Fine wine dinners. A book club. Martini parties.
Those are some of the fun events that occur at Pullman & Comley, which was voted No. 1 on the list of Best Places to Work in Connecticut 2012. The law firm has been on the list for the past three years. This year it topped the category for small to medium companies - those with 15 to 199 employees.
The firm, which has offices in Hartford, Bridgeport, Stamford, Waterbury and White Plains, N.Y., has a long list of fun, charitable and other activities throughout the year to keep its staff busy. But employees also talk about the bigger picture when they discuss why they enjoy working there.
Diane W. Whitney, chair of the firm's Environmental Law Department, calls the fun stuff - including the book club that she is a member of - the "icing on the cake." Other larger themes - like feeling heard and respected - are "what keeps you going," Whitney said.
"The contribution of every person is respected. I love to come to work," Whitney said.
Whitney, who has had the same secretary for nine years, has worked at several different law firms. "This is the best place I've worked so far," she said. "A very good question you should ask is 'How long has your staff been with you?'"
Legal secretary Francine Parente has been with the firm for 20 years. "That's normal," Parent said. "I have friends who say, 'You have to get me a job there.'"
"There are many people who work here a long time," Parente said. "There is a life balance here. They respect and understand it ... We get the job done here. We can speak our minds. It's not like you're afraid."
Parente recalls one time when staff members gave vacation time to another staff member who was ill. "The reason why people work here as long as they do is because there is camaraderie, Parente said. "There is a close bond. I have a close group of friends here who I cherish."
One event Parente enjoys is a spring dinner where management provides a limo and hands out great prizes to the staff. Management also provides lunch for the staff when the People's Bank cafeteria, where staffers typically eat, is closed.
The staff reciprocates. "If there are special projects, [employees] are willing to stay late," Parente said.
Partner Gary O'Connor, who joined the firm last April, said when he was looking for a new job, colleagues kept telling him, "'You should talk to Pullman & Comley, they have a great culture there.'"
"The culture here is it's a team, everybody works together, everyone is very friendly and I think it starts at the top," said O'Connor, whose practice focuses on environmental, real estate and development matters. "There is an annual touch football game and other events that really create a sense of community."
O'Connor was speaking about the Animosity Bowl, a game held the Sunday before Thanksgiving, which pits partners against associates.
"We have the grandmother rule," said D. Robert Morris, the firm's chairman. "You block as if you were blocking your grandmother. We all waive the rule of course," he said, laughing.
Another event is when the partners serve the associates dinner at the homes of the partners. "It's a lovely evening," Morris said. Then there's martini night when the women lawyers are guests and are served martinis by the male attorneys, who tend bar for the evening.
Morris, who heads the Tax Section of the Business Enterprises Department, said he is candid with his staff. He praises them when they do well and tells them when they need to do better. It's when management isn't clear that mistrust occurs, he said. "Your goal is to treat everyone with respect," Morris said. "Everyone in the firm treats everyone with respect. We try to foster that type of an atmosphere and climate."
Morris has a "no jerk" rule that appears to have served the firm well. He and other hiring managers are careful to weed out bad employees.
"There are times we could have brought people to the firm who would have been quite profitable for us," Morris said. But they weren't nice people, and by not hiring them the work environment stayed distraction-free and teamwork oriented. "Our clients like that," Morris said. "It makes it more pleasant and it helps the bottom line."
When Morris is in a position to do the hiring, he always takes the person out to dinner and tries to learn more about the candidate personally. When hiring associates, he trusts the judgment of other associates.
One of those associates says she has learned a great deal through the other attorneys.
Megan Youngling Carannante, a member of the Litigation Department, loves the mentoring - whether it's at depositions or second chairing at trials - that goes on at the firm. "I'm fortunate to work with a lot of attorneys who have taken me under their wing," Carannante said.
Carannante said lawyers can talk about cases with anyone at the firm, to get ideas and feedback. "We have a pretty wonderful open door policy here," she said.
The Best Places to Work in Connecticut list is compiled each year by the Hartford Business Journal and the Best Companies Group. The full list is available at www.bestplacestoworkinct.com.