Big Law associate careers tend to be brutally short. Consider the outcomes of associates who joined 156 major law firms since 2010:*
- 44% left their firms before their 3rd year mark
- 67% left their firms before their 5th year mark
- 78% left their firms before their 7th year mark
% of associates since 2010 who left their firms before their 3rd, 5th and 7th year anniversaries
Most often, these departing associates lateraled to a new firm (54% of moves since 2010); many went in house (25% of moves), some went into government (7% of moves); others pursued a clerkship and didn’t return to their firm afterwards (4% of moves); and a sizable number of associates left for other pursuits i.e. startups, graduate school, nonprofits, family obligations, and non-legal roles at banks, consulting firms, and corporations (10% of moves).
Departure destinations of associates who left 155 major law firms since 2010
And yet amidst the migration, associates at certain firms stuck around a lot longer than their peers. We took a look at these firms using data from Move Tracker.
First, we'll take a look at the firms that did the best job of retaining their homegrown associates – associates who were at their first firm out of law school:
3 years after joining: Vault 100 firms with the highest % of homegrown associates who remained
Associates at these firms tended to stay through the crucial early stages of their careers, when they receive the bulk of their training:
- Davis Wright Tremaine – 86%
- Latham & Watkins – 74%
- Ropes & Gray – 73% (tie)
- Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz – 73% (tie)
- DLA Piper – 72% (tie)
- Perkins Coie – 72% (tie)
- Reed Smith – 72% (tie)
- Alston & Bird – 71% (tie)
- Cooley – 71% (tie)
- Arent Fox – 70%
- Compare these firms to the Big Law average: 57%
- Compare these firms to the lowest-performing Vault 100 firm: 43% (sign up to view)
5 years after joining: Vault 100 firms with the highest % of homegrown associates who remained
Associates stuck around these firms even when most of them were in their prime years of marketability to other law firms:
- Arent Fox – 58%
- Williams & Connolly – 57%
- Fenwick & West – 56%
- Cooley – 55%
- Alston & Bird – 54%
- Fish & Richardson – 53%
- Reed Smith – 52% (tie)
- Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz – 52% (tie)
- Baker Botts – 51%
- Ropes & Gray – 49%
- Compare these firms to the Big Law average: 33%
- Compare these firms to the lowest-performing Vault 100 firm: 13% (sign up to view)
7 years after joining: Vault 100 firms with the highest % of homegrown associates who remained
Associates remained at these firms even as they approached the stage in Big Law firms where they faced pressure to move up or out:
- Williams & Connolly – 67%
- Cooley – 54%
- Fenwick & West – 50% (tie)
- Locke Lord – 50% (tie)
- Seyfarth Shaw – 50% (tie)
- DLA Piper – 46%
- Fish & Richardson – 45%
- BakerHostetler – 41%
- Haynes & Boone – 40% (tie)
- Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz – 40% (tie)
- Compare these firms to the Big Law Average: 22%
- Compare these firms to the lowest-performing Vault 100 firm: 0% (sign up to view)
What's notable about the leaders in these rankings? For one, they were a diverse mix of firms. They included highly elite firms with hard-to-match compensation (Wachtell, Williams & Connolly), Big Law behemoths (Latham & Watkins, Ropes & Gray, Reed Smith, DLA Piper), firms serving the technology and emerging company space (Fenwick, Cooley), and firms with a high ratio of partners to associates (Arent Fox, Davis Wright Tremaine).
It’s not hard to imagine that associates getting paid above market, gaining valuable technology company experience, or being at a firm that’s not highly leveraged would choose to stay at their firms longer than their peers. But we should also note that not every firm with these characteristics outperformed the market. What causes a firm's associates to stick around also involves other factors, and some of the strongest factors, in our experience, are quality of work, promotion prospects, training, culture, and availability of outside opportunities. Understanding these factors requires not just data, but inside information on law firms, and we talk about how to get this type of information below.
Now lets look at the firms that retained their lateral associates at the highest rates. First, it’s notable that the average tenure of lateral associates is not significantly different from the average tenure of homegrown associates (55% of laterals stayed three years vs. 57% of homegrowns; 34% of laterals stayed five years vs. 33% of homegrowns). That may be surprising considering that laterals join firms later in their careers, closer to the point at which they must move up or out. But it is less surprising if you understand how competitive the lateral market is and that most firms treat lateral hiring as an opportunity to attract stellar candidates who are likely to stay at the firm for a significant period of time.
