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Williams and Connolly LLP
Published April 2011
2011 Vault Ranking: 8
Williams & Connolly is among the smallest of the elite firms in the United States. Despite having only 255 attorneys in total in one office and focusing almost entirely on litigation, this firm still manages to clock in at #8 on the Vault 100 list. This makes it the highest ranked litigation firm and the only firm in the Vault 10 not based in New York City. The firm is famous for its handling of high stakes and high profile cases.
Williams & Connolly was founded by trial attorney Edward Bennett Williams in 1967, when he left his position as a partner at another top DC firm, Hogan & Hartson. Williams was one of the greatest trial attorneys of his era, having litigated on behalf of the likes of Frank Sinatra and Joseph McCarthy. In a very short time, the firm became one of the best in the beltway, and the first choice for politicians, celebrities, and tycoons who needed elite representation.
Unlike the rest of the top Vault-ranked firms, W&C has very little tie to the financial industry sector, and virtually no corporate practice of which to speak. Because of this, it is no surprise that in 2008, while most of the New York centric big law was burning down, W&C posted a 13% increase in gross revenue from the previous year. Revenue per lawyer increases comparably, and profits per partner rose 7%, to $1.08 million. Further, as befitting a firm of its stature, the majority of the attorneys in the firm have clerked in federal courts or state supreme courts.
Williams & Connolly is not just a litigation boutique, but it is the litigation boutique for the District of Columbia. Following in the footsteps of its founder, the firm has built a reputation on both high stakes civil suits and major criminal cases.
W&C is well known for its high profile clients, and the firm doesn’t restrict itself to one side of the aisle. In the 1980’s, the firm represented Colonel Oliver North during the Iran-Contra Affair, as well as the attempted assassin of President Reagan. In the 1990’s, the firm represented President Clinton during his impeachment hearings, and in the 2000’s represented Dick Cheney during the Valerie Plame investigations. The firm successfully defended Alaska Senator Ted Stevens against corruption charges, as well as Bear Stearns manager Ralph Cioffi in the first major criminal trial spawned by the financial crisis. W&C specializes in representing major firms and corporations in high stakes litigation, including General Electric, AOL Time Warner, Twentieth Century Fox, and law firms like Vinson & Elkins.
Beyond litigation, the firm is also highly rated for its media and entertainment work, particularly in representing individuals seeking book and television deals. Managing partner Robert Barnett has negotiated deals of Sarah Palin, both Clintons, Ted Kennedy, Tony Blair, Barack Obama, and many more.
W&C also is heavily involved in sports law, a rarity in top firms. It has represented Tim Duncan, Grant Hill, Lance Armstrong, and others in matters ranging from contracts to litigation. Firm founder Edward Bennett Williams was once owner of both the Washington Redskins and Baltimore Orioles, and his legacy means the firm still regularly assists sport team owners with acquisitions, construction deals, and contractual disputes.
Simply getting hired at W&C is an achievement in and of itself, before an associate ever sees the inside of a courtroom. The firm is ranked #1 for selectivity by Vault. Excellent credentials are required, but not enough. Being a firm of trial attorneys, personality and social skills are a deal breaker that separates one 4.0 law review editor from another.
W&C has a twelve-week summer associate program. Work is assigned through a small number of attorneys. Their goal is to expose the summer associates to a wide variety of projects and attorneys, while still taking the associates’ preferences into consideration. Summer associates are expected to complete around five assignments over the summer, spending about five hours a day on billable work. Weekend work is rare, and summers are encouraged to leave early.
There are no paid lunches with attorneys, but the firm dining room serves daily free lunches. There are weekly social events including baseball games and rooftop receptions. Because almost all summer associates obtain judicial clerkships, formal offers to join the firm are not made until after an associate has received permission from his or her judge to request an offer.
Compensation and Benefits
It is unsurprising that a firm that has so many things that distinguish it from the rest of the top ranked firms in the country also has a unique pay scale. The firm features a lockstep scale, but it starts at $180,000 for first years. However because of the higher base pay, the firm does not award bonuses. The pay ends up being roughly equivalent to peer firms.
Along with no bonuses, there is also no official billable hour requirement, but the general expectation is 2,000 hours per year. The firm has a strong pro bono system that counts all pro bono work equally with billable work. W&C has a partnership with the Public Defender’s offices in DC and Maryland, allowing associates to represent indigent criminal defendants.
The firm includes an in-house cafeteria with free lunches, an on-site gym and discounted gym memberships. The firm also provides free tickets to sporting events, free Starbucks coffee, and relocation expenses. There is one unique, and perhaps ominous, perk: the firm reimburses associates for any change in vacation plans because of firm business.
There is one partnership track at the firm, averaging eight years to eligibility. Nearly all associates agree that partnership is an achievable goal if you work for it. This makes W&C a very unique aberration among the top Vault ranked firms.
It cannot be repeated often enough how distinct Williams & Connolly is from the rest of the top ranked firms (with the possible exception of Quinn Emanuel). The firm has a sink or swim, free market system. There are no formal rotations, and associates are responsible for finding their own assignments. Although the firm does conduct ongoing in-house training and has a formal mentorship program, the emphasis is training by doing.
Vault ranks the firm #1 in associate/partner relations, and #2 overall for best firms to work for. The firm has a very low partner to associate ratio, and associates work closely with partners on nearly every project. Further, the free lunches in the attorney dining room encourages socialization between both associates and partners on a regular basis. The firm also crosses political lines, with attorneys coming and going between both the Bush and Obama administrations.
Overall, W&C is an excellent place to work. The hours are standard for big firms, which is to say that they are long, but not at the insane Wachtell/Cravath end of the scale. There is no face time requirement, and associates are well compensated. The firm has virtually ignored the downturn, and morale is high at all levels in the firm. To quote one associate: “If you don’t like the place, it’s probably because you either don’t like litigation or you don’t like law firms in general.”
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