If You’re Gunning For a Top Law Firm….

The fall recruiting season is just around the corner and, with on-campus interviewing looming, law students fortunate enough to have choices these days, are trying to compare apples — and assess different legal employment opportunities. If you want more information about the most prestigious law firms, the external perception of law firms from the associate standpoint, and the criteria considered by candidates when evaluating law firms, then this post is for you!

Vault.com, the source of ratings, rankings and insight for law students and lawyers, has released its annual Top 100 Law Firm Rankings. For the eighth straight year, Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, regarded by law firm associates as “the pinnacle of the profession,” has captured the top spot.

Vault’s rankings, are a valuable resource for law students, associates, partners and law firm recruiters, and provide a detailed perspective on the criteria considered by candidates when evaluating law firms. From January through April, more than 15,000 law associates rated law firms on a scale of 1 to 10 based on prestige (associates were not allowed to rate their own firms, and were asked to only rate firms with which they were familiar).

The Top 10 firms based on Vault’s Annual Law Firm Associate Survey are:

1. Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz
2. Cravath, Swaine & Moore
3. Sullivan & Cromwell
4. Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom
5. Davis Polk & Wardwell
6. Simpson Thacher & Bartlett
7. Weil, Gotshal & Manges
8. Williams & Connolly
9. Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton
10. Covington & Burling

“For Wachtell to rank anywhere other than No. 1 would be a shock,” said Brian Dalton, managing editor at Vault.com. “The firm seems to be in a zone of its own: the most profitable, most selective and, by widespread consensus, the most prestigious.” (The profitability factor at Wachtell is no small thing, as evidenced by some entertaining recent posts about Wachtell’s lucrative retirement benefits in Above the Law and The National Law Journal).

Wachtell has maintained a stranglehold on the top spot since upending Cravath in 2003. Cravath had been No. 1 from 1997 to 2002, but what set Wachtell apart, even rivals concede, is that no other firm quite does what Wachtell does. Survey respondents call the law powerhouse “the James Bond of litigation,” “the one to beat,” and “the best firm in NYC, period, full stop.”

On what sets the firm apart, one Wachtell associate speaks for many of his peers: “The substantive experience from Day 1. The people, who are without a doubt the most brilliant and hard-working group I have ever been among. Not having to worry at all about my job – and in fact receiving a handsome bonus – in a terrible economy.”

Since Vault began to survey law firm associates 13 years ago, Wachtell, Cravath, and Sullivan & Cromwell have traditionally had a monopoly on the Top 3 spots. In fact, New York City firms dominate the Top Ten, holding on to eight spots. Only Williams & Connolly (No. 8) and Covington & Burling (No. 10) have managed to join the New York powerhouses, highlighting a possible D.C. surge; the result of administration connections and wide-ranging regulatory reform on Capitol Hill.

Quinn Emmanuel Surge Highlights Ascension of Litigation-Focused Firms

Quinn Emmanuel has consistently moved up in Vault’s prestige rankings, surging from No. 43 in 2008 to No. 19 in 2011. Other litigation-focused firms on the rise in the Vault rankings include Williams & Connolly (No. 14 in 2010; No. 8 in 2011) and Boies, Schiller & Flexner (No. 46 in 2009; No. 23 in 2011).

“As the Great Recession is well into its litigation phase, litigation boutiques are increasingly competing with the large full-service firms for the top law student talent,” said Dalton. “Quinn Emmanuel’s meteoric rise through our rankings reflects the growing success and impact of the boutique model industry-wide.”

Other associates predict Quinn Emmanuel “will be the template from which future litigation firms are hewed.”

In addition to prestige rankings, Vault.com also features individual profiles of each law firm that provide readers with an insider’s perspective, revealing information on compensation, culture, training, diversity, and other pros and cons of associate life, as well as “The Buzz,” external perceptions of each firm.

If you want to see more on this, check out the Top Law Firm Rankings.

Tune into our podcast, Law School Rankings: What Do the Numbers Mean? to hear more from Vault.com’s Brian Dalton.