This year four new firms made it onto the American Lawyer’s list of the best of the best in U.S. law firms. Two of those, Weil, Gotshal & Manges (No. 20) and Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson (No. 17) made the first A-List in 2003 — but slid from the ranks last year. They are joined by a pair of first-timers: Cooley Godward (No. 13) and Shearman & Sterling (No. 14).
Four newcomers means that four others had to drop off to make room. Sullivan & Cromwell; Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi; Hughes Hubbard & Reed; and Jenner & Block all saw their status weakened slightly on issues like pro bono or associate satisfaction. When you’re playing in an elite crowd, that’s enough to push you toward the exits. AL crunched the numbers and asked firms about the factors that helped them make the list and what may have kept them off.
What the heck is Cooley Godward doing on The A-List?
This is, after all, a firm that has sliced head count by a third (in part by laying off associates), lost a handful of rainmakers and been the target of a steady stream of “they’re-going-to-merge” rumors.
The answer, it appears, lies in the Palo Alto, Calif.–based firm’s willingness to open up to lawyers about the firm’s financial issues and merger negotiations. One of the darlings of the dot-com boom, Cooley was the first Silicon Valley firm to publicly lay off lawyers after the tech bubble burst. When it did, associate morale headed south. So did head count: The firm has 418 lawyers today, compared to 628 in 2001.
Cooley Chairman and CEO Stephen Neal says that the way management handled the cuts and their fallout helped strengthen associate morale over the long term. “When we did the layoffs, we were very open and candid about it,” says Neal. “We continued to be forthright about where we were headed.”