Back to the Future, Biglaw, Dissolution, Law Firm Mergers, Partner Issues, Partner Profits, Rankings

Flashback Friday: New York’s Top 50 Law Firms, Circa 1991

Hop in the DeLorean and travel back in time with us.

In our two most recent Flashback Friday posts, we looked at associate compensation in the 1990s. Today we’ll take a break from that topic and mix it up a bit. (We’ll return to cover associate comp in the remaining batch of legal markets at some point in the future.)

Last week we looked at associate pay in New York in the 1990s. Let’s stay in that city and that decade and examine another subject: NYC’s top law firms, circa 1991.

Some of these firms remain on top today. And some of them are six feet under….

As I mentioned in an earlier Flashback Friday post, I’m a pack rat. I have old Vault guides, from 2008 and 1998. I have the The Insider’s Guide to Law Firms, from 1993 and 1997.

And I have a book, copyright 1991, entitled The Guide to New York Law Firms. This book, written by the late Erwin Cherovsky, constituted a “highly original, Olympian overview of the major New York firms,” according to the foreword by Professor Arthur Miller (then of Harvard Law School, now of NYU Law).

The book contains a rich trove of data that I expect to mine in future posts. For today, though, I’ll go straight to the bottom line: ratings. We know how much competitive lawyer types love ratings. Here is how Cherovsky’s system worked:

The profiles [of the individual firms] attempt to assess the quality of each firm’s clients, lawyers, work product and office governance and environment. With some trepidation (as the procedure can be abused by third parties), I have summarized each such assessment, also taking into account the relative strength of the firm’s most recent annual revenues per lawyer and profits per partner, by assigning each firm one of the following symbols:

5 briefcases — top of the line
4 briefcases — superior
3 briefcases — good
2 briefcases — fair
1 briefcase — unsatisfactory

He supplemented these with directional symbols:

As the portrayal of each firm represents a snapshot in time, I also have indicated by readily understandable symbols (↑, ↓, and ?) whether or not my sources believe that a firm is in the process of succeeding to improve itself.

Without further ado, let’s plunge into Cherovsky’s ranking of New York’s 50 top law firms. Here are his “T14” firms, with 5 or 4.5 briefcases (click to enlarge):

It’s not surprising to see Cleary Gottlileb, Cravath, and Davis Polk in the very top tier. It’s somewhat more interesting to see Skadden and Wachtell Lipton there — but by 1991, these relatively young, culturally Jewish rather than WASPy firms had “arrived” (perhaps thanks to the takeover battles of the 1980s in which they made their names).

Moving on to the 4.5 briefcase firms, it’s interesting to see Simpson Thacher and Sullivan & Cromwell down there. Today they’d be generally regarded as 5-briefcase firms. (In fairness to Cherovsky, STB and S&C were 4.5-briefcase firms with up arrows — sort of like being on the Billboard Hot 100 with a bullet.)

Next up, the 4-briefcase and 3.5-briefcase firms:

Dewey on its way “up”? More like toe up. Its partner in its ill-fated 2007 merger, LeBoeuf Lamb, was at least marked with an equivocal left-right arrow sign.

Other firms listed above that are no longer with us, at least not in the same form, include Brown & Wood (merged with Sidley Austin, 2001); Lord Day & Lord (dissolved, 1994); Mudge Rose (dissolved, 1995); Reid & Priest (merged with Thelen, 1998, then dissolved, 2008-2009); Rogers & Wells (merged with Clifford Chance, 2000); Rosenman & Colin (merged with Katten Muchin, 2002); Shea & Gould (dissolved, 1994); and Thacher Proffitt (dissolved, 2008).

Three other firms listed above can still be seen, at least in name, in firms around today. In 2001, Winthrop Stimson merged with Pillsbury Madison & Sutro to form Pillsbury Winthrop. Breed Abbott and Whitman & Ransom combined to form Whitman Breed Abbott & Morgan (although the firm today is so much smaller than either Breed Abbott or Whitman & Ransom in their heydays).

Finishing out the top 50, we reach the 3-briefcase firms:

It’s easier here to note the firms that are not gone. Just three survive today: Epstein Becker & Green, Hawkins Delafield & Wood, and Phillips Nizer.

Even though many of the firms near the “bottom” of the top 50 are no longer around, in reviewing the overall top 50 list I’m struck by how little has changed in the NYC Biglaw hierarchy over almost a quarter of a century. Of the top 50 firms, roughly 35 are still around in some form — defining “around” as “still in business or reflected in the name of a law firm still in business” — and most of those 35 still operate under the same name they used in 1991. In how many other industries can you find more than 60 percent of the top 50 players in 1991 still alive and well in 2014 — and, in many cases, not just alive and well but still dominant?

Observers of Biglaw often hear or utter the conventional wisdom that “lawyers are terrible businesspeople.” But considering how many of 1991’s top 50 firms are still top 50 firms today, with greater stability in rank the higher you go in the hierarchy, perhaps the partners are doing something right.

Earlier: Flashback Friday: A Look At Associate Compensation In The 1990s (Part 2)
Flashback Friday: A Look At Associate Compensation In The 1990s (Part 1)
Flashback Friday: The Nation’s 15 Most Prestigious Law Firms — In 2008 And 1998

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