A white-shoe firm is a leading professional services firm in the United States, particularly firms that have either been in existence for more than a century and represent Fortune 500 companies, or a professional services firm that serves clients that have been in existence for more than a century and represent Fortune 500 companies. The term typically, though not always, refers to financial, law, and management consulting firms, traditionally those based in the Northeastern United States, including New York City and Boston.
John Oller, author of White Shoe, credits Paul Drennan Cravath with creating the distinct model adopted by virtually all white-shoe law firms, the Cravath System, about 50 years before the term came into use.
The phrase "white shoe" has a distinctly different meaning and history in Australia.
The phrase derives from "white bucks", laced suede or buckskin shoes with a red sole, long popular in the Ivy League colleges. A 1953 Esquire article, describing social strata at Yale University, explained that "White Shoe applies primarily to the socially ambitious and the socially smug types who affect a good deal of worldly sophistication, run, ride and drink in rather small cliques, and look in on the second halves of football games when the weather is good." The Oxford English Dictionary cites the phrase "white-shoe college boys" in the J. D. Salinger novel Franny and Zooey (1957) as the first use of the term: "Phooey, I say, on all white-shoe college boys who edit their campus literary magazines. Give me an honest con man any day."
The term originated in the Ivy League colleges and originally reflected a stereotype of old-line firms populated by White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs). The term historically had antisemitic connotations, as many of the New York firms known as "white shoe" were considered off-limits to Jews until the 1960s. The phrase has since lost some of this connotation, but is still defined by Princeton University's WordNet as "denoting a company or law firm owned and run by members of the WASP elite who are generally conservative". A 2010 column in The Economist described the term as synonymous with "big, old, east-coast and fairly traditional." In the 21st century, the term is sometimes used in a general sense to refer to firms that are perceived as prestigious or high-quality; it is also sometimes used in a derogatory manner to denote stodginess, elitism, or a lack of diversity.
The following US firms are often referred to as being white-shoe firms:
Banks, investment banks, and merchant banks
Historical white-shoe banks
- Brown Brothers Harriman & Co.
- First Boston (acquired by Credit Suisse, 1990)
- J.P. Morgan & Co. (acquired by Chase Manhattan, 2000, now JPMorgan Chase)
- Morgan Stanley
- White Weld & Co. (acquired by Merrill Lynch, 1978)
The "new" white-shoe banks
Historical white-shoe law firms
- Arnold & Porter
- Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft
- Covington & Burling
- Cravath, Swaine & Moore
- Davis Polk & Wardwell
- Debevoise & Plimpton
- Goodwin Procter
- Hogan & Hartson merged with Lovells LLP into Hogan Lovells.
- Mayer Brown
- Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy
- Ropes & Gray
- Sidley Austin
- Simpson Thacher & Bartlett
- Sullivan & Cromwell
- White & Case
The "new" white-shoe law firms
While the term "white-shoe" historically applied only to those law firms populated by WASPs, usage of the term has since been expanded to other top-rated prestigious firms. Many of these firms were founded as a direct result of the exclusionary tendencies of the original white-shoe firms, which provided limited opportunities for Jewish and Catholic lawyers, as well as other non-WASPs, and include:
- Cahill Gordon & Reindel
- Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton
- Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson
- Greenberg Traurig
- Jones Day
- Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel
- O'Melveny & Myers
- Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison
- Proskauer Rose
- Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan
- Reed Smith
- Steptoe & Johnson
- Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom
- Squire Patton Boggs
- Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz
- Weil, Gotshal & Manges
Management consulting firms
A similar term in Australia, "white shoe brigade", has been used in the past to describe a group of Queensland property developers who backed, and benefitted from, former Queensland State Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. The term is a contemptuous allusion to the lower social class antecedents of such men, revealed by their gaudy and tasteless choice of clothing, which included brightly coloured or patterned shirts, slacks with white stripes or in pastel shades, and shoes and belts of white leather, these often having gold or gilt buckles. They became known for shady deals with the government concerning property development, often with dire consequences for heritage buildings.
- Big Three law firms, an informal term for leading law firms in New Zealand.
- Big Four law firms, an informal term for leading law firms in Japan.
- Big Five law firms, an informal term for leading law firms in South Africa.
- Big Six law firms, an informal term for leading law firms in Australia. In 2012, three of these firms merged with overseas firms, and one other began operating in association with an overseas firm. As a consequence, it has proposed that the term is no longer applicable to the Australian legal profession, displaced by the concept of Global Elite law firms or International Business law firms.
- Magic Circle, an informal term for the London headquartered law firms with the largest revenues, the most international work and which generally outperform the rest of the London market on profitability.
- Offshore magic circle, an informal term for leading law firms in offshore financial centers.
- Red Circle law firms, an informal term for leading law firms in the People’s Republic of China coined by The Lawyer magazine in 2014. For further information, also see the list of the largest Chinese law firms.
- Seven Sisters law firms, a collection of seven leading Canadian law firms with offices in Toronto.
- Silver Circle is an informal term for perceived elite corporate law firms headquartered in the United Kingdom that are the main competitors for the magic circle. These firms have a lower turnover than the members of the Magic Circle, but consistently have an average profits per equity partner (PEP) and average revenue per lawyer (RPL) far above the UK average  (and, in some instances, higher than members of the magic circle). Contrary to what the term Silver Circle may suggest, there is no Golden Circle.
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