‘Collegial, Gracious and Humane…’ -Consultants and Headhunters Name the Best US Law Firms To Work At

December 13, 2000

Recently, Of Counsel asked an assorted dozen or so consultants and headhunters to the legal trade a puzzling question. Off the record, could they name any midsize or large firm, or firms, that they considered especially "collegial, gracious and humane?" 

Experts Pick the 25 Most Collaborative Law Firms

The following firms were named by consultants and recruiters as among the nation’s most "collegial, gracious, and humane." (Firms are listed alphabetically, not in order of ranking.)

Adams & Reese, New Orleans

Arnold & Porter, Washington, D.C.

Baker & Botts, Houston

Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton, New York

Crowell & Moring, Washington, D.C.

Davis Polk & Wardell, New York

Haynes & Boone, Dallas

Holland & Hart, Denver

Holland & Knight, Miami

Kirkland & Ellis, Chicago

Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, Pittsburgh

McBride Baker & Coles, Chicago

Miller & Chevalier, Washington, D.C.

Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky & Popeo, Boston

Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler, New York

Pepper Hamilton, Philadelphia

Pillsbury Winthrop, San Francisco/ New York

Piper Marbury Rudnick & Wolfe, Baltimore/Chicago/Washington, D.C.

Shearman & Sterling, New York

Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, Los Angeles

Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, Chicago

Swidler Berlin Shereff Friedman, Washington, D.C./New York

Wilmer Cutler & Pickering, Washington, D.C.

Winstead Sechrest & Minick, Dallas

There was consternation. There was quibbling over terms. There was skepticism. One consultant chuckled and called a humane law firm "an oxymoron." Another asked if putting "gracious" before "law firm" was a non sequitur. A third ruled out the concept of humane, gracious, collegial law firms if it was required that they had to be profitable too. A fourth referred to high-stress, high-end corporate firms as "meat factories." In the end, though, even the most hard-nosed observer became a friendly witness: names were named.

There were caveats, however. Consultant William Cobb of WCCI in Houston insists that firms can be called collegial without much distinction, but that collaborative firms are rare. He defines the word "collegial" as meaning bound by the same profession, but independent of one another—"sharing the overhead" but not much else, perhaps. "Collaborative" describes a group of professionals bound together by a common vision. In a collaborative firm, "each person in the firm is accountable to every other person in the firm for what they do."

The Edge Group’s Gerald Riskin draws a similar distinction, arguing that collegiality in some firms was simply a way of creating a clubhouse where the powerful make the rules. "While [some] firms think they’re being collegial, what they’re really doing is being highly tolerant of inappropriate behavior," says the Edmonton-based consultant. "If collegial just means we’ll tolerate anything, and no one has the guts to confront problem behavior, then we rationalize not confronting problem behavior is because we’re ‘collegial.’ That is a losing proposition."

Recruiter Ann Israel, principal of Ann Israel Associates in New York, avers that there is plenty of humane firms out there, as long as being overworked wasn’t considered inhumane. But she agrees with Riskin that the pressures that build up in firms can also generate speciously collegial culture. In pop psychology terms, this self-identity "enables" unacceptable behavior

When she places an associate in a firm that she considers collegial, gracious, and humane, she tells them that hard work is the rule, but so is respect. "You’re going to be working with people who respect what you do and who work very hard themselves," says Israel. "There are no people throwing chairs or shouting. These firms are made up predominantly of grownups and professionals. When you have a group of people who behave like grownups and people who consider themselves to be professionals, then I think quite naturally it would follow that it’s ‘collegial, gracious and humane,’ because that’s what grownup professionals believe in."

Decency Equals Success

A number of the insiders polled were united in their belief that a reputation for ethical treatment of associates, partners and staff was no impediment to either profitability or client service. In fact, a linkage was made repeatedly between the care and feeding of staff and partners at firms and the quality of client care.

"If you treat people poorly internally in the firm, and it’s not a nice place to be, how would you suppress that externally?" says consultant William J. Flannery of the WJF Institute in Austin. "It’s like any business. If your internal system of how you treat your employees is fundamentally flawed, then the employees’ external relationships will reflect that. If you end up feeling good about the people you work for, the things you do on their behalf are effective and productive."

The ripple effect of a benevolent working environment can be felt across all levels of a firm. Of course, the reverse is also perceptible, both inside and outside the office walls. "When people are always under stress," Flannery adds, "people [outside the firm] can sense that. The people that you come in contact with at law firms are on the low end of the hierarchy. You’re talking to billing people, you’re talking to receptionists, you’re talking to secretaries, and, if it’s not a nice place to be, those are the people who receive the brunt of it. Everyone else is isolated by money."

