A white-shoe firm is a term that is used to describe prestigious professional services firms that have traditionally been associated with the upper-class elite (usually White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) who graduated from Ivy League colleges. The term is most often used to describe leading law firms and Wall Street financial institutions, as well as accounting firms that are over a century old.
Former Wall Street attorney 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, just after the turn of the 20th century, about 50 years before the phrase white shoe firm came into use.
The phrase "white shoe" has a distinctly different meaning and history in Australia than in the rest of the Western World, where the phrase was culled from American usage during the mid-20th century.
The phrase derives from "white bucks", laced suede or buckskin (or Nubuck) shoes, usually with a red sole, long popular among the student body of 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." It also appears in a 1958 Fortune article by Spencer Klaw, reprinted in the New Jersey State Bar Journal, who described some firms as having "a predilection for young men who are listed in the Social Register. These firms are called “white-shoe outfits,” a term derived from the buckskin shoes that used to be part of the accepted uniform at certain eastern prep schools and colleges."
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". Most white-shoe firms also excluded Roman Catholics, such as Irish Americans, Italian Americans and Polish Americans. 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 U.S. firms are often referred to as being white-shoe firms:
Banks, investment banks, and merchant banks
Historical white-shoe banks
- Brown Brothers Harriman & Co.
- Dillon, Read & Co. (acquired by UBS in 1998)
- First Boston (acquired by Credit Suisse in 1990)
- Kuhn, Loeb & Co. (merged with Lehman Brothers in 1977)
- J.P. Morgan & Co. (merged with Chase Manhattan in 1996, and became JPMorgan Chase in 2000)
- Morgan Stanley
- White Weld & Co. (acquired by Merrill Lynch in 1978)
Modern 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
- Shearman & Sterling
- Sidley Austin
- Simpson Thacher & Bartlett
- Sullivan & Cromwell
- White & Case
- Willkie Farr & Gallagher
Modern 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
- King & Spalding
- 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
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.
- Safire, William (Nov 9, 1997). "On Language; Gimme the Ol' White Shoe". Retrieved Sep 2, 2021 – via NYTimes.com.
- Levinson, Marc (20 March 2019). "'White Shoe' Review: Lawyering Up the 20th Century (book review)". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 22 March 2019.ISBN 9781524743253
- Safire, William (November 9, 1997). "On Language; Gimme the Ol' White Shoe". New York Times.
- Chensvold, Christian. "Russell Lynes On The Shoe Hierarchy, Esquire 1953". Ivy Style. Retrieved 16 June 2016.
- Chambliss, Elizabeth (2005). "THE SHOE STILL FITS". Legal Affairs. Retrieved June 16, 2016.
- Chensvold, Christian. "How The White-Shoe Law Firm Got Its Name". Ivy Style. Retrieved 4 August 2020.
- "New Jersey State Bar Journal". New Jersey State Bar Association. June 25, 1957 – via Google Books.
- Stelzer, Irwin M. (February 8, 2016). "Remembering the 'White-Shoe Firm'". The Weekly Standard. Retrieved June 16, 2016.
- "white-shoe". WordNet. Princeton University.
- Pulera, Dominic (October 20, 2004). "Sharing the Dream: White Males in Multicultural America". A&C Black – via Google Books.
- "President Trump's reference to 'paddy wagon' insults Irish Americans like me". The Washington Post. 2017-08-01. Retrieved 2021-09-02.
- "Italian Americans: The Progressive Tradition-Reflections on Gerald Meyer's Presentation at the New Haven Public Library". March 20, 2021.
- "Raise a St. Patrick's Day glass to 'Wild Bill' Donovan, the greatest Irish American". Washington Examiner. March 17, 2020.
- "Frozen-term watch: "white-shoe"". The Economist. September 3, 2010. Retrieved June 16, 2016.
- Surowiecki, James (1998-06-15). "White-Shoe Shuffle". New York. New York Media LLC. Retrieved 2008-06-01.
- Timmons, Heather; Christopher Palmieri (2002-01-21). "The Perils of J.P. Morgan". Bloomberg Businessweek. McGraw-Hill Education. Retrieved 2008-06-01.
- "Morgan Stanley's 'white-shoe' dissidents continue war of attrition". Finfacts Ireland. April 17, 2005.
