The times they are a changin'
When proud Paul Weiss partners say their firm leads the pack in championing change, they put their names on the line - literally. Since its founding in 1875, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison has changed its name six times. The firm settled on its current moniker in 1946 when tax titan Randolph Paul and litigator Lloyd Garrison partnered with lawyers Louis Weiss and John Wharton. With both Christian and Jewish founders, the firm stood apart from the beginning in its sensitivity to religious and ethnic diversity. In 1949 Paul Weiss became the first major New York firm to hire a black attorney.
Ups and downs
Change isn't always easy, of course. Like many big New York law firms, Paul Weiss embraced the barrage of late 1980s insider trading work and overexpanded as a result - one year admitting a class of 97 new associates (today the firm has a total of just over 400 attorneys worldwide). Despite belt-tightening efforts, the firm was still forced to lay off 40 associates in 1991. The firm learned its lesson well: realizing that clients at times would not be willing or able to pay its regular rates, in 1998 it instituted a "staff attorney" program for associates whose educational backgrounds would not normally have landed them a plum position at Paul Weiss. The positions pay less than associate salaries (although "more than half," according to one placement director) and staff attorneys are not placed on partnership track.
The firm has rebounded since the early 1990s, now ranking as one of the 15 most profitable law firms in the country. Morale has risen with salaries; Paul Weiss upped its first-year pay in its New York and DC offices to $125,000 a year as of February 2000. As at many firms, the robust economy has paid dividends across the board. Last year brought boom-year bonuses ranging from $8,000 for first-year associates to $20,000 for eighth-years.
All that glitters IS gold
Paul Weiss has historically been known as a litigation firm, most notably for work such as defending Michael Milken and counseling the Senate during the Iran-Contra hearings in the 1980s. But today the firm has a nearly equal number of corporate and litigation attorneys and has garnered headlines for an assortment of flashy deals. The firm's entertainment practice stands out in particular. Glamorous individuals spotted strolling through the halls include, say insiders, "Sigourney Weaver, Spike Lee, and Calvin Klein."
It's a small world
Ted Sorensen, President Kennedy's special counsel, kicked off Paul Weiss' overseas growth in 1966 when he joined the firm and developed several international clients. While work in Hong Kong and Beijing is said to consist of an eclectic assortment of ventures, the Tokyo branch's work is mostly derived from Japanese companies doing business in the United States.
But as the political structure of the Pacific Rim nations shifts, Paul Weiss's role does as well. While Hong Kong was under British authority, American lawyers were effectively restricted to practicing offshore law. But since Beijing has been in charge, the playing field has been leveled and Paul Weiss has benefited from the open legal market. A prime example is Hong Kong's selection of the firm as counsel in the deal to bring Disneyland to the city. While some Hong Kong lawyers expressed surprise that an American firm was chosen for the project, Paul Weiss' G. Frederick Kinmonth told The American Lawyer that it shouldn't have been so shocking. "The truth of the matter was that the Hong Kong government had to have a firm with both U.S. and Hong Kong experience." That turned out to be Paul Weiss.
While Paul Weiss' Asian focus is evident, its European practices are also expanding rapidly. In addition to its Paris branch, a London office is in the planning stages. This newest location will cover corporate, litigation, bankruptcy, tax, and real estate transactions. The option of a U.K. merger to complement the new office has not been ruled out.
Pro bono presence
Paul Weiss is well regarded for its pro bono work, with specialties in death penalty cases, prisoners' rights, rights of asylum, treatment of the homeless, and the teaching of creation science in public schools. The firm's real estate department also lowers its fees for certain community groups, although this work is not included in the firm's official pro bono figures.
No matter how you cut it, getting into Paul Weiss isn't easy. "You pretty much have to be from a top school unless you interview for one of the smaller departments," advises one insider. "Bankruptcy and Real Estate seem to have more associates and partners from 'lesser' schools." The firm is known to have "a fetish for Ivy League pedigrees," with a "particular focus on the usual schools - Columbia, Yale, Harvard, NYU, Stanford, and so on." The difficulty seems to depend on the department to some degree; it's said to be "much harder to get hired into the litigation group than in corporate, and it's almost impossible to get into the elite entertainment group."
