Am Law 100

As we noted in Morning Docket, there’s a new survey out about corporate America’s legal spending in 2013. As noted by Am Law Daily, the LegalView Index “is based on actual dollars paid by clients, not on surveys of law firms” — so perhaps it’s more reliable than many of the other studies.

What does the survey say? Here are some highlights:

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I’ve just celebrated my fourth anniversary working in-house, and I’m now officially out of touch with law firm life.

I thought I knew all the law-firm-partnership tricks. For example, when law students ask at interviews what percentage of firm partners hold equity status, some firms answer: “At this firm, all partners are partners.” That’s true, of course, but tautological; it says nothing about the equity and non-equity ranks.

On the other hand, this non-responsive answer serves a useful purpose. It may help to convince law students (or lateral associates) that they have a real chance at making partner at the firm, even though the equity partnership ranks are tiny and getting thinner every day.

But I recently learned about a new game that law firms play. This one is aimed not at deceiving law students or lateral associates, but rather the granddaddy of law firm rankings: The American Lawyer’s profits per partner calculation.

I thought I knew all the ways law firms could try to mislead The American Lawyer. There’s the possibility of outright lying, of course, and then there’s using funky methodologies that inflate profits per partner from $1 million to $1.8 million for the year 2011. But there’s a new game in town. It may well be widespread, but I heard about it only recently….

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Good news: According to the Citi Private Bank Law Firm Group (and its partner, the Hildebrandt Institute), firms are looking at nice, steady profit growth in the coming year. It’s not super, but who can be choosy in the current market? And partially driving this growth is an expected uptick in demand, so that’s good.

Bad news: While the media latched on to the favorable demand projection, the report expects firms to be more profitable because they are finally taking Citi’s advice on how to become more profitable — and that doesn’t bode well for rank-and-file attorneys.

Let’s see what’s in store for 2014….

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The federal judiciary thanks you.

* Barack Obama is trailing George W. Bush when it comes to leaving his mark on the federal courts, but that’s probably because Senate Democrats didn’t go nuclear quickly enough. [Blog of Legal Times]

* When it comes to 2013, one thing’s for sure: it wasn’t boring. Many of this year’s movers and shakers hailed from top Am Law 100 law firms — like Ted Cruz (formerly of Morgan Lewis). [American Lawyer]

* John Ray III isn’t going to sit back and allow a jury to shut down his discrimination and retaliation case against Ropes & Gray. He filed a notice of appeal last week, and he’s pissed off. [National Law Journal]

* Utah has until the end of January to figure out how it’s going to go about defending its same-sex marriage ban before the Tenth Circuit. Just a thought: the “it’s still gay, even if the balls don’t touch” theory of law isn’t going to cut it. [Deseret News]

* A lawyer for the Texas judge accused of strangling his girlfriend is offering media outlets a superb defense story on behalf of his client. He wasn’t trying to kill her, he was trying to save her! [New York Daily News]

* Here’s some advice on how to submit your law school application on time. If you don’t know how to meet a deadline, you’re going to make a great lawyer. [Law Admissions Lowdown / U.S. News & World Report]

As noted in Morning Docket, Citi’s quarterly review of the financial landscape facing law firms just came out. The surface level verdict is — as it has been for some time — slow and steady, with a bunch of red flags.

The firms are happy to see positive revenue growth, even if it’s only 2.7 percent. I mean, other industries aren’t so lucky. But when the industry is a few years into the “New Normal” and analysts are still pointing to the same failings, it’s hard to feel too optimistic.

Let’s look at the other highlights of the report:

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The future of elite Biglaw firms?

Historically, the elite Biglaw firms derived safety and security from the knowledge that they could depend on big fees from large institutional clients. After all, where would the big dogs feel confident sending their legal work if not to a giant, white-shoe firm, with a complete support staff and the cream of the law school graduating crop? It encouraged behemoth firms and no small amount of complacency.

No one doubts that we’ve entered a new normal and that Growth Is Dead (affiliate link), but a new study confirms that there’s even more bad news for the top Biglaw firms: GCs simply don’t want them any more…

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series from Bruce MacEwen and Janet Stanton of Adam Smith Esq. and JDMatch. “Across the Desk” takes a thoughtful look at recruiting, career paths, professional development, human capital, and related issues. Some of these pieces have previously appeared, in slightly different form, on AdamSmithEsq.com.

There seems to have been a spasm an unusual concentration of articles recently advancing the theory (I generalize) that all is well in BigLaw and that in fact even the universally acknowledged cost/benefit mismatch of a J.D. degree is mistaken.

Regular readers know that I’m the last person to be apocalyptic about the legal industry writ large, but I also would like to believe I apply rigor in analysis and tough love in attitude, so when sloppy happy talk comes front and center. I feel compelled to respond.

Law schools first. I haven’t really entered the “Law school NPV—positive or negative?” debate, and I don’t plan to start. It’s of enormous import on many levels, from the tragic human toll to the socioeconomic policy questions it raises. It’s simply a bit far afield for me to give it the attention it deserves. And I’m not going to do a half-baked job. Still, for the yin and yang of this debate, I refer you to (first pro and then con):

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For many law schools, the bidding process for the upcoming on-campus interview season closed yesterday. In bidding, schools quite reasonably advise students to select potential employers that align with their aspirations and geographic preferences. For example, the section of the Duke Law web site devoted to OCI admonishes students to “thoroughly research” potential employers and to “focus only on employers in whom you are genuinely interested and that match your career goals.” Presumably, one career goal shared by all law school graduates is to eventually be free of debt. As previously and repeatedly noted, for most, a Biglaw associate position is the only employment outcome which gives the graduate a plausible prospect of paying off his student loans.

So what shapes student perception of large law firms and drives the decision of the law student in prioritizing their OCI bids? No doubt there are unique versions of received wisdom that get passed from generation to generation of students at every school. And of course there are plenty of media entities measuring firms against one another: revenues (AmLaw), “prestige” (Vault), practice area prowess (Chambers) and so on. This being the time of year where Biglaw careers are just starting to be built, we thought it would be interesting to look at how students themselves rate law firms. Which firms are the law student favorites?

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[I]n today’s environment, averages mislead more than ever. If anything is true about law firm performance in the post-Great Reset era, it’s that dispersion has never been wider. We have more highly outperforming winners and more poorly underperforming laggards.

But if you want to generalize? Out of ‘alive, well, and rich,’ the evidence seems to support one for three.

– Lawyer and law firm consultant Bruce MacEwen of Adam Smith, Esq., taking issue with the defense of Biglaw written by Robin Sparkman, editor in chief of the American Lawyer.

I have been thinking about how to explain the Am Law 100 rankings to a layman. Quite frankly, there is little use in trying to engage in a productive discussion of the rankings with colleagues. One segment of the Biglaw population is fixated on the fictional profits-per-partner figure, while another marvels at the “global reach” and exploding headcounts of the giga-firms. Some like to talk about the firms they interviewed with in law school, while others only care about the firms that have stronger resources in their practice areas. If you are in Biglaw, or hoping to be, you will come up with your own way of making sense of it all. Have fun.

What is more interesting to me is the following question: How can a normal person relate to this year’s Am Law 100 rankings? Put another way, if I was told that I was eligible for a large cash prize if I could explain the Am Law 100 chart to ten random strangers in a way that was compelling to them, what would I say?

Think about your own answer, then keep reading….

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