The Top 10 Most Prestigious Law Firms In America
A look at the 2022 Vault 100 rankings—and also, for historical perspective, the 2007 Vault 100 rankings.
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Different fields have different yardsticks. Baseball players focus on batting averages, Wall Street moguls focus on money, and lawyers focus on… prestige.
Yes, lawyers care about money; there’s a reason why people are so interested in the American Lawyer’s profits per equity partner rankings. But in my experience, lawyers—or at least certain lawyers who move in certain circles (many of whom read publications like Original Jurisdiction)—care more about status. They’d rather have dinner with a Supreme Court justice than a Biglaw partner who earns ten times as much. Or among Biglaw partners, they hold in higher esteem a Cravath partner who makes $4 million a year than a partner at a less prestigious firm who makes $8 million a year. (There’s a pretty strong argument that the legal profession’s focus on prestige is pathological and toxic, but that’s an argument for another day.)
Our fixation on prestige explains why lawyers and law students eagerly anticipate the annual Vault 100, the definitive ranking of the nation’s 100 most prestigious law firms. There might be other rankings that are better for specific things—for example, the Chambers or Legal 500 ranking for excellence within a specific practice area—but in terms of overall firm prestige, Vault remains the biggest player.
We look forward to the Vault rankings each year—and yet, just like the U.S. News law school rankings, they are often anticlimactic, failing to reward our scrutiny. Prestige is “sticky,” as economists say, so there’s precious little movement in these rankings, especially at the top.
The so-called top-14 or “T14” law schools in U.S. News have that nickname because, for almost every year since the inception of the rankings, these 14 top schools have been the same, just changing places amongst themselves. Similarly, the top 10 firms in the Vault 100 don’t change that much, or at least they change very, very slowly.
Behold the top ten firms in the latest Vault 100, or in Vault’s parlance, the “2022 Vault 100” (they’re always a year ahead of the current calendar year):
Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP
Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz1
Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP
Sullivan & Cromwell LLP
Latham & Watkins LLP
Kirkland & Ellis
Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP
Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP
Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP
Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP
Do these names look familiar? They should. This is the fourth straight year that these firms have been the top ten; a few just changed places with each other. Wachtell Lipton clawed back the #2 spot from Skadden, which dropped to #3, and Paul Weiss and Gibson Dunn traded places at #9 and #10.
I was curious: how did the top ten look 15 years ago? Here are the 2007 Vault top ten, with their current Vault ranking noted parenthetically:
Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz (2)
Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP (1)
Sullivan & Cromwell LLP (4)
Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP & Affiliates (3)
Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP (7)
Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP (8)
Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP (14)
Latham & Watkins LLP (5)
Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP (12)
Kirkland & Ellis LLP (6)
Some quick comparative observations:
Wachtell Lipton was #1 in the Vault rankings for 13 years until 2017, when Cravath reclaimed the crown. The 2007 Vault rankings, released in 2006, were early in Wachtell’s winning streak.
Davis Polk has done fantastically in the past few years, with incredible financial results last year for partners and leadership on the compensation front for associates. So it might be a little surprising to see it drop from #5 to #7—until you look at which firms caused it to drop.
Latham moved up from #8 to #5, and Kirkland moved up from #10 to #6. In the past 15 years, Latham and Kirkland went from being the Cravaths of their founding cities—Los Angeles and Chicago, respectively—to top-tier, elite global law firms. (For more on the ascendancy of Latham, see my deep dive into the rise of its litigation practice.)
Cleary is an amazing firm that I respect greatly, especially for its collegiality and its culture, based on its lockstep compensation model. But I do wonder whether its adherence to a lockstep model and its general aversion to hiring lateral partners—which is hard to do if you’re a lockstep firm, since you can’t attract laterals with huge pay packages—have put it into a sort of secular decline, reflected in its drop from #7 to #14.2
The two firms that weren’t in the top ten in 2007 but are in the top ten today, Paul Weiss and Gibson Dunn, are two of the biggest Biglaw success stories of the past 15 years. That they aren’t higher in the rankings today is a testament to the aforementioned “stickiness” of prestige, as well as the ability of the few firms ranked ahead of them to stay successful, despite all the changes in the legal industry and broader economy over the 15 years.
Now let’s return to the 2022 Vault 100. Outside the top ten, there wasn’t much movement in the latest rankings. Across the entire Vault 100, about three-quarters of all firms stayed the same or moved up or down by two spots or less.
Here are the only firms that moved by more than two spots in either direction, with their movement noted parenthetically:
Jones Day (-5, from #16 to #21): The respondents for the Vault 100 are more than 20,000 law firm associates, and as young lawyers in Biglaw, they tend to be left of center. So perhaps Jones Day’s longtime association with the controversial Trump Administration hurt the firm. It could also be that JD was hurt by the various discrimination lawsuits filed against it (even if many of those claims have since been dismissed).
Perkins Coie (+10, from #43 to #33): Perkins Coie is a top firm in the Pacific Northwest and a top firm for tech companies, and both the Pacific Northwest and the tech sector have been on the upswing in the past few years. Also, on the political front, noted election lawyer Marc Elias and the firm’s leading Political Law practice encountered great success in defeating lawsuits from Trump or Trump allies challenging the 2020 election results, which certainly raised the firm’s profile.
