Within two months I drafted a motion to dismiss, which was really cool!” For the most part though, this occurred on smaller cases. Sources admitted that “with the bigger cases, it's usually more discovery-related things and a bit of doc review, though we do have an in-house doc review team, and we outsource some of it too.” Reflecting on it all, one source felt “it's a good mix of substantive experience, without being thrown to the wolves.” Other tasks included drafting of briefs and pleadings, legal research and witness prep. “They don't say 'once you're in X year you can do X tasks' – they do a good job of not pigeonholing you. Your responsibility depends on how the case is staffed, but also on what you've shown you're able to do.”
Over on the growing corporate side, attorneys usually end up leaning toward a particular area, such as M&A, securities work or finance. “It's more typical to have a larger variety of work when you first start, then whittle it down.” Typical M&A work is usually “middle market” with larger, billion-dollar deals cropping up from time to time. Juniors started out “drafting ancillaries, reviewing disclosure schedules and reviewing contracts,” but could move on to oversee the diligence process. Again, there's an array of clients from diverse industries, but finance folks had mostly represented lenders (mostly banks and private equity funds). Those focused specifically on securities were “doing daily securities filings, and a lot of drafting of the deal documents for bond deals.” One associate told us: “It really depends on the partner. One partner has me doing a lot of the micromanaging because they're very big picture focused. I'd say it's 50:50 overall in terms of good substantive experience – there's still a lot that is outside of your wheelhouse.”
Most of the firm's junior associates are based in Chicago or New York. DC has a little over ten, and the Dallas, LA and San Fran offices each have a handful. A select few also reside in Houston, Silicon Valley and Charlotte.
There was a buzz among folks in the Chicago headquarters, who each mentioned a recently built cafe: “It's something they show every new recruit! Attorneys and staff can meet there and have lunch. There are coffee machines and pop machines, and TVs.” Juniors also praised the office location – each associate gets a window office with “amazing views, as we're right on the river, overlooking Lake Michigan.” New Yorkers, who typically share an office to begin with, are stationed on top of Grand Central Terminal – “once you're off the train you're basically at work.” That office is currently undergoing a renovation, while LA has just completed its own renovation, and comes complete with “a wellness room – you can take a blanket in there if you're really tired!”
“Winston is perceived as being pretty conservative, but I haven't felt that as much as I would have expected. It's been shifting – maybe ten years ago that perception was right, but recently the firm has put a lot of equity into its associates, focusing on training, longevity, happiness and diversity.” Nowadays, juniors felt that “all that's left of that old-fashioned legal conservatism is the Chicago office's old-fashioned look!” Pushing preconceptions aside, associates summarized: “There's a lot of hard-working people here, but they're also really personable and willing to help you out. They also understand the need to have a life outside of work.”
"The firm has put a lot of equity into its associates, focusing on training, longevity, happiness, and diversity."
Accordingly, the social side is also alive and well: in Chicago, attorneys have “a weekly happy hour every Friday.” In classy New York, this is more commonly known as “Martini Friday” and is organized around a theme; prior themes have included Chinese New Year and the Oscars. During the summer, juniors were able to go to Cubs games, go on boat trips, and one remembered: “Our year did a casino night where the firm brought in private dealers just for us.”
Hours & Compensation
Attorneys have a billing target of 2,000 hours, 1,900 of which must be “hard billables” – the other 100 can be pro bono, or 50 hours of firm citizenship and investment work. This includes working on things like pitches or recruitment. Sources felt that that allowance made a difference: “When you take into account pro bono hours, it makes it much more attainable.” After associates hit their 2,000-hour target, any hours in excess of that (whether hard billables, pro bono or firm citizenship/investment contributions) go toward a further bonus.
"People are usually reasonable, but it's a roller-coaster.”
On an average day, most sources were in the office for 9am and out by 6pm. “Partners will often leave between 5 and 6pm, go home, eat with their family and then log on at night. That has trickled down; associates will do the same thing.” There's no formal vacation policy, and interviewees noted the level of informality. “There's nobody waiting by my door to see if I get in at a specific time – there's no expectation for you to be in the office for the sake of it.” But, not to sugarcoat things, it's important to stress that associates are still exposed to fluctuations. “When deals are closing it can be more like a midnight or 1am finish,” said one corporate associate, while another told us: “In the first three months of the year you will usually be leaving at eight or later.” Likewise, “it's just the nature of litigation – people are usually reasonable, but it's a roller-coaster.”
