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A committee of associates at Clifford Chance’s New York office has drafted a lengthy memo decrying working conditions at the firm and clamoring for changes. The 13-page document is titled “Associate Concerns” and was sent to the entire New York partnership last week. It paints a bleak picture of associate life in the world’s largest law firm and offers a rare, inside glimpse of the cutthroat culture of New York’s corporate firms. The memo identifies seven “major problem areas” at the firm, including partner indifference, insufficient training and a 2,420 billable hour requirement that associates claim is unrealistic and encourages bill “padding.” It’s also peppered with associate comments about their treatment at the firm, ranging from a partner yelling “we own you” at an associate to a perception that there is general resentment among partners to pay associate salaries and bonuses. According to the memo, “Many associates described the firm as having a terrible atmosphere in which to work — full of unhappy, hostile people, from the support staff to the partners.” The memo is signed by six associates who are members of the firm’s personnel committee. It was apparently drafted at the behest of the New York partnership in the wake of the firm’s last-place ranking in Recorder-affiliate The American Lawyer magazine’s survey on associate job satisfaction. “They instructed us to go out and get the reaction of the associates,” said one of the members of the personnel committee, speaking on condition of anonymity. “There’s very much a feeling that everything is on the table right now, and so they want to know all the challenges they have to address; so they leave no stone unturned going forward.” Based on an associate-only town hall meeting and on anonymous surveys distributed at the event, the committee drafted its memorandum. “Our research has convinced us that the AmLaw Survey captured neither the breadth nor the depth of associate anger and frustration,” reads the memo. “We are also concerned that the firm is looking for a ‘quick-fix’ to salvage the 2002 recruiting season and forestall mass resignations by associates.” James Benedict, Clifford Chance’s regional managing partner of the Americas, said he was surprised and disappointed by the memo’s findings but that he viewed it as a positive step forward in the firm’s focus on excellence. “You’re speaking to a partner that probably goes out with associates two nights out of every five, that spends weekends with them,” said Benedict. “And the prospect that a number of my partners are obviously not doing that was somewhat of a surprise and a disappointment.” Benedict said that some of the statements in the associate memo are “flat-out wrong,” particularly the 2,420 billable-hour requirement and the allegation that associates don’t get credit for pro bono hours. “There are no minimum billable hour requirements at the firm,” said Benedict. “If an associate thinks there is that means that we have a communications issue.” The memo lists the 2,420-hour requirement at the top of its list of grievances, saying that it’s by far the greatest area of discontent among associates and is a source of anger, worry and stress. “The idea that I could work hard all year and bill for example 2,100 hours . . . and in the firm’s eye I wouldn’t even meet the firm’s ‘expectations’ is totally ludicrous, offensive, and generally makes me crazy,” read one associate comment in the memo. Based in London, Clifford Chance is the world’s largest firm, with approximately 3,300 lawyers. Its New York office, the product of a 1999 merger with Rogers & Wells, boasts 450 “legal advisers,” which includes paralegals. In July, the firm opened a San Francisco office with lawyers acquired from Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison. Copies of the memo were widely circulated throughout the legal community Thursday and elicited amazement from some attorneys. “There’s always going to be conflicts and issues in dispute,” said a partner at a major Bay Area firm who wished to remain anonymous. “But the bottom line is, do you like each other and treat each other well, and these people clearly don’t like each other or treat each other well.” Tower Snow Jr., head of Clifford Chance’s West Coast practice, said the firm takes the AmLaw survey results very seriously and praised the memo as an important move in the right direction. “The clear objective is to move from last to first. The best way to do that is to get input from those most knowledgeable, i.e. the associates themselves.” Among the other areas of discontent flagged by the memo are performance reviews, poor communications, insufficient training and the system by which work is assigned. Associates griped that the process that governs how work is doled out is unfair and often based on favoritism. “If the assignment system isn’t corrupt, ask yourself: Why aren’t attractive female associates ever out of work?” read one associate’s comment included in the memo. The memo concludes with a list of more mundane suggestions to improve the quality of life in the New York office based on feedback from the associate surveys. Among the suggestions are more eating utensils in the pantry, the re-institution of monthly socials and free shoe shines. “You have assembled a stunningly talented team of associates,” reads the memo. “We have trusted you with our development, our security and our careers. Thus, obviously we believe in you. But it is time for you to start believing in us as well. Treat us like colleagues. Treat us with respect. Treat us as future partners.”

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