Willkie Farr (+8, from #44 to #36): In March, which is the month that the Vault 100 surveys go out to associates across the country, Willkie started the special bonus trend. Well played, Willkie, well played. Cf. how Milbank jumped 15 spots in the Vault rankings in 2019, after leading the way on 2018 pay raises.
Baker McKenzie (-4, from #33 to #37)
Boies Schiller Flexner (-14, from #29 to #43): This was the biggest move in the rankings, presumably caused by upheaval last year at the firm. On the bright side, BSF seems to have stabilized in recent months—and has a big payday coming in for its work in the epic Blue Cross Blue Shield antitrust case, which resulted in a $2.7 billion settlement.
K&L Gates (-4, from #45 to #41)
Linklaters (-5, from #47 to #52)
McDermott Will & Emery (+3, from #57 to #54)
Pillsbury (+6, from #61 to #55). The firm had a good year in 2020, growing revenue by almost 7 percent and profits per equity partner by more than 14 percent, driven by its successful work for clients in the tech sector, which fared well during the pandemic.
Vinson & Elkins (-4, from #58 to #62)
Fenwick & West (+3, from #73 to #70)
Irell & Manella (-4, from #69 to #73)
Squire Patton Boggs (+3, from #77 to #74)
Fish & Richardson (-3, from #74 to #77)
Schulte Roth & Zabel (+3, from #82 to #79)
Fox Rothschild (+4, from #85 to #81)
Bryan Cave (-3, from #83 to #86)
Kellogg Hansen (+7, from #97 to #90): Word is getting out about the super-elite litigation boutique.
Duane Morris (-5, from #94 to #89)
Cozen O’Connor (+4, from #99 to #95)
Faegre Drinker (-6, from #97 to #91): Faegre Drinker is the product of the merger between Faegre Baker Daniels and Drinker Biddle & Reath, which went into effect on February 1, 2020.
Thompson & Knight (#99, previously not ranked)
Hunton Andrews Kurth (#100, previously not ranked)
A word about Kellogg Hansen and the Vault rankings in general. Anyone who follows the world of litigation knows that Kellogg Hansen and another litigation powerhouse, Susman Godfrey (#50), are in many ways more elite than pretty much any firm on this list, in terms of the quality of their work product, the results they get for their clients, and the caliber of their lawyers. That they aren’t ranked higher than #90 and #50 reflects one limitation of the Vault rankings.
The Vault rankings measure the high esteem in which a firm is held, yes, but they also measure sheer name recognition. And firms that are relatively small in headcount and focused on a single practice area, like Susman Godfrey and Kellogg Hansen, will never enjoy as much name recognition as the Cravaths and Skaddens of the world.
I like to think of this as the “BMW versus Bugatti” problem.3 True car connoisseurs know that Bugattis, which start at around $1.7 million and go as high as $12.5 million, are far more elite than BMWs. But BMWs are far more famous, just because there are so many more of them on the road, and in that sense, BMW is more “prestigious” than Bugatti (to the extent that prestige measures both high esteem and widespread recognition).
Similarly, those of us who follow the world of litigation know that it’s just as hard or even harder to get hired as an associate at Kellogg or Susman than Cravath or Wachtell (partly because Cravath and Wachtell hire more lawyers, period). And firms like Kellogg or Susman—as well as a number of other elite litigation-only firms that are far too small to make the Vault 100—regularly go up against, and often prevail against, the Biglaw firms at the tippy-top of the Vault rankings. So in this sense, these firms are very much “peer firms” to Cravath and Wachtell—but that won’t get captured in the Vault rankings.
I don’t have a “solution” to this problem (and yes, I realize it’s pretty laughable to call this a “problem”; I’m sure the multimillionaire partners at Susman and Kellogg are really sad that their firms aren’t higher in the Vault rankings). I have no suggestion to make to the folks at Vault about how to change their methodology. But it’s something that has always bugged me, so I thought I’d mention it here.
And there you have it: my random reflections on the latest Vault 100 prestige rankings. What are your thoughts? Please feel free to read Vault’s own write-up or Staci Zaretsky’s post at Above the Law, review the rankings themselves, and share your opinions and insights in the comments.
My understanding is that the absence of “LLP” at the end of Wachtell Lipton’s name reflects that the firm is an old-school partnership, not a limited liability partnership. The partners are confident enough in the quality of their legal work (and the extent of their malpractice coverage) that they don’t need to shield their personal finances with an LLP entity.
In 2019, Cleary lost a team of four prominent partners to Freshfields. Some of those partners apparently weren’t the easiest folks to work with, and as such were seen in some ways as “un-Cleary.” But they had tens of millions in business, and business drives Biglaw.
[UPDATE (7:38 p.m.): A few folks have pushed back on this characterization of the Cleary-to-Freshfields team. One source at Freshfields had nothing but good things to say to me about the experience of working with the ex-Cleary partners, adding that they’ve been an integral part of the robust expansion and success that Freshfields has enjoyed in the U.S. recently.]
There are any number of luxury goods that one could choose to illustrate this issue. Another good example would be watches. Rolex is probably more famous than Patek Philippe, but Patek Philippe is more elite. Similarly, Patek Philippe is more famous than certain bespoke watchmakers you’ve never heard of—but the creations of these bespoke watchmakers are far more expensive and harder to come by than a Patek.
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