The Happiest Law Firms 2016

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Every associate we interviewed this year gave us a rating for how happy they were and how stressed they were in their firms. We’ve crunched the results for you…

June 2016

THE survey did pose a problem: everyone has their own version of what happiness means, and each firm attracts a different type of person with their own take on life. So how can we compare firm-to-firm? To introduce some relativity into this survey, we also asked how happy our associate sources expected to be, and then looked at the gap between reality and expectation. We found this helps anchor the results for better comparison.

The top 20 happiest law firms, according to junior associates

Rank

Top 20 happiest firms 2016

Rating out of 10

Paul Hastings

9.13

2  

Cozen O'Connor

9.08

3  

Finnegan

9.00

4  

Venable

8.76

5  

Linklaters

8.75

6  

O'Melveny & Myers

8.75

7  

Snell & Wilmer

8.75

8  

WilmerHale

8.75

9  

Choate

8.67

10 

Harris Wiltshire

8.67

11 

Davis Polk

8.63

12 

Waller

8.57

13 

Kilpatrick Townsend

8.44

14 

Baker Botts

8.43

15 

Sidley Austin

8.41

16 

Seward & Kissel

8.40

17 

Allen & Overy

8.38

18 

Perkins Coie

8.38

19 

Fish & Richardson

8.29

20 

Akin Gump

8.25

Special note should go to Paul Hastings for coming top in both tables. Our research with their associates this year revealed a down-to-earth working culture: “you won't find any sharp elbows or crazy gunners here,” associates reported. “The work is tough, but it's that much easier when you're working with someone you get along with.” And a more telling quote: “There's a mutual respect between partners and associates, and everyone is treated equally.” 

This same theme continues at our second place firm, Cozen O'Connor, where associates articulated "how relatable people are, how partners' attitudes create a collaborative environment, and what a good job they do at encouraging a healthy work/life balance.” Having a life is fundamental, but equally the high achievers throughout BigLaw are happier when their toil is valued, as with Cozen's associates: "Shareholders ask me for my opinion in front of clients.”

The happiest firms appear to strip away the pretence and the pomp. Finnegan's IP-focused – and very happy – associates theorized that science and modesty are inextricably linked: “if you're not humble about what you can accomplish, then nature will humble you pretty quickly.” Associates at DC-headquartered Venable, with its famed rooftop bocce court, told us a similar story: “Partners are very modest but brilliant and are real role models.” 

“The culture is one of the best things about Linklaters!” the firm's associates shrieked down the phone to us. Their theory was that the elite level of international work the firm does (Linklaters sits at 4th place in Chambers Global's 2016 'Global Top 30' ranking) coupled with the cosy feel of the office is a winning formula – responsibility is guaranteed and so is camaraderie: "I've made very close friends here.”

The most pleasantly surprised associates, 2016

Rank        

Top 20 most pleasantly surprised associates           

Reality minus expectation /10

1

Paul Hastings

3.13

2

Alston & Bird

3.08

3

O'Melveny & Myers

2.75

4

Cadwalader

2.44

5

Simpson Thacher

2.31

6

Haynes and Boone

2.30

7

Winston & Strawn

2.20

8

Proskauer

2.20

9

Squire Patton Boggs

2.17

10

Fried Frank

2.13

11

Goodwin Procter

2.13

12

Paul, Weiss

2.00

13

Schulte Roth

2.00

14

Willkie Farr

2.00

15

Dechert

1.94

16

Allen & Overy

1.88

17

Venable

1.88

18

Irell & Manella

1.83

19

Reed Smith

1.83

20

Norton Rose Fulbright

1.80

Again in this table there are firms with some of the most formidable reputations in Manhattan – places where you'd expect happiness to take a back seat. But to take Cadwalader as an example, the firm's old “shark tank” reputation was no longer an asset, and it threw resources at turning it around. The initiative is working, say the junior associates; "they've done a really good job at improving morale.” To pick out another New York heavyweight, Simpson Thacher's associates echo the other best performing firms – that culture determines happiness. Regardless of the firm's uncompromising image, “Everyone understands that we're on the same side internally.” Simpson associates point out that even when under pressure, basic decency shouldn't have to suffer: “I would get emails from the people I was working for, just saying 'Thank you. I know you were working late last night, but we really appreciate it.'” 

Across the whole survey, associates’ expected happiness before joining was a lowly 6.6/10 on average. Out of this emerges a rather gloomy picture where students are resigning themselves to a career and accepting jobs without much care for their emotional wellbeing. But as we know, the early stages of your career are much more about establishing yourself – happiness can be deferred for a while.

If we take anything from this survey, it’s that you should decide what you want from your career before you start researching firms. Consider the elements you think would make life fulfilling or otherwise, then ask which law firms can match that.

Coming next week...