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Making partner usually means stiff competition with other associates. But at Latham & Watkins, associates are asked to put down their swords and shields and objectively evaluate whether their peers have what it takes to make partner. Most firms wouldn’t do it. They’d be looking to prevent scheming associates from using any power they have to benefit their own chance at partnership. But at Latham, associates are selected to serve a two-year term on the associates committee, which makes partnership recommendations for the firm’s partners to vote on. The committee has 45 members � half are partners, half are associates. “Empowering associates and having them involved in decision-making is terrific for employee morale,” said Latham partner Richard Bress, who chairs the committee. “It’s also good for partners on the committee because associates have grass-roots ways of knowing things.” James Day, one of 25 Latham associates elevated to partner last week, said having associates helping to decide his fate gave him more confidence in the process. “The more years you have as a lawyer the less you can remember what it was like in the beginning,” said Day, an IP litigator who works out of the San Francisco office. “With associates on the committee, you get better feedback and the committee gets better feedback.” But Day did say that the process has some minor drawbacks. “It’s a little awkward because I know the people on the committee and because you get the sense that they know a whole lot more about people,” Day said. Too much information Knowing too much is one of the reasons other firms don’t allow their associates in on the partner-making process. At Heller Ehrman, a committee of seven or eight partners elicits honest and frank discussions about potential partners, said Jessica Pers, who heads the firm’s promotion evaluation committee. “This is a very confidential and highly structured process,” Pers said. “My personal feeling is I don’t think it would be appropriate for associates to know this sort of information about their peers.” Pers called the Latham system “surprising” and said her firm had never considered a similar one. “We have committees that make sense to have associates on, but we don’t have them on this committee,” Pers said. Other law firm leaders say the process also could create conflicts for associates on the committee. “The potential conflict posed by someone who is voting on someone in their peer group is the reason we don’t have associates voting on elevating associates to partner,” said Darin Snyder, managing partner at O’Melveny & Myers’ San Francisco office. He also noted that, given the competitive nature of lawyers, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine someone abusing their position for their own ends. Latham lawyers say committee members put personal feelings aside in their role as evaluators. “The way that Latham functions is that they put a lot of trust in associates,” said Adrian Davis, a fifth-year Latham associate who serves on the committee. “All of us take our roles pretty seriously.” Procedures & protections The Latham committee has one safeguard against associates who might scheme to take down their closest competition: Associates on the committee are not allowed to participate in discussions on peers from their class and the class below them. Although new partner Day said he assumed that mechanisms were also in place to keep associates on the committee from having a say in the matters of associates who work in the same office as them, there is no such mechanism. And according to Bress, associates often give the most valuable information about associates that they actually work with. “I’ve got every bit of faith with my associates having access to information as I do with my partners,” Bress said. Associates committee member Davis stressed that not only is he entrusted with information but he’s also given a fair hearing during discussions. “In the two years I’ve been on the committee, I’ve never had the experience of being told what I had to say wasn’t as important because I’m an associate,” said Davis. “We’re all treated as equal colleagues.” Aside from discussions, partner recommendations are based on a series of evaluations over the years from supervisors. As associates get nearer to the eight-year mark, they’re given more feedback by the committee and given a better idea of what their future holds. In his fifth year, Davis himself is approaching that later stage. But even though he knows the ins and outs of becoming partner at Latham, he said he’s not ready to commit. “I’ve enjoyed my five years and learned a lot,” Davis said. “I still need to see about the future.”

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