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The new Global 100 law firm ranking is out, and it reports that Big Law is thriving. Despite challenges and change experienced by elite law firms, there is a continuing—indeed growing—appetite for the work of Big Law’s global actors. For example, gross revenue for the firms on the list grew by more than 8% in 2018, “a step up from 2017’s already robust 6.7% growth and a showing that dwarfs the 2.8% and 3.1% growth from the two preceding years. These firms brought in a collective $114.2 billion, more than the 2018 gross domestic product of Ecuador, the 60th largest economy in the world.”1 And despite the turbulence over the last decade in the market for legal services in which Big Law participates, these law firms have deepened their footprint internationally: the firms on the Global 100 list have added nearly 200 additional offices outside of the U.S. and more than 6,600 lawyers during the decade ending in 2019.2

But what does it mean to be a global “firm” for purposes of the Global 100? Most law firms on the Global 100 reflect an organizational structure that uses offices as the connective tissue of the firm, but the notion of a law firm as a coherent organization glosses over important differences that suggest the rankings of firms are as much about pretense as reality. Jing Li takes on this topic in a new article, All roads lead to Rome: Internationalization strategies of Chinese law firms, where she analyzed the websites of 123 China-based law firms in order to assess how their internationalization strategies compare to the expectation of the one-firm-integrated-office model.

Li explores several internationalization strategies.3 First, addressing offices based on their development and relationship to the firm as a whole, she uses the notion of an “organic expansion” as the ideal-type for global law firms. “Organic” here refers to growth stemming from an expansion of the original law firm through incremental hiring,4 rather than growth from associating with or acquiring existing law firms in another location, which Li describes as “associated” or “merged.” (P. 163.) Li found that associated or merged strategies were common for the international offices of China-based firms with more regional than national reputations (what she describes as “second-tier law firms”), despite them marketing themselves as “organic.” (P. 175.)

Yet, even for those law firms that follow a seemingly traditional expansion model, Li shows that the reality is more complicated; for example, she explores how the number of lawyers in an “office” reflects the office’s viability.5 She finds that many offices, particularly those of second-tier law firms, “are generally still very thinly staffed, and one-partner offices are a rule rather than exception. As such, internationalization often carries symbolic value and works as ‘cosmetics’ for these periphery firms to enhance their professional image in front of the clients.” (P. 175.) Indeed, it is not simply periphery firms that exhibit this divergence; Rachel Stern and Su Li’s work on international law firms’ China offices reveals a similar phenomenon.6

Finally, Li explores relationships that fall outside of the office model; these include formal and informal networks and alliances that reflect looser connections compared to a traditional, formal law firm organizational structure. These sorts of relationships were a common globalization approach for the firms in her sample. (P. 170.) She describes a “decoupling of formal structure and actual practice…[that] allows [the firms] to effectively operate on a referral-based networks and still appear competitive relative to their peers.” (Pp. 173-74.)

In scrutinizing the office unit as the mechanism for global expansion, Li highlights the nuance that is lost when these particulars are conflated to align with the ranking’s criteria. She reminds us that national influences and the histories that shape and frame organizations are central to understanding them,7 and that the importance of being perceived as an integrated firm—reflecting the ranking criteria—influences the way firms describe themselves and their relationships. In the search for a way to simplify the complexity inherent in organizational structure and operation, the risk is that firms react to the ranking itself in their presentation and strategic decisions. Li finds that the approaches of the firms she studies reflect the financial constraints and the particular focus of the organizational clients they intend to pursue. (P. 157.) In these ways, the firms simultaneously respond to the forces of rankings, prestige, and pragmatism. Chinese law firms’ reactions to the rankings has broader implications, too. Notably and provocatively, it is an example of the reactivity that Wendy Nelson Espeland and Michael Sauder described in the law school context, as, in Espeland’s and Sauder’s telling, the ranking criteria affected schools’ decisions and management.8 It “determine[s] who counts and who does not, who is noticed and for what.”9 Li’s contribution counters the lure of simple, quantifiable comparison that is the temptation of a global ranking.

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  1. The 2019 Global 100, Legal Week (2019). Firms are eligible for the Global 100 by being largest in terms of gross revenue, number of lawyers, or both.
  2. Id.
  3. Li also explores where Chinese law firms situate their international offices. “Wealthy developed countries” account for the vast majority: Continental Europe and the U.K. (accounting for 29% of offices), the U.S. (26%), Asia-Pacific (29%). But in addition, countries in the Belt and Road Initiative account for 12% of the firms’ overseas offices. (P. 162.).
  4. See Ward Bower, A Growing Problem?, Altman Weil, Inc. (2014) (describing law firm growth as “organic growth, lateral additions and mergers. Organic growth through addition of newly hired law graduates is the traditional means by which law firms have expanded.”).
  5. For an analysis of internationalization strategies of U.S.-based law firms that is consistent, see Carole Silver, Nicole De Bruin Phelan, & Mikaela Rabinowitz, Between Diffusion and Distinctiveness in Globalization: U.S. Law Firms Go Global, 22 Geo. J. Legal Ethics 1431 (2009), and Carole Silver, Globalization and the U.S. Market in Legal Services–Shifting Identities, 31 Law & Pol’y Int’l Bus. 1093 (2000).
  6. Rachel E. Stern & Su Li, The Outpost Office: How International Law Firms Approach the China Market, 41 Law & Soc. Inquiry 184 (2011).
  7. Yves Dezalay & Bryant G. Garth, Asian Legal Revivals (2010); Sida Liu, David Trubek, & David Wilkins, Mapping the Ecology of China’s Corporate Legal Sector: Globalization and Its Impact on Lawyers and Society, 3 Asian J. L. & Soc. 273 (2016).
  8. Wendy Nelson Espeland & Michael Sauder, Engines of Anxiety (2016) (describing rankings as self-fulfilling prophecies).
  9. Id. at 201.
Cite as: Carole Silver, Global Rankings of Global Firms and the Distance between Formality and Reality, JOTWELL (October 24, 2019) (reviewing Jing Li, All roads lead to Rome: Internationalization strategies of Chinese law firms, 6 J. Prof. & Org. 156 (2019)),