Schulte Roth & Zabel’s office in Washington, D.C.

This year, Schulte Roth & Zabel can count itself as the firm where midlevel associates are happiest. But two years ago, it was a very different story.

In 2016, the firm came in at 78th on The American Lawyer’s midlevel associate satisfaction rankings.

“It was a big billboard saying, ‘You should look and see if you can do this better,’” says partner Dan Kusnetz, who co-leads the firm’s associate committee. “We had let the gardens go unpruned and untended because of the crush of work and the financial crisis.”

What partners at the firm noticed, he says, was much higher satisfaction ratings from summer associates. So they looked for a way to bridge those results.

The firm combined its professional development and recruiting functions into a single department and named a manager of associate relations, who had been a summer associate at the firm years ago. It also revamped the associates committee, putting Kusnetz and partner Michael Mezzacappa at the helm. They had previously run the summer associates program.

“The whole concept was to get the firm to be open to and responsive to associates’ needs … instead of just sort of lip-service,” Kusnetz says.

The associates committee went on a listening tour and identified seven categories of issues facing young lawyers: mentoring; caregiver leave; business development resources; training; informal networking; technology; and general “things that make life easier,” Kusnetz says. In each of those areas, he says, the firm has already made improvements.

Schulte Roth created a more elaborate mentor network, which helps associates connect with multiple lawyers senior to them within and beyond their practice areas. The average associate has three mentors.

The firm updated parental leave to include secondary caregivers and better on-ramps for the return to work. It started a training program for business development and various other aspects of legal practice, including pro bono and wellness.

There are now associate lunches and bagel Fridays for networking, as well as town halls. And associates were involved in testing new technology, tending toward more mobile-enabled options. As for making life generally easier, Kusnetz gave one example: a mailroom dinner runner to save associates the time of grabbing a meal when they’re working late.

All of those changes have come about in less than two years.

“A great deal of financial resources have been dedicated to this,” Alissa Golden, the firm’s director of professional development and recruiting, says.

The firm has touched on each of the seven categories in at least one way, but it’s not done. The committee is planning another listening tour for the coming year.

“We don’t want this to be a one-shot effort; we want this to be a cultural shift,” Kusnetz says.

The one thing associates have discussed that has not yet been implemented, he says, is remote work and work-from-home capabilities.

“We are, as a culture, very used to having all of us be present. It’s a very big cultural shift,” he says.

It’s something the associates committee is studying.

So what’s the return on investment? Kusnetz says that’s difficult to measure in terms of productivity or attrition—most defections are to clients rather than to other law firms, he notes. But morale appears to have improved, he says.

“The return on investment is happy people,” he says. “The life of associates today is very different. We had to make a change in mindset and realize that millennials often have different goals than a baby boomer.”

Email: lmclellan@alm.com