They’ve endured a recession, layoffs, deferments, secondments, salary freezes, and even the loss of their spring bonuses. And yet, midlevel associates at the country’s biggest law firms are happier with their jobs than they’ve been in years, according to our annual associates survey.

Having launched their careers during the Great Recession (and survived), the third-, fourth-, and fifth-year associates have come to a Zen-like, albeit caveat-laden, acceptance of firm life. “This is an amazing place to work if you’re going to work at a big law firm,” wrote an O’Melveny & Myers midlevel in response to an open-ended question on the survey. Although the endorsement may be equivocal, it is the sentiment behind O’Melveny’s rise into the top 25 on this year’s list—and the key to understanding many firms’ rise in their overall score.

Among other things, our survey asks midlevels to rank their firms on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the high score, in 12 areas related to job satisfaction, such as interest of work, training, and partner relations. We then average those 12 scores to arrive at a composite score for each firm. This year’s average composite score, based on responses from 5,543 respondents from the 129 firms that qualified for a national ranking, was 3.984, an increase of almost 7 percent from 3.729 a year ago. In fact, this year’s average composite score was the highest posted in any year since at least 2004.

The rising satisfaction level among midlevels showed up in almost every facet of our 85-question survey. Fifty-seven percent of respondents described their firms as appropriately staffed, which represents a 7 percent increase from 2011. Seventy-nine percent of respondents described their workload as manageable, up 2 percent versus last year. Ninety-two percent of respondents said that if they had the choice to make again, they would again choose to come to their firms, a 2 percent increase from a year ago. Of the 12 scoring questions (the ones that form the basis of each firm’s composite score), 10 had average scores that were the highest since at least 2007, and average scores on all 12 questions were higher than a year ago, with questions about how clearly firms communicate what it takes to make partner, training, and firms’ openness about finances showing some of the biggest year-to-year gains.

“There’s been lots of uncertainty and upheaval in the legal industry in recent years,” says Delia Swan, a legal industry recruiter at Swan Legal Search, “but I think that this group of midlevel associates realizes that any gripes they may continue to have have less to do with any recession-related changes and more to do with whether Big Law fits into the lifestyle they want.”

While the attitudes of midlevel associates about their professional lots in life may be evolving, what hasn’t changed are the firms ranking first and second. Taking top honors for the fifth year in a row is the 150-attorney Boston firm Nutter McClennen & Fish, with an overall score of 4.911. Paul Hastings was tops among Am Law 200 firms for the second consecutive year, with a score of 4.693 and an overall second-place finish [see "The Best Places to Work]. We also, for the first time, calculated five-year averages of the composite scores of the 95 firms that qualified for our national rankings in the past five years [see "Winners of the Half Decade"].

For movement, look further down the rankings. In addition to O’Melveny, six other firms moved into the top 25 this year: Alston & Bird; Jenner & Block; Manatt, Phelps & Phillips; Perkins Coie; Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hamilton; and Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young. (Four other firms were new to the top 25 but did not qualify for a national rank last year. They are Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz; Robinson Bradshaw & Hinson; Gunderson Dettmer Stough Villeneuve Franklin & Hachigian; and Patton Boggs.)

Perkins Coie, which improved its overall score to 4.273 from 3.925, jumped on the rankings to number 15 from number 34. The firm showed gains on all 12 core questions; its biggest increases were in the areas of partner relations, benefits and compensation, and communication about what it takes to make partner. Managing partner Robert Giles points to recent developments, such as the creation of an interim counsel position and an increased emphasis on mentoring, to explain his firm’s improved performance.

The result: associates with a positive outlook. Wrote one Perkins Coie midlevel in response to an open-ended question: “We get to do interesting work for big clients. We get to work with people who are genuinely interested in the law as more than just a job, and that makes the work more fulfilling and creates a better service for our clients.”

Similarly, Sheppard Mullin increased its scores on all 12 core questions; its composite score increased to 4.213 from 3.840, and its rank rose to 24 from 43. (The firm’s participation rate rose as well, to 85 percent in 2012 from 39 percent in 2011.) Firm leaders point to a new associate evaluation process that focuses on the same criteria used to assess those up for partnership. “I think it has added to our transparency [because] we have a document being distributed among the associates that clearly publicizes the criteria we consider for the partnership,” says Robert Williams, a firm partner who also holds the position of chief talent officer.

Wrote a Sheppard Mullin midlevel in response to one of the survey’s open-ended questions: “In terms of working at a corporate law firm, [this firm] is the best place to be in terms of work culture. Partners really do care about your development and general satisfaction with the job.”

At O’Melveny, which rose from 27 last year to 16 this year with an overall score of 4.267 (last year the firm scored 3.958), firm leaders pointed to a new program that provides a comprehensive approach to issues surrounding workplace flexibility such as remote working, alternative schedules, and reduced workloads. But the firm also cited a greater sensitivity to associates to explain its improved performance. “[The economic downturn] was a hard and stressful time for law firms in general and associates in particular,” says Sharon Bunzel, an O’Melveny & Myers partner who oversees talent development. “We’ve come out of it, but we understand that associates and our counsel need to feel secure and positive about the firm and their professional development.”

Although respondents, as a whole, gave their firms higher scores on all 12 core questions than they did a year ago, questions related to transparency and professional development showed some of the biggest gains. The biggest score increases were on questions asking associates to rank their firms’ openness about finances (a 0.38 increase) and how clearly their firms communicate what it takes to make partner (a 0.35 increase).

In the individual firm analysis, Munger, Tolles & Olson garnered a perfect 5 in connection with the “openness about finances” question. In an email, Sandra Seville-Jones, the firm’s managing partner, wrote that “there is no difference between the financial information that is distributed to associates versus partners. Everyone is treated as an owner of the firm from the day they join us.”

The lowest-scoring of the core questions was the one that asked respondents to rate their firms on how well they communicate what it takes to make partner. That score rose to 3.29 from 2.94. But this question was a bright spot for Paul Hastings. Its score of 4.63, an increase from 4.48 a year ago, was the best showing by an Am Law 100 firm and the third-best among all ranked firms. In a response to an open-ended question, a Paul Hastings associate points out that this topic is discussed in detail at the firm’s fourth-year associate retreat.

Even a rising tide of associate satisfaction didn’t lift all ships, or more precisely, didn’t lift all ships enough. Several firms recorded a drop in rank despite small increases in their composite score. Snell & Wilmer‘s overall score went to 4.112 this year from 4.023 a year ago, but its rank fell to 37 from 19. Similarly, Davis Polk & Wardwell‘s ranking fell 29 spots, to 61 on this year’s list, despite an increase in its overall score from 3.931 to 4.005. At other firms, such as Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, Vinson & Elkins, and Hughes Hubbard & Reed, both the score and the ranking fell. In the case of Hughes Hubbard, a small decline in composite score, to 4.062 from 4.139, caused its ranking to drop to 46 from 10, despite laudatory comments from Hughes Hubbard midlevels on open-ended questions. One, in fact, described the firm as “one of the better Big Law firms to work for.” But in a year like this one, “better” just wasn’t good enough.