When Arnold & Porter's director of professional development, Caren Ulrich Stacy, started working in law firm recruiting in the mid-'90s, she says there was one question that she could count on hearing from every incoming associate, be it a new law school recruit or a potential lateral hire: How long does it take to make partner here? But today, Ulrich Stacy says, it goes largely unasked. "I've maybe had that question once in the past five years," she says.
Why doesn't anyone ask the partnership question anymore? It's not the well-documented reluctance of big firms to make new equity partners. In our most recent midlevel survey, which polled 7,259 respondents from 180 firms, more than 70 percent of respondents said they are on their firm's partnership track, and only a few indicated they strongly view partnership as an impossibility.
Nor is it insecurity related to the lousy economy: Just 11 percent of respondents said they were concerned about being laid off, even though their questionnaires were filled out in the spring, after the first round of big-firm layoffs were announced. Although 24 percent of respondents said their hours had fallen from last year, more than 42 percent said they were working at the same clip, and 34 percent said their workloads actually had increased.
A close parsing of the numbers reveals that although most associates think they could make partner, they're not sure they want to. For one thing, they see some junior partners working even more ferocious hours than their own. "There have been times when I have been watching a movie late at night that I've gotten an e-mail from a partner," says a Latham and Watkins third-year who, like the other respondents quoted here, spoke on a confidential basis. Adds a Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner midlevel: "When you see how many hours [junior partners] put in, you realize there really is no end to it."
Associates also have picked up on the fact that partners now are expected to be more than just good lawyers; they're also expected to be business builders, who had better keep pushing if they want to retain their partnership status. "Partnership is no longer the lifetime guarantee that maybe it once was," says one Dechert associate, who notes that de-equitizations and layoffs that have become part and parcel of the business of law. Says one Arnold & Porter third-year: "This is not the sort of place where once you become a partner you sit back and ride the gravy train." Indeed, according to associates contacted for this story, that sort of place is hard (or even impossible) to find anywhere in The Am Law 200 nowadays.
With the prospect of future partnership appealing to relatively few midlevels, firms have come up with other reasons for them to stick around. Naturally, pay is one retention tool (see americanlawyer.com for an analysis of midlevels' satisfaction with their pay). But firms also are going to greater lengths to track associates' professional development, upgrade their skills and offer them career guidance. Associates contacted for this story say programs and personnel devoted to them are appreciated -- and, to a certain extent, expected.
But it's the work that matters. Separate questions on our survey asked respondents to rate both the interest level of their work and the likelihood that they would be at their firms two years from now on a 1-to-5 scale, with 1 being the lowest possible score and 5 being the highest. There was a close correlation on scores between the two questions. Among those who gave their work a score of 1, for instance, the average score on the tenure question was 1.6. For those who gave their work scores of 2, 3, 4 and 5, the tenure scores were 2.1, 2.9, 3.8 and 4.4, respectively.
"The professional development programs are all well and good," says one Arnold & Porter midlevel. "But in terms of learning the craft, you can't beat learning through a real-life experience and working on client matters."
Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which scored in the top 15 nationally for interesting work, has a "free market" associate assignment system that encourages associates and partners to seek each other out for projects. "I wanted a place that would treat me like an adult, as opposed to a place that would hold my hand for three or four years before letting me do anything of substance," says one Gibson Dunn midlevel.
By the time associates reach midlevel status, they have reached a high level of value for firms, says Lane Vanderslice, former dean of associates at Mayer Brown. They've learned to navigate office politics, and are no longer overwhelmed by the newness of the job. At the same time, midlevels start to realize how challenging work at a big firm is, says Vanderslice, who left Mayer Brown this spring to become a stay-at-home father. "Everyone says they want to be challenged, but a synonym for 'challenge' is 'stress,'" he says.
While interesting work is a draw in keeping associates at a firm, it does have its downside, associates say. "My work requires me to make more of a personal investment ... every year as I get more responsibility," says a Latham fifth-year. The decision about whether to pursue partnership, this midlevel adds, will depend upon whether the personal investment is worth the rewards of partnership.
