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Alston & Bird’s managing partner, Ben F. Johnson III, said he can’t account for his firm’s rise to third place on Fortune magazine’s list of the best companies to work for in the United States. The ranking isn’t as important to Johnson as is the Atlanta-based firm’s repeat appearance, he said. “If you just made the Fortune list once, it probably doesn’t mean much.” But he cited Alston’s near-site daycare center, opened in October 2001 for children of employees, as a possible reason for its move to the No. 3 spot. “To the extent that there was any halo effect that resulted from the childcare center, it probably was felt in 2001,” said Johnson. “I think people who use it feel like it’s very important.” The magazine hit newsstands Monday. This is Alston & Bird’s fourth consecutive appearance on the list, and it is the only Atlanta firm ever to make it. Robert E. Levering, co-founder of San Francisco’s Great Place to Work Institute, the company that conducts the survey for Fortune, said more people contact his company about the survey than vice versa. “In the publication itself, it tells people how to e-mail us if they’re interested in participating. Any company can nominate itself,” he said. THREE FIRMS ON LIST Three law firms are on the list this year, and Levering estimated that four or five other law firms were considered, but didn’t make it. “Part of our ability to get the cooperation of the companies is there’s not going to be any public humiliation if they don’t make the list, so we don’t disclose that information,” said Levering. Levering said unqualified firms self-select out of the process. “It’s a little bit like an Olympic event,” he added. “If you know you’re an extremely good high jumper … you’re going to try out for it. I think that companies that feel that they’re really good workplaces will tend to contact us.” The institute typically will also “help that process along” during its initial discussions with candidates, Levering said. FIRST LAW FIRM IN TOP FIVE Alston & Bird is the first law firm ever to crack the top five. According to the summary on Fortune‘s Web site, “Alston & Bird had zero layoffs and thrives on daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly communications.” Johnson said that one week a month, he spends lunchtimes in a designated room, and he invites the partnership to join him. Each quarter, he does the same for associates. More than 1,000 companies were nominated for Fortune‘s list. The Great Place to Work Institute created the survey, the Great Place to Work Trust Index, and polled a sample of 269 companies with 1,000 or more employees. A total of 40,713 employees responded to the survey, according to Fortune‘s Web site. Nearly half provided additional written comments. The institute asked each company to fill out a questionnaire describing its human resources policies and workplace culture. Employee responses accounted for two-thirds of a company’s score, and the institute’s evaluation of benefits and practices comprised the remaining one-third. Johnson said the survey serves as a management tool for the firm. The overall results break down responses according to gender, race and age. “You can get a sense of where your message is getting through and where you need to work harder,” he added. One former Alston & Bird associate said the firm doesn’t push its employees to provide favorable responses in the surveys. The lawyer, who did not want to be named, filled out two Fortune surveys while working at the firm. Alston & Bird’s ranking is “legit as far as the process goes,” said the attorney, who noted that participation in the survey is voluntary. But now that he’s working elsewhere, he said, he thinks the firm might not necessarily be a better place to work than some other firms. “You can’t get to number three without being a great firm, but I don’t think that in and of itself, [the ranking] makes it a great firm,” said the lawyer. In 2001 and 2002, Alston & Bird was one of four firms on the list. But this year, the other three failed to make the cut, and two law firms appeared for the first time. CRITERIA FOR POLLING Fortune polled companies with 1,000 or more employees — in the past they’ve used a benchmark of 500 — making Palo Alto, Calif.-based Fenwick & West too small to qualify. Last year, Fenwick was ranked 14th. San Francisco’s McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enerson dropped off the list. Last year, it climbed from 97th place to 54th. McCutchen Doyle merged last July with Boston’s Bingham Dana, creating Bingham McCutchen. Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison had risen to 78th from 84th in 2001, but the San Francisco-based firm didn’t make the 2003 list. The newcomers were Washington, D.C.-based Arnold & Porter, and Perkins Coie, based in Seattle, which debuted at 60th and 94th, respectively. Alston & Bird placed ninth on the 2002 list, climbing from 14th in 2000 and 36th in 1999. The firm has 1,437 employees in the United States, according to Fortune‘s Web site. Of those, about 675 are lawyers. Last year, with $282 million in revenue, A&B placed second on the Daily Report Dozen and 56th on the Am Law 100, both of which rank firms based on revenue. Alston & Bird also has offices in New York, Washington, D.C., and Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C. St. Louis-based brokerage house Edward Jones topped the Fortune list this year, and Dallas-based retail chain The Container Store placed second.

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