History: the legacy of Akin
When Robert Strauss and Richard Gump started their law firm in Dallas in 1945, they might not have gotten very far if Henry Akin hadn't been practicing down the hall. After providing them with invaluable advice during their start-up years, Akin joined as a partner in 1966. After his name was appended to the title, the firm quickly grew into a major national and international legal entity. The firm now has approximately 900 lawyers in 11 offices worldwide.
In early 2000, one week after his 100th birthday, Akin passed away, leaving Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld as his legacy. "We didn't think Henry was ever going to die," remarked founding partner Robert Strauss to The Legal Times after Akin's death. "We thought he was going to live forever. And he will, with us."
Patently high IP growth
Several recent mergers have burnished the lustre of Akin's intellectual property group. In January 1999, the firm merged with the Houston IP boutique Pravel Hewitt. To solidify its position in Philadelphia's relatively competitive IP market, Akin Gump also combined with Philadelphia IP powerhouse boutique Panitch Schwarze Jacobs & Nadel in July 1999. As of June 2000, 28 of the 31 attorneys in the Philadelphia office are working exclusively for IP clients. The expansion has paid off: in May 2000, Intellectual Property Today ranked the firm No. 2 in the number of trademarks registered in 1999.
Corporate practice pulls its weight
The corporate practice has been important to Akin Gump's business, with operations ranging from mergers and acquisitions to bankruptcy to securities. In April 1999, the firm advised Clear Channel Communications in its $4.4 billion acquisition of SFX Entertainment. Four months later, Akin assisted with the merger between Dynegy, Inc., a Texas corporation that markets energy products and services, and Illinova Corp., an electric and gas utilities company headquartered in Decatur, IL. Dynegy owns and operates 47 gasoline processing plants, with a paid staff of 2,500 people. In 1998 the firm's bankruptcy practice took part in the restructuring of the Caspian Pipeline consortium, a $2.2 billion project bringing oil from Russia to the Black Sea.
White collar defendants
Akin Gump has also made a name for itself defending alleged white collar criminals. The firm's white collar defense team is led by William Hundley, formerly chief of the Department of Justice's Organized Crime and Racketeering department and an assistant to Robert Kennedy when he was attorney general. Another well-known partner in criminal defense is John Dowd, famous for conducting the investigation that got Pete Rose banned from baseball. The firm has also represented defendants in the investigation of Agriculture Secretary Michael Espy, the Iran-Contra scandal, the Whitewater investigation and Watergate.
The lion of litigation Some of Akin Gump's best work has come from its litigation team. The firm successfully represented supermarket chain Food Lion against ABC, arguing that an undercover story for the network's Primetime Live program, exposing unsanitary conditions, was unfair and employed sneaky journalistic tactics, including hidden cameras. (Akin Gump notes pointedly on its web site that ABC journalist Diane Sawyer has since used hidden cameras on ABC staffers, to the distress of those employees.)
A stringent process
Getting hired at Akin is no walk in the proverbial park. "Hiring standards are stringent," says one contact. "The firm hires primarily out of its summer program. A hiring committee manages the recruitment of summer associates each year. The committee looks primarily for students near the top of their class from the top 25 law schools and the DC area schools." Another associate concurs, noting that Akin Gump is "very selective for new associates - only a handful of Ivies and top schools are targeted."
"Exceptional academic qualifications alone are not sufficient to guarantee being hired," warns a source. "The firm also looks equally at whether the interviewee is well-rounded and personable."
Insiders' descriptions of the firm's corporate culture vary significantly. Apparently, while the firm is generally relaxed, there is a movement toward a more rigid structure and a focus on the bottom line. One DC lawyer says that Akin Gump is "very upbeat and social. [It's a] great collection of people who are intelligent, funny, and sociable." A New York associate adds that "it's not uncommon to see young partners in the litigation group throwing a football or swinging a golf club in the hallway."
That said, one contact claims that while Akin Gump has historically been "laid-back, relaxed and easy going," there has been a visible shift in the Akin atmosphere in recent months. "Recently, there has been much more of a focus on hours and billables," says one associate. Adds a Los Angeles attorney, "For years, Akin has held itself out as one big family. I think that remains true to a certain extent, at least as compared to other firms of its size. But certainly, perhaps because of the rapid growth over the past few years - and the rise in salaries - there is a more contentious atmosphere here. It's like the firm has reached its teenage years and is experiencing some angst and growing pains as it tries to figure out exactly who it is and who it wants to be."
