All things considered, midlevel associates are a fairly content lot: That’s the main takeaway from our 2012 Midlevel Associates Survey of third-, fourth-, and fifth-year associates. The average composite score—which is based on 1-to-5 ratings that 5,638 respondents give their firms in 12 areas, with 5 being the high score—was 3.984, up sharply from 3.729 in 2011.

Large firms showed some of the most improvement. Of the 10 biggest year-to-year gainers, six were Am Law 100 firms: Kaye Scholer, Holland & Knight, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, DLA Piper, Jenner & Block, and Bingham McCutchen.

Kaye Scholer climbed the most on this year’s list. With a composite score of 4.008, the New York firm leaped 65 places to number 60 from number 125 (out of 126) a year ago. (The firm’s response rate dropped to 28 percent from 53 percent in 2011.)

While Kaye Scholer’s scores in all 12 categories improved over last year, the categories showing the biggest improvement included compensation and benefits, which rose to 4.33 from 3.09, and training, which went to 3.75 from 2.51. In responses to open-ended questions, several Kaye Scholer midlevel associates praised the firm. “The firm has really turned things around for the better in the last two years—they made a commitment to bettering the associates lives and being more open about the business decisions of the firm,” wrote one.

Kaye Scholer managing partner Michael Solow says the firm has started emphasizing meetings early in the year that provide associates with budgetary information, as well as criteria for receiving bonuses and earning advancement. “Our firm has made a concerted effort over the last couple of years to change our associate program in terms of how we measure their performance and communicate their place in the firm,” Solow says. “The agenda has been dictated by our associate committee. We’re trying to be more responsive, so we’ve been doing a lot of listening.”

Two of The Am Law 100’s 10 biggest gainers moved into the top 30. They include Holland & Knight, which rose 49 places to number 29, based on a score that increased to 4.167 from 3.654, and Jenner & Block, which rose 42 places to number 23, based on a score that increased to 4.228 from 3.741. (Holland & Knight’s response rate went from 46 percent in 2011 to 63 percent this year.)

The second-biggest jump on this year’s list was Rochester, New York’s Harris Beach, which climbed 64 places from number 95 to tie Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison for 31st place. (Harris Beach’s composite score rose to 4.123 from 3.477.) Among the areas in which the firm showed the biggest improvement were satisfaction of work, which went to 4.60 from 3.64, openness about firm finances, which went to 3.47 from 2.64, and pro bono, which went to 3.73 from 2.82.

The other top-10 gainers that were not from The Am Law 100 were two Second Hundred firms—Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo and Arent Fox—and Philadelphia’s Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis.

Among decliners, five Am Law 100 firms were among the 10 firms that showed the biggest year-to-year drops in rank. Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel dropped 60 spots to 121 from 61, based on a composite score that decreased to 3.488 from 3.752, while Boies, Schiller & Flexner fell 59 spots, to number 110 from number 51 a year ago, based on a composite score that decreased to 3.757 from 3.820. Cahill Gordon & Reindel dropped to 101 from 43, with a score that went to 3.820 from 3.840. Vinson & Elkins dropped 48 places, to number 66, with a score that fell to 3.982 from 4.025, while Steptoe & Johnson dropped to 102 from 49, with a score that dropped to 3.798 from 3.823.

The firm with the biggest decline in ranking was Robins Kaplan Miller & Ciresi, a Second Hundred firm that fell to number 92 from sixth place a year ago. Robins Kaplan’s composite score fell to 3.879 from 4.244. The firm’s scores declined in all 12 of the areas in which associates were surveyed, though the declines were minuscule on the questions related to training and openness about firm finances. The firm may have been affected from a low response rate—31 percent this year, compared to 85 percent a year ago.

Thompson Coburn
, another Second Hundred firm, also fell far out of the top 10, tying with Sidley Austin at number 90 in this year’s rankings, compared to the eighth place position it held a year ago. Thompson Coburn’s score dropped to 3.884 from 4.168, and—in contrast to Robins Kaplan—its participation rate increased, to 79 percent in 2012 from 56 percent in 2011.