So who are the best firms in America? The American Lawyer has 20 firms excelling due to revenue, pro bono, associate satisfaction, diversity. But money alone doesn’t make you one of the new elite.

The American Lawyer’s A-List is a carefully weighted ranking based on AL’s surveys of The Am Law 200, the highest-grossing U.S.- headquartered firms. The top 20 firms — the top 10 percent — made The A-List, a ranking we called the new elite, or the top tier. Many of the firms that made the list applauded the idea. Those who missed either tried harder, didn’t care, or wished the list would just go away.

It was a harder list to make the cut for the American Lawyer A-List. The cutoff was 19 points higher. There were 15 returning firms and five new ones. Eight climbed into the top 50. This is not a huge turnover for a group that tends to find its own level, but it gives real hope to the aspiring and caution to the complacent.

As we said a year ago, our Am Law 100 and 200 financial reports should not be the only standard for a self-respecting profession. Instead, we sought a list of core professional values-values that lawyers proclaim as their own-that we could assess objectively. We found four: successful law practices; pro bono performance; decent treatment and development of young lawyers; and diversity of workplace. As it happens, we already measure each of those qualities over the course of the year. Specifically, the standards are:

Revenue per lawyer RPL is both a fair measure of the success of a firm’s practice and a surrogate for client quality and satisfaction. Important clients can retain any firm; their willingness to pay top dollar is a rough measure of what they think a firm is worth. The rankings come from our July and August 2004 issues.

Pro bono Providing high-quality, free legal services to the poor and to organizations that serve the poor is a bedrock professional value. We ask firms to report their activities each year, and we rank them by a formula that includes both per capita hours and the number of firm lawyers who performed at least 20 hours of service annually.

Associate satisfaction Training and developing the next generation of lawyers is one of the profession’s key missions. To assess how firms fulfill that duty, we survey third- and fourth-year (midlevel) associates every Spring. We score the firms using the answers from their junior lawyers. The associate rankings come from our October 2003 issue.

Diversity Each fall our sibling publication The National Law Journal conducts a census of law firms to prepare its NLJ 250 list. From that data, another of our publications, The Minority Law Journal, compiles a diversity scorecard, which ranks the firms on percentage of minority lawyers. The rankings we used for The A-List were published in the MLJ’s Spring 2004 issue.

In each survey, each firm was ranked, usually one to 200. For The A-List, we assigned a point total for each of those ranks. For example, the firm that finished first in revenue per lawyer received 200 points; the firm that finished last received one point. On the pro bono, associate and diversity surveys, firms that did not participate did not receive any points. From the raw scores, we used a weighted formula to compile the A-List rankings. We doubled the scores for both revenue per lawyer and pro bono and added them to the scores from the associate satisfaction and diversity surveys. (Expressed as a formula, it would be: [RPL score x 2] + [PB score x 2] + AS score + D score = Total Score.) Then we ranked the firms by their total scores. The top 20 form The A-List.

Our weighting system makes a value judgment. As we said last year, we think that revenue per lawyer-as a reflection of the health of a firm’s practice and its success at serving clients-and pro bono work are the most important of the four categories. We think that a firm’s primary duty is to its clients-both its paying and needy ones.

These rankings are a measure of firms as firms. This is not a tally of who has the best lawyers. But it signals to clients which firms are the true leaders of the profession. It is a guide for recruits and laterals seeking to join the profession’s elite. And it is a scorecard for the firms themselves. We mean this to be a challenge to the also-rans. Full rankings are posted at

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