The term “white shoe firm” is a badge of honor for quality work, and also a ball and chain.
Depending on who you talk to, the term can mean the elite of the legal community working on the most important matters for the most impactful clients. Or it can mean an antiquated and exclusory organization that is behind the times, symbolizing a way of working long gone.
“White shoe firms are the ones doing the top deals and have the top clients, and they have for a very long time,” consultant Janet Stanton said. “But there is, of course, the elitism associated with that term.”
Years ago, Stanton said, women and minorities were locked out of white shoe firm life. No firm would describe itself that way now.
“It refers to a certain kind of model at a firm. And there are some cultural norms that are still embedded in that culture, even if people don’t see it,” legal recruiter Alisa Levin said. “The connotation of ‘we are in the club’ suggests exclusion for others.”
But the nuances surrounding “white shoe” create a dilemma for those rarified firms that could brandish that label: Do they lean into the positive aspects as a differentiator in the market? Or do they walk away from it, emphasizing that it no longer represents who they are now?
Milbank and Sidley Austin, two firms that belong to this club, have different answers to those questions.
A New Shoe, Or A New You? Sidley v. Milbank
If you Google “white shoe law firms,” you are likely to find Sidley Austin on most lists. And while the firm recognizes some of the previous associations with the term are no longer applicable, that doesn’t mean that the new, modern Sidley wants to turn away from its heritage.
Yvette Ostolaza, chair-elect of Sidley’s management committee, said that certain aspects of the moniker are still relevant. “White shoe firms continue to handle the most prestigious matters for clients, including bet-the-company litigation, major transactions or important advice on regulatory matters,” she said.
Still, she noted that white shoe firms “were not historically diverse, and there is no place for that now.” Ostolaza, for her part, is the first woman and first Latina to co-lead the firm.
“We represent more than the old white shoe label,” she said. “We now cover white shoes, cowboy boots and high heels across 20 global offices, representing the new generation of diverse, global law firms.”
Milbank, in contrast, has taken specific actions to distance itself from the phrase.
The firm rebranded in 2019, dropping Tweed, Hadley & McCoy from the naming convention. And it announced that it was no longer just a “Wall Street firm,” according to firm chair Scott Edelman, and “the words ‘white-shoe’ were associated with that.”
Two years later, the firm has stood by that decision. In an email to Law.com, Edelman said “The term ‘white-shoe’ often connotes an old-fashioned firm that lacks diversity and fails to appreciate inclusiveness. Like many other leading firms, Milbank has evolved in recent decades.”
Edelman said now, the firm aims to be a place where everyone “feels comfortable being themselves” and sharing their own personal experience.
“Today’s Milbank is populated by lawyers of varied race, religion, national origin and sexual orientation,” Edelman said. “Milbank has actively distanced itself for many years from what we believe is an outdated moniker that does not reflect the Milbank of today.”
What Is a White Shoe Firm Now?
The focus on diversity by elite firm leaders now is the product of a long evolution in Big Law.
Stanton, principal at legal consulting firm Adam Smith Esquire, acknowledged that firms should run away from some legacy aspects of the white shoe term. But running away from the label entirely would be a mistake, she said.
“I understand the old image of ‘white shoe’ would be cause for concern today, but they also have a legacy and accomplishments that are extraordinary,” she said. “To me, saying you are no longer a white shoe firm is like throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”
She is aware that this could be a “messaging challenge,” but it is also an opportunity, as the traditional white shoe firms, for the most part, still exude a sense of prestige.
“The last time I looked, the ‘prestige firms’ are still almost always on top,” she said. “Comparing the attractiveness of prestige firms to the ‘lifestyle firms,’ the prestige firms do extremely well as far as being attractive to law school students.”
Levin, founder of legal recruiting firm Green-Levin-Snyder, disagrees. She said firms should ditch the “white shoe” label.
As a recruiter, she said, firms should be particularly careful about how they position themselves to potential attorneys. In addition to exclusion, she said, “white shoe” might imply that a firm is “too buttoned up.”
“When you think of white shoe firms, you think stodgy. You think of them representing old blue chip companies,” she said. “A lot of attorneys want to work where they think it is ‘cool’.”