Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM

The Big Four accounting firms took four out of the top five spots in the second annual ranking of the brand strength of alternative legal service providers.

PwC, fresh from announcing its affiliation with immigration law firm Fragomen, took the No. 1 spot on the Acritas Global Alternative Legal Brand Index. It displaced 2017 leader Thompson Reuters, which fell to second.

Deloitte, EY (formerly Ernst & Young) and KPMG rounded out the top five, in that order.

“I’m surprised at how strong their brands are, as their recall is on the same level as the strongest law firm brands,” Acritas CEO Lisa Hart Shepherd said of the accounting giants. “That’s pretty incredible when it’s not necessarily an audience that will be buying their services.”

The report was based on a survey of over 800 general counsel or their equivalents in $1 billion+ revenue organizations across the world. But as the Big Four have moved more forcefully into providing legal services, their point of entry to clients has largely been through their traditional relationships with CFOs, rather than through law departments.

In 2017, the first year Acritas ranked alternative providers, PwC ranked second, followed by EY and Deloitte in third and fourth. KPMG was sixth.

But since the completion of the last survey, PwC, Deloitte and EY have all made splashy moves that demonstrate their commitment to growing the footprint of their legal businesses.

PwC announced the launch of a U.S. law firm, ILC Legal, to help American clients on international matters in September 2017. The move undoubtedly helped boost the recognition of its brand in the U.S. It followed this with a flexible lawyering service, Flexible Legal Resources, for non-U.S. clients.

Deloitte, meanwhile, became the last of the Big Four to secure an alternative business structure license, allowing it to provide legal services in England and Wales, and it sealed an affiliation agreement with U.S. immigration law firm Berry Appleman & Leiden, while acquiring its international operations.

EY, for its part, took over Riverview Law, the alternative legal services provider backed financially by DLA Piper, in August.

“There’s a lot of media and there’s a lot of leadership talking about these players going into the market,” Hart Shepherd said. “I think that’s reaching through to the clients, too.”

The structural moves made by the other members of the Big Four have likely had a spillover effect on KPMG’s reputation, and the firm—like its peers—has been making high-profile hires of top legal talent. Indeed, Hart Shepherd noted that she was seeing little clear differentiation between Big Four brands.

Amid the advances by the major accounting firms, Thompson Reuters was able to stay close to the top of the list because of its reputation for being highly innovative in its legal service offerings. Hart Shepherd said that the company is rated even more highly than law firms in this regard.

“The products and the services they deliver to legal departments are very well regarded. They’re helping them along the journey of getting more technology driven and working more efficiently,” she said. “These are areas that are very hot right now with legal buyers.”

Axiom, ranked sixth in the survey, stands out for offering a distinct service from both Thomson Reuters and the Big Four. The company can handle both outsourced work from law departments and also send in talent to bolster in-house teams.

“They’re coming through for the quality of the people they have and the flexibility of their services,” Hart Shepherd said.

Read More: 

Baker McKenzie Again Tops Global Brand Rankings

Big Four Auditors Take Top Spots in Asia Pacific Alternative Legal Service Brand Ranking

First-Ever Ranking of Alternative Legal Service Provider Brands—and the Big Four Aren’t On Top