Law at the top is hard work, that's a given – but the opportunities to do exciting work which you enjoy, to develop along with a group of peers and to forge a lasting career provide the counter balance. Which firms do best on this front?
DESPITE the many fine bells and whistles that law firms offer these days, the experience of associates is still reliant on how a firm approaches the work they do. It's what they spend most of their time doing after all. Keeping the work satisfying relies on dishing out tasks that are stimulating, challenging and allow associates to develop; it relies on having the resources to support associates, and it relies on having a team which functions... as a team, where relationships are respectful, responsibility is shared and associates feel appreciated. Combine these elements, and associates will be presented with fewer barriers to developing their career.
It's the last of those points which helps advertising litigation expert Kramer Levin secure the top spot. It scored exceptionally for fostering teamwork and collaboration across levels. Sources didn't feel isolated from their seniors – “there's always an open channel of communication” – and this negated the pressures of the BigLaw workload: “When people are working they go all in, 100%, but everyone still gets along. There's no yelling.” While an eat-what-you-kill system might work for some firms, it was the fact that “there's no competitive edge to the culture” at Chicagoan Vedder Price (4th) which ensured they had one of the best working cultures around. Rather than concerning themselves with bettering their colleagues in a scrap for the partnership, sources could work safe in the knowledge that “the firm is rooting for you to succeed and become a shareholder.”
Magic-circler Clifford Chance's associates were also extremely close: “Everyone seems to be working together to survive – it can be hard at a law firm!” But they illustrate a more important point regarding career opportunities. Clifford Chance's associates felt extremely aware of the firm's strategic goals. This helps explain the firm's second place spot – the disclosure of the firm's goals suggests to associates that they are going to be the ones to help implement the strategy further down the road. Meanwhile, fellow magic circle firm Allen & Overy was the best rated for allowing associates to establish themselves in a practice area of their choosing.
For those that have very clear ideas about how they want their career to develop, is there anything more important than allowing associates to choose their work? A generous approach in this area benefited Kramer Levin and Gibson Dunn (8th) in our survey. The relatively small Kramer Levin allowed associates to source work “from asking around or developing relationships with partners. That's possible in an office with just a few hundred people.” Sources at the much larger Gibson Dunn enthused about how the firm had made a free market system work: “it's like a Goosebumps Choose Your Own Adventure book.”
At Katten Muchin (9th) associates were empowered with the responsibility of frequent and meaningful client contact: “there’s a push for associates to meet people on the client side who are of a similar age and experience: the thought behind this is that the firm can grow with the client.” Crowell & Moring meanwhile, a firm known for its rubber duck mascot, did well in our survey for allowing associates to flourish as individuals. “Quirkiness is a virtue,” said sources, with one recalling an admirably chilled approach to a difficult case: “It was just how I’d pictured it – eating Chinese food with people around a table, trying to figure it out.”
It's stories like these that show there's a clear alternative to barked orders and ruthless competition. There are firms out there who recognize the potential of junior associates, rather than simply seeing them as your go-to for repetitive, menial tasks. Providing them with the tools and experience to build their careers from an early stage can reap huge benefits. All of the firms who succeeded in our survey appreciated this to some degree.
We asked associates to give a rating for their level of responsibility, their autonomy in work acquisition, their opportunities to establish themselves in a practice area, the quality of training, their contact time with partners, the travel opportunities, technological support, support on procedural tasks, competition between peers, their stress, whether they're nurtured as future leaders, camaraderie between associates, the communication of management strategy and to what extent they feel comfortable being themselves. The firms listed are those demonstrating strong performance.