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SAN FRANCISCO — When asked where they expect to be in five years, the most common answer by far from associates surveyed in the Bay Area was “I honestly don’t know.”

The unknowing ranks dwarf those who expect to make partner at their own firm or as laterals, even considering nonequity partnership. It even beats out the status quo, those responding that they will likely be working as senior associates or of counsel.

The results, part of the 2014 Associates Survey conducted by The American Lawyer, speak to the uncertainty felt by today’s midlevel associates around whether they’ll make partner, and even if they want to.

Nationwide, associates report more satisfaction in their jobs than they have in a decade, with the average for 12 core questions hitting a 10-year high of 4.08 on a 5-point scale.

But the numbers also expose the anxious ambivalence lawyers feel about their futures in the industry. They see the tight funnel to partnership and crave a clear road map to the firm’s upper ranks. At the same time, many look ahead at how hard partners work at their firms and wonder if the sacrifice is worth it.

One associate in San Francisco, who marked “I honestly don’t know” on the survey and spoke on the condition her name wouldn’t be used, likened her law firm tenure to hanging onto a jungle gym. “Part of it,” she said, “is just, ‘How long can I hold on?’”

Law firm leaders know their junior colleagues are soul-searching, said Molly Moriarty Lane, managing partner of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius in San Francisco.

Many law school graduates join firms without intending to stay for their entire careers, Lane said. After a few years, they start surveying other options.

“The in-house market is much more robust than it ever was when I was in law school and there’s much more mobility,” Lane said. “So, people don’t stay in jobs that perhaps they’re not happy in.”

That’s even more pronounced among the current generation of associates who are “much more willing to say, ‘Hey, this is not the right place for me and I see better opportunities out there for me,’” she said.

Nationally, 5,176 third-, fourth- and fifth-year associates responded to the survey. In the Bay Area, 345 associates from 21 law firms responded, a pool almost evenly split between Silicon Valley and San Francisco lawyers.

Associates in both markets complained in write-in comments that their employers don’t communicate clearly what it takes to make partner or provide adequate training in skills such as project management, client relations and business development.

“Spend more time training associates to be partners and know what it takes to become partner,” urged an associate in Morrison & Foerster’s San Francisco office.

“For those of us who want to be equity partners,” a Cooley associate wrote, “what do we need to do now to develop a book of business?”

Based on numerical scores, lawyers working for firms headquartered outside the Bay Area feel the most anxiety.

“Be realistic to associates outside of the NY office about their chance of partnership and the extra steps they might need to take” compared to peers in New York, wrote an associate working in the Menlo Park office of Davis Polk & Wardwell.

Calls from associates for more training aren’t new. In the Bay Area, the best marks for firms with at least 10 responses went to Kirkland & Ellis; Morgan Lewis; and Sidley Austin. At the bottom were Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati and Morrison & Foerster.

Last year, Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton fell in the national rankings from 24 to 70. When the firm took steps to figure out what was behind the plunge, “one of the main things that came out was that there was a lack of formal training,” said Eugene Ngai, a corporate attorney in the firm’s Century City office.

So Sheppard Mullin doubled its number of in-person trainings, hitting more than 200 programs last year. The firm also changed how pro bono hours were credited and instituted a paid paternity leave policy with prorated billable hours. Its national ranking this year, based on survey responses from more than 80 percent of its midlevels, rebounded to 16.

Why invest in associates who may not be stay at the firm long term?

“We don’t subscribe to kind of a tacit assumption that associates are only going to work for a few years and move on,” said Sheppard Mullin partner Robert Williams, who oversees training and recruitment. “To the extent that they say they were happy, that suggests that they’d want to stay.”

Associates tend to select their future employers very early, often going to work for firms where they accepted summer-associate positions as 2Ls. Facing heavy debt burdens, few can afford to consider whether the pace and demands of Big Law life are the right fit. “I don’t know at that point how much career examination they did of themselves,” said Vicki Huebner, assistant dean of career services at Santa Clara University School of Law.

Some may have just opted for “traveling the path of least resistance” and only do more of a self-assessment once they hit the midlevel mark, she said, noting that it’s no longer expected to stay in one place for the duration of your career.

Nearly half of the associates surveyed said if they do leave their firms, their primary reason would be achieving better work/life balance. Roughly the same number indicated they’d happily give up 25 percent of their salary in exchange for a 25 percent cut in billable hours.

“I think a lot of us see the partners working very, very hard and think to ourselves, ‘Is that something we want?’” said a fifth-year associate in Palo Alto, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Even if you could do it, would you want to?”

Some urged their firms to consider more part-time or alternative work arrangements.

“Find ways to retain senior associates who need to work less due to lifestyle and family reasons but are an enormous source of knowledge and training to juniors and laterals,” wrote a Wilson Sonsini associate.

An associate at Sidley offered a similar perspective: “You will retain [associates] longer, be able to adapt better to changes in work levels, and keep them from burning out.”

Contact the reporter at mzilberman@alm.com.