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Dietrich King emigrated to Long Island from Ireland as a 15-year-old and expected to follow the script of the youngest brother in “The Brothers McMullen” by moving to Manhattan and living the yuppie life. Instead, upon graduation from St. John’s University School of Law, King headed north and found his home in Rochester, New York, at Harter, Secrest & Emery. He works for big-name clients like Rochester’s Eastman Kodak Co. And he still has time to spend with his wife, as well as to play on two soccer teams. He’s had no regrets about forgoing the bright lights and big city. “People thought I was a nutcase for wanting to go out and do something different. [But] I knew I was in it for life, not money,” King recalls. When King realized that, with 12 third-year and fourth-year associates, the 110-lawyer firm met The American Lawyer‘s 10-response minimum to be listed in the Midlevel Associates Survey, he urged firm leaders to participate. His peers vindicated King’s confidence in the firm. Harter Secrest emerged as the top-ranked firm, averaging 4.486 in the 12 categories that make up the overall score by which we rank the firms, with five being the top possible score. All 12 midlevel associates responded. They gave the firm the best scores in the survey on the lack of competitiveness that exists among associates; whether they’d choose Harter Secrest again; and whether they’d be at the firm in two years. As a mid-size firm, Harter Secrest is in a different business from the legal leviathans in the survey. But the secrets of Harter Secrest’s success aren’t unique to smaller firms. Managing partner Maureen Alston says that lawyer contentment at the firm springs from the firm’s lockstep compensation system and trickles down to associates. There’s no economic incentive to hoard clients or begrudge other partners — or associates — face time with clients. “A lot of firms say they’re collegial. But if they sit down and fight at the end of the year over money, that’s not collegial,” she says. The firm, which has nearly equal numbers of associates as partners, tries to hire only as many associates as it anticipates making partner. “We’re not staffed in a way to promote internal competition,” says partner Paul Holloway. During interviews, Jeffrey Bowen, who is on the management committee, says he listens not just to what applicants say, but how they phrase it: “If every other word out of an interviewee’s mouth is ‘I,’ you get the idea.” The summer program acts as a second stage of the interview process. Summer associates do real work to see “how well they work or play with one another,” says recruiting chair Paul Sylvestri. Since 1999, the firm has not made offers to six of its 36 summer associates. When a me-first associate slips through the cracks, the firm springs into action. Erika Stanat, a member of the hiring and associate retention committees, says that in those instances, the partner with the best relationship with the problem associate will bedispatched to try to rein in his or her competitive spirits. The firm also goes out of its way to accommodate associates, like Kimberly Shimomura. She requested, for example, a transfer to the Buffalo office to be near her boyfriend, and the firm quickly obliged. Associate attrition averaged 13 percent to 14 percent annually over the last five years, which is not significantly different from large firms. The difference is that HarterSecrest tries to identify the keepers and goners early on. “We make a strong effort not to make people senior associates who won’t make partner,” says Stanat. King, 32, liked his odds at Harter Secrest better than at an Am Law 200 firm in New York, where he also had an offer: “It didn’t feel right to me to start somewhere where I didn’t think I’d stay because of attrition. Look at a first-year [class] in a big New York firm. Only a small percent will make partner, and you’re not always in control of how you do.” Since joining Harter Secrest, King has worked on initial public offerings and dozens of transactions for the firm’s biggest clients, like Kodak’s acquisition of the imaging group of National Semiconductor Corp. for an undisclosed amount in September. “I’ve gotten a much higher level of responsibility than people I graduated with,” King says. Clients don’t seem to mind that associates are handling their work. James Quinn, Kodak’s assistant general counsel and corporate secretary, says he’s happy to work with Harter Secrest’s associates. “[They] are really first-rate, and their billing rates are much more reasonable, so all the better,” he says. Twice he’s brought mid-level associates in-house for extended periods to get a deeper understanding of Kodak’s business and legal concerns. The most recent, John Anderson, has since made partner and now runs many of Kodak’s deals. Michael Looby, general counsel of the Rochester County School District, has established a blended flat rate that lets the firm staff assignments with associates or partners. He says he saves at least 20 percent annually on legal bills, and he’s never been disappointed by an associate’s work. King’s fellow fourth-year associate Kristin Hawes, a Seattle native and graduate of New York University School of Law, left Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker’s New York office to join Harter Secrest when her husband accepted a fellowship at a Rochester hospital in 2001. Within a year, Hawes became pregnant. Partners like Stanat, who took a five-month maternity leave the same year she made partner, reassured Hawes that she would suffer no retaliation taking three-and-a-half months off so soon after arriving. “I have friends who are now figuring out whether or not to even have kids,” Hawes says. Though she and her husband had planned to return to the West Coast, Hawes says she’s enjoying her work so much they’ve bought a house and decided to stay. Even so, selling Rochester can be a challenge. Salaries are a larger hurdle than Rochester’s long winters, says Sylvestri, who admits that about 85 percent of the firm’s lawyers have roots in the region. Mid-levels report an average base salary of $73,400, with merit-based bonuses ranging from nothing to $5,000. King and Hawes say the lower cost of living in upstate New York makes up for their lower salaries. According to the National Association of Realtors, Harter Secrest’s base mid-level salary translates into $188,526 in Manhattan. And with JetBlue Airways Corp. offering $90 flights to Kennedy Airport, associates really aching for a night out in Manhattan can fly there in just an hour, and have plenty left over for snowshoes.

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