Challengers continue to make progress against established, old-line firms in the minds of senior counsel at big corporations, the latest ranking by Acritas, the United Kingdom-based market research firm, shows.
DLA Piper jumped to second place in the Acritas Global Elite Law Firm Brand Index 2015, gaining 12 points and two places from last year, to rank behind Baker & McKenzie, which has topped the index since its inception in 2010.
DLA Piper gained favor in the U.K. and China since the last survey, displacing Clifford Chance, which dropped to third place. DLA Piper also had the biggest leap in scores among the top 20 firms in the past five years, jumping five places and 19 points since 2010.
Jones Day, Freshfields, Linklaters, Allen & Overy and White & Case, in that order, rounded out the top 10 global firms in the global brand-strength survey.
All of the top five firms were known to respondents in every region including Canada, the United States, Latin America, the United Kingdom, mainland Europe, the Middle East, Asia-Pacific and Africa, the report found.
“We are continuing to see a decline, in the brand sense, of premium-priced brands and the rise of challengers,” says Lisa Hart Shepherd, chief executive of Acritas.
Magic Circle firms in general continued losing ground in global brand strength in the latest report. Three Magic Circle firms (Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters and Allen & Overy) have dropped out of the top five in the Global Index since 2010, displaced by DLA Piper, Norton Rose Fulbright in fourth place and Hogan Lovells in fifth place.
Some venerable U.S.-based firms, such as Skadden, Arps, Slate Meagher & Flom, also have fallen in the global rankings over time. Skadden, the leading brand in the United States in the Acritas survey of U.S. brands released earlier this year, was ninth in 2010 in the global index but is now 11th. Sidley Austin also fell four places in that period.
Brand awareness was highly concentrated among the top 20 firms in the ranking, Shepherd says. (Fourteen of the those 20 firms are Acritas clients, Sheperd says.) Of the 500 or so firms recalled by survey respondents, 40 percent of the index scores were held by the top 20 firms and 28 percent were held by the top 10.
Building global brand awareness is difficult but important in an increasingly fragmented market, where the average client works with 12 different firms, Shepherd says. Attention-grabbing mass lateral hires and mergers, such as the Morgan, Lewis & Bockius absorption of hundreds of former Bingham McCutchen partners last November, garner notice, she says. Frequent positive client interaction also helps, she adds, by bringing in more clients and raising the firm’s profile.
A thousand client interviews
The Global Elite Law Firm Brand Index is based on detailed telephone interviews of 1,059 heads of legal departments, their deputies or chief operating officers at 1,048 companies at randomly selected companies with gross revenues of at least $1 billion. The interviews were conducted in the first eight months of 2015.
The main part of the survey consists of more than 50 questions about law firm brand, usage and market trends. The index is based on responses to four questions, including asking counsel to name the “first five law firms that come to mind,” which three firms clients feel “most favorable towards,” and the three firms they’re likely to consider for multijurisdictional litigation in three or more countries and, separately, for multijurisdictional deals, in order of mention. Law firms are awarded points for awareness on a scale of 5 to 1 per mention, with 5 being the highest score for first mention. The total points are combined and the firm with the highest total sets the index at 100 (in this case, Baker & McKenzie) from which all the other firms’ index scores are calculated. A decline in performance of the leader therefore raises the other firms’ index scores.
One takeaway of the rankings chart above is that the sun never sets on Baker & McKenzie’s empire. The firm is highly favored by survey respondents for its global coverage. Baker & McKenzie outpaced its closest competition by 40 points, ranking first in each individual measure. Only the top five firms in the ranking, plus Latham & Watkins, had brand awareness in every one of eight regions, Shepherd says.
Several other firms aside from DLA Piper also have made leaps in brand awareness over the past five years, the survey found. Asia and Australia-based King Wood & Mallesons improved 28 places in rank and gained 16 points in score. Dentons and Dacheng, which were reported together by Acritas pending completion of their combination, rose 27 places and gained 15 points. Kirkland & Ellis rose 22 points in ranking and 10 points in score. Norton Rose Fulbright gained 11 places and nine points, while CMS rose 19 and seven points. Hogan Lovells gained three places and five points since 2010. Many firms, including Skadden, Jones Day and Sidley Austin, lost points because they lacked recognition in some key regions and were regarded by respondents as being more regionally focused.
But the surge by the growing international players over the past five years has come mainly at the expense of the Magic Circle firms, the rankings show. DLA Piper entered the top five in 2012, pushing out Allen & Overy, which is now in ninth place. Norton Rose Fulbright entered the top five in 2014, pushing out Freshfields, now seventh. Hogan Lovells cracked the top five in 2015, pushing out Linklaters, now eighth. Clifford Chance is the only Magic Circle firm remaining among the top five, and it has lost 31 points since 2010.
Ways to expand your brand
Mary K. Young, a consultant at Zeughauser Group in Washington, D.C., says law firms trying to build their brands outside of their home base should start by figuring out their reason for entering a new market and how they can differentiate their services from competitors there. “You have to think through what you can offer that others can’t, or what relationships you can leverage that others can’t,” she says.
Norm Rubenstein, another consultant at Zeughauser Group, advises firms establishing themselves in a new city or region to “find a way to integrate as rapidly as possible into the local community. The local pro bono community is always in desperate need and can be a wonderful mechanism for establishing a local reputation.” He says pro bono work gives potential clients “an opportunity to see the lawyers in action and see what the lawyers are capable of doing, and hear more about the firm and its value proposition.”
Shepherd says corporate clients generally prefer to use the same firms they employ domestically for overseas work, if the firms have that capacity. “Unless clients are very familiar with working with a particular jurisdiction, they gain comfort from using a firm they trust at home to then look after their interests in a foreign jurisdiction” especially in difficult-to-navigate markets, she says.
“Once attention is won, the key is then to turn that awareness to favorability and then consideration,” she says. “This is done by the promise of a great client experience and for much of the work, good value.”
Shepherd says the firms with deeper local knowledge that do a broad range of work cost-effectively internationally are poised to gain ground against competitors.
When Acritas asked clients how law firms could improve their standing with clients, many companies said they wished firms were more business-savvy, and had a better understanding of their industries, business drivers, and potential commercial risks and opportunities, Shepherd says. Norton Rose Fulbright, an Acritas client, has organized itself around industry sectors, such as energy and life sciences/health care, with teams of lawyers drawn from different practice areas so that they understand issues arising in that sector. “This gives their people a competitive edge when it comes to having business discussions with clients, understanding the legal risks and potential gains,” she says, and enables the firm to give “more practical business-savvy advice.”
(See also: The 2015 Global 100.)