Photo of David Elsberg and Jennifer Selendy by Jay Gunning / Owl Bridge Media.
The powerhouse corps of lawyers who formed Selendy Gay Elsberg nearly two years ago were well acquainted with success. They had won landmark cases, recovered vast sums for clients and pioneered new practice areas while at Quinn Emanuel, one of the world’s top litigation firms. And yet, they wondered whether there was something more – a better law firm – to be built.
“We looked at how law firms have been doing things for decades and asked, ‘How could we do it different? How could we do it better?’” says David Elsberg, a founding partner.
In this reimagining, Selendy Gay Elsberg disrupted the traditional law firm model, building a firm based on a shared commitment to pro bono and public interest work, a high-performance management structure, an apprentice-based training model for associates and a commitment to diversity in all its forms. Everything from the clients they represent to their operational structure reinforces this modern approach to high-profile, high-risk litigation.
One need look no further than the artwork in their New York City office, curated by founding partner Jennifer Selendy, to understand their principles. “A lot of the work is done from recycled, second-generation materials,” Selendy says. “There’s a lot of exploration of identity in the work,” reflecting the firm’s origin and values (environmental conservation being a major one).
Selendy and Elsberg serve as co-managing partners of the firm and are part of the founding team that includes Selendy’s husband, Philippe Selendy, Faith Gay and five other prominent partners.
In less than two years, the young firm has already captured headlines and logged big wins in complex commercial litigations, public interest cases, internal investigations and white-collar work. These victories include a suit brought by U.S. Bank against UBS Real Estate Securities over losses suffered in three RMBS trusts, resulting in a record-setting $850M recovery; numerous matters for McKinsey & Co. in the most highly publicized bankruptcy battle of the decade; and key wins on behalf of private equity titan Cerberus Capital Management as a plaintiff in an ongoing $950M claim against Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.
That these victories reflect both plaintiff and defense-side success is by design; Selendy Gay Elsberg maintains a 50/50 split of stakeholder representations, something of an anomaly among top litigation firms. “This approach yields different perspectives, bodies of case law and styles of argument,” explains Elsberg. “Bridging these varied areas of law makes you a more formidable advocate for clients.”
The firm’s attorneys hail from an array of professional backgrounds and have held top posts in the public sector, technology and academia. Similarly, many administrative staffers were recruited from outside the legal industry, including finance, media and consulting firms. These professionals are tasked with running the business aspects of the firm so the lawyers can focus on their practices.
“I cannot be the source of creative thinking in operations or marketing,” says Selendy. “We treat our executives as equals. They're at our partner meetings. They come to us with innovative ideas in their respective fields that we can evaluate.”
The firm also stands out – and has been awarded – for its efforts to create new pathways for women and minorities. In addition to being majority female-owned, Selendy Gay Elsberg employs more LGBTQ and attorneys of color (21% of attorneys and over 30% of associates, respectively) than the vast majority of Big Law firms.
“The value of diversity is well accepted,” says Selendy. “Working with men and women, LGBTQ individuals, and people of color enhances your experience. It enhances the ideas that get brought to the table. How are we going to be effective advocates to diverse juries in a diverse city without reflecting that city within our own walls?”
Too often, Big Law seems resigned that diversity initiatives end at recruiting and pays little attention to development and retention. This notion doesn’t fly at Selendy Gay Elsberg because, as Elsberg explains, “When we're recruiting for any position, we're doing it in a way that removes obstacles that shouldn't be there in the first place. Once someone comes onboard, we are fully invested in their advancement.”
Though studies on implicit bias have been around for decades, taking affirmative steps to remove these biases is rarely done in the legal industry, Selendy says. For its part, Selendy Gay Elsberg has responded to this dilemma not with quotas, but with processes that eliminate bias at the hiring phase and have led to an abundance of diversity at every level.
Evaluations for prospective new associates include blind assessments, in which partners receive and are asked to grade a candidate’s written case study without names or other identifying details. This removes any unconscious bias surrounding race or gender, enabling hiring decisions that are truly merit-based. The result is a highly talented associate base with strong numbers of women and people of color.
The equity partnership is over 50% female – extremely rare among law firms, and a strong selling point both to new recruits and prospective clients. The composition of the upper echelon wasn’t deliberate, however. “It's not novel that 50% of law school classes are female,” Selendy explains. “So when we sat down with the whiteboard and asked, ‘Who are the best lawyers we know and want to practice with?’, it just happened that the split was 50/50.”
Another important differentiator are the values that guide the firm’s caseload.
“The law is not just a way to earn money,” says Selendy. “Being a lawyer and practicing at the level we do is a real privilege, and comes with responsibilities. It is a privilege to be able to put our hands on the scale on issues and cases we care about, working for clients that we choose to take on.”
In hiring, the firm’s lawyers are transparent about their values as a firm and their desire for associates who share those values. The firm seeks attorneys driven by more than the almighty dollar. They do not supply, for instance, profits-per-partner numbers to outside publications, which has become something of a standard in the industry.
“If money is your primary focus, and we're not sharing that information, then we're tending to push away people who are going into law just for the money,” says Selendy.
When associates join, they quickly discover the firm has a “very, very flat structure,” Elsberg explains. First-year associates often conduct depositions and arbitrations, and even argue in court.
“We give an associate a piece of a closing argument or a piece of a cross-examination,” Elsberg says. “The goal is to build their skills and relationships with clients at a much quicker clip than in traditional Big Law firms.”
Selendy and Elsberg say the firm is comfortable with – and may even prefer – associates who have spent a year or two at a Big Law firm before joining. Nothing beats the experience of seeing the difference firsthand. Associates are also trained to be “good business generators,” says Selendy, which includes monthly business development training sessions, and learning “the importance of building networks as a foundation for client development.”
“We want them to be able to carry the firm forward when we're dragged out kicking and screaming,” jokes Selendy.
Finally, the firm is proud of the cases it turns away. The founding partners left successful law practices, in part, to gain greater control over the cases they accept. The firm openly pursues matters adverse to big banks and Big Pharma; it also has turned down representation of individuals in government and certain criminal defendants with whom the partners prefer not to associate.
These hard lines have freed attorneys to take on cases from which many Big Law firms would be conflicted. Selendy Gay Elsberg recently filed a case against the major banks that underwrote the municipal debt in Puerto Rico for their role in its financial collapse and bankruptcy. Similarly, they’re representing Fairfield Sentry, a feeder fund to Madoff, in a sweeping bankruptcy case seeking billions of dollars from more than 250 defendants, including many banks.
The values-based approach to choosing clients works in part because of the small size of the partnership – currently at 12 – and the firm’s single-office structure. While the firm’s success provides the platform for growth, Selendy Gay Elsberg has chosen to remain small and nimble so that each voice is heard and the unique culture maintained.
While essential to the model, the size has been an adjustment for some of the partners who joined from Big Law. “There is intimacy in working so closely with other people that I have really only experienced on a trial team before,” says Selendy. “The challenge is really being self-aware about how much you impact the people around you, because I see how they impact me.”
And while they are deliberately remaining small, sometimes hiring can be a challenge when they want every member of their team to share the same values and be able to keep step with a fast-moving firm with a brimming case load. Selendy Gay Elsberg currently employs 34 of the top U.S. associates, including one who will clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2020.
“While you want to make sure every person is excellent,” says Elsberg, “there are times where you just think, ‘If I had five more associates on this team right now, it would be fantastic.’”