A law firm, like any company, is a business entity that provides legal services to its clients from individuals to corporations and even governments. Law firms can vary in size from a sole practitioner to large multinational law firms.
Smaller or mid-sized law firms usually specialize in a particular field of law (such as tax, intellectual property, international arbitration, or class action lawsuit). They are often called boutique law firms. On the other hand, the largest law firms are often “full service” with multiple specializations. Below is our list of the best law firms in the world.
To make the list of best law firms in the world, we have considered several important aspects, including gross annual revenue, the number of attorneys employed, and profits per partner.
Profits per partner or profits per equity partner (PPEP) of a law firm are calculated by simply dividing its overall profits (after salaries) by the number of its equity partners. PPEP gives you a rough idea of how much a partner gets to take home. In law firms, especially in large ones, profits are distributed by seniority (senior equity partners get more share of the profits than newer partners).
We have also carefully considered subjective aspects, such as the ranking of these firms in prestigious legal magazines, reports, studies, and awards/recognitions given by globally recognized institutions. Below are the official publications that we have mentioned in this list.
AM LAW 100/200, AM LAW ‘A List’ – The American Lawyer, a monthly legal magazine, publishes annual rankings and surveys of law firms. AM LAW 100 ranks hundred largest U.S-based law firms based on their revenue, profits, and PPEP. ‘A-list refers to the most elite law firms recognized by the magazine.
Benchmark Litigation (U.S.) is a peer-reviewed publication that ranks best litigation firms in different practice fields (commercial, bankruptcy, antitrust, etc.) For this list, we have used its U.S. rankings.
Chamber and Partners – It is U.K. based research company that ranks lawyers and legal departments of some of the largest law firms around the world.
Vault Law 100 – Published by Firsthand, a service for career-related matters, Vault Law 100 assesses and ranks the most prestigious law firms based on professionals working in the industry.
International Financial Law Review – IFLR provides in-depth analysis and expert opinion on law firms around the world engaged in the financial industry.
11. Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton
Revenue: $1.2 billion
Number of attorneys: More than 1,200
2021 PPEP rank: 17th ($3,671,000)
Cleary Gottlieb is your typical white-shoe law firm with a presence in every major continent and a long-standing reputation of being one of the best in the business. The firm was established in 1946 by a group of attorneys who left their previous firm to establish one of their own.
A few years later, Cleary Gottlieb opened its first international office in Europe (Paris), one of the first U.S.-based law firms to do so. It was also among the first few law firms to open an office in Japan after non-Japanese lawyers were allowed to practice in the country. However, Cleary Gottlieb disbanded their Tokyo office in 2006. Today, the firm operates from about 17 offices around the world and is headquartered in One Liberty Plaza, New York City.
In the last two decades or so, Cleary Gottlieb has taken part in several high-profile sovereign debt and restructuring cases and has emerged as a go-to legal firm for similar cases. It advised the government of Argentina on the restructuring of its $81.8 billion debt in 2005. Then again, in 2020, it helped Argentina to successfully reach a $65 billion debt restructuring agreement with its largest creditors.
Some of the corporate clients it served are Google during its acquisition of Motorola Mobility in 2012 and T-Mobile U.S. during its merger with Sprint Corporation in 2018.
Rankings: Vault Law 100 ranks Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton as the #14 best and most prestigious law firm in the United States. The Benchmark Litigation ranks it as a tier 1 firm in handling bankruptcy, commercial, antitrust, international arbitration, finance-related crime (white-collar) litigation. It has been awarded “Americas Law Firm of the Year” almost every year since 2015 by International Financial Law Review (IFLR) Americas.
Moreover, for its advisory role in Euronext’s acquisition of Borsa Italiana (Italian stock exchange), Cleary Gottlieb was awarded Corporate Team of the Year in the U.K. by Legal Business Awards 2021.
10. Clifford Chance
Clifford Chance Headquarters in Canary Wharf, London, U.K | Image Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons
Revenue: $2.5 billion
Number of attorneys: 3,300
Clifford Chance is the largest law firm (by revenue) in Europe and the United Kingdom. It is a member of the “Magic Circle,” an informal group of London-based law firms that are larger and more profitable than any other law firm based in the United Kingdom. The other members of the group are – Allen & Overy, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters, and Slaughter and May.