Chicago-based consultant Joel Henning, senior vice president and senior counsel for Hildebrandt International, feels that many firms are run along more inhumane, military-style lines than necessary. This approach is ultimately counter-productive, leading to difficulties with recruiting and retention of talent, leading in turn to a lower level of client service.

If management wakes up to a firmwide cultural problem, "we can [develop] programs involving better management, better supervision, better mentoring—the kinds of issues that relate, and could improve [bad] situations. Law firms fail to see that it could have a positive bottom-line impact."

The use of billable hours and individual client portfolios as the measuring sticks for promotion to partner come under particular attack for the inflexible, competitive approach it fosters within firms. Several consultants brought up the lockstep system of compensation common in British firms as a better team-building option to ponder.

Another solution to high lateral and associate burnout might be a return to the old system of "finders, minders, grinders and binders," according to recruiter Martha Fay Africa of Major Hagen & Africa in San Francisco. "Not everyone is able to work those hours, or wants to work those hours, and yet maybe they’re able to do different things," says Africa. "You’re brain-dead after a certain number of hours…."

In Africa’s view, the conditions at the bigger firms have become much more demanding in the last five years, particularly for associates, even as compensation has jumped. The recent demise of the dot-coms may make unhappy associates think twice about jumping ship, but the brain drain in firms, according to Africa, has still been unequalled in any other profession. "Law firms do not enable people to act in an autonomous fashion," says Africa. "And people who are drawn to law have a very high [need for autonomy]."

Ann Israel probably expressed the most cautious optimism on the future of the kinder, gentler law firm. "I can remember when it wasn’t so humane at any of these firms," she says. "I do think that times have changed. People have mellowed. I don’t think that there’s any less stress on them. I just think that people see that [inhumane behavior] ultimately doesn’t get them anything except a bad reputation."

Issues of collegiality and collaboration are strained through the lenses of each firm’s history, markets, management styles, and the personalities of individual partners. Many firms work to assure cultural continuity through their recruitment practices, for good or ill. Some have a longstanding legacy of tolerance and humanistic values. Some have recurrent tendencies to recruit certain personality types. Some instinctively pursue rainmakers instead of team players. There are firms where the loudest voices rule. There are others where scholarship and calm logic are prized.

There are very few that would not label themselves collegial, at least in public.

Conspicuous Examples

Predictably, spokespeople at the various firms were very happy to appear on our list of the "collegial, the gracious and the humane." No one thought there were any drawbacks to being so named. None were afraid they’d be viewed as inattentive to bottom-line imperatives because of their humanity.

At Washington, D.C.’s Miller & Chevalier, Sam Maruca, firm vice chair and chair of the tax department, points out how competitive pressures have only forced his firm to be more concerned about such cultural considerations. The constant threat from the big accounting firms means that all partners must feel that they have management’s ear.

Fostering a humane atmosphere extends to giving credit for writing articles, in-house scholarship, and taking concrete steps to help foster a sense of teamwork. "Culturally, we’re not a sweatshop," Maruca says. "We encourage people to make the kinds of investments that need to be made to become whole people."

In a legal area that often breeds "introverts and eggheads," Miller has had to make a concerted effort to build esprit de corps, to recruit extroverted personalities, and to build open communication between individuals and practice groups.

"If you believe that there is room in your firm, as we do, for public service and for quality of life, you are making, at some level, an economic tradeoff," says John MacLeod, chairman of Crowell & Moring in Washington, D.C. "In our judgement, that tradeoff is well-justified by what we’ve gotten back from it."

More Than Perks...
How America's Most Collaborative Firms Got That Way

"We would all work 24 hours a day if that’s what the deal demanded. But let’s see if we can find a way to make it so that it is enjoyable, and so that you’ll have a 50 or 60 year career as a lawyer, and not get fed up after five."

