Exclusive: Law firms with the youngest partners, and the oldest

REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

When Kirkland & Ellis last month announced 151 new partners, the country's top-grossing law firm cemented the predominance of its young partner contingent.

A whopping 75% of Kirkland partners in the U.S. earned their law degrees in the 2000s, according to legal data intelligence provider Leopard Solutions in an exclusive report for Reuters.

That’s more than at any other Am Law 200 firm, where on average, 41% of U.S.-based partners have gotten their J.D.s in the year 2000 or beyond, the Leopard data shows.

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A Kirkland spokeswoman declined comment.

At the risk of stating the obvious, law firms' assets are made up of people. The Leopard report, which breaks down the distribution of partners at the Am Law 200 by J.D. year, provides what to me is a fascinating demographic window into those assets at the biggest firms.

The implications go beyond what music gets played at a firm's holiday party or the prowess of its partner softball team. The stats reflect a range of business models from "up-or-out" non-equity partnerships to firms that eschew mandatory retirement and welcome partners long into their golden years.

At one end of the spectrum is 2,725-lawyer Kirkland, which in recent years has promoted huge classes of lawyers to non-equity partner status (145 in 2020; 141 in 2019; 122 in 2018), resulting in a uniquely young-skewing partnership.

These new lawyers have the title of partner, but not the equity. How many of them will ultimately attain it is unknown. (To quote The Hunger Games, “May the odds be ever in your favor.”) Suffice to say, the firm's 476 equity partners last year didn't take home average profits of $6.2 million, per The American Lawyer, by handing out shares like candy.

At the other end of the spectrum are firms with an outsized share of Baby Boomer partners, including Norton Rose Fulbright, Duane Morris, Davis Wright Tremaine, Blank Rome, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, Steptoe & Johnson, Fox Rothschild and Greenberg Traurig, according to the Leopard numbers.

These firms face a looming challenge in retaining the clients of their senior partners after they retire, but they also see strength in the age range and expertise such seasoned lawyers provide.

As Norton Rose U.S. managing partner Jeff Cody put it: “Our clients and our firm value the wealth of experience that our senior partners offer in their roles as trusted advisors and respected mentors. We are pleased with and proud of our overall balance of senior partners, lawyers in their primes and rising stars.”

Per Leopard data, about 38% of Norton Rose partners got their J.D.s before 1989, compared with the Am Law 200 average of 27%.

But before we dive in deeper into the numbers, a word about the Leopard methodology.

According to vice president of sales and marketing Phil Flora, Leopard “collects biographical and demographic information, such as education, areas of expertise, diversity, memberships and more, on over 320,000 attorneys from over 4,200 law firms by reviewing attorney profiles found on the law firm sites.”

Flora in an email continued: “We have been collecting this information for the past 20 years and update it twice a week. Our attorney team reviews each record to ensure data related to practice areas, diversity and other similar information is coded and labeled correctly.”

At my request, Flora ran a custom report for Reuters on J.D. demographics of the AmLaw 200 firms, looking at U.S. offices only.

I should note that the report is a snapshot in time as of mid-October. A lateral group coming or going or the announcement of newly elevated partners could shift an individual firm’s numbers.

That said, the details are engrossing. For example, only about 1% of current Big Law partners earned their law degrees in the 1960s or earlier. But the ones who are still practicing are some of the biggest names in the profession. Among them: Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz founders Herbert Wachtell (New York University School of Law, class of 1954) and Martin Lipton (NYU Law class of 1955), and Boies Schiller Flexner founder David Boies (Yale Law School, class of 1966).

Fun fact: Per the data, the longest-practicing partner in Big Law is Weil, Gotshal & Manges senior antitrust partner Ira Millstein, who will turn 95 next week. Millstein earned his law degree in 1949 from Columbia Law School.

“I’m honored to be asked for my opinion about this honor – it’s quite simple, it beats the alternative,” he said via email.

The data also points to Big Law partners with the most recent J.D.s.

Topping the list is Kirkland & Ellis M&A partner Brice Lipman in Austin. He made partner in 2021, a mere five years after he got his law degree from the University of Chicago Law School in 2016 (along with a joint MBA from the university’s Booth School of Business).

Lipman declined comment.

Per the Leopard report, the average Kirkland partner got his or her J.D. in 2005. By comparison, the average Am Law 200 partner finished law school a full decade earlier, in 1995.

About 6.5% of current AmLaw 200 partners earned their J.D.s in the 1970s, and 20% did so in the 1980s.

Some firms keep these numbers low via mandatory retirement polices. About half of Big Law firms have some form of retirement policy, though as Michael Allen, the principal of legal recruiter Lateral Link, told me, “Mandatory retirement is not necessarily mandatory. Firms almost always make exceptions” for rainmakers.

Other firms, especially newer ones like 19-year-old Kobre & Kim, say their “business model tends to attract younger litigators,” Kobre’s chief strategy officer Gary Singer said.

More than 60% of partners at Kobre got their law degrees in the 2000s, as did partners at Fish & Richardson, Knobbe Martens, Honigman and Cole, Scott & Kissane, according to the data.

As for firms with a disproportionate share of more senior partners, it's key to consider what will happen to these lawyers' clients when they eventually retire.

“It’s not automatic that clients will stay at a law firm,” Brian McMahon, a managing director at legal recruiter Major, Lindsey & Africa, pointed out. “Who will get the work in the future?”

Greenberg Traurig is among the firms with a higher-than-average percentage of partners who earned their J.D.s before 1990, but firm leaders see this as an asset.

"With no mandatory retirement age, we have a significant number of active baby boomer attorneys whose experience is critical in training the next generation of lawyers and meeting the needs of our clients," Greenberg chief executive officer Brian Duffy said in a statement.

When these partners do retire, he added, the firm has plans in place to ensure their clients get the same service "seamlessly across generations.”

(Note: Ira Millstein's 95h birthday is next week. This story has been corrected.)

Opinions expressed here are those of the author. Reuters News, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence and freedom from bias.

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Jenna Greene writes about legal business and culture, taking a broad look at trends in the profession, faces behind the cases, and quirky courtroom dramas. A longtime chronicler of the legal industry and high-profile litigation, she lives in Northern California. Reach Greene at jenna.greene@thomsonreuters.com