Earlier this week, the good folks over at Vault released their annual list of the nation’s 100 most prestigious law firms. As we noted in our analysis of the list, the top 15 for this year don’t look very different from the top 15 from last year.
Wachtell Lipton topped the list for the 12th year in a row. But as Vault noted, Cravath isn’t far behind — and could retake the crown that it relinquished to Wachtell back in 2004.
Yes, that’s right — Wachtell hasn’t always been #1. On this “Flashback Friday,” let’s look back at the Vault rankings from 2008 and 1998 and see how things looked in the past….
Why 1998 and 2008? These are the two years whose hard-copy Vault guides I happen to have. I’m a total pack rat, and sometimes my hoarding tendencies come in handy. (Of course, if you don’t want to be a hoarder yourself, you can rely on the hoarding of others and just buy old Vault guides on eBay.)
The latest Vault rankings — released earlier this week, i.e., in June 2014 — are (perhaps confusingly) called the “2015” Vault rankings. To recap, and for ease of reference, the top 15 firms in the 2015 Vault rankings are as follows (with the change over the 2014 Vault rankings 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)
Here are the top 10 firms from the “2008” Vault rankings, which were released seven years ago, in 2007:
Looking at the top 10, the 2008 rankings aren’t hugely different from the just-released ones for 2015. S&C and Skadden were #3 and #4 back then. Davis, Simpson, and Cleary all occupied the same spots. Latham was #8 instead of #10 — query whether the subsequent 2009 Lathaming hurt the brand — and a few other top 15 firms moved a few places.
The three top 15 firms in the 2015 rankings that were not in the top 15 in the 2008 rankings are Gibson Dunn (#18 back in 2008), Boies Schiller (#46 back in 2008), and Quinn Emanuel (#43 back in 2008). The top 15 firms in 2008 that are not in the top 15 for 2015 are Debevoise (from #12 to #16), Shearman & Sterling (from #14 to #28), and WilmerHale (from #15 to #21).
Now let’s look at the 1998 rankings, which are quite different. For starters, Vault ranked just 50 firms back then. Here are the top 15 (click to enlarge):
Comparing the 1998 rankings to the 2015 rankings, Cravath and Wachtell swapped places, and there was some minor shuffling among the usual top 7. But the #8 firm in 1998, Shearman & Sterling, is all the way down at #28 in the 2015 rankings. What happened, Shearman?
Between 1998 and 2015, Weil Gotshal and Kirkland enjoyed some nice gains. Weil went from #17 to #8, and Kirkland went from #15 to #9. Perhaps they benefited from the intervening rise in such practices as bankruptcy and private equity, areas of strength for both firms.
Over the same period, firms like Covington, Latham, Paul Weiss, and Debevoise shifted slots a bit (not in a major way). But check out the #12 firm in 1998, Wilson Sonsini. Today it’s at #51. This is probably more a reflection of changing times than anything about Wilson Sonsini. Back in 1998, the dot-com boom was underway, and Wilson Sonsini was the go-to firm for hot tech startups.
The #14 firm in 1998 was Arnold & Porter. Today it’s at #24 — a bit of a dip, although not as precipitous as those experienced by Shearman and Wilson Sonsini.
Looking at moves in the other direction, upward rather than downward over time, two top 15 firms from the latest rankings weren’t even ranked by Vault in 1998. Yes, you guessed them — the twin litigation powerhouses of Boies Schiller (#13 today) and Quinn Emanuel (#15 today). Boies was in its infancy, having been founded in 1997, and Quinn Emanuel, while a decade old — it launched in 1986 — had not yet achieved the prominence it enjoys today.
It’s a testament to the talents of David Boies and John Quinn — both Cravath alums, by the way — that their firms have come so far in under two decades. And considering how active both men remain, their firms have many great years ahead. But as these gents grow older — Boies is 73, and Quinn just turned 63 (happy birthday, JBQ!) — people will wonder whether their institutions can stand the test of time.
There are reasons for optimism. A firm doesn’t have to be ancient in order to endure. Take Wachtell Lipton, which isn’t even 50 yet. The iconic founders, Herb Wachtell and Marty Lipton, no longer work as insanely hard as they used to. But under the leadership of younger stars like Ed Herlihy and Dan Neff, the firm continues to thrive.
Building a great law firm is one thing; maintaining its greatness is another. Which firms will retain a reputation for excellence five, ten, or fifty years from now? Only time will tell — but I wouldn’t bet against Cravath.
 Insert reference to the “QUINN REMAINS” meme here.