Has it really been 25 years since we started asking large law firms about the money they make? Actually, if you count from the first iteration of our annual financial survey, The Am Law 50 [July/August, 1985], it’s been 27 years. (The list expanded to 100 firms two years later, in 1987.) But for the reporters and editors who made those first calls, the memories are still fresh. Assistant editor Irene Plagianos tracked down seven former Am Law staffers to find out how it all began.

Steven Brill, former editor in chief: I had this house in Bedford, New York, and after we’d put the kids to sleep, I’d get a big tumbler of Scotch and some ice and I’d go and sit outside under the stars and think of story ideas. . . . Inevitably, six or eight would be just absolutely awful. That night the Fortune 500 had just come out and I thought to myself, “Well, that’s it. We can do this. We can rank the firms.” . . . So I came into the ­office that Monday morning for our ­editorial meeting with the idea, and someone said, I don’t remember who: “You’re crazy, you’re fucking nuts. Who’s gonna tell?”

Ellen Joan Pollock, former managing editor: I don’t exactly remember the first conversation about the project, except that we all thought [Brill] had lost his mind even more than usual.

Katherine States Burke, former executive editor: He liked to throw down challenges to the staff, and this was definitely a big one.

Donald Baer, former staff reporter: It seemed terribly difficult, to say the least.

Brill: Originally, I wanted to do The Am Law 100. But we went back and forth, and [my colleagues] talked me down to 50. Because we had done profiles of managing partners and profiles of law firms through the [magazine's] first five years—maybe 30 or 40 of what would have been The Am Law 100—I thought we knew how to do it. We had enough critical mass to get going.

Pollock: It was such a different era. Law firms did not talk about anything. You know, they were opening up a little bit just because we were around. But still, they never ever talked about financials.

Brill: I said [to the reporters], “Come on, if there are 50 partners at a firm, by definition 20 are just insanely jealous because they’re not getting enough money. Maybe because they’re bitter—or for whatever reason—someone will tell us.” Even though law firms are private, I always told our reporters, “If there’s ever something 20 or 30 people know, then it’s knowable. ‘Cause 20 or 30 or 50 or 70 people can’t keep a secret.” . . . But it was pretty audacious, if you think about it. Completely private, secretive firms. The idea that you could get financials for a Cravath or Sullivan & Cromwell—I mean, these people hated us.

Pollock: When it came to The Am Law 50, that was a challenge because none of us could even add. You can’t imagine how ill-equipped we were to do it. I mean, literally, we were all liberal arts majors, and we knew nothing about business really. . . . Some of us knew a little bit. But really we were going into it blind. . . . I had never heard the term “profits per partner” before. And I am sure there were plenty of people who did not know the difference between revenue and profit. I am sure. We had to be educated.

Brill: We’d have tutorials on stuff like revenues and profits. It was really good business reporting training, under great pressure. But they all learned.

Burke: We had revenues, number of lawyers, for some of the firms from stories we’d written, so we had some information. But I spent a lot of time strategizing with the reporters. We talked about what the different elements were and how to talk about the different elements of the firm [when calling partners], what people might say back to them.

Stephen Adler, former editorial director: Initially, the basic game was . . . you talk to different lawyers at the firm and get one piece of the formula from each so they don’t quite know what you’re doing yet. Get total hours billed or average hours per lawyer from one person. You may get the number of lawyers from the firm. Maybe revenue from another partner.

Pollock: So we set to work. We just divided up the list of firms, and we were all lugging around our Martindale-Hubbell volumes, and we were just going down lists calling lawyers.

Baer: Lots and lots of phone calls.

Amy Singer, former staff reporter: It was terrible. You could call 100 people and the 101st would be the one who would actually say something.

Adler: So you worked your way through, and a lot of people berated you and said, “This is outrageous,” or hung up on you. And the firms were really angry and they’d call us and say, “Stop calling our lawyers” and we’d say, “We’ll stop calling you [only if you] give us the numbers.” You’d ­assume you’d call pretty much every lawyer in the firm. We’d just batter them until somebody would give us the number. Then the managing ­partner would call and yell at Steve. And Steve would say, “Hey, my reporters are just out reporting”—and he’d give the thing about how law firms are very important, powerful ­institutions in society, people have a right to understand the economics of it. And we’d go right back to doing the calls.

