Growing from two attorneys in 1890 to 370 lawyers today, Philadelphia's Pepper Hamilton LLP has expanded from a regional practice to an international firm with nine offices in six states. Pepper organizes its lawyers into three departments: Commercial; Litigation and Dispute Resolution; and Government Relations and Regulatory Compliance. The firm also has a number of interdisciplinary niche groups including e-commerce, health care, international, and sports business.
In 1889 George Wharton Pepper graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and founded a two-lawyer firm in the City of Brotherly Love the following year. Pepper was known as a brilliant lawyer - he argued before the Supreme Court in his fourth year practicing - and became a father figure to younger attorneys. According to retired corporate partner William R. Klaus, "He was a remarkable man ? and he seemed to do everything well ? To us he was a legendary figure." A prominent Republican, Pepper was also active politically. He represented political figures throughout his career and took over the duties of a U.S. Senator when Boies Penrose died in office.
At his firm, George Pepper was an institution, serving as chairman and overseeing the firm's growth to more than 35 attorneys until his retirement in 1955. That year John D.M. Hamilton took over. Another staunch Republican, Hamilton oversaw a number of important cases during his career, including the representation of Harry Gold, the Philadelphia chemist who confessed to passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union in 1950. For a time, the cover of Pepper Hamilton's firm brochure featured Hamilton, one-time chairman of the Republican National Committee, addressing the 1940 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. Undoubtedly Pepper and Hamilton would be pleased to see their firm representing their party in bringing the Convention back to Philadelphia in 2000. Pepper also counts Democrats among its ranks, including Susan Bass Levin, the mayor of Cherry Hill, N.J. and Democratic congressional candidate Murray S. Levin. Pepper lawyers of both political persuasion appreciate their firm's strong interdisciplinary practices and consistent performance as one of the top revenue-producing firms in Philadelphia.
Growing in and out of Philly
In addition to its long-running Philadelphia headquarters, Pepper Hamilton added offices in Berwyn, Detroit, Cherry Hill, Harrisburg, New York, Pittsburgh, Washington, DC, and Wilmington. Pepper's 1999 revenues increased to $125 million from $109 million the previous year. Pepper plans on expanding in terms of personnel, too. The firm is currently searching for new office space in Philadelphia, where it hopes to increase the size of their current office. Salaries are growing as well; Pepper pays $105,000 to first-years who meet a target of 1940 billable hours. Associate salaries were raised to $85,000 in the Harrisburg office and to $90,000 in the Detroit office.
Fighting for prisoners and art
Pepper's litigators have been involved with a number of high-profile pro bono cases of late. Partner Murray S. Levin is involved with efforts to preserve a popular Philadelphia mosaic created by renowned artists Maxfield Parrish and Louis Tiffany. The mosaic was housed in the former home of Curtis Publishing. Word got out that the building was up for sale, and Philadelphia politicos sought to protect the mosaic as an "historic object." When the owners sought to fight this attempt, Levin and associate Larry R. Wood offered to handle the litigation pro bono.
Prisoner's rights cases have long been a Pepper staple. The firm's effort to better the living condition in the Philadelphia prison system has resulted in numerous improvement, while Detroit bankruptcy partner Joel Applebaum is helping a wrongfully imprisoned man regain his freedom after 16 years.
The firm's Commercial Department has seen rapid growth, especially in its corporate and securities practices. Some of Pepper Hamilton's better known clients include Brandywine Realty Trust, Pergrine, Inc., First Union National Bank, Primus Telecommunications Group, Inc. and Bluestone Software. Pepper's Chuck Greenberg guided hockey star Mario Lemieux through his $114 million purchase of the Pittsburgh Penguins in October 1999, saving that organization from having to move to another state.
Peppering up IP and real estate
Pepper has bolstered up its IP practice, partly through lateral hiring. IP currently features more than 30 attorneys, including IT and e-commerce guru Sharon R. Klein, a partner recently recruited from Philly rival Dechert, Price & Rhoads. The DC office snagged two intellectual property lawyers from Steptoe & Johnson, giving Pepper a greater presence in the hot Virginia tech market. Pepper's real estate department has also benefited from numerous lateral hires, and the division has almost doubled in size since losing Robert Lane in 1998.
Insiders will have to agree to disagree as to whether or not Pepper's current recruiting strategies pass muster. According to a litigation associate in Philadelphia, "The firm has refocused its efforts toward obtaining some of the best legal talent available, and it has very much paid off." A far less satisfied corporate attorney disagrees, reporting that "the firm needs to shift focus to attracting associates from top-tier law schools." According to another Pepper lawyer, finding a place at Pepper Hamilton is "getting easier," while one of his colleagues believes that the "summer program is still very selective."
The firm obviously has a commitment to top talent, interviewing candidates at Yale, Harvard, Boalt Hall, Stanford, Penn and other top national schools. Many lateral hires indicate that they transferred to Pepper largely from boutique and large regional firms in search of better career and quality of life prospects.
