Chicagoans are (famously and resolutely) loyal to their own, so
within its hometown, Kirkland & Ellis ranks tops for
prestige-but the firm's reputation in litigation, restructuring,
intellectual property and corporate work stretches far beyond
In 1909, fresh-faced attorneys Stuart Shepard and Robert
McCormick struck up a partnership, laying the foundation for the
growth of a behemoth firm that has never forgotten its roots.
McCormick descended from money and influence (his grandfather
founded the Chicago Tribune), and he used this sway to funnel
business to the nascent firm. He eventually became so involved as
outside counsel with the Trib's business endeavors that he left the
firm in 1920 to become the paper's publisher-a move that he used to
send more business the firm's way, tapping Kirkland trial lawyer
Weymouth Kirkland to defend the Trib in defamation suits.
Kirkland soon eclipsed the firm founders as the face of the
outfit, carving a legacy defined by his defense of newspapers in
significant free speech and libel cases (the University of Chicago
actually named its moot courtroom after him). As for the other half
of the current firm's nameplate, Howard Ellis came on board in
1915. Ellis was a champion of the "fair comment" defense, a
privilege that protects published or spoken opinions directed at
public officials and figures. Today, the firm remains active in
defending media outlets.
Kirkland's next act began in 1938, when the firm lured a young
DOJ trial lawyer into the private sector: Hammond Chaffetz.
According to the firm's website, Chaffetz "ushered in the modern
era of the firm," placing a newfound emphasis on recruiting and
grooming of promising candidates at top law schools. The firm
boasts an impressive roster of partners and alumni, including
Thomas Yannucci, a defamation soldier who was once named one of
Washington's most-feared lawyers; Jay Lefkowitz, the former special
envoy for human rights in North Korea; failed Supreme Court nominee
Robert Bork; and Kenneth Starr-former Solicitor General and
Independent Counsel during the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky
scandals of the Clinton administration.
But Kirkland isn't just about recruiting the best-the firm
focuses on development too. Through its "free-market" assignment
system, associates have the freedom to develop their careers by
selecting their areas of interest and assignments. This
independence is supported by hands-on, practice-specific
training-known as the Kirkland Institute-including extensive
litigation training with the Kirkland Institute for Trial Advocacy,
which features a mock jury trial that spans two days.
Kirkland has continued to make a name for its premier bankruptcy
and restructuring practice by guiding major clients through Chapter
11 proceedings, out-of-court restructurings, debtor mass torts and
distressed asset sales. The firm represents Energy Future Holdings
in the sixth largest bankruptcy by debt and eighth largest by
assets in U.S. history. Additionally, Kirkland represented Sbarro,
Inc. and 27 of its direct and indirect subsidiaries in their
Chapter 11 cases. The firm has also taken its bankruptcy prowess
across borders, handling international restructuring deals in
Europe, Canada and Latin America.
Patron of the Smarts
In the mid-2000s, the firm and some of its partners pledged over
$7 million to the University of Chicago Law School. In recognition
of the donation, the top five percent of Chicago law school
students are known as "Kirkland & Ellis Scholars." In 2011 and
2012, Kirkland partners also made large-scale financial
contributions to Stanford Law School, the University of Michigan
Law School, Northwestern University School of Law and Columbia Law
School. In addition, the firm sponsors a Diversity Fellowship
Program which every year provides approximately 10 law student
recipients with a $25,000 stipend and a salaried summer associate
position at one or more of the firm's domestic offices.
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