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Comment: Global 100 – a little bit of life before Lehman returns. But only a little

For all the improving signs, glancing at our annual Global 100 report shows headline performance largely comparable with 2013. The group increased billings by 4% to $88.63bn, a rise of 4% and the same growth rate achieved in 2013.

As with last year, the result was flattered by several large mergers – but top 100 firms have in contrast this year kept a tighter grip on headcount.

As such, firms have seen a 2% rise in revenue per lawyer – tracking just behind inflation, while profit per equity partner is up 7%. For all the talk of giving clients value, top law firms remain intensely focused on margins.

True, our numbers somewhat understate the positive impact of the global recovery, which took hold at the back end of last year, as the US law firms that make up the bulk of the table report on a 2013 calendar year.

Still, there were discernible shifts in the dynamic of recent years. For one, 2013/14 was the first year since the banking crisis in which financial performance was driven by transactional lawyers. Many of the best performances were from traditional Wall Street leaders, among them Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, Sullivan & Cromwell and that improbable comeback kid Shearman & Sterling.

In contrast, advisers focused on restructuring and some areas of litigation like Weil, Gotshal & Manges and Bingham McCutchen had a torrid time, though broad-spectrum contentious firms continued to do well. The long-term boom in regulatory, commercial litigation and arbitration is far from over.

Likewise, this is the first year in which emerging economies haven’t comprehensively outclassed traditional Western markets as the revival in the US, UK and Germany took hold. The logic that most global firms need to position themselves long-term in key Asian markets is undoubted – but the balance is difficult to strike and arguably some firms have neglected lucrative markets closer to home.

Which brings us to London’s top firms, which continue to give up too much ground in the City, which seems as globally potent as a hub as it was at the height of the credit boom.

Clifford Chance and Linklaters had strong years – and the former firm really needed to get that result. But there is no sign of an end to the stop-start pattern in which a solid year alternates with a soft 12 months. Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Allen & Overy notably failed to sustain previous momentum. The Magic Circle have muddled through OK so far – eventually they’ll have to do better than that as even their superb global positioning won’t protect them against US rivals forever.

As in previous years the top 50 firms have outpaced the firms below in growth terms. Maybe there will ultimately be 20 dominant global law firms as is often claimed, but current trends suggest it is a group as large as 40 that is edging away.

So there you have it – a little of life before Lehman has returned. What that signifies remains open to debate.

For the latest Global 100 results and analysis click here