All posts by Lateral Link

Remote Biglaw Positions: Separating Fact from Myth

Besides the pandemic itself, perhaps no topic has dominated recent conversation among white-collar professionals like working from home. The upsides. The downsides. How long it will last. Whether the nature of work has changed forever. Everyone has an opinion and a preference.

For most of 2020 and early 2021, the remote work debate didn’t have much immediate practical implication. Like it or not, Biglaw attorneys were mainly working from home. But now that offices are reopening, lawyers face a choice: either accept whatever new policy their firm is adopting or look to move to a firm that better aligns with their preferences.

Varied expectations for office presence

By now firms have generally re-opened their U.S. offices, with summer attendance guidelines ranging from voluntary at firms like Ropes & Gray to “strongly encouraged” at firms like Sullivan & Cromwell. As for the fall, firms have articulated varying expectations. Paul Hastings has said it expects all attorneys to work from the office as a “default” policy. Several firms have specified a minimum number of office days each week: Skadden’s expectation of at least three days per week is typical. Nixon Peabody is offering a range of configurations, including 100% remote arrangements for some lawyers.

Many firms have presented their guidelines as applying from September through the end of 2021, avoiding longer-term commitments. That makes sense in an environment where firms understand the tight market for talent will require them to offer flexibility but it remains to be seen how much.

So where does that leave the typical associate? For those who prefer to work from the office, there isn’t much to worry about. Few firms are going to discourage a lawyer who wants to spend every weekday in the office from doing so. But for those who have enjoyed working from home and are not eager to resume office life, it’s a tougher call. You can sit tight and hope that market pressures will ultimately force your firm to permit frequent, if not total, remote work. Or you can try to lateral now to a firm that is committed to offering officially remote roles.

For those considering such a move, we at Lateral Link think it’s important to separate fact from myth when it comes to remote positions in Biglaw. We’re hearing from many associates who are keen to maximize flexibility but are not well-informed about the state of the market.

Myth: Many Biglaw firms are offering remote positions

In fact, most firms are not offering fully remote roles. There is a lot of misinformation on this point, driven in part by recruiters incorrectly telling candidates that a firm is open to remote work when the reality is different. You should understand that firms offering fully remote positions are outliers, at least for now.

Myth: Openness to remote work is the same across major markets

Law firms tend to be influenced by the cultural norms of their client base, so it’s not surprising that a split on remote work is emerging between east and west. In New York, most of the banks that serve as anchor Biglaw clients are calling their staff back to the office this summer, and most New York firms want their lawyers largely back in the office in September. In contrast, the tech companies that drive the Bay Area economy are taking a more favorable view of long-term remote work, and at least some Bay Area law firms are following their clients’ lead.

Myth: You can work remotely for a law firm located in another country

Hiring employees in a given state or country has tax implications for the employer. And in the case of transnational work, there may also be work authorization restrictions to consider. Even within the United States, remote roles are often limited to particular states where the employer has made provision to operate. So no, if you are a lawyer living in the United States, you very likely cannot work remotely for a firm outside the United States. And similarly, remote roles for American firms paid through American payroll are limited to United States residents with the legal authorization to work in the United States.

Lateral Link can help lawyers navigate the evolving market

It remains to be seen what the typical Biglaw workweek will look like a year from now. Based on what most firms are saying today, it will probably involve some days in the office and some days at home. That likely means that moving far from a major city will, for many lawyers, continue to require the tradeoff of leaving Biglaw practice.

However, we expect that policies will continue to evolve as firms survey the competitive landscape and (re)position themselves accordingly. In such a fluid situation, it’s especially important to have an advisor who is in constant contact with a range of firms and can give you accurate information about how the market is trending. If you are thinking about switching to a firm that better matches your remote work preferences, Lateral Link is happy to discuss the options with you.

International Lateral Moves

You might expect Biglaw firms to be reluctant to hire associates from one country for roles in a different country. Cross-border moves are inherently more complicated than hiring an associate from across the street. There are visa considerations, bar admission hurdles, even cultural challenges.

But in fact, despite the possible obstacles, the market for cross-border hiring is booming. In particular, Biglaw offices in the United States are increasingly open to bringing on foreign candidates. And lawyers from other common law countries are realizing the advantages of gaining experience in the American market. Building a professional network while working on the highest-value, most complex deals in the world pays dividends throughout one’s career, whether the lawyer stays in the United States permanently or moves back home. Lucrative American Biglaw salaries are also a plus (though you’ll need to tolerate high hours expectations in exchange).

If you are a well-credentialed attorney working in Canada, Australia, London, Asia, or the United States, now is a great time to consider an overseas move. And Lateral Link can help.

