A ranking of the nation's 100 most profitable law firms placed Baltimore's two biggest firms near the bottom of the list yesterday, but local attorneys said the comparisons weren't fair.
In its July/August issue released yesterday, The American Lawyer magazine said that partners at Piper & Marbury and Venable, Baetjer and Howard -- the only Baltimore firms listed -- earned far less for their firms than the average $400,000 earned at the top 100 law firms last year.
But lawyers familiar with the finances of Baltimore law firms said that national figure was skewed because many of the top 100 firms were based in New York City, where hourly fees were often double the rates of firms elsewhere.
The survey said that each partner at Piper & Marbury earned, on average, a profit of $255,000 last year, placing them 83rd nationwide. Piper, with 76 partners and a total of 238 attorneys, was ranked 97th in total revenues, collecting $68.5 million in fees last year.
Venable was listed as the least profitable firm in the top 100. The survey said that Venable partners brought in an average of $155,000 in profits last year. Venable, with 127 partners and a total of 273 attorneys, was ranked 94th in revenues with $72 million.
But Benjamin R. Civiletti, managing partner of Venable, said yesterday that the revenue and profit figures were based on estimates by American Lawyer staffers and were too low. Mr. Civiletti declined to provide figures that would correct the American Lawyer survey.
But Mr. Civiletti said, Venable had "its best year it ever had in
terms of revenue and profit" last year. "The rate of increase was not as high as it had been" in the late 1980s, "but it was still a good rate of increase. And we expect 1992 to be a little better than 1991," Mr. Civiletti said.
Piper's chairman, Decatur H. Miller, said he supplied the magazine with the numbers for his firm and that his firm's entry was accurate.
American Lawyer, which has published the profitability list each of the past seven years, warned in its article that some of the numbers were estimates based on interviews with attorneys who insisted they not be identified in print.
The magazine said it was "confident" about all of the estimates.
Jim Eyler, managing partner for Miles & Stockbridge, a 200-lawyer firm in Baltimore, said average profits for Maryland-area lawyers were more like those reported in broader surveys.
For example, the Philadelphia-based legal consulting firm Altman Weil Pensa reported recently that its survey of 650 law firms nationwide found that the average law firm income paid to partners in 1991 was $147,306, a negligible increase from the 1990 average of $146,010.
Mr. Eyler said his firm has followed the trend reported by Altman Weil -- a flattening of the rapid profitability increases of the 1980s -- but that he expected improvements next year.