A taxing history
Irell & Manella was founded as a tax boutique by Lawrence Irell and Eugene Berger in Century City, California in 1941. In 1944, Arthur Manella joined the firm and was made partner in 1945. He aggressively grew the tax practice, which early on included celebrities such as Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Elizabeth Taylor.
In 1979, Irell opened its second office, in Newport Beach, California, just an hour away from the home base. Nine years later, the firm expanded into downtown Los Angeles. (That office, however, is currently being consolidated into the Century City headquarters.) Irell & Manella now has over 200 lawyers.
Learning IP the hard way
Morgan Chu and Kenneth Heitz are co-managing partners of Irell & Manella. Soon after joining the firm, Chu was thrust into a case that would change the focus of the firm. In 1977, Chu's first year with the firm, long-time Irell client Mattel approached the firm with a problem. The toy maker was involved in a patent dispute regarding hand-held video games they were producing and their intellectual property counsel had been dismissed from the case due to a conflict of interest. Irell, who had represented Mattel in their 1960 IPO, accepted the case, despite the fact that no one at the firm had any significant IP litigation experience. Chu, who holds a PhD from UCLA and an MSL from Yale in addition to a Harvard law degree, acted as lead counsel despite his inexperience. "I can remember the evening before the first day of the trial, thinking 'Gee, I don't know where I'm supposed to stand for the opening,'" Chu recalled to California Law Business in 1999. Despite his jitters, Chu and Mattel prevailed in a decision that was later upheld on appeal.
Chu's victory led to a new practice for Irell. Now, the firm is perhaps best known for its intellectual property work. In November 1997, Irell counseled Intel on a settlement of a patent infringement dispute with Digitial Equipment. The Irell team consisted of Chu, partners Elliot Brown and Jonathan Steinberg and associate Harry Mittleman. The firm represented publisher Matthew Bender in a copyright suit filed by West Publishing challenging Bender's use of "star pagination" which linked users of Bender's CD-ROM products to West's summaries of legal opinions. A decision for Bender was upheld on appeal in November 1998. Representing Bender for Irell were firm superstar Chu as well as Brown, of counsel David Nimmer and associate Perry Goldberg. Another noteworthy IP client was Lucas Digital, whom Irell successfully represented in a patent dispute involving technology used in Forrest Gump.
The glamour of California's TV industry has descended upon Irell & Manella - the firm has represented a slew of entertainment industry clients. These include television shows such as Dynasty, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and L.A. Law, as well as big-screen clients Walt Disney, Sony, and Paramount. Musicians Stevie Wonder, Smashing Pumpkins and Third Eye Blind have retained Irell as well. The firm's most significant litigation work involves a technology company that seems pedestrian by comparison. Irell represented Stac Electronics in a patent infringement suit against computer giant Microsoft. The firm won a $120 million verdict (one that was partially offset by a $13.7 million finding against Stac) in 1994. The case was later appealed and settled for $83 million. Other clients include directors of First Interstate Bancorp, whom Irell successfully defended against shareholder suits related to the company's merger with Wells Fargo, and the Cable News Network, whom the firm represented regarding the sale of CNN programming.
A little too selective?
Firm associates agree that school and grades are key to landing a position at Irell. "Irell has stringent GPA requirements, and it's hard to get an interview if you're not from a top law school," says one source. According to another associate, getting into Irell is a breeze. "If you attend a top ten law school and have a GPA of 3.6 or better, then it's not difficult." What could be easier? In fact, insiders say the firm may focus on grades too much, perhaps to their detriment. "Irell is perhaps a little too selective," says one lawyer. "Strong candidates anywhere else are routinely dinged here because of grades or a second-tier law school," says one sixth-year lawyer.
Irell associates describe the firm as "totally diverse. You have all types of people here, jocks, devout Jews, Christians, Hindus, law review geeks, techies, whatever." Another lawyer says that at Irell, "competence and intelligence are valued above all else, promoting a meritocracy and, some might say, a rather 'law-geeky' environment." And how long do those lawyers geek out? "There is a strong sense of competence and trust in the associates - you are free to work as many or as few hours as required to turn in excellent quality work," says one litigation associate. "The firm tolerates many different types of people and lifestyles." A second-year associate claims that Irell "has more of an academic environment than other firms." "Everyone seems to feel comfortable being themselves, no matter how wacky that may be," says one associate.
