There's a new A-List champ, Munger, Tolles & Olson, which replaced Debevoise & Plimpton. Some firms fell completely off the list (Howrey; Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi; Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr). 2

There’s a new A-List champ, Munger, Tolles & Olson, which replaced Debevoise & Plimpton. Some firms fell completely off the list (Howrey; Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi; Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr).

It’s A-List season at The American Lawyer. For the sixth year, the magazine applied the A-List algorithm to The Am Law 200 to determine the firms that best embody what it means to be a success in the legal community. As always, there were surprises.

There’s a new A-List champ, Munger, Tolles & Olson, which replaced Debevoise & Plimpton. Some firms fell completely off the list (Howrey; Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi; Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr).

Others climbed back on (Sullivan & Cromwell and Covington & Burling), or made their A-List debut (O’Melveny & Myers). But what is most notable about the 2008 A-List rankings is just how difficult it has become for newcomers to land one of the 20 coveted spots. The 2007 rankings featured seven new firms; the 2008 A-List, just three, and none finished higher than 16th place.

The AmLaw methodology for determining the A-List is relatively simple. We rank firms in four categories: revenue per lawyer, pro bono hours, associate satisfaction and diversity representation. The higher the rank, the more points a firm scores. Revenue per lawyer and pro bono scores count double.

For would-be A-listers, our rank-based scoring presents a challenge. To move up, they must not only do better, but do better than their competitors. Consider Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, where revenue per lawyer increased to $980,000 in 2007, from $975,000 the year before. The firm actually fell three spots in the revenue per lawyer category when measured against the rest of The Am Law 200. Slight declines in the other A-list categories contributed to a slip on this year’s roster, from seventh to a still impressive 10th place.

Another hurdle: No firm can climb to the top by virtue of blowing everyone else out of the water in a single category. The most points a firm can obtain in the revenue per lawyer category, for example, is 400 — no matter if it beats out the second-place firm by $1 or $1 million.

That doesn’t mean wannabe A-listers should give up. The firms in the top 20 have learned what it takes to hold on to their positions, but that stability does not extend to the 30 firms right below them — they still bounce around like pingpong balls in a lottery drawing (see americanlawyer.com for A-list rankings for the rest of The Am Law 200). These firms moved up or down in our rankings an average of 12 places in 2008, more than twice the change in position of the average A-List firm. And most of the firms just outside the top 20 have at least one glaring weakness — a single score, such as weak pro bono hours, that doesn’t measure up to those of the elite.

We attempt to answer some of the questions that arose after scoring the field. For these stories, and our welcome to new A-Lister O’Melveny, read on.

The Debevoise Era Ends

After a four-year reign, Debevoise surrendered its crown in 2008, falling to fifth place on the A-List. Despite the drop, the New York-based firm had its richest year ever in 2007. Revenue per lawyer increased to $1,195,000, from $1,005,000 the year before, and the firm finished eighth in this category among The Am Law 200. (In 2006, Debevoise was 19th in revenue per lawyer.) The firm also increased its diversity ranking in 2008.

So what went wrong? Blame the associates. Some Debevoise associates, according to our annual Midlevel Associates survey, were burned out. Common complaints included “intense client demands,” “heavy workloads,” and “stressful atmosphere.” A handful also mentioned that they were tired of working on internal investigations, a Debevoise specialty. (The Siemens AG fraud investigation was particularly taxing. Those concerns translated into particularly low scores on two of our questions. When asked if they expected to be at the firm in two years, 21 of the 53 third-, fourth-, and fifth-year associates who answered the survey indicated that they expected to work somewhere else by then. (Only eight respondents gave Debevoise the highest score in that area, suggesting that they strongly believed they would stay at the firm.)

The associates also gave Debevoise poor marks in an area that tends to be a bugaboo for most law firms: “how clearly your firm communicates what it takes to make partner.” On a scale of 1 to 5, the average response to this question was 2.7. In an e-mail to The American Lawyer, Debevoise presiding partner Martin Evans wrote: “We are committed to excellence in all aspects of the professional experience of our lawyers, including fostering associate development and clear communications among our lawyers.”

Still, with revenue up and a top-five finish, we don’t think anyone at Debevoise should be too worried.

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