White-shoe firm

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In the United States, a white-shoe firm is a term used to describe prestigious professional services firms that have been traditionally associated with the upper-class elite who graduated from Ivy League colleges. The term is most often used to describe leading old-line law firms and Wall Street financial institutions, as well as accounting firms that are over a century old, typically in New York City and Boston.[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 derives from "white bucks", laced suede or buckskin (or Nubuck) derby 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, which describes 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 inaccessible to Jewish lawyers 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.[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:


The current Big Four accounting firms and the former Big Eight auditors from which they merged:

The only former Big Eight firm not merged into one of the Big Four was Arthur Andersen, which went out of business in 2002 after the Enron scandal.



Management consultancies[edit]

The Big Three (management consultancies), colloquially known as ‘’‘MBB’’’, consisting of the largest management consulting firms by revenue:



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:

Equivalent law firms outside the United States[edit]

Big Six: 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.[56]
Grandes Firmas: Pinheiro Neto Advogados: Mattos Filho Advogados : Machado Meyer Advogados: Tozzini Freire Advogados: Veirano Advogados
Seven Sisters
China (People's Republic)
Red Circle, coined by The Lawyer magazine in 2014.[57]
Big Four
South Africa
Big Five
United Kingdom (centered on the City of London)
  • Magic Circle, firms with the largest revenues, the most international work and which generally outperform the rest of the London market on profitability.
  • Silver Circle, the next tier below the Magic Circle (there is no Golden Circle[58]) has firms smaller than those in the Magic Circle, though sometimes with similar level of profits per equity partner (PEP) and average revenue per lawyer.[59][60][61]


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