Pay fails to thrill
While Akin Gump is paying their associates the market rate, some of that pay is in the form of deferred compensation. Under a new system, associates earn bonuses on a point system - similar to that used for partners' compensation - which is based in part on the firm's profitability. The firm claims that deferred compensation is the best way to reward associates for hours billed and that they can potentially earn more than at other firms. Not all associates buy it. "Deferred compensation is awarded only to associates who meet 2,000 billable hours in a year," explains one lawyer. "Akin's deferred payment plan was a major disappointment," confides one insider. "Rather than simply follow suit with our competitors, Akin chose a compensation plan that left associates questioning management's intentions."
Perks: an inside track on the Bronx Bombers
Akin Gump associates can pick from the usual array of perks. Meals and cars are paid for by the firm when associates works late; there is no official cut-off time for free meals, and associates can use their judgement about how much to spend. A well-stocked kitchen is also available in the Houston office. "We have Starbucks coffee, free canned sodas, crackers, soup, and aspirin and the like," says one associate in appreciation. All offices have access to discount movie tickets and free sports tickets, but "there is a hierarchy to who receives such tickets." If you like baseball, especially the Yankees, the New York office is probably the best place for you. Partner Randy Levine is the team's president and his access to tickets thus as good as you would expect. In the Washington office, the firm's gym is being remodeled, and there is also a discount on memberships at a local gym. Additionally, the firm recently started an investment fund for associates and moved to a casual dress code every day.
Graduates of "Lawyer College"
Lawyers at Akin Gump seem split over the quality of the firm's training. For Dallas litigators and corporate attorneys, the firm offers "Lawyer College." "Lawyer College seeks to teach what law school typically does not," explains one associate. That includes deposition, motion, and trial skills [as well as transactional skills]. "There's a great emphasis on informal training," says an insider. "I feel the partners in litigation have made a substantial commitment of their personal time to my professional training." One third-year associate notes that during his first year, training was minimal. However, "my second and third years have been a quantum leap forward, both in the amount of responsibility I'm given and the support I've received in learning how to do the transactions." One contact warns that "the [litigation] section takes a learning by doing approach, which is fine, unless you get stuck doing document review for any length of time." Associates firm-wide can receive training in time management, financial management, and Internet research as well as department-specific instruction.
At Akin Gump, "people start leaving around their fourth or fifth year, but it's not a mass exodus and it's definitely better than it is at other firms." As with all firms, Akin Gump associates feel that few associates leave for other firms. Rather, "they go to dot-coms or other in-house jobs. It says a lot about the firm that people do get such great opportunities after working here," boasts one associate. The government is another popular destination. "This is a last stop for people practicing in the firm environment," says another source.
Partnership track: room at the inn
When it comes to the process of making partner, decisions seem less mysterious at Akin Gump than at other firms, according to insiders. "In my time here, I've only been surprised by a couple of the partnership decisions," says one associate. "I think predictability is a good thing." Another lawyer agrees, remarking, "I know associates who are a mortal lock for partner, and I know associates who don't stand a chance."
Commitment to diversity
"The firm is clearly committed to finding and keeping a racially diverse workforce," says a source. "However, minority recruiting and retention still present significant challenges. The firm still needs to do better, but it appears to recognize that need." Insiders say that Akin "makes an effort to recruit minority candidates through various avenues, including minority job fairs." The firm as a whole is "far more diverse than the average law firm." In 1999 Akin Gump won the Thomas L. Sager Award for diversity.
With respect to "alternative lifestyles," sources say "the firm is very receptive." Akin Gump offers domestic partner benefits, and insiders report a few "out" partners and associates. While this hasn't created any problems, some insiders say that when it comes to a few of the older partners, the "less known about a gay attorney, the better off that attorney is."
Hard to beat
Despite the "sub-par office space and support," and the firm's growing focus on "the bottom line or end result," insiders concede that all law firms have their problems.
In general, however, Akin Gump associates report a high degree of satisfaction. "I get frustrated because the firm is incredibly cheap on issues like salary and office space," says one source, "but I can't argue with my training, experience, partnership prospects or interpersonal relationships." "It comes down to this: there's more to life and work than money and on just about every front other than money, I have found Akin Gump hard to beat." A lateral hire calls his stint at Akin Gump "the first law job I have enjoyed. It sounds pretty goofy, but I credit Akin Gump with making me like practicing law."
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