Such a candid assessment of the benefits and drawbacks of partnership is to be expected from this generation of associates, say the administrators who work directly with them. "[Today's associates] are much more likely to bind you to what you promised them," says White & Case director of attorney recruiting professional development Timm Whitney. "They know they're entering into an agreement."
That agreement sounds relatively simple: The firm provides training, interesting work and generous pay, and the associate provides legal skills for ample hours. "This generation of associates wants to know the rules of the game, and they move very fast," says Goodwin Procter director of professional development Scott Westfahl. "They're not going to accept the 'trust me and we'll make a decision about you seven years down the road' approach."
Goodwin ranks in the bottom third of firms surveyed in terms of communication about what it takes to make partner. "We don't really talk to associates about why it's great to be a partner," Westfahl says. He says that's a mistake he's trying to correct by "re-recruiting" current associates and making the firm's pitch to them anew.
Howrey chief professional development officer Heather Bock adds that the pitch to this generation of associates has to include more than just a prospect of partnership. The question Bock asks herself: "What is it that we can offer these high achievers that will appeal to them?" One of Howrey's answers is to offer a two-to-three-day intensive academy each year of an associate's career. (The firm ranks in the top third of the survey overall, and in the top 10 in terms of training.) "We try to make it a very high-impact experience," Bock says. "It's very rare for them to come and listen to hours of PowerPoint presentations."
For example, Howrey's professional development team brought on a scriptwriter and director to develop a program for the firm's leadership academy for midlevel associates. The result is a group of interactive scenarios in which actors play the roles of an associate, partner and paralegal. The actors take cues from the associates on which communication and leadership strategies to apply to a certain scenario.
At Arnold & Porter, the firm has brought on two career counselors -- both former lawyers -- to help associates plot a career path within the firm or devise a strategy for an eventual exit. Although meetings with the counselors are not mandatory, Ulrich Stacy reports that more than 60 percent of associates have taken advantage of the one-on-one confidential services the counselors offer.
"The most surprising thing [about the counselor's advice] is that it is separated from management, and advice may be given that occasionally goes against the firm's short-term interest," says one third-year. This could explain why Arnold & Porter, which finished among the top 20 in terms of overall midlevel satisfaction, ranks in the bottom half in terms of associates planning to remain at the firm for at least two more years. Associates who have access to those types of resources say they genuinely appreciate the firms' efforts to keep them satisfied. Still, they caution that training and counseling can only go so far. Ultimately, associates say that if they aren't challenged and fulfilled by their work, all the effort by firms is for naught.
With client matters getting larger in scope and risk, generating interesting work has become an even harder task for many firms. Associates are called on to do smaller slices of projects, often with little or no explanation of how that sliver fits into the big picture. Says recruiting director Whitney, whose firm, White & Case, ranked in the bottom third of the survey in terms of satisfaction level of work: "There's no question that God's in the details on these issues." And the devil's in the attrition numbers.
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Associates Survey Responses Firms Listed A to Z 2008
Howrey hopes to end lockstep as we know it. But will its associates take up the cause?
The American Lawyer
The management team at Washington, D.C.-based Howrey is doing something that almost no other Am Law 200 firm has done: They're revamping the tried-and-true method of paying associates. Howrey is taking a sledgehammer to the established lockstep system, which guarantees associates salary increases every year. Instead, the firm is implementing a more competitive model: Raises, when they're granted, will be based exclusively on merit. Howrey's clients may warm to the concept, but will the firm's associates?
Commentary: Leaving Lockstep Behind
Abandoning lockstep pay would go a long way toward solving the crisis in associate recruiting and retention
The American Lawyer
Lockstep compensation is an illogical, ill-conceived approach to pay that addresses none of the issues faced by today's associates, writes Dan DiPietro of The Law Firm Group of Citi Private Bank. Neither does lockstep help firms address such concerns as associate turnover and client complaints about associate pay. DiPietro presents his case for replacing the lockstep system with a performance-based pay structure.
Methodology: Here's how we collected and crunched the data.