Pillsbury Madison & Sutro is a firm in transition. After earning a reputation as a firm lacking in direction during the 1980s and much of the 1990s, Pillsbury has been making dramatic efforts under the leadership of Mary Cranston and Marina Park to straighten its course. Pillsbury has put renewed emphasis on its intellectual property, capital markets, complex litigation, and international markets practices. The firm has also tried to be more open and communicative. "I would watch Pillsbury very carefully over the next year, to see how the firm changes," advises one associate.
Pillsbury days of yore
The firm began in 1874, when Evan S. Pillsbury set up shop in San Francisco. The name of the firm became Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro in 1905 to reflect the addition of partners Frank D. Madison and Alfred Sutro. A year later, Pillsbury suffered the complete loss of its offices and records in the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 but weathered the traumatic event to become one of San Francisco's enduring institutions.
Perhaps the most striking sign of Pillsbury's hard times has been fleeing personnel. In March 1999, The American Lawyer reported that the firm had lost no less than 40 partners since 1997. The firm's Los Angeles office witnessed a virtual exodus of lawyers, as many members of the firm's corporate, securities and technology group (many of whom moved to fast-expanding Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe) left the firm. By summer 1998, only one corporate attorney remained in L.A. Orrick struck again in April and May 1999 when it lured four benefits partners and two other attorneys from Pillsbury. The firm claims that it has stemmed the tide of departures, but it has done its own poaching to help offset these losses. In April 2000, Pillsbury bolstered its presence in Northern Virginia, a new area of growth for high tech, by grabbing six lawyers from Washington, DC's Reed Smith Shaw & McClay. The addition of partners Frederic Spindel, Jay Halpern, and Stanley Jutkowitz and associates Jeffrey Lobb, Paul Mamalian, and George Thomas nearly doubled the size of the firm's outpost in the area. In addition, the firm added four partners in Silicon Valley and one partner in Orange County. Also among its prizes is George Howard, a top employment and labor attorney now in the firm's San Diego office.
From pyramids to diamonds
In what one associate described as "a coup against the old guard," Pillsbury's partners elected Marina H. Park as managing partner and Mary Cranston as chair of the firm. Cranston thus became the first woman in the country to lead a firm of Pillsbury's size. She quickly set the tone of her leadership by circulating summaries of board meetings to personnel, announcing more autonomy and responsibility for local offices, raising salaries and letting the rest of her partners know they were expected to contribute 2,500 hours annually.
The firm also changed its partnership structure from a so-called "pyramid" system to a "diamond" system. Pillsbury now has two types of partners: full-equity partners and partners who get a salary with a partial equity stake in the firm. The new system increases Pillsbury's profits per partner numbers and also makes the firm more merger-friendly. (Rumors have circulated in the legal press that it is in the market for a dance partner.) The extra step now needed to become a full-equity partner also may serve as an incentive for partners to perform. Some partners have not been pleased with these changes, and around 12 percent of Pillsbury's partners hit the road in 1999 for other competitors or in-house jobs.
Teaming up with Pillsbury
The firm counts many of California's most prominent companies as clients including Bank of America, Chevron, Ford Motor Company, Pacific Telesis, AirTouch Communications, Qualcomm, Abovenet Communications, Toshiba, and Xerox. Of course, the firm has more than blue-chip companies as clients. It often does work for the area's numerous startups and the San Francisco Giants baseball club.
Pillsbury's M&A lawyers had a record year in 1999, working on $1.3 billion in deals. The firm has also been busy putting together joint ventures for its clients. Pillsbury attorneys worked for 18 days and nights on behalf of Britain's Vodafone AirTouch in the fall of 1999 to finalize a $70 billion deal with Bell Atlantic. The new joint venture will serve around 20 million wireless customers in the United States, making it the biggest wireless business in the country. Pillsbury has seen the wireless company through many incarnations. In February 1999 the firm helped put Vodafone AirTouch together by advising San Francisco-based AirTouch on its merger with Vodafone.
Pillsbury has been making efforts to increase its reputation for corporate high tech work. Pillsbury's Jorge Del Calvo, Marina Park and Collin Morris helped Chevron negotiate a deal with business-to-business software company Ariba to set up Petrocosm.com, a marketplace for energy-related products and services. Pillsbury works on attention-getting IPOs as well. In February 2000 attorneys from the firm's Northern Virginia and Silicon Valley offices worked on the IPO of Network Solutions, the leading registrar of Internet domain names. The $2.2 billion public offering was one of the largest at the time.
Pillsbury's emphasis on its intellectual property practice may also be bearing fruit. The firm filed 2,123 patents in 1999 and ranked fifth in Intellectual Property Today's annual Top Patent Firm Survey.
Merging into a giant
Pillsbury Madison & Sutro and Winthrop, Stimson, Putnam & Roberts, of New York, announced in July 2000 that the two firms would merge to increase presence on both coasts as well as overseas. Called Pillsbury Winthrop, the combined firm would have more than 860 lawyers in 16 offices and $400 million in revenue in the next year--making it one of the top 20 firms in the states. Pillsbury, which is twice as large as Winthrop, would increase its international presence, while Winthrop would strengthen its technology practice. The companies made the move following revenue drops and globalizing competitors.
