Which Are The 30 Most Prestigious Law Firms . . Anywhere?

Which Are The 30 Most Prestigious Law Firms . . Anywhere? 2

LawFuel looked at America’s biggest and best law firms to determine which are the most prestigious of all . . Here is the list of 30 of the best law firms to work for

Ben Thomson* Ranking ‘prestige’ when it comes to law firms is a bit like ranking your best movie actor, or favorite upscale store? How do you do it and what are the factors that make a firm ‘prestigious’?

Is it their reputation?

Their practice areas?

Their revenues?

The difficulty for lawyers entering their doors?

The rankings undertaken by some of the top ranking websites like Vault.com or the AmLaw 100 or a site like the top 100 law firms, which will assess law firm rankings based on different factors.

Some will base the ranking of law firms by their peer law firms. After all, lawyers know other lawyers and how good they are, right?

Supposedly.

And based on the Vault law rankings the top law firms are a list of the white shoe law firms that generate the highest fees, secure the biggest clients, pay the most to their associates and partners and – overall – just have that ‘X Factor’ of prestige that prompts a certain respect and head nod from those who mention the name.

So based on a variety of ‘x factor’ considerations we looked at all of the above to come up with the top 30 most prestigious law firms in the United States.

The Top 30 Most Prestigious Law Firms in the United States

1. Cravath Swaine and Moore

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With a long history and a longer list of prestige clients, Cravath Swaine and Moore is in many ways the typical, white shoe Big Law practice.

It tops our list of the most prestigious law firms because of the combination of clients, history, training, pro bono work, remuneration and overall reputation.

This is a firm that specializes in profile litigation and complex M&A and transactional work. With around 600 attorneys and billings of around $800 million Cravaths is not by any means the largest law firm in attorney numbers or revenues and yet it holds a lofty reputation because of its lean and efficient operation, its billings and its work rotation practices that see the firm provide high level mentoring and fast-learning track towards high end work for its attorneys.

The firm has not been one of the top firms that has expanded into multiple markets, but focused on the US with New York and Washington DC offices and a London office.

Law Recruitment Strategy: Cravath Swaine look to hire graduates. The Cravath Scale has set the pace for top law firm associate payments when the firm beat the ‘Simpson Thacher salary scale’ which provided a 12. 5 per cent increase in base salary for lawyers.

2. Sullivan & Cromwell

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Having about the same number of attorneys as the prestige power ranking law leader Cravath Swaine & Moore, Sullivan & Cromwell boasts annual revenue of up to $1.8 billion and has a more generalized law practice.

The firm is spread over eight countries and has a strong focus on building careers for ‘lifers’ who will remain with Sullivan & Cromwell for the duration of their careers.

The firm acts on major transactional, M&A, equity raising and other work globally, acting for some of the largest corporates in the world.

Law Recruitment Strategy: The firm looks to focus its recruitment on graduates with high grades and a commitment to learning under their strong mentoring and educational program. High quality and intense legal work across multiple disciplines ensure wide exposure to various legal practice areas. There is no billing targets.

3. Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz

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Wachtell Lipton is another profile, Big Law firm with a reputation for its aggressive operation in the legal market and also for its stellar remuneration deals.

Another one of the ‘smaller’ of the Big Law firms with fewer than 300 attorneys, it has focused on developing a congenial attitude and like Cravaths has tended to avoid global expansion that has enveloped some of the other of the largest firms who open offices with abandon in multiple jurisdictions.

It is also a ‘new’ firm, having been founded in 1965 and is in the lower ranks of the large law firms, coming in at 152 on a recent National Law Journal’s 2022 NLJ 500 ranking. It has focused on M&A, corporate restructuring and related matters with an astute eye on building its business through top results and high profile transactional and litigation work.

Law Recruitment Strategy: To employ top law students, pay them on a generally above-standard basis with generous bonuses but with hard work and scope to handle serious legal work at an early career stage. Lockstep compensation model.

