Biglaw prestige is what economists (or law-and-econ types) would call “sticky,” i.e., resistant to change.
(Why is this the case, and is it a good or bad thing? For a detailed discussion, see this excellent post by the always insightful Joe Borstein — who will be interviewing me over at Litera.tv at 12 p.m. today.)
If you question the stickiness of Biglaw prestige, just take a look at the new Vault 100 ranking of the most prestigious law firms in America, which Vault issued last week. Let’s start with the top 10:
Eighty percent of the top 10 firms stayed in exactly the same place as last year — and that’s not unusual. The general rigidity of the Vault rankings, especially near the top, is why Wachtell Lipton and Skadden Arps trading the #2 and #3 spots, to Skadden’s advantage, constituted “historic drama,” to quote Staci Zaretsky.
Until this year, the #1 and #2 spots went back and forth between just two firms, Wachtell Lipton and Cravath, this year’s #1. Cravath has occupied the top spot since the 2017 Vault rankings, when it ended Wachtell’s 13-year reign at the top. (June 2016, when those 2017 Vault rankings came out, was also the month in which Cravath announced the $180K pay scale — but Cravath’s taking the #1 spot can’t really be attributed to gratitude from Biglaw associates for the pay raise, since the surveys used for calculating the 2017 rankings were completed much earlier in 2016.)
And it’s not just the top 10. Looking at the entire ranking of 100 firms, only 34 firms moved two or more spots in either direction — meaning that two-thirds of the firms in the Vault 100 either saw no change in ranking or went up or down by just a single spot (at least by my count; please correct me if I’m wrong).
There’s enough gloomy news out there in the world right now, so for purposes of today, let’s look at the positive side of the ledger: the biggest gainers in the 2021 Vault 100 rankings. Here are the 17 firms that moved up by two or more spots this year, ranked by the size of their jump (with the two newcomers listed at the end):
What can we say in general about these firms? The Vault Law Editors made this observation:
The 2021 Vault prestige rankings saw the rise of West Coast firms—more than one-third of firms that moved up two or more spots in the Vault Law 100 were based in either California or Washington state: Cooley LLP (No. 24); Perkins Coie LLP (No. 43); Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP (No. 72); Fenwick & West LLP (No. 73); Davis Wright & Tremaine LLP (No. 87); and Gunderson Dettmer Stough Villeneuve Franklin & Hachigian, LLP (No. 90).
I would expand upon this observation by noting that many of the firms with the most momentum, at least as reflected in the Vault rankings, are forward-looking and future-focused, no matter where they are located. They tend to be strong in growing and vibrant sectors like technology, life sciences, and healthcare. This is true of the West Coast firms mentioned by the Vault editors, but it’s also true of some of the firms on the list that did not originate on the West Coast — like Mintz and Goodwin, both Boston-founded firms, but known across the nation (and beyond) for their expertise in healthcare and life sciences.
The Vault Law Editors gave a special shout-out to Cooley, noting that “[i]n addition to its Top 100 jump, the firm also launched seven spots in the New York regional ranking to settle at No. 33 and moved into the top 30 in the Washington, DC, ranking.” And this isn’t the first year in recent memory that has been good for Cooley. In 2014, for example, Cooley climbed 10 spots, more than any other firm, to break into the top 50. Now, just six short years later, Cooley is a top 25 firm.
And I’d expect Cooley to continue climbing next year. Associates tend to reward compensation leaders when filling out Vault surveys; last year, for example, after leading the way to $190K, Milbank jumped 15 spots and entered the top 25. So Cooley, which just led the way in announcing both “appreciation bonuses” and 2020 year-end bonuses that won’t be lower than 2019 year-end bonuses, should be shown some love by associates filling out Vault surveys next year. (Even if Cooley’s scale was subsequently exceeded by other Biglaw firms, like Davis Polk and Milbank, as well as elite boutiques, like Hueston Hennigan, it’s not clear that any of these other firms would have acted if Cooley hadn’t kicked things off.)
So that’s a look at the Vault 100 rankings from the firms’ perspectives. What do these rankings mean for associates who work at these firms?
In general, the more prestigious firms enjoy higher profits per partner, for those who make partner, and better exit opportunities (including in-house opportunities), for those who don’t make partner. So if you’re a star associate in a busy practice area, working long hours for lower pay at a firm that’s lower down on the prestige totem pole, you might want to consider lateraling to a firm that’s more prestigious and pays top-of-the-market compensation.
If you’re a star associate at a Vault 100 firm who’s interested in an “upgrade” in terms of pay, prestige, and exit options, please feel free to reach out to me by email at . In a time when some firms are paying mid-year bonuses while other firms are cutting compensation, the difference between the Biglaw haves and have-nots is only growing — and you want to be on the right side of that divide.
P.S. Biglaw prestige might not change much, but it seems that everything else in our world is changing, and quite rapidly at that. To learn about “change management” — defined as “the process, tools, and techniques used to manage the human side of change for the achievement and sustainment of a desired business outcome” — and how it can help you and your organization navigate these tumultuous times, please register for this free webinar I’ll be moderating next week. It will take place this coming Tuesday, September 22, and it features an impressive panel of general counsels, chief executive officers, and other leaders. Hope to see you there!
Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts from Lateral Link’s team of expert contributors. This post is by David Lat, a managing director in the New York office, where he focuses on placing top associates, partners and partner groups into preeminent law firms around the country.