Founded in 1908, Chicago's Kirkland & Ellis has made its name by handling antitrust litigation and other matters for Midwest-based clients such as International Harvester, Firestone, Santa Fe Industries, Inland Steel, and Marshall Field. Kirkland's noted litigation and transactional departments have since cultivated close relationships with a number of blue-chip companies, including Dow Corning, Motorola, and BP Amoco. Under the leadership of Jack Levin, a respected tax attorney, the firm has created one of the nation's top venture capital/private equity practices, representing over 40 private investment groups.
Placating Chicago associates
When the 2000 salary race began, there were rumors that associates were ready to revolt in the firm's Chicago headquarters. In addition, The Legal Times ranked Kirkland "a lowly 17th place in overall mid-level job satisfaction." A quarter of the associates polled reported dissatisfaction with their compensation in particular.
K&E has since raised its salaries. Perhaps as a response to the brewing discontent, the firm management showed signs of loosening its historically staid image when it sanctioned business-casual dress for its Chicago employees in the summer of 1999. When the fall came around, the firm opted not to revert back to more formal attire. "Many firms tried to put the genie back in the bottle [after the summer]," Kevin Evanich, a member of the committee, commented to The National Law Journal. "Once you've given a person a taste of the good life, why take it away?"
Happy on the coasts
K&E hopes that these changes will make the Chicago associates as happy as their New York counterparts. In 1999 the New York office earned the highest ratings for mid-level and summer associate satisfaction in The American Lawyer survey for the fifth year in a row. In a city where associates are notorious for grousing about their jobs, Kirkland lawyers in New York seem more than satisfied with the firm. This may be due to the relatively high level of autonomy that Kirkland grants to its young attorneys. They are given the freedom to choose their assignments and the responsibility to shoulder a major portion of the deals. One associate remarked, "I'm treated like a smart adult." In most fields, being treated like a smart adult would not be something to brag about, but such respect is apparently a real perk to lawyers at New York firms. Meanwhile on the opposite coast, K&E mid-level associates in Los Angeles also ranked their office No. 1 in the city. The branch received especially high marks in the areas of training and feedback.
Kirkland was recently involved in a major case that had civil procedure geeks foaming at the mouth. Frank Cicero, Jr., one of the firm's most prominent litigators, represented Abbott Laboratories before the Supreme Court in a class action suit that attracted major attention from the scholarly community. Interest in the case, which alleged that Abbott and two other companies had conspired to fix prices of baby formula, was strong because its decision could have had an enormous impact on the accessibility of federal courts for class action suits. Under current law, any lawsuit between citizens of different states can be tried in federal court provided that the claim seeks at least $75,000. Because this was a class action suit, the question was whether every member of the class had to be making a claim of that sum. This was the first case that the Supreme Court had accepted that confronted the supplemental jurisdiction statute directly. If the court had found that every person involved did not have to be claiming $75,000, more class actions could have moved into federal courts. In March 2000, though, the Court split 4-4 in its decision, thereby upholding a lower court's ruling that had allowed the case to be moved to federal court. It was a victory for K&E and Abbott, since the federal court had dismissed the case, but the civil procedure issue remains unresolved.
Counsel to GM
General Motors was an early Kirkland client, and the company still provides the firm with a steady stream of business. With Tom Gottschalk, a former K&E partner, heading up the legal department at GM, this relationship is unlikely to change in the near future. In 1999 Kirkland's litigation department represented the auto manufacturer in a number of controversial suits involving fuel-fed fires in GM vehicles.
IP for allergy sufferers The intellectual property unit of Kirkland and Ellis was also involved in some noteworthy litigation in 1999. It continues to represent Schering-Plough Corporation, a pharmaceutical manufacturer, in a patent dispute that will govern the future availability of the widely advertised allergy wonder-drug Claritin. Allergy sufferers are waiting with bated breath for the outcome - if Schering-Plough loses the case, Claritin could become available in syrup form at a significantly discounted price.
Wanted: more than just a pretty transcript
"Like most large law firms, K&E hires students from the top law schools and top students from the other law schools," says a Kirkland insider. Another contact comments, "I would say that the selectivity is among the highest in the country, although, to the firm's credit, it is not a slave to the national rankings."
Drive, energy, and leadership skills are also important to K&E. "Grades and intellectual power are a must, but they do not, by themselves, cut it," according to one associate. "A few summers ago the only summer associate not to get an offer was the one who had a Supreme Court clerkship lined up. Nobody could stand the guy, and in those circumstances it did not make sense to hire him." The firm adds intellectual curiosity, drive, and team play to the list of desirable attributes.
Hiring can vary according to practice area. "It depends on the department," one contact says. "Right now, corporate is very busy, so it is easier to be hired by the corporate department as opposed to the litigation department." That applies to those hoping to get in from other firms as well. "Lateral hiring in this market is approaching 'any warm body,'" says one tax attorney.
All work and no play
Kirkland insiders say the firm is a pleasant place to work, but that there is little interaction outside the office. "It is an all-work, no-play kind of place," remarks one associate. But in the workplace, attorneys are said to be friendly and helpful. "I'm always surprised at the willingness of other associates and partners to drop what they are doing to answer a question, help you find something, or teach you how to do something," says a young associate. Beware of a high-intensity workplace, though. "It is a hardcore, very male type of firm with lots of confident and assertive attorneys," notes one contact. "Consequently, the atmosphere is pretty tight." Another associate says that confidence runs so high in the firm that the attorneys border on "cocky."
Separate social life
One area where Kirkland associates say the firm lags behind others is social interaction. While the atmosphere at work is friendly, K&E lawyers say there's little informal outside socializing and virtually no firm-sponsored events. "I wouldn't describe it as a place for someone looking for a thriving social life with people at work," says one contact. Another reports that "I've made good friends here, but it takes effort - there are no weekly happy hours or other firm-sponsored events." K&E attorneys seem to want to keep a separation between home and work. "I'm sure there would be more if I felt like interacting socially, but really - why not have an actual social life instead?" asks one associate.
Pay: in Chicago, a market leader
Kirkland attorneys now seem more content with their pay, and say the firm makes an effort to keep up with market movement. "Unlike many of its competitors in Chicago, Kirkland did not hesitate to meet the recent market changes in associate compensation," reports a Windy City lawyer. "One thing Kirkland does well is pay its associates," says another attorney.
"Maniacally devoted to training"
What the firm lacks in perks it may make up in training. For litigators, it offers the Kirkland Institute of Trial Advocacy (KITA), a year-round program aimed at improving lawyers' skills, as well as a two-day jury trial practice session. Other offerings include the Kirkland Institute of Corporate Practice (KICP) and the Kirkland Intellectual Property Institute (KIPI). "Training is a priority at K&E," says an associate. "One-on-one, on-the-job training from partners is great," adds another contact. "The in-house training program is very good, too." "The firm is maniacally devoted to training," according to one attorney. "They have many formal training programs, but the best thing is that the senior partners take the time to get you involved in all aspects of a deal or trial, let you know what is going on, and explain things to you."
K&E lawyers seem satisfied with the firm, and most complaints are directed towards the legal profession in general. One attorney claims to get "as much [satisfaction] as one can reasonably expect out of being a scrivener." "I am very happy here," one contact notes. "Compared to other firms it's a 10. Compared to other professions..." It looks like the jury is still out.
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