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Once there was an age, the old-timers say, when lawyers could tick off by rote the names of the nation’s leading law firms. They were dotted across the land like regional royalty. Within the limits of “not-our-sort” bias, they hired the best people, served the biggest clients and sought-by word and deed-to uphold the highest standards of the profession. Today, matters are more confused. Firms leave home. Rankings proliferate. Standards blur. The Am Law 100 and 200, produced by The American Lawyer, a sister publication to The National Law Journal, measures law firms as businesses. That’s a vital metric. But it can’t be the only standard for a self-respecting profession. Others are experimenting with new benchmarks. Vault asks big-firm associates what they think of places where they haven’t worked. We don’t think that yields a genuine list of “top firms.” Chambers directory distill their interviews into a roster of “firms with the most big hitters nationwide.” We find that unsatisfactory. A better measure is needed. Lawyers should know not only what their standards are, but also who meets them. The best firms are exemplars, and exemplars are important. They’re entitled to praise, and, just as critical, they inspire not only envy but better performance from their competitors. This information should be important to recruits trying to decide where to spend their careers, to laterals looking for a new office to call home and to the firms themselves. With these ends in mind, we offer our first Am Law A-List of U.S. law firms. Only 20 firms make The A-List, the top 10% of The Am Law 200 as calculated by a formula we describe below. As with any exercise in rankings, this one is imperfect. It is not meant to be a roster of those with the most able lawyers-though many of the nation’s best practice in A-List firms. Nor is it meant to be a guide of whom to call when your voice mail includes a troubling message from New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. The A-List is a measure of firm qua firm performance. Four key values For the past several months we’ve cast around for a short list of core professional values that we could assess objectively. We found four: successful law practices; pro bono performance; decent treatment and development of new lawyers; and diversity of work force. Those rankings form the basis for The A-List. Here are the standards we used: Revenue per lawyer: RPL is both a fair measure of the success of a firm’s practice and an approximation of client quality and satisfaction. Clients with the deepest pockets and hardest problems can retain any firm; their willingness to pay top dollar is a rough measure of what they think a firm is worth. The rankings come from The American Lawyer‘s July and August 2003 issues. Pro bono: Providing high-quality, free legal services to the poor and to organizations that serve the poor is a bedrock professional value. We ask law firms to report their activities each year, and we rank them by a formula that includes both per capita hours and the number of firm lawyers who performed at least 20 hours of service annually. The Am Law 200 pro bono rankings appear in the September print issue of The American Lawyer. Associate satisfaction: Training and developing the next generation is one of the key missions of any profession. To assess how well firms fulfill that duty, we survey third- and fourth-year associates every June. We score the firms based on the answers from their young lawyers. The associate rankings come from American Lawyer‘s October 2002 issue. Diversity: Each fall, The National Law Journal conducts a census of law firms to prepare its NLJ 250 list. From that data, another sister publication, The Minority Law Journal, compiles a diversity scorecard, which ranks the firms on percentage of minority lawyers. The rankings that were used for The A-List come from the MLJ’s summer 2003 issue. The grading system In each survey, each firm was ranked, usually one to 200. For The A-List, each of those ranks was assigned a grade. For example, the firm that finished first in revenue per lawyer earned 200 points; the firm that finished last received one point. On the pro bono, associate satisfaction and diversity surveys, firms that didn’t participate received no points. We then used a weighted formula to compile the A-List rankings. We doubled the scores for both revenue per lawyer and pro bono and added them to the scores from the associate satisfaction and diversity surveys. (Expressed as a formula, it would be: [RPL score x 2] + [PB score x 2] + AS score + D score = total score.) Then we ranked the firms by their total scores. The top 50 became the honored top quarter. The top 20 form The A-List. Our weighting system reflects a value judgment. Of the four measures we use, we think that revenue per lawyer-as a reflection of the health of a firm’s practice and its success at serving clients-and pro bono work are the most important. We think that a firm’s primary duty is to its clients-both its paying and needy ones. For what it is worth, we experimented with a variety of different weights for the four categories. What we found was that The A-List was essentially the same with whatever formula we used. What the firms on the 2003 A-List have in common is outstanding results across the four categories. For example, 14 of the top 20 firms finished in the top quarter of The Am Law 200 in three of the four categories, and two firms-Arnold & Porter and Latham & Watkins-were four for four. Doing well in any single category wasn’t enough. For example, only eight of the top 20 firms on the RPL chart made The Am Law A-List in 2003. A longer version of this article and the full list of the 200 firms ranked are in the September issue of The American Lawyer and at www.americanlawyer.com.

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