The firm, as we know it today, is a result of multiple mergers in the past. The first merger took place in 1987 between two mid-sized London-based practices — Clifford-Turner and Coward Chance. This merger played a pivotal role in the firm’s rise as a legal powerhouse in the U.K. Then, in 1999, in order to expand internationally, Clifford Chance acquired the U.S.-based firm Roger & Wells and Germany-based Pünder, Volhard, Weber & Axster.
Today, Clifford Chance has more than 30 offices across the globe and has an extensive presence in Northeast Asia, with offices in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing.
It is undoubtedly one of the world’s most reputed law firms in the financial sector, with a portfolio of clients from corporations to government offices and not-for-profit organizations. According to Acuris, a financial news and data provider, it is one of the most sought-after law firms by private equity clients for M&A in Europe.
Rankings: Clifford Chance is awarded the law firm of the year for Germany, France, and Poland by the 2021 edition of Chambers Europe. The firm has won multiple industry-specific awards, including Airline Economics Aviation 100 Law Firm of the Year 2021. It also received awards in 13 different categories from prestigious IFLR Europe.
9. Baker McKenzie
Revenue: $3.1 billion (2021)
Number of attorneys: About 4,800
2021 PPEP rank: 67th ($1,350,000)
Former attorneys: Christine Lagarde (former M.D. of the IMF and current President of the European Central Bank)
Baker McKenzie is a Chicago, Illinois-based multinational law firm that specializes in corporate law. The firm provides legal services mostly to companies or corporations in matters of M&A, restructuring, bankruptcy, general corporate disputes, intellectual property, securities, and antitrust litigation.
Though the firm in its current structure was launched in 1949 focusing around litigation practice, its origin can be traced back to 1925, when Russell Baker established the firm Baker & Simpson after graduating from the Chicago Law School.
Baker McKenzie is the largest law firm in the United States by the total number of attorneys (headcount) and the fourth-largest by total revenue (2019). It currently has about 4,700 lawyers in 46 countries and 77 offices around the world.
In 2006, the British consumer goods giant Unilever appointed Baker McKenzie to handle its entire trademark portfolio, believed to be the world’s largest at that time with more than 160,000 registrations. In 2009, the firm represented Symantec Corporation (now NortonLifeLock) against the IRS and won a $1 billion tax lawsuit in the U.S. The firm is currently representing Facebook in a similar lawsuit.
Rankings – In 2021, for the 11th consecutive year, Thomson Reuters’ Acritas Global Elite Law Firm Brand Index placed Baker McKenzie as the highest-ranking law firm in the world above DLA Piper and Clifford Chance.
8. Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher
Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher office in Washington D.C | Image Courtesy: REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
Revenue: $2 billion
Number of attorneys: 1,400
2021 PPEP rank: 15th ($4,125,000)
Former attorney/associate: Preet Bharara (former U.S. Attorney for Southern District of New York); James C. Ho (U.S. Court of Appeals circuit judge).
Gibson Dunn is an American multinational law firm renowned for its appellate litigation practice. Over the past years, the firm has represented multiple large corporations in widely reported lawsuits and court cases. They have earned the reputation of a “corporate rescue” specialist. Some of these are Apple v. Samsung, in which the firm represented Apple in a patent infringement suit related to Samsung’s Galaxy Nexus. In 2008, it defended Intel against billion-dollar lawsuits bought up by AMD in the European Union.
Gibson Dunn was founded in 1890 in Los Angeles by two corporate lawyers, John Bicknell and Walter Trask. They were joined by James Gibson, a former judge in 1897. A few years later, the firm merged with another Los Angeles-based practice headed by William Dunn and Albert Crutcher to become one of California’s largest law firms in the early 1900s.
Some of the high-profile clients that Gibson Dunn has represented in the past are Apple, Inc, Chevron, NBC Universal, and Mark Zuckerberg. The firm also advises corporations during M&A deals. It advised Kraft Foods’ $19 billion acquisition of Cadbury in 2010 and Hewlett-Packard’s $11.7 billion acquisition of Autonomy Corp. a year later in 2011.
Rankings – The 2021 edition of Legal 500 (U.S.) ranks Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher as a Tier 1 law firm in antitrust, commercial disputes, international disputes, and real estate litigation. Gibson Dunn tops the Benchmark Litigation rankings for the best appellate and labor/employment litigation law firm.
7. Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison
Revenue: $1.3 billion
Number of attorneys: More than 1,000
2019/2020 PPEP rankings: 4th ($5,369,000)
Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, or simply Paul, Weiss, is one of the most respected and profitable law firms in the United States, engaging primarily in corporate law. The firm operates from over nine offices around the world, including its headquarters in New York City.
The firm’s origin can be traced back to 1875 with the establishment of a small law firm by Samuel William Weiss and Julius Frank specializing in commercial law. Following his father’s footsteps, Samuel’s son Louis Weiss open his own practice with another eventual name partner John Wharton. The two firms merged in the late 1920s and were later joined by other partners to eventually gain its current name.
The firm specializes in transactional and litigation works in corporate, tax, employment, and environmental law. Over the years, Paul Weiss has represented some of the largest corporations in the United States, from tobacco and oil companies to investment banks and insurance companies. Its current clients include Citigroup and the NFL. It has also represented famous individual clients, including the likes of Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan, Pierre DuPont, and Marilyn Monroe.
Paul, Weiss has a commendable pro bono culture. Vault Law ranks the firm 22nd on its list of best law firms for pro bono. In 2018, the firm headed a lawsuit against the controversial family separation policy of the Trump administration. It helped find more than 400 deported parents.
Rankings: Benchmark Litigation ranks Paul, Weiss as a tier 1 litigation firm in appellate, bankruptcy, antitrust, commercial, intellectual property, labor, securities, and white-collar criminal law. It is also among the 20 best trial law firms, according to the publication.
Paul Weiss has been recognized by the New York Law Journal and National Law Journal as a leading law firm in the country. It is ranked 9th in the Vault Law 100 list of best and most prestigious law firms globally. The firm was shortlisted for Chambers and Partners “USA Private Client Team of the Year” in 2021 and placed third in the American Lawyer’s “A-list.”
6. Davis Polk & Wardwell
Revenue: $1.4 billion (2018)
Number of attorneys: 980
2021 PPEP rank: 2nd ($6,350,000)
Former attorneys/partners: Grover Cleveland (22nd and 24th U.S. President); Jerome Powell (Chair of the Federal Reserve)
Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP, or simply Davis Polk, is considered one of the best law firms in the financial sector specializing in practice areas such as capital markets, M&A, regulations, and investment management. The firm was established in 1849 by a prominent New York attorney Francis N. Bangs, who was also a founding member of the New York Bar Association.
The firm changed its name several times after its formation. In 1952, the firm represented the steel companies in the United States in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case which led to the decision to limit the power of the sitting U.S. President to seize private property. It was not until 1967 that the firm adopted its current name after its three most influential name partners, John W. Davis, Frank Polk, and Allen Wardwell.
Davis Polk has a long-standing history of serving high-profile clients such as John P. Morgan, who hired them to represent several of his companies, including General Electric. Many of the successor companies of J.P Morgan’s business empire are active clients of the firm.
In 2000, the firm advised J.P Morgan & Co. during its mega-merger with Chase Manhatten Bank. David Polk played a critical role in the early interpretation and implementation of the Dodd-Frank Act after the financial crisis of 2008. The firm is currently headquartered in New York and has nine other offices around the world.
Rankings: In 2019, Davis Polk was ranked 25th largest law firm by annual revenue. However, based on the profits per equity partner (PPEP), it was ranked second largest after New York-based Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. The Benchmark Litigation consistently ranks it a Tier 1 firm in securities, commercial, white-collar crime, and antitrust litigation.
5. Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom
Image Courtesy: Ryland West/ALM
Revenue: $2.4 billion
Number of attorneys: 1,700
2021 PPEP rank: 14th ($4,308,000)
Skadden, or Skadden, Arps Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, and Affiliates is a relatively new law firm established in 1948 by three of its name partners – Marshall Skadden, Les Arps, and John Slate in New York. Despite facing tough competition from more established law firms in its early days, Skadden evolved as a powerhouse in the legal world in the 1980s, becoming among the largest law firms in the U.S.
In 1988, the firm launched the Skadden Fellowship Foundation, under which it sponsors law graduates who want to pursue public interest law to help poor and homeless individuals. So far, the fellowship has supported more than 900 law graduates.
In 2015, Skadden was named the most innovative law firm in North America by Financial Times’ ‘Innovative Lawyers’ report. In the same year, it became the first-ever international law firm to handle more than $1 trillion in merger and acquisition deals in a single year.
