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City's biggest law firms ranked low in profits


A ranking of the nation's 100 most profitable law firms places Baltimore's two biggest firms near the bottom of the list, but local attorneys say the comparisons aren't fair.

In its July/August issue released yesterday, The American Lawyer magazine says that partners at Piper & Marbury and at 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 the national figure is skewed because many of the top 100 firms are based in New York City, where hourly fees are often double the rates of firms elsewhere.

The survey says 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, is 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 says Venable partners brought in an average of $155,000 in profits last year. Venable, with 127 partners and a total of 273 attorneys, is ranked 94th in revenues with $72 million.

But Benjamin R. Civiletti, managing partner of Venable, said yesterday that the revenue and profit figures are based on estimates by American Lawyer staffers and are too low. Mr. bTC 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 said the entry is accurate.

American Lawyer, which has published the profitability list each of the past seven years, warns in its article that some of the numbers are estimates based on interviews with attorneys who insisted they not be identified in print.

The magazine says it is "confident" about all of the estimates but concedes "we are presenting the most suspect kind of journalism: supposedly scoop reporting based on anonymous sources."

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