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A white-shoe firm is a leading professional services firm in the United States, particularly firms that have been in existence for more than a century and represent Fortune 500 companies. It typically--but not always--refers to banking, law, and management consulting firms, especially those based in northeastern U. S states.
The phrase "white shoe" has a distinctly different meaning and history in Australia.
Etymology of US phrase
The phrase derives from "white bucks", laced suede or buckskin shoes with a red sole, long popular in the Ivy League colleges. 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." 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.
Usage in the United States
The term originated in the Ivy League colleges and originally reflected a stereotype of old-line firms populated by WASPs. The term historically had antisemitic connotations, as many of the New York firms known as "white shoe" were considered off-limits to Jewish lawyers until the 1960s. 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," which shows that the original connotation has not changed entirely. A 2010 column in The Economist described the term as synonymous with "big, old, east-coast and fairly traditional." 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.
Usage in Australia
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. 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.
The following US firms are often referred to as being white-shoe firms:
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:
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.
Magic Circle, an informal term for the London headquartered law firms with the largest revenues, the most international work and which consistently outperform the rest of the London market on profitability.
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  (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.