Above the Law

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There’s no Biglaw intercity rivalry which can match that of London’s venerable Magic Circle and New York’s elite white shoe firms. Both groups of firms are the clear alpha dogs in their markets, attracting the top talent and most lucrative clients. However, there are some significant differences between the two groups in how they operate. For example, U.K. firms tend to follow a lockstep (rather than “eat what you kill”) compensation model. Last month, friend of ATL Bruce MacEwen took a deep dive into the question of the relative performance over the last several years between the Magic Circle and their New York cousins. The piece is highly recommended: it’s chock-full of data and its findings suggest the groups are moving in different directions.

Using publicly reported data for the years 2008—2013, Bruce focused on such metrics as headcount, percentage of equity partners, PPP, RPL, and profit margin. The Magic Circle firms—Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields, and Linklaters—are of course a well-defined group (Slaughter and May, the only member firm without a New York office, was excluded). For New York, these firms were selected as the comparison group on the basis of “historical roots, geographic footprints, and business models”:

Cleary Gottlieb
Davis Polk
Paul Weiss
Simpson Thacher
Sullivan & Cromwell, and
Weil Gotshal

One could query the absence of Cravath, Wachtell, Skadden, etc., and we refer you to Bruce’s piece for a fuller articulation of these choices. The U.S. market for the highest end legal services is much more fragmented and diffuse than its U.K. counterpart, and which precise group of firms is the closest equivalent to the Magic Circle is endlessly debatable. But for the purposes of this comparison this group will certainly serve.

So when we look at numbers, what do we find?

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

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….

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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?

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The people who regulate rich white guys in basketball are way tougher than the people who regulate rich white guys in banking.

Kevin Roose, author of Young Money: Inside the Hidden World of Wall Street’s Post-Crash Recruits (affiliate link), commenting on Twitter about N.B.A Commissioner Adam Silver’s harsh punishment of Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.

(Both Silver and Sterling are lawyers. Check out their backgrounds, and find out which elite firm conducted the NBA investigation of Sterling, after the jump.)

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Non-lawyers are often surprised to learn of the lockstep salary schemes of large law firms and the near-perfect information we have about them. (Recall Kevin Drum’s befuddlement at the bi-modal distribution of law graduate salaries and the “weird cultural collusion” it suggested.) Even annual bonuses are frequently spelled out in what amounts to public memoranda and are typically some variation of the “market” dictated by our Cravath overlords. Of course, there are some “black box” firms and a few gilded outliers such as Wachtell Lipton or Boies Schiller, but generally speaking, the world of large firms practices a degree of relative transparency around compensation that is unsurpassed outside the public sector.

In order to distinguish among firms, we have to look to the margins. For example, law firms vary quite a bit when it comes to paying for the bar and living expenses of incoming associates. Some firms may reimburse for covered expenses after the fact; others may pay some expenses directly to the provider. Some may give a stipend to cover living expenses, whereas others may offer the ability to take out an advance on salary.

Greater transparency (or, at least, aggregated information) on these questions might make one firm’s offer more attractive than another’s, or perhaps even give an offeree some basis for negotiating a package upgrade (but of course tread very lightly there)….

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Partnership: Biglaw’s ultimate brass ring.

Becoming a Biglaw partner does not necessarily mean you’ll live happily ever after. It doesn’t even guarantee financial security. Indeed, some partners end up filing for personal bankruptcy.

But that’s an anomalous case. Partnership at a major law firm might not guarantee you happiness — sometimes you have to leave the partnership to follow your bliss — but it generally brings with it tremendous pay and prestige.

That’s especially true of partnership at the nation’s 10 most prestigious large law firms. Most of them have only a single partnership tier — equity or bust, baby — and sky-high profits.

Who are the new partners at these 10 firms, and what do their selections reveal about Biglaw today?

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Thomas “Haller” Jackson IV

Imagine this. You graduate from law school with a 4.0, the first person in your school’s history to do so. While in law school, you serve as editor-in-chief of the law review, win the moot court competition, and get a Ph.D.

You clerk for a federal appellate judge, followed by another circuit judge — this time a prominent feeder judge to the U.S. Supreme Court. You work as an associate at an elite law firm in a major city. You then return to your hometown and clerk for not one but two federal district court judges, to round out your already amazing résumé with some time in the trial court trenches.

And then you… get a Supreme Court clerkship? Or get charged with attempted aggravated rape and solicitation of a young child….

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This is the latest in a new series of ATL infographics — visual representations of our own proprietary data, relevant third-party data, “anecdata,” or just plain jokes. This infographic is brought to you by our friends at Prestige Legal Search. Earn another $5,000 to $50,000 with their Rewards Program.

For the most part, Biglaw associate bonuses remain stuck at last year’s levels, reflecting expectations that firm profits will be flat at best. This might seem fair, with everyone feeling the pinch of the “New Normal” and so on. But when we take a small step back and see how these bonus numbers compare as a percentage of partner profits to the bonuses of just a few years ago, these bonuses are arguably pretty measly.

The current $10,000 “market” (i.e., Cravath-following) rate for first-years is just 0.29% of Cravath’s profits per partner (according to the American Lawyer). Back in 2007, first-year bonuses equaled 1.36% of PPP. In other words, the Cravath partnership was nearly five times more generous to its associates back then.

Obviously, Cravath is among the most profitable firms in the world. What are the implications of matching Cravath’s bonus scale for those firms with much lower profit margins? Today’s infographic takes a look at how big a hit to PPP partners willingly take in order to Keep Up With The Cravathians….

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As 2013 draws to a close, let’s look back at the 10 biggest stories in the legal profession over the past year. This is an annual tradition here at Above the Law, which we’ve done in 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009. We’ll fire up the old Google Analytics machine to get data on our most popular posts, based on pageviews, and share the results with you.

Before turning to specific stories, let’s look at the top general discussion topics here at ATL. For 2013, our most trafficked category page was Biglaw, which bumped Law Schools out of the top spot — a spot that Law Schools held from 2010 through 2012. Now that the word is out about the perils of getting a law degree, leading to plummeting applications, perhaps it’s time to move on from the “don’t go to law school” narrative.

After Biglaw and Law Schools, our third most-popular category page was, as usual, Bonuses. This wasn’t a terribly exciting year for bonuses — there were no spring bonuses, and Cravath and its many followers paid out the same bonuses as last year — but people still want to know the score.

Our fourth most-popular category page was small law firms. Small firms, including boutiques, are an area of increasing focus and readership for us — and also where many of the job opportunities are these days.

Moving on from the topic pages, what were the 10 most popular individual posts at Above the Law in 2013?

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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?

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