Growing demand for cross-border hires

International lateral hiring is not a new phenomenon. We have previously written about it in the context of moves between Canada and the United States. But relative to prior years, the level of interest among firms in hiring from overseas has escalated dramatically in 2021. Firms that have made these hires in the past are looking to bring in candidates in larger numbers. And firms that previously ruled out such hires are suddenly embracing the overseas model.

What explains firms’ growing openness to foreign lawyers? The biggest factor is that local candidates are in short supply. Many firms instituted hiring freezes or layoffs last spring, only to see unexpectedly strong demand for their services in the second half of 2020. All at once, firms have found themselves playing catch-up in a highly competitive market.

The talent squeeze is especially acute in the most expensive cities, such as New York and San Francisco. As with professionals more generally, the pandemic has caused many lawyers to reevaluate their circumstances and in some cases make major life changes. One of the most common has been to move away from high-priced urban centers. That has left firms with slots to fill in the largest markets facing a reduced talent pool. As a result, many are exploring creative solutions like hiring from abroad.

Another important factor is that cross-border hiring is working well for the early adopters. Firms have seen their peers succeed with this model, and that has given them confidence to jump on the bandwagon. The trend is catching on broadly: Lateral Link has worked with dozens of firms this year on international lateral searches.

There are some caveats to keep in mind. First, even in this tight market, firms still expect solid academic credentials, as well as strong and relevant substantive experience. Second, visa restrictions can be an obstacle. On the visa front, Canadians and Australians looking to move to the United States have an advantage. Canadians are eligible for the automatic 3-year TN visa issued at the port of entry; Australians can obtain an automatic E-3 visa prior to traveling to the United States. Candidates moving to the United States from other countries require employer sponsorship, which can be more challenging.

But for candidates who can surmount those hurdles, opportunities abound. There is demand for lawyers at various seniority levels, ranging from second-year associates up to senior associates and counsel. Firms are especially eager to hire in transactional practices such as M&A and finance. Capital markets demand is also growing. Tax and litigation opportunities are more limited, as these practices don’t cross borders as easily. Local bar admission is not necessarily a prerequisite, though of course candidates who already have it are especially desirable.

Lateral Link has specialized capabilities for cross-border lateral moves

If the prospect of a cross-border move is intriguing to you, please note that Lateral Link has a team of experienced recruiters specializing in international lateral hiring. Our primary markets are Canada, Australia, London, Asia and the United States. We work with candidates moving between any of these geographies. Firms specifically reach out to Lateral Link asking for candidates from these markets because they know our team has local expertise. We are constantly sitting down with partners to learn more about their hiring needs.

I lead our international group and bring particular knowledge of the Canadian and Australian markets. I have specialized in international moves for the past six years, and as a result, I’ve gained a strong understanding of which firms and practice groups are open to foreign candidates. I strongly advise candidates considering an international move to seek out recruiters who understand both the origin and destination markets. Real knowledge of both markets is critical to finding the right fit and ensuring a smooth transition. Lateral Link brings the necessary depth of expertise to navigate these moves successfully.

Canada

Firms considering a hire from the Canadian market frequently call me even if I am not working with the candidate because they trust my assessment of Canadian legal backgrounds. Lateral Link primarily places Canadians into the United States or London. We also place American associates into the Canadian market. Candidates interested in moving to or from Canada should contact me or my colleagues, Elizabeth Soderberg or Andrew Clyne.

Australia

As with Canada, we mainly place Australians into the United States or London. We also assist Australians with moves to Asian markets such as Hong Kong and Singapore. Australian candidates should contact me or Zach Sandberg.

London

In the London market, we mainly assist U.S.-qualified associates with moves to London and UK-qualified associates with moves to Asia. We sometimes place UK nationals into the United States, but this is more challenging due to the need for visa sponsorship. Our experts on the London market are Abby Gordon and Andrew Clyne.

Asia

The majority of our Asia work involves placements of Americans into Hong Kong or Singapore. One notable feature of Asian markets is that lateral opportunities are available for litigators who have local language skills. For transactional associates, language skills are highly valued, but they are not an absolute requirement. As with London, placements of Asian nationals into the United States are less common, due to visa requirements. Candidates interested in Asia moves should contact Justin Flowers or Andrew Ng.

Biglaw Partners Should Think Like Franchise Owners

It’s a common refrain even from highly successful lawyers: “I wish I were on the business side.”

There can be more than one motivation underlying that sentiment. The chance to earn more money tends to be part of the appeal, particularly if the lawyer is treating an especially successful client as the reference point. But beyond money, attorneys who yearn for a business role are often drawn to the notion of managing a P&L. In other words, they like the idea of being in charge of a business and controlling their destiny.

