Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP
Published May 2011
2011 Vault Ranking: 34
Though founded in Dallas, the now Washington D.C. based Akin Gump is a Beltway insider. The firm is the second largest lobbying firm in the country, and has been home to prominent ex-government officials from both parties. Outside of politicking, the firm is a major player in both bankruptcy and appellate litigation.
Akin Gump was originally founded just after the close of WWII by a pair of FBI agents in Dallas, Texas. Both had political ambitions, and quickly allied themselves with the Texas Democratic party. Firm founder Robert Strauss became very politically connected, being good friends with law school classmate and eventual Texas governor John Connally, as well as President Lyndon Johnson. By the 1970s, the firm had opened its Washington D.C. office, and Strauss was serving as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
The firm opened its first overseas office in Moscow in 1994. This was in response to client demand after Strauss had been named ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1991. The firm was sought out by clients looking to do business in the now capitalist country. During the same period of time the firm expanded domestically, opening New York and Los Angeles offices. The firm now features fourteen offices and eight hundred attorneys spread around the world.
Recent years have seen great turmoil and a reshaping of the firm, much of it beginning even before the economic catastrophe the entire legal market experienced. Starting around 2007, firm management decided to reorient a number of practice groups to target higher margin work. Intellectual property practice was shifted from prosecution to litigation, labor shifted from single plaintiff cases to class actions, and the Houston energy team was directed to focus on regulatory and climate change work. In responses to this, entire practice groups and offices left the firm. The entire Silicon Valley office defected to Alston & Bird, and dozens of partners in other offices left as well.
The result of these changes was a loss of seventeen percent of the firm’s partners, but firm revenue increased, and unsurprisingly partner profits ballooned 16.7 percent. The firm has been aggressively pursuing lateral hires of partners to replace those who have been lost. However the firm has also had to weather the same economic forces as everyone else. In 2009, revenue dropped by eight percent, and the firm laid off nearly 50 attorneys and more than 120 staff. Thanks to the cost savings, profits per partner again increased.
When Robert Strauss and Richard Gump originally founded the firm, they did so intentionally planning to be involved in politics. As such, it comes as no surprise that the firm’s lobbying work is both central to the firm’s identity, as well as among the largest and most influential in the country. The group’s revenue is second only to Patton Boggs, and it has been closing the gap annually. Like any quality lobbying firm, their clients vary wildly and include Fortune 500 companies, trade groups such as the Global Alcohol Producers Group, and even a number of Native American tribes.
The firm’s corporate practice is deep and well rounded. The group is well regarded in a number of areas. Its international trade practice includes not only attorneys, but economists and other professionals to assist clients in navigating the myriad of national and international laws they face. The firm’s investment funds and private equity practice is also nationally recognized, especially their work with hedge funds, building them from the ground up.
Akin Gump’s litigation group is not as heralded as its other practices, but still provides an excellent complementary practice for everything else the firm offers. Its appellate team is among the best in the nation. The trial attorneys support other elite groups, such as the excellent Labor and Employment as well as Bankruptcy teams.
Ranked number 34 overall by Vault, Akin Gump has multiple highly rated practice groups. It is ranked in the top ten for Bankruptcy, Appellate Litigation, and Labor and Employment. It garners a top twenty ranking for White Collar Defense.
Chambers and Partners ranks Akin Gump nationally in Band 1 or 2 for the following practices: Bankruptcy, Government Relations, International Trade, Hedge Funds, and Native American Law. The firm is highly rated in a number of regions for other departments, including Corporate/M&A (Band 2 in District of Columbia, Texas, and New York), Real Estate (Band 2 in Texas), and Media & Entertainment (Band 1 in California).
The firm is well aware that it is a buyer’s market for talent, and consequentially, Akin Gump only wants the “superstars.” However this does not necessarily mean people who were number one in their class and editor in chief of their law reviews. While good grades from a strong school are necessary, the firm puts just as much emphasis on social skills. Given how much of the firm’s work is dedicated to lobbying, it has decided that it is just as important that an associate is capable of advancing the firm’s interests on the golf course or at a cocktail party as he or she is in the office.
The firm runs a ten-week summer program in its five largest domestic offices: Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C. The program at each office is run independently of the others. Attorney coordinators assign work in a variety of practice areas. Summer associates are expected to complete around ten assignments over the course of the summer, as well as participate in weekly training programs. Summer associates are usually out of the office by 6:00 PM, rarely working weekends.
The firm holds weekly social events that vary by office, but have included boating trips, concerts, karaoke, and dinners at partner’s homes. Attorney lunch policies vary by office.
Only 65% of summer associates at Akin Gump in 2009 received offers. Most of the incoming class of 2009 was deferred until January or March 2010, depending on the office.
Compensation and Benefits
Akin Gump uses a relatively standard lockstep system in most of its offices, following the normal $160,000 scale for most major firms. The firm engaged a salary freeze in 2009, but unfroze them in 2010 and advanced all associates one level. An exception to this is in Houston, where rather than advancing second year associates, the attorneys are still paid $160,000 but provided a quarterly bonus as long as they are on target for their hours. This means that if an associate ever lags behind, they will not receive market level pay.
The firm is a follower in terms of bonus amounts, generally matching whatever the established New York market rate is for the year. There is a required number of hours each year to be considered for a bonus, but the firm never explicitly states an official billable hours requirement. The general expectation among associates is that they are to bill between 2,000-2,200 hours each year. Penalties for missing the target include the possible loss of deferred compensation, as well as personal stigma within the office.
Face time at Akin Gump is important, and associates are encouraged to be seen in the office as much as possible. With recent economic troubles, associates are under even more pressure to put in face time whenever possible, to avoid being seen as the weakest link in a group. Associates are also expected to be checking BlackBerrys constantly.
Associates are given twenty vacation days annually, but most only take about half of it. Partners are generally respectful of vacation time, assuming client needs are being addressed. They acknowledge that associates can’t be expected to work every day of the year. The firm also has a reduced workload policy for attorneys with either family care responsibilities, or engaged in activities designed to enhance professional development or stature in the legal community.
Other benefits at Akin Gump beyond standard employee benefits include bar stipend for incoming associates onsite cafeteria in New York, and weekly happy hours. There is a client development budget for senior associates, with expenses reimbursed on a per event case-by-case basis for more junior associates.
Akin Gump has a fairly complex partnership system. It has two levels of partnership, equity and non-equity. Qualifying for consideration can take between eight to twelve years. The firm also uses the Counsel position differently than most firms. At many other firms, the Counsel position is for valued associates who are unlikely to become partner, but the firm wants to keep on. At Akin Gump, the Counsel position is for associates in their sixth or seventh year who are likely to become partner, and it is something of an intermediary step. Counsel become eligible for partner after their eighth year.
In general, most associates at Akin Gump believe partnership is very achievable. Given the recent exodus of partners (regardless of whether those departures were entirely voluntary or not), there is a perception that the empty shoes need filling. Though it is still not an easy path, it can be done.
Akin Gump is generally described both by its friendliness and collegiality just as much as it is described by its intensity. In part thanks to a partnership whose average age is closer to 45 than 65, the firm fosters an entrepreneurial and high-energy spirit. The firm has very high standards for work product, but expects its associates to still be outgoing and energetic, not paperwork drones. The firm has faced some morale issues due to recent layoffs and an admittedly less than transparent management, but this is a firm where summer associates in Washington D.C. in 2010 felt at ease enough to “ice” a number of full time associates during a faux meeting.
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