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March 10, 2009

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Treatment of associates by partners is the stuff of urban legend. One particularly ghastly tale goes as follows: Once upon a time, a young associate and a partner at a large New York firm were working on a project. The associate had to put in major hours on the project, and ended up working 17-hour days over several days. By the last morning of the project, the associate looked a good deal less than chipper. The partner and associate met with the client to discuss matters. The client, looking at the associate, asked the partner if the associate needed a break because of his tattered appearance. The partner looked directly at the client and said, "I couldn't begin to care."

While many such tales can only remain in the realm of the apocryphal, the reality of the joys and sorrows of partner/associate interaction will stay with us for as long as law firms exist. And what sorrows partners can bring! "You are treated just like the copy machine," moans one of our insiders at a top New York firm, "You are expected to be working and available at all times. No praise, no thank yous."

Given the dramatic commentary, the matter of treatment by partners is certainly worth exploring in any career advancement situation. Two items in particular stand out as means to effectively improve partner/associates relations: upwards reviews and free market assignment systems.

Upwards review: Shearman

New York's Shearman & Sterling has often been cited in this newsletter as a firm actively looking to improve its associates' quality of life. One way it has done so is to allow all associates to anonymously review partners once a year. Not surprisingly, in the "treatment by partners category" of this year's Vault.com Top 50 survey, Shearman scored a 8.1 out of 10, solidly beating the industry average of 7.67. Several contacts cited upwards reviews as the reason for the high scores. In New York, one corporate finance insider explains: "This place had a traditional reputation for hierarchy. Recently, however, S&S made a serious effort to improve its working culture. Associates now can review partners, and this has changed their behavior. One partner told us that a negative review can have consequences, including the inability of the partner to find staffing for his or her projects." Another contact agrees: "With our upward review process, partners are more informed as to what associates expect from partners in terms of training, level of involvement in a transaction, and personal treatment." In the firm's real estate practice group, a contact finds that "S&S is basically a civilized place. The behavior of those relatively few partners with abusive tendencies has been tempered noticeably by both the upward review process and by pressure from other partners who want to keep attrition down."~

Upwards reviews: DPW

Another New York firm scoring extremely highly in the "treatment by partners" category is Davis, Polk & Wardwell. The firm pulled in an 8.36 (again, as against an industry average of 7.67) in the 1999 Vault.com Top 50 survey. Like their Shearman counterparts, Davis Polk associates get a chance to review partners. Associates fill out feedback forms on partners they have worked with, "which are supposedly factored into the partner's compensation considerations." Insiders say that negative reviews "can hold somebody back." For example, when compensation is being decided, "they'll say you're a fourth-year partner again" (bumping a fifth- or sixth-year partner down.) Fortunately for career-minded associates looking to exact revenge, all comments are anonymous.

As with Shearman, Davis Polk partners get solid reviews from their associates. In the words of one corporate attorney: "Generally, I think this is one of DPW's greatest strengths - partners are pretty nice to us." Others agree. "Partners are generally quite considerate of personal commitments,"

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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