Hours range from mellow to insane
As at most firms, associates at Irell & Manella are expected to put in a great deal of hours, especially at deal time. "The hours range from mellow to insane, on a week-to-week basis," says one IP associate. "There is never a middle ground. Stretches of killer 80 plus hour work weeks happen, and then there are stretches of 30 hour weeks. There is not a perception that one must come in on the weekends to show one's value. No one cares about that - they do care that you get the work done."
How's 2000 been so far? Crazy. A corporate attorney reports that "the year 2000 started with a bang. We are so busy we don't know what to do with ourselves. Generally, Irell associates work hard, but it is certainly manageable." "I'm in litigation, so it's feast or famine," says one lawyer. "The nice part is that face time is looked down upon here. If you're not busy, go skiing. No one expects you to show up when you don't have to work. Trust me, you'll be here enough when you're busy." One older associate is sick of hearing the young 'uns complain. "Hour claims are exaggerated by younger associates. We average a couple hundred less than some of the other big firms," growls the curmudgeonly veteran.
According to one contact, "Irell provides lockstep compensation for all associates, regardless of hours billed." That means associates "don't have to forgo that vacation in December if we are 50 hours below a bonus threshold." "After their third year, associates participate in profit-sharing," says one attorney. The downside is that attorneys in those classes aren't guaranteed to be paid the same as colleagues at other firms. If the firm has a bad year, fourth-years and above are guaranteed at least $151,000-$157,000. If the firm has a good year, of course, pay can wind up much higher than industry average.
Paint the office red
One associate says that at Irell, "junior associates' offices are a little small, but the furniture is nice, the computers are good, and you get a $500 decorating budget." The Century City office underwent a remodeling in the spring of 2000 and "all of the offices will be great before summertime," says a lawyer in that location. Lawyers in Century City sound like real estate agents, raving about location, location, location. "One great thing about our Century City office is its location in Century City - very convenient to some of the best places for young people to live in L.A.," gushes one associate there.
The well-paved road to dot com
Lawyers at Irell tell the same retention story as those at other firms. "It is my impression that we rarely lose associates to other large law firms," says one litigation attorney. "Associates who leave tend to join dot coms or boutique law practices." There are "lots of dot com defections due to the firm's high-tech IP practice," says one lawyer. "Even the litigators are getting offers to go in-house at dot coms." According to one Irell insider, "people leave because they can. Even those who are driven out find good jobs. There is a nearly 90 percent turnover among young corporate lawyers over every five-year period. Two corporate associates made partner two years ago. Other than them, none of the people who were corporate associates three or four years ago are still here." However, one associate notes that the hot market for ex-Irellians could dry up "with the recent stock market corrections."
Too small for diversity?
Irell associates are mixed on the firm's diversity. While most admit the firm has made a good-faith effort to recruit minorities, there are some who feel that, like at many law firms, the results haven't been there. "We really need to find a way to recruit more African-Americans and Hispanics," admits one source. Another contact concurs, saying "although we appear relatively diverse in some ethnic groups (Asian groups especially), we are very low in numbers as far as other groups (African-Americans, Indians and Hispanics.)" One lawyer ventures that because of the firm's commitment to excellence in all attorneys, there is less likely to be any "outreach" programs targeting specific groups. The firm's efforts with respect to women are also criticized. "There are simply too few women at the firm, which makes mentoring difficult, if not impossible," says one contact. "Although I do not think the atmosphere is unwelcoming toward women, for some reason the numbers here are low." One insider reports that "there are strong women partners here, even a part-time partner. But recently part-time women have not been happy here." "Irell does try to promote gender equality, but between the hours and the type of practice, it's tough to retain women," says another lawyer.
Gary W. Maxwell
Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher;Latham & Watkins;Munger Tolles & Olson;O'Melveny & Myers;Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati
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