Considered one of the most prestigious firms in California and home to a nationally acclaimed litigation department, Munger, Tolles & Olson
, LLP, disproves the notion that bigger is always better when it comes to law firms. Since its inception in 1962 in Los Angeles, the firm has steered clear of the rapid expansion so prevalent in the legal industry recently and has added only one new office in San Francisco. With 153 lawyers and close to an equal ratio of partners to associates, MTO remains true to its founders' dedication to providing top-notch legal services in an efficient manner.
Prestige often comes from whom you know, as illustrated in the friendship between MTO founder Charles Munger and the owner of Berkshire Hathaway billionaire Warren Buffett. Munger eventually decided to leave the firm to become Berkshire Hathaway's vice president, but the ties did not break with his departure, as MTO continues to represent the investment company in its legal affairs. Other notable MTO clients include Universal Studios, Edison International, Shell Oil Co., and Alyeska Pipeline Services.
While MTO attorneys bring wide ranging expertise to their practice, the firm is best known as a litigation heavyweight. Its reputation in that field is exemplified by the fact that it is often called as counsel for other law firms. For example, MTO successfully represented Kirkland & Ellis
in its entanglement in the Enron debacle, getting the firm dismissed from the securities class action suit.
Possibly the firm's most famous litigator, name partner Ronald Olson provides a shining example of the MTO attorney. Reported to bring in upwards of $10 million a year in major cases, Olson was recently counsel for such clients as Edison International in the California electricity crisis and the Republic of Philippines in a suit against the Marcos family. He has arranged advantageous settlements for Merrill Lynch and Alyeska Pipeline Services, avoiding billion dollar punitive damages. As is common with MTO attorneys, Olson sets the standard for professional responsibility, devoting considerable time to pro bono
legal services and playing an important role in the development of cost-effective legal services as the Chairman of the Alternative Dispute Resolution Committee from 1976-1986.
As a whole, MTO stands out for its substantial commitment to pro bono
work. Lawyers donate 3% of their time to worthy causes, frequently representing prisoners on death row, staffing legal clinics, and fighting for broad social issues such as the elimination of the chad-producing punch cards in the California voting system. The firm has received ample recognition for its socially responsible endeavors from the ACLU, the ABA, and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights.
Getting hired at MTO is a competitive process. In addition to graduating from top law schools with impeccable GPAs, nearly one out of eight MTO lawyers were Supreme Court clerks and eleven out of the twelve non-lateral hires in 2003 came from some clerkship position
. Candidates who possess the basic MTO mold go through a number of interviews before the entire firm sits down to make the final decision. Even 10% disapproval could be cause for rejection.
The stringent selection process appears to pay off, and associates at MTO immediately enjoy a sophisticated workload due to the firm's small size. That often translates into more responsibility for associates and, since the more experienced lawyers have little time to train newcomers, can feel like a birth-by-fire ritual. Nevertheless, those who survive say the system works better than more structured training methods and affords greater potential for growth.
Compensation at MTO is the market rate and advancement is relatively fast, taking as little as four years to make partner. The firm's commitment to over-achieving intellectual lawyers might be said to hamper the social life, although there are weekly lunches and Friday night gatherings.
Perhaps the most unique feature about MTO is the democratic nature of its management. As mandated by the firm's seven founders in 1962, partners and associates alike share an equal vote when it comes to making decisions. The only downside to such a system is that decisions might take longer to make than in a more hierarchical firm. Nevertheless, for those seeking to work in a stimulating, intellectual environment and have considerable say in their firm's direction, MTO might be just the place.
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