4. Clifford Chance

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London-based Clifford Chance is one of the ‘Magic Circle’ firms from the UK who have expanded rapidly to become a legal monolith with a high reputation being one of the top ten firms in the world.

It’s prestige ranking is obvious given its size and its work with financial institutions, major corporates, private equity, real estate and more. Having over 2500 lawyers and with revenues nudging $3 billion, this is a powerhouse international law firm. The financial crisis in the late 2000s saw the firm drop its revenues, but the might of Clifford Chance is something that continues to see the firm expand with 34 offices in 23 countries.

Ranking no. 2 on the UK’s Top 100 law firms, the esteem with which Clifford Chance is held is something that continues to attract high attention from clients and graduates alike.

5. Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom

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Skadden Arps was once a Johnny-come-lately law firm that originated form the days when a large degree of anti-Jewish sentiment affected who could enter the major, existing white-shoe law firms.

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But under major legal leaders like Joe Flom (above) the firm became a major M&A powerhouse and has also developed a major reputation for its tax work, with lawyers spread across its 21 offices globally.

This is a big name, big hitting power law firm that now evokes prestige and power as it builds on its strong alumni network, develops an impressive pro bono work ethic and completes some of the biggest deals in the world.

A major prestige law firm.

6. Simpson Thacher & Bartlett

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Another long-established firm, Simson Thacher has also a long history of big deals in M&A, capital markets, private equity and other areas (remember the acquisition of RJR Nabisco in 1988 and catalogued in ‘Barbarians at the Gate’?) as well as a range of major litigation cases. It has also acted for Google, Tesla and a raft of other companies.

With over 1000 lawyers and 11 offices worldwide, the firm has an excellent reputation for generating a good work culture, recruiting top graduates and imbuing them with the Simpson Thacher culture. They had also set the standard for payment of associates until their standard was eclipsed in 2016 by the ‘Cravath Scale’ which took over from Simpson Thacher’s scale.

Law Recruitment Strategy: Top graduates, high level of training and good work culture. As of March 2, 2022, the base salary for first-year Simpson Thacher associates begins at $215,000 and it has consistently been at the very top level of associate salary payments.

7. Latham & Watkins

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Before ‘prestige’ is mention with Latham & Watkins, the other ‘P’ word: ‘Profits’ is more likely to be mentioned when talking about the massively profitably and huge law firm that has offices around the world and a mega-money reputation for its financial success as a serious, heavy-hitting Big Law firm.

With around 3200 lawyers and over 4400 employees in total, the firm is one of the most profitable in the world, with profits per partner exceeding USD4.5 million.

Legal recruitment – Latham Watkins have an ‘unassigned program’ which permits associates to work across the firm’s multiple departments, but with a strong emphasis on letting them find their feet and achieve appropriate support. The firm has generous leave and parental benefits and leave benefits too which has attracted widespread attention. Remuneration is at the top level also.

8. Kirkland & Ellis

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Being one of the richest law firms in the world also makes Kirkland & Ellis one of the most prestigious. The Chicago-based giant firm was the first in the world to shatter the $4 billion revenue barrier and ranks as one of the sixth or seventh largest law firms in the world in terms of number of attorneys.

With all that money sloshing about, the firm is also one of the top-rated Biglaw firms in terms of profits per equity partner (at 151 by number) according to the American Lawyer rankings (generally coming in at around number 3).

The firm handles a vast range of M&A cases globally through its 18 offices globally and has represented clients ranging from General Motors and Blackstone Group and Volkswagen to Jeffrey Epstein. It has a vast private equity practice also with many of its lawyers working the area.

Law firm recruitment – The firm has a hard-working, hard-driven expectation and some top training and over-the-regular bonuses for associates. Generally regarded as both collegial and congenial.

9. Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer

Freshfields

A London-based ‘Magic Circle’ firm with a strong reputation for its work in complex litigation, M&A, regulatory work and cross-border work, the firm has 28 offices globally and over 2000 lawyers and over 4000 professionals working globally, Freshfields has become a major name in global law.

