Which Law Firm Has the Happiest Associates?

Published: Jul 15, 2015

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For the third year in a row, Paul Hastings has been named Vault’s Best Law Firm to Work For, a title earned through high ratings in Vault’s numerous Quality of Life rankings including Satisfaction, Firm Culture and Compensation. The competition is serious, however—Ropes & Gray is putting up a strong fight to reclaim the No. 1 spot. Ropes topped the Best to Work For list in 2011 and has been No. 2 since then, trailing Paul Hastings by just 0.12 points this year (compared to 0.13 points last year). 

The Law Firm Quality of Life Rankings are derived from Vault’s Law Firm Associate Survey, in which more than 17,000 associates rated and commented on various aspects of their work life. This year’s Best 25 Law Firms to Work For rankings were calculated using a formula that weighs associate ratings in a dozen different areas: Overall Satisfaction (25%); Hours (10%); Compensation (10%); Business Outlook (10%); Substantive Work (10%); Associate/Partner Relations (5%); Leadership Transparency (5%); Formal Training (5%); Informal Training, Mentoring & Sponsorship (5%); Pro Bono (5%); Overall Diversity (5%); Career Outlook (5%).

Based on this formula, the Top 10 Best Law Firms to Work For are:

Law firms compete fiercely for the top candidates, and those candidates are not concerned with prestige alone.  Current associates offer the best window into what life is really like at any particular firm, and Vault’s Quality of Life Rankings and firm profiles summarize this information so that law students and laterals can carefully weigh their options.

Associates at Paul Hastings told Vault that “the professional opportunities and client interaction available at Paul Hastings are second to none,” and that “the quality of work, collegiality, and relative work-life balance are excellent for a law firm.” Ropes & Gray associates also rave about their firm, with one commenting that “Ropes & Gray is an outstanding firm that provides challenging, interesting billable and pro bono work opportunities, has a wonderful, collegial environment, and makes me feel fortunate and lucky to go to work every day. I imagine this is about as great as it gets in ‘big law.’”

Rising Stars and Three Additions to Top 10 Best Law Firms to Work For

Among firms with notable score increases across numerous categories were O’Melveny & Myers and Debevoise & Plimpton. While both O’Melveny and Debevoise have historically earned high quality of life ratings from their associates, both made significant jumps on the Best to Work For list this year. O’Melveny climbed 5 spots to land at the No. 3 spot, while Debevoise jumped 15 spots and is now No. 8.

Nearly half of the 25 firms that landed on Vault’s Best to Work For list are either new to the list entirely or did not rank last year. Three of those firms are in the Top 10: BuckleySandler (No. 5); WilmerHale (No. 6); and Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner (No. 10).

Only six years old and now with more than 150 attorneys, BuckleySandler joined Vault’s Best to Work For rankings for the first time this year. “The firm is doing amazingly as a business,” remarked one associate. “Constantly growing (but not too much), high end cases, hands on experience, and high pay.”

WilmerHale, which has not been a Best Law Firm to Work For since 2010, makes a strong showing at No. 6 this year. The word on the street is that Wilmer “has tons of interesting work, great attorneys to learn from, and a culture that is supportive yet rigorous.” Finnegan, which last made it onto the Best to Work for List in 2013, is a global intellectual property firm headquartered in Washington, D.C., that “provides a well-rounded experience in both litigation and prosecution, allowing the associates to gain a wide range of skill sets.”

The No. 1 firms in Vault’s Quality of Life categories are…

Overall Satisfaction: Paul Hastings

As one Paul Hastings associate stated when asked about overall job satisfaction, “Working in a ‘BigLaw’ firm is a demanding profession, but the professional opportunities and client interaction available at Paul Hastings are second to none.”

In other news in this category, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman returned to the ranking with a No. 9 finish, while Irell & Manella reclaimed the No. 5 spot it occupied in 2014, after a brief absence in the Overall Satisfaction rankings last year. 

Compensation: Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz

In spite of the bonus shakeups over the past year in which many firms stepped forward to increase associate compensation, Wachtell is still No. 1, now for the third straight year. “Compensation is famously high,” one survey respondent at Wachtell told Vault. “I have never heard of another firm that pays better than we do; I know of several firms where junior partners earn less than first-year associates here.”

Cahill Gordon & Reindel has climbed even higher since last year, unseating Boies Schiller & Flexner from the No. 2 position and bumping that firm down to No. 4. Two new firms appear in the Top 10: BuckleySandler and Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson.

Firm Culture: Ropes & Gray

There’s a new champion in this category; Ropes & Gray climbed up from the No. 4 spot it occupied last year and sent last year’s winner, Foley Hoag, down to No. 15. The inside scoop is that “[m]aintaining the Ropes culture is hugely important to the firm, and this culture is based on an ethos of ‘collegiality’—what this really means is that people are willing to help each other out, answer a question, share a document, [or] talk through an issue at every level.”

Several firms that did not rank in the Firm Culture category last year not only made it onto the list this year, but are also in the Top 10: BuckleySandler, Haynes & Boone and WilmerHale.

Hours: O’Melveny & Myers

Out of all associates Vault surveyed this year, those at O’Melveny & Myers are most satisfied with the number of hours they spend working. As one O’Melveny associate told us, “The firm is flexible with hours. There are people who are on reduced hours programs. And there are people who voluntarily choose to work all day and night. Most people fall somewhere in the middle and seem overall satisfied with workload.”

Associate/Partner Relations: Williams & Connolly

They must be doing something right to foster relations between associates and management at Williams & Connolly, which is at the top of the Associate/Partner Relations category for the third straight year. The Vault survey asks whether individual partners generally seem to value associates and treat them with respect, and the sentiment at Williams & Connolly is that “[p]artners view associates as future partners, not as cogs in a machine. Associates are valued and respected.”

