Joseph Tate and Dennis Suplee grew up as working-class kids outside Philadelphia, one the son of a milkman and the other the son of a bread deliveryman. They were a year apart at Monsignor Bonner High School in Drexel Hill, and, at ages 70 and 69, they still sometimes run into each other at Our Lady of Good Counsel Roman Catholic Church in Bryn Mawr. As young men, both emerged as star litigators, law firm leaders, and pro bono role models at Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis.

In 1986 Schnader’s financials were strong enough for it to tie for 75th place on the debut Am Law 100. It was coincidentally the same year that Bernard Segal, a towering figure of an earlier era who led the American Bar Association in 1969, stepped down as Schnader’s leader at age 79. By all accounts, Schnader never negotiated the transition. Tate decamped for Dechert in 1991, as Suplee stood by Schnader despite other opportunities.

In year one of the survey Schnader trailed Dechert by only $10,000 in profits per partner, with $210,000. By 2003 Schnader’s bottom line was $355,000 per partner, while Dechert’s topped $1 million. Today Schnader is too small for our financial survey, while Dechert partners pull in more than $2 million apiece.

Though these trends were under way in 1991, under Dechert’s policy at the time a lateral could make no more in his first year than he made at his former firm. “I didn’t change firms for money,” Tate says. “I changed firms because I was very worried about the future.”

Having served on both firms’ management committees, Tate credits Dechert’s rise to visionary leadership that targeted premium areas for growth, vetted their laterals obsessively, and encouraged the sharing of clients. Firms need leaders, he says, who “look where the future is, take the needed steps, and stay the course.”

Though Suplee isn’t the luckiest lateral of the past 25 years, he doesn’t curse his luck. “You could say that Schnader hasn’t grown the way lots of other firms have,” he says. “But we haven’t disappeared the way a lot of other firms have, either.”

Buried in the 25-year data are the tales of many Decherts and Schnaders, each with its own narrative arc. But the experience of the people who work at the dots on these graphs is another matter. Dollars and cents aside, how did the essential values embraced by big law firms change between 1987 and 2012?

“If one judges a law firm strictly in terms of The Am Law 100’s numbers, then we have fallen behind since 1987,” says Suplee. “If one judges a law firm in terms of all of the other factors that should be important—a high level of professional excellence, dedication to the higher calling of the law through serious pro bono work, true collegiality among all of our lawyers—then we’re doing just fine.”

Tate has no regrets about his midcareer choice, and he thinks Dechert scores well by those measures, too. But Tate expresses ambivalence about the changes wrought by the competition for talent and amplified by The Am Law 100’s publication of profits per partner rankings.

“The culture’s changed,” Tate says. “The pressure on lawyers at law firms is increasing every day. I shouldn’t even be working these days, but I love it. I love spending time with young kids on a pro bono case. I love working with clients. At heart lawyers are here to serve clients, and all this touting of financial success is just not good. The profession can’t survive if money is the only thing that ties us together. If we use profit as our only barometer of success, then this is all going to fall apart.”