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How To Know Which Law Firms and Candidates Are Good? The Ranking System To Determine the Best Law Firms and Attorneys

published July 30, 2021

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We all know that law firms of different prestige and quality attract (and employ) different types of attorneys. However, sometimes it might be difficult to make sense of how it all works and what criteria are important in determining the prestige of a law firm or an attorney.
 

With my experience as a legal recruiter and the founder of BCG Attorney Search, I had to learn how to distinguish varying levels of firms and candidates to send the right applicants to the right firms. For example, if we as a company sent average candidates to top firms who are very demanding on applicants' skills and qualifications, the firm and the lawyer would not be happy with our services and would probably never trust us again. The firm would get angry that we are trying to push someone underqualified on them, while the attorney would have negative feelings because they have been rejected. The same would happen if we sent someone ambitious with the best track record and qualifications for an interview to a small average firm. While the firm might even be happy that someone of that caliber is interviewing for their company, they would probably be aware that they are "below" the candidate, which never feels good. And the lawyer would get furious with us and maybe even tell their peers not to use our company as we did not try our best to find the best placement for our client.


To successfully place attorneys in the legal market, recruiters must match these two parties and offer each other. Otherwise, they are doing a disservice to all involved parties, themselves included.
 

The Legal Ranking System We Use To Distinguish Varying Levels of Law Firms and Lawyers


The five-level legal ranking system we use and swear by has been inspired by the ranking system used by the Harvard admissions committee, which was used even when my father worked there. Our rankings are based on the five levels they use, with 5 standing for the best and most extraordinary applicants with a high chance of getting admitted. The rank of 1 comprised the average applicants who had a meager chance of getting admitted. If a level 1 applicant gets admitted, it is usually because of exceptional social "diversity" reasons, and it is infrequent. At Harvard, most students are from the 4th rank followed by the 5th rank, as 5s can be hard to find.

At BCG Attorney Search, we have a very similar ranking system for attorneys and law firms we work with. While we work with attorneys from all ranks and practice areas, most firms want to employ the best attorneys. And because 5s are so hard to find, most of the attorneys we work with are 4s and 3s. Those attorneys in the 4th rank will typically get the most interviews; they get the most offers from firms. Most of the work we do with attorneys revolves around the rank of 4, but we are getting better and better in securing those in the 3rd rank positions in respectable and competitive law firms.

If, after reading this article, you find that you fit into the rank of 2 or 1, do not fear. There are many opportunities out there. In fact, most of the attorneys that seek our help are from the 1 through 3 rankings, so you are definitely not alone. There are still great positions for you in law firms in the 1, 2, or 3 ranks where you can have a fairly successful career and create a nice life for yourself. Or you might be able to "level up" if you are ambitious and determined and find a position in a firm above your level. But you should be aware of the fact that the better your "rank" is initially, the easier it will be for your (or your legal recruiter) to find positions you want.
 

Criteria For the Five-Level Lawyer and Law Firm Ranking System


Level 5


Law Firms


Law firms ranking in the highest level are generally the nation's largest law firms or very demanding top boutique firms that are extremely competitive and selective. They are the absolute top of the top, and only a fraction of attorneys worldwide have the skills and ability to get into them. These are firms such as Gibson Dunn, Munger TollesDavis Polk, Quinn Emanuel, or Latham & Watkins, and they are generally in a big legal market, such as New York City.

As mentioned before, law firms ranked 5 are extremely selective and have stringent hiring criteria. They only want lawyers from the absolute best law schools, with great academic results, and coming from other major law firms. In addition, they need determined attorneys who are willing to work extremely hard and bill a ton of hours.

Attorneys have to be smart and work really hard to increase their billing rates if they dream of ever making partners. They have to be able to generate several million a year in business to cut the position of a partner.

These firms are at the top of all law firm rankings and have a very stable functioning, meaning that lawyers working there do not need to be worried about lay-offs or financial problems coming to the firm.

