Building a Better Legal Profession :: The Old Blog

What!? Why Sullivan & Cromwell’s Example Matters by refirm2007
April 9, 2007, 8:06 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

S&C has caught a lot of flak for its treatment of associates, and has a reputation among many law students for being a sweatshop. In the AmLaw midlevel surveys they rank close to the bottom on measures of associate satisfaction. And their recent sexual harassment suit is likely to further harm their reputation among law students.

S&C, though, has at least recognized that there’s a serious problem with associate morale. According to this article in the Wall Street Journal law blog, last year S&C partners got together to face the music:

A 74-page PowerPoint presentation entitled “Recruiting, Associate Morale and Retention” showed that associates were leaving the law firm in droves: S&C lost 31% of its associates in 2004; 30% in 2005. (The average associate attrition rate for law firms of 501 or more attorneys from 2002 to 2004 was 19%, according to a NALP study.)

Meanwhile, in the American Lawyer’s midlevel associate satisfaction surveys, the firm compared unfavorably against peers like Davis Polk, Cleary Gottleib, Debevoise, and Simpson Thacher. In the 2005 survey, it ranked 155th out of 160 law firms. Scribbled one person on a hard copy of the presentation: “We are breaking away from the pack in the wrong direction.”

WSJ Reporter Peter Lattman took note of the larger problem facing firms (from the print edition, subsc. req’d):

Low associate morale is standard fare at big law firms, where smart young lawyers, though well-paid, often work long and unpredictable hours for sometimes-demanding bosses. It is a serious business issue: The industry’s demand for lawyers from top schools outpaces the supply, especially as lawyers increasingly eye opportunities at private equity firms and hedge funds.

Law students have dozens of choices before them, nearly all of which (at least among large law firms) pay the same high salary. We have significant market power to find firms where associates are more satisfied, at no financial trade-off.

To their credit, S&C partners realized this. Associates want to be listened to, are more productive when they’re happy, and firms and clients suffer financially from high attrition rates. It also hurts a firm’s long-term potential if the best talent coming out of law schools decides never to work there because of a reputation as a sweatshop.

In spite of S&C’s problems and poor reputation among many law students, it recognized a problem and is (hopefully still) taking steps to find solutions. They might not make it to the top ten of the associate satisfaction surveys (we’ll tell you if they do, of course). But they might make it off of the worst-offender list, to the benefit of their attorneys, clients, and their own bottom line. Here’s the result of their efforts, as described in the WSJ (print edition):

The firm says that it has lowered its associate attrition rate to about 22-24%. In addition, Mr. Cohen says, the firm’s rate of summer associates’ accepting offers to return full time this year was the highest it’s ever been. And, Mr. Cohen says, comments about the firm on Vault, a career information Web site, have improved.


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