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Munger Tolles Hiring Partner Says Diversity Is Still Elusive

Vivia Chen

April 25, 2012

Bart Williams_Munger TollesWe are zipping over to California today to chat with Bart Williams, the hiring partner at Munger, Tolles & Olson. Founded in 1962, the  firm is known as one of the most selective firms in the country.

Munger Tolles is both elitest and progressive. Everyone is supposed to be whip-smart, associates have votes, and the firm even runs a day care center. It sounds like Xanadu, so tell me about the firm's dark side.
We feel we have a special place, but it gets harder and harder to maintain. It used to be that you could be here for four years and make partner. But here and elsewhere, it's gotten longer.

Can we talk about Munger's reputation for diversity? The firm seems to be way ahead of most big firms.
We're better than most firms, but that's sad. The numbers are way up for Asian Americans. Of 88 partners, we have ten Asian Americans; two African Americans; and three Hispanic/Latinos. 

You are African American. Doesn't that help with recuiting other African Americans?
Anytime you feel affinity with someone, it helps, but it doesn't close the deal. It's a complicated process. The number of black students we've recruited has been static or down. At the 11 law schools we recruit at, [the African Americans] are highly coveted and tend to go to New York, and it makes them very hard to recruit.

Let's talk about hiring in general. What do you look for in a new hire?
I look for demonstrated leadership—people who have had other careers—teachers, PhD.s, someone who's worked in consultancy or banking, and people who have overcome obstacles. In my experience, it's not always people who went to the fancy law schools who succeed, but those who outwork you.

But Munger is pretty focused on the fancy law schools, no?
That's true, but that's not the whole story. We don't want an academic who can't bounce back. We want someone who's academically sharp and someone who's been on a team before—soccer, debate, chess.

What's your favorite question?
Sometimes I ask what's your biggest obstacle and how you overcame it.

And how do you decide to whom you give offers? What's the decision-making process?
We vote on every hire. Any lawyer who shows up at lunch—partner or associate—can vote on recruits. It takes a long time when you have to vet summer associates. Sometimes it goes to 9 [in the evening]. I'm the first to admit that we're inefficient.

I guess democracy is messy. Do you do this with laterals too?
We do this even in the case of lateral partners. We tell partner candidates that they have to interview with associates. And if they don't like that, they don't belong in this firm. One year, we had a partner candidate who wasn't comfortable with it, and he didn't get an offer.

Speaking of partners, your firm bascially has a l:l ratio of partners to associates. And all your partners are equity. That must be a big draw for new recruits.
Most students today don't expect to make partner. They think they'll have three jobs during their life. We don't get many questions from students about partnership. They've not as devoted to firms, but that also reflects the fact that firms are not so responsive to them.

Do you think law students are more cynical now?
No. It's just hard to [practice law in a firm], and people don't want to do this all the time. People are more rounded today. They are more up-front about what they value.

Hiring partners often tell me that they are amazed by the quality of applicants today. Your firm must see a lot of the crème de la crème. Do you think hires today are more impressive?
They can get the right answer quicker than before—in a matter of hours, not days. That's technology. But it's debatable whether they write as well. They text so much.

See other hiring partner interviews: Baker BottsBoies, Schiller; Debevoise & Plimpton; Jones DayFenwick & WestK&L Gates; Kramer LevinPaul, Hastings; Paul WeissPepper Hamilton; Quinn Emanuel; Sidley & AustinSkadden; Susman Godfrey; Vinson & Elkins; Wilmer.


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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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