So how did Biglaw do in 2021, coming off its shockingly strong performance in 2020? In short: better. A lot better. Based on the financial metrics reported this week in the latest edition of the Am Law 100, the recent round of Biglaw salary increases makes perfect sense. Sure, most firms achieved record gross revenue, revenue per lawyer, and profits per equity partner. But that’s true in a typical good year. What made 2021 such a blowout is that many firms dramatically accelerated their growth rates on those metrics as compared to 2020 — a year that was itself hailed as a stunning success. Any way you look at it, 2021 was truly a year to remember for the Biglaw elite.
Collectively, here’s what the Am Law 100 achieved in 2021 (as noted by Patrick Smith in his summary of the data):
To appreciate just how good those growth rates are, let’s compare them to the strong growth of 2020 and the more typical rates in 2019:
Part of the impressive profit growth can be explained by attorneys working harder. Based on data from the 61 firms that submitted billing figures to the American Lawyer, hours billed rose 5.7% relative to 2020. Meanwhile, headcount in the Am Law 100 was up just 2.1%. As we at Lateral Link can attest, firms were eager to add talent in 2021, but growing the ranks was a challenge in the face of intense competition.
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 2022 Am Law 100 rankings, ranked by their gross revenue in 2021. You can access the full list here.
Kirkland & Ellis and Latham & Watkins once again led the pack, not only maintaining their #1 and #2 slots but also increasing revenue at faster rates than the other top 10 firms. The composition of the top group was fairly stable, with Ropes & Gray riding a 22% growth rate into the top 10 and Jones Day falling out of it, despite increasing revenue by 10%.
Revenue growth was strong across the board, with every Am Law 100 firm enjoying an increase (as compared to 26 firms that suffered revenue declines in 2020). Remarkably, 63 firms increased revenue by at least 10% and 18 were up by at least 20%.
Revenue Per Lawyer
Here are the top 10 firms in the 2022 Am Law 100 rankings based on revenue per lawyer. You can access the full list here.
Seven of the top ten firms increased revenue per lawyer by double digits (as compared to four in 2020). Once again, Wachtell and Sullivan & Cromwell took the top two spots. Davis Polk cooled somewhat after its market-leading 22% RPL growth in 2020. Cravath impressed with its rise from from #10 to #3 (mirroring the jump that Davis Polk achieved in 2020). Quinn Emanuel and Paul, Weiss ascended into the top 10, displacing Cahill Gordon and Debevoise.
Profits Per Equity Partner
And finally, everyone’s favorite ranking: the top 10 firms by profits per equity partner. You can access the full list here.
As always, Wachtell tops the list, this year exceeding $8 million in PPEP for the first time. Kirkland and Davis Polk each cracked the $7 million mark. Sullivan & Cromwell leapfrogged Paul, Weiss and Simpson Thacher to claim the #4 slot. Broadly speaking, the top 10 was fairly stable: the only firm to drop out was Debevoise, which grew PPEP by 10% but was no match for Latham’s 26% growth.
Overall, 14 firms now have profits per equity partner above $5 million (compared to six in 2020). Consistent with the long-running “rich get richer” theme in Biglaw, PPEP growth was strongest at the top of the Am Law 100. Whereas the top quartile increased PPEP by 22.7%, the bottom quartile of the Am Law 100 managed only a 7.7% increase. Still, no matter where their firm stood in the rankings, most Am Law 100 partners would be hard pressed to complain about 2021.