Business & Practice

In Ahab-like Quest, Consultant Seeks Transparency in AmLaw Rankings

Aug. 26, 2015, 5:25 PM

On Monday afternoon, a meeting of the minds took place at a Starbucks on the Upper West Side in Manhattan.

Kimberly Kleman, editor-in-chief of The American Lawyer, met her intellectual jousting partner of late, Bruce MacEwen, an outspoken law firm consultant.

In June, in a video op-ed on Big Law Business, MacEwen took a swipe at The American Lawyer’s ranking of the top 200 grossing firms in the United States, or the AmLaw 200, saying it “leads us into the mistake of thinking that all these firms are the same... and they are not remotely the same.”

He expanded, “My real point is it’s intellectually lazy, mistaken and to some extent [engaging in] a power play to take the list at face value, and say ‘My job is done.’”

Later that same month, Kleman fired back in her own video on Big Law Business , explaining the publication purposely does not bring “value judgments” to the rankings, and instead chooses to report financial metrics objectively.

All disagreements aside, the pair decided it would make sense to grab a coffee together — off-camera.

“The ‘occasion’ was simply that we’d been trying for a while to get together ...and given the two Bloomberg videos recently on rankings, I renewed the effort to meet,” MacEwen wrote in an email.

Starbucks turned out to be a neutral and agreeable location, being close to his office and because Kleman had a trip to nearby Columbia Law School planned.

The pair had a cordial discussion about what the legal publication should cover, according to MacEwen. However, at the end of the meeting, unbeknownst to Kleman, MacEwen returned to his Upper West Side home office and prepared to make an announcement.

On Tuesday morning, MacEwen treated the subscribers to his legal blog Adam Smith, Esq. to an email message titled, “How Reliable Are the AmLaw Numbers?”

It turned out his debate with Kleman was far from over: His email was promoting a survey that he and his colleague Janet Stanton had created to probe the accuracy of the publication’s financial data. It strongly suggested the AmLaw rankings may not be entirely accurate.

“The AmLaw rankings have been with us for over thirty years, and despite the evergreen complaints about their design, purpose, impact and reliability, to our knowledge no one has ever tried to systematically ask AmLaw firms themselves whether and to what extent they actually comply in reporting accurate data,” the memo said. “We think it’s time to take a look.”

In the letter, later published on Adam Smith, Esq. , MacEwen and Stanton called the AmLaw rankings the “Fortune 500 of Law Land” but noted they feel there should be greater transparency into how the numbers are obtained. They created an anonymous questionnaire where lawyers can disclose their firms’ level of cooperation in helping The American Lawyer report out annual rankings and revenues.

The questionnaire asks participants whether they work at an AmLaw firm, and if so, to characterize what extent their firm cooperates with The American Lawyer when it reports out the AmLaw 100/200 rankings, and whether their firms attest to or affirm the accuracy of the figures they submit to The American Lawyer.

It also gives participants who do not practice at an AmLaw firm the opportunity to characterize their confidence in the accuracy of the publication’s figures.

Asked for comment about MacEwen’s recent survey, Kleman, the American Lawyer editor, responded to Big Law Business by email: “Funny, I met Bruce yesterday afternoon at Starbucks (I paid for his coffee!) and he never mentioned the survey. I have nothing else to add.”

Pressed to speak in greater detail about her Starbucks jangling with MacEwen, Kleman apologized and made clear she wasn’t “going to go there.”

The AmLaw rankings are the most widely used financial data available to law firms, although their accuracy has sometimes been criticized by industry observers. This year, the legal giant Dentons launched an advertising campaign against the publication that challenged its accuracy when the law firm contested its profits per partner of $495,000 this year.

In the first interview Dentons’ leaders gave to reporters about the ad, which has until now gone unpublished, CEO Elliott Portnoy said: “They made up a number that bears absolutely no resemblance to reality.” Its Chairman Joe Andrew called the figure “concocted.”

Kleman told the Wall Street Journal Law Blog in July that she hoped to sit down with the firm to talk about the numbers, and an AmLaw spokeswoman told Big Law Business on Wednesday that there has been an update to the saga: The American Lawyer had posted a correction.

She pointed to the online version of the AmLaw 100, which carries the correction:

The American Lawyer is revising the 2014 global profits per partner figure it reported for Dentons from $495,000 to $680,000. Dentons originally declined to provide a global PPP and other key metrics prior to The Am Law 100 survey’s publication on April 27. Following publication, Dentons provided the new PPP figure along with a letter from consultant KPMG validating the number. The American Lawyer has updated other Am Law 100 metrics for Dentons that either use PPP as a component or are directly derived from PPP to incorporate this change.

To read an interview with MacEwen and his partner Stanton, click here .

(UPDATED: This article has been updated to include The American Lawyer’s correction on Dentons’ profits per partner figure)

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