Rankings: In 2016, Skadden was the fourth-largest law firm by revenue. However, it slipped two ranks to 6th in 2019. In terms of profits per equity partner (PPEP), Skadden ranks 14th among the U.S.-based law firms in 2021, below the likes of Cravath, Latham & Watkins, and Paul Weiss.
4. Latham & Watkins
Revenue: $4.3 billion
Number of attorneys: About 2,900
2021 PPEP rank: 11th ($4,520,000)
Back in 2007, Los Angeles-based Latham & Watkins LLP became the first U.S.-based law firm to report a $2 billion revenue. Then in 2017, it became the world’s first law firm to achieve a gross revenue of more than $3 billion. Latham & Watkins was established in 1934 by Dana Latham, who served as IRS commissioner under President Dwight Eisenhower and Paul Watkins.
During its initial years, the firm focused its practice mainly on tax litigation and labor cases. However, it expanded in other areas such as mergers, banking, general corporate practice in the 1990s. The firm has a physical presence in four continents (except for South America) and 28 offices worldwide, with the largest being in New York.
Latham & Watkins is perhaps one of the most controversial law firms of considerable size. Following the financial crisis of 2008, the firm sacked more than 250 staff and paralegals, and about 190 attorneys in less than a year. Due to the severity of the layoffs, the firm garnered a lot of negative press coverage.
According to Law Students for Climate Accountability, a group that reports on law firms representing the fossil fuels industry, Watkins is the only law firm among the top 4 in both litigation and transactional work that aggravate climate change.
Rankings: The American Lawyer magazine has placed Latham & Watkins among the top three firms on the A-List each year since its first publication in 2003. It was ranked first in the 2017 Am Law 100 list. The firm has the highest number of listed attorneys in 2021 practice rankings by Chambers and Partners.
3. Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz
Revenue: $882 million
Number of attorneys: More than 260
Unlike other large law firms on this list that have expanded internationally with at least a few offices outside the U.S., Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz operate from just one office in New York City that it shares with CBS and a few other tenants. Despite that, it is regarded as one of the world’s most prestigious and impactful law firms.
It was founded in 1965 by a small group of lawyers who met at NYU School of Law and gradually rose to prominence despite the presence of more established law firms nearby at that time. Wachtell is widely known for its corporate law practice and handles complex mergers & acquisitions, corporate restructuring, strategic investments, general transactions, and securities litigation.
In 1982, Martin Lipton, one of the firm’s name partners, devised a tactic for companies to effectively defend against hostile takeover bids. The tactic, popularly known as the “poison pill,” was widely used throughout the remainder of the 20th century. During the financial crisis of 2008, Wachtell advised the U.S. Department of Treasury on matters regarding the federal bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
In terms of size, Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz is one of the smallest law firms in the top 100 with no more than 265 lawyers and annual revenue of $882 million (in 2019). However, it has the highest profits per equity partner (PPEP) of any firm in the world. As an ultra-elite firm, Wachtell is among the hardest law firm to get a job in the U.S.
Rankings: For more than ten consecutive years, Vault Law has ranked the firm #1 on its merger and acquisitions rankings. The 2021 edition of Benchmark Litigation ranks Wachtell as a tier 1 firm in commercial, bankruptcy, and securities litigation. Similarly, the U.S. News Law Firm rankings grade it as a tier 1 firm in M&A, commercial, banking, and regulatory litigation.
2. Cravath, Swaine & Moore
Revenue: $800 million
Number of attorneys: More than 500
2021 PPEP rank: 8th ($4,576,000)
Notable cases: Miranda v. Arizona in 1966; Epic Games v. Apple in 2020
Cravath, officially known as Cravath, Swaine & Moore, is one of the most prestigious law firms in the world. Its origin can be traced back to 1819, when Richard Blatchford, a banking lawyer, established his own office in New York. The main turning point in the firm’s history came in 1899 when a prominent Manhattan-based attorney Paul Drennan Cravath joined in as a partner.
Soon after his arrival, Paul Cravath implemented several new management principles that would govern future hiring, training, compensation (salary), and tenure of the staff in the firm. These principles are collectively known today as the ‘Cravath System,’ which is used by nearly all large law and accounting firms.
