Revenues per lawyer were up 9.6 per cent. Profits outpaced everyone else in the US law firm’s top 10. Equity partners enjoyed profits up by 20 per cent. So how come all this bankrupcy work makes Kirkland + Ellis so profitable?

Kirkland & Ellis has always been among the nation’s most profitable law firms, but 2002 was a bell-ringer. The equity partners at the Chicago law firm saw their profits jump 20 percent last year, to an average of $1.8 million, according to a closely watched annual survey of the nation’s largest firms by American Lawyer magazine.

Kirkland is the fifth most profitable law firm in the nation, as ranked by profits per partner, moving up five spots in the rankings. Its revenue per lawyer, another key measure of financial performance, rose 9.6 percent, to $800,000.

Its profit and revenue growth outpaced everyone in the top 10, as Kirkland benefited from a flourishing bankruptcy practice while other firms continued to feel the slowdown in mergers and acquisitions work.

Bill Kirsch, co-chairman of Kirkland’s finance committee, credited the firm’s balanced practice areas for its success. The firm has about 765 lawyers, who practice in five core groups: corporate, litigation, intellectual property, tax and bankruptcy.

As is typical in any economic downturn, corporate bankruptcies and reorganizations increase, and Kirkland picked up more than its fair share of work.

Some of Kirkland’s larger bankruptcy clients include United Airlines parent UAL Corp. and insurer Conseco Inc., both of which filed for Chapter 11 protection late last year.

Big-time bankruptcies like these can be big moneymakers for outside attorneys.