“Lawyers are terrible businesspeople.” You’ve surely heard this before. But is it true?
If lawyers are so bad at business, then why did the Am Law 100, the nation’s 100 largest law firms ranked by revenue, have such a banner year in 2020? In the midst of a global pandemic and economic downturn — one that hammered so many industries, from airlines to hospitality to commercial real estate– Biglaw firms flourished.
Last week, the American Lawyer issued its eagerly anticipated Am Law 100 rankings for 2021. As a group, here’s how the Am Law 100 fared in 2020 (as noted by Dan Packel in his excellent analysis of the data):
Who are you calling a terrible businessperson now? These growth rates exceeded those posted by the Am Law 100 in the far more normal year of 2019 (which were 5 percent, 3 percent, and 5 percent, respectively, for total revenue, RPL, and PPEP).
What drove the dramatic increase in profitability? Yes, cost-cutting did play a role; firms used the pandemic as an opportunity to make themselves more efficient, eliminating or reducing various expenses that they were already planning to cut (e.g., certain administrative roles, real estate costs, etc.).
But, at least collectively, the Am Law 100 didn’t juice their profits by slashing lawyer or even equity-partner headcount. Total attorney headcount actually grew slightly, rising by 1.7 percent to 105,718, and the number of equity partners remained flat (down by just 12 partners, to a new total of 21,258).
Let’s now take a closer look at the three key metrics — gross revenue, revenue per lawyer, and profits per partner — and the top 10 firms in each category.
Here are the top 10 firms in the 2021 Am Law 100 rankings, ranked by their gross revenue in 2020. You can access the full list here.
Kudos to Kirkland & Ellis and Latham & Watkins, once again the two top-grossing firms, which both grew their total revenue by double digits. All of the other top-ten firms also increased their revenue, except for Baker McKenzie, which saw a slight dip (perhaps due to the global nature of the firm; the U.S. legal market generally performed better than overseas markets last year).
As you can see, there wasn’t much change in terms of the rank order of the firms. Everyone kept their 2020 spots except for White & Case and Hogan Lovells, who swapped places; now White & Case is #8 and Hogan Lovells is #9.
In 2020, 42 firms enjoyed gross revenue in excess of $1 billion, one more than the 41 firms in 2019. Almost three-quarters of the Am Law 100 — 74 firms, to be precise — grew their gross revenue. On the strength of its capital markets practice, Davis Polk had the biggest gain, a whopping 22.6 percent. (For more on how Davis Polk pulled off such a great financial performance, see this Bloomberg Law piece by Roy Strom.)
Revenue Per Lawyer
Here are the top 10 firms in the 2021 Am Law rankings based on revenue per lawyer. You can access the full list here.
As you can see, revenue per lawyer grew quite nicely among the top ten, with four firms posting double-digit growth. Once again, Wachtell Lipton and Sullivan & Cromwell took the top two spots — but Davis Polk zoomed up from #10 to #3. Two other firms known for strong capital markets practices, Cahill Gordon and Debevoise & Plimpton, also posted strong gains, breaking into the top 10.
Profits Per Equity Partner
And now, everyone’s favorite ranking: the top 10 firms by profits per equity partner. You can access the full list here.
As usual, Wachtell Lipton took the #1 spot, with an incredible $7.5 million in PPEP. But Kirkland & Ellis, in recent years the #2 firm, got bumped out of second place by Davis Polk, with $6.35 million. If 2021 turns out to be like 2020, it’s conceivable that Davis Polk could displace Wachtell as #1 in next year’s rankings (but based on the strong year that M&A is having so far, I wouldn’t necessarily count on that). As for the rest of the top ten, there wasn’t that much movement, except for the ascension of Cahill and Debevoise (which the revenue per lawyer rankings hinted at).
Taken collectively, the Am Law 100 performed well in terms of profitability. As the American Lawyer reports, average PPEP increased by 13 percent in 2020, and 56 firms enjoyed growth rates of at least 10 percent, compared to just 23 in last year’s rankings. So congratulations to Biglaw on its big success in 2020 — a year that was, to put it mildly, extremely challenging for so many of us.
Moving on from the rankings, I’d like to close with a personal announcement. As mentioned in passing in this New York Times piece by media columnist Ben Smith, I’m returning to full-time writing as of next week. I’ve enjoyed recruiting, but one thing I’ve learned about myself over this crazy past year, including my near-death experience with Covid-19, is that writing is what I truly love.
Back in December, I launched a new publication about legal affairs called Original Jurisdiction. I started off doing it for fun on the side, but I’ve realized after five months or so that I want to do it full-time and try to make a living out of it.
Original Jurisdiction comes out as both a newsletter and a blog; please feel free to sign up if interested. Right now it’s free, as it has been for the past five months. Next week, I will add paid subscriptions — which is how writers on the Substack platform earn a living — but there will always be lots of free content.
I have greatly enjoyed my two years at Lateral Link, in large part because of my amazing colleagues, and I wouldn’t have wanted to work at any other recruiting firm. I don’t think there’s another legal search firm out there that has such talented recruiters and does such an excellent job of encouraging and incentivizing them to work together as a team.
If you’re interested in working with Lateral Link as either a law firm or a candidate, please feel free to reach out to me. Although I’m finishing up my work here, I’d be happy to connect you with an appropriate colleague. Thank you, and please do stay in touch!