The more things change, the more they stay the same. That’s the best way to summarize our eighth annual A-List, our effort to look beyond pure dollars to quantify the qualities that define the 20 most successful law firms. This year’s list was rife with movement: Four firms fell off the list, four joined, and six of the 13 firms that changed ranks from 2009 moved by six or more places. At the same time, we had a sense of déjà vu: Only two of the four firms joining the list this year, Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker and Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, are first-time A-Listers. The other two—Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and Simpson Thacher & Bart­lett—are A-List veterans. Similarly, Munger, Tolles & Olson held on to the top spot for the third year in a row, with a score only two points less than its 2009 A-List total. New York–based Hughes Hubbard & Reed came in second place for the second year in a row. The difference in total score between the top and the bottom of the list shrunk, but only slightly, from 140 points in 2009 to 137 points this year. And as in past years, competition was especially stiff toward the bottom of the list: The difference in total score between firm number 11 and firm number 20 was less than half the difference between numbers one and ten.

The methodology behind the A-List is relatively simple. We look at four factors: revenue per lawyer, pro bono commitment, diversity among lawyers, and associate satisfaction. Our formula gives more weight to the first two factors: We double a firm’s scores for revenue per lawyer and pro bono, and then add scores for diversity and associate satisfaction. Pro bono was a game changer. The one unifying trend among the two A-List newcomers and two alumni was a sizable increase in pro bono scores, with healthy jumps ranging from 7 percent (Skadden) to 64 percent (Finnegan). Paul, Hastings debuted on the A-List at number ten (the highest ranking for a newcomer since 2007) with a noticeable assist from its pro bono score of 194, an almost 15 percent increase from the year before.

Associate satisfaction, always a volatile score for firms, remained so this year, with an average 23 percent swing among the 20 A-List firms. That type of movement may not be too surprising, given that this was the first A-List that incorporated results following the wave of layoffs in early 2009. Deep declines in asso­ciate satisfaction also contributed to the exit of four firms from last year’s A-List roster: Howrey, Irell & Manella, Kirkland & Ellis, and Sullivan & Cromwell. At the same time, Debevoise & Plimpton’s commitment to lockstep pay and communication with asso­ciates during an uncertain time earned it a 44 percent increase in its associate satisfaction score on our annual midlevel survey, which helped propel the New York firm to number three on the 2010 A-List. Asso­ciates’ power may have diminished during the recession, but not when it comes to the A-List.

  • Click here for the full list, including total scores and category scores for RPL, Pro Bono, Associate Satisfaction, and Diversity.

1. Munger, Tolles & Olson
Los Angeles

Munger, Tolles has bested this elite bunch for the third year in a row, combining a near-perfect diversity score with strong showings in revenue per lawyer, pro bono, and associate satisfaction. The Los Angeles–based firm, which counts 25 percent of its lawyers and 15 percent of its partners as minorities, increased its diversity score by 2 percent, to 199. “We have not slowed down in our commitment to diversity programs [despite the challenging economic environment],” says managing partner Sandra Seville-Jones. She takes particular pride in the firm’s pipeline initiatives, such as the MTO Fellows Program, which targets minority college grads. Munger also increased its associate satisfaction score by almost 6 percent, to 186, a feat Seville-Jones partly attributes to the fact that the firm didn’t have layoffs or cut associate salaries—as well as to Munger’s relatively flat structure: The firm has close to a 1:1 associate/partner ratio and a “free-market” system of staffing.

2. Hughes Hubbard & Reed
New York

Hughes Hubbard ranked number two for the second year in a row, but managed to increase its total score by seven points. The New York–based firm increased its RPL score by more than 5 percent in 2009, aided in part by its work as counsel to the trustee in the liquidation of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., and a multitude of restructuring and litigation matters for financial institutions. “But there wasn’t one major matter or area that did it,” says chair Candace Beinecke. Hughes also improved its already top-notch diversity score by 3 percent, to 194. “[Diversity] is in our blood, and the more diverse people you [already] have, the more [that] diverse people want to come [to your firm],” says Beinecke.

