For years, the top law firm brands have fought against Newton’s law: What went up did not necessarily have to come down. However, a recent survey says that gravity is starting to win again, and there is a shakeup in the traditional hierarchy of the top U.S. law firm brands.

Acritas’ 2014 US Law Firm Brand Index says that the gap is closing between the traditional top three law firm brands and the rest of the pack. While Skadden maintains the top spot in the survey, its substantial lead over second place Jones Day was cut in half. Kirkland & Ellis, meanwhile, secured the third spot away from Baker & Mackenzie through higher mentions of top-level litigation and M&A.

Acritas compiled its list through interviews with 581 senior general counsel in the U.S., as well as 123 in-house counsel outside the U.S. who work within the country. The index ranks firms according to top-of-mind awareness, favorability, consideration for both major M&A and top-level litigation as well as their overall level of usage.

Elizabeth Duffy, Acritas’ U.S. vice president, said in the organization’s release that the results show a group of larger and stronger firms rising through the pack. The key, said Duffy, is recognizing what the brand can mean to firm.

“In this increasingly competitive environment, the brand-building process is central to achieving standout and ‘top-of-mind’ status with clients,” Duffy said. “And it is critical to recognize it is an ongoing process – as we see the factors which affect a firm’s brand evolve year-on-year – not least because it is individual lawyers who are the ‘ambassadors’ of the brand and have greatest influence over the perceptions clients hold of firms.”

The highest riser in the survey is Hogan Lovells, which increased from 14th to 5th position. Acritas says that Hogan Lovells placed highly with its favorability score relative to its rank, and the global footprint and successful internationalization of the firm since its 2010 merger has helped it achieve successful positive recognition.

However, not all brands need to place highly in the survey to support its particular market. Acritas points out that Wachtell, which dropped from 5th in 2012 to sub-20 in 2014, has moved towards a more segmented user base as a boutique. This firm is top-of-mind for that user base, but it does not have the wide footprint that many of the other top firms on the rankings maintain.

According to Duffy, whatever the strategy, the law firms that focus on brand building are the ones that will be seeing the benefits at the end of the day.

“Some have the benefit of a strong and historic reputation while others are building their reputation from a lower base,” Duffy said. “As we continue to measure law firm brands and brand drivers in the US, it becomes apparent which firms really understand the shifts occurring in the legal industry and are responding to clients’ changing needs. These are the firms which will reap the financial rewards in years to come.”


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