Many 0Ls go to law school with the hope of getting "biglaw." What I have come to realize after responding to threads on this board and on the previous board is that many 0L's do not fully appreciate the distinctions between and among large law firms. My hope is that the below will help tease out some of the nuances.
1. What is biglaw?:
First, there is the threshold issue of what is biglaw? I've locked horns with a few people on how to define this. While there certainly is no clearly defined term, it isn't so nebulous that we can't have a general understanding.
Some people (and websites, which will be discussed later) want biglaw to mean firms of 100+ attorneys, I don't think that's the right metric. I think what many 0Ls envision when they say "biglaw" is a large, multi office (if not international) firm that pays the Milabnk/Simpson/Cravath scale ("MSC") (please see post directly below for an explanation on what the MSC scale is) (or market adjusted MSC scale, meaning a salary scale for firms in secondary markets that pay lower compared to the major markets due to lower billing rates, lower overheard, lower cost of living, etc. ) that does clean and sexy work. Many firms in the 100-250 range are not making MSC or market adjusted MSC, are not getting those bonuses, and are not doing the same quality or quantity of work that people at "biglaw" firms are doing.
(There is also the not insignificant side issue of firms in this cohort that are on shaky financial ground; there have been countless reports of the viability of many firms in the AmLaw 50-100 range. Because of that, while this guide is focused on "biglaw", I am going to route us toward "decent biglaw", which will be teased out more below).
So is the right metric firms with 250+ attorneys? No, not really, for the same reasons above.
Is the metric just the AmLaw 100? It could be, but that may leave out some firms that should be considered and include some firms that should not be considered.
Unfortunately, I think for biglaw the easiest way to define it is going to be based on their pay structure. For the major markets (LA, SF, SV, DC, Chi, NYC), does the firm pay MSC scale and pay MSC bonuses? If so, you've got biglaw. If not, perhaps it isn't. For the secondary markets (Seattle, Minneapolis, Denver, etc) does the firm pay a market adjusted MSC scale and bonus?
2. How to get biglaw
(a) Choose your market
The next serious consideration if you want biglaw is what geographical market you want to be in.
Broadly speaking, people often divide the markets into "major markets" and "secondary markets." The major markets are generally considered LA, NYC, SF, Silicon Valley (SV), Chicago, and DC. There are some markets that people debate whether they are "major," such as Orange County, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta. Secondary markets include Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis, Portland, Cleveland, and Charlotte. What differentiates a "major" from a "secondary" is also not wholly clear. It is not purely whether the market follows the MSC scale--whereas every major firm in the major markets pays MSC, some major firms in Texas and Denver do or do not pay MSC. Rather, what differentiates the two is a constellation of factors--quality of life, intensity of work, types and sizes of cases and deals, schools they pull from, etc.
(b) Why markets matter
I practice mergers and acquisitions in Los Angeles and I have worked on upwards of 100 deals with co-counsel and opposing counsel in every major market, several secondary markets, and the big international cities abroad. I can tell you from that breadth of experience that practicing in biglaw is generally more laid back in Los Angeles than in NYC, SF, and SV. That said, I can also tell you that attorneys who work M&A in NYC are generally better trained and exposed to sexier deals than attorneys in LA. But this is all generally, because it is often office specific, practice group specific, and partner specific.
While LA is chiller than NYC on average, you might be stuck working for a partner who has a stick up his ass, wants you in the office from 8-8 everyday regardless of workload, and wants you to wear a tie and a Submariner.
The point is that markets matter if you want them to matter. If you don't care what market you are in and just want to make money, then have fun at basically any of the T-13 where you can get a job at a sweatshop in NYC with median grades. But if you care about being in LA, OC, or say Houston/Dallas, that will impact which law school you should go to.
3. Choose your school
Now that you know you want biglaw and you maybe have an idea of a specific market you want to target, you should target a law school that places people into biglaw.
But how do you know which schools place people in biglaw? And how do you know which schools place people in which law firms in certain cities?
It's going to take some work. But presumably you worked hard enough that a T-13 is on the table, so this shouldn't be too onerous.
I honestly think the best way to do this is to reverse engineer the process. Of the dozens of "biglaw" firms out there, I think there are about 30 or so that are "decent" in that they are on healthy financial grounds (see note above about AmLaw 50-100 sinking ships) and provide good opportunities to their associates. To figure out these decent ones, one needs to consult the AmLaw 100 stats. AmLaw publishes data every year on the financial health of firms and changes in headcount. I think this information is incredibly valuable because it tells you how well a firm is doing. I generally look to changes of profits per partner over time, while ignoring things like total revenue. You'll also get an idea of leverage (which is useful for how leanly deals and cases are staffed, among other things), partners minted, etc. Unless you are looking to join a firm that has a very specific practice group, the 30 of these firms are generally fungible in that they pay MSC, they bonus at MSC, the offer good training, and they offer good exist opportunities.
You can do all of this if you're targeting a market too. Pull the AmLaw 100 list and figure out which firms you think are the healthiest or have the best metric that is important to you (as I said, PPP is my favorite). Figure out if your target market has any of those firms, then go to those firms websites and search based on school. This will take less than an hour and basically tell you what you need to know.
Note that some firms in, say LA, might only have a handful of people from, say Michigan. But if they have a few people spread out among different classes, it means that firm recruits at Michigan.
Similarly, if you are dead set on LA, you’re going to have to run the calculus of taking money at UCLA, UCI and USC, which place decently in LA, over, say, Michigan or GULC, which place in LA but with slightly lower grade cutoffs.
Alternatively, you can contact the law school itself. Law schools have a treasure trove of data that they don't publish on their own volition. But you can ask for it. You can ask someone in admissions at school X that you are interested in to put you in touch with someone from career services at school X and ask them "can you tell me which law firms in city Z have alumni from this school?" or "do you have any alumni at firms a, b, or c?" Those are stats that they could give you pretty damn easy, especially if they are trying to woo you.
You can also just ask career services at the perspective school to send you info on which firms and from what offices have participated in OCI over the previous several years. This is a type of list that will have already been prepared, so it's just a matter of asking for it. They should also have yield statistics they can give you.
Alternatively, Above the Law has information on each law firm and which schools they pull from mostly, but I'm not sure how often that is updated. They also don't break down which schools are represented in which offices, so while Kirkland may pull the most of its associates from U of Chicago, that might not be the case for Kirkland LA.
Law School Transparency (LST) publishes somewhat helpful, but very misleading statistics on how many graduates from a law school go on to work in firms with 100+ attorneys. As noted above, choosing a school with the hopes of biglaw purely based on how many students get to firms with 100+ attorneys is a bit misleading.
4. Get good grades
This is the most important part. You gotta get good grades.
We can look at the numbers and say "Duke sends 50% of its kids to firms with over 500 attorneys and that pay $180k+, so all I gotta do is get median and I'll get biglaw." Not quite.
There are nuances to this. The better you do in law school, the higher quality of firm you will have a chance of getting to. While you certainly can get into a firm with over 500 attorneys that pays MSC, that firm might be a dumpster fire burning on the deck of the Titanic. The decent biglaw firms, the quality firms--the kind that you want to be at because they pay MSC, because they match bonuses instantly and don't leave you guessing what your bonus will be or when you will get it, because they train you well, because they won't yank benefits away from you because they need to plug leaking financial holes--are going to want you to have good grades from a good school. Median at Duke likely won't get you GDC or Latham. Median at Duke will get you a firm that pays and bonuses MSC, but I might worry about what kind of meal expense reimbursement policy they have.