Earning top money and generating several billion in revenues, the firm’s origins extend back to the 18th century.

Recruitment – Having a strong reputation for training and the ability to move within the group network, Freshfields holds high appeal for younger lawyers offering mentoring and major opportunities within its specialist areas.

10. Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP

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A firm founded in 1875 has seen growth to around 1000 lawyers across nine offices globally and with an interesting mix of both clients and attorneys.

Although a diverse, big law firm it has also faced some controversy over the promotion of partners in 2018 all of whom were white.

Diversity has been strong within the firm, which handles a range of corporate, complex litigation, private equity and other work, but the New York-headquartered firm has continued to demonstrate growth in several legal practice areas and to build its legal team wi………………………………

11. Gibson Dunn & Crutcher

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Gibson Dunn is an LA-based law firm with an appropriately West Coast ‘vibe’ and feel. A litigation-focused firm, it has faced some ethical and other concerns over its handling of one case in particular for Facebook but nonetheless there is no questioning the firm’s fervent defense and general litigation work.

It has handled claims for George W Bush over the 2000 US election results, Mark Zuckerberg’s $17 billion contract dispute, the Chevron Ecuadorian environmental battle and numerous claims, many of which have gone to the US Supreme Court.

With over 1400 attorneys spread over 20 offices internationally, Gibson Dunn is a major name in law both in litigation and real estate, intellectual property and other work.

Law firm recruitment – The firm is noted for its flex-time opportunities where associates can pick and choose when and where they work. The pressure to perform remains, but it enjoys a good reputation for its culture and mentoring.

12. Davis Polk Wardwell

A big name in big banking and finance matters, Davis Polk has built its business from New York within a major financial operational sense, expanding to offices abroad and boosting is reputation for major corporate and IP litigation work with a strong emphasis upon pro bono and a congenial and helpful attitude among partners and staff alike.

The firm employs around 1000 attorneys globally and has around $1.8 billion in revenues, making it another of the world’s largest law firms in revenue terms.

The firm does not employ billable targets and although work is hard and at times pressured as with other Big Law firms, it also places an emphasis upon a work-life balance that sees performance at work matched with performance in terms of work satisfaction and healthy lives.

Legal recruitment – With a first year base salary of $215,000 Davis Polk has a lockstep promotional system that is designed to encourage client service and career development, which is soundly supported through the firm’s central staffing structure.

13. Susman Godfrey

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This is one of the best boutique law firms in the world and deserves a ranking on the LawFuel Prestige Law Firm rankings. Founded in 1980 by Steve Susman (pictured) it has become one of the very best litigation law firms in the United States.

With 140 partners it has been named Vault’s #1 litigation boutique in America every year since the awards were given out by Vault in 2011.

Handling high stakes commercial litigation the firm continues to pave the way for others to follow with top work for top clients, including successful legal action against Google, another against Amazon and a range of other successful actions.

Law recruitment strategy: Taking top graduates in particular those from federal judicial clerkships where almost all of the employees of the firm have served. It also pays handsomely, handing out some of the biggest associate bonuses available.

14. Sidley Austin

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Another Chicago-based firm with a long history, Sidley Austin has had ups and downs (being punished in the Depression and again with the Savings & Loan crisis among other events, the firm is nonetheless a major force internationally with 2000 attorneys spread over 20 offices and generating around $3billion in revenues. Notably, both Barack and Michelle Obama are Sidley Austin alumni.

It is without doubt one of the world’s largest law firms, nudging the top 10 in size, and recognized for its international trade and securities work, but offering full corporate, litigation and financial legal services.

Law recruitment strategy: Sidley Austin enjoys a pleasant, midwestern culture and has an extensive program to help associates progress their career with the firm, including providing a range of professional development initiatives, a strong pro bono commitment and a major leadership program that has won awards.