Some Pillsbury lawyers observe that admission standards have sunk in the last few years and the firm is now taking more candidates from lower-tier schools. But in spite of the tight job market and the expansion of the firm, Pillsbury officials contend that standards are as high as ever. One contact supports this contention, warning, "If you don't belong to a top five school, then you have to be in the top five to ten percent of your class to even get noticed by this firm." Although many associates emphasize that "solid grades are a must," some say it takes a little more than that to get hired at Pillsbury. "The person needs to be nice and well-rounded in addition to having solid grades."
Connect with Pillsbury
Those interviewing for Pillsbury's summer programs, take note: "The thing that we look for in an interview for the summer is a connection to the community," says a member of the firm's recruiting committee. "Especially in this market, we want to make sure that you're not coming to the firm to have a vacation for the summer. People need to demonstrate a connection - whether it's family, or having gone to school there, or something else."
Relaxed billing machine
The changes at Pillsbury have had their impact on the insiders Vault.com spoke with. "The corporate culture is in flux," says one associate. While many attorneys seem pleased with the new open management structure, others fear the firm's new emphasis on billable hours. "It's moving from a great place to work to a billing machine," frets one associate.
Those fun-loving partners
A source in the San Francisco office boasts, "At all times, I feel I have been treated with great respect as a person by the partners." And a tax attorney tells Vault.com, "The partners I work with strive to make sure that I have interesting work and an enormous amount of client contact." A lawyer in the Sacramento office even said the partners were "upbeat" and "fun-loving." But another source gripes, "Partners sometimes forget how hard you're working for them." One contact says the "jock mentality" of the L.A. office is "symbolized by a senior partner with two offices - one crammed with sports memorabilia."
Three levels of compensation
The money-conscious have found happiness at Pillsbury in recent months. "PM&S has kept its pledge to pay top-of-the-market salary!" one associate exclaims. The firm was one of the first firms to raise starting salaries. In addition, the firm has adopted a three-tier bonus structure. First-years who bill 2,100, 2,250 or 2,400 hours will get a bonus of $5,000, $7,500, or $12,500, respectively. In addition, associates can earn a merit bonus ranges from $5,000 for first-years up to $10,000 for fourth- and fifth-years. Senior associates can earn a profit-sharing component to their salary that ranges from $10,000 to $30,000.
Pillsbury allows its first-year associates to count up to 100 hours of training or pro bono towards their billing requirement. The firm also sponsors National Institute of Trial Advocacy (NITA) advanced trial training for upper-level litigators. While some describe the formal training programs as "superior" at Pillsbury, others suggest that regular training sessions are "somewhat lacking." One source tells Vault.com, "Training programs are abundant at Pillsbury. However, many associates are too concerned with their billable hours and bonus potential to take advantage of these opportunities." A lawyer in San Diego comments pointedly, "This is an office for self-starters who do not need hand-holding."
Opinions on the retention rate at Pillsbury vary, with some insiders saying the firm has "an extremely high turnover rate" and others asserting that "the retention rate has improved substantially over the past two years." The Internet continues, however, to sing its siren song: "No one can resist the temptation of dot coms," admits one associate (who's still with Pillsbury for now). For those who manage to resist the Internet allure, associates report there is a pretty good chance of making partner "if you bring in clients and stick around for seven to 10 years."
Offices are oh-so-chic
Pillsbury's San Francisco office has relocated to the trendy SoMa area of San Francisco. The new offices have put Pillsbury's attorneys and staff under the same roof for the first time since the 1970s. Pillsbury's new home is reportedly "spacious and comfortable with modern design throughout." One source describes the new offices as "a gorgeous mix of industrial surfaces and Asian detailing." Vault.com sources explain that the offices are designed for greater social interaction. "Partners no longer have the big desk to sit behind. Each partner has a circular table at which he or she speaks with associates." But some associates aren't thrilled with their new views - the offices occupy the lower floors of the building. Most associates at other offices express satisfaction with their surroundings, too. A San Diego lawyers states, "Our offices are beautiful and fairly large, but space is always at a premium." The nation's capital attracts less praise. One source grumbles, "Not a great location in the DC area." Fortunately, the firm has plans to move most of the DC and Northern Virginia offices into a brand-new space.
The women are running the firm!
One associate describes Pillsbury as "undoubtedly one of the best law firms in the world for women." Associates note that there are many women in senior management positions at the firm, including firm chair Mary Cranston. Eighteen percent of the firm's partners are women and four out of the seven associates promoted to partner in 1999 were women. "It is fair to say our firm is currently run by women. There is no lack of gender equality here," says a San Francisco lawyer. A female lawyer reports, "I don't feel that being a woman is any sort of impediment here." "Gender has become a non-issue," concurs another source.
No gay issue
Associates report that openly gay and lesbian attorneys are in prominent positions throughout the firm. "I feel that there simply is no gay issue at Pillsbury," states an attorney in the San Fran office. Not only do insiders claim the firm is comfortable for homosexual attorneys, but gay lawyers' partners are also openly accepted at firm events.
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