|Since 1986, when The American Lawyer first published a list of the 100 highest-grossing firms in the United States, the total number of lawyers in The Am Law 100 has almost tripled. In 1986, it numbered 25, 994. In 2005, it reached 70, 161. That’s a truly stunning increase-and one that you might think was the foundation for The Am Law 100’s wondrous escalation in profits per partner, which in this year’s survey averaged more than $1 million.
If you did think that, though, you’d be wrong. The historical data suggests that The Am Law 100, as a universe, is growing too fast in size to sustain its own long-term revenue expansion. All those additional lawyers are a drag on the growth of revenue per lawyer. Don’t misunderstand: Gross revenue is expanding. But bulging firm size is diluting the value of Am Law 100 lawyers.
We came to that realization after tracking a different theory entirely. We noticed that head count growth in The Am Law 100 had slowed considerably in the last few years, up less than 2 percent in 2004 and less than 3 percent last year. We also knew that the number of students graduating from law schools over the last two decades had barely budged, increasing only 10 percent, from about 36, 000 in 1986 to about 40, 000 last year. So we wondered: Had the firms of The Am Law 100 finally begun to exhaust the supply of lawyers willing and able to do their work?
The answer, we discovered after talking to the leaders of a dozen Am Law 50 firms, is a resounding no-with one caveat. A few firms, most notably Cravath, Swaine & Moore and Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, still hire almost all of their lawyers right out of school or judicial clerkships. The growth of these firms has been constrained by supply. In 1986, at 233 lawyers, Cravath was an average-size Am Law 100 firm. This year Cravath has 391 lawyers-and the average Am Law firm has 702. Says incoming presiding partner Evan Chesler: “That’s based only on the fact that we recruit only from law schools ”
For Cravath and others, finding first-year associates who meet their qualifications is like looking for oil: They’re a limited resource, and there aren’t any untapped sources left. Twenty years ago, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom pioneered the recruiting of top-ranked students from second-tier law schools without fear of running into Am Law 100 competitors on campus. Today, every Am Law 100 firm is recruiting and hiring from far more law schools than it did 20 years ago. Jones Day, to cite just one example, drew from 58 law schools to stock its 2005 class of about 135 first-years. If the entire Am Law 100 relied only on first-year associates for growth, we might indeed be approaching a natural size limit.
But junior lawyers haven’t fueled The Am Law 100’s cumulative growth over the last 20 years-laterals have. While a significant percentage of laterals move between firms in The Am Law 100, thousands of lawyers have moved from firms outside The Am Law 100 into firms on the list, whether on their own or as part of a merger. “We count on the migration of talent to higher-quality law firms, ” says chairman and managing partner Robert Dell of Latham & Watkins, a firm that has managed growth with enviable success over the last decade.
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