15. Hogan Lovells

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The US-UK legal giant was formed in 2010 following the merger of Hogan & Hartson and UK-based Lovells and has become one of the world’s largest law firms with 51 offices, including Asia, the Middle East and Pacific, globally and employing 2500 lawyers.

Sitting firmly in the top 10 of the world’s largest firms, it enjoys a reputation for its litigation, arbitration and corporate and IP law work.

An award-winner as a ‘trusted’ law firm, its US-UK strength provides an ability to genuinely create a ‘trans-Atlantic’ presence that translates into major client work and provides a prestigious workplace rating.

Law firm recruitment – the firm was one of the very first to initiate major pro bono efforts and continues strongly to do so, along with diversity initiatives and a pleasant work atmosphere, tempered by an often demanding work schedule. However technology, mentoring and advancement programs assist associates to develop their careers within the firm.

16. Cleary Gottlieb

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New York-based Cleary Gottlieb has a stellar reputation, high revenues (over $1.2 billion), good training and high output. It ranks as one of the top law firms and has done so for many years. Spread over four continents the firm has handled many sovereign government contracts and work, as well as establishing a reputation for its cross-border work too.

It likes to speak os its ‘Cleary culture’ and works towards building intellectual curiosity among its lawyers.

17. Jones Day

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Jones Day took a reputational hit with its work for former president Donald Trump

Jones Day lawyers have also represented the Trump campaign and a related political action committee, although other large firms, including Seyfarth Shaw and Morgan Lewis, distanced themselves from Trump following the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.

The firm however has a long and storied history and built itself into a firm with 42 offices in 17 countries and having a large labor and employment practise, but spanning every sector of litigation and commercial work, consistently scoring well for its client service. Drawing too upon its folksy, mid-Western origins the firm has a good workplace reputation also.

Legal recruitment – The ideal Jones Day candidate usually comes from a T14 school or a law school in the same city as the interviewing office, and has a top academic record although grades are not the be-all and end-all of selection. Average base salary is $190,000.

18. Orrick

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Innovation is the name of the game at Orrick—from the energy and tech clients the firm counsels, to its impactful wellbeing initiatives, to its modern technology tools. Associates who are down to earth, collaborative, and forward thinking will fit right in at this progressive firm.

With offices in over 25 markets across the United States, Europe, and Asia, Orrick is a legal powerhouse with a dedication to pro bono, diversity, and competitive compensation.

Legal recruitment: Orrick have a fine reputation for assisting associates to find their feet with a focus on diversity, innovation and building career momentum. Nearly 40% of the firm’s 2022 class achieved partnership in less than 8.5 years.

They have also been a repeated winner of Fortune Magazine’s and Vault’s best places to work.

19. Baker McKenzie

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Baker McKenzie is one of the most recognized legal big law names in the world and one of the original global law firms – if not THE original.

It has a massive 5000 attorneys spread in every major jurisdiction in the world (77 offices) and has gross revenue of around $3 billion, thus falling behind on the revenue stakes such firms as Kirkland & Ellis, but remaining a major global powerhouse.

It consistenly ranks highly for cross-border M&A and private equity work, tax work and intellectual property work.

Law firm recruitment – As a global firm, Baker McKenzie looks towards those who have a global outlook and often multiple languages, but it also focuses upon top quality graduates, providing great overseas work experience.

20. Williams & Connolly

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Co-founded by the famed litigator Edward Bennett Williams (right) it is no wonder that DC-based Williams & Connolly remain a litigation powerhouse and one of the prestige law firms that any CV will shine for. It operates with up to 400 lawyers working from a single office in DC.

There would be few law firms that have represented high profile US political figures, with the firm having handled the defense of Bill Clinton in his impeachment, as well as representing George W Bush, Barack Obama, Bob Woodward, Dick Cheney and a host of other clients

Legal Recruitment – The firm may favor those who have served in clerkships, but it has a low key collegial atmosphere that encourages autonomy with ‘organic’ mentoring and support, a focus on pro bono work and a non-hierachical structure.

