Big Law by the numbers

Big Law by the numbers
April 2017
By Paul Dailing

If you meet a lawyer who works in Illinois, there’s a one-in-six chance you’re talking to an employee of one of these 100 firms.

That’s not just a corporate lawyer, or a lawyer who works in private practice. The 10,603 lawyers you’ll read about on the next few pages make up just under 17 percent of the 63,060 resident active attorneys the most recently available American Bar Association National Lawyer Population Survey placed in the Land of Lincoln.

That’s 17 percent of the entire legal population of attorneys working in-house, for the government, in education, in private practice, in the judiciary, or any other capacity where a J.D. is put to use.

You’re holding the yearly Chicago Lawyer magazine survey of the largest law firms in Illinois. From the Loop offices of multinational firms to local shops in the ‘burbs, downstate and Metro East, we surveyed the largest employers of lawyers in Illinois as determined by Sullivan’s Law Directory, a sister publication to Chicago Lawyer, to get the breakdown of where Illinois attorneys work, providing detailed statistics for you on the 100 biggest firms in Illinois.

This is part of a year’s worth of survey data compiled and analyzed by Chicago Lawyer staff. Last month, we ran the year’s look at associate compensation, breaking down why, where and how quickly the new scale of $180,000 a year for starting associates swept in from New York’s Cravath Swain & Moore to forever change the Chicago legal landscape.

In issues running later this year, we’ll be sharing information on firm diversity and office real estate. Expect to see those surveys hitting your firm’s inbox soon.

But this month, the topic is Big Law. Let’s look at the numbers to see what big really means.

A bit of method

To properly cull a list of 100, surveys were sent to Illinois’ 200 largest firms according to Sullivan’s Law Directory. We used a SurveyMonkey form with conditional logic to eliminate and avoid questions that, based on each firm’s previous answers, did not apply to that firm. If your firm answered it does not have separate tiers for equity and non-equity partners, for example, we wouldn’t then turn around and ask how many equity partners it has.

If a law firm did not respond to the 2017 survey, the firm’s most recent total lawyer count was provided by a Jan. 26 query of Sullivan’s data. Previous years’ numbers were pulled from the 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 Chicago Lawyer surveys as published in the print versions of the issues.

A blank space on the following chart indicates that piece of information was not available as of press time.

A Chicago-centric list

The list of Illinois’ largest law firms was heavily oriented toward Chicago — no surprise since the city makes up 21 percent of the state’s population, according to the most recent available estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The top 11 largest firms in Illinois — Kirkland & Ellis through Vedder Price — have their main headquarters in Chicago. At number 12, DLA Piper, based out of the UK, is the first of 37 out-of-town top hirers on the list, and the only one headquartered overseas.

Wherever they’re from, firms center their Illinois operations on Chicago. Only three of the state’s 100 largest firms listed their primary Illinois location outside of the Windy City: Heyl Royster Voelker & Allen out of Peoria, Codilis & Associates out of Burr Ridge and Simmons Hanly Conroy out of Alton. An additional three firms are headquartered outside the state and did not indicate which of their several Illinois offices were considered primary locations.

This year’s survey also took a different look at firms’ organizational structures. Whereas previous years’ surveys only gave the option of listing the numbers of equity and non-equity or income partners — leaving firms that did not parse the groups a confusing choice as to where they list their leadership — the 2017 survey offered a chance to select either path.

Of the firms that chose to provide this information, just shy of 22 percent have only one category for partners. The remaining 78 percent have distinct equity and non-equity tiers.

A changing future

There were 1,993 new lawyers who passed the bar last year, according to the most recent numbers from the National Conference of Bar Examiners. There were 2,325 added the year before, and 2,680 the year before that.

Each of those years was diminished from the last.

The 1,993 new lawyers who passed the bar last year were just 69 percent of the people who took the Illinois bar, according to figures from the NCBE. That’s a full five percentage points lower than the 74 percent who passed in 2015, which itself was five percentage points lower than the 79 percent who passed in 2014.

Last year’s 69 percent bar passage rate is still above the national bar passage rate average of 58 percent. But comparing Illinois to Illinois, prior to 2016, the lowest figure of the past 15 years was 72 percent in 2002.

Fewer and fewer students are passing the bar, and they’re paying more and more for the opportunity. Law school debt is also on the rise, with tuition increases towering over inflation rates.

Between 2011 and 2016, the average tuition at Illinois’ nine law schools leapt by nearly $6,400 a year, according to ABA records. If tuition had kept pace with inflation, it would have risen only $2,500 in that five-year span.

But still, people pour into law, and those 1,993 new lawyers still need jobs. They’re lured by the call for justice, the $180,000 many of these firms offer starting associates in the wake of Cravath or some combination of both.

They will head into small shops, in-house positions, government work, legal services. But many will head into Big Law, joining the 10,603 attorneys who will grace the next few pages, hoping to bolster their practices by joining up with firms with deep benches and larger resources.

We’ve talked enough about Illinois’ crop of Big Law lawyers. Over the next few pages, let’s meet them.

View Chicago Lawyer's 2017 Largest Law Firm survey here.