Though some insiders find the firm's culture "hit or miss," a "little stiff," and "stuffy," most Pepper Hamilton associates are extremely positive about their experiences with the firm. "[The culture is] excellent. This is what makes Pepper the place to be. There is a tangible, firm-wide commitment to making this a good place to spend our working hours," gushes one veteran litigator. A slightly more pragmatic colleague expresses a similar sentiment, explaining that the firm is "as laid back as any 370-attorney 100-year-old firm could be. In general it is an easy place to work where you are respected and treated as an equal from day one." Another lawyer describes the firm's workings as "very bureaucratic and slow," however, adding "nobody seems to care or want to fix" common problems.
Sacrificing for high-quality work
Teamwork and professionalism seem to be inherent to the Pepper experience. "Professional but not too buttoned-down" is the way one attorney describes it. Another agrees, stating that on the whole, Pepper is "serious about working hard and doing the best job possible, but friendly and comfortable at the same time." Many associates emphasize the importance of their work product. "The firm seems interested in doing a high level of work," says one associate. A contact in the Philadelphia office believes that lawyers at Pepper Hamilton are "serious about working hard and doing the best job possible." Not convinced that the firm is serious about their work? A recently hired associate believes that "the people here probably wouldn't mind if you perform ritual sacrifices on your desk as long as you do good work and get it done on time."
Everyone seems happy - so why are they leaving?
Many associates express concern over Pepper Hamilton's recent turnover problems. "It seems like Pepper has had a revolving door for associates of late, and not just for transactional/business types. Litigators have also been jumping at more lucrative - or just different (i.e., non-big firm) - opportunities. It really makes you question what you're doing here." Another associate in corporate finance informs Vault.com that "two partners and two mid-level associates have left my office within six months, which is high." And a lateral hire expresses concern over seeing "quite a surprising amount of turnover even in the past few months."
All of this dissatisfaction is countered by others who seize yet another opportunity to pile more praise on their firm. "While we see associates leave for family reasons or to pursue in-house positions, our associates do not leave to work at other firms in the same city. Our low turnover, especially in this booming market, demonstrates empirically that Pepper is a great place to be," says one beaming associate. A corporate attorney agrees: "Virtually no one goes to other firms; rather, they change careers or go in-house."
Pay equal to the (unfair) market rate
"The pay is competitive for Philadelphia but still lags behind other major markets," associates say. But insiders seem to be content with Pepper's place in Philadelphia. "The firm is determined to stay at or near the top of the pay scale," declares one lawyer. "I believe Pepper's associate salaries are generous, especially when combined with the excellent working conditions," says another grateful contact. This sentiment is not universal. One unhappy litigator comments, "If Pepper wishes to remain one of the top three firms in Philadelphia, it needs to pay like it." Others complain that Philadelphia as a whole underpays their attorneys. Grumbles one, "I feel that my salary compared to other Philly firms is excellent. Compared to the national market, all of Philadelphia is a little behind."
Opinions on Pepper Hamilton's bonus structure ranges from outright confusion to utter dissatisfaction. "Bonuses this year were not very competitive," says one veteran. A perplexed insider finds the "new bonus system is difficult to assess," and another confused associate is "not sure if I'm eligible for a bonus" this year. Some Pepper lawyers agree that the bonus structure is inadequate but also have found reason to be optimistic about the future: "The bonus has traditionally been an insignificant part of compensation, regardless of the number of hours you put in. There's talk that the bonus situation may (and probably should) change for the better."
"Friendly and relaxed," "some fine associates," and "excellent, challenging assignments"
Pepper lawyers rave about their after-hours experience . One enthusiastic corporate attorney tells Vault.com, "I have socialized with partners and associates alike. Some of the other associates, past and present, are my best friends." Another loves that "the firm goes out of its way to inspire teamwork and cohesion with social events. A great plus!" Insiders say life at Pepper features "informal Friday night gatherings at the brew pub, conveniently located on the lobby level of the Philadelphia office, to celebrate comings and goings, bar passage, or just the oncoming weekend." The firm also has "formal, firm- sanctioned dinners, and other events seem to arrive at just the right frequency."
But one especially unhappy senior associate has no desire to see his colleagues outside the office. "Frankly, I would prefer not to socialize with the people I work with. The lawyers here at Pepper are not the type that I would ordinarily befriend in my real life."
Pepper was a trailblazer in 1960 when it was one of the first major firms to elect a female partner. But that was then; what about now? Opinions are mixed, but positive overall. A Philadelphia associate is quick to point out that Pepper has "one of the largest percentages of female partners in the country" and that the heads of the "tax and finance groups are women too - fields which traditionally have few female partners." Another has mixed feelings, praising the firm's efforts in hiring and mentoring while also telling us that "the firm could do better in its part-time policies (nonexistent except on ad hoc basis) and family issues." The firm says it distributes a written part-time policy to every employee and the policy is about to be revised in order to make it more flexible.
Serious about pro bono
Pepper's pro bono commitment is admirable, and it only looks to improve. Pro bono hours are weighed equally with billable hours for review and bonus purposes. Pepper ranked 71st on The American Lawyer's list for pro bono hours with 28 percent of their attorneys contributing at least 20 hours to a pro bono cause. Perhaps unsatisfied with these already solid numbers, Pepper recently hired Penn Law professor Janet G. Perry to hold a new position entitled "director of professionalism." Perry's task - oversee pro bono, training, and professional responsibility of the attorneys. To start, she plans to create "pro bono practice groups" to encourage attorney participation.
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