Kirkland & Ellis LLP
Published February 2011
2011 Vault Ranking: 11
By nearly any metric, Kirkland & Ellis is the top firm in the American Midwest, whether gauged by prestige, size, or profitability. Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the firm was originally founded by Northwestern alum, military officer, and Chicago Tribune publisher Robert McCormick. After serving as outside counsel to his family’s newspaper for years, McCormick eventually left the firm to become the Tribune’s publisher, leaving the firm to Weymouth Kirkland and Howard Ellis.
Over the course of the twentieth century, the firm became one of the top litigation firms in the country. Beginning with its representation of the Tribune, Kirkland carved out legacy in numerous early free speech and libel cases. Even today, the firm has contemporary clients ranging from NPR to USA Today. The firm’s practice expanded over time, but at its heart it has remained a litigation firm, earning a long running streak as “#1 Go-To Firm for Litigation” in the Corporate Counsel Survey.
Kirkland & Ellis has grown from being just the top shop in the Second City to one of the largest, most profitable, and most prestigious firms in the world. As of 2008, Kirkland was the 7th largest firm in the country, and 11th largest in the world by revenue. In Vault regional rankings, Kirkland has had a death grip on the #1 ranking in Chicago for years, but also maintains very strong rankings in New York City (#11), Washington D.C. (#8), and Southern California (#8).
Kirkland has a reputation for being one of the most highly leveraged firms in the country. Though the firm seemed to weather the storm in 2008 without any large scale layoffs, in early 2009 the firm reportedly terminated between 15 and 25 non-equity partners in Chicago. Over the course of that year, at least 80 staffers and a number of attorneys, 20 in New York and an unknown number from other offices, were laid off as well. Despite this purge, the class of 2009 attorneys all started on time in November of 2009.
Kirkland is a full service firm, as you would expect from any top firm. However, Kirkland is most well known for its litigation. The firm has a long and proven track record of success in high stakes cases. It has enjoyed a #1 Vault ranking for General Commercial litigation, beating out such greats as Quinn Emanuel and Paul Weiss. Faced with mounting lawsuits from the Deepwater Horizon crisis, BP retained Kirkland to handle its litigation.
Kirkland’s corporate practice is particularly well known for its private equity work, again receiving the #1 Vault ranking in that area. Chambers and Partners called Kirkland “Private Equity Law Firm of the Year” two years in a row, and in American Lawyer’s 2009 ‘Corporate Scorecard’ survey, the firm ranked first in number of deals. Further, the firm has put a renewed focus on its bankruptcy and restructuring practice. Ranked #2 by Vault, the firm has guided a number of corporations through the turmoil of the most recent recession.
Perhaps less common, Kirkland also has a top Intellectual Property practice. An integral part of the firm since 1925, it is one of the oldest such practices in any full service law firm, and now consists of nearly 300 attorneys in a 1,300 attorney firm. The practice has given the firm a #3 Vault ranking in intellectual property, behind only two IP-specific firms, and a #4 ranking in IP litigation.
Chambers and Partners ranks the firm in Band 1 or 2 in the following practices nationally: Bankruptcy, Energy, Intellectual Property, Investment Funds: Private Equity, Outsourcing, Private Equity: Buyouts, Mass Torts, Tax: Corporate & Finance. The firm’s regional rankings vary, but in New York City it features Band 1 or 2 rankings in Bankruptcy, Intellectual Property, General Commercial Litigation, and Media Litigation. In Chicago, the list includes Antitrust, Banking, Bankruptcy, Private Equity, Intellectual Property, Insurance, Real Estate, and Tax.
Kirkland features ten-week summer programs in Chicago, New York, London, Los Angeles, Palo Alto, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. Summer associates are expected to complete 10 to 15 assignments over the course of the summer. The firm features a free market system for assigning work among its associates, and this carries over to summer associates. Summers choose assignments from an online database, or solicit attorneys directly. There is no coordinator assigning work. This allows enterprising summers to get very good experience, but also means one can quickly get in over their head. The firm holds regular formal training sessions as often as three times per week, and summer associates can participate in modified versions of the firms litigation and transactional training institutes.
Summer associates are not issued BlackBerrys, but there does not appear to be any need for them. Most summers report that they leave the office by 6:30 PM, with only an occasional “long night.” The firm provides a daily $40 lunch budget, with unlimited attorney lunches. Social events are plentiful, and the firm has not cut back appreciably, as others did, during the recession. Box seats at sporting events, symphonies, and yacht cruises are commonplace.
Compensation and Benefits
Kirkland & Ellis follows the standard lockstep system with $160,000 to start in all offices. Bonuses are individualized, and based on billable hours as well as the standard subjective factors: quality of work, pro bono, business development, etc. The firm has no formal billable hours requirement, but there is an expected of at least 2,100 hours. Associates who bill fewer than average hours historically received below market bonuses, with associates billing fewer than 1,800 hours in 2009 receiving no bonus. However , associates billing more than 2,200 hours have generally earned close to double the market bonuses. In 2010, 92% of associates received bonuses that surpassed the “market rate” set by Cravath, and over half of associates received bonuses of at least double Cravath.
The firm has no face time requirement. Associates are free to work remotely as long as they are responsive. Further, the firm switched to an unlimited vacation policy. Associates may take vacation days at their discretion, subject only to overall performance expectations. In practice, most attorneys take between two and three weeks of vacation.
Other benefits include free breakfast, free coffee, car service to the office before 7 AM, and free dinner and taxi service after billing eight hours. New associates receive a $10,000 bar stipend and relocation benefits.
Kirkland has two partnership tracks: ten years to equity partner, and six years to non-equity. In practice however, non-equity partner at Kirkland is indistinguishable from senior associate at most other firms. The only difference is a fancy title on your business card. Non-equity partners are up for promotion to equity status twice before falling victim to the firms up or out policy. Overall, including non-equity partnership, the majority of associates feel that prospects of partnership are good, but equity is a long shot.
As a whole, Kirkland is a hard-nosed litigation firm, with a sink or swim culture across the board. You either have a strong personality and personal drive to succeed, or you drown. This is obvious even in how they handle assignments. The firm features a free market system for assigning work, meaning an associate can take on as much work as they are willing to handle, if they have the drive to go get it. Hours are long, but the work is challenging and high-level, across all departments.
The firm has historically been considered a conservative one, and many of its most notable alums have found work in Republican governments. However this does not necessarily reflect the firm as a whole. 77% of donations made by attorneys at the firm went Democratic. The firm has its own political action committee which gave 97% of its contributions to Democrats in the 2008 election.
Ultimately however, the firm doesn’t care about your ideology, the color of your skin, or the gender of your sex partners. The firm doesn’t care if you work from the office or work from home. All it cares about is whether you can do the work and have the same drive to win that everyone else has. If you can do the work, you’ll have a place there. The cream rises to the top.
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