(Illustration by Jean Manuel Duvivier)

The A-List in recent years has produced somewhat predictable results at the top. Since 2011, some combination of Hughes Hubbard & Reed, Munger Tolles & Olson and Paul Hastings has occupied the top three places on the annual ranking of financial performance and firm culture metrics, with only their relative positions shifting from year to year.

But no more: Of that trio, only Paul Hastings, which finished in second place last year, returns with a top-three finish. In fact, it finished in first place—the first time that Paul Hastings has taken the A-List’s top spot. Strong scores in pro bono (196 of a possible 200) and associate satisfaction (a perfect 200) were keys to the firm’s finish. “We have continually challenged ourselves in the area of associate development,” says Teri O’Brien, a corporate partner, who pointed to development programs introduced within the past four years that are better synched with associates’ progression and provide more transparency regarding what it takes to succeed at the firm.

Second and third places went to O’Melveny & Myers and Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, respectively. The two firms’ overall scores were separated by just one point. O’Melveny, which ranked fourth on the 2013 A-List, saw its overall score improve 15 points over last year’s, thanks to improvements in three of four categories: pro bono, associate satisfaction and diversity. Gibson Dunn’s 25-point improvement over last year, when it ranked fifth, was propelled by increases in its pro bono and diversity scores. “We have been engaged in a sustained effort to improve diversity at all levels and to make our firm a beacon of inclusiveness,” says managing partner Kenneth Doran. “It’s a long-term process, and I am gratified that we are on the right path.”

The A-List, launched by The American Lawyer in 2003, ranks firms on a variety of metrics: financial performance (as measured by The Am Law 200′s revenue per lawyer rankings), pro bono work (as measured by our annual pro bono survey), associate satisfaction (as measured by our midlevel survey), and diversity (as measured by our Diversity Scorecard). The revenue per lawyer and pro bono scores are doubled, to give those metrics additional weight. The highest possible total score is 1,200.

Every year, 20 firms are selected for the A-List. Sixteen firms from last year’s list make return appearances this time. Of the four new entrants, two—Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and Covington & Burling—return after absences that lasted just a year. The other two are Irell & Manella, which returns after being off the list since 2009, and Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, which was last on the list in 2007.

Average scores for the 20 A-List firms in each of the ranking’s four metrics were largely stable from 2013, increasing or decreasing by just a point. (In fact, Paul Hastings’ first-place score in 2014 was lower than its second-place score in 2013.) But in most areas, the gap between higher-ranking and lower-ranking firms increased: In RPL, the range between the highest score and the lowest was 54 points, compared with 50 in 2013. In pro bono, it was 58 points, compared with 45; and in diversity, it was 91 points, compared with 82. The exception was associate satisfaction, where the range narrowed to 78, from 87 in 2013.

While the use of four separate metrics in tabulating the A-List favors stability from year to year, much can change in a year based on changes in just one or two categories. For example, Munger Tolles’ fall to 11th this year from first last year was due largely to a lower pro bono score. While the firm experienced slight increases in its RPL and diversity scores versus last year, its pro bono ranking declined by 42 points. (The firm is number 61 on our latest pro bono rankings [page 56], compared with number 19 a year ago.) In an emailed statement, Munger Tolles managing partner Sandra Seville-Jones, said, “While the number of pro bono hours fluctuates from year to year, our commitment remains resolute.”

Hughes Hubbard’s Achilles heel in this year’s tabulations was its diversity score, which declined 55 points, to 134. (The firm was number 67 on this year’s Diversity Scorecard [June], compared with number 12 a year earlier.) “Our dip this year is a short-term aberration having to do with the timing of some additions and departures,” says Hughes Hubbard chair Candace Beinecke. “Diversity is a major part of our business model. We believe it leads to higher-quality lawyering and better results for our clients.”

In addition to Paul Hastings, O’Melveny and Gibson Dunn, another firm that notably rose in this year’s rankings was Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, which climbed into seventh place from 17th last year. The 31-point improvement in the firm’s overall score was driven by jumps in both its associate satisfaction and RPL scores. Seven other firms improved their standing on this year’s A-List. The jumps ranged from just one rank (Latham & Watkins and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr), to six ranks (Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe). Driven by increases in its RPL, pro bono and associate satisfaction rankings, Orrick’s year-to-year score increased 26 points, to 1,035, and its ranking climbed from 18th to 12th.

Of the four firms that weren’t on last year’s list but made this year’s A-List, Irell & Manella ranks the highest, with a 13th-place showing and an overall score of 1,034. Last year it ranked 39th in A-List tabulations with an overall score of 871. The firm’s dramatic climb was driven in part by a 24-point increase in its pro bono score. (The firm is number 31 on our current pro bono rankings, compared with number 55 a year ago.) “A pro bono initiative we introduced at the end of 2012 has matured, and as result our pro bono hours have doubled in comparison to the prior year,” says Andrei Iancu, Irell & Manella’s managing partner. Iancu pointed specifically to efforts to more prominently highlight pro bono opportunities during firm retreats, revisions to the pro bono committee that allow it to more effectively distribute pro bono matters and a 60 pro bono hour requirement for new hires.

Robins Kaplan made a similarly impressive climb, going from a 55th ranking in last year’s A-List tabulations and an overall score of 804 to a 14th-place ranking and an overall score of 1,026 this year. The firm’s 41 spot leap was driven by an RPL score that shot to 190 from 95 and an associate satisfaction score that jumped to 161 from 109. “We work hard each year at investing in the careers and futures of our associates,” says Martin Lueck, chairman of the firm’s executive board. “Some years we do better than others and it’s not always easy to identify what the circumstances are behind changes in our scores.” As for the RPL increase, “it is well-known that we are a firm that shares risk with our clients,” Lueck says, “and so some years we are going to have much higher revenue, and that was certainly the case last year.” (The firm’s 2013 RPL of $1.25 million was The Am Law 200′s 11th-highest.) Akin Gump and Covington & Burling, the other two firms that weren’t on last year’s list, had more modest increases, each rising four spots, to 18th place and 20th place, respectively.

The four firms that fell off the A-List this year are Davis Polk & Wardwell, Jenner & Block, Shearman & Sterling and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. Of the four, Davis Polk dropped the furthest, 19 spots, from 16th place, with a score of 1,015, on last year’s A-List, to 35th place, with a score of 887. While the firm’s diversity scores registered a small uptick, its pro bono score dropped 39 points (before being doubled), to 117, and its asso­ciate satisfaction ranking fell 50 points, to 90. Its RPL score also declined by two points. This year ends Davis Polk’s 11-year run on the A-List; it was one of the firms on the inaugural A-List in 2003.

Shearman & Sterling had the best showing of the four on the 2013 A-List with a score of 1,029 and a 10th-place ranking. The firm’s fall to 24th on this year’s A-List was driven in large part by a 74-point drop in its associate satisfaction score.

Paul Hastings’ rise to the top of the A-List has been a rapid one. As recently as 2009, the firm had never been on the list. It debuted on the A-List in 2010 in 10th place. “We are reaping the benefits of a much longer trend at the firm of investing in our people and our practices and expanding our view of success,” says Seth Zachary, chairman of Paul Hastings. “The reason for embarking on this process more than 15 years ago was to ensure the long-term success of Paul Hastings. An additional benefit has been that during the last three to four years, we have improved our performance on the A-List.”