On the afternoon of 8 October, nearly 150 Clifford Chance associates wandered into a nondescript conference centre and got ready to vent some spleen.
Weary, dejected and most of all frustrated, the young New York lawyers had one thing on their minds as they took their seats – Clifford Chance had been cast as the worst firm in the whole of the US for associate satisfaction.
If it had happened once, it may have been grudgingly forgivable. But just 12 months earlier, The American Lawyer's associates' survey had placed Clifford Chance third from bottom.
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: to lose on one survey may be regarded as a misfortune… to lose on both seems like carelessness.
The survey by The American Lawyer that caused such a furore had been released on 1 October, but just a few short months before, at the firm's annual associates meeting, the cracks had already begun to appear.
Already haunting associates were questions over the amount of billable hours they had to meet and their desire to be involved in more pro bono activities.
After presentations by then US managing partner Jim Benedict and former chief operating officer for the Americas Doug Benson, partner and head of the personnel committee Richard McDermott took over the meeting.
An associate representative on the firm's personnel committee recalls: “I think that [McDermott] anticipated the questions, but he wasn't really in a position to do anything. It was a difficult position to be in, in front of 200 associates.”
The representative said that at that point, it was more of a creeping realisation that associates were growing frustrated with certain issues at the firm, but it was Clifford Chance's ranking in The American Lawyer's survey that really broke the camel's back.
The associate said: “There was a sense that the firm couldn't go on like this, and even though there was only a small number of associates that filled out the survey, the firm knew it had a number of options.”
Clifford Chance could either calculate the cost of making the desired changes and ignore it, or grit its collective teeth, listen and improve.
The representative said: “The partners basically wanted to give the associates a blank canvas on which to place our ideas.”
Most prominent among these were the billable hours issues and the “padding” claim.
The representative said that associates were not concerned about the amount of hours required to gain a bonus, because as New York lawyers they were well remunerated, but that in the current market, it is impossible to even hope to wrack up 2,200 hours a year.
And on that “padding” claim? “I've never done it. I've never been asked to do it and the comment in the memo did not say that there was padding. The comment in the memo meant that the way the billable hours are structured lent itself to proving an incentive to do so. The comment did not indicate what was going on at Clifford Chance.”
Despite the storm that surrounded the leakage of the memo, David Taub, chairman of the employment committee for the Americas, was explicit that all associates in the firm should see the memo.
Contrary to the impression the memo may have given, the associate said that there was a commitment from the firm's lawyers and everyone wants to change for the better.
But, we have to ask, are free shoe-shines, as mentioned at the tail-end of the memo, really going to help Clifford Chance's New York office find its feet? “Well, we had to make sure we represented everything the associates had said,” the associate said, somewhat sheepishly. “Anyway, I polish my shoes every night. It's therapeutic.”