It pains me to say this, given my own predilection for prestige worship, but here’s a question: does prestige matter as much as it used to? In an era of greater access to information, a law firm’s overall prestige arguably matters less than it once did.
If a client is looking for an excellent firm in a particular practice area, it can now easily access information about which firms, and even which individual lawyers, excel in which niches. It no longer has to rely on a firm’s brand name as a proxy for a specific strength. And other factors matter to the public as well. Is a firm a good place to work? How stable is its partnership, in this era of increased lateral movement? Is the firm growing or declining?
But make no mistake: prestige is still hugely important. Which is why the Vault law firm rankings are so eagerly anticipated each year.
The latest rankings from Vault of the country’s 100 most prestigious law firms just came out. How do they look?
Here’s how Vault announced the news:
Wachtell wins again. For the twelfth consecutive year, Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz has taken the top spot in the latest edition of the Vault Law 100 Rankings for 2015, but not without a little competition from the former front-runner,
Congrats to my former firm (which I recommend as a workplace, if you can stomach the hours). But will Wachtell retain the top spot next year?
[T]he New York-based powerhouse Wachtell saw its lead over second-place Cravath, Swaine & Moore shrink from .087 to .021 points. Cravath spent years in the No. 1 spot before passing its crown to Wachtell in 2004, but the distance between the two firms has been closing in the last few years.
I can’t help wondering if Wachtell Lipton’s eroding lead stems from the firm’s secrecy. During the firm’s prestige heyday, its gigantic bonuses generated tremendous buzz. Now that the firm is much more tight-lipped about those bonuses (and many other matters as well), perhaps its profile among law students and young lawyers is shrinking.
Moving beyond the Wachtell-Cravath rivalry, here are the top 15 firms of the Vault 100 (with the change from last year noted parenthetically):
1. Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz (no change)
2. Cravath, Swaine & Moore (no change)
3. Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom (+1)
4. Sullivan & Cromwell (-1)
5. Davis Polk & Wardwell (no change)
6. Simpson Thacher & Bartlett (+1)
7. Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton (+1)
8. Weil, Gotshal & Manges (-2)
9. Kirkland & Ellis (no change)
10. Latham & Watkins (no change)
11. Gibson Dunn & Crutcher (+1)
12. Covington & Burling (-1)
13. Boies, Schiller & Flexner (+2)
14. Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison (no change)
15. Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan (+2)
You can view the full list here.
Among the top 15, there’s not a lot of movement. Skadden and S&C traded places, as they do from time to time (like right after Skadden paid above-market bonuses in 2008). Weil Gotshal fell two spots; perhaps last summer’s layoffs and the subsequent partner defections took a reputational toll.
The young litigation powerhouses continue to rise, as noted by Vault:
Quinn Emanuel and Boies Schiller continued their ascent in the Vault Law 100 this year. Quinn Emanuel first made the Top 40 in 2009 and the Top 25 in 2010. It has been hiking up ever since, including a two-spot jump to No. 15 this year….
Boies Schiller also climbed two rungs this year, taking the No. 13 spot. The move comes after a big jump last year, which landed the firm in the Top 15 for the first time. A strong litigation practice along with a growing corporate practice could mean that Boies Schiller is poised for a Top 10 finish in 2015, which would mark the first significant change in the Top 10 in several years.
Those are nice moves by Quinn and BSF, but they weren’t the largest. Congratulations to Cooley on skyrocketing from #55 to #45, the biggest upward move in the Vault 100. Here’s how Vault law editor Nicole Weber explains the move:
It is no surprise that Cooley, which has handled many significant, multi-billion dollar IPOs in recent years, climbed more than any other firm — ten spots — to debut in the Top 50. But capital markets is not the firm’s only forte; its reputation in the technology industry has also helped to boost other practice areas such as litigation and intellectual property. Cooley was described in our survey results as “entrepreneurial,” a “leader in its area” and “tech-savvy.”
Thanks to its work for clients like Facebook and Google, Cooley had a strong financial performance last year as well. According to the latest Am Law 100 rankings, Cooley’s gross revenue increased by a robust 9.2 percent in 2013, and profits per partner increased by a healthy 4.7 percent.
Other major movers in the Vault 100: Duane Morris, up 8 spots to #91; Cahill Gordon, up 5 spots to #47 (thanks perhaps to those fantastic bonuses); Proskauer Rose, up 6 spots to #32; Hogan Lovells, up 5 spots to #35; Goodwin Procter, up 5 spots to #38; Perkins Coie, up 6 spots to #59; Mintz Levin, up 5 spots to #88; and Locke Lord, up 6 spots to #86.
Although many firms switched places, the firms comprising the Vault 100 stayed relatively similar. Two firms fell out of the top 100: Troutman Sanders and Dickstein Shapiro, victim of partner defections and lawyer and staff layoffs. But lawyer layoffs didn’t prevent Kasowitz Benson from clawing its way back into the top 100 and taking the #98 spot.
Congratulations to the firms that moved up in this year’s Vault 100 rankings, and congratulations to all the firms that made the cut. Just like the Oscar nominations, it’s an honor just to be included. Prestige is like the billable hour: it may be slowly losing its stranglehold on the legal profession, but it’s not disappearing anytime soon.
 If you can help us out with the Wachtell bonuses from recent years — we last covered the 2011 and 2012 bonuses at WLRK, but we haven’t gotten the 2013 figures yet — please email us or text us (646-820-8477).