The thing is, if you are a Biglaw partner, you’re already running a business: your practice. It might not feel that way. Maybe you view your firm’s managing partner as the person who is running the business, and relative to that leader, you feel like you don’t have much management autonomy. If that is your view, it may be worth considering that most of the clients on the “business side” are constrained by decisions made higher up the pyramid. Not all of them are CEOs. Many are leaders of divisions within a broader corporate structure, managing a P&L that is just one component of a larger whole.

But the best analogy for law firm partners isn’t to a corporate division. It’s to a franchise. A law firm partner is effectively a franchise owner. At first glance, running a capital markets practice looks vastly different from running a fast food restaurant. But if you set aside the surface differences, there are some fundamental similarities.

In a franchise model, the franchisor determines many details of the franchisee’s operation. The franchisor defines the brand in the public imagination through marketing campaigns. It controls the menu of products sold at the franchises. It supervises the design and construction of stores to maintain a common look and feel across the brand’s outlets. And it provides instructions and training to ensure a consistent customer experience.

But although the broad strategic and design choices are primarily the domain of the franchisor, the franchisee controls the actual operation of the business and ultimately determines whether it succeeds. The franchisee’s responsibilities include hiring employees and supervising their work, building the reputation of the franchise in the community it serves, and carefully tracking the performance of the franchise relative to industry benchmarks to identify opportunities for improvement.

A law firm’s management, like a franchisor, is the primary steward of the brand under which the firm’s partners offer their services. The managing partner or management committee determines which practice areas the firm will compete in, selects the partners who will lead service delivery in those practice areas, and sets the broad policies and cultural norms by which the firm operates.

To be sure, those are all important decisions. But the success of the firm’s business is ultimately contingent on client satisfaction, and that depends on the management skills of the individual partners. As a partner, your job is to bring in matters and execute on them such that the client’s expectations are met or exceeded.

Like a franchise owner, you are responsible for your practice, and it will grow primarily through your direct efforts. It’s on you to get out there and interact with influential members of the community, and it’s on you to ensure that the team of associates working under your direction is motivated and equipped to deliver on your promises to clients. Like a diligent franchise owner, you should be monitoring the performance of your practice relative to others, taking stock of its relative strengths and weaknesses, and gleaning insights that can be leveraged to drive continuous improvement. You don’t need to shift to the “business side.” You’re already on it.


Biglaw Partners: Are You Capturing A Fair Share Of Your Revenue?

If you are a Biglaw partner, you may have heard this compensation rule of thumb: you should be taking home a third of the revenue you generate for the firm. The 33% rule has the advantage of being simple, and it makes for a reasonable starting point. But to really know whether you are capturing a fair share of the value you create, it’s important to consider some other factors.

Your hours vs. your team’s hours

The first distinction you’ll want to make is between the hours you bill and those billed by the people working for you, such as associates and service partners. The 33% rule is supposed to apply to all revenue for which you are responsible. But we can make things more precise by breaking that revenue into two segments.

As a general rule, you should make about 40% of revenue from hours you billed personally. As for the hours billed by members of your team, it depends how profitable those lawyers are for the firm. Associates at some firms are substantially more profitable than others. The more profitable your associates, and the more leverage your book has, the greater the share of your team’s revenue you can expect to take home.

RPL and leverage are the key metrics

To understand what share of team revenue should accrue to you, consider how your firm stacks up on two key metrics: revenue per lawyer (RPL) and leverage.

RPL is critical because it is so poorly correlated with associate salaries. You could imagine a different compensation model in which firms paid associates a standard share of the revenue they generated, either individually or on average across the firm. But as we know, that isn’t how this industry works. Instead, all top-tier firms pay associates more or less the same salaries based on class year. As a result, partners at firms with relatively high RPL get to divide a much larger profit pool than partners at “top” firms with low RPL.

Within the Am Law 100, the spread between high and low RPL is striking. Firms at the low end have RPL of around $500,000. For example, Lewis Brisbois is the lowest of the Am Law 100, at $434,000. Firms at the high end have RPL close to 4X that of the low-end firms. Sullivan & Cromwell, for example, clocks in above $1.9 million. (Wachtell is in a league of its own, with RPL in excess of $3.6 million.) Granted, a Sullivan & Cromwell associate earns higher total compensation than a Lewis Brisbois lawyer in the same class year, but that multiple is nowhere near 4X.

Now, RPL isn’t everything. We also have to consider leverage. If a partner’s book can feed a relatively large number of associates, the proportion of the team’s revenue that should accrue to the rainmaking partner will be higher. And to be fair to Lewis Brisbois, their partnership is doing well on that dimension, with leverage of 9.99 (second-highest among the Am Law 100).