The clients are usually huge international companies that can pay high billing rates. They also bring in a ton of work, so associates can often progress to partners without bringing in a lot of their own business. Rank 5 firms are just as selective with their clients as their employees, so they often represent the same companies for decades and turn many clients away.
 

Candidates


To work with and represent such major clients and these top law firms, candidates accepted to these law firms are usually highly motivated and determined lawyers from the greatest law schools on the national level, such as Harvard, Yale, or Stanford. They are hired either straight from law school or come from other leading law firms. When they switch firms, it is only for valid reasons, such as relocating or moving up the ladder, not for running away from problems. Associates generally have one to six years of experience. After that, they either need to become a partner or leave the firm.
 

Level 4


Law Firms


Firms in the rank of 4 are usually large national firms, strong regional firms, or former 5s that lost their status. That can happen when their reputation suffers, they are forced to let several lawyers go, or they have any other difficulties that force them to lower their recruitment standard. Some examples of firms in this rank are Greenberg Traurig, Orrick, Paul, Weiss, or Wilson Sonsini.

These firms are still pretty selective with who gets in, just not as much as the firms ranked 5. They still want law students from the top law schools; however, they do not require the academic results as high as the firms in the higher rank. To become a partner in a 4 firm, associates generally have to generate business of 1 to 3 million dollars.

The main difference between 5s and 4s (apart from the slightly different hiring criteria) is that firms ranked 4 are much more sensitive to the economy and rely more on the business lawyers can bring in. That means that if a lawyer is not bringing in enough business, they might be let go, and there is the risk of big lay-offs in times of recessions.

The typical clients of these firms are big national and international companies, just like with firms ranked 5. They also take on smaller clients and companies; however, the most work and business is from big national companies.
 

Candidates


Candidates in the rank of 4 are often from the top law schools (Harvard, Penn, Chicago, Duke, etc.) or were at the top of lower-tier but still solid schools. Those who already have law firm experience (up to six years if they are in the associates' position) were in the firms with the rank of 5 or 4. If these candidates are partners already, their business is usually 1 to 3 million dollars. If a candidate is already in a firm ranked 4 or 5 and has an in-demand practice area, they will generally be ranked a 4.
 

Level 3


Law Firms


Law firms with the rank of 3 are usually national firms with lower billing rates and lower hiring standards than the previous firms and regional law firms. However, they are all still good firms, just not as good as the ranks before. These are firms such as Wood Smith & Henning, Jackson Lewis, or Tressler.

About a third of the law students and attorneys in our country have the qualifications to work in these firms. The lawyers hired to the legal teams in these firms go to second or third-tier schools and do good there. Most of them are not exceptional but still excellent attorneys. To make partners in these firms, lawyers usually have to generate 600 thousand to one million dollars.

A law firm ranked 3 is usually a stable firm with lower revenue than the previous firms as they have lower billing rates. They also pay their attorneys significantly less (their salaries are generally lower by one-third), but the salaries can still be considered good.

These firms often represent local governments, small to midsize companies, and sometimes even larger companies and a few bigger clients. Even though they have lower billing rates, these attorneys usually bring produce consistent work. These firms work in all practice areas, but most of the work is in litigation.
 

Candidates


Attorneys in the candidate rank of 3 are generally solid lawyers that sometimes lack the qualifications to rank higher. The academic and personal qualifications of these candidates are respectable, just not exceptional, but that does not mean that they will never be able to get hired at a law firm ranked 4 or 5. They go to law schools such as the University of Indiana or Ohio.

The main difference between these candidates and candidates ranked higher is that there is something in their background preventing them from ranking higher. This could be doing poorly in school, going to a low-ranking law school, switching firms too often, being in a practice area that is not in demand, or not generating business as a partner. Many of these lawyers have the intelligence and skills to be ranked higher, but they are ranked 3 mostly because of their past in the legal profession.
 

