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Misery loves company. Why else do lawyers and law students fight for jobs at firms that, year after year, take a beating in our annual midlevel job satisfaction survey? Big names — Cravath, Swaine & Moore; Sullivan & Cromwell; Simpson Thacher & Bartlett — rank near the bottom of this year’s midlevel survey, but according to legal recruiters (a group that knows a few things about midlevels’ motivations), those firms are among those most appealing to potential laterals and to law students. The reason, they say, is simple: Those firms have prestige. Working at one of these firms, even for a few years, can open doors throughout a lawyer’s career. To quantify this “halo effect,” we surveyed legal recruiters across the country, asking them which firms they regard as most prestigious, both overall and in 11 different practice areas. As a check, we also asked our midlevel and summer associate survey respondents which firms — other than their own — they regard as most prestigious. We then compared those to the ten most prestigious firms chosen by respondents to a separate survey of law firm prestige conducted by the Internet site Vault.com, a partner of American Lawyer Media. The four lists are remarkably similar. Prestige explains employment choices in ways that other factors can’t. Money, for example, doesn’t explain why young lawyers are willing to forgo job satisfaction. On average, the top 20 most prestigious firms (as selected by midlevel associates) pay their midlevels only slightly more than does the average Am Law 100 firm ($158,000 vs. $148,000), not enough to explain why talented lawyers flock to them. Even when the same “prestige” firms are compared to the 20 firms scoring highest overall in the midlevel associate survey — a group with far less star power — the difference in pay is unremarkable. Associates aren’t going to prestigious firms for a quality work experience, either. The average scores for the 20 most prestigious firms, as ranked by midlevel associates, are virtually identical to the average scores for Am Law 100 firms in the areas of training and guidance, treatment by partners, and interest level of work. Where the prestigious firms do stand out (unhappily) in terms of hours billed by midlevels: Cravath midlevels reported having the highest billables of any of the 165 firms in the midlevel survey; Sullivan & Cromwell was number two. The choice between prestige and job satisfaction is a stark one. Only two firms — Chicago’s Kirkland & Ellis and Los Angeles’ Latham & Watkins — made the top 10 on both the recruiters’ list of prestige firms and our midlevels rankings of Am Law 100 firms in terms of job satisfaction. Among Am Law 100 firms in New York, the combination of job satisfaction and prestige is more than rare — none of the top ten finishers overall in our annual midlevel survey were New York firms. Coincidence? Not according to headhunters, who say that the shift from law-as-a-profession to law-as-a-business has been embraced with greater gusto in New York than in other cities. Looking at the list of firms that did well on the midlevel survey and were selected by recruiters, midlevels, or summer associates as prestigious, one New York headhunter said, “Every one of those firms is historically a much more collegial place to practice law. In New York, It’s about the business of law. It’s cold and impersonal.” Another had a simpler explanation: “Quality of life is something that’s traditionally found outside of New York City.” Still, prestige and job satisfaction don’t operate independently of each other. Lawyers at prestigious law firms are almost always brilliant, ambitious, dedicated people who have spent their lives at the top of their class. Fill a room with such people, and conflicts can arise, and from such conflicts, unsatisfactory work experiences are born. A New York-based headhunter puts it a different way: “The people at these firms are considered the best of the best. They’re arrogant and have incredible expectations. They think the world owes them. And when their real-life experience doesn’t measure up to their expectations, they’re not happy.” Law students are particularly influenced by prestige, recruiters say. Because students usually lack information and real-world experience, it’s hard for them to see beyond the marquee names. “Prestige blinds them,” says recruiter David Walden of New York’s Smythe Masterson & Judd, Inc. “They’ve spent their lives trying to get into the best colleges and the best law schools. Next, they want to be associated with what are considered the best firms.” Other recruiters don’t see na�vet�, but a realistic assessment of the market that likes to see big names on a resume. Mike Danforth of Hyde Danforth & Co. in Dallas explains that “associates have become more pragmatic, realistic, cynical. They know that a very small percentage of people make partner at these big firms, so they aren’t planning to stay long. They see big firms as a springboard to another firm or to industry.” Carl Baier of Major, Hagen & Africa’s Palo Alto, Calif., office describes it as “looking for the most cards to play.” Young lawyers are also thinking about the world outside law. “They want to impress their friends, their parents, and their classmates,” says Jonathan Lindsey, managing partner of Major, Hagen & Africa’s New York office. “Those people may not know much about the legal industry, but they know the big names.” The exceptions are new lawyers with specific career plans — those who have their minds set on a narrow practice specialty or specific geographic area. They don’t need so many doors opened, so they’re not as concerned about landing at a firm with a nationally recognized name. “If you know what you want, you’re less drawn to prestige,” says Kristina Anderson of Chicago’s McCormack Schreiber Legal Search. But most young lawyers don’t fit into that category. For them, Anderson says, the priority is “keeping their options open.” After a few years at a law firm, priorities change and job satisfaction becomes the primary motivator. Virtually every recruiter contacted for this story said that prestige means less to a lawyer with a few years of experience who is looking to make a lateral move. “Laterals are looking for a home, not a name,” says Howard Lieberman of Lieberman-Nelson, Inc., in Minneapolis. “Their sense of reputation is more informed.” Law students and young lawyers are willing to give up job satisfaction because they think that a few years at a prestigious firm will give them a certain cachet, will be their key to the kingdom. Apparently, they’re right. According to recruiters, nothing opens doors like a big name. “People at name firms frequently get seen first,” says recruiter Ren�e Berliner Rush of New York’s Corrao, Miller, Rush & Wiesenthal Legal Search Consultants, Ltd. “Clients say to me, ‘I know it’s wrong, but I can’t get attorneys from small firms through the door.’ “ The preference for prestigious names is a product of a lawyer’s cautious nature, recruiters say. “Lawyers really respond to credentials,” says Lieberman. Another recruiter points out that “lawyers are risk-averse. Hiring a big name is safe. Nobody ever got in trouble for hiring [from] Cravath.” In hiring for in-house positions, the bias toward applicants from prestigious firms may be even more exaggerated. A number of headhunters report that in that game, it’s either a big name or nothing. “It’s common for in-house clients to tell me that they want big-firm experience or they won’t talk to them,” says Rush. “It’s a screening device.” That’s not to say that recruiters (and by extension, employers) are blind to some differentiation among firms. When we asked recruiters to select the top ten firms in 11 practice areas (corporate/transactions, litigation, intellectual property, labor and employment, real estate, tax, employee benefits and ERISA, environmental law, bankruptcy, health care, and electronic commerce) and found that prestige varies by specialty. The corporate/transactions category is basically a restatement of the overall prestige rankings, but in areas like intellectual property and labor and employment, the firms that ranked as most prestigious overall were absent. Firms didn’t have to be a general-practice behemoth to corner the prestige market in a practice niche: A fair number of midsize firms cracked those top-five lists. For example, in real estate, The Am Law 100′s Piper Marbury Rudnick & Wolfe; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson; and Shearman & Sterling are ranked right above Allen, Matkins, Leck, Gamble & Mallory and Cox, Castle & Nicholson, two much smaller Los Angeles firms that specialize in real estate work. In environmental law, recruiters chose Washington, D.C.’s midsize Beveridge & Diamond, followed by two much larger firms — San Francisco’s McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enersen and Chicago’s Sidley & Austin. Among electronic commerce practitioners, four large San Francisco Bay-area leaders (Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, Cooley Godward, and Morrison & Foerster) shared the spotlight with Brown Raysman Millstein Felder & Steiner, a midsize firm based in New York. The hands-on experience that associates receive at smaller firms might be the reason that those firms are able to break through to the top of the recruiters’ practice-specific prestige rankings. While employers want applicants from big-name firms, they also want applicants who have spent time out of the law library, dealing with clients in person — and that sort of experience is often in short supply at Am Law 100 firms. For instance, one headhunter reports that litigation partners commonly request lateral associates from big firms who have courtroom experience. “You can’t have it both ways,” she says. “Most people in big firms just don’t get that kind of exposure.” Prestige also varies from region to region. In interviews for this article, Silicon Valley recruiters placed Wilson Sonsini, Cooley Godward, and Brobeck as among the most prestigious firms in their region, and those firms are developing a national profile as well. To San Francisco Bay Area recruits, those three firms are leaner, meaner, and faster than New York firms, especially those New York firms that do not have offices in California’s Silicon Valley. Recruits in Seattle also tend to gravitate toward the San Francisco Bay Area firms (many of which have offices in the Pacific Northwest), probably because “Seattle thinks of itself as a satellite of Silicon Valley,” according to one Seattle-based recruiter. This recruiter says that Seattle’s Perkins Coie, an Am Law 100 firm, is still seen as the area’s number one player, but that smaller Seattle firms that once aspired to that position — Preston Gates & Ellis and Davis Wright Tremaine — are now competing with the local offices of Bay Area firms including Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe and Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe. In cities where the there’s less of a technology-sector presence, the impact of the Silicon Valley firms isn’t so great. The Midwest, for example, has long recognized the big Wall Street firms as prestigious, but isn’t dazzled by the tech firms. “The people here don’t know [Morrison & Foerster],” says one Midwestern recruiter. “They know New York.” A region’s practice orientation can affect the perception of prestige. While New York firms are usually thought of as at the top of the corporate-law ladder, Danforth says that in his state, Texas, the perception is different. “There’s not a lot of project finance or international work in Dallas,” he says, “so New York isn’t the be-all and end-all.” One development that threatens to shake up anyone’s list of prestigious firms is the Internet. Because word of mouth is a big element in the perception of prestige, a veil of secrecy over the inner workings of the top firms can go a long way toward maintaining their reputations for excellence, even if it’s undeserved. Donovan Leisure Newton & Irvine and Mudge Rose Guthrie Alexander & Ferdon are examples of firms that managed to maintain a quality reputation for years after partner defections and declining profits started taking their toll, according to Smythe Masterson recruiter Mark Henley. These days, career-oriented Web sites allow gossip and speculation to spread quickly to (and from) anyone with a modem. This flood of information can raise doubts about reputations once considered unassailable. As an example, one Chicago recruiter cites “one of the largest, most prestigious firms” in that city, which was the subject of unflattering discussion about partner defections and unhappy associates on the “Greedy Associates” Web bulletin board. Even if untrue, those rumors sparked questions from potential recruits that have never been raised in the past, this recruiter says. Oddly, most discussions of prestige and its effects omit one basic question: What is prestige? Everybody seems to know the names of the most prestigious firms, but recruiters disagree about how they get that status. According to Lindsey, “Prestige is having the best clients and doing the biggest deals.” Declares another: “Profits and prestige are one and the same.” Ventures a third: “The most prestigious firms are the ones who were seen as prestigious historically.” Whatever the explanation, one thing is clear: Despite the long hours and lack of job satisfaction, young lawyers continue to fight for jobs at prestigious firms. They know it won’t be Mardi Gras, but they want the firm’s name on their resumes. And in the middle of a long, lonely night in the law library, only they know if it’s worth it.

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