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Despite the rough economic times, a trio of San Francisco Bay Area law firms are among the nation’s most desirable places to work. That’s the way an annual list of the 100 best companies to work for sees it. Of the four law firms that made the list, published in Fortune magazine this week, three are based in the Bay Area. Fenwick & West was deemed the 14th best company to work for, McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enersen came in at No. 54, and Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison was No. 78. Atlanta-based Alston & Bird, which captured the No. 9 spot, was the highest-ranked law firm on the list. The list recognizes companies that have come up “with creative ways to keep employees satisfied and for offering generous severance and compassion when they had to make cuts.” Bay Area firms have traditionally enjoyed prominence on the list, thanks to their high pay and mouth-watering perks. But this year’s appearance of the three local firms is interesting given the economic difficulties that have afflicted Bay Area firms in particular. Since August, numerous firms have tightened their belts, leaving hundreds of associates jobless or with reduced paychecks. Fenwick & West laid off 32 associates and 15 paralegals in September. And Brobeck Phleger offered voluntary buyout plans to more than 260 associates in December. But both firms got high marks for handling the situation as humanely as possible. Fenwick, which dropped from seventh place in 2000 to its current rank of 14, was lauded for giving its laid-off employees four months of full severance pay. “New recruits were offered an average of $62,500 to not join the firm,” Fortune wrote. McCutchen Doyle, which has not had any layoffs, saw the biggest gain among law firms on this year’s list, jumping from the 97th spot in 2000 to 54th in 2001. Chairman Donn Pickett attributes this rise to the firm’s culture and commitment to things like diversity, the community and pro bono work. “All these things when taken together are quite impressive,” said Pickett. “It’s not specific perks so much as our feelings about each other.” Now in its fifth year of publication, the list is compiled in conjunction with San Francisco’s Great Place to Work Institute. The company sends surveys to 250 randomly selected employees at each firm, with questions on everything from compensation to the level of internal politics. This year, 279 companies chose to participate in the survey. Attorneys at the three selected Bay Area firms did not seem surprised to be on the list, though there were a few signs of dissent. “On the one hand, everyone who is still at the firm is really happy to be at the firm,” said one Fenwick associate who wished to remain anonymous. “On the other hand, we lost a lot of good people and not everyone agreed with the decisions that were made with regards to who was kept and who was not.”

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