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If given the chance, here is what one of the respondents to this year’s midlevel associate survey would say to the managing partner at his firm, Rochester, N.Y.’s Nixon Peabody: “As much as I appreciate my recent raise, I do not believe that midlevel associates are leaving for dot-coms for more money. [Instead, associates] are leaving for the prospect of more money and greater advancement at less personal cost. The demands required to succeed in the legal profession, for both partners and associates, is increasing at an accelerating rate due to economic and technological factors beyond anyone’s control.” Put more simply, associates are doing a cost-benefit analysis of their own careers — and large law firms are losing. Worse, there’s little that the firms can do about it, since the new economy is simply leaving law firms’ old-style ways in the gold-speckled dust. Sure — it’s only one person’s opinion. But as firms continue to struggle with associate attrition, such opinions carry plenty of weight. At Menlo Park, Calif.’s Gunderson Dettmer Stough Villenueve Franklin & Hachigian, for instance, such an analysis resulted in the firm’s decision to raise associate salaries to new heights. Within weeks, one firm’s re-evaluation of the worth of its associates became every firm’s problem, and, like it or not, 2000 became the year of the big raise. Nearly all — 97.6 percent — of the respondents to the midlevel survey told us they received market-competitive raises in the last year, and 12.4 percent said they received raises of more than 40 percent. What are the after-effects? When it comes to attrition rates, the results are dramatically undramatic. Although almost 70 percent of midlevel respondents reported that they still bore the burden of student loans, and most said that they attached more importance to their level of compensation than to such things as partnership prospects, the salary hikes on their own appear to have been an ineffective tool for keeping associates at their desks. Although 85 percent of responding associates said that they were satisfied with their compensation, only about 27 percent of respondents said they expected to be at their current firms, either as a partner or associate, in five years. Raises may not be the turnkey solution to associate attrition, but firms that doled out less than competitive raises bungled big-time. Those few midlevels in our survey who didn’t benefit from the nationwide salary boon did not take it lightly. “The long delay before Chapman took action, the lack of partner-associate communication, and the disappointing salary increases [averaging 20-25 percent] left many associates with nothing else to conclude but that the partnership did not think very much of the associates,” wrote an unhappy midlevel at Chicago’s Chapman and Cutler, which faltered in last year’s survey and came in third-to-last nationally in this year’s survey. “The upshot is that Chapman’s citywide reputation has suffered, and associate morale has declined considerably.” (Chapman chief executive partner John Dixon says that his firm’s salaries are competitive. “Assuming an associate works at a certain level of hours, we believe our associates’ salaries are competitive with those of other firms,” he says. “For example, a first-year billing 2,200 hours will receive $135,000.”) Certainly the compensation question, and the desperate way that firms had to solve it, is an outgrowth of the ongoing love-hate relationship that law firms have with the dot-com world. The new economy may giveth in the form of brand-new big-money business, but it also taketh away by luring valuable associates to work for technology startups and the law firms that make a specialty of representing them. New questions on this year’s midlevel survey tried to gauge how much of a threat New Economy opportunities actually pose to traditional law firm ways. Almost half of responding midlevels said that if the right tech-industry opportunity came along, a high salary at a law firm would not induce them to stay, although 92 percent of respondents said they were not actively considering leaving their firm for a dot-com start-up or other tech industry opportunity. (These answers were given a few months after the Nasdaq tumbled.) Also new to this year’s midlevel survey were questions about prestige. We asked midlevels to rate their own firm’s prestige and to name those firms — other than their own — that they consider the nation’s most prestigious. In that category, New York’s Cravath, Swaine & Moore was the nation’s hands-down winner. But Cravath pays a price for its cachet. Prestige may clear the path for Cravath midlevels to have their choice of post-Cravath jobs, but when it comes to quality of life, prestige and a token won’t get you much more than a ride on the subway. On the survey’s job satisfaction questions, Cravath rated second-to-last among all 165 participating firms nationwide, down significantly from last year, when