Besides the basic transcript scrutiny, say associates, Paul Weiss truly cares about the personality and background of its hires. Opinions vary, but most contacts agree that "Paul Weiss looks for people who have done something besides school, who have a breadth of experience." One associate opines, "Paul Weiss works with a lot of entrepreneurial clients, so the firm likes to see people who have either started businesses or who have a business background, or even those who have majored in economics." Other insiders point out that "a fair amount of associates are older, in their mid-thirties. It's not a huge number but significant". These elder sorts have "generally done something idealistic, like Peace Corps or international travel." Another contact notes that "there are more artistic types than you would expect. They want people with a lot of life experience." "In retrospect," muses an associate, "they're looking for good conversationalists. That's especially important in litigation, because litigators tend to be very outgoing. They call themselves crazy. They are loud and brash - not rude - but at firm functions, you know who the litigators are. They're the ones dancing on the tables." Also, "almost everyone in litigation has clerked, and a lot of people in bankruptcy [have too], but it's not important for other practices."
Paul Weiss does half-hour screening interviews (depending on the school), generally with partners. Callback interviews last half a day and can be scheduled either in the morning or the afternoon. A representative from legal recruiting meets candidates and guides them to their first interview. "The interviews tend to last anywhere from half an hour to forty-five minutes," says an associate. "They strive for a mix of men and women, partners and associates. In general, you should interview with two men and two women." "Because personality matters to Paul Weiss, it's really a conversation. There is no form to go over. I think what they encourage during the interviews, at least from the perspective of an interviewer, is selling the firm, answering questions, and having a conversation. We are building a team environment. We spend a lot of hours together and we want to get along," says an associate. After each interviewing session, the interviewer escorts the candidate to the next office. At the end of the interview rounds, the candidate once again returns to legal recruiting. One survivor deems it "one of the toughest interviews in town in the sense of intellectual evaluation."
The hiring committee meets every week. According to an associate, "if you interview right after they've met, you may not hear from them for some time. But if they don't immediately neg or want you, they'll retain your file until they fill all the slots." Those offered positions first receive a call from a member of the recruitment committee, then a letter from the chair of the recruiting committee. Afterwards, partners and associates make follow-up calls, often to their alumni universities. Those rejected "eventually get a ding letter."
Fight or flight
Once you get in, though, the question might become whether you'll want to get out. While some associates say that "the turnover rate is comparable to any large New York law firm," others say Paul Weiss is a "tough place to stay at for a long time" and that "all the good associates are leaving," particularly in the corporate and litigation departments. "I once went on vacation for a week and found four departure memos in my inter-office mail when I returned," sighs one veteran. Many of the defections have less to do with Paul Weiss than the "recent boom in the Internet field," argue some attorneys. "There's been a recent flight to dot coms by a lot of senior corporate associates. However, there are a lot of people who leave the firm for a few months and then come crawling back." The firm claims that its attrition rate is close to zero.
Are we in this together?
The social life at Paul Weiss seems to be whatever associates make of it. "People here are generally very friendly," but "social interaction is influenced by hierarchy. Except in rare instances, associates do not go out drinking with partners, for example." Several attorneys mentioned "some rather tight-knit groups of associates, usually female," but a bankruptcy lawyer suggests "there's little pressure if you would rather bond with your spouse, cat, or exercise equipment."
Less is more
Paul Weiss associates really want to like their jobs. They offer up testimony to the "exceptional litigation" practice, "work of the highest caliber" and "incredibly smart lawyers with a diverse range of interests." But many of them feel beaten down. One attorney seems to sum up many of his colleagues' sentiments when he says, "I love the work, I'd just like less of it. I love the people, I'd just like to see less of them."
'I can really be my true self here'
Paul Weiss has long established itself as a litigation leader. Its reputation is "outstanding" and "absolutely top-tier," particularly in securities, white collar crime, and intellectual property and is known as a "diverse practice that 'still goes to trial.'" The firm is also "extremely strong in private equity," especially LBO funds and venture capital funds. Many of its associates chose to join the firm on the basis of these strengths and the sense that "the firm has the most interesting client base of any firm in the city."
Others find its "un-stuffy" culture appealing. "I like the informality, cynicism, and humor of the office," says one lawyer. "It's okay to have a messy office here." A female litigator enjoys fulfilling a clich?: "I felt I could really be my true self here. I can wear pantsuits every day, curse like a sailor, pursue police brutality cases, just go for it in terms of litigation." Someone else in the department seconds her, offering the example that if she decides she's "really into a new age Hindu guru, people think that's cool."
The cost of greatness
Many associates feel they pay a high price for the Paul Weiss name. It's "NOT a lifestyle firm," is "very difficult for associates who are also mothers," and can be "very impersonal at times," fomenting "horrible insecurity" for young associates. More insidiously, "once you agree to help out on a matter for a client, partners circumvent the assigning partner system and stick you on other unrelated matters for that client without asking you about your other commitments, availability, and workload."
Patricia J. Morrissy
Legal Recruitment Director
(212) 373 2205
Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton;Cravath, Swaine & Moore;Debevoise & Plimpton;Davis Polk & Wardwell;Simpson Thacher
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