Polish Those Portfolios! Legal Eaglets Seek Their Nests

I was waiting for the downtown train when I spotted him. It was a warm August day, and most of

I was waiting for the downtown train when I spotted him. It was a warm August day, and most of us were keeping still to stay cool. But he was pacing back and forth on the subway platform, awkwardly clutching a leather portfolio. He looked prematurely professional, like the high-school debater he probably once was.

Portfolio Boy was covering maybe half the platform. He stopped and removed his gray jacket—a sign he wasn’t used to wearing a suit—and resumed pacing.

In light of the season and the location (53rd Street and Fifth Avenue), I had a guess about who Portfolio Boy might be. So I struck up a conversation.

I was right. He’s a second-year law student at Columbia. His friends call him Jeff. And yes, he was in the middle of the law-firm interview process.

Each autumn, Portfolio Boys and Girls descend on New York’s top law firms, applying for jobs as summer associates. Who can blame them? Summer associates earn over $3,000 a week, work reasonable hours on interesting projects, and lunch at Jean Georges. And just as certain sleeve cuts are all the rage at Fashion Week, some law firms are “hot”—and some are not. Having interviewed with firms exactly 10 years ago, I was curious: Who is this fall’s “It” Firm?

As it turns out, the answer depends on what type of student you are and which crowd you hang with. Here’s what I learned from my decidedly unscientific survey of law student opinions about law firms.

Gunners: For those hyperambitious students with dreams of clerking for (or sitting on) the Supreme Court, the firm of choice these days is M&A powerhouse Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz.

“It’s the most prestigious,” explained Portfolio Boy. And for gunners, that’s all that matters. Wachtell’s legendary bonuses for its associates—which in recent years have roughly equaled base salaries, unheard of among Big Law shops—don’t hurt.

Another gunner favorite, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, is more white-shoe and WASP-y. But Wachtell bested Cravath in profits per partner by almost $1 million last year. It also recently surpassed Cravath in the Vault 100 law-firm prestige rankings—the gunner’s gospel.

Wachtell’s fame has even traveled overseas. Standing outside Fordham Law, where he’s pursuing an LLM degree, a handsome, slender Frenchman named Nicolas observed, in between drags on a cigarette and with pleasingly Gallic hauteur, “If you’re a partner at Wachtell, you’re a very prestigious person.” D’accord!

(Disclosure: I was a law school gunner, and I worked at Wachtell from 2000 to 2003. But it wasn’t quite as hot back then—unless you’re thinking of the heat associated with a sweatshop.)

Bar Belles: According to Rob, a 2L at NYU, one firm that’s in demand this season is Davis Polk & Wardwell. Why? “I’ve heard they have good-looking associates.”

Some things never change. When I interviewed a decade ago, Davis was already known as a bastion of beauty on aesthetically challenged Lexington Avenue. It was the firm of choice for the prom queen and king of my law school class—the editor in chief of the law journal, a luminous doll-like beauty with a vast family fortune, and her Abercrombie-handsome future husband. They were joined at Davis by enough comely Asian females to cast Memoirs of a Geisha.

Human Beings: It’s no secret that nobody goes to Big Law for the lifestyle. At Wachtell, I billed about 2,700 hours a year, worked many more, and still felt like a slacker.

Despite this grim reality, in every law school class some people believe in kinder, gentler law firms. And lavender unicorns. Among these folks, the New York office of Latham & Watkins is generating buzz. The firm was founded in Los Angeles, and some Golden State appeal has apparently rubbed off on its Gotham outpost.

“California firms are perceived as less hierarchical,” said Rob. “When we think of California, we think of sun and fun”—two things New York lawyers don’t see enough of, judging from their pallid and grim visages.

Lifestyle types also still gravitate toward perennial favorites Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, known for cultivating a quirky, pleasingly academic atmosphere, and Debevoise & Plimpton, which relentlessly works the whole “we’re Big Law but we’re nice” angle. The firm Web site even features MP3 clips recorded by current associates, who gush over Debevoise and use the word “collegial” in every other sentence. (But query whether these testimonials sound a little like tape recordings from hostages to their families.)

Debevoise recently topped The American Lawyer’s “A-List” ranking of leading law firms for the fourth consecutive year. But word on the street is that some associates aren’t happy campers. Maybe it’s because of all those “MJW Specials”: massive internal investigations of major international corporations, reeled in by Mary Jo White, former U.S. attorney for Manhattan and rainmaker extraordinaire. While such long-running and lucrative matters are great for Debevoise, they’re not much fun for associates—who get shipped away for weeks at a time, to review documents in a warehouse in Munich.

And what of Portfolio Boy? He doesn’t yet know where he’ll be going next summer. Did he get a Wachtell interview? No. But he’ll be just fine. As soon as he stops pacing and takes a deep breath, he’ll realize that all these firms are essentially the same.

Polish Those Portfolios! Legal Eaglets Seek Their Nests