The BigLaw Partners Earning Big Money at Kirkland & Ellis . . And Where That Leaves The Rest

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Big law in most jurisdictions provides major money for the partners but for the biggest of the big law firms – Kirkland & Ellis – the money they reap means they can go on a hiring spree that helps capture the legal talent that is the subject of major legal recruitment wars currently.

At Kirklands, the biggest partners at the top of the Kirkland totem pole can earn USD20 million a year. That’s a lot of money from the world’s top-grossing law firm and its money that can be thrown around by a firm that generates a whopping $4.8 billion and was the first law firm to generate $4 billion in revenues.

Last year the firm made up 151 partners and it has some of the youngest partners among the biglaw cohort. The firm’s total legal complement is 2725 lawyers.

Younger partners in Kirkland’s ‘flock’ are enhanced by the firm’s practice of promoting younger lawyers to non-equity status, providing the ultimate landing pad for those multimillion dollar paydays when (or if) they make the final equity cut.

But there is a Kirkland & Ellis issue that even the richest law firms may struggle to deal with – dealing with Kirkland Ellis’ reputation as a tough-assed place to work that creates drones of its legal recruits who must become automatons to exist in the place.

Hitting Billing Targets at Kirkland Ellis

The billing targets at Kirkland Ellis are high – as anyone might imagine for the eight figure pay packages that have secured top legal talent from the biggest law firms in the world.

The legal industry has referred to the ‘Kirklandization’ of their profession with billing targets that reach up to 3000 hours a year, which places huge pressure on the lawyers who have to grind out the long hours.

Bloombergs report that in 2021 over 325 associates left the firm, which is a 70 per cent increase over the 2020 departure rate.

And a recent Business Insider article referred to the loss of junior lawyers at the firm due in large part to the grueling hours required of them. Four ‘insider’s spoke about the firm’s lawyer ‘churn’, the new recruits coming in via the kindly introduction of singing bonuses of up to $250,000 to ensure they had the legal resources to handle the booming private equity and M&A deals that were coming in.

Business Insider referred to lawyers in the Kirkland London office working 14 hour days, adding to the junior lawyer exodus. They refer to the ‘churn and burn’ nature of the law firm

That is a lot of lawyers to lose, even for a firm as rich and large as Kirkland & Ellis.

And Kirkland & Ellis expect their deal flow and work generally to continue to increase as they maintain their gross revenue and legal work growth.

Kirklands’ Chairman’s View

Kirkland chairman Jon Ballis, who tends to run the firm like a competitive sports team, has recognized there is a ‘branding’ issue for his firm – a perception that they are sharks or wolves (take your pick) who overwork their staff in the worshipping of Mammon.

The firm, he told Bloomberg Law in a series of interviews, was seeking to remove the image of it being a repository of greedy, selfish lawyers with its over-bearing ‘eat what you kill’ attitude pervading its legal workplace.

Ballis acknowledges that Kirkland places high expectations on its employees and partners but it is working to change that image, focusing on the collaborative culture he wants to engender within the firm.

“We have a system that demands a lot from people, gives them a lot of responsibility, and requires people to work together,” he said.

“And if you don’t want to work together, we’re not your kind of firm.”

Ballis rallied more than half a dozen partners Kirkland hired from other firms who said the culture they’d been warned about just didn’t meet their reality at the firm.

The Kirkland & Ellis Work Reviews

We took a look at some of the reviews on Kirkland & Ellis from a couple of the larger job review sites, the general consensus appearing to be that Kirkland Ellis was a top firm, no question, but with some culture and work hour issues. The immediate question that might arise from that observation is, ‘so what? Most biglaw firms are exactly the same?’

Maybe. For those working at Kirklands, the reviews on jobs sites like Indeed vary – as below –

Work hard. Play… Actually, just work harder

Associate Attorney (Current Employee) – Chicago, IL – October 7, 2021The work never stops. You’ll get paid a ton of money, but good luck finding time to spend it. They preach that you should take time to recharge, but in practice you can’t actually take the time off. It only gets worse the more senior you get.

Micromanagement to the max

Conference Center Assistant (Former Employee) – New York, NY – January 24, 2020In my dept, the staff were micromanaged, every email checked, every booking checked. There was no trust and you were never complimented, only heard complaints. It was incredibly stressful and had a terrible work/life balance. There was a high turnover rate, new people were constantly being trained. Because of the high turnover rate, you consistently get asked to work over time. You also get asked to work on holidays and the weekends.

Good at first, but dwindling return

Facilities Admin Assistant (Current Employee) – San Francisco, CA – September 5, 2019First starting off, Kirkland & Ellis seemed like a great place to work. Free snacks, staff in generally friendly. I started off with a great team, and we all advanced into different roles. Across the board, I learned there is a general consensus that there is a lack of leadership among mid level management. The culture is not great, but also not terrible. Most veteran staff members are aware they are being underpaid due to standard practice and there is a wide culture gap between attorneys and staff. Which has also been amplified by recent articles that stated many Partners are receiving million dollar bonus mid-year and most staff are lucky to receive an annual increase even if they put in the time and work beyond what is expected of them.

Generally, the culture for this office has become fairly toxic due to the recent choices the firm has made to cut short spending on staff and widen the divide between them and the attorneys. 

Great to Have on Your Resume, Not Great if you Want a Life

26 Jan 2022 – Associate Attorney in Los Angeles, CARecommendCEO ApprovalBusiness Outlook

Pros

Very prestigious, high quality work, flexible working environment.

Cons

Long hours and irrationally short turnaround times. Some deals that would take 6 weeks at other firms are done in 48 hours at Kirkland because they are afraid to tell their clients “no”. Some jerks.

So far as K&E’s bonuses were concerned, the firm has provided some hefty bonuses last year, although not as high as some of the biglaw contenders – roughly 30 – 40 per cent of the average.

But when you’re aiming at equity take home salaries of up to $20 million, it may be worth the equity partner ‘wait’.

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