Throughout its history, Cravath has represented some of the biggest companies in the U.S. It successfully defended IBM against two (in the 1950s and 1970s) federal antitrust probes by the U.S. Department of Justice. In 2015, Cravath served as a legal advisor in a merger deal between Heinz and Kraft Foods backed by 3G Capital and Berkshire Hathaway, creating the third-largest food and beverage company in North America.
Despite its fame, Cravath has remained a relatively smaller law firm compared to most of its direct competitors both in the number of its attorneys and revenue.
Rankings: In 2016, Chambers and Partners placed Cravath among the most elite law firm in the United States in mergers & acquisitions, securities, and tax practices. The 2022 edition of Benchmark Litigation ranked the firm 3rd on its list of top 20 trial law firms in the United States and a tier 1 firm in antitrust, commercial, and securities litigation.
1. Kirkland & Ellis LLP
Kirkland & Ellis Chicago office | MusikAnimal/Wikipedia Commons
Revenue: $4.83 billion (2020)
Number of attorneys: More than 3,000
2021 PPEP rank: 3rd ($6,194,000)
Famous former attorneys: Brett Kavanaugh (U.S. Supreme Court Justice)
Kirkland & Ellis is the largest law firm in the world by overall revenue and the third-largest in the United States by profits per partner. It was the first legal firm to reach $4 billion in revenue and ranks 92nd on Forbes list of America’s largest private companies in 2021.
The firm that eventually became Kirkland & Ellis was established in 1909 by two Chicago-based lawyers Robert R. McCormick and Stuart G. Shepard. Today, the firm operates from 17 different offices across the globe. Although Kirkland is renowned for its litigation practices, it does provide legal services in fields including intellectual property, transactional work, and restructuring.
In recent years, the firm has worked on several high-profile litigations and corporate transaction cases. In 2010, Kirkland defended British Petroleum (B.P.) during the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill case that took place in the Gulf of Mexico. The firm was hired by German automaker Volkswagen during its emissions scandal in 2015.
In 2019, Kirkland advised real estate logistics provider GLP on the sale of its U.S. warehouse business to Blackstone, in the largest-ever private real estate deal, for $18.7 billion.
Rankings: Benchmark Litigation ranks Kirkland as a tier 1 firm in appellate, bankruptcy, commercial, antitrust, intellectual property, and securities litigation. Moreover, the U.S. News and World Report rank Kirkland as a tier 1 firm in 24 different practice areas in the U.S. Vault Law 100 ranks Kirkland the 6th best law firm in the world.
In 2019, “Mergers & Acquisitions” magazine ranked Kirkland Law Firm of the Year for advising 400 M&A deals in the United States.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the five largest law firms?
Based on the overall annual revenue, the five largest law firms in the world are (in order) – Kirkland & Ellis ($4.8 billion), Latham & Watkins ($4.3 billion), DLA Piper ($3.1 billion), Baker McKenzie ($3.1 billion), and Dentons ($2.9 billion).
Multinational law firms with high revenues are often called ‘BigLaw.’ They are usually located in major cities in the U.S. and U.K. and have branches in large cities around the world. Lawyers in BigLaw firms usually earn higher salaries than those in smaller private practices.
How much do lawyers earn in a law firm?
The salary structure of a law firm largely depends on its size and the country it is practicing. Traditionally, large law firms use a salary system in which they hire fresh law graduates on a fixed salary and provide automatic pay raises every year along with bonuses. This system is known as lockstep compensation. Alternatively, many law firms use a merit-based pay model, in which salaries are tied to individual performance or the performance of the entire firm.
According to the NALP, or National Association of Law Placement’s 2021 Associate salary survey, the base (median) salary of a first-year associate at a large law firm is $165,000. About 78 percent of the respondents of this survey were law firms with more than 250 lawyers.
Due to the highly competitive law graduate recruitment market, the base salary tends to be almost the same across large law firms to compete for the best graduates from top law schools. If one firm initiates a move, others tend to follow suit.
In 2016, Cravath became the first BigLaw firm to increase first-year associate salary to $180,000. Other New-York based firms soon followed suit. Then in 2018, a prominent New-York based law firm, Milbank, raised its first-year associate salary to $190,000.
What is a White-shoe firm?
The term “white shoe” in the legal industry refers to the largest and most prestigious law firms in the world. Initially, the term was coined specifically for law firms, but it’s now used in other fields such as consulting and investment banking. A white-shoe firm usually has a century-long history and a highly reputed clientele.