Some firms moved down. But they all moved. None of the firms on the 2010 A-List returned to the same spot this year. Whether it was a result of a firm’s spike in its associate satisfaction score, or a drop in its revenue per lawyer, the 2011 A-List was all about volatility.

Take the top of the leaderboard. Hughes Hubbard & Reed climbed into the highest spot after two years in the number two position behind Munger, Tolles & Olson. Munger was among the 12 firms on last year’s list that saw their rankings decline this year. The Los Angeles–based firm, which has held the top position for the past three years, didn’t fall far. Munger took the second spot on the 2011 list, falling short of New York–based Hughes Hubbard’s total score by just three points (1,141 vs. 1,138).

For other firms, the decline was much more precipitous. Four firms fell off the list, which meant that for the third year in a row the A-List had four firms that weren’t on it the previous year: Dewey & LeBoeuf, Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, Ropes & Gray, and Shearman & Sterling were 2011′s fresh faces. Dewey & Le­Boeuf and Ropes & Gray made their A-List debuts, while Pat­terson Belknap and Shearman & Sterling returned to the roster after a two-year absence.

The A-List was created in 2003 in an effort to assess (and rank) the nation’s largest and most prominent law firms in a holistic way. It takes into account financial performance, which is represented by the inclusion of firms’ revenue per lawyer, and other important measures of law firm performance, such as attorney diversity, pro bono work, and associate satisfaction. The latter is measured by a firm’s results on our Associates Survey. Pro bono and diversity scores are also a reflection of a firm’s showing on our annual Pro Bono Survey and Diversity Scorecard.

The calculation used to tabulate the A-List gives more weight to firms’ revenue per lawyer and pro bono score; those are doubled. The sum of the doubled RPL score, doubled pro bono score, diversity score, and associate satisfaction score represents a firm’s total A-List score. The firms with the 20 highest total scores constitute the A-List.

Associate satisfaction only represents about 16 percent of a firm’s overall A-List score, but this year it appeared to be the determining factor in the rise of some firms and the fall of others. Year-to-year changes for associate satisfaction scores for each A-List firm ranged from an increase of 104 points for Dewey & LeBoeuf to a decrease of 35 points for Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr.

Hughes Hubbard ascended to the top of the list by showing improvement in three of the four categories, but the firm’s largest jump in points came from its pro bono score, which (after being doubled) rose 26 points from last year, to 199 [see page 55]. Munger improved its associate satisfaction and pro bono scores, but declines in RPL and diversity scores allowed it to be outpaced by Hughes Hubbard.

Munger managing partner Sandra Seville-Jones says that even though the firm fell to second place, “we’re happy to have done so well in the survey.” In explaining the improvement of the firm’s associate satisfaction score, Seville-Jones points to the 2009 opening of a downtown Los Angeles child care center by Munger and neighbors O’Melveny & Myers and Oaktree Capital Management L.P. as an example of the firm’s continual efforts to try to improve the work experience of its attorneys and staff.

The key role played by the associate satisfaction scores is most apparent in Dewey & LeBoeuf’s rise from thirty-first place last year to the number 11 spot on this year’s A-List [see page 56]. The firm’s score in three of the four categories that make up the A-List increased compared with last year, and most significantly the global firm’s associate satisfaction score spiked by more than 100 points, to 168 from 64.

Shearman & Sterling was the other firm garnering a place on this year’s A-List largely on the strength of its associate score. Shearman & Sterling came in at eighteenth place on this year’s list after ranking twenty-fifth last year. The firm’s pro bono and diversity scores also improved, but by a more modest 16 points (after being doubled) and ten points, respectively. Shearman’s RPL score dropped to 168 from 177.

While Dewey and Shearman gained entry to the A-List in part on the basis of improved associate satisfaction scores, for some firms already on the list this criterion was the key component of their rise in the rankings. Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker ranked third on this year’s list thanks to improved scores in all four categories, but most impressively in associate satisfaction, which improved by 60 points to 195. The firm made its first appearance on the A-List last year, coming in at tenth place.

