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Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP

Published June 2011

2011 Vault Ranking: 40

Overview

Based out of New York City, Willkie Farr & Gallagher is a full service international firm, best known for its experience in corporate and securities law, as well as an excellent restructuring group accompanied by a strong litigation team. For most of its life a New York firm, Willkie has seen a flurry of expansion in Europe in the last decade or so.

The firm that would eventually become Willkie Farr was founded in 1888, and from the very beginning its prominence was certain. One of the founding attorneys was William B. Hornblower, who would go on to be nominated (unsuccessfully) to the United States Supreme Court. Early clients of the firm read as a who’s who of prominent names from the turn of the century, including the likes of the New York Life Insurance Company, New York Securities and Trust Company, the Otis Elevator Company, and Thomas Edison.

In 1940, defeated presidential candidate Wendell Willkie joined the firm. Though he died in 1944, in that short period of time Willkie left an indelible mark on the firm, as well as produced some of his most well known work, including the book One World. In the book he wrote about his travels as F.D.R.’s personal lend-lease envoy. One World is believed to have heavily influenced the development of the United Nations. During the latter half of the twentieth century, the firm’s clients expanded to include numerous financial clients such as John Hancock and Prudential.

By the end of the century, the firm began looking overseas. The firm’s first foreign office was opened in Paris in 1971, but at the beginning of the twenty-first century the firm opened offices in London, Milan, Rome, Frankfurt, and Brussels in a fifteen year span. Today the firm continues to possess a top corporate practice with a specialty in investment funds and restructuring.

The firm was adversely affected by the economic blows that struck the legal industry, experiencing a 3% drop in revenue in 2008, followed by a 5.8% drop in 2009. Though the firm did not cut or freeze salaries, it quietly told a number of associates to start looking for other work. While exact numbers are not available, the firm should at least be commended for giving some warning to the affected associates.

Practice Areas

Willkie Farr is a full service firm, featuring both well a regarded litigation practice and an excellent corporate group. It is most well known for its investment funds and asset management group, which features several former SEC officials among its ranks. The firm’s corporate group has also long been known for its M&A work. In 2009 it advised pharmaceutical company Steifel in its acquisition by GlaxoSmithKline, as well as Time Warner in a $250 million partnership with Central European Media Enterprises.

The firm is also nationally renowned for its Bankruptcy practice, an area that has bolstered firm revenues during the economic downturn. The firm is well ranked by Chambers and Partners in the area, and has had a number of high profile clients, including Trump Entertainment Resorts.

Willkie Farr’s litigation practice is also well respected. It is best known for its New York-based securities litigation, but is more than competent in general commercial litigation and White Collar defense. The firm represented the chief accounting office of Bear Stearns, the chief risk officer of AIG, and the former CFO of Merrill Lynch in numerous class action and derivative suits stemming from the credit crisis.

Ranked number forty overall by Vault, it is not ranked in the top twenty in any practice area lists. Chambers and Partners ranks Willkie Farr in Band 1 or 2 nationally or in New York for the following practices: Bankruptcy, Investment funds: Hedge Funds, Investment Funds: Registered Bonds, and Litigation: Securities.

Employment

To get hired at Willkie Farr, like at any large firm, a candidate has to look good on paper. While GPA and resume is not the end all and be all of a candidate, there is certainly a minimum level of credentials to be expected. Beyond that however, the firm is looking for a certain amount of bravado and lively personalities. Introverted, academic types will find they are not welcome.

The firm operated a ten week long summer program in both of its domestic offices, New York and Washington D.C. Summer associates are expected to complete an average of eleven to fifteen assignments over the course of the program. Summer associates are rotated through different departments every two to three weeks. Assignments are handed out by Assigning Partners in each department. Though the work tends to be fairly substantive, some summer associates complain that the rotation system means it is difficult to get a sense for some departments.

Summer associates typically bill around six hours a day on assignments, but it varies depending on practice group rotation. Summer associates are generally in the office until 7:00 PM, with some very late nights to be expected in some rotations, though weekend work is uncommon. The firm budgets for two attorney lunches a week at $50 per person, but there are also relatively numerous in-house lunches. Weekly social events include such things as trapeze school, bowling, baseball games, and cocktail receptions.

Most importantly, in 2009 all 57 summer associates received offers. Willkie Farr did not defer any incoming associates.

Compensation and Benefits

Willkie Farr follows the standard lockstep salary system in both of its U.S. offices. First year associates are paid $160,000. Despite a drop in revenue, the firm has neither frozen nor cut salaries. The firm is generally considered a follower for bonus amounts, but it tends to match the market leader. In both 2009 and 2010, the firm matched Cravath’s bonuses. Bonuses are also paid lockstep by class year to all associates in good standing.

Willkie Farr has no official minimum number of billable hours required, but associates are generally expected to bill between 1,900 and 2,000 hours annually. The firm is not strict about billable hour totals, but associates take care not to fall too far behind their peers, given that the firm has used “stealth layoffs” in the past. Underperformance would be an excellent way to get noticed when someone is looking to drop the axe. Associates are generally expected to be in the office during regular working hours. Weekend work is common, but usually done from home.

Associates are granted four weeks of vacation, and most attorneys manage to use the vast majority of it. The firm generally respects planned vacations, and cancelling vacations because of work is uncommon. The firm offers a below-market twelve weeks of maternity leave. Other benefits beyond the normal comprehensive benefit package include a subsidized gym membership and breakfast every morning. Incoming associates receive a $10,000 salary advance, relocation benefits, ad reimbursement for bar exam fees and expenses.

Partnership

Willkie Farr has a single partnership track. Eligibility takes between seven to ten years. If an associate is passed over, they will usually be reconsidered the following year, but it is done so on a case-by-case basis. Because of the recent economic woes, Willkie Farr has promoted zero partners in the last year, and in fact pushed out a number of underperforming partners. Until the economy significantly rebounds, it can be assumed that new partners will be a rarity at Willkie Farr, and an already difficult to achieve goal will be that much more improbable.

Culture

Most people only have positive things to say about the environment at Willkie Farr compared to other major firms. Most attorneys find the office to be a more collegial and personal place than is found at other higher ranked, higher pressure firms. This of course must be taken in the context of Willkie Farr still being a large law firm, but most associates talk about a level of friendship and loyalty that is not present at most firms.

Most have positive things to say about attorney-partner relations at the firm. Both in every day work and in firm guidance, partners generally listen to associates and treat them as equals. Though partner-associate communication and associate input in firm management has been reduced in the recession, most associates are still satisfied that the firm is being honest with associates about what is going on during the downturn.







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