Ascension to Biglaw partnership demands, obviously and above all, an enormous amount of first-rate legal work, in addition to political savvy, endurance, timing, and luck. A would-be partner’s chosen practice area also undoubtedly plays no small role. If firm leadership believes that there will be a spate of major Chapter 11 filings or trademark litigations on the horizon, obviously that will redound to the benefit of the potential bankruptcy or IP partners (although, as recent news reflects, partnership isn’t necessarily the lucrative, secure lifetime position it once was).

Late last year, ATL took a close look at the newly minted partner classes for the Vault 10 firms. Despite the great profitability and prestige of this select group, it is difficult to draw conclusions about the general direction of the legal market from the composition of these partnership classes. First of all, this is a small sample size. Second, we are witnessing an important shift in the allocation of the business within the market. A recent AdvanceLaw survey of general counsel at major global corporations found that three-quarters of general counsel were inclined to engage “less-pedigreed” firms (e.g., outside the Vault 10 or Magic Circle) for “high stakes” legal work. This survey of GCs (including those from Google, Nike, 3M, Unilever and Deutsche Bank) indicated their willingness to engage firms lower down the Biglaw totem pole.

Because of the apparent diminishment of the brand value of the most historically prestigious firms, as well as the broader trends toward disaggregation and unbundling of legal services, one must account for a larger set of law firms in order to see the fullest picture of the market for high-end legal services. With that in mind, today we look at the practice areas of the entire Biglaw partnership class of 2013….

Employing the powerful FIRMSCAPE database, courtesy of our friends at Leopard Solutions, we are able to determine how the largest 200 firms in the country apportioned their new partners among practice areas. (Please note that for this purpose we make no distinction between equity and non-equity partners and, further, we do not include lateral partners. The latter will be the subject of future posts.) The largest 200 firms in the Leopard database are the equivalent, with trivial differences, of the Am Law 200.

The practice areas for the nearly 2,000 “homegrown” partners promoted in 2013 are distributed as follows (please note that, while our data source is Leopard’s FIRMSCAPE, all calculations are ours alone):

2013 Partner Promotions
What does this distribution of practices tell us about Biglaw leadership’s view of the industry’s future priorities? Here is a comparison between the class of ’13 practice area distribution against the total percentage of all Am Law 200 attorneys (associates, counsel, and partners) employed in each practice:

Practice Area Total % of Am Law 200 % of Am Law 200 partnership class of 2013
Banking 2% 2%
Bankruptcy 3% 3%
Corporate 20% 16%
Energy 1% 1%
Environment 2% 1%
ERISA 2% 1%
Government 2% 2%
Healthcare 2% 2%
Healthcare 2% 2%
Insurance 1% 1%
IP 9% 10%
Labor & Employment 7% 9%
Litigation 38% 40%
Real Estate 6% 7%
Tax 3% 3%
Trusts & Estates 2% 1%

We see that, for the most part, this latest partnership class does not represent a marked departure from the Biglaw status quo. The number of new partners in seven practices, including bankruptcy and tax, are perfectly proportionate to the overall composition of large law firm lawyers generally. It is a mild surprise to find government and health care also among these practices; one might have thought these would be considered areas for strategic growth.

The number of new Corporate partners is 4% lower than what might be expected, while the percentage of new IP and Litigation partners are both “overrepresented” by 2%. Interestingly, this relative growth is somewhat at odds with the 2014 Report on the State of the Legal Market by The Center for the Study of the Legal Profession at Georgetown Law and Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor. That study showed a drop in demand of about 3% for both litigation and IP services in 2013 as compared to the previous year. According to the same study, corporate practices were essentially flat, while real estate showed the highest demand growth, albeit at a modest 1.2%.

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