SAN FRANCISCO — Midlevel associates in San Francisco and Silicon Valley have a better outlook on their jobs than they have in years and report slightly higher levels of job satisfaction on average than their peers nationwide.
The findings, based on the 2014 Associates Survey by The American Lawyer, an ALM sister publication, slot Silicon Valley as the 19th happiest job market for third- to fifth-year lawyers and San Francisco as the 21st. Associates scored their firms on a variety of criteria, including their interest in the work, training opportunities, billable hour expectations and transparency about firm operations and partnership prospects.
California’s other legal markets ranked higher, with smaller markets Orange County, Sacramento and San Diego locking up the fourth, fifth and sixth spots. Los Angeles clocked in at 13, while major markets such as New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., didn’t make the top 25. (Click here to see the full data on regional markets.)
Barbara Kott, a legal recruiter with Major, Lindsey & Africa, said the number of associates she relocates to the West Coast has soared. “The quality of life has improved so much, that it’s quite a serious movement,” Kott said.
Nationally, 5,176 associates responded to the survey, with the average for 12 core questions hitting a 10-year high of 4.08 on a scale of one to five. In the Bay Area, 345 associates from 21 law firms responded, a pool almost evenly split between Silicon Valley and San Francisco lawyers. Roughly 47 percent were women and 53 percent men.
Associates expressed the highest levels of morale when it comes to their peer relationships, their firms’ attitude toward pro bono work and the interest level of their work. On the other hand, associates were least satisfied with their employers’ openness about financial matters and what it takes to become partner.
Silicon Valley lawyers registered slightly more job satisfaction than those in San Francisco (4.17 to 4.16). But some remarked that moving to the city would further boost their morale, echoing the sentiment among young tech workers who prefer to live and work in San Francisco.
Notably, more than 10 percent of Silicon Valley respondents said they were likely to change jobs for geographic reasons, compared to just 3 percent of San Francisco lawyers.
A Davis Polk & Wardwell associate suggested his firm should move its sole Bay Area office from Menlo Park to San Francisco as a “recruitment tool.”
“A lot of younger associates choosing firms would prefer to be in the city,” the lawyer wrote. An associate in Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati’s Palo Alto office had a similar plea that associates be allowed to work in San Francisco regardless of their practice group.
Kott said she’s noticed that more associates prefer to live and work in San Francisco. Firms “can no longer just sort of pressure them into the Valley,” she said.
At least five responses are required for a law firm office to be ranked regionally. In San Francisco, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, Kirkland & Ellis and Morgan, Lewis & Bockius nabbed the top spots. Morgan Lewis led the pack for associate satisfaction in Silicon Valley, followed by Paul Hastings and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.
Among firms native to the Bay Area, Palo Alto-based Wilson Sonsini once again ranked as one of the worst workplaces for midlevel associates. It fell to 12 out of the 14 firms evaluated in Silicon Valley with an average satisfaction score of roughly 3.6.
“Work on retaining the associates and partners you have—everyone suffers when associates and partners leave and we cannot rely on lateral hires,” one Wilson Sonsini associate urged. The firm did not make anyone available to comment on the survey’s findings.
Nationally, Wilson Sonsini ranked 109 of 124 firms this year, essentially unchanged from its 107 ranking last year and again lagging nationally behind Cooley at 44 and Fenwick & West at 50.
Still, concerns about partnership prospects, career training and work/life balance seemed to resonate for associates across the Bay Area.
“For those of us who want to be equity partners,” a Cooley lawyer asked, “what do we need to know to develop a book of business?”
“Show me you appreciate the effort I put in,” a Wilson Sonsini associate wrote.
A Fenwick lawyer griped about an assignment system where associates who excel wind up with more work and “often get overloaded.”
“The firm is a great place to work but could do a much better job with work/life balance and making sure that work is more evenly distributed,” that lawyer wrote.
Such complaints are standard fare for midlevel associates. To some extent, they are part of an “underlying big firm mentality you can’t escape,” Kott said, adding, “At the same time, I think associates are often quite surprised by how differently firms operate.”
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