3. Debevoise & Plimpton
New York

Debevoise is no stranger to the top of our list. The New York–based firm has earned a spot in the top ten every year since our inaugural ranking in 2003. This year Debevoise jumped four places, despite weaker financial results that cut the firm’s RPL score from 196 in 2009 to 175. Debevoise increased its pro bono score by 7 percent, to 193. The firm devoted thousands of hours to a female prisoners’ rights class action in New York State and ongoing litigation associated with more than 30,000 voters in Colorado who were purged from voting rolls in 2008. The firm also increased its associate score by 44 percent, a jump presiding partner Martin “Rick” Evans theorizes was the result of an improved feedback system for asso­ciates and efforts to increase communication about firm finances and the business environment during the last two years.

4. Davis Polk & Wardwell
New York

Davis Polk is our RPL category winner with its 197 RPL score. The New York–based firm increased its RPL by 2 percent, to $1,235,000. In a tough deal environment, Davis Polk got more than its share of M&A work last year, ranking fifth, according to Thomson Reuters’s worldwide data, with $245.5 billion in announced deals. That’s a 71 percent increase from its $143.3 billion global deal total in 2008. The firm also increased its pro bono score by 2 percent, to 183, devoting 8,000 hours alone to litigation defending the rights of restaurant, fruit stand, and garment workers in 2009. And it boosted its diversity score by 1 percent to 188.

5. Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr

Wilmer hopped seven places, to number five on this year’s A-List, with a 5 percent increase in its total score from 2009. The firm has made the A-List in seven of the past eight years. Thanks to a 2009 RPL of $1,010,000, Wilmer increased its RPL score by 2 percent, and its diversity score by 4 percent, to 156. Most notably, Wilmer’s associate score rose by close to 30 percent, to 171 out of a possible 200. And with the firm’s top ten ranking in pro bono in 2009, even a small decline in pro bono wasn’t detrimental: Wilmer had a pro bono score of 189 this year.

6. Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison
New York

Paul, Weiss leaped 14 places in this year’s A-List with a total score of 1,075, a 9 percent increase from 2009. The New York–based firm increased its total pro bono hours by more than 50 percent and boosted its pro bono score by 30 percent, the second-highest pro bono increase among this year’s A-List firms. “It was very important to me to step up our level of pro bono commitment [when I became chair],” says Brad Karp. Among the firm’s blockbuster pro bono matters was a federal district court victory for Disability Advocates Inc., in a suit against New York State agencies and officials that sought to eliminate unnecessary institutionalization of the mentally ill. There was also a substantial increase in pro bono matters handled by nonlitigation and corporate lawyers, adds Karp.

7. Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher

Gibson, Dunn is our associate category winner and one of only two firms on the A-List that increased their scores in all four categories this year. The firm landed the number seven spot with a 3 percent increase in its total score of 1,072, a personal best in score and rank since the firm debuted on the A-List in 2006. Gibson increased its associate satisfaction score by 1 percent, to a whopping 197, doing particularly well on questions about the firm’s openness on its finances. And Gibson—where minorities constitute 14 percent of firm lawyers and 7 percent of its U.S. partners—increased its diversity score by almost 11 percent in 2009.

8. Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom

Skadden reappeared on the A-List after a four-year hiatus thanks to a 10 percent increase in its total year-over-year score. Always a strong contender in our RPL rankings, Skadden increased its RPL score by three points this year, to 193. And the firm’s pro bono score of 191 represents a 7 percent increase from 2009. All told, the firm’s had a 23 percent increase in its pro bono scores over the past three years. But it was the firm’s associate satisfaction score that really took off this time, with a 114 percent jump, to 154. Associates rated the firm better than the national average on nine of our 12 scoring questions, with particularly high marks in the area of compensation, realistic billable-hours requirements, and the firm’s attitude toward pro bono.

9. Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton

An A-List veteran, Cleary Gottlieb increased its total score by one point but still slid one spot in the rankings this year. The international firm regained its status as a leader in our diversity rankings after a brief dip in its diversity score in 2009. Counting this year’s score of 195, Cleary has been in the top ten for diversity rankings in five of the last six years. The firm, which counts minorities as 25 percent of attorneys and 11 percent of partners, says these results aren’t attributable to a single initiative but reflect Cleary’s “long-standing commitment to creating an inclusive and diverse workplace,” according to a firm spokesperson. Cleary’s solid scores in RPL, pro bono, and associate satisfaction declined only slightly from 2009.

10. Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker

Paul, Hastings soared 17 spots to debut on the top 20 A-List this year at number ten. The firm increased its scores in all four categories, with particularly impressive year-over-year jumps in pro bono and associate satisfaction (15 percent and 38 percent, respectively). Unhappy with the firm’s previously lackluster pro bono performance, Paul, Hastings established a firmwide 25-hour minimum pro bono requirement and put in place more pro bono infrastructure in 2008, according to partner Jamie Broder. Since then, Paul, Hastings’s pro bono score has increased 59 percent, and the firm has a record-setting five-year pro bono score increase.

11. Weil, Gotshal & Manges
New York

Weil, Gotshal comes in at number 11 on our list, after slipping six spots from our 2009 survey. It’s the first time since 2006 that the New York–based firm hasn’t landed in the top five on our A-List, due in part to 8 percent declines in pro bono and associate satisfaction scores. (Weil had declines in nine of the 12 scoring questions in our associates survey.) But solid scores in RPL and diversity ensured Weil’s place in the top 20. The firm increased its RPL score by one point, to 187 this year, with the help of high-profile restructuring work on some of the nation’s largest bankruptcies, including Lehman Brothers. Weil, which counts 22 percent of its lawyers and 9 percent of its partners as minorities, also increased its diversity score by three points, to 181.

12. Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy
New York

In a tough year Milbank increased its RPL by 5 percent, to $1.125 million, boosting the firm’s RPL score by four points, to 192. Chairman Mel Immergut says the firm has always done well in bad economies: Thirty-eight percent of Milbank’s practices are focused on litigation and financial restructuring. And last year, those groups created work for another 10-15 percent of the firm, making more than half of the firm’s lawyers “superbusy,” he says. The New York–based firm also increased its associate score by 30 percent–a feat, considering that Milbank laid off 49 associates in 2009. Immergut says that Milbank has increased its professional development and training resources. Associates seemed to agree: On the asso­ciate survey, the firm improved its scores on questions about training and the path to partnership. The RPL and associate gains mitigated the impact of a 9 percent decline in pro bono score, and a 4 percent decline in diversity score. Milbank’s results in both categories remain solid–93 percent of the firm’s lawyers contributed more than 20 pro bono hours, and minorities represent 20 percent of the firm’s lawyers.

13. Latham & Watkins

Financially, Latham & Watkins bounced back in 2009, reporting an RPL of $970,000 and increasing its RPL score by 5 percent due to improving market conditions in the second half of the year. That impressive performance, and a stellar pro bono score, kept Latham on the A-List, despite declines in other categories. The firm’s associate satisfaction score plummeted 37 percent, to 122; Latham had particularly low marks on questions about compensation and staying at the firm, a perhaps unremarkable result following a year when Latham laid off 190 asso­ciates. Chairman Robert Dell said in a statement to The American Lawyer: “The difficult decisions made in 2009 to align our business with clients’ needs had an impact on the morale of associates, and we have been focused on improving this.”

14. Covington & Burling
Washington, D.C.

Covington gets the award for sustained excellence in pro bono. The Washington, D.C.–based firm’s pro bono score has been in the ninety-seventh percentile or higher in all eight years of our A-List. This past year, 71 percent of Covington lawyers contributed more than 20 pro bono hours, and the firmwide average was 162 hours—the highest average this year. That broad commitment earned the firm a pro bono rank of fourth and more than made up for the firm’s 6 percent declines in RPL and asso­ciate satisfaction scores.

