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The National Law Journal released its annual NLJ 500 rankings, which analyzes headcount data on the nation’s largest 500 law firms. According to the report, the number of lawyers in the NLJ 500 grew 2.5% in 2018 to 169,477, and the average firm size rose by eight lawyers last year to 339. By comparison, the NLJ 500 grew by 1% in 2017 and by about 2% in 2016. Partnerships expanded by just over 1% last year, driven by nonequity partnership growth of 3.8% in 2018, the report also revealed.

According to the report, three firms in the top ten saw upward movement including Latham & WatkinsKirkland & Ellis, and Morgan Lewis. New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston were the top cities with the most lawyers in this year’s NLJ 500. Additionally, one group that showed unexpected growth in the 2019 NLJ 500 was the category of “other” lawyers, which encompasses counsel, senior attorneys, of counsel and staff attorneys. This cohort showed a net gain of 1,171 lawyers—up 6.4% in 2018. That’s compared to a net gain of 99 lawyers, or just 0.5%, in 2017.

“The 2019 NLJ 500 tells the story of more growth in 2018 than we saw in the previous two years,” said Lisa Helem, Editor-in-Chief, The National Law Journal. “Overall, the 2019 NLJ 500 findings, especially at the top of the list, along with profit increases for much of the Am Law 200, reflect an industry enjoying rising demand and faster growth. The average head count increase—still in the low single digits—is a far cry from the 4% or 5% growth firms saw in the pre-recession period from 2005 to 2008. But given the ugly contraction that followed, there’s something to be said for this year’s more modest gains,” (as quoted in The National Law Journal).

See more highlights from NLJ 500 rankings on The National Law Journal.

Contact Bill Sugarman for more information.

Finding a foothold in the Chicago market isn’t as easy for the elite ‘big law’ firms as they might like to believe, reports Claire Bushey of Crain’s Chicago.

The article looks at three national firms that had big aspirations for growth upon their respective moves to Chicago: Paul Hastings, Ropes & Gray, and Morgan Lewis & Bockius.  New York-based Paul Hastings, for example, opened its Chicago doors in 2006, initially recruiting top partner talent and reporting goals of a 100+ lawyer office.  Ten years later, the office boasts of only 42 attorneys.  Former managing partner of the office, Rick Chesley, says that its the tough Chicago competition that forces firms to really consider their client base: “If you haven’t thought about who your clients are, who you’re going to compete with…you’re going to fail,” he said (as quoted in Crain’s).

Similarly, Boston-based Ropes & Gray opened eight years ago with predictions of a 100-lawyer headcount within two years.  The Chicago office has only 64 attorneys to date–a stark contrast to their London office, which went from 2 attorneys at their 2010 opening to 129 today.

Anthony Nasharr, Managing Partner of the Chicago office of Polsinelli, believes that firms looking to expand into Chicago need to be “chasing work characteristic to the city, like agribusiness or financial services” (as quoted in Crain’s).  Polsinelli, a firm headquartered in Kansas City, has proven that they have the right approach for Chicago growth, successfully growing their six-attorney starter office to almost 100 in just eight years.  Nasharr also notes that a new Chicago office requires strong support from their headquarters to help the office thrive–like supplying the funds to bring on quality lateral partners.  Much Shelist Managing Partner Mitchell Roth agrees that the need for good talent is critical to success in any major market, but argues that acquiring that talent can prove difficult: “To open a five-person office and expand to 100 in one or two years, when everyone’s trying to buy the exact same talent?  It’s next to impossible,” he says (as quoted in Crain’s).

Despite the difficulties, six out-of-town firms merged with Chicago firms last year–more than in any other city, Crain’s reports.  However, former Kirkland & Ellis partner Steven Harper warns the newcomers not to be fooled into thinking their high-profile reputations will be their be-all, end-all for attracting clients: “These firms believe that…clients will flock to the brand.  Well, maybe not.  Probably not,” he cautions (as quoted in Crain’s).