Is BigLaw Reviving?

April 29th, 2013 / By

The American Lawyer has published the Am Law 100, its annual list of America’s highest revenue generating law firms. The accompanying article, titled “Spring Awakening,” suggests that BigLaw may have turned the tide to better times. The subtitle, in fact, states: “The Am Law 100’s modest gains hint that a fundamental recovery is taking root.”

BigLaw may be stabilizing, but the numbers don’t suggest any recovery in hiring levels for new associates. Revenue increases are modest, and headcount rose a miserly 0.8% over the last year. A detailed analysis of firm billing, meanwhile, declares that “[t]he most endangered species in The Am Law 100 appears to be the junior associate.”


Gross revenue among the Am Law 100 increased 3.4% in 2012. Inflation, however, was 1.7%, which accounts for half of the increase. Average revenue per lawyer, meanwhile, increased just 2.6%, not much faster than inflation.

Profits per partner, notably, rose more than any other indicator. Those profits increased an average of 4.2%. Those increases make partners happy but, when partners take more than their share of gross revenue, there’s less money for hiring or compensating new lawyers.

Junior Associates

The day after publishing its Am Law 100 list, The American Lawyer released details of a study underscoring the decline of junior lawyers at those firms. The study analyzed a sample of bills submitted to BigLaw clients over the last three years. In 2010, those bills included hours billed by 3,322 junior lawyers (those with less than three years of experience). In 2012, the number of timekeepers in that category was just 2,327–a thirty percent decline.

The report notes that BigLaw clients have resisted paying for junior lawyers’ time, but finds that fact an unlikely explanation for a decline of this size. An associate would appear in this study even if the firm billed just a single hour of her time. It’s unlikely that any firm wrote off an entire year of work by a junior associate. The junior associates who did appear in the billing records, moreover, billed more time than midlevel or senior associates.

Instead, the most likely explanation for the decline is that firms have not been replacing entry-level lawyers. They are shifting work to staff attorneys, contract attorneys, and outsourcing firms. Or, when they hire new associates, they may be seeking ones who already have three years of experience.

Client Demand

The analysis of billing records reveals another grim fact: The large clients represented in the study hired BigLaw firms for fewer hours in 2012 than in 2011. In 2011 these clients bought 4.4 million hours from the studied firms; in 2012, they purchased just 4.3 million. That’s still significantly higher than the 3.7 million hours billed in 2010, but a dip between 2011 and 2012 does not bode well–especially for law students seeking associate positions at these firms. BigLaw clients may be handling more work in-house, solving problems through other means, hiring smaller firms, and turning directly to legal process outsourcers.


Most BigLaw firms are still vibrant, handling large amounts of work, and increasing profits for their partners. Business may have stabilized somewhat since the worst days of the recession. For law schools and new lawyers, however, any BigLaw recovery seems modest at best. At worst, in the words of The American Lawyer‘s columnist, junior associates are an “endangered species” in BigLaw.


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