- Sorkin, Andrew Ross (December 11, 2005). "They're All Paying Customers to Wall Street". The New York Times.
- "2017 Power 100 Law Firm Rankings". Above the Law. Retrieved 2019-04-25.
- Stracher, Cameron (March 24, 2000). "The Law Firm's New Clothes". New York Times.
- Rost, Peter (September 12, 2007). "Covington & Burling, a Pfizer law firm, caught cleaning up its reputation on Wikipedia". BrandweekNRX.
- Martinez, Jose (March 3, 2006). "Shoes are whiter than most in city". NY Daily News. New York.
- Moyer, Elizabeth (October 26, 2005). "Dimon Woos Mergers Lawyer Hersch To JPMorgan". Forbes.com.
- Labaton, Stephen (September 24, 1989). "Rainmaker: Mario Baeza of Debevoise". The New York Times.
- Herman, Eric (July 1, 2002). "Scandal Draws Top Lawyers". New York Daily News.
- McMorrow, Paul (March 25, 2014). "Seaport Moving in Direction of Back Bay". Boston Globe.
- McMorrow, Paul (December 25, 2012). "Seaport is Rising, but Not From Tech". Boston Globe.
- Dougherty, Carter. "The Israeli Connection". VirtualCXO.
- Scheiber, Noam (21 July 2013). "The Last Days of Big Law". Retrieved 20 December 2016.
- Standard, Pacific (19 May 2015). "Are You Getting Paid What You're Worth?". Retrieved 20 December 2016.
- McKay, Peter A.; Mollenkamp, Carrick (10 April 2006). "Refco Suits Spotlight White-Shoe Law Firm's Role". Retrieved 20 December 2016 – via Wall Street Journal.
- Weiss, Gary (March 4, 2002). "Commentary: Et Tu, Enron Lawyers?". Businessweek.
- Qualters, Sheri (August 29, 2007). "Humor Helps the Firm Go Video". The National Law Journal.
- "Top Law Schols". New York. April 2011.
- Nelson, Katie (November 2, 2009). "NY Daily News". New York.
- "Chicago Tribune". November 11, 2009.
- John Oller (2019). White Shoe: How a New Breed of Wall Street Lawyers Changed Big Business and the American Century. p. 565. ISBN 9781524743277.
- Schneider-Mayerson, Anna (February 18, 2007). "Associate Gets Crushed Beneath White Shoe". New York Observer. Archived from the original on July 26, 2008.
- "History of White & Case LLP – FundingUniverse". Retrieved 20 December 2016.
- Morgan, Spencer (April 7, 2009). "Andy Spade Is a Giant in New York". New York Observer. Archived from the original on April 10, 2009.
- van der Pool, Lisa (July 1, 2011). "Bill Lee: Still making his case". Boston Business Journal.
- Hawkins, Asher (June 28, 2010). "SEC's Revolving Door Often Spins More Than Once". Forbes.
- Gendar, Alison (September 14, 2009). "Straight-shooter judge could break up Junior Gotti's perfect game". NY Daily News. New York.
- Rubinstein, Dana (July 24, 2008). "It's Complicated: Insurance Firm Spills Space Gobbled by Former UBS President, Cleary Gottlieb". New York Observer. Archived from the original on August 4, 2008.
- Gray, Geoffrey (December 15, 2003). "Charity Busters". City Limits.
- Itkoff, Valerie (June 21, 1991). "Greenberg's New Stripes". Miami Review.
- Karni, Annie (August 5, 2012). "Katz in Political Cradle". New York Post.
- "Focus: Greenberg Traurig Maher". The Lawyer. June 21, 2009.
- "History of Greenberg Traurig, LLP – FundingUniverse". www.fundinguniverse.com.
- Girdner, Bill (2012-09-12). "Ninth Circuit Briefs Completed in CNS Challenge to Ventura Clerk". Retrieved 2020-01-23.
- Packel, Dan (February 25, 2020). "Int'l Arbitration Trio, Ex-PwC GC Leave Kirkland for King & Spalding". The American Lawyer. Retrieved 2020-12-05.
- "Silverstein Recaps 1177 Avenue of the Americas". Commercial Observer.
