The Law Firm World According to Associates

One criticism of Vault’s annual ranking of the top 100 most prestigious law firms is that the ranking and review company surveys associates, not partners, says editor Matt Moody.

“Firms may criticize our methodology and say associate views are not credible, but I disagree with that,” said Moody, in an interview following Vault’s release on Thursday of its annual ranking of this year’s most prestigious firms.

Associates “work for these firms; they have friends who are working for these firms,” Moody said. “They are in deals or cases and are going up against these firms.”

The Vault 100, founded in 1997, gauges which law firms are perceived to be the most prestigious so that law students and other lawyers seeking employment can learn which firms they should interview with.

It’s also a source of debate in the legal industry, given that there are winners and losers. The results of the ranking, Moody believes, can affect a law firm’s ability to recruit.

“I think that by having a high prestige rank in the Vault rankings, it will get more people to consider the firm than if it’s a lower ranked firm,” he said.

So this week, it mattered when Vault released its annual rankings, based on a survey of nearly 18,000 law firm associates.

In the 2017 rankings, Cravath ranked No. 1 as the most prestigious law firm, followed by two New York centric law firms: Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, ranking No. 2, and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, at No. 3.

Those firms have historically commanded some of the most premium deal work and litigation.

Moody noted in a press release announcing the rankings that Cravath edged out Wachtell last year as the most prestigious firm — a spot it retained this year — and pointed to Cravath’s salary raises for associates in 2016.

“Associates clearly haven’t forgotten that the firm is responsible for industry-wide associate raises last year,” said Moody, in a statement. Vault said that one survey respondent even commented, “Thank God for the Cravath pay scale!”

The survey, which is released annually, asked associates to rate law firms on a scale of 1 to 10 based on prestige. They were not allowed to rate their own firms and were asked to only rate firms they knew, according to Vault.

Despite its objective criteria, the ranking has nonetheless ruffled a few feathers, as news outlets cover the rankings and draw conclusions.

“Industry-wide there is criticism of us being prestige obsessed,” said Moody. “My answer to that is if you start and finish your research by just looking at the Vault 100 then you are certainly doing yourself a disservice in your career search. We will do deeper research… profiles of the firms and publishing quotes directly from associates about how it’s like to work for the firm and career outlook.”

 

The Results 

It was recently noted in The New York Times that the law firm of the longtime lawyer for Donald Trump — and his go-to legal advisor in the Russia probe — entered the Top 100 prestige ranking after being a no show last year, taking the No. 99 most prestigious firm, according to Vault.

This was the law firm Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman, run by bulldog lawyer Marc Kasowitz.

Could his firm’s ascension on the ranking be the result of all the press surrounding Kasowitz, given his recent emergence in the international media scene?

As the Times noted, the survey was taken in the spring, before Kasowitz was named as the president’s personal lawyer. That said, there had already been some press coverage then about Kasowitz’s role as Trump’s longtime advisor.

Moody said that the ranking offers “no direct insight” into why law firms ranked where they did.

“The ranking is based solely on the scores that associates at peer firms give,” he said. “If a firm moves up or down a significant amount, we can take guesses sometimes, but we don’t have any more insight than anyone else.”

With that in mind, other new entrants of the ranking this year were Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, a large Atlanta-based law firm created by a series of mergers including the 2011 merger between Kilpatrick Stockton and Townsend and Townsend and Crew (No. 91); Troutman Sanders, also of Atlanta (No. 96), Seattle’s Davis Wright Tremaine (No. 98) and Philadelphia’s Ballard Spahr (No. 100).

Those five spots were opened up by three firms falling off the Top 100 ranking — Bracewell, Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler and Keker & Van Nest — and two other firms merging to create room for new entrants: Arnold & Porter and Kaye Scholer’s merger to create Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer and Norton Rose Fulbright and Chadbourne & Parke’s announced merger this year.

Below is a quick interview Big Law Business conducted with Moody about the rankings. It has been edited for clarity and brevity.

 

Big Law Business: Who uses these rankings and what are their value? 

Moody: Law students are the biggest part of our audience. We also cater to lateral candidates. But when a law student wants to decide which law firms to interview with, they really don’t have a lot of insight into the industry. We think the prestige rankings gives students a good place to start regarding which firms are perceived to be the best.

 

Big Law Business: Can you speak to what kind of blow back you have received from these rankings?

 

Moody: Firms may criticize our methodology and say associate views are not credible, but I disagree with that. They work for these firms; they have friends who are working for these firms. They are in deals or cases and are going up against these firms. They have a view of which firms are good and bad and understand the prestige in the market. They see which firms are getting the big cases and deals and which ones aren’t. I think the associates do have a view about what the firms are like.

Most every firm that is not ranked No. 1 would like to be higher on the list. The firms in the 50s might want to be in the 30s. A top 10 firm might want to be a top 5 firm. Certainly when a firm falls significantly in the rankings, they are not pleased, but they can generally point to a reason why and they often know more about that than we do.

 

Big Law Business: Why don’t you survey partners as well?

Moody: We want to get a view of what it’s like to be an associate at the firm. The model for most firms is that most of the associates aren’t even going to make partner. We want them to know what it’s like to work there — whether they do want a good shot at making it. We view the partner market as being just totally different.

 

Big Law Business: What’s the business model of Vault?

Moody: Law schools are subscribers. All the top 14 law schools and most of the top 25 and law schools beyond that.  When they subscribe they get access to certain content is behind a paywall. And so, when a law school subscribes, their students can get access to all the content we have. The major thing that’s behind the paywall is the associate feedback: the quotes about what it’s like to work at the firm. And individuals can purchase subscriptions and we see lateral candidates doing that.

 

Big Law Business: How would you say a firm’s spot on Vault’s prestige ranking affects business and recruiting for the firm?

Moody: The reason firms participate in our survey is because we have proven to be the most valuable third-party resource for law students when they are researching firms. So they participate in the survey because they want to be able to reach those students.

I think that by having a high prestige rank in the Vault rankings, it will get more people to consider the firm than if it’s a lower ranked firm.

This year the only firm that ranks in the top 50 that did not participate is Goodwin, which is ranked No. 49. Every other top firm participated. There are also a number of others in the Top 100 [that did not participate].

[A Goodwin spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.]

 

Write to Big Law Business at biglawbusiness@bna.com.

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