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Attempting to divine a cure for the dissatisfaction that is rampant among associates in large law firms, the Association of the Bar of the City of New York has released a report that urges firms to open the lines of communication with their associates in areas ranging from billable hours requirements and partnership chances to mentoring, training and evaluations. The report was issued by the City Bar’s Task Force on Lawyers’ Quality of Life, which studied the responses of large New York firms in recent years to the problem of associate attrition. The committee’s investigation produced a consensus that firms must become more flexible if they hope to stem the tide of departing young lawyers. “I think associates are aware of the mobility they have today,” said City Bar president Evan A. Davis. “The answer to that is to be a place that works for a lawyer in the longer run, and then out of self-interest they will stay.” Formed in 1996, the quality of life task force began its work with focus groups composed of large firm associates. Those groups showed the young lawyers to be convinced that reaching an expected level of billable hours, whether codified by the firm or just informally expressed, was vital to remaining on partnership track. Associates also said that given the difficulty of scheduling time away from the office, “use it or lose it” policies toward vacation time were heavily weighted toward “losing it.” Last year, the task force sent out an 11-page questionnaire that drew information from lawyers in 17 of New York City’s largest firms, including some branch offices of firms based outside the city. Members of the committee then conducted interviews with firms to see what steps toward improving retention had been successful. The report provides a series of recommendations or best practices, many of them related to improving the flow of information to associates about firm policies. Notably, the report suggests that firms: clearly convey their expectations about billable hours, including whether pro bono hours are counted; create a culture in which vacations are considered a necessity rather than a luxury; and promulgate firmwide guidelines for part-time and flex-time schedules that do not penalize associates when it comes to chances for promotion. In addition, the report recommends that firms: “endeavor to create an environment that reflects the recognition that junior associates are entitled and indeed are expected to seek appropriate guidance” from senior lawyers; commit to a system of prompt reviews of associate work by partners; institute a formal review process to inform associates of the likelihood of their making partner; and adopt associates’ committees to enhance communication with the partnership. Shearman & Sterling partner Jeremy G. Epstein, who chaired the task force, said that firms should recognize that a changed marketplace demands new methods of law firm management. “This does represent a sea change in the attitudes of law firms compared to 25 years ago,” he said. “I think the fact that law firms are more solicitous is partly self-interest. It is important to the functioning of these firms that associates identify with the enterprise and feel committed to it.”

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