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When Josh McMorrow graduated from the University of Texas School of Law in 1999, he knew what he wanted from a prospective employer. In law school he’d split his summers so that he could clerk at four different firms — two litigation boutiques and two Houston-based full-service firms, Baker Botts and Bracewell & Patterson. McMorrow decided early on that he wanted to work at a law firm where he could learn how to try cases, a place where he would quickly graduate from grunt work to real responsibility. Although the 600-lawyer Baker Botts offered McMorrow a job, he felt that he would do better at a firm with a more intimate culture. “I didn’t want to find myself as a fifth-year or sixth-year and not know how to go to trial,” says McMorrow. Now a fifth-year associate at 350-lawyer Bracewell, McMorrow, 30, enjoys what respondents to this year’s American Lawyer associate survey say they covet most — the type of experience that will burnish their careers. Call them the New Lifers: Rejecting the pattern of jumping from firm to firm to dot-com that was the craze when they began their careers, these midlevels have gotten cozy at their firms for the long haul. And in McMorrow’s case, why not? He takes on first- or second-chair responsibilities in major litigations, including securities fraud defense and some plaintiffs’ side securities work, contract cases, insurance defense, and IP litigation. During his first year at the firm, McMorrow tried and won his first case, a securities fraud litigation, along with a senior associate. He took depositions and made an opening statement. More recently, McMorrow worked on another securities fraud action, representing several defendants, including Orlando-based LightPath Technologies Inc., which was sued by about 60 investors for more than $25 million in state court in Houston. Working with Bracewell trial section head J. Clifford Gunter III, McMorrow faced off against a Vinson & Elkins team that was representing the plaintiffs, and helped to win a summary judgment on the bulk of the claims. “It was an incredible feeling,” he says. “The day we won summary judgment, I grabbed another associate, and we walked down to the courthouse so I could hold the paper in my hand.” (The plaintiffs in the case have filed a motion for a new trial to resolve the remaining claims.) McMorrow is one of the lucky ones. Thanks to the economic downturn, there’s no shortage of anxiety at the nation’s law firms, according to this year’s survey of third- and fourth-year associates — in which Bracewell beat 158 other firms for first place. Layoffs are part of it, as is the concern that management is now cutting dead weight through aggressive performance reviews. More than a third of our 4,070 respondents said that their firm had laid off associates in the past year. That’s a frightening prospect for lawyers who, according to our survey, carry an average law school debt of $59,224. In the current cold economy, many midlevels have given up on looking for a new job or a fatter paycheck. Instead, they focus on getting senior-level responsibility and client contact — the sorts of resume-boosters that they are betting will propel them into partnership, or at the very least, will pay off when the job market loosens up. “The hottest associates are the ones who have trial experience or deal experience,” says Blane Prescott, a consultant at Hildebrandt International Inc. “They are the ones who can almost write their own ticket.” Many firms that finished toward the top in our survey offer formal and continuous training and mentoring programs. Many, too, have full-time staffers in charge of professional development to help associates get the training they need — and to help remind partners to check in on their associates’ progress between formal evaluations. But some of the highest-ranking firms are simply blessed with interesting work that partners and senior associates delegate to midlevels. Conversely, respondents at lower-ranked firms often complained about not having enough work, or doing work that could be handled by more junior associates. As one unhappy midlevel from Pittsburgh’s Reed Smith, which finished 157th of 159 firms, put it: “I’m doing the work that nobody else in the firm wanted to do. The scraps.” (The midlevel asked not to be named in this article.) It’s a complaint that resonates with Prescott. “People who have to bill a lot might grouse,” he says, “but nothing is worse for highly motivated type A people than to have no work.” In general, he says, today’s midlevels are handling less complex matters than midlevels were at the height of the tech boom four years ago, when many firms had so much business that partners were handing off whole deals to midlevels. In this slower economy, partners keep the juicy projects for themselves. “In 1999 you could’ve had midlevels playing prominent roles in corporate deals. Now it’s second- or third-chair work-drafting documents, due diligence, contract work, reviewing corporate governance issues at a lower level. They’re not running their own deals.” But despite the less exciting work and overall lack of responsibility that midlevels report, they seem more willing to grin and bear it than they have in years. Not in recent memory have our survey results depicted a more flexible — or tolerant — bunch. In our 2000 survey, for instance, more than 80 percent of respondents indicated that how partners treated them would be enough of a reason to leave their firms. This year only 8 percent said it would. In 2000 more than 70 percent of respondents said they would consider leaving for better compensation. This year only 16.5 percent of respondents dared to dream that dream. And in 2000 more than half of respondents said they’d jump ship for a better opportunity to make partner at another firm. This year only 14.3 percent of respondents said they would. Meanwhile, associates seem to have tempered their expectations for big money. This year’s respondents reported a median base salary of $137,972 and a median bonus of $12,434, for