it ranked a fairly respectable nineteenth out of 48 responding New York firms. Cravath midlevels also rank first in the nation in number of hours worked and in number of hours billed. The ratio of hours worked to hours billed was the nation’s second-highest, trailing only Boston’s Brown, Rudnick, Freed & Gesmer. Summing up the Cravath conundrum, one respondent bemoaned the fact that Cravath “must come first in everything. … I wish I could have it both ways: great work and fewer hours. But hiring at the top of any field (sports, business, law) often requires such sacrifices, so I don’t really complain.” Still, at some firms the price of prestige isn’t paid in associates’ blood, at least according to our survey. Los Angeles’ Munger, Tolles & Olson, which finished first on our job satisfaction questions, and Chicago’s Kirkland & Ellis, which ranked fifth, also were ranked by midlevels as among the nation’s most prestigious firms. One Munger Tolles midlevel explained how the firm’s prestige blended well into its firm culture: “It feels like a tightly knit group of friends on the inside, with all the outside appearance of an exclusive club.” On the darker side, many of the firms that ranked lowest on our charts this year did not fare well in previous years, either. As was the case last year, Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft ranked dead last overall among Am Law 100 firms. This year the firm’s 14 respondents gave it bottom-of-the-barrel marks in several areas — treatment by partners, interest level of work, training and guidance, firm atmosphere, management openness about finances and partnership chances, billable hour expectations, reasonableness of billable hours, and pro bono commitment. Only two Cadwalader respondents said they expected to be at the firm in five years, and among our 165 responding firms, Cadwalader and New York’s Schulte, Roth & Zabel tied for last place on our question measuring how likely associates are to stay at their firms for at least two more years. Big-firm mergers also appear to have dampened associate morale. At each of three newly constituted firms — Nixon Peabody, Clifford Chance Rogers & Wells, and Howrey Simon Arnold & White — more than a third of responding midlevels said they were actively looking for employment elsewhere. That’s more than double the national average of 15 percent. Midlevels at Clifford Chance Rogers & Wells — the product of the legal world’s first big transatlantic merger — seemed especially unhappy. Forty-five percent of the firm’s 20 respondents said they were actively seeking new jobs, even though 80 percent of them said they were happy with their compensation. Asked what they would tell the firm’s managing partner, one midlevel wrote: “Would you want your son or daughter to work here? I’m sure your answer is no.” For some firms, low pro bono numbers made a dent in an otherwise stellar ranking. This year we asked associates for the first time whether they thought their firm’s commitment to pro bono had decreased in the past few years. Nationally, 28 percent of respondents said yes, they thought it had. And at Gunderson Dettmer, where associates ranked their firm number one for treatment by partners and firm atmosphere (read: thank you for the raises, boss), a rock-bottom attitude toward pro bono work (Gunderson Dettmer was ranked 157 out of 165 firms) dragged the firm’s ranking down to the seventeenth-highest ranking among firms overall. What are the things that make associates happy? The answers are more conventional than one would think. This year the top draw was interesting work: More than 87 percent of midlevels said they factor the interest level of what they do daily into their decision to stay or flee. Tampa, Fla.’s, Carlton, Fields, Ward, Emmanuel, Smith & Cutler, which tied with six other firms for number one nationally in the category of interest level of work, also seems to have some of the fewest attrition worries of any of the 165 responding firms, with all of its five respondents saying they’d likely be at the firm in two years. Nationally, almost 83 percent of the survey’s respondents said that the way they were treated by partners affected their decision to continue working at a firm, and almost 72 percent said that they considered the competitiveness of their salaries to be a factor. Still, associates conducting their own career cost-benefit analysis also know that there are some benefits that are just too expensive to bear. “[My] firm has become too obsessed with money, too callous about associates’ need for a personal life, and it’s driven out many good people,” explains one midlevel respondent, who says that workloads weigh heavier these days than ever before. And from another comes the final twist of the knife — the message that will send equity partners everywhere heading back to the drawing board: “Overall, associates would have preferred their salaries not to have increased so dramatically this year.”

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