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Blake, Cassels & Graydon leapfrogged over Norton Rose Fulbright to land atop market research firm Acritas’ latest Canadian Law Firm Brand Index, which is based on a survey of 268 in-house lawyers who regularly rely on Canadian firms as outside counsel.

In grabbing the top spot, Blakes moved up from the third-place position it occupied in the previous version of the survey. Norton Rose Fulbright, which was No. 1 the last time around, slipped to second place in the latest survey. Stikeman Elliott; Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt; and Fasken Martineau DuMoulin round out the top five.

Acritas—which produces similar surveys assessing the strength of legal brands in the United States, the United Kingdom and around the world—based its 2014 index on responses to a series of questions posed to 268 in-house counsel at companies with more than $50 million in annual revenue.

As it does with its other surveys, Acritas asked those respondents—191 of them employed by Canadian companies, the rest with companies based elsewhere that often tap Canada’s legal market to meet their outside counsel needs—to name the first five firms that came to mind generally, the three firms toward which they were most favorably inclined, and the handful of firms they thought of first when considering whom to hire for big-ticket litigation, inbound work, and high-value work generally. Firms earned points on a 1-to-5 scale, with 5 being the highest, based on where they figured into the respondents’ answers. Blakes received 100 points in total; Norton Rose Fulbright earned 90.7; and Stikeman scored 87.4.

Acritas U.S. Inc. vice president Elizabeth Duffy says brand recognition is increasingly important for law firms scrambling to gain ground in what is essentially a stagnant market for legal services. She notes that Acritas researchers predict that legal spending in Canada will remain largely flat this year.

“Firms need a way to stand out so that you are top-of-mind,” Duffy says. “We’ve seen over the last few years an increased effort and a more sophisticated effort in marketing legal services, though it is not being done at the same pace by every firm.”

In a press release accompanying the survey results, Acritas said the strength of Blakes’ brand is a product of the firm’s “success in creating a clear, differentiated offering built on practice areas directly relevant to the largest sectors of the Canadian economy.”

Contacted for comment, Blakes chair Brock Gibson said the firm has not really done much lately to increase its visibility.

“Our strategy,” Gibson says, “is to be in all the key markets here and to cover key industries and practice areas that Canada is known for, and to be the best in class.” He says the firm may have gotten a boost from the major push it has made into the Calgary and Vancouver markets. The firm also topped the M&A legal advisory tables in many categories last year.

For Norton Rose Fulbright, even a second-place showing is a sign of continued strength in a market the firm entered by combining with Canada’s Ogilvy Renault in 2011 and then tying up with MacLeod Dixon in 2012.

John Coleman, the firm’s Canadian managing partner, says the robust brand recognition shows that the so-called Seven Sister firms—Blakes; Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg; Goodmans; McCarthy Tetrault; Osler; Stikeman; and Torys—that have dominated the country’s legal market since the early 1990s are losing some of their luster.

“The concept of the Seven Sisters is outdated and no longer reflects the market reality and who the clients actually see as the leading firms in Canada,” says Coleman, adding that last year’s tie-up with Fulbright & Jaworski increased the firm’s profile even further. “We followed our clients. It’s worked out for us.” (Norton Rose Fulbright, which continues to scout out new growth opportunities, opened an office in Brazil in February.)

The other global firm with a presence in Canada, Dentons, which formed last year via the three-way combination of Canada’s Fraser Milner Casgrain, European firm Salans and SNR Denton—placed ninth in its first appearance on the Canadian legal brand index.

The index is already outdated in one way: 14th-ranked Heenan Blaikie went out of business in February.