For the third year in a row, Jones Day proved to be the strongest law firm brand in the U.S., but Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom is narrowing the gap.
That’s the top finding from the annual law firm branding survey by law firm marketing consultancy Acritas. In its eighth year of evaluating brand strength by interviewing senior legal buyers at large corporations, Acritas also found the field to be more closely ranked than ever.
Four firms were tied in the twentieth spot, ensuring that 23 firms were named on the leaderboard. And nine other law firms finished within three points of that last spot.
Acritas vice president Elizabeth Duffy attributed the bunching to more and more firms exhibiting concern over the strength of their brands.
“We’ve seen law firms really start to take a more strategic approach to how they care about their brand and make sure that brand strategy is aligned with their growth strategy overall,” she said. “They’re understanding that the two go hand-in-hand.”
Acritas built its U.S. Law Firm Brand Index on a survey of 623 respondents at U.S. organizations and another 258 multinationals outside the U.S. with legal needs within the county. Survey respondents were polled about the law firms’ awareness and favorability and asked how likely they would be to choose the firms for top-level litigation, M&A matters and overall use.
While Jones Day finished 15 points above runner-up Skadden in 2018, the latter firm increased its own performance by 13 points, and is now just two points out of the lead. Skadden dominated the Acritas list in the first five renditions.
“Over time, the halo effect that Skadden had, because it was the uber brand, with such a strong reputation relative to its size and its reach, that halo effect has diminished as other firms have been catching up,” Duffy said.
Skadden’s jump since 2018 can be attributed to healthy increases in all six components of the index, especially brand awareness and appeal for big-ticket litigation. (While not addressed in the report, Skadden has also had its share of publicity challenges in the past year, related to its work in Ukraine.) Other firms making substantial jumps are Sullivan & Cromwell—the sole newcomer in the top 10, which moved from 16th to 8th by gaining 26 index points—and Morgan Lewis & Bockius, which moved from 8th to 3rd by adding 25 index points. Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; Kirkland & Ellis; Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; Shearman & Sterling; Debevoise & Plimpton; and Covington & Burling also saw significant increases.
Many of these firms have strong reputations for corporate work, and their performance on the index was likely aided by more clients pursuing high-level M&A work over the last year. A separate piece of Acritas research conducted at the end of 2017 revealed that 32 percent of general counsels were expecting to increase their legal spending over the course of 2018, and that 39 percent of that anticipated rise was connected to transactional activity.
Another striking finding from the report was that of the 23 firms in the index, only 10 would make the 20 most-used firms for international clients spending on U.S.-based work.
Duffy called that a huge missed opportunity, noting that these firms have offices in 14 countries on average, or 15 if single-office Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz is excluded.
“For those firms that have built a strong presence in other markets, rather than prioritizing and focusing on U.S. clients locally, they should also look to leverage these offices with local companies looking to send work back to the U.S.,” she said. “We often hear, ‘It’s an investment, when will it pay off?’ This is one way to regain some of that.”