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Latham & Watkins and Kirkland & Ellis lead the pack

US rankings editor Ian Deering deep dives into the brand new United States rankings to highlight the best performing firms of the past 12 months

Chalk up another completed guide. Now in our 12th year covering the US market, The Legal 500 United States has matured and expanded in line with its impending teens, with well over 300 leading firms earning a ranking in the 2019 guide. The past year saw some significant firm mergers, partner moves, and, on our side, the introduction of new ranking sections; but before we get there, let’s take a quick look at some market observations that came to light during the research.

Where to start? Well, you may have noticed that it’s almost impossible to talk about the United States without mentioning President Donald Trump. You may have also noticed that the 45th US President has at least a perceived impact on nearly every aspect of the domestic economy, and thus on the wider global economy. It’s difficult to determine which segment of the commercial landscape has been most affected by the current administration. From environmental protection to immigration and financial services to corporate taxation, lawyers have reported periods of both regulatory limbo and flurries of updated and anticipated compliance activity.

In terms of commercial activity, 2018 was one of the strongest years for M&A since the turn of the century. Some $3.5tn of global M&A deals were closed in 2018, while domestic M&A – in part driven by 2018’s sweeping tax reforms – increased by over 30% in Q3 when compared to 2017. Equity markets as well bucked the global trend, with domestic equity deals showing a slight increase in volume and IPO value year-on-year, despite a few bumps in Q2 and a mercurial Q4. Corporate debt, however, took a significant hit, and global offerings also finished down year-on-year.

Looking at our coverage of the US legal market, this year’s guide features a brand new Delaware law section, which highlights some of the leading firms providing specialised advice on the company law of the ‘First State’. Further, shareholder activism was introduced as a standalone practice area to showcase an active segment of the corporate and funds market, and a skill set that is increasingly relied upon as activist strategies have started to be utilised internationally.

The market saw dozens of high-profile partner moves across numerous practice areas, with firms including Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, DLA Piper, Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe, and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher among the market’s most active hirers. In addition, 2018 saw the merger of Andrews Kurth Kenyon and Hunton & Williams, as well as that of Foley & Lardner and Gardere Wynn Sewell. Other market moves included the transatlantic combination of Bryan Cave and UK-based Berwin Leighton Paisner, and the merger of Fitzpatrick, Cella, Harper & Scinto into Venable.

As the two largest firms in the world by revenue, it is perhaps unsurprising that Latham & Watkins and Kirkland & Ellis have the most top-tier rankings in our latest guide; 36 and 24, respectively. The only other firms to have top-tier rankings in more than 20 tables are Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton with 22, and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett just one behind at 21. Lathams and Kirkland also earned among the most rankings total (72 and 62, respectively), while Mayer Brown and Morgan, Lewis & Bockius each made their way into 65 ranking tables.

Seven firms in the US guide have at least 30 lawyers who have earned the title of a ‘leading individual’: Mayer Brown, Hogan Lovells, Gibson, Dunn, David Polk & Wardwell, Simpson Thacher, Kirkland, and Lathams, the last of which leads the pack with an impressive 61 partners recognized as market leaders. Some of these teams have also seen a number of their junior practitioners recognised as next generation partners or rising star associates. Other firms noted for their promising up-and-comers include Weil, Gotshal & Manges and Morgan Lewis.

Congratulations to every firm, team, and individual that made it into our rankings and leader tables this year. It’s been said dozens of times before, but thanks also to everyone who participated in the research and contributed to making our rankings accurate and comprehensive. We’re looking forward to doing it all again next year, but until then, enjoy the summer!