GDR 100 Elite Analysis

The first GDR 100 named 20 Elite firms that consistently delivered top advice to multinational clients around the world.

This year, we increased that number to 25.

Why? Because the firms we added are worth it. Changes in the GDR 100 submission and innovations in the way we analyse the resulting data made it difficult to argue that we should artificially keep the numbers down to 20.

That doesn’t mean the bar to inclusion was any different. Firms needed to have a serious international presence in order to make the cut – having data teams in only a single jurisdiction is an automatic disqualification. Potential nominees to the elite also needed to have a track record of handling significant matters for household clients.

New entrants to the Elite list this year are Clifford Chance, CMS, Sidley Austin, Squire Patton Boggs and WilmerHale. Each of these are very different firms: for example, Clifford Chance and Squire Patton Boggs boast truly global practices, where CMS is more European, and Sidley Austin and WilmerHale are much more heavily focused on their home US markets. But each of those has a strong tech presence and a leading reputation on the global market.

They also illustrate quite how different the makeup of the Elite firms is. On one end of the spectrum lie the likes of Sidley, Wilmer, Alston & Bird and Cooley: they are all legitimately transatlantic, but have larger senior headcounts in the US. On the other, lie Hogan Lovells, Clifford Chance, Morgan Lewis & Bockius, DLA Piper and Baker McKenzie: global behemoths that are able to advise in all major jurisdictions.

A handful of firms were included in the Global Elite even though we received no submission from them; their exclusion would have undermined the ranking overall, and they deserve a place on the list. We expect that receiving their submissions would have made at least a few major changes to the rankings below.

The GDR editorial team parsed through each Elite submission to reach a final score in various categories. It wasn’t as simple as counting the number of matters; the team applied editorial judgment to catch matters that weren’t quite right for GDR. Similarly, we moved some matters around categories when we didn’t feel they were in the right place.

Practice size

Top five largest firms by headcount – number of partners


Top five largest firms by headcount – total legal team size

The numbers above show how much the ranks of data lawyers have swelled in recent years – although they must come with a big pinch of salt. Different firms count their data practices in very different ways, meaning that much discretion was left to how they count their numbers. But these lists show that thousands of lawyers around the world now dedicate their practices to data, privacy and more; there are 1,236 reported in the Global Elite alone.

Top five firms by number of countries with a data team

These numbers show how major data practices are spread across the globe. That’s no criticism of firms that take a more focused approach: Cooley, Ropes & Gray, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, WilmerHale and Hunton Andrews Kurth are each present in three jurisdictions, and Alston & Bird has data teams in only the US and Brussels. Each of them earned a place on the Elite list due to the quality of their work and their reputation on the market, and they all have strong referral networks that allow them to deliver global advice when necessary.

Data protection and privacy capabilities

Busiest firms overall

1: Covington & Burling

2: Herbert Smith Freehills

3: Gibson Dunn & Crutcher

4: Clifford Chance

5: White & Case

6: Osborne Clarke

7: Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati

8: Jones Day

9: Morrison Foerster

10: Squire Patton Boggs

GDR reached this top 10 by adding up the total number of mandates by each firm, across all areas of privacy and non-privacy work. Bear in mind that what’s being measured here is, primarily, volume – not necessarily quality. The firms at the top of this list were able to conduct a genuinely impressive amount of work, but we’ll be quick to say it wasn’t routine: the detail they provided convinced us that their business models are far from being focused on high volumes of relatively unexciting work. Those firms are nowhere near the Elite. And each firm in this top 10 had multiple (mostly confidential) mandates that illustrate they are at the top of their game. That applies for each table below, which measures the activity of firms across various multiple areas. We don’t wish to suggest that this means they advise on easy projects or issues. Far from it: data is not the kind of practice area that lends itself to easy answers.

Busiest firms: data protection and privacy - overall

1: Herbert Smith Freehills

2: Covington & Burling

3: Gibson Dunn & Crutcher

4: Clifford Chance

5: White & Case

6: Jones Day

7: Osborne Clarke

8: Squire Patton Boggs

9: Morrison & Foerster

10: Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati

There are no massive changes between the privacy-only list above and the overall list featured earlier. That just goes to show the extent to which privacy remains by far the greatest area of demand from clients.

Busiest firms: data protection and privacy – advisory

1: Herbert Smith Freehills

2: Covington & Burling

3: Clifford Chance

4: Osborne Clarke

5: Gibson Dunn & Crutcher

6: Jones Day

7: White & Case

8: DLA Piper

9: Squire Patton Boggs

10: Baker McKenzie

Unsurprisingly, firms with large teams and a solid spread across multiple jurisdictions are able to handle the largest volumes of advisory work – large companies will tap their services for multiple projects in multiple places.

Busiest firms: data protection and privacy – investigations

1: Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati

2: Covington & Burling

3: Gibson Dunn & Crutcher

4: WilmerHale

5: Osborne Clarke

6: Jones Day

7: Morrison & Foerster

8: Herbert Smith Freehills

=9: DLA Piper

=9: Baker McKenzie

10: White & Case

Overall, global firms again pick up the most jobs here: having teams in multiple places clearly generates more defence work. And that’s why Wilson Sonsini deserves extra credit. Coming in at the top of this list is a truly stellar performance, given that the firm has data practitioners located only in the US, Belgium and the UK. The firm has a huge number of live investigations on the books.

Busiest firms: data protection and privacy litigation

1: Morrison & Foerster

2: Squire Patton Boggs

=3: Herbert Smith Freehills

=3: Hunton Andrews Kurth

4: Jones Day

5: Gibson Dunn & Crutcher

6: Alston & Bird

7: Clifford Chance

8: Covington & Burling

=9: Osborne Clarke

=9: Morgan Lewis & Bockius

=10: Fieldfisher

=10: Cooley

We consider that the true standouts here are the firms that do not have a US litigation practice – in other words, those that don’t rely on the world’s busiest disputes market in order to sustain strong practices. Herbert Smith Freehills, Osborne Clarke and Fieldfisher’s disputes practices (at least insofar as they relate to data) are strongly focused on the European market, where case volumes are far lower and individual pieces of litigation mean much more. It’s also fair to note that Morrison & Foerster has perhaps the world’s strongest data protection litigation practice, and that a significant chunk of its matters were European. It’s truly impressive stuff that deserves real credit.

Busiest firms: non-personal data

1: Covington & Burling

2: Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati

3: Osborne Clarke

4: Clifford Chance

5: Morgan Lewis & Bockius

6: Jones Day

7: Morrison & Foerster

8: Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer

9: WilmerHale

10: Gibson Dunn & Crutcher

This year’s GDR submission form asked firms to separate privacy from non-privacy work – the latter could catch the likes of ‘pure’ cybersecurity advice that was unrelated to privacy regulation, data-rich dealmaking, data localisation assistance and so on. We appreciate that this was a difficult thing to ask: many matters have at least some privacy aspects, even if they’re tangential to the real job, but most firms were able to figure out which cases should fall into which category (and we carried out a few of our own adjustments).

Firms with the greatest proportion of non-personal data mandates

We found this to be a good measure of the firms that have truly holistic data practices, with a track record of consistently advising firms across the full spectrum of data law. It’s an interesting proxy, but take it with a pinch of salt. Given the difficulty of separating pure non-privacy work from the rest, these percentages are the most rough-and-ready aspect of the ranking.

Unlock unlimited access to all Global Data Review content