Twenty-five years into the publication of The Am Law 100, what have we to show for the effort? We have helped move the economic landscape of the big-firm market from opaque to translucent. Big-firm lawyers and those who care about their work have information and a vocabulary to begin to assess the economic health of their institutions. They know now that while most of these firms appear similar, there are important differences in their success, a product not of pedigree as much as their client base, firm management, and focused effort. And they also know that despite some spectacular outliers and a drumbeat of know-nothing commentary, most of the lawyers at most of the firms who help us in this project tell us the truth.
The 100 effort hasn’t all been upside, of course. Information turned loose on any environment has the power to warp it, and law firms proved as susceptible as other human enterprises. Is there more talk now of commerce and earnings in the top echelon of a profession that once didn’t engage in such open banter? Yes. Does that make for a healthier marketplace? We think so. Does it mean that profit is the only value or measure by which a firm should measure itself? No. And lawyers and firms that operate as though it were have only themselves to blame for their choices—and their pernicious influence on lawyers at large.
But that’s an old and rather tired discussion. And it rests on a curious set of assumptions. Here’s the short caricature: If the Am Law 100 enterprise had never started, then somehow the large-firm world would have evolved more gracefully and sensibly—and the old values held so dear in the cloistered, all-male, essentially all-white world, where every actor was content to know his place, would still be in vogue.
In honor of the occasion, it seems time to ask what the big law firm world would look like if our predecessors had never launched the Am Law 100 project. It would be different in ways we can’t know, of course. But I suspect the map of the law firm world would be similar to today’s, for the simple reason that The Am Law 100 developed at roughly the same time that a set of other forces attacked the old order. Quite apart from the publication of law firm financial data, consider these developments:
• The economic explosion of the last few decades, and with it the remarkable surge in demand for high-end legal services.
• The uneven distribution of that high-end work, and with it the resulting market segmentation among law firms.
• The flight of clients from their ancestral homes, and with it the crumbling of law firm regional boundaries and the rise of managing partners’ manifest destinies.
• The need for new talent at firms, which outstripped their ability to grow organically. Hence the start and growth of recruiters, internally and externally, to flog the talent transfer.
These disruptive forces would have proceeded apace without The Am Law 100. Financial information would have been no less important; it just would have been held in fewer hands. There were other economic surveys when The Am Law 100 appeared: Pricewaterhouse’s was fading, and Citibank’s was surging. But their results were (and are) closely held, their comparison data purposefully limited and blinded. The traders—merger-minded consultants and recruiters—would have episodic data, again closely held. And we in the press, as we chronicled firm rises and falls, would have reported financials as we found them, occasionally, anecdotally, erratically.
So, if other forces were in place that dictated broad changes, why is The Am Law 100 so important? Let’s start with three reasons. First, it was an early shot in the information revolution—along with the founding of this magazine and The National Law Journal —that continues to bring some Brandeisian sunlit disinfectant to an important but otherwise closed market. Second, it gave lawyers a chance to make hard choices. Were they going to live their professed values, or focus entirely on the bottom line, or try to find a place somewhere along that continuum? Third, it armed lawyers with information about their businesses and helped create a climate that made questioning their firms’ strategies and achievements neither acts of treason nor heresy. The landscape is changing again, and we’ll change with it. But The Am Law 100 remains the benchmark.
Press, ALM’s editor in chief, can be reached at email@example.com.