Credit: ALM

While midlevel associates in certain regions are celebrating top-of-market pay raises, those in Pennsylvania are less enthusiastic about their compensation, affecting their overall job satisfaction.

The firm where midlevel associates are happiest nationally is based in Philadelphia, but the city as a whole falls in the middle of the pack for associate satisfaction, according to a recent report in Legal affiliate The American Lawyer. And Pittsburgh firms fell toward the bottom of the rankings for overall midlevel happiness.

Still, associates both in Pennsylvania and elsewhere seem pretty pleased with their firms, on average. In Philadelphia, they gave an average score of 4.23 out of 5, the 18th highest out of 46 regions ranked by The American Lawyer. In Pittsburgh, the average score was 4.04, giving the Steel City a ranking of 37.

The average composite score for all associates surveyed nationally was 4.26.

Benefits and compensation seemed to have a noticeable impact on associate satisfaction. In the national average scores, the greatest increase in associate satisfaction came in the area of benefits and compensation, with respondents giving firms an average score of 4.29, up from an average of 4.17 last year.

That followed a year in which many firms increased first-year associate salaries to $180,000—but few Pennsylvania-based firms met that amount across all of their offices. Pennsylvania associates on average gave lower scores for their compensation and benefits: 4.1 in Philadelphia, and 3.8 in Pittsburgh.

Firms with benefits and compensation scores above the national average in their Philadelphia offices were Cozen O’Connor, Dechert, Drinker Biddle & Reath, DLA Piper, Hogan Lovells and Blank Rome. In Pittsburgh there was one—Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.

In open-ended responses to The American Lawyer’s survey, Pennsylvania associates were split on the topic. Many said their firm should increase compensation, while a similar amount praised their firms’ pay scales.

“Compensation is good, but the firm is leanly staffed as to associates,” one Saul Ewing associate said. “It’s fine when we aren’t busy, but the same associates are consistently busy and recruiting midlevel associates is a problem.”

In a statement, a spokeswoman for Saul Ewing said the firm is successful at attracting associates at all levels when needed. She said the firm uses “a staffing model that does not bunch multitudes of associates at any given level. This allows our associates to get training through substantive legal work, and the opportunity to get hands-on experience working directly with partners.”

When they do have complaints, associates are not just concerned with base salary.

One associate at Morgan Lewis, which raised first-year salaries in certain markets to $180,000 in 2016, said the firm should “pay market bonuses in all offices.” Another said, “I don’t like different bonus structures for different offices … I feel that my merit-based bonus was well below market in my only year here, despite billing well and receiving solid marks.”

A spokeswoman for Morgan Lewis said the firm recently adopted a bonus structure in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh that mirrors its offices in New York, Washington, D.C., and on the West Coast, to take effect Oct. 1. The new structure “furthers our intent that our total compensation packages for our associates in all of our U.S. offices should reflect top of market in those cities,” she said.

One Pepper Hamilton associate suggested the firm provide, “Better compensation. Bonuses have never been great, but they were particularly disappointing last year.” That associate also said Pepper Hamilton “had a pretty openly bad year last year, and has not done enough to tell associates what leadership is trying to do to right things.”

In a statement, managing partner Tom Cole said, “Rather than relying on external surveys that solicit feedback from only some of our associates, we recently conducted a firmwide employee engagement survey to gather feedback from all associates.” The firm will roll out a plan this fall to address the firm survey responses, he said.

The Philadelphia offices of 13 large law firms were included in the regional rankings, with a total of 175 associate responses. Three law firm offices in Pittsburgh participated, with a total of 23 responses.

The firm with the happiest midlevel associates nationally was Cozen O’Connor, which had an average overall score of 4.86 among 16 respondents, all of whom work at the firm’s Philadelphia headquarters. Cozen O’Connor also got the top satisfaction score in Philadelphia.

The firm excelled in areas that were a struggle for many other firms. It had a perfect score of 5 for management openness, up from 4.92 last year, while the average score across all firms was nearly flat year-over-year, at 4.02. And Cozen O’Connor scored well above average with regard to communication about paths to partnership: 4.8, compared to an average of about 3.69 among all firms.

“That doesn’t surprise me. Our firm management is very open and transparent,” said Mindy Herczfeld, the firm’s chief legal talent officer. She referred to firm leadership’s meetings with associates multiple times per year, where associates can ask questions anonymously and get a clearer understanding of the firm’s finances.

After Cozen O’Connor, the top-ranked Philadelphia offices were Blank Rome, with a score of 4.64 among associates in the city, and Dechert, at 4.43. Baker & Hostetler’s Philadelphia office had nine responses, and ranked lowest for the city with an average score of 3.88.

In Pittsburgh, the top score went to Morgan Lewis, whose five respondents there gave an average score of 4.26. Reed Smith came in second at 4.01, followed by K&L Gates at 3.83.

The highest-ranking cities and regions were all on the West Coast—Sacramento, Las Vegas, Orange County, Silicon Valley and Los Angeles rounded out the top five. Sacramento and Las Vegas each had just one firm participant—Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe and Snell & Wilmer, respectively—and both of those firms got high satisfaction rankings nationally.

In the national rankings, a few Pennsylvania-based firms made improvements from 2016, including Cozen O’Connor’s jump from third place to first.

Dechert climbed the ranks by 50 places to 15th and Saul Ewing moved up 13 places to 55. Morgan Lewis moved up four places to 43.

But a majority of the Pennsylvania firms actually dropped in the rankings. Reed Smith, the lowest-ranking Pennsylvania firm, dropped 15 places, to 100 out of 102. Falling into the 80s and 90s, Ballard Spahr dropped 15 places, K&L Gates dropped 33 places, Pepper Hamilton dropped 42 places and Fox Rothschild dropped 52 places.

Duane Morris was down by 23 to 77th and Drinker Biddle was down by 22, to 48th. Blank Rome, while still toward the top of the list, dropped 14 places to 26th.