21. Slaughter & May

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London-based Slaughter & May remains a global prestige law firm with a top reputation. Unlike other so-called ‘Magic Circle’ law firms in London it has a low international presence, but has maintained some of the highest profits per equity partner of any firm in the UK, representing a large number of the world’s largest companies and organisations, including advising HM Treasury during the global financial crisis when the government were stablising the position of UK banks.

Profits per equity partner were around £3.1 million in the 2019-2020 year and have almost certainly grown since then, but Slaughter & May does not pubicly disclose its figures.

It is however a firm that holds a large sway in the international business and legal world and holds a deserved place as a leading prestige firm. Unlike the other four members of the ‘Magic Circle’ law firms, Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Linklaters and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Slaughter & May has a certain mystique borne of its own tendency towards keeping a deliberately low profile in the way it markets itself and operates.

It has shunned high-level growth-at-all-costs and instead built a network of ‘best friends’ law firms in multiple jurisdictions

Legal recruitment – Average Slaughter and May Associate yearly pay in London, England is approximately £120,000 and the firm provides a high level of training, good retention and the hard work that characterise the practise.

22. Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, LLP

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The opposite of a stuffy Big Law firm, Quinn Emanuel is a unique combination of casual and ambitious with a reputation as an aggressive (did we say ‘shark’) like approach to its trials. Lawyers who work at this top litigation shop are independent and motivated, with the autonomy to direct their workloads and the drive to tackle intense hours for complex matters—all while wearing jeans and flip flops (if they so choose).

Quinn Emanuel attorneys are treated to a fully remote, work-from-anywhere policy, and have significant opportunities to work in any of their international offices.

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Legal recruitment – Quinn Emanuel has a hard-playing, hard-working environment where it encourages its attorneys to travel – but stay connected – as per a recent email from chief John Quinn (left) who provided $2000 to the team to spend anywhere. The firm starts its associates at $215,000 and the firm encourages its US lawyers to work from anywhere in the country they like – so long as they do their best work.

23. Allen & Overy

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London-based Allen & Overy has continued to build its reputation for being one of the large law firms that has worked effectively to build its innovative programs and other advances in the legal field, making it an attractive, innovative law firm. Among the developments has been Aosphere, an online subscription program and Fuse, a collaborative workspace for legal, tech and other specialists to develop new businesses and applications.

24. Cooley

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Cooley is something of a ‘cool’ firm in that it acts for many early-stage and entrepreneurial companies, including those in science and technology and representing some cutting-edge firms that provide an ‘edge’ to many of the more convential public clients on offer with major law firms.

The go-to firm for startups and early-stage companies, Cooley is ideal for those seeking cutting-edge work with innovative clients. The firm is also known for its work with life science and technology companies.

Cooley has a highly social culture in 17 worldwide offices that will no doubt appeal to affable personalities, and boasts a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion.

25. Paul Hastings LLP

Consistently among the top law firms for quality of life, Paul Hastings prioritizes associate mentorship, training, and long-term career development. Lawyers seeking an amiable, collaborative atmosphere where hard work and client service are valued will likely be a good fit at the firm.

There’s no shortage of challenging legal matters to tackle, but the attorneys at Paul Hastings step up to the plate to produce excellence, while maintaining a relaxed culture and a good work-life balance.

26. DLA Piper

A powerful legal brand and one of the largest law firms in the world with revenues of $3.5 billion and 3900 lawyers, DLA Piper is a password for legal power and ‘reach’.

It also makes the prestigious list of law firms because it seeks to achieve around 2000 billable hours yearly and has a strong but collegiate firm feel within an environment providing major practise opportunities across its 13 specialist areas.

The firm’s growth globally with 90 offices is a result of its origins of merger and acquisition. It  was formed from U.K. firm DLA, Chicago/Baltimore-based Piper Rudnick, and California’s Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich with a clammer of developments since.

