October 23, 2012

Yes, Law Firms Can Be Great Places to Work

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Trends Report

Yes, Law Firms Can Be Great Places to Work

By Robert W. Denney

In a 2003 Trends Report I wrote that “in a small but growing number of law firms... support staffs are being treated with more than courtesy and respect—they are also being made to feel like they are part of the firm.” Among the indications of the trend that year was Fortune’s annual list of “100 Best Companies to Work For.”

In previous years the list often included one law firm, but in 2003 two law firms made the list. Guess what now? The current “100 Best” list was recently published and it includes five law firms—the same two from three years ago plus three more. Yes, it’s true: More law firms than ever are rated among the best companies to work for!

Five That Made the List

1. Alston & Bird, based in Atlanta, is once again the highest ranked law firm at number 19. As I reported before, the firm has a very extensive employees’ program, which was originally developed by HR director Cathy Benton. One of its features is a “Spring Break,” one week every year with events just for the support staff. But, according to Fortune’s explanation of what makes the firm so great, “open discussion and communication are vital. Everyone is kept in the loop via monthly firm meetings, fireside chats, ‘town hall’ meetings, and a daily online newsletter.” As if that weren’t enough to earn the firm its continued presence on the list, senior partner Jim Sandman invites everyone who has nowhere to go for the holidays to celebrate Christmas with him and his family.

2. Perkins Coie comes in at number 48, at least the third time the Seattle-based firm has made “The List,” as the staff refers to it. It’s easy to see why Perkins’ employees rate the firm so highly. It offers a number of incentives, including a 5 percent bonus at year-end, in addition to a 7.3 percent contribution to retirement accounts. But it’s also about more than simply money. Recognition awards include round-trip airline tickets and gift certificates.

3. Nixon Peabody is right behind Perkins, at number 49, making its first appearance on the list. Originally based in Rochester, the firm now regards New York City as its headquarters. Four mergers between 1999 and 2003 have grown the firm from its strong regional origin into a national firm with 650 lawyers and 15 offices. But throughout this dramatic growth, it has maintained a strong employee orientation with emphasis on diversity—17 percent of the employees are minorities and 16 percent of the partners are women.

4. Arnold & Porter, based in Washington, D.C., is another repeat firm on the list, coming in at number 54. In addition to the firm’s treatment of staff, the firm’s lawyers set an example for social responsibility. Last year they contributed 81,714 pro bono hours. That’s the equivalent of more than 40 full-time lawyers. Furthermore, associates volunteer for six-month tours of duty with the Legal Aid Society.

5. Bingham McCutchen, the Boston-based national firm, completes the law firm representation at number 82 on the list. Its extensive employee recognition program features a staff appreciation week. It also includes several unique features, such as gift baskets for new babies (70 last year) and for weddings (60 last year).

Walking the Walk to the Top

You may wonder how Fortune goes about compiling this list, which starts with several thousand companies and professional firms. While many factors are considered, the biggest single one—accounting for one-third of the total score—is the employees’ evaluations. However, if you review each of the five law firms here, you’ll recognize another reason for their high ranking: The lawyers in the firm walk the walk and talk the talk in setting an example of how to treat and work with their non-lawyer staffs.

Of course, if the list were expanded to the 1,000 best companies to work for, more law firms would doubtless be included. Based on my firm’s internal surveys of the law firms we consult with, we know firsthand of other law firms, many smaller than the five here, that are ranked by their support staffs as wonderful places to work. But what is encouraging is that, in just three years, the number of law firms on the well-publicized Fortune list has grown from two to five. (By the way, there are only three public accounting firms listed.)

So this trend of law firms being among the best places to work continues. And, as both Martha Stewart and I like to say, that’s a good thing!