--Nelson Migdal, Washington, D.C.
executive partner, Holland & Knight

The firms named above employ a variety of policies, and take broad initiatives, to make their workplaces more collegial, respectful and employee-friendly. What do experts cite as the perks that make a law firm humane? All the law firms cited as the best places to work have at least some of the following in place:

  • Part time policies. Many firms now have formal policies that decree part-timers will not be penalized when it comes to promotion. Often the conditions are determined on a case-by-case basis.
  • Maternity/paternity leave. Some firms have their own paid leave benefit, generally three to six months. In-house day care facilities are becoming commonplace.
  • Beyond billable hours. A number of the firms considered the most progressive have moved to a system of case-by-case packages when considering compensation. Individuals are asked to make annual work commitments that may include pro bono, political service, community involvement, scholarship, speaking engagements, and so on.
  • Retreats. Most firms have some form of partner retreat, but some also host associate retreats where associates are mentored, or where issues are discussed, written up, and brought before management.
  • Short-term, paid sabbaticals. There are firms that not only talk about sabbaticals, but actually write them into compensation packages, in the interest of recharging tired partners’ batteries, typically every five years or so.
  • Weekly social gatherings. These vary from informal end-of-week parties to less egalitarian invitation-only luncheons.
  • Meetings with associates. Some firms have associates gather periodically to present ideas and issues to management, in an effort to build loyalty and a sense of collegiality. There are also regular meetings where management makes presentations to associates regarding the state and direction of the firm.
  • Technology. The growing use of video teleconferencing has cut down on some routine travel, making life outside of work hours a little more predictable. Video teleconferencing also helps keep partners in various offices bonded with each other and the firm.
  • Training institutes/foundations. These vary from the summer camp/Outward Bound models to community service to straightforward leadership training. Institutes and foundations are usually (though not always) aimed at the management tier of a firm, and are intended to build a sense of firm identity and loyalty in a more informal setting.

For the last dozen years, for example, the firm has had a full time public service lawyer. Attorney Susan Hoffman’s job has been to research opportunities for pro bono and nonprofit work, and to cajole the firm’s partners into taking on some of that work periodically. To emphasize this commitment to public service, Crowell & Moring recently made her a partner.

As MacLeod says, "I don’t know that most firms have in their partnership someone whose job it is not to produce revenue."

When Crowell & Moring joined the rest of the Washington marketplace in 2000 by bumping up base associate salaries to the $125k mark, the firm did not, like most of the others, simultaneously tie the increase to a minimum-billable-hours benchmark. MacLeod further attributes the associate satisfaction at Crowell to management’s willingness to share information.

"I don’t want to give the wrong impression," adds MacLeod. "We’re a very hard-working bunch of people and we’re obviously interested in being economically successful. [But] at some point you get to the issue of whether you want to do things which may be on the inhumane side in order to squeeze the last nickel out. Those are the places where we stop and say ‘Wait a minute, there’s got to be more to it than that.’"

A humane workplace "has to do with acceptance of individuals for the persons that they are, without a lot of effort to change people into the common company man," says Mary Cranston, San Francisco-based chair of Pillsbury Winthrop. She points to her firm’s long history of "enlightened management as a reason for the firm’s leadership in areas like part-time policies and mentoring programs for women and minority lawyers.

"I think you can’t do it unless there’s a complete buy-in from the top," Cranston adds. "Otherwise you get pockets of decent behavior, but not the whole organization."

The flip side of collegiality is the disciplining of partners whose behavior is out of line. "We really do take action when someone is not behaving in a respectful manner because it’s a poison to our environment," says Cranston. "Some firms, especially if they have big rainmakers who have some anger problems, will let it ride. But we won’t."

‘Strategic, Sustainable Edge’

While acknowledging that Pillsbury has had to consciously push its workforce to increase productivity in order to stay competitive, the future looks bright to Cranston, especially after the recent merger that combined Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro in San Francisco with Winthrop, Stimson, Putnam & Roberts in New York. In large part, she bases her optimism on the belief that humane firms are the more marketable ones in the current market.

Law firms that are perceived as friendly to women and minorities, in her view, have a leg up, since they haven’t "aced themselves out of half the population." She calls her firm’s openness to diversity (which includes her own election as chair) "a strategic and sustainable edge."

Denver-based Holland & Hart is an unusual firm by a number of measures. Associates are expected to bill only 1800 hours, 100 of which are required to be pro bono. Matters are not tagged with origination credits, and compensation is decided on a variety of factors, which includes pro bono work, and other public or community service.

The firm has created a foundation in order to sponsor community projects that build collegiality between "all of the people at Holland & Hart," according to partner Ronald Martin. "This includes retirees, all of the staff, the partners, the associates, and the paralegals," adds Martin.