How does your practice compare to the firm average?

Your firm’s overall RPL and leverage are important considerations, but unless the partnership has a pure lockstep compensation model, the performance of your practice relative to the firm average is also critical. A good starting point for thinking about this dimension is to compare the firm’s profit margin to the share of your revenue that you are taking home. For example, let’s say your firm’s profit margin is 45%. Are you being paid 45% of the revenue you are generating?

If not, consider how your practice may differ from others in the firm. Does it have lower leverage than the firm average? Are you personally billing fewer hours than your peers in the partnership? If the answer to both of these questions is no, then your compensation should reflect the firm profit margin. If it doesn’t, you are likely underpaid, and you may want to consider your options.

Why Leave Biglaw To Form A Boutique?

If law practice were a normal business, this would make little sense. In theory, larger firms should be more profitable per partner than smaller firms because a large firm can spread its fixed costs of operation over a larger pool of lawyers, lowering per-lawyer cost. The move to form boutiques seems to violate the basic principle of economies of scale.

But law is not a normal business. As we have previously explored, the legal profession is remarkably fragmented relative to other professional services fields. It is clear that standard economies of scale logic does not explain law firm industry structure.

We see four central factors driving the boutique boom: founder autonomy to chart strategy, avoidance of client conflicts, the opportunity to limit overhead investment, and freedom from ongoing obligations to retired partners.

Strategic autonomy

Boutique founders value the ability to chart their own strategy and run the show. A rainmaker in a typical Biglaw firm can be expected to have a more influential voice than the average partner, but the fact remains that major decisions require some degree of consensus, and the status quo tends to prevail.

Take alternative fee arrangements, for example. Boutiques generally have embraced flat-fee or other alternative structures much more readily than their Biglaw peers. That shift is a lot easier to execute when a firm is controlled by a small group of partners who work in the same practice area and are operating on a relatively long time horizon.

Boutiques can also more easily limit themselves to competing only for higher-margin work. When you make no pretense of being a full-service firm, and you have no legacy low-margin practices encumbering you, there is little reason to bring on equity partners whose revenue contribution would reduce the average.

Conflict avoidance

In their public statements, boutique founders tend to highlight the appeal of escaping the conflicts entanglements of Biglaw. It sounds more noble than “I’m expecting to make way more money.” But in all seriousness, freedom from conflicts can be important. It is a frustrating experience to be in line to represent a client in a significant matter, only to find out that your firm has a conflict that seems entirely tangential but nevertheless requires you to decline the work.

No bloated overhead

If law firms were managed to maximize profits, overhead considerations would counsel against forming a boutique. All law firms must incur some level of fixed cost in order to operate. Consider IT costs. Properly managed, the amount spent on IT per lawyer should be materially smaller at a 1000-lawyer Biglaw firm than at a 10-lawyer boutique. Similar economies of scale should exist for real estate expenses.

And yet, boutique founders routinely cite reduced overhead as an advantage of the boutique model. This is an indictment of large firms’ spending decisions. Historically, there has been a cultural assumption among the Biglaw elite that fancy offices on the highest floors of the most prestigious towers are a necessary expense, both as a status symbol for clients and as a recruiting tool for attorney talent. Boutiques have illustrated that there is reason to doubt this assumption. Even before the pandemic made every law firm question its real estate needs, boutique founders realized that they could operate successfully with a considerably smaller office footprint.

Here we again see the value of the autonomy discussed above. It is easier for a small group of founding partners to agree to dispense with some of the traditional trappings of Biglaw office space than to drive consensus among a large partnership to make substantial cost cuts.

No retirement payments

The final factor is likely the least intuitive, especially for lawyers who are not yet partners: the burden of payments to a firm’s retired partnership. Biglaw firms vary in the generosity of annuities offered to retirees, but it is common for a retired partner to be paid in perpetuity something like one-third of the partner’s average compensation in the final five years of service.

As life expectancy has increased, these generous payouts have become an ever-growing drag on Biglaw profits. Imagine you are a relatively young and successful partner. You could spend the next two decades dutifully contributing to the pockets of your retired forebears and hoping that you will receive a similar deal in your old age. Or you could leave now, found your own boutique, and keep that portion of your billings for yourself. In a world in which even partners who stay in Biglaw are likely to make multiple lateral moves over the course of their careers, it is increasingly difficult to convince current partners that bearing the costs of retirement payments is a worthy investment.

