The most satisfied associates: the leading firms 2018
Associates rate their firms on all the variables that make lawyers happy. These are the top 40 performers.
“WE definitely work very hard, but this is a place that I look forward to journeying to every morning,” reported an associate at Kramer Levin, the leading firm in our satisfaction chart this year. This associate articulated where the limitations are to any BigLaw happiness survey: we're not talking boundless euphoria here, but contentment in spite of the pressures of the job. So to find the global finance and corporate beast Clifford Chance in the second spot may be unexpected, but the firm has been an outstanding performer for two years now, and this magic circle firm is accompanied by many other global heavyweights in this list.
A Clifford Chance associate told us: “We had a rough Thanksgiving because we had a ton of work, but we still got together and cooked a couple of turkeys.” Simple touches like this can make all the difference, introducing some humanity when times are hard. There is no formula for associate satisfaction – if there were, IP whiz Finnegan (3rd) would have patented it by now – but there are common traits. The scholars at Finnegan reduced the equation to "interesting work and people I like working with."
The quality of the work is crucial. In this research you’ll always see niche or sector-focused firms performing well – Kramer, Finnegan, Seward, Goodwin and MoFo are there in the top ten. The clients' work was a source of inspiration for Finnegan's associates: “you get to see some amazing technology on the brink of its field.” And the prestige of your work as an associate is important, thought Clifford Chance associates: “huge deals you read about in big journals – that was very exciting to me.” Gibson Dunn (6th) is the highest ranking US giant in this list and their associates did admit to us that the firm’s own accolades were a big draw: “It’s just legal stars up and down the directory!”
Since we’re on the topic of prestige, we should mention the mighty Cravath, where, like Clifford Chance, you might not expect joie de vivre to be a priority, but they perform very well regardless. “There's something nice about working at a firm that emits a consistent level of quality, competence and dedication to the job.” When over-achievers find their mothership, all is well.
So it’s no coincidence that the happiest feel the most invested in their work. In our interviews associates put a premium on early responsibility, because to see where your career is going – to remove that uncertainty and junior anonymity – is immensely valuable. Lean staffing is how Kramer Levin’s associates got to feel valued early on: “we had client meetings with just me, a partner and another second year.” And Clifford Chance’s associates thought they had the best of both worlds with “the combination of an extremely large, international firm with the much smaller feel of the relatively small US offices.” Gibson Dunn makes self-determination a central theme with its free-market system, which “empowers you to pick and choose how you want your career to look.” Many firms in this list achieve a similar effect with a commitment to pro bono.
Law firm culture trickles down from the personalities at the top and the legacy working relationships. Our sources at Proskauer (8th) were confident enough that they would aspire to the top no matter what, but thought that “other firms are too OCD about things and want to harp on about details to the nth degree. The result is that people become bland, dry and lose their energy.” This seems smart – you have hired a group of natural perfectionists; does perfectionism need to be drilled in so rigorously? Proskauer's associates stressed that “to fit in here it's imperative to have a sense of humor." Similarly, associates at Goodwin (7th) found an empathetic firm: “I have messed up a few times and the partners have all been very nice about it – they understand that you learn.”
But enough of this hugging and back-slapping – isn’t ruthless competition the beating heart of the American legal profession? Speaking on behalf of many top firms in this list, Clifford Chance’s associates remind us: “We’re competitive in the sense that we want the firm to succeed but we don’t compete against each other.” You’ll find firms in this guide where associates are competitive, and others that find the eat-what-you-kill model positively awkward: neither has the edge on the other; both types of firm have their own merits and story to tell.
We asked associates to rate their firm on how happy they were, how stressed they were, their intention to stay at the firm, how much the work motivates them, and the firm's value to them in their career. The firms listed are those demonstrating strong performance.
2018 survey results