Tag Archives: Am Law 100

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.

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!