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by Vault Law Editors | March 10, 2009

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No matter how much cynics might suggest that all large law firms are the same, most would have to agree that firms' assignment systems differ significantly. The most basic distinction between them is the use of a system of rotation. Some firms adhere to a generalist approach, preferring to allow their associates to experience many different areas before deciding what is for them. Others assign newbies to a specific practice right away, particularly if the associate is partial to one area or if the firm lacks personnel there. Occupational inertia is the rule under this system; associates will stay where they are unless uprooted by some unusual set of circumstances.

New York's Davis Polk & Wardwell is a good example of a "sensible" rotation system. Initially, new associates select two practice groups within their department of choice to rotate through. In corporate, for example, associates select among mergers and acquisitions, securities and banking practices. Associates say "you're supposed to get your first choice. You always hope you get your second choice as well." Each rotation lasts one year; those interested in smaller groups, like tax or trusts and estates, can do a "subrotation" of six months. The truly indecisive can do another six-month rotation after the first two years. Of course, there are exceptions; at Davis Polk, some associates remain "unassigned," while those in litigation do not rotate through their department.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Palo Alto, California-based Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati, where associates are "pretty much assigned to a partner or a practice group," upon joining the firm. For those coming to the firm out of law school, the assignment is based on preferences expressed during the summer associate exit interview. "Pretty much everybody gets what they ask for," says one associate. "You can move if you want to, but it's not expected, it's something you have to initiate."

~And then there are the firms that fall somewhere in between. Leave it to Cravath Swaine & Moore to be one of the wacky ones. While at Cravath, associates are assigned to "practice groups" as part of their 18-month rotations, in practice they work primarily with one partner and do not interact with the other partners in the group very much. The eighteen-month rotation is "set in stone," and associates who develop a particular affinity for a group are not permitted to stay then their term is up. Associates say they generally have no control over their rotations, aside from choosing corporate, litigation or tax law.

Even law firms that fall into the same category of "rotating" or "non-rotating" may have systems that are markedly different from one another. Associates at some firms with rotation systems move from one area to the next based on set rules. But, for example, at Cravath, "they do something called the Caucus. There are different groups of associates rotating every quarter of a year, and there is a list of people up for rotation. The partners will divvy them up?There is a lot of bargaining and jockeying for position for the best associates." So regardless of the system (or lack thereof) the way that tasks are actually assigned can vary greatly based on politics, personal relationships, or an associate's preference

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