Is Kirkland & Ellis’ “Den Of Wolves” Reputation Hurting the Firm? Its Leader Thinks So

Kirkland and Ellis, a law firm with a reputation for hiring self-serving sharp-elbowed lawyers, is currently facing an identity crisis. Its reputation, which once attracted top legal talent, may now be something of a liability. The firm’s Chairman, Jon Ballis, has openly acknowledged that his firm’s “reputational thing is a problem.”

Ballis, who has led Kirkland to new heights despite the COVID-19 pandemic, is well-known as a fierce competitor, which, it seems, is not incompatible with his ability to be introspective. He has come to realize that simply dangling multimillion-dollar yearly salaries in efforts to poach attorneys from other firms is not working as it once did.

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Kirkland established its reputation by offering an alternative to ‘lockstep,’ or tenure-based compensation. In other words, Kirkland pays its lawyers based on their individual contributions, and not simply on how long they have worked for the firm. This has not only attracted young, hungry lawyers to the firm, but it actually changed the structure of compensation across almost all major law firms; today, only “two major law firms maintain a pure lockstep model.”

However, Kirkland has long been trying to play down the “eat-what-you-kill” narrative that surrounds its compensation model. Before Ballis, Jeff Hammes led Kirkland, and during his 2009-2018 tenure at the helm, he tried to temper internal competition at the firm by eliminating the concept of “billing partners,” or associates only receiving compensation for clients whom they brought into the firm. Instead, Hammes encouraged Kirkland’s associates to collaborate and share the workload by shifting to a billable hours model.

Ballis continues to push this “team spirit” narrative as a counter to the prevailing “den of wolves” story that Kirkland can’t seem to shake. Associates at the firm claim that the firm’s culture has improved. Some of its partners now have no billing responsibilities and only focus on client relationships. Senior leaders have also made efforts to make the firm more diverse and to hire more women.

Ballis believes that the changes he has helped to implement will lead Kirkland to even greater heights, and while he still expects his employees to work as hard as ever, he believes that the reformed company culture will help them to do so as a team.