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It’s one thing for law firm managers to tell associates their opinions matter. It’s quite another to give associates the power to conduct performance reviews of their peers, set salaries and bonuses for all of the associates, and make recommendations on which lawyers should be made partner. But that is what the associates committee at Latham & Watkins does, and that’s just for starters. The firm empowers its associates committee with making nearly all of the policy and salary decisions that affect the firm’s 1,100 associates. Most law firms have associates committees where attorneys can air grievances, address firm managers or act as a sounding board for policy initiatives. But Latham’s committee appears to give associates more influence with management than at other firms. At San Francisco-based Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe, for example, the firm didn’t even have associates on its associates committee until last summer, when a partner realized it would be easier to poll associates on policy initiatives if there were a few in the room. “Every law firm will tell you how much they love and respect their associates. The difference is what they do to show it,” said Daniel Wall, a Latham partner in San Francisco who sits on his firm’s committee. The responsibility isn’t lost on the associates who serve on the committee. They take their role seriously and say the partners take them seriously as well. “It’s a little bit daunting,” said Randall Kim, a Latham fourth-year who joined the committee last spring. “The issues you’re dealing with are of tremendous importance.” Formed in the 1970s, the 33-member committee is comprised of 16 associates and 17 partners. Its members are appointed by the committee chairman and serve two-year terms, with half the committee turning over each year. In addition to salary and partnership issues, the committee’s responsibilities include assigning work to first- and second-year associates who haven’t yet been assigned to a practice group. Recruiting, development and retention also fall under the group’s purview. Associates even participate in the interview process of lateral partner candidates. Partners credit the committee with helping foster a healthy morale among associates, who ranked their firm highly in the annual associate job satisfaction survey in The American Lawyer, a Recorder affiliate. The firm landed in 20th place out of 132 firms, and was the highest-ranking national firm on the survey. A handful of associates queried about the committee give it high marks. “It’s an incredible tool,” said one seventh-year associate, who added, “It lets me know exactly where I stand.” “Associates set the policies affecting associates,” Kim said. “It’s not like there’s some edict that has to run the gauntlet of the associate committee.” Still, for all the claims the group is autonomous, influential and transparent, Kim was surprised when he attended his first marathon meeting of the committee in July. “There were a number of times where there were these raging discussions and disagreements and debates almost,” Kim said. “But in that room, it didn’t really matter if you were a first-year associate or a well-respected senior partner. We all had an equal voice, an equal vote.” The committee meets in July to draft the associate reviews and discuss partnership candidates and convenes again in January to set bonuses. These meetings last more than a week with daily sessions stretching late into the night. Last summer, for example, Kim said the group ate 11 straight meals in the conference room where they were deliberating. Disagreements typically center on partnership qualifications, and surprisingly, it’s not partners versus associates, Kim said. “Our standards for partnership admission are fairly clear and we try to make them clear to associates, and it really is a matter of whether someone measures up,” Kim said. “It’s hard to evaluate.” The idea of associates evaluating each other, for partnership reasons or annual reviews, gave local law firm managers pause when they considered the role of their associates committees. “Is it right for a group of associates to review and be privy to in-depth evaluations of other associates?” asked Donald Bradley, a Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati partner. “I don’t know. It doesn’t strike me as right.” Performance reviews should be the responsibility of partners, Bradley contends. Standards “should be vetted at a firmwide level to be sure that criteria are clear and consistently applied,” Bradley said. Bringing associates into the firm management process is still a relatively new idea at Palo Alto, Calif.-based Wilson Sonsini. The firm established its committee in 1995 when a group of associates asked for a vehicle for input and discussion, Bradley said. But the committee is primarily a forum for communication between management and associates; its votes aren’t binding on firm management. Still, Bradley said he could see the upside of bringing associates into the fold. “You’re building a process where associates who sit on these committees act as a resource to validate the fairness of the system,” Bradley said. “To realize the visions of the firm, you have to get people to buy in at all levels.” Latham’s Wall said the time drain of committee work is steep, but worth it. “It’s where you get all the truth,” Wall said. “You can’t pretend you know what’s going on in a law firm without associate representation.”

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