- Selvin, Molly (May 19, 2006). "Who Wins This Case? Lawyers". LA Times.
- Gertner, Jon (January 15, 2006). "What Is a Living Wage?". New York Times.
- Stull, Elizabeth (May 23, 2007). "Gay Couple Sues Landlord for Discrimination". Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
- "Business - Minding your MANNERS". Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. June 9, 2002.
- Lin, Anthony (May 16, 2006). "Can the 'Jewish Law Firm' Success Story Be Duplicated?". New York Law Journal.
- Donohue, Pete (December 11, 2005). "MTA Pays Big Shots To Fight A Strike". NY Daily News. New York.
- ANN W., ANN W. (September 24, 2000). "He May Have Played a Lawyer on TV, but Nanny Produced the Brief". LA Times.
- Simpson, Jake (January 24, 2013). "Reed Smith Adds Goodwin Procter PE, M&A Partner In NY". Law 360.
- Rosen-Molina, Mike (August 7, 2008). "Overbilling lawsuit prompts debate over ethical duties to smaller clients". Law 360.
- Passerella, Gina (January 24, 2013). "Law Firms". Law 360.
- Wiessner, Daniel (2017-08-11). "Steptoe moves to send lawyer's sex bias claims to arbitration". Reuters. Retrieved 2019-10-29.
- Mainland, Alexis; Goodman, J. David; Iaboni, Lisa; Vega, Tanzina; Dance, Gabriel; Han/, Rebecca (March 10, 2008). "Milestones in an Ambitious Career: 1992". New York Times.
- "Girl Trouble". New York Magazine. October 16, 2000.
- Buford, Talia (May 7, 2006). "Patton Boggs to pay Chevron $15M". Politico.
- Leiby, Richard (December 2005). "The Liberal on Karl Rove's Case". Banderas News.
- Zaitchik, Alexander (August 28, 2014). "Sludge Match: Inside Chevron's $9 Billion Legal Battle With Ecuadorean Villagers". Rolling Stone.
- Weiss, Debra Cassens (August 19, 2009). "Wachtell Nabs Top Spot Again In Prestige Rankings". ABA Journal.
- Belkin, Lisa (January 24, 2008). "Who's Cuddly Now? Law Firms". New York Times.
- Sargent, Greg (September–October 2005). "The Ricochet". Mother Jones.
- Fitzgerald, Patrick (March 13, 2009). "SunCal Lawyer Whacks Weil". Wall Street Journal.
- Dempster, Quentin (April 23, 2005). "Sir Johannes Bjelke-Petersen: Corrupt populist". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Archived from the original on July 25, 2008.
- Gard, Stephen (1994). Fantastic Australians. Kangaroo Press. ISBN 0-86417-588-4.
- Beaton Research & Consulting (2012). An obituary for the term "Big 6" law firms in Australia Archived 2012-11-07 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 14 November 2012.
- "Elite 'red circle' firms Zhong Lun and Jun He plot merger as consolidation grips China legal market | The Lawyer | Legal News and Jobs | Advancing the business of law". www.thelawyer.com. Retrieved 2016-04-09.
- "Ashurst, Herbies ride out tough year; BLP, Macfarlanes, SJ Berwin succumb". The Lawyer. 14 July 2008. Retrieved 25 October 2010.
- "Silver Circle". The Lawyer. 3 September 2007. Retrieved 25 October 2010.
- Fletcher, Martin (28 August 2005). "'Silver circle' firms upset the legal order". The Times. London. Retrieved 25 October 2010.
- Square, 3 Waterhouse; Holborn, 138. "The silver circle - Chambers Student Guide". www.chambersstudent.co.uk.CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
- Oller, John, White Shoe: How a New Breed of Wall Street Lawyers Changed Big Business--and the American Century
- Wald, Eli, "The rise and fall of the WASP and Jewish law firms." Stanford Law Review 60 (2007): 1803-1866 online
- Chambliss, Elizabeth (September–October 2005). "Terms of Art". Legal Affairs.
- Lin, Anthony (May 16, 2006). "Can the 'Jewish Law Firm' Success Story Be Duplicated?". New York Law Journal.
- Oller, John (March 19, 2019). "White Shoe: How a New Breed of Wall Street Lawyers Changed Big Business and the American Century". Penguin – via Google Books.