Associates struck a note of optimism on gender diversity. The firm's gender-neutral parental leave policy (which provides 20 weeks' paid leave) won praise from associates, who felt confident that “at least in the near future, firm stewardship will have a fairer representation in terms of female partnership.” Many noted the appointment of Linda Coberly as the firm's first female managing partner of the Chicago office as a positive step in this direction (the Silicon Valley and San Francisco offices are also headed up by women).
“We realized that's not enough, and wanted to do more."
On ethnic diversity, associates felt that “it's an area where the firm is improving.” Winston recently hired a new director of diversity and inclusion, Sylvia James, and has a full-time diversity committee that works alongside the firm's hiring committee to address diversity in recruiting. Hiring partner Bill O'Neil tells us more about the firm's plans to boost diversity: “For our 2018 summer class, we are expanding our 1L program for diverse law students in partnership with the LCLD [Leadership Council on Legal Diversity]. Five to seven diverse 1L summers will join us this summer, and hopefully we'll make a favorable impression on them so that they rejoin us next summer. They will also be able to join a different office for their 2L summer.” Winston also has multiple affinity groups and recently “sent a number of diverse attorneys to a conference in Orlando called Charting Your Own Course.” It is also a signatory of the Mansfield Rule.
Training & Development
Winston's 'Jumpstart' training program for juniors starts with a weeklong orientation, which brings “all first years together in Chicago.” Once back in their respective offices, the program continues with ongoing department-specific training. “There's also specialized sessions for different subgroups. Not all sessions are applicable to your practice, but you can pick and choose which to go to.” Litigators reported having trainings on depositions, and then “once every couple of years they do a full mock trial and bring in actors.”
Reviews occur annually. “In your first two years you get a summary review where you find out if you're doing well or not. From the following year, it's a real review. You get comments from everyone you've worked for and they assign you a number grade.” Two partners conduct the review, one of whom associates will have worked with. Associates also receive a written report summarizing the review.
Every interviewee agreed on the firm's stance regarding pro bono: “It's a high priority at our firm. They want all attorneys to be engaged in pro bono services.” Sources highlighted: “They were pushing for 100% of attorneys to do at least 20 hours, and we were in the high 90s.” Although 20 hours is the minimum, the internal goal is said to be 35 hours. “Obviously billable work is the priority, but there's respect for pro bono, so if there's an urgent deadline on a pro bono matter, the teams are respectful and you can devote time to that.”
As with billable work, associates could choose their own path. “The firm is partnered with different organizations, but if you ever want a specific opportunity, you can let the pro bono department know and they'll work to find you something.” Juniors had worked on a range of matters, including juvenile defense matters, veteran work, asylum cases, discharge upgrades, and a significant amount of immigration work for the National Immigration Justice Center. One unique case involved “defending a bunch of Star Trek fans who had written a fan-film and were being sued for copyright infringement.” They reached a settlement, so the fans can continue to live long and prosper…
Pro bono hours
- For all attorneys: 65,000
- Average per attorney: 73.5
Strategy & Future
The firm has recently changed its partnership structure, going from a two-tier structure (equity and non-equity partners) to a one-tier structure. That's a good thing for associates' career prospects, an issue the firm has looked at improving, but lateral hiring has accelerated too. Managing partner Tom Fitzgerald highlights: "Since January 1, 2017, we've hired 89 partners, which is a record number for us." Going forward, the plan is to "fully integrate all these individuals that have come our way – that is very important to us. We think we can bring a lot of different services to clients that we haven't previously had the opportunity to do." The firm has some serious momentum behind it, and Fitzgerald's "most immediate goal" is crystal clear: “Revenues over one billion dollars.”
