News & Politics

Some Lawyers at Big Local Firms Not Making Millions

Wiley Rein led the Legal Times 2006 list of Washington’s most profitable law firms, earning $407 million. Wiley Rein had the biggest single score last year, winning $245 million in a patent-infringement case against the Canadian maker of the popular BlackBerry.

Not that anyone need cry for BlackBerry. Since the settlement was announced, its stock has gone up more than $100 a share, adding more than $18 billion in value for the firm’s stockholders.

But the biggest news out of the Legal Times survey was the continued poor performance of the big traditional local law firms versus Washington branches of out-of-state firms. Disregarding Wiley’s big BlackBerry score, the most profitable law practice in DC is New York–based Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, best known as the home firm of defense lawyer Robert Bennett.

Partners at Skadden averaged more than $2 million in profits, and some prominent partners, like Bennett, were said to bring home more than $3 million.

While attorneys at New York–based Skadden and Los Angeles’s Latham & Watkins have seen their revenue go into the stratosphere, local firms like Arnold & Porter are increasingly losing ground with the field. Profits at Arnold & Porter failed even to reach $900,000 per partner—low enough to raise questions in legal circles about the future of this Washington legal landmark.

Doing only marginally better was Covington & Burling, which failed to make the top ten in profits. Partners on average earned $1,085,000 in 2006, about the same as members of Washington’s other big local firm, Hogan & Hartson.

The futures of all three firms, attorneys say, may rest on some sort of merger with more profitable out-of-state practices, akin to the decision two years ago by Wilmer Cutler Pickering to merge with a Boston firm and become WilmerHale.