The projects range from tree planting to house building through Habitat for Humanity. "When you’re doing a job where you have no special expertise, like planting little seedlings, and you are next to staff people who have as much knowledge as you do, it creates camaraderie, and [you understand] each other at a whole different level."

Martin argues that superior client service demands lawyers who are awake as well as aggressive. "If what you’re doing is working people to death, working people so hard that they can’t really give you what it is that you need, which is advice and clear thinking and a clear head, you’re not getting much," he says. If the client is dealing with "people who are crawling their way to work to get the job done," the value of the 200th billable hour a lawyer puts in that month is nil.

"For our client’s benefit, we don’t want people working that hard."

Team Cultures, Learning Cultures

"Many of us come from smaller firms," says Nelson Migdal, executive partner of the Washington, D.C. office of Holland & Knight. "So we have brought to what is now a large firm a smaller firm culture: a real interest in working together as a team.

"Professionals who are most accustomed to working on their own are not typically satisfied here," adds Migdal. The larger, more sophisticated clientele that Holland & Knight hopes to attract want lawyers who can team up effectively across geographical areas, specialties, and practice areas. The goal is to guide business to the most appropriate practitioner, to make partners flexible and "fungible."

Migdal also cites Holland & Knight’s "partner camp," in which small "classes" of partners from various offices are brought together and isolated in rural Florida to learn about each other’s working styles and personalities.

Again, the humanization of the law firm is not seen as a detour from client responsibility. Holland & Knight partners are available at all hours from home, adds Migdal. The operative word may be "home."

"Even at the highest levels of corporate power, people are trying to replicate exactly what we are doing," says Migdal. "Many more of them are women, many more of them are working from home in the evenings. The work is still getting cranked out 24/7, it’s just that the location is different."

Whether this represents a move toward a more humane workplace probably depends on how you feel about the blurring of the boundary between home and work. Some might argue that the virtual workplace does not ease professional burdens, but merely imposes them outside the office.

Some firms define collegiality in a larger context than quarterly balance sheets. "If you are an institution driven by your performance this month, this quarter, even this fiscal year, some of the longer-term initiatives that are designed to solder your personnel into the firm because of psychic compensation benefits [may not make sense]," says Peter Kalis, chair of the management committee at Kirkpatrick & Lockhart in Pittsburgh.

"If you’re that kind of law firm, you probably think, ‘Who cares? It’s a much more predatory world we live in, so the hell with it.’" By contrast, Kalis says that K&L sees itself as the inheritor of a tradition that must be lived up to and built upon, from generation to generation.

A major goal at Kirkpatrick & Lockhart is to lessen the tensions that build up between the younger associates and the partners. Surveys have found that turnover and burnout among young lawyers often result from a feeling of powerlessness at work. K&L has therefore committed to annual "associates’ symposiums."

The avowed purpose of these gatherings is to allow associates to express concerns directly to management, and to get progress reports on the issues they’ve raised. Kalis says that this communication has not only helped break down "needless and arbitrary distinctions between human beings," but increased associates sense of a stake in the firm’s future

Jeffrey Liss, partner and COO at Piper Marbury Rudnick & Wolfe, emphasizes the role that humor plays in making a workplace more palatable. "Having an institution that has a sense of humor is very important, and that includes having leaders that are willing to be laughed at," he says.

Liss also cites the Marbury Institute, an in-house professional development program, as a significant building block of collegiality. One of the most popular parts of the Institute is the "Wise Men/Wise Women" series: long-timers at the firm are periodically asked to speak from their experience to associates and partners.

There are also presentations on ethical and scholarly questions of the day. The Institute has proven itself a worthy recruiting tool as well, according to Liss. When potential associates are shopping for firms, "they are looking for places, not only where they can work and pick up a paycheck, but where they can get trained and get a broader perspective on the law. There’s no question that that helps in our recruiting efforts."

"If there’s somebody who doesn’t want to come to our firm because we don’t squeeze the last dime out of the operation, they’re not the right person to come to our firm," declares Jim Murray, executive partner at Philadelphia’s Pepper Hamilton. Murray can cite one small fact that dramatically typifies the Pepper culture: The position of senior receptionist in the Philadelphia office was held consecutively by exactly two women, for fifty years each.

Murray describes a non-hierarchical atmosphere and flexible team-based working style as contributing factors in recruitment and retention of talent. "We’re all in the mix together," he says. "If it’s the late Friday afternoon emergency Federal Express that has to get out, partners, associates, and everybody standing by the Xerox machine, are stuffing FedEx envelopes and getting it done."

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