You've heard of the 'it factor,' but at Winston & Strawn, it's all about the grit factor. Associates sang from the same hymn-sheet as hiring partner Bill O'Neil when they told us “candidates need to have grit and really want to be here. Maybe they're not from the best school, but they have to have a good mindset and personality.” O'Neil himself told us: “We try to ask questions that probe the candidate's interest in working in BigLaw, and specifically at our law firm. We have three characteristics that we're looking for: intellect, grit and leadership/interpersonal skills. Our interviewers focus on one of those qualities specifically, which helps us to articulate clearly our vision and what we're looking for.”
With lyrical consistency, juniors agreed that when recruiting, “once the candidate hits the initial check marks of good academics and grades, then it's much more about fit.” By 'fit,' juniors meant “someone that seems determined and interested in the firm,” and someone with a good attitude – “attitude is important because if they're willing to learn, you can teach them anything. But if their attitude sucks, you can't teach them.”
Hiring partner Bill O'Neil adds: “Attitude, effort and exuberance go a long way. A huge selling point is when someone can express their passion about wanting to come work with us.” It's also worth noting that the summer class has been growing slightly each year: “We recruited 75 2L summer associates for our 2018 summer program, which is an increase from 2017 and 2016: 67 and 64 respectively. Looking to 2019, we anticipate hiring 75 to 80 2L summer associates. As you’ll see, it's a pattern of steady year-over-year growth.”
Interview with managing partner Tom Fitzgerald
Chambers Associate: What highlights from the last year would you want to flag up to our readers?
Tom Fitzgerald: There are a number of highlights from this year, but the gross revenues for the firm went from $822 million to $978 million – that's about a 19% increase, so that's number one. Our revenue per lawyer and our profit per equity partner also increased.
It's been a phenomenal year for the firm. We added a lot of talent and we had great successes for our clients. Helping clients succeed and providing excellent legal services is our number one goal. We closed over 425 transactions in the M&A, capital markets and finance areas, and 21 of those were in excess of a billion dollars. And on the disputes side, we also had a number of significant successes, both summary judgment and trial wins and reversals of adverse decisions. That included a very significant defamation case concerning ABC television, which had a number of ground-breaking aspects to it.
In terms of development at the firm, there are several things that merit a mention. One is that since January 1, 2017, we've hired 89 partners, which is a record number forus. We had the unprecedented opportunity to start our Dallas office with 29 partners from nine different firms. We added to our corporate practice in New York, and we recently completed a number of acquisitions in the energy area. We bolstered our private equity group in Chicago and New York in a significant way. We also added a prominent employee benefits group in Chicago and DC. It's really put us in a position to have a much deeper bench in areas that are important to us.
In prior years we've had good luck with strategic hiring, but this year we were fortunate that every opportunity materialized. This kind of growth can’t happen without the core of the firm being accepting and without great staff that can identify, recruit, hire and integrate people into our law firm. It's very much a team effort.
As part of the strategic plan the firm adopted 14 months ago, we revamped our talent management program. We hired a director of diversity and inclusion, we expanded our alumni efforts, and we instituted Winston University, a comprehensive learning and development program. We're focusing on hiring people with the background and ability to succeed at Winston.
CA: What is your long-term vision for the firm? What do you want it to look like in ten years' time?
TF: Our most immediate goal is revenues over one billion dollars. But first, we need to fully integrate all these individuals that have come our way – that is very important to us. We think we can bring a lot of different services to clients that we haven't previously had the opportunity to do. The team from NRF greatly expanded our LatAm reach and there is a lot of opportunity there. We hired substantial new energy sector transactional and regulatory resources in New York and DC and a major oil and gas litigation group in Houston too. We need to introduce the opportunities to clients, and tell them about the talent we have acquired. That's job number one.
Job number two, from my perspective, is that we have looked for a chief marketing officer for about six months. We have a very talented marketing team – many of them have been here for 20 years – but our CMO retired a few years ago. We are looking for someone to take the good work that has been done and really drive an overall brand and a go-to market message. We also need to increase our focus on our industry groups. Clients appreciate the fact we can bring our expertise sector to anything we're working on.
We're also dedicated to our diversity and inclusion initiatives and to making the firm reflect the diversity at our clients and in our communities. Additionally we want to raise our pro bono participation up from 91% to 100%. I will personally call the remaining 9% and encourage them.