3 years after joining: Vault 100 firms with the highest % of lateral associates who remained
- Davis Wright Tremaine– 78%
- Boies Schiller & Flexner – 76%
- Munger Tolles & Olson – 73%
- BakerHostetler – 72%
- Venable – 71%
- Holland & Knight – 70%
- Haynes Boone – 69% (tie)
- Kramer Levin – 69% (tie)
- Nixon Peabody – 69% (tie)
- Perkins Coie – 68%
- Compare these firms to the Big Law average: 55%
- Compare these firms to the lowest-performing Vault 100 firm: 31% (sign up to view)
5 years after joining: Vault 100 firms with the highest % of lateral associates who remained
- Haynes and Boone – 66%
- Davis Wright Tremaine – 57%
- BakerHostetler – 56%
- Reed Smith – 55%
- Boies Schiller & Flexner – 50%
- Seyfarth Shaw – 48%
- Nixon Peabody – 47%
- Quinn Emanuel – 47%
- Perkins Coie – 46%
- Venable – 46%
- Compare these firms to the Big Law average: 34%
- Compare these firms to the lowest-performing Vault 100 firm: 0% (sign up to view)
[Note that we aren't ranking firms that retained lateral associates for 7+ years as the sample size of lateral moves that took place over seven years ago is too small]
What can we learn from these lateral retention rankings? Just as firm type, quality of work, training, culture, and promotion prospects all matter for homegrown associates, they also play a role in whether lateral associates tend to stay. But in the case of laterals, there are additional factors. One is a firm’s process for selecting lateral associates. Many firms focus their recruiting efforts on laterals who appear most likely to remain at the firm for an extended period. Second is a firm’s ability to integrate laterals into the firm. Certain firms have little process to ensure a successful transition, while others have very strong processes. That can make a big difference in our experience.
Where does my firm (or my prospective firm) rank?
We built Laterally to bring transparency to the legal job market and we’ve made our data on law firms and job moves freely available to associates and law students. To see how your firm did at retaining associates and to compare it to 155 other major law firms, log in to Laterally or sign up to view Move Tracker. Once you’re on the Move Tracker page, open a drawer for a firm of interest and view the Stats tab:
How can this information help my career?
For anyone assessing their career prospects or contemplating a lateral move, Move Tracker is a great way to get the lay of the land, but two notes of caution:
1) Don't be overly concerned with aggregate retention statistics. Instead, drill down into the particular locations and practice areas of the firms that interest you and examine the specific moves and career progressions of associates in those groups. Did they jump ship to a peer, head to a boutique, go in-house, or found the next big startup? Not all moves are the same.
2) To fully understand what makes associates leave a firm requires an insider’s understanding of the currents inside law firms. That is why Laterally consultants keep close tabs on specific law firm practice groups and rely on a network of attorneys to supply them with information. When you sign up on Laterally, if you express interest in a lateral move and have the right credentials, our consultants will reach out to offer their knowledge and support.
*Data is from Move Tracker, which covers publicly-available associate moves into and out of 156 major law firms since 2010.
Update: some of you have asked how it is possible that some firms retain more of their associates after 7 years than they do after 5 years. The reason is that our calculation looks at: how many associates who joined after Jan 1, 2010 and at least 7 years ago were still at their firm on their 7th anniversary at the firm? And how many associates who joined after Jan 1, 2010 and at least 5 years ago were still at their firm on their 5th anniversary?
So for example, a firm might have hired 100 associates from Jan 2010-Feb 2011 (at least 7 years ago) and only 60 (60%) of them remained at the firm on their 7-year anniversary. That same firm might have hired another 100 associates from Feb 2011 to Feb 2013 (at least 5 years ago but less than 7 years ago) and only 40 (40%) of those associates remained at the firm on their 5th year anniversary. In total, therefore, there were 200 associates who joined the firm after 2010 but at least 5 years ago (before Feb. 2018), and 100 of them remained on their 5th anniversary (50%).