History: a Philadelphia story
Founded in 1875, Dechert Price & Rhoads remained a purely Philadelphian firm until the late 1960s, when the firm began to expand aggressively. In 1968 Dechert established a branch in Brussels, joining the few American law firms opening offices in Europe at this time. In 1969 the firm opened offices in Washington, DC and Harrisburg, its first domestic offices outside Philadelphia. The firm now boasts seven U.S. offices - Philadelphia, New York, Washington, DC, Princeton, Boston, Harrisburg, and Hartford. Its two largest offices outside of Philadelphia are in New York and DC. From 1995 to 1997, the firm experienced extraordinary growth: in 1995 the firm had 355 lawyers, but by 1998 the ranks had ballooned to 442.
In 1972 Dechert opened its London branch. The firm's London presence was bolstered in 1994 when Dechert formed an alliance with British firm Titmuss Sainer & Webb, called Titmuss Sainer Dechert. In July 2000, the two firms merged, forming a conglomerate simply known as Dechert. Their combined practice now has more than 580 lawyers.
Philadelphia lawyers are in demand
Dechert is a solid member of the legal elite. The firm's litigation department is nationally renowned. Over the past decade, Dechert's litigation department has developed a reputation for excellence, due at least in part to department head Robert Heim. Dechert has developed national-level product liability, antitrust, and general commercial litigation practices. The firm has quietly built its M&A practice into a powerhouse as well. Dechert also boasts some strong niche practices, most notably in the mutual fund industry. Among the firm's clients in the asset management industry are Capital Research & Management and Goldman Sachs Asset Management. The firm offers other strengths as well; its corporate department represented Internet Capital Group in its $150 million IPO in 1999, as well as ICG's $1.4 billion follow-up offering. And Dechert's tax practice, with more than 20 partners, was named one of the top tax advisors on the East Coast by International Tax Review in 1998.
Deals, deals, deals
Dechert's M&A practice has also been gaining attention recently. Dechert was tapped in September 1998 to advise Dyckerhoff A.G., a German cement and building materials company, on its $1.2 billion acquisition of Lone Star Industries Inc. In June 1998, Dechert represented Viagra manufacturer Pfizer in the $2.1 billion sale of its medical device manufacturing operations to Boston Scientific Corporation. The deal represented Pfizer's largest transaction ever.
Bank on law school prestige
Sources say that the law schools from which Dechert recruits have become increasingly more prestigious. "It's changing," an insider tells Vault.com of Dechert's recruiting. "We used to get a lot of people from Penn, Villanova, and Temple. Now we're still getting people from Penn - but also Harvard and Yale." While the firm has always hired from Harvard and Yale, associates report a significant increase in hiring from those schools. The firm also reportedly attracts a lot of students from Michigan and Berkeley. A contact reports, "Even in this market, Dechert really demands stellar credentials from its candidates. Your credentials really have to demonstrate that you are capable of superior work."
Some associates feel that the firm is becoming too focused on school names. Says one associate in Boston: "The firm puts too much weight on big name schools like Harvard and often overlooks excellent candidates from lesser-named schools." Reports an associate in Philadelphia: "If you're at a top 10 national school, you've got a good shot. If you're otherwise local, getting on a journal is key." Dechert reports that its top three schools in 1999 full-time hiring were Penn, Harvard, and Villanova, both in Philadelphia and firm-wide. The firm also reports that it has recently broadened the base of law schools from which it hires - in the Philadelphia office, 19 different schools were represented in the 2000 summer associate class.
Sources admit that "personality matters less than grades." An associate gripes that "they seem to place a high emphasis on grades. From what I have seen, this has resulted in hiring mostly drones with no personalities." Sums up a contact: "Dechert is very focused on law school grade point average and pedigree of school (law school and undergraduate). No writing sample is required, and the interview process is not difficult at all. If you have the GPA and pedigree, it's fairly easy to get hired. Even for lateral associates, law school GPA and pedigree are essential."
Dechert dips into its pockets
After the most recent round of raises for associates, Dechert Price & Rhoads raised the salary for its first-years in Philadelphia to $105,000. Philadelphia-based associates are pleased with the new salary structure, noting that "the first-year salaries are obscene." There are guaranteed bonuses for meeting the "reasonable" target of 1,950 billable hours. "In addition to the guaranteed bonus," a source cites "discretionary bonuses that are independent of the 1,950-hour target." Some associates worry about the vague criteria for reaching these bonuses. "Many associates suspect that the discretionary bonuses operate as a way of rewarding corporate associates more than litigation associates. The fact that pay is not simply lockstep as it is in the major New York firms creates a lot of bad feeling among associates." Other complaints about the bonus structure exist, as a fifth-year contact reports. "The bonus system does not compensate associates for working substantial hours or for producing exceptional work." The firm counters, however, that it has a discretionary bonus program in place to reward attorneys based on their quality and quantity of work.