Conclusion: Biglaw must reform its cost structure

Unless Biglaw firms take seriously the signals that the boutique boom is sending, they can expect escalating losses of their most productive partner talent. There is of course a limit to the reforms that Biglaw firms can undertake: the autonomy and conflicts factors are particularly hard to counter. But on cost control, the ball is in Biglaw’s court. And in the wake of the pandemic, the largest firms have a golden opportunity to reimagine their business models in fundamental ways.

Biglaw firms need to take a hard look at all elements of their cost structure, with real estate and retired partner compensation at the top of the list. To that end, now would be a great time to shift to more professional administration by trained management professionals, rather than untrained lawyers engaging in administration as a part-time, supplemental duty.

Biglaw firms have advantages that boutiques cannot easily match, including strong brands and the ability to cross-sell work among multiple practices. But without significant reform on the cost side, Biglaw will continue to lose ground to boutiques.

Who Is Better Compensated: Elite Biglaw Partners Or Top General Counsel?

If you’ve paid any attention to the ballooning compensation figures of Biglaw partners in recent years, you already know that it pays to be an equity partner at a large firm. Meanwhile, as average partner compensation escalates, top in-house lawyers are being left behind.   

In 2020, a Major Lindsey & Africa survey of partners in “Am Law 200 size firms” found average compensation of above $1 million. The ALM Intelligence 2020 Law Department Compensation Benchmarking Survey found general counsel and chief legal officers earned average total compensation of $573,000. So, as a general rule, it’s more lucrative to be a Biglaw partner than a general counsel.

But what about at the very top end of the profession? In this article, we take a look at the pay packages of the top 100 highest-paid general counsels, in comparison to partners of top Biglaw firms (as measured by profits per equity partner). We find that on a cash compensation basis, equity partnership is more lucrative than being a general counsel. But the story is more complicated when taking stock options into account.

A quick note on sources. For general counsel compensation data, we look at the top 100 highest-paid GCs as listed in the 2020 ALM Intelligence GC Compensation Survey. This data set is not comprehensive. For one thing, ALM compiles its data from proxy statements filed with the SEC, so only public companies are included. Our source for Biglaw partner compensation is the 2020 edition of the Am Law 200 ranking.

It’s hard to outearn a top Biglaw partner

The General Counsel Compensation Survey ranks general counsels based on total cash compensation. The top 100 highest-paid GCs earned total cash compensation of $2.42 million on average. We don’t know how much the 100 best-paid Biglaw partners earned in the comparable period, but we can say that the top firm in the Am Law ranking — Wachtell — had 85 equity partners and profits per partner of $6.33 million.

Just two general counsels took home cash compensation higher than $6.33 million: Alan Braverman of Disney ($8 million) and Eric Grossman of Morgan Stanley ($6.94 million). Meanwhile, 38 Am Law firms had profits per equity partner in excess of the $2.42 million average general counsel cash compensation.

How does this compare to the situation a decade earlier? Analyzing the 2010 editions of the same surveys, we find that not much has changed. Based on the 2010 General Counsel Compensation Survey, the top 100 general counsels took home average total cash compensation of $1.56 million. Wachtell’s profits per partner were $4.3 million, a figure exceeded by just one general counsel. 28 Am Law firms had higher profits per equity partner than the $1.56 million general counsel average.

What about compensation growth over that ten-year period? From a growth perspective, who did better: the top 100 general counsels or the partnership of the top Am Law firms? The table below shows the results, ranked by growth rate. The law firms in the table were the top 10 firms in the 2010 Am Law 200. We see that general counsels fall in the middle of the pack, outpacing some partnerships and trailing others.

Group (equity partnership or GCs)10-year compensation growth
Kirkland & Ellis108%
Simpson Thacher83%
Paul, Weiss75%
Cravath63%
Sullivan & Cromwell57%
Top 100 GCs55%
Cahill Gordon51%
Wachtell47%
Quinn Emanuel46%
Boies, Schiller17%
Irell & Manella8%

But stock options can make a big difference

The comparisons above obscure some important factors. On the in-house side, it is critical to note that the very highest-earning general counsels receive a substantial portion of their compensation in the form of equity. Taking stock options into account, some general counsel roles start to look considerably more attractive. For example, revisiting the 2020 surveys, when accounting for equity compensation, the number of general counsels topping Wachtell’s profits per partner rises from two to 41. And some of the general counsels have total compensation that would exceed that of even the highest-paid Biglaw rainmaker. For example, Chewy GC Susan Helfrick had total compensation of $30.3 million (of which less than $1 million was in cash). Apple GC Kate Adams had cash compensation of $3.56 million, but her total compensation was $25.2 million.

