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Munger Tolles & Olson LLP
Published April 2011, last updated June 2011
2011 Vault Ranking: 27
That Munger, Tolles & Olson not only exists, but thrives, disproves the bigger is better mantra that has driven megafirm expansion in recent memory. Munger is a California elite firm of less than two hundred attorneys. It is among one of the most selective in the country in terms of hiring, leading to a very well qualified pool of attorneys to handle the string of high profile litigation that the firm regularly handles. The firm handles a variety of practice areas, but is most well known for its trial litigation and white collar criminal defense.
The firm was founded in 1962 by seven attorneys, including Charles Munger. Munger stayed with the firm only three years before moving into the world of business and finance, but his impact didn’t end there. Munger had personal connections with Warren Buffet, eventually rising to the position of Vice-Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. It is because of Munger that the investment giant continues to use Munger, Tolles & Olson for their legal needs. Charles Munger still maintains an office at the firm’s headquarters.
Meanwhile the firm did just fine on its own in other areas. In a few short decades, MTO became an elite litigation firm. The firm didn’t bloat themselves with unnecessary new hires. Instead they maintained a close to 1:1 partner to associate ratio, and ensured that close to seventy percent of incoming associates had federal clerkship experience.
In response to the economic downturn, the firm neither laid off attorneys, nor froze salaries. Instead, it took the unusual step of freezing its own billing rates. While this unusual move may have contributed to the 4.5 percent drop in revenues in 2009, it is unknown how much business this allowed the firm to retain during that period of time that otherwise might have gone elsewhere. Immediately prior to the economic collapse, in 2008 the firm was ranked as the top overall firm in the country on American Lawyer’s A-List, based on financial performance, pro bono, associate satisfactions, and workplace diversity.
This firm is essentially a litigation boutique. Though it does have a corporate department, eighty percent of firm revenue comes from its high stakes litigation practice. American Lawyer once described the firm as an “army of trial lawyers capable of waging war.” Its litigation practice has general commercial litigation and white collar criminal defense as staples. However it also includes high end intellectual property litigation as well as media and entertainment litigation.
Intellectual property work has included patent and copyright cases for Verizon and Universal. The firm also represented several major movie studios in litigation against the potential release of the RealDVD copying software. It has also defended telecom providers against allegations that they assisted the NSA in illegal intelligence gathering.
Though the firm is not well known for its corporate work, it does have a small but capable team. It was originally driven almost entirely by work for Berkshire Hathaway through the firms’ special relationship. It has handled Berkshire’s $22 billion purchase of General Reinsurance, as well as Warren Buffett’s $31 billion gift to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. However this elite team had worked other major deals, such as representing Yahoo!’s board of directors during Microsoft’s proposed takeover, and service as legal counsel during a number of major construction projects in Los Angeles.
With such small size, it is still impressive that the firm holds a variety of top twenty rankings in the Vault practice areas lists. These include Appellate Litigation, IP litigation, General Commercial Litigation, and White Collar Defense.
Munger is ranked by Chambers and Partners in Band 1 or 2 in California for Corporate/M&A, Energy Regulation and Litigation, General Commercial Litigation, Media & Entertainment Litigation, and White Collar Defense.
Despite a Vault ranking in the mid twenties, the firm is rated as number two overall in terms of selectivity. Impeccable grades, law review, and a federal clerkship are needed to even get the firm to look twice at you. But even then, something more is necessary to stand out from other candidates. After that, an excellent interview is the final piece. The firm is not just hiring a resume.
A successful applicant will participate in an eleven-week summer program. Summer associates are assigned work by an attorney coordinator, but summers can turn down assignments freely if they would rather work on a different project. Work tends to be time consuming, much longer than projects at similar firms. Because of the very low leveraging in the firm, summer associates are given substantive projects, rather than tiny slices of work. Summer associates are expected to complete only five assignments over the course of the summer. The firm has minimal formal training, and feedback can be difficult.
Summer associates are expected to be in the office during working hours, but are generally out the door by 5:30 PM and do not work weekends. The firm hosts lunch three times per week, and mentors arrange for attorney lunches the remaining two days. The firm is not particularly social, but there is generally some sort of weekly firm sponsored event, such as a wine tasting, surfing lessons, or the like.
Compensation and Benefits
The firm uses a lockstep salary system, with first year associates starting at $160,000. First year associates receive standardized bonuses, but all other associates receive individualized bonuses. Bonus amounts are based on a number of factors, including hours, quality of work, and other firm contributions. The firm is a follower in terms of bonus amounts, but tends to pay comparably to other Los Angeles and San Francisco peer firms.
The firm has no billable hour requirement, though individualized bonuses means this probably shouldn’t be an excuse to slack. Associates reported an average of 1,822 hours billed in 2009. There is little to no pressure on face time, as long as work gets done. Associates are free to determine their own working hours, subject to client needs. Associates generally feel comfortable taking vacation. Work on weekends and holidays is uncommon, but sometimes unavoidable.
Other benefits at the firm include a subsidized cafeteria, backup childcare, and reimbursement of client development expenses. New associates are provided with a $10,000 bar stipend, as well as reimbursement of relocation costs up to $5,000.
Munger has a single partnership track, with no set time when associates will be considered. Generally the firm considers associates for partner anywhere between the fourth and seventh year. The firm has no up or out policy. Associates generally see partnership as a very achievable goal.
Munger as a firm is a very unique place. The firm dispenses almost entirely with titles or hierarchical labels. On the firms internal face book, nowhere does it indicate whether an attorney is an associate or partner. Because of the short path to partner, the firm blurs distinction between senior associates and young partners, helping foster an egalitarian approach.
The firm has multiple all-attorney lunches each week, and a Friday happy hour, though outside of that attorneys don’t heavily socialize. The firm’s focus on hiring accomplished individuals, including those who had done something prior to law school, means that many attorneys are at later points in their lives with spouses and family that they want to get home to at the end of the day. There is very minimal formal training. Associates are expected to be proactive and willing to jump right in.
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