The Lighter Side: US firm's unorthodox strategies for staff retention

by NZ Lawyer14 Feb 2014
Of all the lawyers at Los Angeles-based firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, LLP , 92% said they would still work there if they had the chance to do it all over again. But the secret to their employee engagement is about as unorthodox as their triathlete-racing founder John Quinn, who’s just as well-known for his disdain for grammar in email correspondence as he is for a 90% win rate in trial.

In the past, the firm was described as a ‘sweatshop’ by its staff because of the long hours lawyers had to work. Perhaps the following measures, along with their offices’ laissez-faire dress code, are a way to combat both the reputation and the potential for staff burnout.

Firm Hikes

With an Ironman racer at the helm of the company, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that physical activity isn’t taken lightly at Quinn Emanuel. The second largest event the company holds is a yearly bonding hike, which founder John Quinn never misses – unless he’s in the courtroom. The firm covers the cost of accommodation, transport, food and other expenses, with attendees asked to contribute $500-$1000 depending on location. Interns, which the firm calls ‘summer associates’, are invited to join at no cost. Previous hikes have taken employees as far as Switzerland, while last year’s was at Mount St Helens, in Washington State.

However, a word of caution: Four people had to be evacuated by helicopter two years ago on the hike which was, quite literally, wild.

“If you are not willing to get yourself in excellent shape, don’t perform well at altitude (we’ll be hiking between 5,000’ and 10,000’), have a health condition, or have a fear of heights, grizzly bears or things that go bump in the night, this is not the hike for you,” read the company memorandum announcing a recent hike in the Canadian Rockies.

Work away weeks

Maybe senior management was just sick of having everybody around, or maybe they’re onto something. Associates who have been at Quinn Emanuel for at least a year are given US$2000 per person to work anywhere in the world for a week with 6-10 of their colleagues.

“its[sic] January[sic] and its[sic] dreary in most places of the QE world, and next month it will be February, and then march[sic], promising more of the same,” Quinn announced in his notoriously casual email style. “hard[sic] working QE lawyers need a break for sure.”

Quinn said the objective was to place lawyers with their colleagues in different offices so that they could get to know each other across the firm. Idyllic as it sounds, however, there are caveats: the lawyers must work normal hours while away and be contactable at all times Monday through Friday, wherever they choose to go.

Rose Bowl parties

More than 1,400 clients, staff and partners attend the company’s annual private party at the famed American football Rose Bowl game in Los Angeles. The events have been described as carnivals and feature activities like rides, game booths, psychics, live music, ice cream trucks and sports.
Skiing and Snowboarding ‘Extravaganzas’

Staff members at the firm’s offices in northern California enjoy an annual winter trek to Lake Tahoe for 24 hours during their work week.

“This year, we played at Northstar [resort], where we are delighted to report no one was injured and everyone had a great time,” the firm’s career section on the website reads.

It’s hard to imagine how they ever get any work done.

Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, LLP is a 650-lawyer business litigation firm and claims to be the largest in the United States devoted solely to business litigation and arbitration.