a median total annual compensation of $150,406 — respectable, although hardly spectacular. Nonetheless, they gave their firms a solid, above-average grade of 3.82 on our question asking whether they are satisfied with their compensation and benefits. More common were complaints about benefits. About 15 percent of respondents said that health care benefits at their firms were reduced or canceled last year. There also were gripes about the elimination of specific perks. At Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, for instance, it was the reduction of paid sabbaticals for sixth-year associates. At Weil, Gotshal & Manges, it was the elimination of a retention bonus, which the firm introduced a few years ago. In addition, there are intangibles: One of Shearman & Sterling’s 33 respondents lamented a perceived decline in the firm’s prestige and its negative impact on his job mobility. In short, this is a group that is playing it safe, career-wise. As such, they want feedback — detailed information about what it’s going to take to succeed long term at their firms. “One is not a poor associate here and a great partner,” says Bracewell’s managing partner Patrick Oxford. “So we’re honest from the very beginning” about whether an associate is cut out to succeed at the firm. Oxford says that Bracewell hasn’t laid off associates for economic reasons per se, “but we run people out. Reviews are tough.” Those who stay, he says, are treated like potential partners. Oxford meets with associates after every partners’ meeting, giving several presentations so that associates from all the firm’s offices can attend in person or through videoconferencing. The firm also gives its associates plenty of opportunities to work directly with clients through what Oxford calls a secondment, or externship, program. Associates are sent over to clients to work in-house on a per-project basis. Bracewell can afford to keep its associates happy: The firm, which has a large energy practice, has kept profits up by doing bankruptcy and restructuring work as well as biotech work for medical and health companies. It recently represented Houston-based energy giant Reliant Resources Inc., in a $6.2 billion debt restructuring. (Bracewell’s profits per partner in 2002 were $510,000, placing it 117th among Am Law 200 firms.) But to ensure that the firm doesn’t neglect associate development, a year ago, one of Bracewell’s labor and employment partners became general counsel for professional development, a new position that oversees recruitment, training and associate evaluation. Before that, the firm’s associate development program “seemed discombobulated,” Oxford admits. Sometimes, getting good work is a process fraught with obstacles, like partners who hoard. “Despite the economy, the firm does have quality work,” says the dissatisfied Reed Smith associate. “But there are gatekeepers — partners and senior associates — who don’t delegate that work.” Instead, says the associate, “I do bits and pieces of deals … what’s left over that nobody wanted.” Reed Smith managing partner Gregory Jordan admits that the firm could do better. “In the hustle and bustle of running a firm in this economy, we haven’t been doing the job we should be doing,” says Jordan, who adds that the firm might be going through growing pains, having merged in January with Oakland’s Crosby Heafey Roach & May. Jordan says he expects that in a year, the firm’s rankings will have improved. “Formal training would make me happier,” says the Reed Smith associate. He ticks off a list. “Like how to go through securities filings and what to look for. Negotiating acquisition agreements, drafting opinion letters, blue-sky issues, general corporate organization.” Reed Smith is listening. In late summer, Jordan says, the firm named one of its former partners as a firmwide director of professional development. Jordan says that this former partner’s sole job will be to make sure that associates get the training and mentoring they need. Sometimes, formal training programs aren’t necessary, especially when a firm focuses on a niche practice that happens to be doing well. Daniel Reynolds, a 33-year-old third-year associate at Boston’s Goulston & Storrs, a 170-lawyer firm with a large real estate practice that finished in fourth place on our survey, is busy working on acquisitions, dispositions, and financing. “The real estate business is booming due to low interest rates over the last two or three years,” says Reynolds. That means his career is booming, too. And it’s not the money that keeps this former Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton associate happy. In fact, the firm says it has no bonus system. “I had client contact from the moment I started,” Reynolds says. He now runs his own smaller deals. The training at Goulston is not part of a formal program, but Reynolds has learned what he needs to know simply by doing the work and talking through complicated issues with approachable partners. Failing a big push from management to improve associate development and training, how can midlevels snag the work they want and the mentoring they need to grow as lawyers? By taking control of their own careers, says Newport Beach, Calif.-based consultant Peter Zeughauser. “Most associates start developing relationships with partners as mentors in the first two or three years. But many of them don’t develop these relationships,” he says. “They languish in the dark, thinking some [partner] will come to them. In most firms it doesn’t work that way. And it’s harder to do that in your sixth or seventh year.” Bracewell’s McMorrow agrees. He meets regularly with his supervising partner, and relies upon several partners at the firm as informal mentors. “Developing good relationships with partners makes it easier to get good work,” he says. And helping to win a summary judgment for a client helps keep it coming, too. With reporting from Vivia Chen.
Related charts: The Best Work The Most Responsibility Staying Put Gone but Not Forgotten: The Layoff Log

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