Level 2


Law Firms


Firms with rankings of 2 usually have lower hiring standards, and most attorneys have the qualifications to work in these firms. They are regional, midsized law firms or small law firms in smaller legal markets. They usually have low billing rates and not a very consistent stream of work which also means lower salaries. A law firm like this will rarely have a summer associate program. This does not mean that a law firm ranked 2 is bad. They are just more consumer-facing with lower rates and lower hiring standards.

Typical clients of these firms are smaller businesses and individuals. These firms represent clients in practice areas such as insurance defense, bankruptcy, personal injury, family law, and similar. These are not consistent streams of work, and firms cannot ask for high rates.
 

Candidates


Attorneys with a ranking of 2 are usually very average. They usually went to good schools and did okay there. They do good enough work but nothing really to boast about. It does not mean that these lawyers are bad (after all, most attorneys fall into this category), but maybe something in their past did not work out as they wanted it to.

These attorneys can find good positions. It is just important to look in the right market and firms with the right legal rankings. A law firm with a ranking of 5 or 4 might not look at their resume because they do not have the right training, but they might fit in very well in a 3 law firm.

Attorneys ranked 2 are generally used to doing everything on their own, without assistance and supervision. This means without someone looking over their work and pointing out their mistakes. Constructive criticism and going over the work in several rounds are common in lawyers ranked 4 or 5 but not common in 2s. This makes 2s unprepared for the world of top law firms in the legal industry.
 

Level 1


Law Firms


Firms with the law firm rankings of 1 are usually small firms in small markets with inconsistent work and revenue streams. These firms are mostly consumer-facing with significantly lower rates and salaries than the larger firms. Almost any lawyer that has passed the bar has the qualifications to work in firms of this legal ranking. Solo practitioners or small groups of lawyers practicing together are also generally in the rank of 1, and there is little to no oversight over the work done. Usually, there is no uniform verified system or training of how the work should be done. The majority of firms in the legal industry are in this rank.

A typical client of a law firm in this rank is an individual consumer. The firms help them with general legal issues that usually are not that complex or sophisticated.
 

Candidates


Attorneys in this rank usually come from low-ranking schools, do not really have the best academic results, and if they have law firm experience, it is usually from firms ranking 1. Thus, their qualifications and lack of training do not really allow them to rank higher.
 

Conclusions


This ranking system helps us at BCG Attorney Search categorize individual lawyers and firms, making the recruitment process and hiring easier and faster for all sides. And although these (and similar) rankings are apparent and commonly used in the legal market, they are never set in stone. Any candidate or law firm can move between the levels. But the truth is, moving to a lower rank is much easier and common than moving up.

I like to compare this ranking system to the class system seen in Europe in the 18th century. Then, people were born either into The Peasants, The Middle Class, or The Gentry.

Most people were peasants, just like the vast majority of lawyers practice in average to low-ranking firms, not in the most prestigious law firms. They went to low-ranking schools, did not do exceptional there. They represent individual people with everyday problems. Their legal careers are not anything spectacular, but they do honest and hard consumer-facing work daily. They may also work as counsel in small companies or be in unimportant roles in the government. But most of them believe they are stuck on that level for their whole lives, just like peasants never think of being able to move up.

Just like approximately a tenth of the people in the class system belonged to the middle class, 10 to 12% of attorneys do the "middle-class" work in the legal profession. This is work in midsized firms, government jobs, or in-house counsel in bigger companies. They usually represent midsized companies.

Only the top few percent of people were lucky enough to be born into the gentry, like only about 3% of lawyers belong to the best law firms there are. Nevertheless, they went to the best schools, did well, and were hired by companies with the best rankings in the country.

If you start at the peasant level, it is usually very difficult to move up because of factors from your past, such as the prestige of your law school, your academic results, or the firms in which you have worked previously. So it is not impossible, but it isn't easy.

On the other hand, moving the other way - from top to bottom - is not that hard. Even when you can get to the best employers in the legal industry at the beginning of your career, this status is not for life. You have to prove yourself and your place in the legal ranking system.

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