Singer: I remember throwing out a number to a partner—and I was really throwing it out, I mean it was a slightly educated guess. But getting this reaction of like, “Wow, how’d you [get] that?” And it was like “Score!” It was rolling the dice, and sometimes you’d get lucky.

Pollock: A lot of time the conversations with the lawyers began: “Can you tell us what your revenues are?” And the answer would be no and then you would bluff and say, “Well, if we said it was 20 million, would we be in the ballpark?” The word “ballpark” was used a lot. And then you would use the information you used on that phone call and try to bounce it off of someone else. But one of the things we came up against, even with the cooperative folks: A lot of time they were giving it to us off the top of their heads, so even if you got numbers, you weren’t sure it was right.

Susan Adams, former staff reporter: I ­remember calling partners at ­Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro, telling them about the project I was working on and telling them I needed the ­revenue and the profits of the firm. And I had called about 50 people and all of them had said, “Forget it, I’m not telling you,” and then finally this one partner said, “Okay, sure I’ll tell.” And I could hear him opening up his desk drawer and pulling out papers. I didn’t get a copy of the documents. But he was so precise in the recitations, I was fairly certain he was correct. And for many years I would continue to work on the project, and I would call him back, and he would always give me the numbers. And he was just extremely forthcoming, and he became a source. He just was a nice guy; I think he felt sort of sorry for me on the phone.

Pollock: We would always talk about whether we could hear papers ruffling on the other end of the phone. Because if the person had said, “Hold on a second, let me get the documents in my bottom drawer,” and then you heard papers rustling, you knew it wasn’t a guess. You can’t imagine how important the paper rustling was.

Adler: I remember I had Fried, Frank. I had a source there who gave me the numbers, and most people at Fried, Frank were outraged that we had the numbers, because the numbers were right—it was really right—and then there were recriminations within the firm, so I’ve kept my mouth shut about where I got it.

Pollock: Once in a while you would get somebody who would just give it to you. [Otherwise] we’d try everything to get the numbers. We’d say, “Well, you’re a partner, and, you know, partners are owners, and you can make your own decisions.” We would try to convince them of that. I remember I got Sullivan & Cromwell that first year on the fifty-second phone call. Think of it. It’s how many years later, and I still remember sitting at my desk at 205 Lexington Avenue and getting Sullivan & Cromwell. Whoever gave it to me had gone completely rogue.

Singer: Usually, though, it was very piecemeal, getting a little from one person, getting a little from another.

Adams: And then, quite honestly, you never knew if they were lying or not.

Pollock: At the time it felt like hell. It gave us something to complain about, we all really liked to complain, so that was good. And pressure, oh my God, we felt unbelievable pressure to get it. Steve is a pressure kind of guy. It was like he had a whip.

Singer: The good thing about the Am Law reporting was that it was kind of like trench warfare. Everybody is in it together. It would be kind of dreadful doing it on your own, but we could commiserate and strategize together.

Adler: I kinda liked it. It sort of had a mathematical element to it, kind of the satisfaction of solving a puzzle and putting the pieces together. There was almost like a game sort of excitement around getting it—people kind of shouting, “I’ve got one, or I’ve got Skadden,” or whatever.

Pollock: As we kept going, we got better at it, and we kind of figured out how to break it down. You know, a lot of it in the early days was just figuring out the math.

Adler: Number of lawyers times average number of hours times blended rate kind of did get you in the ballpark. Harder for us was trying to figure out profits per partner after we’d figured out gross revenue. And Steve was the person who understood the economics of law firms the best, so he had a pretty good idea of what the range of the profit margins were at firms, depending on, say, what city you were in.

Pollock: I just remember Steve lying on his couch in the office with his yellow pad, and we’d all be sitting there, discussing the numbers and trying to come up with the best guess before we’d go back to the managing partners of the firms. You couldn’t go to management with numbers you really weren’t confident with, because they would just laugh you off. And Steve saying something like, “Well, they work so hard, they’re a bunch of nerds over at that firm, it has to be on the higher end, those people, their lights are on all the time.” There’d be a lot of laughing. . . . I mean, we’d been covering law firms for a few years, so we knew something about their cultures.