15. Morrison & Foerster
San Francisco Bay Area

A seven-year veteran of the A-List, MoFo continued its historical strength in diversity. The San Francisco–based firm came in at tenth place on our diversity survey with a high diversity score of 191. “[Diversity is] something that we’ve cared about for a very long time, and we’d like to do even better,” says chair Keith Wetmore. At MoFo, minorities account for 24 percent of firm lawyers and 11 percent of U.S. partners. The firm’s slight increase in RPL, to $880,000 this year, helped boost its RPL score. Associate satisfaction, on the other hand, slipped 12 percent, a relatively small drop given the firm’s associate layoffs in early 2009.

16. Simpson Thacher & Bartlett
New York

Simpson Thacher climbed back onto the A-List this year with a 13 percent increase in its total score, catapulting the firm from number 37 in 2009 to number 16. The New York–based firm has a long history of scoring in the ninety-fifth percentile according to RPL, and this year was no different: Though Simpson’s RPL dropped by 2 percent, to $1.105 million in 2009, that per capita revenue was more than enough to hold on to its ninth place ranking for the second year in a row. But the A-List comeback was largely due to big gains in pro bono (a 22 percent increase in its score), associate satisfaction (a 51 percent increase), and diversity (a 9 percent increase). Fifty-seven percent of Simpson’s lawyers contribute more than 20 pro bono hours, a 31 percent increase from last year.

17. Arnold & Porter*
Washington, D.C.

Arnold & Porter is our pro bono category winner with a near-perfect score of 199 out of 200. Lawyers at the Washington, D.C.–based firm contributed an average of 161 pro bono hours, and 78 percent contributed at least 20 hours. These stats are doubly impressive given that the firm moved away from a formulaic compensation system last year, a change that may have made it more difficult for asso­ciates to quantify the impact of their pro bono hours. Among the firm’s large projects in 2009 was the preparation of a 500-page report on reforming the immigration system for the ABA, a task that tallied 10,000 hours in 2009 alone. Arnold & Porter slipped 11 places in our A-List rankings because of a flat RPL score and a decline in associate satisfaction.

17. O’Melveny & Myers*
Los Angeles

This is O’Melveny & Myers’s third year on the A-List, and though the Los Angeles–based firm had small declines in RPL, pro bono, and diversity rankings, its RPL and pro bono scores were still greater than when the firm premiered on the list in 2008. O’Melveny reported an RPL of $960,000, earning a ranking of 29 this year, compared to the firm’s forty-eighth-place RPL ranking in 2008. Similarly, O’Melveny is ranked at number 17 on our pro bono list, with an average of 121 pro bono hours per lawyer, a climb from number 26 two years ago, when it had an average of 90 pro bono hours per lawyer. O’Melveny also boosted its associate satisfaction score by a healthy 17 percent.

19. Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner
Washington, D.C.

Finnegan, Henderson blazed onto this year’s A-List at number 19 with a 12-rank jump. Even more impressive, the firm achieved this status despite small declines in both RPL and associate satisfaction scores. The Washington, D.C.–based firm may have the lowest pro bono score on the A-List (146), but that represents a 64 percent year-over-year increase in score, the largest pro bono spike among the group. Finnegan has pushed to broaden the array of pro bono projects available to lawyers, says managing partner Richard Racine, who notes that 90 percent of the firm’s pro bono work is outside of its core IP practice. In particular, the firm hired a former deputy GC of a veterans group to spearhead Finnegan’s involvement in veterans’ cases. Finnegan also increased its diversity score by 6 percent, to 171 this year, a reflection of the firm’s recent effort to centralize its diversity program, says Racine. Finnegan hired a diversity director in mid-2008.

20. Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe

A member of the A-List since 2007, Orrick comes in at number 20. Although the 1,018-lawyer firm continues to lag behind its peers in RPL score, Orrick earns high marks in the other A-List categories, particularly pro bono and diversity, where it’s in the ninetieth percentile in both categories. The firm’s 11 percent increase in its asso­ciate satisfaction score is also noteworthy after it laid off approximately 140 lawyers in late 2008 and early 2009.

  • To access the complete A-List report, including all charts and feature stories, click here.