On the law firm side, profits per equity partner gives little indication of the rewards that flow to top rainmakers. Firms vary widely in their compensation ranges. At the most traditional end of the spectrum, a firm’s highest-paid partner might take home 4x the pay of the lowest-paid partner. In contrast, at a firm with a strong eat-what-you-kill culture, that ratio may be 10x or higher. A 2018 New York Times article about the lateral talent wars reported on eight-figure pay packages for star hires at firms like Kirkland & Ellis and Paul, Weiss. It’s impossible to know how many Biglaw attorneys have breached $10 million, but the lateral market for partners with a strong book of business remains red hot.

Conclusion

There are a lot of reasons why an attorney might prefer to be a general counsel than a law firm partner. But viewed strictly through the lens of compensation, high-performing lawyers are typically better off staying on the law firm track. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean they should stick with their current firm. With Biglaw partnerships increasingly diverging in their approaches to compensation, it’s a mistake to assume that a partner with a given book of business will be paid similarly at any comparably prestigious firm. Productive partners have a variety of options — and it pays to know about them.

A Changing London Landscape for U.S. JDs

As a former associate with Cleary Gottlieb’s Paris office and a Senior Director heading up Lateral Link’s London and Paris recruiting practices, I have been working with U.S. lawyers looking to move to Europe for the last 15 years.

In 2014, Above the Law published my series on Planning for a Legal Career Overseas (Part I and Part II) that outlines your best route for moving overseas as a U.S. JD. I stress the importance of working in the capital markets space if you are committed to working overseas. This still holds true for Paris and other European financial centers: Frankfurt and Milan, for example. But over the last few years, we’ve seen a decline in opportunities for U.S. capital markets lawyers in London and an uptick in opportunities for U.S. JDs trained in M&A (on the private equity side) and emerging companies work (venture capital, technology transactions, privacy, etc.)

Why this shift? Ever since Brexit became a certainty, hiring for U.S. capital markets in London has been slow. Firms were still sending their own associates on overseas rotations, but the lateral market all but dried up. But with the boom in private equity and emerging companies work recently, firms are realizing they can use this (U.S.-qualified) expertise in other time zones.

I am currently working with two top international firms, assisting them in finding solid mid-level to senior U.S. JD associates:

  • with M&A, capital markets or venture capital experience for a top emerging companies practice, and
  • for a Chambers Band 1 global M&A (primarily private equity) practice.

Capital markets associates, hang on! There will inevitably be more openings in London soon. Capital markets can only be booming in the U.S. for so long without some of that need crossing the pond. But this new diversity in practice areas in London that U.S. lawyers can aspire to is exciting!

If you are a U.S. JD with a top firm and curious about opportunities in London, Paris or elsewhere in Europe—now or planning for down the road—please reach out to me at and we’ll discuss!

Law Firm Consolidation — Perpetually Out Of Reach?

The coming wave of consolidation among law firms is a perpetual topic of discussion and speculation. The basic narrative is that the richest, most successful firms are pulling away from the rest of the industry, and firms below the top tier will be forced to merge in order to grow and remain competitive.

The notion that consolidation could be the panacea for challenges facing less profitable firms has always been questionable. But whether you buy into that particular narrative or not, it is incontrovertible that the legal industry remains remarkably fragmented in comparison to other professional services sectors.

So what are the barriers to a wave of mergers? And if the barriers were removed, would significant consolidation actually happen?

Big 4, Little 200?

Let’s consider the Big 4 accounting firms as an example of a relatively consolidated sector of professional services. In 2020, the Big 4 (Deloitte, PwC, EY, KPMG) generated combined revenue of $157 billion.

As recently as 1989, there were eight major U.S. accounting firms (then called the “Big 8”). Mergers in that year created Ernst & Young and Deloitte & Touche, reducing the group to the Big 6. In 1998, an additional merger formed PricewaterhouseCoopers, thereby transforming the Big 6 into the Big 5. Consolidation into the Big 4 occurred not through merger, but through the insolvency of Arthur Andersen in the wake of the 2001 Enron Scandal.

No parallel wave of consolidation has occurred at the top of the legal industry. In 2020, the four largest law firms by gross revenue (Kirkland, Latham, DLA Piper, Baker McKenzie) brought in less than a tenth as much as the Big 4: $15 billion. The entire Am Law 200 achieved gross revenue of around $125 billion.

A Client’s Right to Choose is Paramount

How can it be that the legal industry remains so fragmented in relation to peers in fields like accounting and management consulting? Ethics rules are a big part of the story.

In many industries, the product is tied tightly to the company that produces it. Individual executives come and go, but contracts between the firm and its customers remain relatively stable.