Brill: The other thing we’d do, sort of the psychological thing—if we thought a managing partner had a big ego, we’d purposely guess low, and then he’d have to correct us up. He’d say, “You can’t print that.” If we thought a managing partner had no ego and just wanted to be left alone and make his money and be successful, we’d guess high. Because then he’d be worried that his clients thought he’d be making too much money.

Burke: Steve did a lot of work himself. We would sit around in his office and listen to him do a lot of reporting. That was very helpful. He both flogged us and cheered us on.

Singer: “Keep pushing, keep pushing. Go back, go back again.” I mean, Steve was relentless, relentless. . . . At a certain point, [he] would step in. But you would have to really wring it out before he would step in. . . . The great thing about Steve, he could make something like Am Law reporting seem like you were solving world peace. He made it seem like it was so important and so critical, so he could be inspiring in that way.

Adler: Well, none of us could get some firms, and then Steve went behind a closed door and then came out and said, “I got it.” And then we all looked at each other and wondered, “Did he really get it?”

Adams: And then you’d have that feeling like, well, if he could just do that, then why did I just make 150 phone calls?

Brill: I’d begged a few firms, or I’d say, “You’re going to look stupid,” or “You gotta help us out. You don’t want to be the only firm we’ll have to guess.”

Adler: The trick to it the first year was something only Steve Brill would do because it was so audacious. He basically said, “We’re providing a number for every firm, whether or not we get the information. And we will disclose that we’re not always certain that we have the right number, that these are our best estimates—the following year we’ll do better.” By being prepared to run numbers that we didn’t know were true, with those caveats, we were able to fill out the 50 and then get people’s attention—and we got much more cooperation the second year. But the first had the extra excitement of being fresh territory and something nobody had ever done before.

Pollock: So the question was, what percent of that first year was ­really totally accurate? It was a lot, but it wasn’t all of them.

Burke: There were some firms we were more secure about than others, and yeah, I woke up at night wondering, “Did we really have this down?” When it finally went to press, I’d say we did the best we could.

Brill: Oh, when it came out, it was a shit storm. They talked about it, complained about it, said we were outrageous.

Burke: I think people were sort of stunned and really interested and a little bit shocked. It was definitely a transitional point for these big firms, for that information to be out in print for everyone to see. People at the time used to excoriate The American Lawyer for denigrating the profession somehow and turning it into an all-about-money kind of business. I think law was becoming a business and maybe we made it happen a little faster.

Pollock: I think they had never thought of themselves as ranked before. This wasn’t even talked about between good friends at law firms. So they had no idea where they stood, and they suddenly became very aware of where they stood in the ranking, and it became important to stay in that top five, or, eventually, in that 100. You know, after a while I remember getting complaints from firms saying, “We should have been in the 100.” . . . And I would laugh, because it had started out that not a single one wanted to be included. They didn’t even think we could do it.

Brill: I think you have to consider the rankings as the basic kind of reporting The American Lawyer did, which was the business of law firms. And when we started reporting on the business of law firms, they started acting more like competitive businesses. You can just see the results. I mean, lateral partner moves in 1985 were just rare, rare. . . . Nice people say it really changed the profession, and more candid people sometimes say it really ruined the profession, and if you’re someone who thinks you’ve done really well based on merit and talent, [you] might say it really enhanced the profession. . . . But I do think that kind of reporting has had a really healthy effect on the legal marketplace.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

Has it really been 25 years since we started asking large law firms about the money they make? Actually, if you count from the first iteration of our annual financial survey, The Am Law 50 [July/August, 1985], it’s been 27 years. (The list expanded to 100 firms two years later, in 1987.) But for the reporters and editors who made those first calls, the memories are still fresh. Assistant editor Irene Plagianos tracked down seven former Am Law staffers to find out how it all began.

Susan Adams
Senior Editor at Forbes

Stephen Adler
Editor in Chief at Reuters News

Donald Baer
Worldwide Vice-Chairman/Chief Strategy Officer of public relations firm Burson-Marsteller

Steven Brill
Cofounder and CEO of Press+, a three-year-old company that helps publishers collect revenue from online content

Ellen Joan Pollock
Executive Editor at Bloomberg BusinessWeek

Amy Singer
Director of Editorial Strategy and Development at ALM Media

Katherine States Burke
Global Health Advocate, Board Member of Accordia Global Health Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on building health care capacity in Africa