Legal recruitment – Although the firm takes lawyers from non-rated and top-rated law schools the size and nature of the firm will always focus more upon well qualified individuals. However there is an egalitarian nature to DLA Piper that sees lawyers from all walks of life performing very well and with ability.

27. Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP

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With close to 1000 lawyers and 20 offices, Akin Gump has built a solid reputation for its work, including in how it treats its staff and its pro bono work output.

A relatively recent arrival in the Big Law ranks, the firm was founded in Texas, where it remains headquartered, by two former FBI agents Richard Gump and Robert Strauss (below).

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The firm has grown to become a full service commercial firm with a focus on antitrust; commercial litigation; communications and information technology; corporate; cybersecurity, privacy, and data protection; energy and related legal areas including building its reputation as a leading lobbying practise.

Legal recruitment – The firm is non-hierarchical, takes on over 100 summer associates annually and has a base starting salary over well over $200,000. It has a reputation for being social and with a keen emphasis on its ‘Be Well’ program.

28. White & Case

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White & Case is a top 10 law firm with its 46 offices worldwide and its revenues and overall clout.

With a strong reputation in international arbitration work, White & Case has handled massive infrastructure project disputes and other areas, but remains a full service law firm with heavy duty attorneys and clients alike.

Perhaps the most international of all the big law firms, it has clients and lawyers from just about every country in the world, offering major opportunities to work in its specialist areas, such as cross-border work, public law and arbitration work.

Legal Recruitment – a diverse culture and different practice groups and cultural diversity make White & Case a standout when it comes to working with a firm that provides maximum opportunity combined with maximum diversity.

29. Ropes & Gray

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A legal leader for many years, Ropes & Gray is a Boston-based blue blood firm with an impressive commitment to both its pro bono and overall diversity and employee satisfaction to its work on a range of legal areas that include private equity and asset management, health care, life sciences, private equity, and technology. 

Apart from its expertise and culture, Ropes & Gray prides itself on its ability to retain and to ‘re-attract’ attorneys, with many returning to work with the firm, the so-called ‘re-attorneys’. Unsurprisingly, it consistently achieves good rankings as the firm to work for.

Legal recruitment – The firm’s GO (“Global Opportunities”) program offers firm lawyers the opportunity to work in a new city at one of the firm’s other offices or temporarily for one of the firm’s clients

30. Morgan Lewis & Bockius

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A heavyweight in the pro bono and labor and employment area, Morgan Lewis is a Philadelphia-based operation with over 2200 lawyers and with 30 offices globally the full-service firm has a lot of expertise and ‘grunt’ behind it.

Providing wide ranging mentoring and employment opportunities, the firm grew from its early East Coast roots to become a major power in litigation, technology, regulatory and multi-jurisdictional transactional work.

It also comes with a high reputation for its attorney and overall staff welfare.

Legal recruitment – MLB has a sociable, friendly and supportive culture that always sits well with those seeking to work with them. Starting salaries commence at $160,000 with bonuses matching other Big Law firms.

Why Revenues And Head Counts Are Not Everything When It Comes to Prestige

It’s easy to look at the revenue lists, or the number of lawyers employed by law firms to assess what should be regarded as ‘prestigious’, but that avoids some of the key criteria that we look at – reputation, training, pedigree, diversity, pro bono input, client-type and more.

After all, in revenue terms the list would be simple as Wikipedia will tell you:

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The ranking of large law firms will always take into account a variety of factors, but one might be the Big Law salary scale that we have reported here, but also the factors such as overall revenues, diversity issues, associate rankings etc.

We have tried here to isolate all those factors and to include the prestige law firm ‘X factor’ that will cement the role and power of a particular law firm by its overall attractiveness, effectiveness and power.

Author

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Ben Thomson has written extensively about law firm business and marketing, including for LawFuel and may be contacted at [email protected].

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