White-shoe firm

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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.[1]

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.[2]

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.

United States[edit]


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.[3] 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."[4] 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:[5] "Phooey, I say, on all white-shoe college boys who edit their campus literary magazines. Give me an honest con man any day."[6] 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."[7]


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.[5][8] 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".[9] Most white-shoe firms also excluded Roman Catholics, such as Irish Americans, Italian Americans and Polish Americans.[10][11][12][13] A 2010 column in The Economist described the term as synonymous with "big, old, east-coast and fairly traditional."[14] 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.[5]


The following U.S. firms are often referred to as being white-shoe firms:

Accounting firms[edit]

Banks, investment banks, and merchant banks[edit]

Historical white-shoe banks[edit]
Modern white-shoe banks[edit]

Law firms[edit]

Historical white-shoe law firms[edit]
Modern white-shoe law firms[edit]

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:


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.[73] 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.[74]

See also[edit]

  • 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.[75]
  • 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.[76] 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[77][78][79] (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.[80]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Oller, John, White Shoe: How a New Breed of Wall Street Lawyers Changed Big Business--and the American Century[1]
  • Wald, Eli, "The rise and fall of the WASP and Jewish law firms." Stanford Law Review 60 (2007): 1803-1866 online

External links[edit]