Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP
Published April 2011, last updated June 2011
2011 Vault Ranking: 14
Gibson Dunn & Crutcher stands out among the elite American law firms as being one of the few not originally based in an east coast city. With roots dating back to 1872 in Los Angeles, California, the firm has been a California institution for more than a century. The firm has since expanded on both a national and international scale, with over 1,000 attorneys in seventeen offices on four continents. Though close to half of the firm’s attorneys reside in one of five California offices, the firm’s single largest office is still in New York City, and its reach spans the globe.
Gibson is notable as the single highest Vault-ranked firm not based in New York or Washington, D.C. When one considers that Vault rankings tend to favor New York based firms, this accomplishment is even more impressive. Though Vault ranks the firm #17 in New York, it is ranked #11 or better in Texas, California, and Washington D.C. The firm ranks in the Vault’s top twenty for a whopping twelve different practice areas, a number far exceeding that of numerous higher ranked firms. Gibson’s client list is no less impressive, either. It has or is currently representing Wal-Mart, Chevron, Intel, numerous auto manufacturers and media conglomerates. The only thing missing from its stable of clients are the numerous financial institutions that seem to flock to Manhattan firms.
While the financial downturn spelled disaster for many firms that were heavily reliant on the financial industries sector, Gibson continued to march onward and upward. In 2009, the firm had a 4% increase in gross revenues, setting a new record for the best income in the firm’s history. The firm is proud that it has zero bank debt, and has been maintaining a conservative fiscal strategy that doesn’t expose the firm to the vagaries of harsh market conditions. The firm has claimed no economic layoffs of attorneys, however there are rumors of “stealth layoffs” of underperforming associates or senior associates that have been characterized as performance-based terminations.
Bush v. Gore. Perry v. Schwarzenegger. Many Americans may not be able to name more than a handful of top law firms, but these front-page cases resonate with all ends of the political spectrum. In both cases the victorious attorney was Gibson Supreme Court superstar Ted Olson. Olson is the most recognizable face of the most recognizable department within the firm, the hands down best appellate litigation team in the country, one that has argued more than one hundred cases before the Supreme Court of the United States.
Gibson’s elite litigation department has been consistently recognized as one of the best in the country from top to bottom. American Lawyer recognized Gibson as the “Top Litigation Department of the Year” in 2010. It has represented a litany of notable clients in newsworthy cases: Viacom in its billion dollar suit against Google and YouTube, NBC Universal against Conan O’Brien, and Intel against European Union antitrust allegations, and Wal-Mart against a landmark $11 billion employment discrimination class action.
Though Gibson has a bedrock foundation of litigation, it would be wrong to sell the firm short. Its well-regarded corporate department managed to grab the 5th spot in the country for value of completed M&A deals in 2008. The firm represented a conglomerate of investment firms in the largest UK acquisition in 2009, and is currently advising Kraft and Heineken on their respective multi-billion dollar buyouts of Cadbury and Mexican brewing conglomerate FEMSA.
Vault ranks Gibson number one overall in Appellate Litigation. The firm holds top ten rankings in Antitrust, Antitrust Litigation, General Commercial Litigation, Class Actions, Labor & Employment, and White Collar Defense. It has top twenty rankings in Products Liability, Securities, Securities Litigation, General Corporate Practice, and Private Equity.
Nationally, Gibson has Band 1 or 2 rankings by Chambers and Partners in Antitrust, Appellate Litigation, ERISA, Outsourcing, and Securities Litigation. In New York, it also includes Corporate/M&A and Media & Entertainment Litigation. In Washington D.C. it includes Corporate/M&A, Private Equity, and Labor. Last but most important, in California Gibson has Band 1 or 2 rankings in Banking, Corporate/M&A, Employee Benefits, Environment, General Commercial Litigation, White Collar Defense, Media Litigation, Real Estate, and Tax.
Getting a summer position at most firms usually involves some mix of both grades and personality. At Gibson it is clearly a two-step process. First you must meet the very high threshold for grades. If you don’t have that, you simply will be unable to move on past an initial interview. Only after that does personality come into play.
The firm has a standard ten-week summer program in most of the domestic offices. Summer associates are expected to complete six to ten assignments over the course of the summer. Work is assigned by a coordinator, but summer associates are encouraged to seek out assignments in a variety of practice areas. Unlike many firms, Gibson summers often receive more important, substantive work assignments. However this is combined with the expectation that the work will be done perfectly. Further exacerbating the pressure is that Gibson does not always have as high an offer rate as its peer firms. In 2009, even when setting a firm record for revenue, only 89% of summer associates were given offers.
Weekend work is uncommon, and most summer associates are out of the office by 6:30 PM. The attorney lunch budget is $35 twice a week in New York, and $25 for unlimited days in other offices. The firm hosts as many as three social events per week, with the California offices featuring fare not common in New York, such as sailing events and Catalina Island daytrips.
Though in 2009 only 89% of summer associates received offers, it should be noted that the new 2009 associates started work in fall of 2009 as scheduled, and the firm has had no deferments due to the economic downturn.
Compensation and Benefits
Gibson pays associates on the New York market salary lockstep scale, starting at $160,000 for a first year associate. Salaries have not been frozen during the downturn. The firm does not have an official required number of billable hours, however there is an unofficial expectation of 1,950 hours. Gibson is a follower in terms of bonuses, with associates billing around the target hours typically earning bonuses appropriate to the New York market.
However while the firm maintains lockstep salaries, bonuses are individualized within each class, based on hours, quality of work, pro bono, and overall contribution. Associates billing particularly high numbers of hours can earn higher than standard New York bonuses. Billing under 1,750 hours will likely lead to a reduced bonus, and under 1,600 will mean no bonus at all (and likely be at risk for termination if a consistent issue). There is some complaint about lack of transparency in the bonus system, with reports of some associates reaching the hours goal but not receiving full bonuses, while others woefully undershot their hours but were paid in full.
Face time requirements at the firm vary by office and partner. There is some added pressure during the slowdown to be at the office even when not billing however. The firm has no formal vacation policy, and associates are free to take as much vacation time as they want, subject to meeting client needs and billable hour targets, assuming a partner okays it.
Firm benefits include annual retreats, weekly social gatherings, and occasional catered lunches. All associates receive an annual client development budget of #1,000, an annual book allowance, and backup childcare. Some offices have a subsidized cafeteria on site. New associates receive a starting stipend of $13,333.
Associates are eligible for partnership at Gibson after eight to ten years, with the firm stating the track is eight and a half years. Associates passed over on their first try get an additional chance the following year. Though most associates consider partnership a long shot, a sizable portion for such an elite firm believe it to be an achievable goal, far more than is common in most elite firms.
To outsiders, Gibson Dunn has a reputation as a conservative law firm with ties to the Republican elites. This is almost entirely based on the reputations of star litigators Ted Olson, former Solicitor General for George W. Bush, and Eugene Scalia, son of Justice Antonin Scalia. However this view is very simplistic, and overlooks the fact that the firm is an assembly of over a thousand attorneys spread over more than a dozen separate offices. There is no one unifying culture that can be clearly defined.
Although as with any top firm, the work is difficult and demanding, associates routinely describe the firm atmosphere as respectful and cordial. It is unclear whether it is merely a result of the firm’s west coast origins, but associates in the California, Denver, and Dallas offices all describe the firm as “pretty laid back.”
If you are looking to join one of the best litigation groups in the country, particularly for appellate litigation, or simply want an alternative to the Manhattan lifestyle while still working on high-end corporate work, Gibson Dunn may be the place for you.
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