Prestige Draws Young Attys, But Keeping Them Takes Work

This article has been saved to your Favorites!
While name recognition still benefits BigLaw in the recruiting process, even the most revered of those firms may have to work a little harder to appear lucrative to junior lawyers, and even more so to partners, who are placing a greater emphasis on diversity, mental health and work-life balance.

It might be an obvious notion, but the firms' attorneys find attractive change as they gain more experience in the industry, Major Lindsey & Africa partner Stephanie Biderman told Law360 Pulse.

The Law360 Pulse Prestige Leaders is the second part of a larger project looking at how firms in the U.S. measure up. Check out the first part, Social Impact Leaders, here. Come back in January for our ultimate ranking of law firms, the Law360 Pulse Leaderboard.

This has become especially true in the last decade, as fewer junior attorneys stick around at the firms they join after law school. More and more, law students are looking at their associateships out of law school as steppingstones rather than as long-term destinations. Thus, younger attorneys are more likely to value name recognition over work-life balance, Biderman said.

"As a junior attorney, having that big-name brand on your resume is very important," Biderman said. "To that associate, it makes them feel like they have a certain credibility in the market for their future career. The theory is, you start with the best possible training that you can, and that opens doors for you later."

The top destinations for graduates of the top U.S. law schools have changed very little from 2018 to 2021, Adam Oliver, CEO of data analysis business Firm Prospects LLC, told Law360 Pulse. Kirkland & Ellis LLP, Sidley Austin LLP, Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP and Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP remain the top choices for Yale, Harvard, Stanford, University of Chicago and Columbia law school graduates, he said.

All four of those firms made Law360 Pulse's list of summer associates' dream firms this year, with the No. 1 place going to Latham & Watkins LLP.

The Top 15 'Dream' Firms

These law firms topped students' lists of their most desirable places to spend a summer.

Rank Firm Rank Firm Rank Firm
1. Latham 6. Covington 11. Jones Day
2. Kirkland 7. O'Melveny 12. Davis Polk
3. Skadden 8. Akin Gump 13. Cleary
4. Gibson Dunn 8. Cravath 13. Perkins Coie
5. Cooley 10. Sidley Austin 15. White & Case

Huge firms like Latham and Kirkland can afford to take on the most Ivy League associates, which of course makes them very attractive to those associates. But there are other firms, like Cravath Swaine & Moore LLP — tied for No. 8 on students' wish lists — that don't fixate on taking in the largest class of summer associates. Instead, they take the later-stage talent that eventually leaves those big entry-level firms. And that talent makes them look prestigious, Oliver said.

"The size of some of these firms doesn't necessarily translate into prestige," Oliver said. "There are definitely smaller shops that would be considered more prestigious. They just can't hire the same numbers."

Even senior associates, though, in a particularly hot market, are most likely to gravitate towards the firms that will pay them the most, rather than considering a more well-rounded offering of lifestyle perks and work-life balance, Oliver said.

Associates with a few years of experience are likely still considering how they'll pay off the rest of their student loans. In the ongoing bidding war among BigLaw firms, associates can take advantage of massive sign-on bonuses by jumping from one big firm to another. But the dollar signs come at a price, he said.

"These associates, when they accept that $100,000 bonus to jump ship to Kirkland, they're going to work hard," Oliver said. "They're definitely not doing that for the lifestyle."

But Stefanie Marrone, an independent business strategy adviser for law firms and legal service providers, told Law360 Pulse that this notion of potential hires putting financials above all else is changing, especially when senior associates possess a powerful foothold in the market.

"We've heard about bonuses, paid time off, tuition reimbursement," Marrone said. "But I think that there are other things that are important to people. It's not all about the money. A lot of people will have offers from many different firms. And they're not necessarily taking the offer with the most money on the table anymore, because they really want a firm that understands them."

Marrone said that she has worked with some firms that are having trouble recruiting, despite having previously been able to sail off of name recognition alone. Firms that really want a good reputation, among not just partners but also associates, have to start prioritizing flexibility and transparency, she said.

