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By Ben Seal | October 28, 2018 at 08:00 PM

What does it take for a law firm to excel in today’s rapidly evolving legal industry?

It’s not just record revenue and profits, though they are certainly part of the equation. It’s about providing the highest level of client work and service on the most crucial matters to those clients. And beyond that, there is the question of innovation—the search for new and untested methods for meeting the firm’s and clients’ goals; the adoption of new technologies to enhance and make more efficient a firm’s offerings; the ingenuity to see what’s coming and harness its power. And if ever a firm should forget the law’s legacy as a profession, there is the responsibility to focus on pro bono and diversity initiatives.

Quite frankly, it’s a lot to consider. To excel—to truly stand apart in a marketplace more crowded than ever with elite competition—requires a graceful balancing act. It takes a cohesive structure designed to keep disparate moving parts working toward the same goal and functioning at the highest level. The American Lawyer’s finalists for Best Law Firm of the Year managed to pull off this trick, turning in an impressive combination of groundbreaking work, creative vision and financial success.

Our seven finalists represent, among them, many of the world’s biggest companies on some of the most critical matters. At the same time, they also represent the best of what the industry has to offer—and where it’s headed. They are presented here in alphabetical order.

Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton

Cleary served as antitrust counsel to the Dow Chemical Co. in its $130 billion merger of equals with DuPont, securing clearance in markets from Brazil to China. In the historic judicial reorganization of Brazilian telecommunications giant Oi SA, the firm was international counsel to a group of creditors whose reorganization plan was ultimately adopted. The firm also acted as global M&A and antitrust counsel to French ophthalmic lens company Essilor in its $46 billion combination with eyewear leader Luxottica, and delivered victories for Brazilian oil company Petrobras in securities litigation tied to the massive corruption scandal known as Operation Car Wash.

Beyond its client representations, Cleary devoted its attention to the various refugee crises, hiring a full-time pro bono immigration attorney, sharpening its focus on refugees seeking resettlement, and responding hastily to President Donald Trump’s travel ban.

Cooley

From its seat in Palo Alto, California, Cooley represents a who’s who of the dominant tech companies changing the world day by day. The firm helped Facebook beat back a $15 billion multidistrict litigation over browser cookies. It won a Ninth Circuit ruling cementing Google’s trademark despite claims that it had become a generic term for using any internet search engine. It represented Snap in one of the tech world’s most closely watched IPOs. And the firm found time amid all that to advise Zeltiq Aesthetics on its $2.5 billion sale to Allergan.

Cooley has found a home at the center of a changing economy, and its bottom line has shown the benefits. The firm’s revenue kicked up 10.1 percent last year as it crossed the billion-dollar threshold, and its profits per equity partner rose 6.2 percent to exceed $2 million. It’s in the right place at the right time, and doing the work to stand out.

Cravath, Swaine & Moore

Cravath’s body of work speaks for itself. In the past year and change, the firm has advised Time Warner on its $109 billion acquisition by AT&T and the Linde Group in its $70 billion merger with Praxair. It’s handled a flood of corporate and litigation matters for Credit Suisse, and brought security to Qualcomm as both plaintiff and defendant in critical litigation over its patent licensing and modem chipset businesses.

All the while, Cravath was preparing for the future by investing its resources in artificial intelligence and data analytics. The firm now has two attorneys devoted to technological and legal service innovation, and it’s working on methods to improve the way its lawyers analyze judicial decisions, review contracts, and carry out investigations. And the firm is showing its commitment to diversity, inducting an all-female partner class and appointing its first female presiding partner while bringing on a summer associate class that was majority women and more than one-third attorneys of color.

Davis Polk & Wardwell

To truly improve diversity and inclusion at law firms, new ideas are needed. Davis Polk’s Revisited initiative, a re-entry program that helps alumni transition back into the law, is a step in the right direction. In the firm’s first class, in 2017, 80 percent were women returning from extended breaks in their legal practice to spend time with family. Coupled with the usual pipeline and training programs, it is the type of thinking that can help make a difference in the long run.

The firm those lawyers are rejoining is one leading the way with its work. It advised Spotify on its direct listing on the New York Stock Exchange and Aetna on its mega-merger with CVS. The firm protected Proskauer Rose from a $5 billion class action from a group of investors in the Stanford Ponzi scheme, guided Valeant Pharmaceuticals in its $6.25 billion refinancing, and advised Comcast in its takeover of Sky. And along the way it raised revenue 5.1 percent to $1.24 billion.

Hogan Lovells

As it raised revenue past $2 billion in 2017, Hogan Lovells was busy with a diverse portfolio of cases. The firm represented pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and Co. in a patent infringement case that spread across Europe, the United States and Japan, protecting the company’s billion-dollar lung cancer drug. It helped the Russian Deposit Insurance Agency recover more than $1 billion in funds controlled by Sergei Pugachev, known as “Putin’s banker.” It aided Celgene in its acquisition of two gene therapy companies in deals with a combined value of $16 billion. Along the way, the firm’s lawyers turned in more than 100,000 hours of pro bono work over the past year-and-a-half, including assisting the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network’s efforts to have additional alleged victims testify in Bill Cosby’s retrial.

With an eye on innovation, Hogan Lovells created an app to guide companies in their efforts to comply with the European Union’s new General Data Protection Regulation. The firm also overhauled its annual performance review program, and created an in-house professional counseling service, looking both inward and outward as the industry advances.

Kirkland & Ellis

An incredible 19 percent leap in revenue in 2017 helped Kirkland pass the $3 billion mark and overtake Latham & Watkins as the biggest law firm in the world, but that was just one facet of a remarkable run. The firm delivered more than 126,000 hours of pro bono work, including its representation of transgender members of the military in striking down Trump’s ban on their service and its work helping overturn Maryland’s segregated higher-education system.

Kirkland handled Seadrill Ltd.’s $20 billion restructuring and Energy Future Holdings Corp.’s $18.8 billion merger with Sempra Energy. The firm delivered a series of victories for General Motors in litigation tied to its ignition switch and other recalls, and represented Allergan in a host of investigations, inquiries and civil suits related to its sale and marketing of opioid painkillers. Amid all of that, the firm also maintained its spot atop league tables for M&A, and continued to capitalize on the private equity boom.

Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison

At a time when the rule of law took center stage, Paul Weiss stepped up its pro bono efforts in turn. The firm put in over 100,000 hours of pro bono, more than a 35 percent increase over the previous year, and had a heavy hand in the fight against the travel ban and in the quest to limit gun violence. And it did so while raising revenue for the ninth straight year by 6.5 percent, adding its 1,000th lawyer, and maintaining the fourth-highest profits per equity partner ($4.56 million) in the Am Law 100.

Paul Weiss advised French oilfields services power CGG S.A. on its restructuring, helped Citigroup resolve a money laundering probe with a nonprosecution agreement from the Department of Justice, secured the dismissal of a climate change-related ERISA action against Exxon Mobil Corp., and guided Apollo Global Management in forming a new $24.7 billion investment fund.