Despite the boost, law firm leaders continue to sound guarded. One reason is that from 2008 to 2009, gross revenue among the top money-making firms fell by 2.7 percent, or $163.9 million.
At Wiley Rein, which saw a $10 million increase in gross revenue from 2009 to 2011, chairman Richard Wiley says a focus on government and litigation allowed it to remain strong during a challenging time. "While the economy has been slow and will probably be slow, I think firms are going to continue to be cautious," Wiley says. "Some of them had major layoffs of staff and associates and even some partners."
Roger Warin, chairman of Steptoe & Johnson's executive committee, said in an email that although some practices remain busy, demand isn't quite as high as it was in the decade prior. "While many practices are busy, demand across the board still has not returned to prerecession levels," Warin wrote.
According to Milch, firms have increasingly taken a conservative approach to their finances. This has meant raising rates when appropriate, and squeezing more billable hours out of fewer attorneys. He also notes that corporate in-house counsel also have been feeling the financial pinchgiving firms an opening for new business.
"The pressures that are on in-house counsel mean that they appreciate client services more than ever," Milch says. "I don't think we have found some magic recipe for success. It requires constant vigilance and good fortune."
A version of this story appeared in The National Law Journal, a sibling publication of Corporate Counsel.