America’s Largest Law Firms Keep Getting Larger

law-firm-12086-largeEven with a seemingly endless stream of stories in the lawyer press about lay-offs at large corporate firms, the largest law firms in the United States continue to grow larger and larger.

In the National Law Journal’s recently released list of the 350 largest law firms in the United States, two Chicago-based law firms have broken through the 4000 lawyer barrier. DLA Piper leads the list with 4036 lawyers while Baker and McKenzie is close behind at 4004.

There is a considerable gap between these two firms and the next largest firm, although three law firms–Jones Day (New York), Hogan Lovells (Washington, D.C.), and Latham & Watkins–each have more than 2000 attorneys. An additional 17 firms had more than 1000.

In spite of the leap upward by DLA Piper and Baker and McKenzie, the overall growth of the top 350 was quite sluggish with only a 1.1% increase in total size since 2011. (The 2013 ranking are based on 2012 employment numbers.) Nine of the 21 largest firms are actually smaller now than a year ago and a 10th firm is exactly the same size. DLA Piper, in contrast, grew by 7.7% as it added 290 additional lawyers. However, much of its growth game through the acquisition of other law firms including firms in France and Australia.

Six Milwaukee firms made the list of 350. The top five combined declined by a single lawyer over the last year. The six are, with their national ranking:

31. Foley and Lardner (872 lawyers, down 2 from the previous year)

107. Quarles & Brady (413, same as the previous year)

202. Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren (203, up 1 lawyer)

207. Michael Best & Friedrich (198, up 2 lawyers)

233. Godfrey & Kahn (170, down 2 lawyers)

309. (5-way tie) Whyte Hirshboeck Dudek (130 lawyers, new to the list)

Even when the economy is sluggish, the dramatic growth in the size of corporate law firms, especially the largest firms, relentlessly continues. This phenomenon has been one of the most significant developments in the legal profession over the past four decades.

When I was in law school in the fall of 1976, I had an interview with the Nashville firm of Bass, Berry, and Sims. At the time, it was the largest law firm in the city of Nashville with a grand total of 17 lawyers. Today, the firm is still the largest law firm in Nashville, but it now has more than 200 lawyers (even though it did not choose to offer one of those positions to me).

I also remember, sometime around 1980, how amazed observers of the legal profession were that the Houston law firm of Fulbright & Jaworski (now Norton Rose Fulbright) had passed the 400 lawyer mark, something that had been unthinkable only a decade or two earlier. Now Piper has passed the 4000 lawyer mark.

Where this ends, nobody seems to know, but can the 10,000 lawyer firm be that far away? Of course, when this happens it will more likely be the result of a series of mergers rather than through entry level hiring.


This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Matt Mitten

    The fact that large firms are growing by merger and lateral movements of attorneys reflects the increasing demand for lawyers with specialized expertise and experience. When I was associated with Atlanta-based Kilpatrick & Cody in the late 1980s, the firm had approximately 100 lawyers (5-6 of us specialized in trademark and unfair competition law). Now the firm (currently known as Kilpatrick, Townsend & Stockton) has approximately 500 lawyers, roughly 175 of whom specialize in trademark and unfair competition law.

  2. Emanuel Harris

    I think this is a real eye opener. I also agree with the fact the reason why these law firms are getting bigger and bigger are because of the increased demand for lawyers that know what they’re doing.

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