Law Firm Rankings Methodology

How BCG Attorney Search Ranks Law Firms: What Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3 Means

Law firms that are ranked a Tier 1, Tier 2, or Tier 3 fall into this classification based on the following criteria. The logic discussed below is for the overall rankings of a firm in a given geographic area. Most of this information is based on decades of interacting with these law firms, feedback on firm culture from our attorney candidates working in these law firms, the size of the law firms, and public information available about these law firms provided by the attorneys at the firms, attorneys at peer firms, or the firm’s clients.

If you are a law firm (or an attorney there) and believe you have been classified improperly, or would otherwise like to make us aware of information regarding your ranking, we would love to hear from you and will include any written response you provide us in your firm profile on BCG Attorney Search’s website. Please let us know any information you would like us to include in your ranking by emailing us at rankings@bcgsearch.com.

Tier 1 Law Firms (Overall Rankings)

Sophistication of Work / Profile of Clients

  • Tier 1 firms tend to be the most powerful and well-known firms nationally and in a given market. A Tier 1 firm will be regularly called upon to represent the largest companies, government entities, and others in the most important and high-profile legal matters in that market.
  • Tier 1 law firms are more likely to have long-standing institutional relationships with well-known, national clients than Tier 2 and Tier 3 law firms.
  • Tier 1 law firms have “top of mind” awareness among clients and other attorneys, especially for high stakes, complex “bet-the-business” legal matters.
  • A Tier 1 law firm will regularly turn work down and refer it to other law firms—including work for its own clients. A Tier 1 law firm is less threatened about losing clients than Tier 1 or Tier 2 law firms.

Market Presence and Firm Stability

  • Tier 1 law firms have multiple offices across the United States and usually have an international presence as well. The firms’ offices are generally concentrated only in the largest national markets, and there are very few of these firms in smaller markets.
  • When a Tier 1 law firm opens a branch office, they will almost always open the branch office with attorneys from the main office. It is very difficult for attorneys not from the main office to make partner in the branch office.
  • Tier 1 law firms are very stable and rarely go out of business.
  • Tier 1 law firms are less likely to merge than Tier 2 or Tier 3 firms because their brands are so strong.

Practice Area Focus

  • Tier 1 law firms are generally full service law firms that have experienced, nationally recognized attorneys, in over 10+ practice areas.
  • The attorneys in a Tier 1 law firm are most often specialists and subspecialists doing nothing but a certain type of work in the given practice area. A corporate attorney would be likely to do nothing but mergers and acquisitions in just one industry, for example, as opposed to being a corporate generalist, doing mergers and acquisitions and capital markets work, or doing mergers and acquisitions for a variety of different types of companies. A Tier 1 real estate attorney would be more likely to do just leasing and not leasing, purchase and sales, REITs and so forth. A patent attorney would be likely to do just pharmaceutical patents than mechanical, electromechanical, and other patents in addition. This gives clients a more focused attorney who provides better quality work.

Firm Profits and Attorney Compensation

  • Tier 1 law firms will generally have the highest billing rates and the highest profits per partner. They also tend to require the most business to lateral into as partners.
  • A Tier 1 law firm will almost always pay the highest salaries to new associates and lateral hires.
  • Almost all Tier 1 law firms have summer programs in their main offices and branch offices and pay the highest summer salaries.

Attorney Hiring and Retention

  • Associate positions at Tier 1 law firms tend to be the most sought after positions for newly minted lawyers. These firms will generally exclusively hire from the top law schools in the country. It is exceptionally difficult to get into Tier 1 law firms as an associate or a partner.
  • Tier 1 law firms hire fewer lateral partners and associates than Tier 2 firms and are more likely to home-grow their attorneys.
  • Tier 1 firms are generally competitive and demanding places to work. They are not a “lifestyle” firms. As a result, many Tier 1 firms can expect a certain level of attorney attrition.
  • Partners are the least likely to leave these firms.

Marketability of Attorneys

  • Attorneys from Tier 1 law firms can often easily transition into important roles in the government or judiciary or as general counsels of major corporations.
  • Tier 1 associate attorneys with less than six years of experience can get jobs with Tier 2 law firms fairly easily provided the market is good enough, and there is demand.

Tier 2 Law Firms (Overall Rankings)

Sophistication of Work / Profile of Clients

  • Tier 2 law firms will work for major, national clients and also middle market to smaller companies. These firms rarely work for individuals.
  • Tier 2 firms almost always have ongoing relationships with major national clients. The work these firms are called upon to do is usually complex and sophisticated.
  • A Tier 2 law firm is likely to have resources to handle most matters and will try to keep most types of works in-house. It is rare for Tier 2 law firms to refer work outside of the firm.

Market Presence and Firm Stability

  • Tier 2 firms will generally have a robust national presence, and may have a limited international footprint.
  • While generally Tier 2 firms will be in major legal markets, many of these firms will also have a presence in smaller markets that are not serviced by the largest Tier 1 firms.
  • Tier 2 firms are well-established and have a track record of stable growth. They are unlikely to dissolve.
  • Tier 2 firms, especially in smaller markets, are more likely to merge than Tier 1 law firms.
  • A Tier 2 law firm will often acquire local law firms when it opens a branch office. A Tier 2 law firm will often allow attorneys from a branch office to make partner without having a substantial connection to the main office.

Practice Area Focus

  • Like Tier 1 firms, Tier 2 firms are generally full service firms with experienced attorneys in 10+ practice areas.
  • Tier 2 law firms may have nationally recognized experts in various practice areas.
  • A Tier 2 law firm’s attorneys may be specialized in a given practice area; however, they are more likely to do different types of work in that practice area. A real estate attorney would do leasing, purchase, and sales and other types of work instead of just one of these. A corporate attorney might do all types of corporate work—but not always.