Not so in legal services. When clients engage a law firm, they engage not just the firm as an entity but the individual lawyers leading the matter. If the lead lawyer on a case decides the grass is greener at a new firm, there is little the old firm can do to prevent the client from following the lawyer. And indeed, lawyers are very mobile. Over the past 12 months alone, Am Law 200 law firms have made 7,385 lateral hires: 4,635 associates, 1,685 partners, and 1,065 counsel. Almost all of these lateral moves involved a departure from another Am Law 200 firm. A carousel of attorneys move from Am Law firm to Am Law firm, churning winners and losers on a quarterly basis. To take one example, Reed Smith saw 159 attorneys lateral out of the firm while 55 laterals joined. A net loss of laterals could be good or bad, depending on the respective profit margins of those coming and going, and the corresponding effect on overall firm profitability. Reed Smith’s profit margin is around 30%, so if the firm is losing partners with 20% profit margins and hiring replacements with 40% profit margins on their practices, then we should see the firm’s profits per partner move in a positive direction in the coming years.

The bottom line is that law firms contemplating a merger can’t be confident the new entity’s revenue will match or exceed the sum of the two firms’ most recent revenue figures. When the merger is announced, some partners will surely decide to leave, taking clients with them. If the departing lawyers happen to be rainmakers, the strength of the combined entity may be considerably less than a simple A + B calculation would suggest.

Conflicts Matter

Even if partner departures were not a concern, potential law firm mergers can also be disrupted by client conflicts. For some comparative perspective on conflicts, consider the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. McKinsey, as a firm, routinely serves competing clients in the same industry. It navigates conflicts by ensuring that individual consultants do not serve competitors and by safeguarding confidential information internally, such that McKinsey teams serving competitors do not share with each other the details of their work. In this way, the firm manages to sell its services to multiple competitors in a given sector.

Legal ethics constraints make it impossible to apply the McKinsey model in a law firm context. For conflicts purposes, a client of an individual lawyer is a client of every lawyer in the firm, albeit there are ways to wall off attorneys and use client waivers to navigate conflicts. Imagine if Quinn Emanuel sought to merge with a comparably profitable firm. Quinn’s profits per equity partner in 2020 were just shy of $4.7 million. On a PEP basis, the most compatible merger partners would be Cravath or Cahill. But either of those combinations would be a nonstarter from a conflicts perspective. Quinn is well known for its strategic decision to represent plaintiffs against banks; Cravath and Cahill represent many of the financial institutions that Quinn has sued. Quinn may be a particularly extreme example, but conflicts among firms abound. Some firms represent insurance carriers; others represent policy holders. Even representing superficially similar companies brings the potential for conflict: think of the high profile litigation between Apple and Samsung.

Is Consolidation Desirable?

Let’s imagine that these ethical barriers were suddenly removed, making consolidation more viable. What would happen?

The basic logic undergirding consolidation in any industry is economies of scale: if two companies can operate more efficiently as a combined entity, a merger will create value. Does law practice exhibit economies of scale? Hugh A. Simons and Nicholas Bruch believe it does not:

Markets, where rivals focus on specific segments or seek to compete through differentiation rather than on cost, tend to remain fragmented. Haute couture is an example of such a market. Law is less like commodity chemicals and more like haute couture. It’s an amalgam of distinct services offered by very different providers in settings that have widely varying balances of power between buyers and sellers. Law exhibits no economies of scale. The notion that law must consolidate is simplistic and misleading.

Others commentators take a different view, arguing that law practice is suboptimally fragmented, and that the industry’s fragmentation prevents it from matching the innovation seen in other sectors. As Dan Packel recently put it:

That fragmentation matters when we get to the question of why law firms are behind the curve on innovation. No one has market share anywhere comparable to the Big Four accounting firms, who collectively audit more than 80% of U.S. publicly traded companies. And it’s no coincidence that these businesses are far ahead of law firms when it comes to improvements in process management. Their revenues give them the capacities to invest, and the lack of fragmentation makes it easier to discern what works and what doesn’t.

Even if Simons and Bruch are right that firms have traditionally chosen to compete on differentiation, and not on cost, that doesn’t mean there are no economies of scale to be found. The most obvious low-hanging fruit is in support functions and real estate. That suggests the most plausible form of consolidation in the legal sector might be an intermediate one: roll-ups. In this model, law firms would maintain their distinct brands but combine their back office operations and share a common real estate footprint. In a rolled-up legal world, firms would still be a long way from the degree of consolidation in other professional services sectors, but it would be a start.

Let’s end by putting aside the inevitable conflicts and other obstacles and imagining a hyper-consolidated legal market with a closer resemblance to accounting’s Big 4. In this world, the current Am Law 100 would have merged into four megafirms based on broadly similar profits per equity partner. What would the combinations look like?