Firm chairman Seth Zachary points to changes in the way Paul, Hastings approaches associates and their development to explain the increase in associate satisfaction. Those measures include instituting a formal professional development and training program, establishing a competency model, altering the evaluation process to allow for more input from associates and more communication, which includes two meetings each year between the associates in each office and the firm’s leadership. “Now we have a more participatory evaluation and training process that is not just about what the firm thinks about associates,” Zachary says.

Latham & Watkins is another firm with a dramatic rise on the A-List due to a much-improved associate satisfaction score. On the 2010 list, Latham ranked 13, with an associate satisfaction score of 122. But this year, the firm rose to a sixth-place finish with an associate score of 175. Latham’s 53-point bump represents the third-largest associate satisfaction score increase among A-List firms. (Dewey and Paul, Hastings were first and second, respectively.) The firm improved its diversity and RPL scores by a more modest four points and eight points, respectively. Latham’s pro bono score fell to 180 from 196 [see “Choppy Waters,”.

David Gordon, Latham’s vice-chairman, attributes the rise in its associate satisfaction score to, in part, an increase in demand for the firm’s services. “Our associates have been much busier than in prior surveys,” Gordon says. “Busier associates are happy associates.” Gordon adds that as the economy recovers, Latham associates have also found solace in the firm’s commitment to a more traditional promotion model. “We believe our model works and that associates can take some comfort in what the future holds,” Gordon says.

Declining associate satisfaction scores played a role in the falling rank of other firms. The four firms that dropped off the 2011 A-List, Arnold & Porter; Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner; O’Melveny; and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe all experienced declines of 17 points or more in their asso­ciate satisfaction score. The associate satisfaction scores for O’Melveny and Arnold & Porter, which tied for seventeenth place on last year’s A-List, dropped 37 and 23 points, respectively.

Orrick experienced the most significant asso­­ciate satisfaction drop of the four firms that fell off the A-List. (The firm declined to comment for this story.) The firm’s associate satisfaction score declined to 104 from 151 last year. More modest declines in diversity and RPL also played a role in the firm’s overall drop to twenty-sixth place from twentieth place last year.

In recent years, Orrick has been at the forefront of efforts to redefine the way in which associates are trained and promoted. In summer 2009 the firm announced the rollout of a new talent model that jettisoned lockstep advancement and created nonpartner track classes of associates. Open-ended responses to our Associates Survey suggest that the firm’s dropping associate satisfaction score can be attributed in part to these changes. One associate complained, “The new talent model has created enormous insecurity among the associates.”

Wilmer is another firm that has moved away from lockstep associate advancement in recent years. Last year the firm shifted to a merit-based compensation and advancement model. And on the 2011 A-List, Wilmer fell ten spots, to fifteenth place, primarily because of a 35-point drop (to 136) in its associate satisfaction score.

Wilmer’s associate score decline was the largest for that category among A-List firms. William Lee, Wilmer’s co–managing partner, says the decline in the firm’s associate satisfaction score is a reflection of unease that has since passed. “Whenever you implement fundamental change, there is going to be a period of uncertainty,” Lee says. He adds that at the time of the survey the firm had yet to pay bonuses under the new system, which added to the uncertainty. “But we have now paid bonuses under the new system, and a substantial portion of our young folks were compensated at above market,” Lee says. “I am hopeful that our ­associates are now more comfortable with the new system.”

Other factors played a role in the 2011 A-List results. Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher’s ranking rose to fourth place from seventh, largely because of an 11-point increase in the firm’s diversity score. It helped that the firm’s associate satisfaction score remained at 197, which was the highest score of any firm on the 2011 A-List. Kenneth Doran, Gibson’s managing partner, says that the firm’s diversity stats reflect its retention measures, such as more focused mentoring efforts and greater firm support for affinity groups. He adds, “There hasn’t been a partnership or executive committee meeting where diversity isn’t a topic we spend time on.”