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Associate attrition is up at the nation’s 250 largest law firms. A few firms have lost almost half of their associates in a single year. And not all of the losses can be attributed to salary factors. The overall attrition rate in the NLJ250 rose from 18.5 percent in 1999 to 23.84 percent this year. Steel Hector & Davis; Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle; and Dewey Ballantine all said goodbye to more than 40 percent of their associates. Cravath, Swaine & Moore lost 39 percent, while Crosby, Heafey, Roach & May and Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft lost 36 percent each. Last year, no firm lost more than 40 percent of its associates. To get the attrition rate, the number of associate departures reported in the 2000 survey was divided by the associate total from 1999. The departures don’t constitute a net loss to a firm, as most associates are replaced. And not all losses are unplanned: Dewey Ballantine’s can be attributed in part to short-term arrangements with lawyers in overseas offices. Miami’s Steel Hector lost 31 associates (46 percent). Jose Valdivia, a partner and member of the firm’s board of directors, says that many of these associates left to join companies doing business in Latin America. This was the result of the firm’s emphasis on bilingual lawyering and its focus on these companies, he says, adding that being a training ground for Spanish-speaking in-house counsel doesn’t worry him. “It balances out,” he says. “It’s better than losing them to other firms.” He also thinks that many associates once tempted by the equity stakes being offered to in-house counsel may think twice about jumping ship now that the markets have cooled off. Annette Friend, the director of associate development and recruitment at New York’s Cadwalader — which lost 105 associates (36 percent) — says, “My goal is to find out what makes people want to stay. That’s the question people need to ask, not what makes them leave.” Friend says that at Cadwalader, partners and associates have decided to take a partnering rather than a negotiating stance, relying on a task force of associates to identify and address issues of importance to them. The lure of in-house work remains. People can climb the corporate ladder faster than they can proceed along the partnership track. Valdivia says that Steel Hector has been using “generous” promotions as a means of retaining promising lawyers. Also, Friend says, in-house work offers structure; the hours are long, but lawyers aren’t at the beck and call of several clients. One of last year’s attrition leaders, Seattle’s Lane Powell Spears Lubersky, cut its attrition rate in half this year, to 20 percent. Michael Dwyer, the firm’s managing partner, said that last year’s big number was an “anomaly” attributable to the closing of two California offices and the loss of a practice group in Portland, Ore. This year’s rate is more typical. Still, he says, “We’re trying to make opportunities for employment attractive. We don’t make them work 2,600 hours a year.” The firm is also in the process of hiring a full-time development officer to work specifically on associate issues. HAPPY IN THE MIDWEST Could geography make a difference? Of the six firms in the NLJsurvey with the lowest attrition rates, five are concentrated in the Midwest. The firms with the highest rates are located on the coasts, mostly in New York. Warner Norcross & Judd, for example, lost only two associates, according to this year’s survey. “When a person decides to come, they’ve made a thoughtful decision that they want to stay for a career,” says Robert Jonker, chairman of the Michigan firm’s professional staff committee. “I do think that we get some people who have family in the area, and that’s clearly a drawing card.” The firm has a three-year career development program to build camaraderie in the class. “The way you treat associates and the way you treat clients should be a seamless web,” he says. “If you treat people like a commodity, you will get short-term gains, but you won’t get the long-term benefits.” Related Chart: The Highest and Lowest Attrition Rates

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