Call it a case of tech-spectations run amok. A year ago, respondents to our annual Mid­level Associates Survey were raving about their firms’ embrace of iPhones and Android devices and eagerly anticipating a bigger role for the iPad and other mobile gadgets ["Solidly Pro-Choice," September 2011]. And then: nothing, or at least nothing that would whip up a frenzy. Instead, this was a year of smaller advances: Windows 7 upgrades, Microsoft Office updates, bug fixes, and the revamped iManage 8.5 document system. Midlevels who had dreamed of drafting memos on voice-responsive tablets were instead searching for functions on their new Windows desktops.

In short, associates were underwhelmed. As one respondent from Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld said in an interview: “We all get spoiled with so many tech advances and then, nothing really happened.”

Our associates survey, which was distributed last spring, asks respondents to rate their firm’s technology on a 1-to-5 scale, with 5 being the high score. This year 5,543 third-, fourth-, and fifth-year associates rated their firm’s technology in four areas: overall quality, training, support, and use of technology to benefit clients. We also averaged scores on all four questions to assign each firm a composite score. Although the average composite score was roughly the same as a year ago, this year’s highest score wasn’t as high as last year, and the lowest scores were lower.

Associates “are interested in the cool factor. Technology has become fashion,” says Matt Kesner, chief information officer at Fenwick & West, whose technology composite score was the survey’s second-highest, and the highest among Am Law 200 firms [see "Leading the Pack"].

But in interviews, firm technology leaders noted that 2011—the year that respondents to our survey were assessing—was filled with behind-the-scenes changes and upgrades that weren’t always apparent to midlevels. Among the projects was a Windows 7 upgrade that many firms undertook, as well as associated updates to Microsoft Office, Outlook, and other daily-use software, along with assorted bug fixes.

“Lawyers just want to get their jobs done,” says Michael Shannon, chief information officer at Dechert, which dropped to number 108 from number 50 a year ago, with a composite score of 3.235. “They don’t want to deal with technology, they just want it to work. The bottom line is that all of us had to do a complete overhaul of every software product we have and [get] an upgraded version. The amount of training that’s required versus the amount of training lawyers want to go through—there’s a gap.”

The Windows 7 upgrade alone left a lot of associates searching for functions they could no longer find because the desktop set-up looked so different. Over the six months that Dechert rolled out the new operating system, from April 2011 to October 2011, the firm’s IT help line saw calls jump from an average of 3,500 a month to 5,500 a month, Shannon says.

“I heard a lawyer say, ‘Stop giving me three ways to deal with something. Teach me the best one way to do it and we’ll do it,’ ” Shannon says, referring to training groups organized after the upgrade. “ He just wanted to know the best way to teach him to do his job, not giving him every option under the sun.”

For associates, the good news may be that 2011′s software and infrastructure upgrades are in preparation for hardware updates. “Twenty-eleven was actually a lot of training, a lot of support, and a lot of hand-holding,” Shannon says. “I think most CIOs would say this was a two-year project. You had to get all the back-end upgrades done before you could get to the new desktop.”

Boston’s Nutter McClennen & Fish, which took the number one spot on our rankings by composite score, made many of the same upgrades as Dechert. “Our IT director would classify 2011 as a building year,” says Nutter director of legal recruitment Katie Thatcher. The firm replaced its entire network infrastructure, doubled its bandwidth, and replaced 50 percent of the computers, all in preparation for 2012, when the firm will replace the other half of computers.

At Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, which dropped to 101 from 21, with a composite score of 3.298, the firm began the process of replacing laptops earlier this year, says chief operating officer Patrick Mandile. “Generally, there was investment in infrastructure, especially in e-discovery, which is of course needed when you’re going to deliver technology to the desktop.” Robins Kaplan is focusing on wireless and interoffice bandwidth, as well as giving lawyers mobile access so they can work from home.

Similarly, Nixon Peabody, which dropped to number 45 from 23, is poised for a hardware upgrade. The firm will offer its lawyers a choice between a laptop and a desktop, doing away with the wait list altogether. “We’re going through a technology continuum,” says Nixon Peabody chief information officer Mike Green. “We’re evolving from standard practices to offering choice, and we’re kind of in the middle of that.”

Comments culled from responses to the open-ended questions on the survey and interviews with respondents suggest that associates aren’t just looking for new technology anymore—they want to use their personal technology at work, too. That creates new challenges for IT directors worried about document security and client confidentiality. Says Kessler, from Fenwick: “Associates are smart, and they want more and more of the tools that they bring to the firm adapted for use in the firm. We’re humble enough to think the lawyers and the clients might know better about the tools they need than we do, so we figure out how not to say no.”

When Android-based devices were new, for example, management knew many firm lawyers would want to use them instead of BlackBerrys or iPhones (both of which the firm supported at the time), but the Android devices were hard to encrypt and wipe remotely. Fenwick assigned three IT officers to spend several months testing different security software applications to figure out which one was the right fit for the firm.

“We’ve had to examine our security policy and [adjust] our security standards” to accommodate the technology, Kessler says. “We had eight rules for every device, and now we’re down to two. It was so that we could allow more devices into the office.”

Similarly, respondents put a premium on flexibility. Timilin Sanders, an associate in Latham & Watkins’s Washington, D.C., office, says she is happy with the technology because it allows her to work from home and still access everything she needs.

Sanders recalls that on Christmas Eve, she was working on her IBM Thinkpad at her in-laws’ house when she found she couldn’t connect to the firm’s secure VPN Internet connection. She called the firm’s tech support line and not only did someone answer the phone, but they got her connected right away.

“Everybody is very savvy and adapted to technology,” she says of Latham, which finished at number 8 on our composite rankings. “And at this firm there is an expectation that it [will] be excellent.” In a technologically sophisticated age, that may be all that associates want—but they expect no less.

Our midlevel survey asked asso­ciates to rate their firms’ technology on a 1–to–5 scale in four areas: overall quality, training, support, and use of technology on behalf of clients. We averaged the scores in all four areas to arrive at a composite score for each firm. These are the top firms in each area, and when ranked by composite score.