Less than a year ago the partners at Sullivan & Cromwell acknowledged that problems that it was bleeding associates. A 74-page PowerPoint presentation entitled “Recruiting, Associate Morale and Retention” showed that associates were leaving the law firm in droves: S&C lost 31% of its associates in 2004; 30% in 2005.

Faced with a surge in turnover of its associates, the prestigious law firm Sullivan & Cromwell LLP has been putting on a charm offensive to hold onto junior lawyers.

The crash course in etiquette went into high gear at a partners meeting last February. To deal with low associate morale and high attrition, a confidential slide presentation reviewed by The Wall Street Journal urged partners to say things like “thank you” and “good work” to associates they supervise.

What else should partners do? “Return associates’ phone calls as quickly as you would a partner’s or client’s,” said one bullet. “Be sensitive to not canceling associates’ vacations,” said another.

The presentation showed that the New York firm, now with about 625 lawyers, lost 31% of its associates in 2004 and 30% in 2005. The average associate attrition rate for law firms of about that size or bigger for 2004 was 21%, up from 16% in 2002, according to a study by the National Association for Law Placement.

Another slide showed that in American Lawyer magazine associate-satisfaction surveys, Sullivan compared unfavorably with peers like Davis Polk & Wardwell, Cleary Gottleib Steen & Hamilton LLP and Debevoise & Plimpton LLP. In 2005, Sullivan ranked 155 out of 160 law firms in a survey of midlevel associates.

Scroll to Top