The envelope please … for the eighth straight year, the No. 1 firm in overall prestige in the Vault Law 100 is Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz. It touches all of our hearts to see a scrappy underdog get some recognition.
Wachtell’s stranglehold on the top spot shows no signs of loosening. Even in a year when the firm appeared to stumble a bit—a benchslap over the Hexion/Huntsman aborted merger and client Bank of America’s “blame the lawyers” defense against the SEC—Wachtell continues to exist, as far as associates are concerned, in a zone of its own. The firm is the most profitable, most selective and, by near-universal consensus, the most prestigious in all of BigLaw.
Elsewhere, here are 5 things we’ve noticed about this year’s edition of the Law 100:
1. The New Old Big Three: Since Vault began to survey law firm associates 13 years ago, Wachtell, Cravath, and Sullivan & Cromwell have had a monopoly on the Top 3 spots … until last year, when Skadden placed third, presumably riding a wave of associate goodwill generated by the “half-Skadden” meme. This year, as the economy appears to be in a slow recovery (and Skadden’s bonus was merely on par with its peers), the Top 3 reverts back to “normal.” Elsewhere in the Top 10, Simpson Thacher (No. 6) and Weil Gotshal (No. 7) have swapped spots—another reversion to a longstanding pre-Recession pattern.
2. Speaking of longstanding patterns: as was noted at last year’s rankings release, “prestige” may seem a nebulous or subjective basis for a rankings system, but we continue to find that our simple prestige scale allows BigLaw associates to rank firms in a strikingly consistent and precise way.
An arbitrary example: Schulte Roth, which came in at No. 80 this year, has ranked 77, 80, 77, 76 and 82 over the previous five years. This sort of consistency is typical. While there may be little real distinction between slots 77 and 80, there are meaningful differences between tiers. The relative consistency of these rankings, year after year, indicates that there clearly is a method to the madness.
As a corollary, an underlying rationale can often be identified for unusual movement in the rankings. For example, when former Hogan & Hartson partner John Roberts became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the firm benefited from an immediate spike in name recognition that translated into a significant jump in the prestige rankings. Similarly, last year, when Weil Gotshal was continually spotlighted for its handling of the Lehman Bros and other high-profile mega restructurings, the firm made an unprecedented leap of 3 spots within the top 10.
3. We may be seeing a “Obama Effect” at work. The only two non-NYC firms in the Top 10, Williams & Connolly and Covington & Burling, are DC-based and boast serious Administration connections. Williams & Connolly ranks at No. 8 (up from No. 14 last year) and Covington & Burling is No. 10. Obama himself is a client of Williams & Connolly. So is Hillary (dating back to Whitewater, through impeachment, and on to her book advances). Elena Kagan is a former W&C attorney. Gregory Craig, Obama’s former White House counsel, is a longtime W&C partner. Another one-time client of W&C is AG Eric Holder, himself a former partner at Covington & Burling.
Related: could it be that the ongoing emergence of a larger and more complex regulatory environment might somewhat lessen New York’s total BigLaw preeminence? With healthcare reform and FinReg assuming such urgent and central national importance, we might be seeing a (slight!) shift in the center of the legal world’s center of gravity, away from New York and toward the nation’s capital.
4. As the Great Recession is well into its litigation phase, boutiques are increasingly competing with the large full-service for the top law student talent. Quinn Emmanuel is probably the only firm taking part in the Vault survey which can properly described as a “litigation boutique.” And its meteoric rise through our rankings (No. 43 in 2008, No. 19 in 2011), reflects the growing success and impact of the litigation boutique model industry-wide. Other litigation-focused firms on the rise in the Vault rankings include Boies Schiller (No. 46 in 2009, No. 23 in 2010) and the aforementioned Williams & Connolly. Look for some litigation boutiques (e.g., Bartlit Beck; Keker & Van Nest; Zuckerman Spaeder) to be added to the Law Firm Associate Survey going forward, or at least to its various Litigation categories (some of these firms have very few associates).
5. When it comes to associate layoffs, Cadwalader led the way and Latham & Watkins managed to turn itself into a verb. Both firms subsequently were hammered by associates in the Vault survey: Latham was forcefully booted out of the Top 10 and Cadwalader found itself free-falling from No. 26 down to No. 60. By now, the shock at the very idea of layoffs seems to have subsided a bit as Cadwalader has started to move back up (No. 44), and Latham seems to have stabilized (No. 15).
This year, for the first time, Vault will be releasing its law firm rankings in a rolling fashion over the next few weeks: Overall Diversity today; Practice Area next week; to be followed by Diversity, Regional, and Best to Work For. So watch this space.
As ever, all Vault law firm rankings are purely a function of associate votes. No editorial input or judgment affects the results. I’m happy to answer any all questions about these rankings—please ask in the comments.
-posted by brian
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