We're also going to emphasize our culture. When you've brought in a lot of laterals as we have, you have to make sure they buy into the culture of the firm: what we believe, what we respect, our quality of service, the importance of collaboration and acceptance. That has to be a consistent message.
More from hiring partner Bill O'Neil
Chambers Associate: Roughly how many associates do you take on each year? What is the distribution like between the offices?
Bill O'Neil: We recruited 75 2L summer associates for our 2018 summer program, which is an increase from 2017 and 2016: 67 and 64 respectively. Looking to 2019, we anticipate hiring 75 to 80 2L summer associates. As you’ll see, it's a pattern of steady year-over-year growth. We've had significant firm-wide expansion in the last 12 months, especially in Dallas, our newest office, and Silicon Valley, an office that we have grown considerably.
Chicago and New York are our two biggest offices, and they will continue to have the largest summer program sizes. We hired in the mid-to-upper 20s in Chicago, and in the low-to-mid 20s in New York. In our other offices, the average size of the summer program is between six to eight, depending on the overall size of the office.
CA: What's the scope of your recruiting drive?
BON: We recruit at approximately 30 law schools, and that is broken down into national schools and regional schools. Our national schools are typically those schools ranked in the top 20, and we're looking for students interested in any of our offices… For the 15 regional schools, we're typically doing single-office recruiting. For example, at SMU in Dallas, we're only looking to bring people into the Dallas office. For Chicago, the University of Illinois would be a regional school. In general, the regional schools have national rankings from 20 to 50.
CA: What does the firm do to encourage diversity in recruiting?
BON: The firm is committed to hiring diverse talent and we continue to think of ways to expand our programs. We have a diversity scholarship program that awards three scholarships to students joining our summer program. In addition, for our 2018 summer class, we are expanding our 1L program for diverse law students in partnership with the LCLD [Leadership Council on Legal Diversity]. Five to seven diverse 1L summers will join us this summer, and hopefully we'll make a favorable impression on them so that they rejoin us next summer. They will also be able to join a different office for their 2L summer. That can be attractive to students who are not sure where they want to have their careers.
We also have a firm-wide diversity committee that works alongside our hiring committee to address diversity in recruiting. This spring we hired a director of diversity [Sylvia James], which is a new position, and we’ve tripled the size of our diversity department.
CA: What types of questions do you ask during OCIs and callback interviews?
BON: We try to ask questions that probe the candidate's interest in working in BigLaw, and specifically at our law firm. We have three characteristics that we're looking for: intellect, grit and leadership/interpersonal skills. Our interviewers focus on one of those qualities specifically, which helps us to articulate clearly our vision and what we're looking for. It's not quite a behavioral interviewing, but it's more focused. The interview is still conversational and organic, but we seek to leave with an understanding of the candidate’s intellectual ability, grit or leadership/interpersonal skills.
CA: What makes someone stand out at interview?
BON: It's a combination of a lot of things: by the time candidates get to interview, they've been pre-screened for academic qualities and their grades meet the criteria. The callback is much more focused on personality and fit, so I think attitude, effort and exuberance go a long way. A huge selling point is when someone can express their passion about wanting to come work with us. It's people that are uniquely interested in this firm and practicing in BigLaw that really stand out to us.
CA: What might put you off someone?
BON: We've had interviews go badly when a candidate is just going through the motions and doesn’t seem committed – when you get the sense that the candidate is driven by a purpose in life that is different from what we do. Maybe they wanted to do something else with their life different from BigLaw, maybe they were doing it to pay off their law school debt, but, for one reason or another, they gave us the impression that they were just going through the motions. We really look for drive, passion, and commitment to client service through legal excellence.
CA: What can students do now (eg in their 1L summer) to increase their chances of impressing you in their applications and at interview?
BON: To us, it's most important that a candidate does something that hones their skills – whether that's better as a thinker, a writer, or on their feet. We look for whether they can articulate what they got out of their 1L summer, which is more important than where they worked. We find government work very impressive. It's really interesting to see someone who has interned for a judge, or worked for a government agency like the SEC or DOJ. That experience can be really valuable to a law firm.
CA: Can you briefly outline your summer program? Is there anything distinctive about it?
