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Associates at 10 Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe offices spent their lunch hour Oct. 16 gathered in their respective conference rooms. Chairman Barry Levin and Managing Partner Robert Hubbell briefed the associates on the San Francisco-based firm’s financial performance and its strategic plans. The pair also unveiled a handful of new firmwide programs, in addition to fielding questions from the firm’s 420 associates. The all-hands associate meeting, which will become a quarterly event, was the first in a series of new initiatives that the firm has undertaken to open the lines of communication with its associate ranks. “Communication is something in the best of worlds that happens spontaneously and frequently,” said Hubbell. “But under the pressures of growth we’re just trying to create some structures to facilitate it.” In addition to its traditional associate committee, the firm has expanded the role of a special committee, dubbed the R2D2 Committee, which focuses on recruiting, retention, development and diversity. While the committee initially comprised only partners, associates now make up half of its membership. Earlier this year, the committee toured Heller Ehrman offices, meeting with the entire associate ranks at each office and collecting feedback. The first fruits of these meetings were embodied in Wednesday’s live videoconference, broadcast to all of the firm’s offices except Hong Kong, Singapore and the soon-to-be-closed Maryland outpost. According to an associate in one of the firm’s satellite offices, the management shared more detailed financial information than in the past. “They were surprisingly candid,” said the associate. After the videoconference, associates at each office met with their respective managing partners to discuss office-specific issues, a new monthly tradition that was also born in the R2D2 Committee. While Heller Ehrman has fared better than some of its Bay Area brethren in the economic downturn, and managed to avoid the layoffs that have afflicted firms like Palo Alto, Calif.-based Cooley Godward and San Francisco-based Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, its associate ranks have not been completely free of angst and frustration. “I think people are struggling right now in terms of morale,” said one San Francisco associate who wished to remain anonymous. “Everyone is willing to work very hard here, but I think people have felt stretched, especially in the last few months, in terms of work and support for the amount of work they do.” While Heller Ehrman has traditionally been good about making sure people are happy and treated well, added the associate, “I think it has slipped a little bit in the last year or so.” In the recent associate job satisfaction survey by Recorder-affiliate The American Lawyer magazine, Heller Ehrman plummeted from one of the country’s top-rated firms to one of the worst. In the 2001 survey Heller Ehrman ranked 13th overall for job satisfaction, but the firm dropped to the 110th spot of the 132 firms surveyed in 2002. According to Hubbell, the new associate programs are not a direct response to the survey. The firm was disappointed in its performance on the survey, but “this initiative was started six months ago and the timing was really coincidental,” he explained. The survey category in which Heller Ehrman got its poorest rating was partnership communication, which is the main thrust of the new programs. The new initiatives “are all intended to facilitate communications,” said Hubbell. “We picked up on it and we’re moving proactively.” Other associate-focused programs announced Wednesday include a performance counseling program, a mentoring program and annual mentoring awards. The management’s effort to keep everyone in the loop appears to be well received among associates so far. The reaction has been positive, said one associate. “I think in almost any firm increased communication can’t be a bad thing.”

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