Morrison & Foerster LLP
Published April 2011
2011 Vault Ranking: 26
Morrison & Foerster is probably the only law firm to ever have a nickname famous enough that it managed to be included as a question in Trivial Pursuit thanks to an irreverent nickname. MoFo holds the distinction of being the highest rated firm to call San Francisco home. A full service firm with an elite intellectual property group, MoFo represents a blending of national big firm culture with what makes living and working in the Bay Area unique.
The firm was founded in 1883 in San Francisco, California by Alexander Morrison and Thomas V. O’Brien. The firm quickly became a staple of Northern California, with a number of offices throughout the area, and well known for the philanthropic work of Morrison’s eventual widow. Between May Trent Morrison and the firm, numerous bequests to both Berkeley and Stanford have resulted in Morrison leaving an indelible mark on the academic community in the area.
MoFo did not expand outside of the region until the 1960s, when it opened a Los Angeles office to serve a major client that had also expanded to the city. This was the beginning of the expansion trend that many large firms underwent in the second half of the twentieth century. In 1987, the firm crossed not only North America by merging with a New York firm, but became one of the first American law firms to practice in Japan. Today one thousand MoFo attorneys are spread across sixteen offices around the world.
Though the firm was not hit as badly as some firms in the recent economic crisis, MoFo has faced some challenges. In 2009, revenue fell by 3% and profits dropped 4%. Also that year, starting salaries for attorneys were temporarily reduced in all offices outside of New York and Asia. The firm also laid off 53 attorneys and close to two hundred staff (though some of the staff left through “early retirement”). However since then work has begun to pick up, and the firm appears to have a relatively stable future.
MoFo is a full service firm, but with its roots in the Bay Area, it grew to match the client base. With such a high concentration of innovative technology firms, it should come as no surprise that for a large firm to succeed in that market it needs to have an elite intellectual property group. Over time, the firm developed expertise in both technology and life sciences, becoming one of the best in both of those areas. It backs that up with a very experienced IP litigation department.
The firm’s other departments should not be underestimated, however. The firm is nationally recognized for having an excellent corporate group, well regarded for their work in Financial Services and Capital Markets. MoFo is one of the leading firms for issuer and underwriter representation in initial public offerings. The firm’s litigation group encompasses far more than just IP litigation, and is among the top teams in Northern California.
The firm is ranked highly in the Vault practice area rankings in a number of categories, with top ten rankings in Clean Tech/Renewable Energy, Intellectual Property, and IP Litigation. The firm also has top twenty rankings in Class Actions and Securities Litigation.
MoFo is nationally ranked by Chambers and Partners in Band 1 or 2 for Corporate/M&A, Consumer Finance, Intellectual Property, Life Sciences, Outsourcing, Privacy and Data Security, and Transportation (Aviation). In California the firm has Band 1 or 2 rankings in Energy, Environmental, Intellectual Property, IT, Life Sciences, General Commercial Litigation, and Real Estate.
The MoFo recruiting process is fairly standard. The firm is unabashed about a preference for hiring from top schools, but there is willingness to take a chance on students from UC Davis or Hastings, especially given the emphasis on local ties that most San Francisco firms tend to have. Academic excellence is expected, but the firm also likes to see professional excellence as well. Business experience before law school is a plus. Further, the firm claims to be protective of its Bay Area culture, and is looking for people who don’t take themselves too seriously (though interviewees would be warned that this is not a license to take an interview lightly).
MoFo runs a relatively short eight-week summer program in most of its larger domestic offices, as well as the London office. Summer associates are encouraged to try out multiple practice areas, but for the most part are expected to seek out their own work. They are expected to complete around ten assignments over the eight-week period, but the quality and variety of the assignments can vary drastically. The firm also encourages summer associates to engage in pro bono work during the program.
Summer associates are expected to be in the office during normal working hours, lasting until 6:00 PM. They are also expected to be available on the weekends, and are provided BlackBerrys by the firm, but weekend work is uncommon. Budgets for attorney lunches vary by office, but regardless of location the number of lunches is unlimited. Social events also vary by office in frequency and quality, and have included such events as a private movie screening at Dreamworks, a sailing tour of Chesapeake Bay, and Zen meditation lessons with a monk.
Though the firm has undergone layoffs in the recent economy, 68 out of 69 summer associates in 2009 were given permanent offers. Upon graduation, there were some deferrals, but only for some members of the class. Only some of the class of 2009 was deferred, and only until April 2010. Similarly, the only deferrals for the class of 2010 are until January of 2011, a much shorter time frame than at many other firms.
Compensation and Benefits
MoFo has recently undergone a number of changes in the compensation system in the past few years. The firm uses a lockstep scale for salary, with $160,000 for first year associates. In 2009, starting salaries outside of New York and Asia were reduced to $145,000, and a salary freeze was put into effect. In 2010, both of these changes were reversed, with New York associates being compensated for the salary freeze. A two-tier salary track was put in place in February 2010, providing a higher salary to associates who met their billable hour requirements in 2009. The firm has since returned to lockstep.
The firm is a follower in terms of bonus amounts, but always tends to match the leader. The firm historically had a multi-tier bonus system. Associates who billed 1,950 hours received a market-sized bonus, with additional enhancements to the bonus at 2,100 and 2,300 hours. However the firm recently announced a more subjective merit based approach to bonuses, rather than rely on merely total hours. It is unknown what effect this will have on total bonuses award, but most cynics believe it is an excuse to enable the partnership to reduce total bonus payouts. 1,950 hours remains the target for any bonus eligibility however, as well as eligibility to advance with your class.
Face time requirements vary by office and practice group. In the past, MoFo has had a more relaxed policy as long as the work got done. However the firm recently issued a directive informing associates that they were expected to be in the office by 9:30 AM at the latest, suggesting that the casual approach may be eroding. While working on weekends is common, it is usually done from home. The firm provides between three to four weeks of vacation per year, depending on seniority, but most associates do not use more than half of it. Vacation use also varies by group, in some cases actively being frowned upon.
Other benefits at MoFo include happy hours, backup childcare options, and an on-site gym at some locations. New associates receive a bar stipend of $15,000 and relocation assistance.
Like many things at MoFo, there is a certain casualness to partnership promotions. The system is flexible and allows the firm to consider associates “when appropriate.” In practice, this generally means eight to ten years, with laterals having to be with the firm at least two years before they are considered. Partnership is a difficult goal, and many consider it a long shot. However a sizable group believe that it can be accomplished, with proper expenditure of effort.
Traditionally, MoFo is considered a relaxed firm, at least by big law standards. It has a longstanding socially conscious philosophy focused on pro bono commitment and diversity recruitment. It is this firm wide approach that has earned the firm the number three spot on the Vault’s list of the best law firms to work for. It also has reached #6 in diversity and #5 in associate satisfaction. The firm is known for being progressive and friendly on a whole.
There is some truth to the thought that this is eroding however. The firm has been shifting slowly towards the standard of the New York culture of most mega firms. (Although you would have to excuse an outside observer who even in the past would find far more in common between MoFo and a white shoe Wall Street firm than they would between MoFo and Google.) The reality is that the firm management is making a concerted effort to court high profile clients and maintain prestige, which has taken bites out of what has been one of the ultimate examples of Bay Area culture in a big firm world.
That being said, the firm is still regarded as an excellent place to work by big law standards. Associates are not afraid to speak their minds, the firm is not known for being oppressively bureaucratic or hierarchical. During the down times, firm management was very transparent about layoffs, and is generally considered to have handled themselves in a professional manner.
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