Firm Profits and Attorney Compensation

  • A Tier 2 law firm is likely to have lower billing rates than Tier 1 law firm.
  • While salaries at many Tier 2 law firms are likely to be top-of-market for first year attorneys, they are not as likely to pay lockstep as Tier 1 firms.
  • Associates in smaller market offices of Tier 2 firms may also expect a lower salary than their colleagues in larger markets.

Attorney Hiring and Retention

  • A Tier 2 law firm tends to recruit at top law schools, have summer programs, and draw top law students from national and regional law schools.
  • A Tier 2 law firm is extremely desirable to work in and typically has very high hiring standards but is often slightly less competitive than a Tier 1 law firm.
  • Most Tier 2 law firms have summer programs in their main office and regional offices.
  • Tier 2 firms are more likely to rely on lateral partner acquisitions and lateral attorney hiring for growth.
  • Partners are more likely to leave Tier 2 firms than Tier 1 law firms.

Marketability of Attorneys

  • Tier 2 law firm attorneys may go on to take up important roles in government, the judiciary, and to lead important companies; however, they are less likely to do so than attorneys from Tier 1 law firms.
  • Tier 2 attorneys can sometimes get positions with Tier 1 law firms provided they have outstanding academics and outstanding experience in a given practice area.
  • Tier 2 attorneys with less than six years of experience can get jobs with Tier 3 law firms fairly easily, provided the market is good enough, and their practice area is in demand.
  • While nothing is set in stone and generalization about how the market works is dangerous, a Tier 2 attorney may be competitive to move to a Tier 1 law firm in a major market if they have at least $3,000,000 to $5,000,000 or more in business (provided the billing rates are also portable). In middle markets, Tier 2 attorneys may be competitive to move to a Tier 1 law firm if they have at least $2,000,000 in business (again, provided the billing rates are also portable).

Tier 3 Law Firms (Overall Rankings)

Sophistication of Work / Profile of Clients

  • A Tier 3 law firm outside of a major national market may be among the top law firms in its market. The best law firms in smaller markets tend to be Tier 3 law firms.
  • A Tier 3 law firm is less likely to do significant work for major national companies than a larger law firm. Rather, Tier 3 law firms will probably take work for individuals and small businesses that would generally be priced out of hiring a Tier 1 or Tier 2 law firm.
  • A Tier 3 law firm may do the plaintiff’s side work.
  • A Tier 3 law firm is less likely to turn down work than a Tier 2 or Tier 3 law firm.
  • Tier 3 law firms may do very sophisticated work in one or a few practice areas; however, these practice areas are unlikely to involve representing the largest companies but they may. For example, a Tier 3 law firm may do patents for huge companies, tax work and more.

Market Presence and Stability

  • While a Tier 3 firm may have more than one office in the United States, they are more likely to be a regional law firm than a national law firm.
  • Tier 3 law firms are unlikely to have international offices.
  • A Tier 3 law firm in a major market is likely to be a smaller law firm than a Tier 2 law firm.
  • A Tier 3 law firm may be a good target to merge into a larger law firm.
  • Many Tier 3 law firms are targeted by Tier 2 law firms when they open branch offices.
  • A Tier 3 law firm is more likely than a Tier 2 or Tier 1 law firm to go out of business.

Practice Area Focus

  • A Tier 3 law firm is less likely to have work in 10+ practice areas than a Tier 1 or Tier 2 firm.
  • A Tier 3 law firm may allow its attorneys to cross over between practice areas. A real estate attorney may also do corporate work, or even real estate work, or even litigation.
  • Tier 3 law firms tend to have regionally recognized experts in various practice areas; however, they are more likely to be recognized regionally than nationally.

Firm Profits and Attorney Compensation

  • A Tier 3 law firm may have a summer program; however, it is more likely than not to pay high market salaries to its summer attorneys.

Attorney Hiring and Retention

  • A Tier 3 law firm is less likely to draw the best students from the best law schools; however, it may depend on its specialty.
  • A Tier 3 law firm is most likely to do most of its recruiting informally. It is likely to rely on advertising online, informal networking, and more to recruit attorneys.
  • Many Tier 3 law firms are quality of life law firms.
  • Partners, associates, and others are more likely to leave Tier 3 law firms than they are Tier 2 and Tier 1 law firms.

Marketability of Attorneys

  • Tier 3 law firm attorneys often go on to regional positions in government, judgeships, and to be the general counsel, or in leadership roles, in local companies.
  • Tier 3 attorneys can often move to Tier 2 law firms if they have less than six years of experience, solid academics, and focused experience in one practice area.
  • Tier 3 attorneys have a difficult time moving to Tier 1 law firms unless they are at a Tier 3 law firm that attracts attorneys with the best academics, and the firm is very focused on a given practice area.
  • A Tier 3 partner is generally competitive to move to a Tier 2 firm if they have at least $500,000 in a middle-market and $1,000,000 to $2,000,000 in business in a major market (provided the billing rates are also portable).

BCG Attorney Search also uses an internal ranking system to rank law firms (of 1 to 5) and also ranks candidates. If you are interested in learning how we do this, please review here: https://www.bcgsearch.com/article/900046515/How-to-Easily-Determine-the-Best-Attorneys-and-Law-Firms-The-Five-Prestige-Levels-of-Attorneys-and-Law-Firms/

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