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It seems that everyone knows about the associate uprising at Clifford Chance — except that there never was an associate uprising at Clifford Chance. Once the media got wind of the vitriolic memo sent to the firm’s New York partners by a group of associates in October, a veritable uproar ensued, and a collection of myths worthy of Bulfinch was generated. But what really happened was much more mundane. Finding itself dead last in The American Lawyer‘s Associates Survey, Clifford Chance decided to be proactive. The firm hired an outside consultant and looked to its ranks for some candid feedback on firm life. But the firm did not choose associates randomly — they were, in fact, on the firm’s personnel committee. Quite expectedly they tackled their assignment with the same grim determination that any partner request would get: doing a comprehensive survey of the firm’s associates and condensing the responses into a detailed, 13-page memo, replete with Roman numerals and bullet points. The memo lists associate grievances in pristinely outlined fashion — with pressure to bill, a faulty assigning system and poor communication with the partners as the key gripes. While Clifford Chance was widely reported to have requested the memo, the firm demurs. David Taub, the partner in charge of the firm’s task force on associate satisfaction, stresses that the firm asked for feedback but did not commission a memo — and rightly so, as this easy-to-e-mail packet quickly turned Clifford Chance’s associate unrest into worldwide news, with The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and London’s Financial Times picking up the story. Since then, the memo’s authors have behaved dutifully on the firm’s behalf. In fact, one says, “We’re six of the happiest people here; we really love the firm.” (Two of the six associates on the committee were interviewed for this article. Both requested anonymity, one after consulting the firm’s communications director. Calls to the other four were unreturned.) These associates say the effort was intended solely to improve the firm. “This is a new law firm and a new place,” says one enthusiastically, “and we took the Am Law survey positively, as something to force us to look at ourselves and make an honest change.” The press quickly picked up on one specific associate comment cited in the memo, about bill padding, and thus another myth was born. The memo stated that a 2,420-billable-hour requirement (2,200 hours of client time and 220 hours of nonclient firm work) “encourages padding” of time by lawyers. From that statement stories of potential client flight and overbilling were born. The firm maintains that padding does not occur and says that clients — some of whom the firm had reached out to and some of whom contacted the firm — have been “extraordinarily supportive.” But what, exactly, is the firm’s billable requirement? When we asked several months ago, James Benedict, Clifford Chance’s current managing partner for the Americas, said the firm had no billable requirement. In an interview after the associates’ memo had circulated, John Carroll, who will succeed Benedict in 2003, finessed that statement, saying that the firm does have a “target” for its associate billables: 2,200 hours. Bonuses are tied to, though not strictly determined by, this target, Carroll says. He confirms that the firm does encourage time spent outside client billables — the 220 hours of “soft time” cited in the memo. A target for a maximum bonus is not the same as a hard-and-fast requirement. But those numbers are high by anyone’s standard. New York firms reporting billable requirements to The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) cite between 1,800 and 2,000 hours on average. Carroll says the firm is in the process of reviewing billables, and he expects that something will change. And what about Clifford Chance’s recent mergers as causes for the tumult and strife? Carroll chafes at the suggestion. “It’s an issue confronted by every major law firm in the world,” he says. One sign that he may be right about Clifford Chance’s mergers not being the culprit: Rogers & Wells, the New York predecessor to Clifford Chance, also performed poorly on our surveys. In 1996, for instance, Rogers & Wells associates said they felt extreme pressure to bill, which was at times exacerbated by a lack of available work. Associates were unhappy then; they’re unhappy now. But one associate on the committee says that morale at the firm has been “amazingly good in light of all that’s happened.” For things to change, though, Clifford Chance management will have to be as earnest in its resolve as its associates were in their memo.

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