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Crazy Rich Firms That Didn't Make the A-List—And Probably Don't Care

Vivia Chen

September 10, 2020

Car-160343_1280We make a big to-do about the A-List here at The American Lawyer, though I sometimes wonder if the profession really gives a hoot. I recently participated in a webinar with my colleagues Gina Passarella, Dan Packel and Patrick Fuller about A-List trends, and what jumped out at me is how some very prestigious firms aren’t anywhere close to being on it.

Created by former American Lawyer editor Aric Press, the A-List is the Oscars of the profession—both for the prestige of the recognition and the length of the speeches at the annual dinner (though, obviously, not this year). Doled out to 20 winners each year, firms are ranked based on financial performance and corporate citizenship.

The conceit of the prize is that doing well is not enough. Firms must also do good. Revenue per lawyer and pro bono are given double weight in the ranking process. (Other considerations are associate satisfaction, racial diversity and female equity partners.)

The upshot is that the firms on the list—or those that come close to it—tend to be familiar names. Indeed, it’s a rather incestuous pool—usually the same 30 or so firms that vie for the honor year after year—all from the East and West coast with a sprinkling from Chicago.

But if you think all elite firms covet this title, you’d be wrong. Some of the most profitable firms in the land—those with the resources to lavish on pro bono, associate happiness and promotion of underrepresented groups—seem to be out of the game. Probably deliberately.

Of the 20 firms with the highest RPL in the Am Law 100 this year, only 10 made the A-List. Some wildly profitable firms came nowhere close to making the A-List:

Wachtell Lipton (#1 for RPL; #100 for A-List)

Sullivan & Cromwell (#2 for RPL; #41 for A-List)

Davis Polk & Wardwell (#10 for RPL; #45 for A-List)

Quinn Emanuel (#8 for RPL; #114 for A-List)

Cahill Gordon (#19 for RPL; #48 for A-List)

Of the firms on the above list, neither Wachtell nor Quinn deigns to provide data about their pro bono or participate in the associate survey. That could mean they do scant pro bono and are housing the most miserable associates in the land—or the opposite. We’ll never know. (Years ago, I interviewed Marty Lipton who told me essentially that the firm’s pro bono was none of our business.)

More puzzling is why Davis Polk and Sullivan & Cromwell have been so far behind the runners-up for the A-List in recent years, considering that they were regulars on the list in the past. In 2013, Davis Polk bragged about the honor, citing that it “routinely ranks among the top firms in The American Lawyer’s A-List rankings of elite U.S. law firms … We are one of only four firms to make the list each year since its inception.” Since that time, though, it’s dropped off of the list.

Indeed, you have to wonder if Davis Polk and Sullivan & Cromwell have simply lost interest in the A-List or if they’ve made a decision to place their priorities elsewhere. (I’ve asked both firms for comment, but have not heard back.)

Cahill Gordon, in contrast, has never made the A-List, so no big surprise there. (Cahill Gordon declined to comment.)

But back to my original question: Should we expect more from firms that are at the top of the profession? Or is something like the A-List meaningless except as a pretty feather in the caps of firms that excel at the game?

“There is a real sense of pride in making the list,” says Keith Wetmore, the former chair of Morrison & Foerster, which is a perennial on the list. But he adds: “Do clients notice? Probably not—though some obviously care about various components of the list—i.e., diversity. Do recruits? I think they do, especially on campus, where they have such limited information about different firms.”

The bottom line is that being on the A-List might have little impact on the bottom line. For all the talk about how clients and the rest of us expect firms to be solid citizens with laudable records on diversity, morale and gender equality, firms with spotty or opaque records on those things can still make a tidy bundle—and that, it seems, is reward enough.

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Twitter: @lawcareerist



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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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