Dot coms talk, associates walk
While the firm made salaries retroactive to February 1, 2000, Dechert's sluggishness in setting new salaries did, according to many attorneys, have one pronounced effect among the ranks of associates: higher attrition rates. As one source reveals, "Many associates left prior to the salary increase announcements." Another contact indicates that "while Dechert makes wonderful recruitment efforts and provides active mentoring for summer associates and first-years, I think it really falls down on retention. Dechert needs to take a much more active interest in the careers of its individual associates, and to create a better sense of collegiality among the higher-level associates." A Philadelphia-based attorney believes that the high turnover of late is somewhat misleading. "You can pretty much lateral anywhere from Dechert - from specialty boutique to 1,000-lawyer firm - so turnover has always been relatively high. The dot coms have just exacerbated the situation."
Dechertites harbor warm and fuzzy feelings toward the partners at the firm. An associate declares, "I have had extremely favorable treatment by the partners, who are down-to-earth and easy to talk to. They are an invaluable source and are willing to mentor you through the process." Another associate describes the firm as having a "remarkably congenial atmosphere. I have yet to either experience or hear of anything that approaches associate abuse." But Dechert partners shouldn't sign up for sainthood yet. Associates do have issues. A Philadelphia-based source complains, "Most treat us very well, but the few that are allowed by their fellow partners to treat other people badly (associates and partners and support staff alike) make a significant impression." Many report a lack of social contact between partners and associates: "Partners seem unwilling to take social time with associates (lunches, dinners, and so on), while they are happy to do these things when it comes to recruitment."
Friendly, not social
Dechert associates report that, while most attorneys are "pleasant," there is not much of a social life at the firm. Contacts report that "younger, non-married associates do socialize together," but most tend to work and go home. An associate elaborates, "At quitting time, people flee to their families. Large size makes it feel like a corporation full of people whose only contact is during work hours and people are satisfied with that." Not everyone joins the caravan out the door. A first-year enthuses, "I have made most of my best social friends through the firm. There is a regular happy-hour crowd among young and mid-level associates. Softball also spurs some interaction."
This training's bound for glory
Attorneys find that "Dechert provides excellent formal training programs (yes, there are several) and extensive informal training opportunities." An eighth-year reveals, "The firm is paying a lot more attention to training now than when I started." Another associate elaborates, "Partners and senior associates work closely with mid-level and junior associates, and in my experience are almost as interested in training as they are in completing the project. Dechert offers a wide variety of interesting projects. The firm has an assignment system in place through which associates can request (and in my experience generally receive) projects that match their particular interest." Not every associate is pleased with the training at Dechert. A Philadelphia-based attorney observes, "There is virtually no formal training - it's all on-the-job. No one has time for it, though, so it's just as well."
You work hard for the money
While associates at Dechert definitely put in their hours, many note that "Dechert associates are paid very well and are expected to work very hard." While long, the hours are not oppressive, as one associate explains. "In the abstract, I feel like I spend a lot of time at work. Compared to other young lawyers I know in other firms, and also to some other associates at my own firm, I have a great life in terms of hours." Attorneys at the firm also have the ability to manage their own work schedule, according to one associate: "You have no problem keeping your hours lower if that is what you want, but you will have to refuse some very tempting projects."
A third-year notices a recent change in lifestyle: "Dechert truly lived up to the promise that there were no minimum billing requirements here. This has changed somewhat with the new bonus system, where the bonus is tied to the billings. Still, the volume of work, especially on the corporate side and within the M&A group, means that you're working long hours regardless of expectations. There are capacity issues in the outlying offices, though, leaving some associates to beg for work."
A convoluted path to partner
The partnership track at Dechert is "at least eight years - realistically, nine or 10 years," and associates complain that "the criteria are very opaque." A sixth-year explains, "Prospects used to be good and were a big selling point for Dechert. However, Dechert has recently introduced a two-tier partnership structure (equity and non-equity partners). This is clearly a way of partnering fewer people and keeping partnership profits high. Those associates who came to Dechert before this happened feel cheated by what's happened. It's dispiriting." Many others believe the non-equity track, which one associate calls "some sort of ambiguous purgatory," will hamper their chances of making partner. Another associate notes: "Laterals with something special to offer have a better shot than people who came straight up the Dechert chain." This issue, however, may not be as important as it once was to attorneys, as "many associates no longer focus on this and have different career paths in mind."
Carol S. Miller
Director of Associate Information
Morgan, Lewis & Bockius;Pepper Hamilton;Ballard, Spahr, Andrews & Ingersoll
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