Varnum Earns Top National Ranking

October 31, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Grand Rapids office of Varnum, Riddering, Schmidt & Howlett LLP garnered top ranking among law firms across the nation in The American Lawyer magazine’s annual survey that measures the quality of life and work at law firms.

The survey report is based on the responses of 4,070 third- and fourth-year associates at 211 participating law firms ranging from mid-sized to the highest grossing “extra large” firms.

Of those, 159 firms returned enough responses to be included in the national rankings.

Respondents rated their firms on a number of different measures, including: partner-associate relations; collegiality; quality of support staff; family-friendliness; hours and compensation; quantity of work; fairness of evaluations; firm’s prestige; and training and guidance, among others.

Varnum ranked No. 2 among all law firms in the survey and No. 1 among mid-sized firms in the survey for overall quality of life and work, with a firm-wide score of 4.35.

Ten Varnum associates participated in the survey. Scores were based on a 1-to-5 scale, with 1 being the lowest and 5 being the highest.

The firm ranked No. 1 overall on two measures: “opportunities to work with partners” and “likelihood of staying at least two years.”

It ranked No. 2 on three measures: “family-friendliness,” “benefits and compensation” and “partner-associate relationships.”

It ranked No. 3 on five measures: “collegiality,” “quantity of work assigned,” “overall rating as a place to work,” “realistic billable hours” and “how interesting work is.”

According to the survey report, all 10 firms that ranked at the top of this year’s midlevel survey scored highly in the category of partner-associate relations, and none ranked lower than 21st.

“Among the many aspects of associates’ jobs that we asked about, this category stood out as crucial to associate satisfaction,” the report stated.

“Baruch College research and public affairs professor Gregg van Ryzin, who performed a regression analysis of our data, identified partner relations with associates as the variable most closely related to the overall ranking, even higher than confidence in the firm’s leadership, satisfying work and family friendliness.”

Partner Jeffrey Fraser, chair of Varnum’s Associates’ Committee, said that over the last five years the firm has worked to “blur any distinctions” between partners and associates.

“Every lawyer here is entitled to information to make sure they understand what’s going on and to make sure they provide input,” he said.

He said the firm values the perspective of new associates because they’re “completely familiar with what’s new” and can help the firm implement new things, such as technology.

Varnum associate attorneys Rachel Urquhart, Kimberly Baber and Christopher Brown agree partner-associate relations are crucial to the mix.

“Working with partners is how you learn and it’s how you learn to be a good attorney,” Urquhart said.

Varnum attorneys and partners are big on including new associates on projects, even the largest of projects, Brown added.

“Even as a summer associate you get that experience, and it continues on through your career,” he said. “They really make you feel that you’re a part of the team right from the beginning.

“A lot of care is taken to make sure everybody gets the feedback and that everybody is getting the work they want. One of the things we’re recognized for is the ability to communicate well with our clients, so they bring in associates that can carry on that tradition.”

Varnum partners give a lot of recognition to everybody’s efforts, Baber added, and that recognition extends to the company’s paralegals and secretaries, as well.

The national survey also suggested that more midlevel associates are staying longer at their current law firms.

In The American Lawyer 1998 survey, 28.3 percent of respondents said they planned to stay with their firms for at least five years.

This year, 35.1 percent of respondents indicated they’re likely to stay for that length of time.

Urquhart and Brown have been Varnum associates for five years and Baber for three. Brown, in fact, originally took a job in the company’s mailroom as a way to get in on the ground floor.

From a law firm perspective, it’s very time consuming to find great people, and it’s very time consuming to replace great people, Fraser pointed out.

“We want to make sure that people coming here really have an interest in being here. Our goal is to make sure people understand what they’re here for and how we operate.

“We try very hard not to kid them about anything. We give people responsibility very early on. We want them to have great opportunities.”

Of the nine young attorneys who joined the firm in 1999 along with Urquhart and Brown, seven remain and another continues to work with Varnum on a contract basis, Urquhart noted.

All three attorneys said they share a commitment to staying put long term because they like the corporate culture and sense of camaraderie at Varnum.

“People who come to Grand Rapids kind of expect to stay for a while, and partners look at you as a long-term investment and as someone to get involved in client relationships,” Baber observed.

The firm hooks up every new associate with both a senior lawyer and an associate lawyer who serve as mentors, “so they’re learning from both ends of the perspective,” Fraser said.

Each associate has an official mentor, Brown said, but basically everybody in the firm serves as unofficial mentors.

“There are great friendships here among associates and partners,” he added.

In addition, each of the firm’s practice groups elects an “associate relations training” mentor that serves as their sounding board.

The only other Michigan law firm in The American Lawyer survey was Dykema Gossett PLLC in Detroit, which ranked 65th of 159.           

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