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Once considered the cat’s meow among associate attorneys, Silicon Valley law firms have become dens of deteriorating morale. That’s one of the findings that emerges in the latest survey of associate job satisfaction conducted by Recorderaffiliate The American Lawyer. The three Valley firms that participated in the national survey all lost ground from their standings a year ago, with associates giving them low grades for collegiality, employee relations and satisfying work assignments. Palo Alto’s Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati fared especially poorly, coming in 154 out of the 159 firms listed in the survey’s national rankings. The declining morale within Silicon Valley firms comes two and a half years into a technology industry downturn that has battered the region’s firms, forcing many to trim their attorney ranks and to keep a tight lid on expenses. Prior to the downturn, Silicon Valley firms, with their hefty compensation and assorted perks, enjoyed some of the highest associate job satisfaction ratings in the country. Not all associates were unhappy with their employment situations this year. Outside of Silicon Valley, many California firms earned high marks from their associate attorneys. Los Angeles’ Irell & Manella, the top-ranked California firm in the survey, was the 12th-highest rated firm in the country. Associates praised 250-lawyer Irell & Manella for its openness and its mentoring process. Most of all, the associates seemed to appreciate the quality of the work on their plates — the firm ranked third in the nation in terms of how interesting and satisfying its work is. Irell & Manella Managing Partner David Siegel said the firm’s relatively small size means associates get to play a larger role on sophisticated matters early on in their careers. He attributed associate job satisfaction as much to this fact as to anything else the firm does. “It’s interesting work, we’ve had a good amount of it, we’re busy and they’re enjoying the work they get to do,” says Siegel. Conducted in May and June, the survey measures the feelings of third- and fourth-year associates anonymously on everything from firm culture to advancement opportunities. Associates are asked to rate their firms on a five-point scale on dozens of issues, such as opportunities to work with partners, confidence in firm leadership, amount of client contact, “family-friendly” policies and level of staff support. Any law firm is eligible to participate in the survey, but to be included in the national ranking a firm needs at least 10 associates to provide completed surveys. More than 4,000 associates representing some 211 firms responded to the survey this year, though only 159 firms met the 10-survey minimum to make the national list. The country’s No. 1 firm in terms of associate job satisfaction was Houston’s 365-attorney Bracewell & Patterson. Dead last was national firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. For Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, 23rd in the nation and the highest-rated Bay Area firm on the list, the results represented a continuation of its climb up the national rankings. Last year the firm ranked 64th nationally, and in 2001 Orrick occupied the 118th slot. “These favorable results are in keeping with my sense of how people feel about the firm and the way the firm supports their careers,” said Ralph Baxter Jr., the chair and chief executive officer of Orrick. According to Baxter, the firm has put a lot of energy into its mentoring and associate career programs this year, and is completing its first full year of bimonthly, firmwide town hall meetings. While Orrick moved up the list, last year’s top-rated Bay Area firm, Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich, slipped to sixth in the region. The drop was even more pronounced on a national level, where the Palo Alto-based firm went from being the 15th-rated firm in 2002 to No. 68 this year. Cooley Godward, another Silicon Valley stalwart, also saw associate contentment fall, dropping from 99 in 2002 to 125 in this year’s survey. Gray Cary Chair and CEO J. Terence O’Malley said it wasn’t surprising that associate morale has been affected by the Valley’s difficult business environment. “Firms that have a significant corporate finance practice have had to work very hard to keep their associates fully employed and it’s reflected in these numbers,” said O’Malley. “Busy lawyers are happy lawyers.” Wilson Sonsini suffered the most significant plunge of all, finishing dead last among California firms, and very close to last among its national peers. The firm took a drubbing at the hands of its associates, who gave the firm low grades for its partner-to-associate relations, its billable hour targets and the fairness of its performance evaluations, among other things. “Keep associates in the loop about firm decisions; treat associates better,” implored one associate in comments submitted along with the survey. Another Wilson associate described the firm as “big, impersonal, political.” A Wilson representative declined to comment on the survey results. One thing that’s clear from the survey however, is that associate job satisfaction, or dissatisfaction, is reversible. Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe ranked 32nd for associate satisfaction nationally this year after an embarrassing showing in the 110th spot last year. “One of the things we discovered is that we needed to make sure that we had open and regular channels of communications,” says Chairman Barry Levin. Heller implemented quarterly videoconference meetings for all of its associates, in which employees are briefed on firm financials, new clients and new strategic initiatives, such as the firm’s recent merger with Venture Law Group. In addition, the firm solicited feedback from its associate ranks through regular meetings at its individual offices. And Heller made some adjustments to its committee that handles attorney recruiting, retention, development and diversity. “Things like associate satisfaction, diversity and pro bono have always been central to who we are at Heller,” says Levin. “We think those things are relevant measures of a law firm.”

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