Associates are flocking to the firms with the most flexibility when it comes to remote work and those that foster career advancement even with the knowledge that the new hires will one day leave to work somewhere else.

"Some law firms realize the writing's on the wall that they're not going to keep these people, and they actually do things that help them get to their next place," she said.

Indeed, these days, law firms are more likely to help junior attorneys advance their careers outside the firm, working in-house or in government positions, according to Oliver and Biderman.

"It makes sense, because then you're solidifying the relationship with a client," Oliver said. "So if I'm at Gunderson and then I go in-house to a client, in all likelihood that client will stay a client" at Gunderson Dettmer Stough Villeneuve Franklin & Hachigian LLP.

It's also in a firm's best interest to help its junior attorneys move on to positions in the government, while continuing to foster a positive relationship with them, Oliver and Marrone both said. If a firm treats its junior attorneys with respect, even if they're not going to advance to partner level right away, it's more likely that those attorneys will return after they've made a name for themselves elsewhere.

And having a deep bench of former U.S. attorneys or high-up government officials certainly ups a firm's prestige factor, Marrone said.

"I think when you're courting a candidate to be able to say, you know, we have a Supreme Court justice, we have a lawyer who has a $20 million book of business, who is a superstar, I think it makes a difference," Marrone said.

Firms that promote attorneys at a younger age and offer more leadership roles for junior attorneys are at an advantage, Marrone said. She said it's not a coincidence that Kirkland ranks at the top of Law360 Pulse's Prestige Leaders and has a high percentage of young partners.

While it might seem novel that a firm full of younger attorneys would be the most esteemed, a willingness to promote junior attorneys not only signifies to them that they'll be valued, but also allows partners to gain more years of experience, Marrone said.

"The firms that hoard the work with the partners who are rainmakers, and don't let the associates, or anybody for that matter, build their own books of business are going to also be at a disadvantage," she said.

Marrone also said that many firms are "sweetening the pot" for senior associates or young partners to join their offices by offering them management or leadership roles.

A priority shift towards work-life balance and positive work environments could make way for boutique firms and Mid-Law to up their prestige levels, if they place an emphasis on elements of work that have become more important to attorneys, including hybrid working models, a diverse workforce and pro bono opportunities, according to Marrone.

However, Oliver says the data continues to show that larger firms with the most money are still attracting the most talent, especially on a junior and associate level. And while lifestyle perks and richer work opportunities might play a role in some attorneys' choices, money still appears to be the biggest draw.

"It still seems like you hear a lot of the same stories about crazy hours, but the money's good," Oliver said. "If you're looking for something within just the raw numbers, suggesting that law students or associates are thinking differently, looking more at lifestyle, the numbers don't back that up."

Marrone and Biderman both said, though, that on a partner level, firms do have to shift towards a more livable work environment to recruit top talent.

"As an attorney progresses in his or her career, I think that prestige factor often becomes less important," Biderman said. "I think it's about the platform and building one's own book of business, and that may not necessarily correlate with the prestige rankings. It's a bit more nuanced."

--Editing by Pamela Wilkinson, Kerry Benn, John Campbell and Gerald Schifman. Graphics by Chris Yates.

For a reprint of this article, please contact



Law360 Law360 UK Law360 Tax Authority Law360 Employment Authority Law360 Insurance Authority Law360 Real Estate Authority


Social Impact Leaders Prestige Leaders Pulse Leaderboard Women in Law Report Law360 400 Diversity Snapshot Rising Stars Summer Associates

National Sections

Modern Lawyer Courts Daily Litigation In-House Mid-Law Legal Tech Small Law Insights

Regional Sections

California Pulse Connecticut Pulse DC Pulse Delaware Pulse Florida Pulse Georgia Pulse New Jersey Pulse New York Pulse Pennsylvania Pulse Texas Pulse

Site Menu

Subscribe Advanced Search About Contact