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In the two decades since the turn of the 21st century, as globalization and technology have restructured nearly every industry, the roster of elite law firms handling the bulk of corporate deal work has undergone a transformation of its own. Firms that were once mainstays at the top of league tables have been surpassed by a set of newcomers, and the London heavyweights that were once power players have largely given way to U.S. competitors. While many firms have retained their competitive edge, as shown by a review of 20 years of mergers and acquisitions league tables provided by Mergermarket and Refinitiv, the law firm hierarchy has been reshaped by the trends of the intervening years.

Twenty years ago, three U.K. firms (Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters and Clifford Chance) joined U.S. stalwarts Sullivan & Cromwell and Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz among the top five M&A firms by deal value, according to Mergermarket data. On the most recent league table, for 2020, Freshfields was the lone U.K. firm in the top 10, joined there by two entrenched M&A elites that hadn’t even sniffed the top 30 at the beginning of the century: Latham & Watkins and Kirkland & Ellis, which placed first and sixth, respectively.

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Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith, based in New York, covers the business of law, including the ways law firms compete for clients and talent, cannabis law and marketing innovation. Reach him at [email protected] or on Twitter at @nycpatrickd

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