My answer is simple; they’re following a different business model than everyone else; in a real sense, they are in a different business than everyone else. Unpacking all the elements of how exactly they’re different is a topic for another day, but here are some elements:

  • Everyone claims to aspire to the high end, price-insensitive, bet the company work. The Super Rich are there and everyone else is, by and large, not.
  • Everyone but everyone (I’d hazard 98 of the 100, and let me get back to you on who the two are) claims that their firm’s culture is “collegial” and “collaborative,” and that’s why they’re so special. The Super Rich usually are internally collaborative, but they also put a more weighty premium on high performance and a culture of excellence. If “collegial” to you means providing room for professionals spanning a wide range of competence and commitment, the Super Rich beg to differ. These are not cultures of optionality.
  • And finally, yes, many were blessed to have started out in intrinsically dense and rich legal markets, particularly New York City, but don’t underestimate their exceptionalism, in not only surviving but rising to occupy the top sliver of the world’s most competitive markets. Far more firms have broken their lance trying to penetrate New York than there are Super Rich firms in total.


But the reality reveals a more profound ontological flaw at the root of lists like the AmLaw 100. (“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me” [apologies, F. Scott].)

Nearly five years ago, Malcolm Gladwell published The Order of Things: What college rankings really tell us in The New Yorker, performing the high public service of subjecting the US News rankings of “Best Colleges” (and “Best” graduate programs, business schools, medical schools, and of course law schools) to a lacerating onslaught of attacks on its methodologicy and substance that reduced the “Best” lists to the intellectual stature of meow mix.

Before unleashing his broadside on US News, he uses the example of Car and Driver magazine to demonstrate the category error:

Car and Driver’s ambition to grade every car in the world according to the same methodology would be fine if it limited itself to a single dimension. A heterogeneous ranking system works if it focusses just on, say, how much fun a car is to drive, or how good-looking it is, or how beautifully it handles. The magazine’s ambition to create a comprehensive ranking system—one that considered cars along twenty-one variables, each weighted according to a secret sauce cooked up by the editors—would also be fine, as long as the cars being compared were truly similar. […]

A ranking can be heterogeneous, in other words, as long as it doesn’t try to be too comprehensive. And it can be comprehensive as long as it doesn’t try to measure things that are heterogeneous. But it’s an act of real audacity when a ranking system tries to be comprehensive and heterogeneous.

Now I realize that the AmLaw 100 is not a “Best” (judgment-freighted) list, merely an arithmetic ranking by gross annual revenues, which seems innocent enough. But as the AmLaw’s own admitted discomfort over the awkwardness of including vereins, not unitary integrated firms, in the list indicates, the implication of the list’s very existence is that all members are fundamentally similar in the ways that really matter. This is beginning to fray around the edges.

My argument is more radical than positing the vereins don’t belong on the list, although I would exclude them were I King. Where I might come down on vereins “in or out?” is that it’s of small moment since everyone knows they’re not comparable beasts.

Rather, my argument is that we deceive ourselves about how truly heterogeneous the business models within our industry are becoming by unconsciously assuming that the AmLaw 100—or the AmLaw Second Hundred, or the AmLaw 200 overall—constitutes a list of the members of one fundamentally indivisible species.

Related Articles

Email Delivery

Get Our Latest Articles Delivered to your inbox +

Sign-up for email

Be the first to learn of Adam Smith, Esq. invitation-only events, surveys, and reports.

Get Our Latest Articles Delivered to Your Inbox

Like having coffee with Adam Smith, Esq. in the morning (coffee not included).

Oops, we need this information
Oops, we need this information
Oops, we need this information

Thanks and a hearty virtual handshake from the team at Adam Smith, Esq.; we’re glad you opted to hear from us.

What you can expect from us:

  • an email whenever we publish a new article;
  • respect and affection for our loyal readers. This means we’ll exercise the strictest discretion with your contact info; we will never release it outside our firm under any circumstances, not for love and not for money. And we ourselves will email you about a new article and only about a new article.

Welcome onboard! If you like what you read, tell your friends, and if you don’t, tell us.

PS: You know where to find us so we invite you to make this a two-way conversation; if you have an idea or suggestion for something you’d like us to discuss, drop it in our inbox. No promises that we’ll write about it, but we will faithfully promise to read your thoughts carefully.