Steptoe & Johnson, where partners “have a genuine interest in developing young lawyers professionally and ensuring they are happy and willing to stay at Steptoe,” made an impressive comeback at No. 6 after a brief absence from the list last year.

Leadership Transparency: Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz

Baker Donelson topped the Transparency ranking for the third year in a row, with one associate stating, “I can look up the salary and hours of ANYONE in the firm. It is very transparent, and we are given updates on the finances of the firm often (sometimes daily).”

Another firm known for high transparency, Munger, Tolles & Olson, climbed three spots this year to land at No. 3. One lawyer there told Vault that “[a]s an associate, I have access to firm financials, board-level meetings, and strategy that is unheard of at other firms. The partners are actually committed to fostering an ownership mentality among the junior ranks.”

Substantive Work: Gunderson Dettmer Stough Villeneuve Franklin & Hachigian

Gunderson Dettmer is the new winner in this category. Williams & Connolly, the former No. 1, dropped to No. 5 this year. “Most of my work is highly visible to clients and has an immediate impact on their business, which is a great motivator,” commented one Gunderson associate. “My work has steadily grown in complexity since I started and I feel like I am taking on way more responsibility for client matters than peers at other firms. There's really no place to hide here, and for the right person, that's one of the biggest selling points.”

Among firms that made big strides in this category were Irell & Manella (No. 7); Steptoe & Johnson (No. 8); and Finnegan (No. 10), none of which ranked last year.

Formal Training: Ropes & Gray

For the fourth year in a row, Ropes & Gray’s formal training program earned the highest scores of any firm, with one survey respondent stating, “Ropes offers an intensive boot camp to all new attorneys, another extensive boot camp for corporate attorneys, and then a year-long series of trainings for junior attorneys generally as well as junior attorneys within particular practice groups. Ropes clearly prides itself on its trainings, and it shows.”

The Formal Training category saw four additions this year—Fried Frank (No. 14); Goodwin Proctor (No. 22); Proskauer Rose (No. 23); and Pillsbury (No. 25).

Informal Training, Mentoring & Sponsorship: Paul Hastings

Paul Hastings, formerly the runner up in Vault’s ranking for Informal Training, Mentoring & Sponsorship, switched places with Ropes & Gray to snag the No. 1 seat. As one Paul Hastings associate described, “While there are many formal training opportunities, informal training and mentoring is the primary focus at my level. After the completion of any large project, the partner I work closely with will go over my work and suggest tips for improvement while pointing out the parts I did particularly well.”

Among firms making significant upward moves or new appearances in this category are Carlton Fields Jorden Burt (No. 4); Steptoe & Johnson (No. 8); and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld (No. 18).

Pro Bono: Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler

“For over a decade, the firm has had 100% pro bono participation from all attorneys and staff,” one Patterson Belknap associate told Vault. “The firm requires that every single lawyer do pro bono, and pro bono assignments are automatically given to associates when they start.”   

After falling out of the pro bono rankings last year by just a small margin, Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi made it back on the list at No. 10. WilmerHale, O’Melveny and Holland & Hart also joined the Top 10 for Pro Bono. 

Business Outlook: Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz

As if Wachtell didn’t dominate enough of Vault’s rankings (in addition to ranking No. 1 for Compensation, the firm is No. 1 in four of Vault’s prestige categories, including the Vault Law 100), it is now up four slots from last year to top the Business Outlook category. One Wachtell associate summed it up:  “From my understanding, the firm is in great shape. Perhaps better than any other law firm in the industry.”

Last year’s winner in this category, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, dropped to No. 2. Paul Hastings made an impressive 14-spot jump from last year to land at No. 4, while Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom made an even bigger leap to the No. 6 spot, up from No. 23 last year.

Career Outlook: Williams & Connolly

Williams & Connolly remains the consistent winner for Career Outlook since the category was created three years ago. Associate remarked that “[p]romotion to partner is very realistic for everyone who begins as an associate here, as all partners are promoted from associate ranks” and that “[e]xit opportunities are also fantastic, given the reputation of the firm and the experience that associates get here.”

Gunderson Dettmer debuted on this ranking following closely behind Williams & Connolly at No. 2, not so much because of partnership opportunities so much as exit opportunities in the tech space: “I could not imagine a better platform for going in-house to serve as a GC to a venture capital firm, a GC or transactional counsel to a growing company, or as a COO for a growing startup.” 

Integration of Laterals/Clerks: Williams & Connolly

Vault has unveiled a new ranking category this year, Best Law Firms for Integration of Laterals/Clerks, to distinguish firms that go the extra mile for hires that are not straight out of law school or the summer program. Because “most associates start after completing clerkships,” Williams & Connolly is an especially welcoming place for attorneys entering firm practice after spending a year or two as law clerks. One associate at Gunderson Dettmer, which ranked No. 2, told Vault: “I was given many opportunities to meet associates and partners at the firm through firm-sponsored events. I feel almost fully-integrated as if I were a summer associate.”

Selectivity in Hiring: Williams & Connolly

Marking its fourth win in the 2016 Quality of Life rankings, Williams & Connolly has reclaimed the No. 1 spot for Most Selective Law Firm. With the exception of last year, when it briefly ceded this title to Munger, Tolles & Olson, Williams & Connolly has topped this category since 2011. “Getting top grades at a great law school is only the beginning,” says one W&C associate. “Successful candidates must be dynamic, intense, interesting, and love the law.” Another commented that “[u]nless someone is coming off a prestigious clerkship, an applicant is only a realistic candidate if they’re at a top 20 school with excellent grades. Law review is a must.”

To view the entire rankings for all the categories mentioned above, click here.


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