Legal Career Update:’s Annual Survey of the Top Law Firms for 2012

Associates have spoken, and their voices are loud and clear: it’s not about size, it’s not about number of offices, and it’s certainly not about a fancy website—it’s all about Wachtell.”

In its ninth year on top, Wachtell has kept its title as the King of law firm prestige: the firm has once again clinched the No. 1 spot on the Vault Law 100. Released today, Vault’s annual law firm prestige rankings are based on responses from thousands—approximately 16,000—of law firm associates across the globe. This year, didn’t bring any surprises at the top of the rankings, as the trifecta of Wachtell, Cravath and Sullivan & Cromwell maintained the top spots as the three most prestigious firms. Rounding out the top ten is a familiar bunch:

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. Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton 
9. Kirkland & Ellis 
10. Covington & Burling.

In fact, the only differences in this year’s top ten as compared to last year are Cleary’s jump from No. 9 to No. 8 and the exit of Williams & Connolly, whose spot was grasped by Kirkland & Ellis—a firm that has returned to the top ten after dropping out in last year’s rankings.

Turning to the bottom 90, below are some of the noteworthy trends from this year’s rankings:

What’s in a Name?

Two of the biggest drops in this year’s Vault Law 100 came from Hogan Lovells and SNR Denton. The firms underwent transatlantic mergers in 2010, resulting in name changes for both. Hogan & Hartson—ranked 28 last year—merged with Lovells—ranked 77 last year—to create Hogan Lovells, while Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal—ranked 64 last year—merged with Denton Wilde Sapte to create SNR Denton. From the perspective of Hogan Lovells’ Hogan contingent, the firm dropped more than 20 spots and out of the Top 50, moving to No. 51. Likewise, SNR Denton plummeted in the rankings, dropping out of the top 100 altogether.

Did these firms’ name changes impact their rankings? Firm branding has been front-and-center recently with a growing number of mergers and the trend toward one-name monikers, bringing even more focus to firms’ images. Vault will obviously be keeping an eager eye out for how these firms are perceived in the 2013 rankings once they settle into their new identities a bit more.

Recession Rally

Latham may have fallen from grace when it dropped out of the top 10 to No. 17 in 2010. But the firm is continuing to put its recession woes behind and rebuild its reputation. Last year, the firm moved up to No. 15, and this year, the firm nestled in at No. 11, a comfortable spot to peer into the top 10 and plot a potential breakthrough in the 2013 rankings. Following the same trend is Cadwalader, which moved up 11 spots this year from 44 to 33 after having dropped from 26 to 60 a few years ago. Like Latham, Cadwalader looks ready to pounce back on its old ranking. Time will tell whether associates will put recessionary layoffs aside and reinstate these firms to their past prestige.

Litigation Leapers

Proving that their recent success in the rankings stems from more than just luck, litigation-focused firms Quinn Emanuel and Boies Schiller continued their impressive scrambles up the Vault Law 100 this year. Quinn, which jumped from No. 43 in 2010 to No. 19 in 2011 landed at No. 16 this year, while Boies shimmied into the top 20, settling in at No. 17 from its spot at 23 last year. With the recent rise in litigation-focused firms creating interesting career path options for fledgling attorneys, these firms seem to be getting their share of the spotlight. See what a casual dress code or Cravath pedigree can do?

Big Moves

While small shifts are customary and expected, several firms caught associates’ attention this year, making some significant jumps in the rankings. Cahill plowed its way into the top 50, moving from 65 to 48. Two other firms to join the top 50 this year are DLA Piper, which moved from 53 to 45 and Bingham McCutchen, which took its place at No. 49 from 56. Other big shifts include: Dewey & LeBoeuf’s moving 10 spots from 47 to 37, Dickstein Shapiro’s 17-spot leap from 97 to 80, Blank Rome’s move from 92 to 81, and Bracewell & Giuliani’s jump from 93 to 83.

Hello & Goodbye

Several firms that didn’t make the cut last year broke into the Top 100 this year, joining the club of the most prestigious law firms, including:

• Drinker Biddle at 95
• Pepper Hamilton at 96
• Littler Mendelson at 97
• Kelley Drye at 99
• Foley Hoag at 100

But the Top 100 also bid adieu to a few firms. In addition to SNR Denton, Fenwick & West also exited the Top 100.

Looking for more rankings action? Vault has more to come in the weeks ahead – with release of their rankings on Diversity, Top Law Firms by Region, Best Firms to Work for and more. They’ve also got firm profiles, providing new, juicy insider tidbits each week (watch out for those releases on our twitter stream: @VaultLaw).

This post is authored by Mary Kate Sheridan,’s law editor.  She covers legal news and trends relating to top law firms, law schools and the general legal industry. In search of a practical use for her writing, she wound up on the liberal arts path often-traveled: law school. After law school, she worked as a litigation associate in a large New York law firm. Mary Kate holds a BA in English from Mary Washington College and a JD from Columbia Law School.    

You can view the rankings by clicking on the following link:  2012 Vault Law 100.