In an era when “disruption” is celebrated, the world of large law firms is one of the last redoubts of conventional wisdom. For a uniquely rule- and precedent-bound profession, this makes sense. Biglaw’s conventional wisdom has the added virtue of being reliable. For example, we can count on Cravath taking the lead — at least chronologically — on bonuses, and for DLA Piper to have the most random Third developing-world offices.

Another reflection of conventional wisdom is the way in which Biglaw lends itself to — and revels in — superlatives and rankings. There tends to be a generally acknowledged and perennially dominant player (or a few) in most practice areas: Wachtell Lipton for M&A, Weil Gotshal for Chapter 11 work, Patton Boggs for lobbying, and so forth. There’s no doubt that many worthy firms get overlooked.

Last year we took a look at which firms’ practice groups were considered “underrated” by peers in the field. Among the notable 2012 nominees: Cahill for corporate law, Arnold & Porter in litigation, and Proskauer for its bankruptcy and tax practices.

We wondered whether the same practice groups were still considered by practitioners to be unfairly underrated. Or are there other firms deserving more recognition?

Among other things, our Insider Survey asks attorneys to nominate firms with underrated (and overrated) practices within the respondent’s own practice specialty. Litigators nominate litigation departments, tax lawyers do the same for tax groups, and so on.

Below are the top 3 most underrated firms in each practice area, as voted by the ATL readership:

Underrated Antitrust/Regulatory Practices:

Kirkland & Ellis
McDermott Will & Emery
Jenner & Block

It’s probably a stretch to attribute this result to some “Obama effect,” but usually one thinks of D.C.-based shops dominating antitrust and regulatory work. Yet here are three (up from two last year) Chicago-based firms getting some notice for their government work.

Underrated Bankruptcy Practices:

Lowenstein Sandler
Drinker Biddle
Baker Hostetler

While all firms long for the prestige and fees that come with debtor representations, Chapter 11 cases have a huge range of roles for smaller players, including the representation of creditors’ committees, indenture trustees, and landlords. One respondent nominated “All the New Jersey firms,” contending that “they are cheaper and get the same job done as the NYC Biglaw firms.”

Underrated Tax Practices:

White & Case
Cooley
Proskauer Rose

Those happy tax attorneys generally keep a low profile, and many peers believe these firms’ tax groups are particularly overlooked. White & Case and Proskauer make repeat appearances.

Underrated IP Practices:

WilmerHale
Latham & Watkins
Alston & Bird

IP law is often considered the domain of specialty boutiques, but here are three large full-service firms with powerful IP groups. Wilmer and Latham made this list last year as well.

Underrated Labor & Employment Practices:

Sidley Austin
Seyfarth Shaw
Epstein Becker & Green

Much like IP, labor law tends to be the bailiwick of specialty firms, but Sidley Austin has one of the largest labor and employment practices of any full-service firm in the world.

Underrated Corporate Practices:

Cahill Gordon
Weil Gotshal
Munger Tolles & Olson

Just as in 2012, Cahill gets the most mentions for its underrated corporate practice. Recently, Lat speculated regarding Munger’s relatively low profile: “Perhaps MTO is hurt [in the Vault rankings] by its relatively small size and tight geographic focus … Or perhaps prestige is tied partly to partner profit, and Munger doesn’t hunger enough for money.”

Underrated Litigation Practices:

Keker & Van Nest
Orrick
Willkie Farr

Dozens of litigation boutiques received nominations in this category from ATL readers. San Francisco’s Keker & Van Nest received the most mentions.

So what do you think — any surprises here? Which firms are missing? Let us know in the comments. And if you haven’t yet, please take five minutes and take our survey here.

Earlier: Biglaw’s Most Underrated Firms by Practice Area


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