The most elite of the legal Big 4 would have been formed through a merger of firms with 2020 PEP of more than $5 million. It would have just six legacy members: Wachtell, Davis Polk, Kirkland, Paul Weiss, Simpson Thatcher, and Sullivan & Cromwell.

The second Big 4 legal megafirm would range from Quinn Emanuel ($4.7 million) to Dechert ($2.8 million). It would have resulted from the consolidation of 27 firms.

The third megafirm would have 31 legacy members, ranging from Cadwalader ($2.6 million) to Reed Smith ($1.5 million).

The remaining 36 Am Law 100 firms would comprise the fourth and final Big 4 legal megafirm. Their 2020 PEP ranges from Perkins Coie on the high end ($1.4 million) to Littler on the low end ($570k).

Will this happen anytime soon? Definitely not. But it’s a fun thought exercise.

A Deep Dive Into The 2021 Am Law 100 Rankings

Last year was a difficult year for so many industries but a shockingly good one for Biglaw, at least in terms of metrics like gross revenue, revenue per lawyer, and profits per partner.

“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):

  • Total revenue: $111 billion, up by 6.6 percent.
  • Average revenue per lawyer: $1.05 million, up by 5 percent.
  • Profits per equity partner: $2.23 million, up by 13.4 percent.

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.

Gross Revenue

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!


8 Time Management Tips for Young Lawyers

As an associate, you often have limited control over your own schedule — but there are still some actions you can take to improve your use of time and cut out unnecessary stress.

If you’re an associate, you’re probably thinking, “What?! As if I have any control over my own schedule!” And you’re right, your ability to manage your time will never be perfect.

I understand. I was an associate myself for seven-plus years. But there are still some actions you can take to improve your use of time and cut out some of the unnecessary stress.

I understand. I was an associate myself for seven-plus years. But there are still some actions you can take to improve your use of time and cut out some of the unnecessary stress.

  1. When you are given a new assignment, always ask right away what the deadline is. I can’t tell you how many times as an associate I failed to ask this important question because I said to myself, “This will take no time at all, I can do it right away,” only to have a more urgent task land on my desk — and I wished I’d asked upfront instead of begging for more time later on.
  2. Many of us lawyers are Type A personalities, and we love that feeling of completing a task and checking it off the “to do” list. But I find the easiest way to prevent procrastinating about the next task is to start it right away. Just get three minutes in, then you can take that coffee or bathroom break. When I’m jumping back into an established rhythm instead of getting my mind around a new project, it’s much easier to get back to work.
  3. Believe that there is no such thing as a huge, daunting project. Everything can be broken down into smaller, bite-sized morsels. Take on one mini-project at a time.
  4. Put everything on your calendar. I assume I won’t remember anything. I include project deadlines and my to-do list items as 30-minute calendar entries. I have repeating calendar reminders to pay my credit card bills, renew my dog’s license annually… there is nothing in my life not on my calendar because the last thing I want to be stressed about is that I may have forgotten something I need to be stressed about!
  5. I also block time for work (and personal) projects on my calendar. Even if I end up changing the start and end times multiple times, it helps me to be able to eyeball my projects for the day, estimate how long they will take, and plan accordingly.
  6. Find ways to use your down time productively. What down time? Even law firm associates have down time. Mine often came at 1 a.m. as I was waiting on a senior lawyer to send me the next mark-up. But I was determined to reclaim this time for myself. So what did I do? I started a travel blog. It was a creative outlet I could turn to even at my desk in the middle of the night. So those late nights in the office were not a complete waste in terms of my personal life. I also made a point of having dinner with a work friend almost every night, even if it was for 10 minutes at their desk or mine. If you’re not inclined to start a blog or write a novel or screenplay, use your scarce breaks to update your resume and deal sheet, work on a business plan, keep in touch with contacts (build relationships!). Or research for your next vacation! Have a plan for how you’ll use your free time so it doesn’t go to waste.
  7. Whatever your goal may be — hitting the gym a few times a week, putting together a business plan, catching up with one law school classmate each day — establish an accountability partner. It could be a friend, a colleague or even a journal. Keeping track will help keep you honest!
  8. If you’re truly feeling underwater, ask for help. Firms are investing more and more into associate life and associate development resources. Even if you’re not comfortable talking with a partner, there is likely someone you can talk with. And you can always reach out to a trusted recruiter to learn what your realistic options might be for a new job offering a better work-life balance.

Making small changes to your daily routines may buy you only a few extra minutes each day at this stage in your career, but these actions will help you build good habits for when you do gradually take on more control of your schedule. I’d love to hear what time management tricks have worked for you!