BON: It's a very traditional program in the sense that it's approximately ten weeks. It's a combination of hands-on, real work and learning opportunities. We have a flexible policy that allows a billing partner to write off 40 hours of time to working with summers. It enables the associates to get good experience without us running up the bill on our clients. We marry that hands-on client experience with a lot of training. We have in-depth training programs on both the transactional and litigation sides. On the corporate side, we have mock corporate negotiation exercises, and on the litigation side, we do a full mock trial and deposition workshops. We try to mimic 'real life' settings for them. We also try to expose them to a variety of areas in the firm, in terms of subspecialties that they might not otherwise get to see, like labor & employment, tax, etc.
CA: What does the firm offer that is unique?
BON: I would say two things: the first is that it's a really interesting time in the evolution of the firm. We're the oldest firm in Chicago, with 165 years of practice, and we've really hit our stride in the last few years. It's been a record-breaking years in terms of revenue and profitability. It's a great time for me to be cochair of the Hiring Committee hiring partner[EDITOR: which one is it?], as I get to benefit from the tremendous financial boom and expansion on the geographical scope. We're expanding the size of our program, so we're very fortunate from a timing perspective, being in the right place at the right time.
That second thing that differentiates us from other firms is that we do evening interview programs in many of our offices, where we bring in students from a particular school in one single night for callback interviews. We do a wave of interviews with various school alumni and department heads, followed by a cocktail reception, then another wave of interviews after that. We can see 16 to 20 students in one evening. We gather at the end of the evening, and promise the students expedited decisions as early as the next morning. It enables us to compare students in an 'apples to apples' way, as opposed to different interviewers seeing different candidates over a period of many weeks. The fast decision-making has been really well received. We started it in Chicago and, given the great success we’ve had, we’ve expanded it to a number of our other offices.
Winston & Strawn LLP
35 West Wacker Drive,
- Head Office: Chicago, IL
- Number of domestic offices: 9
- Number of international offices: 7
- Worldwide revenue: $978,500,000
- Partners (US): 398
- Associates (US): 428
- Main recruitment contact: Lisa A McLafferty, Director of Attorney Recruiting & Development email@example.com
- Hiring partners: Suzanne Jaffe Bloom, William C O’Neil, Co-Chairs, Hiring Committee
- Diversity officer: Sylvia James, Director of Diversity & Inclusion
- Recruitment Details
- Entry-level associates starting in 2018: 58
- Clerking policy: Yes
- Summers joining/anticipated 2018: 83 (1Ls: 8, 2Ls: 76)
- Summers joining/anticipated 2018 split by office: Charlotte 2, Chicago 26, Dallas 9, Houston 7, Los Angeles 7, New York 22, San Francisco 5, Washington DC 5
- Summer salary 2018
- 1Ls: $3,461/week
- 2Ls: $3,461/week
- Split summers offered? No
- Can summers spend time in an overseas office? No
Main areas of work
Please visit the Careers section of winston.com for a list of OCI Schools.
Summer associate profile:
Winston & Strawn prefers strong academic performance, participation in law review or other law school publications or competitive endeavors and a good balance of academic and interpersonal skills.
Summer program components:
Summer associates have the opportunity to learn about a wide range of Winston practice areas and the specialized skills each one demands. Individual department presentations allow summer associates to meet lawyers from specific practice groups who detail what they do in their daily practice. The firm’s ‘Highlights Lecture’ series gives an inside look at some of the most publicized and interesting cases that the firm handled in the past year. In addition, the firm offers a practical training component that provides hands-on experience with activities such as drafting a legal research memorandum, negotiating a deal, drafting an IPO document, taking a deposition and trying a case in a mock trial. Summer associates learn from veteran Winston attorneys with years of experience and insight, who make the law come alive through examples, personal experience and anecdotes. In addition, summer associates have the opportunity to build relationships with attorneys through a variety of social activities throughout the summer.
This Firm's Rankings in
USA Guide, 2019
- Bankruptcy/Restructuring (Band 3)
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- Tax (Band 3)
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USA - Nationwide
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- Transportation: Shipping/Maritime: Regulatory (Band 1)