The American Lawyer recently published its A-List, AmLaw’s "look beyond pure dollars to quantify the 20 most successful law firms."  What it "looks" at to make that assessment is revenue per lawyer, pro bono commitment, diversity and associate satisfaction. 

AmLaw tips its hand about the continuing importance of dollars by double weighting revenue per lawyer, but also double weights, interestingly enough, pro bono commitment. The latter almost single-handedly accounts for the two new arrivals — Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker and Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner. 

But the biggest movement in the A-List this year compared to last is in the widening range among these firms in rates of associate satisfaction–an average 23% swing–and the impact that has on which firms are designated most successful. 

Lower associate satisfaction scores contributed to the exit of four firms from last year’s A-List: Howrey, Irell & Manella, Kirkland & Ellis, and Sullivan & Cromwell.  And a 44% increase in its associate satisfaction score, reflecting a commitment to lockstep pay and communication, according to AmLaw, propelled Debevoise & Plimpton up to number three.

Of course this is the first list to emerge since the 2009 layoff/furlough/delayed entry debacle, so perhaps some volatility should be expected. 

AmLaw concludes its roll-out of the A-List with the statement that "Associates’ power may have diminished during the recession, but not when it comes to the A-List." 

The question is:  Why not?

During a period of short-term cost cutting and expectations of long-term reduced growth, when law schools continue to churn out the same number of graduates, many of whom are competing with the lawyers already axed for a smaller number of law firm jobs, why does associate satisfaction really matter much any more?  Aren’t there enough junior lawyers out there who will knuckle under and produce results sufficient to fuel the chugging machinery of our law firms without law firms expending the money and effort needed to prop up associate satisfaction rates?  Aren’t law firms, in a long-awaited pendulum swing, back in a buyer’s market?

The short answer is yes and no.

Yes, there are plenty of bodies for sale.  While law school applications fell for awhile (prompting concern that the quality of graduates must be going down), they have most recently gone up again. In any event law schools continue to produce the same number of new lawyers, and many of those grads continue to prefer to join larger practices (instead of joining the ranks of solo practitioners, for example, which account for over 70% of lawyers in the United States).  All of which puts law firms that boast nothing more than jobs to fill in an enviable position.

So can’t a firm ease up on its satisfaction efforts?  Where else, exactly, are these lawyers going to go?

Contrary to that recently spreading, though often unspoken, line of thinking, associate satisfaction is still important–firms should shoot for the competitive advantage that higher satisfaction produces. 

Getting the right answer to a client is not what distinguishes a firm from the rest of the pack these days.  Senior partners at good firms across the country are able to deliver spot-on expertise and client service.  What distinguishes top-tier firms from the rest is the depth of their teams–allowing them to truly leverage their partner skills through the use of competent junior lawyers. Educating and keeping the "keepers"–the young lawyers who are able to do more than just warm the bench, who can bring real value to a firm and its clients–is still the big challenge for firms that want to be at the top, regardless of the drop in industry attrition rates.  

Gen Yers in particular, in search of a portable career, are often going to firms to build their resume, pay off loans and get some substantive training.  Not necessarily to stay, regardless of their credentials.  A recent study indicated that 3/4 of the best reviewed associates are not interested in a biglaw practice. In the UK, the percentage of associates wanting to stay for partnership has dropped from 50% to 38% just in the last 2 years.  Whatever these statistics mean in terms of attrition, they do not bode well for firms who want to provide the best client service.

Nor is this just an issue for today. Fewer associates will be going through most firm pipelines, making the value of each of them even greater and the importance of a high rate of retention more critical.  So we must recruit carefully, train well, and provide reasonable support –to deepen the bench, yes, but also to be in a position to nimbly address opportunities to expand and to replace retiring partners. 

So looks like AmLaw may be right.  There is power in having bright associates interested in and well suited to firm life who are committed to their firms and enjoy what they do.