A grand old firm has gone through a rough patch recently—one of its associates not only sued for sexual orientation harassment and discrimination, but also proceeded to file partnership documents and communications that S&C certainly would prefer to not have circulating publicly. Further, an article in the legal press lampooned a memo S&C sent around to its partners exhorting them, among other things, to say "thank you," in case their mothers had forgotten to instill in them that finer point of social intercourse. The legal blogosphere enjoyed batting that one around.
But S&C may have gotten the last laugh. In the Midlevel Associates Review released last month by The American Lawyer, New York law firms (as defined there to mean firms with more than 45% of their lawyers in New York) were once again roundly denounced, with this year only 7 firms making it into the top half of the 162 firms surveyed. The New York associates registered their dissatisfaction particularly regarding relations with partners, training, communication about what it takes to make partner and openness about firm finances. While New York firms have always performed poorly in these ratings, several firms fell precipitously since last year’s survey—Cravath Swaine slid 27 places, Paul Weiss was down 59, Debevoise Plimpton fell 64 slots and Wachtell Lipton plummeted 74 places.
Thumbing its nose at the rest of the straggling New York herd was Sullivan & Cromwell, which vaulted from number 153 on the list up to number 48.
So now that all the chortling has died down, was it the "thank yous" that worked? Perhaps. But also, for the first time this past year, S&C leaders gave associates a series of briefings about firm finances, business strategy and the road to partnership. Chairman H. Rodgin Cohen and vice-chair Joseph Shenker, among others, made in-person presentations and took questions.
On those two most damning survey questions for New York firms, "communication about what it takes to make partner" and "openness about finances," S&C’s ratings this year were 3.48 and 3.64 respectively, out of the ballpark compared to their prior year’s ratings of 2.14 and 2.13, and even much higher than this year’s average New York firms’ ratings of 2.59 and 2.94.
So it looks to me like Mom was right. Talking it out—even those tricky financial matters and partnership issues that several New York firms said, and continue to say, were either too confidential or essentially none of the associates’ business—creates rapport, incentive and even, get this, trust in an environment that sorely needs all three. And it does so quickly—with the results showing up in the first survey!
Mom would be so pleased.