I have been thinking about how to explain the Am Law 100 rankings to a layman. Quite frankly, there is little use in trying to engage in a productive discussion of the rankings with colleagues. One segment of the Biglaw population is fixated on the fictional profits-per-partner figure, while another marvels at the “global reach” and exploding headcounts of the giga-firms. Some like to talk about the firms they interviewed with in law school, while others only care about the firms that have stronger resources in their practice areas. If you are in Biglaw, or hoping to be, you will come up with your own way of making sense of it all. Have fun.
What is more interesting to me is the following question: How can a normal person relate to this year’s Am Law 100 rankings? Put another way, if I was told that I was eligible for a large cash prize if I could explain the Am Law 100 chart to ten random strangers in a way that was compelling to them, what would I say?
Think about your own answer, then keep reading….
Your non-lawyer friends may know a few attorneys (besides yourself), but for most Americans, the closest they have come to Biglaw is by watching Michael Clayton and getting a glimpse of Dewey’s conference rooms. Forget about showing them the Am Law chart and explaining that not all Biglaw partners rake in a million-plus a year. Or that the firms that are reporting such extravagant profits are actually in a perpetual state of semi-crisis, trying to figure out a path forward. A normal person would not believe that, nor would they have much patience for a history lesson on the implosion of Biglaw firms due to such obvious nonsense as partner guarantees and excessive borrowing.
I thought about building an analogy to sports teams, but that fell apart. So I thought instead: What industry has a captive audience, is overpriced for its target consumers, is prone to strange decisions regarding pricing and discounts, is heavily dependent on brand cachet as a substitute for rigorous evaluation of its output, competes nationally for the attention of a small slice of customers, plugs an alumni network mercilessly, and greatly overvalues the contributions of the top slice of its workforce?
My conclusion: Biglaw and the Am Law 100 are most easily analogized to colleges and college rankings. Consider. You have your super-elite small (and extremely prestigious and profitable) liberal arts colleges and engineering schools. Wachtell Lipton as Williams, and Quinn Emanuel as MIT or Cal Tech. Super-focused on doing a few things well, and pros at extracting maximum value and cachet from executing on those fronts. No matter what school (or firm) you end up at, you need to consider them if you make the grade.
The Ivies? They are your old-line, white-shoe, general-practice firms at the top of the profitability charts. A Sullivan & Cromwell has the same sway among clients and peers as Harvard does: top-line talent in every department, the resources to quickly plug any gaps, a pipeline of future talent, and plenty of alumni support to maintain market position. Cravath can be Princeton, Simpson can be Columbia, and so forth. These are firms that are never disappearing. You can have fun deciding who else is in this group (Latham, Paul Weiss, Gibson, Weil, etc.) and analogizing to the Ivies and Stanford. Basically, you are crazy to say no to these places, absent super-compelling circumstances — especially at the junior-associate or partner levels.
The next tier of firms are like the highly-regarded, non-Ivy private schools — Duke, Hopkins, NYU, Chicago, and so forth. While these schools are all great in their own right, they tend to be stronger in certain areas than others, and are more susceptible to losing talent (partners) and prospective customers (clients) to higher-ranked schools. These are the firms in the $1.5 to $2 million profits per partner range — susceptible to market swings for the good or bad, but otherwise sitting very pretty.
On an equal level are the mega-firms — e.g., DLA Piper, Hogan Lovells, Greenberg Traurig — that are the equivalent of the large public universities. These can be analogized to a Michigan or a Georgia at the higher level, or even a Florida State/ Arizona — the party schools. There is a little bit of everything at these firms, from world-class lawyers to some who will ultimately generate ATL fodder, but on the whole their size presents a measure of stability. They will never break into the top tiers of profitability, but will always have enough to keep the people that matter (management and rainmakers) happy, while giving opportunities to everyone to show their stuff.
And at the bottom there are the firms that may have a name locally or regionally, but are trapped in the shadows of their better-known peers. The kinds of schools that are generally overpriced, and need to discount heavily to attract interest. The soft underbelly of the Am Law 100, with maybe a decent (but not leading) department or two, but no real compelling story. Maybe they are trapped as a lesser-player in an expensive market (generic NYC-based firm, meet Hofstra and Fordham) or tucked away where it is hard to generate interest (generic Midwestern firm X, meet Xavier). Either way, these firms are most vulnerable to clients looking above or down market to get their needs met.
Ultimately, both Biglaw and U.S. colleges seem to be in a bubble. People are starting to contest the value of hiring a Biglaw firm at all cost, just as they contest the value of an expensive BA from a lesser-private school. To compete, those at the bottom will need to enhance their value proposition, while those at the top, the rich, will continue to get richer. I don’t know if it is fair, but the numbers don’t lie. And if you are just starting out, or in it for the long haul, you’d much rather have the Biglaw gig or expensive BA over the alternative. Until next year, enjoy the rankings.
How do you relate to the Am Law 100, and how would you explain it to someone with little knowledge of Biglaw? Let me know by email or in the comments.
Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at email@example.com.