Pretty, pretty well, in terms of both revenue and profit.
Color me surprised — or even shocked. I’ve been following the American Lawyer’s early reporting on Am Law 200 law firm financials for 2020, and the numbers so far are good, even great.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic and recession that made life so miserable for millions last year, law firms did very well for themselves. Check out this table, showing the firms that Am Law has covered so far and the year-over-year change in their revenue per lawyer (RPL) and profit per equity partner (PPEP):
(If you like, you can access this spreadsheet as a Google Doc here, which also allows you to sort the firms by the change in their RPL and PPEP.)
Of the 29 firms listed above, all posted increases in profit per partner, many of them well into the double digits. The highest figure so far, a 46.6 percent increase, was reported by Crowell & Moring (which led me to declare Crowell my Law Firm of the Week last week). But the firm had plenty of company, with eight other firms posting PPEP increases of 20 percent or more.
Now, the increases in profit per partner might be somewhat understandable, given how the pandemic and working remotely led to dramatic drops in many firms’ expenses, such as rent (in some cases), utilities, travel, and entertainment. And yes, some firms did engage in layoffs last year as well.
But revenue per lawyer, which industry observers generally regard as the better metric of law firm financial health (since it’s less subject to manipulation than PPEP), also increased for almost all firms — not as dramatically as PPEP, but still significantly. In recent years, RPL growth in the low single digits has been quite common in Biglaw; but last year, if these early numbers are representative of the whole, perhaps half of Am Law 200 firms enjoyed RPL growth of 5 percent or more in 2020.
In light of these robust revenues and profits, one can understand why law firms paid out “COVID bonuses.” Take Cooley, which kicked off the trend by announcing “appreciation bonuses” in September 2020. The firm posted PPEP growth of a whopping 25.4 percent in 2020. Had Cooley not paid out special bonuses, then reported PPEP growth in excess of 25 percent, it would have had a lot of unhappy campers among its associates and staff.
Congratulations to these firms on their strong performances in 2020. People like to say that lawyers are not good businesspeople, but clearly lawyers are doing something right. The ability of the legal sector to do so well during a period of great difficulty for many other industries is a testament not just to the talent and hard work of Biglaw lawyers and staff, but also to firm leadership. So the next time you encounter one of your firm’s leaders, perhaps in a Zoom town hall rather than in a hallway or conference room, thank them for successfully shepherding your firm through some very dark days.
What do these strong numbers mean for lawyers interested in lateral moves? They indicate that now is a safe time to transition to a new opportunity. Last spring, when the pandemic was at its peak, the economy was in a recession, and law firms were very worried about how they’d fare, it was a risky time to move; candidates feared moving to firms that might hit rough patches after their arrival, threatening their job security as associates or their practices as partners. But now that the economy is on the mend and law firms are not just surviving but thriving, it’s a good time to move to a firm where you’d be more fulfilled.