Law School Up Close

The Largest Law Firms in Chicago

I’m currently in the process of driving from Colorado to New Hampshire for Law School. Driving through the country always makes me think of the big cities that I pass through. Today I will be passing through Chicago, “Chi Town”. Since I grew up in the Milwaukee area, I have a lot of memories driving down to the windy city and the beauty of a Chicago-style deep dish pizza from places like Giordano’s, Gino’s East, Lou Malnati’s. Jokes aside, Chicago has a lot to offer, and has a certain vintage American appeal with places like the Navy Pier, Shedd Aquarium, and the always wickedly cold in the winter Magnificent Mile.

So, I decided to check out the largest law firms in Chicago to see if it would be an interesting topic to dive into. What I found out is that this midwestern metropolis may be the most prolific city for “Big Law”, in some respects surpassing the Big Apple NYC. Let’s dive in blindly and take a look at some of the biggest firms in the city.

Kirkland and Ellis

  • Number of Attorneys: 1,900
  • Founded: 1909
  • Revenue: $3.165 Billion

The largest law firm in the world by revenue as of February 2018, Kirkland and Ellis is a powerhouse in industries where powerhouses reign supreme. They are arguably THE “numero uno” in four areas of the law: private equity, restructuring, intellectual property, and litigation. While their litigation supremacy has come on more recently, their other specialties are some of the oldest in a full-service firm in the country. Some of their largest clients are industry behemoths such as BP, VW, GM, and other companies large enough to be known by just two letters.

When you look down the list of blue-chip companies who chose to be represented by Kirkland and Ellis, you notice that the cases are also massive in their own right. For instance, it’s one thing to represent an oil magnate like BP, but Kirkland helped them out after the infamous oil spill known as the “Deepwater Horizon oil spill” in 2010.

Baker McKenzie

  • Number of Attorneys: ~13,000
  • Founded: 1949
  • Revenue: $2.62Billion

Wow, when I saw that this company had greater than 13,000 employees, I’ll admit that I was slightly baffled. To be honest, I’m not sure how to explain it, but I have verified that at least in terms of American salaries, things line up despite the headcount. On Wikipedia it says that they have “4,700 lawyers on a full-time equivalent basis”. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but the bottom line is that this company has an unprecedented International presence. While being the largest US firm by headcount (6,076), those other 4,700 lawyers mentioned previously reside in 47 countries. That is absolutely ridiculous to think about, when you consider that the headcount of other countries on this list includes their international presence.

A firm with a specialization in corporate law, Baker McKenzie is consistently highly ranked in transaction law cases. That is probably why Facebook called them up to address an issue related to a transaction of assets they made to their Irish holding.

In 2014, Baker was also named the 19th most gay-friendly employer, second in the legal sector. This is just one example of the ways they get recognized for being a more inclusive law firm than others. This is something that I personally value very highly in the workplace and it is great to see from one of the more conventional types of institution in America.

DLA Piper

  • Number of Attorneys: ~4,200
  • Founded: 2005 (by merger)
  • Revenue: $2.54Billion

The third largest in Chicago, and fourth largest firm in the world, DLA Piper was founded by the merger between three different companies, one from San Diego, one from Baltimore, and the last from across the pond in the UK. The firm is not just international, but polycentric, with 80 offices in more than 40 countries across the globe.

In 2010, DLA Piper found themselves in a controversy when they represented Paul Ceglia against Mark Zuckerberg (Zuck). Zuck responded that Ceglia had fraudulently altered the contract from the original similar but unrelated site. You can look up the more specific details of the case, I don’t want to stir up bad blood on this site talking about it, but these kinds of controversies are the lumps you have to take in big law as a tradeoff for working on some of the most interesting and enflamed cases in the country. 

Sidley Austin

  • Number of Attorneys: ~2,000
  • Founded: 1866
  • Revenue: $1.86Billion

The 6th largest US-based law firm, and a headcount of around 2,000, Sidley Austin is also one of the highest paying firms in the US. I was surprised to see this so explicitly mentioned in articles because it seems like all of these “Big Law” firms are high paying. But after taking a closer look at the numbers, Sidley Austin tosses an extra “shrimp on the barbie” with a typical first-year salary of 190K, slightly edging out firms like Baker McKenzie whose starting salary (based on Glassdoor) is 180.

Like so many others in this country, Sidley Austin was tragically affected by the September 11th WTC attacks, with a corporate office on 3rd avenue near the towers. A switchboard operator, Rosemary Smith, perished in the attack. But if anyone was quick to get themselves back on track after the tragedy, it was Sidley Austin. They were back up and operating by September 17th, 2001, just 6 days after the event.


Wow, Chicago has a lot to offer in terms of opportunities in Big Law! I figured as much since it is such a big, magnificent city, but am nonetheless shocked at the magnitude of these firms and the diversity of the types of law that these firms specialize in. Three of the four top earning law firms in the country are Headquarters right in this magnificent city.

As I said in my previous Big Law article, these kinds of firms are not right for everyone. Sure, they are the firms that many law students in the country dream about as they drive through their Contracts book in the library at 3 in the morning, but there is plenty of value in being in a smaller, quainter firm in the city. If you work at a great firm in Chicago, contact us and we will give you a shout out!


Ted Rand