There's Still Room at the Top (But it's Getting Crowded)

Acritas’ 2015 US Law Firm Brand Index reveals that although Skadden retains its top position for the fourth consecutive year, competitors are now hard on its heels.

Only two years ago, second-placed firm Jones Day was a full 36 points behind the leader, that gap has now narrowed to a 13 point difference.

The pattern is repeated in third place where Baker & McKenzie now lies, having successfully overtaken Kirkland & Ellis, thanks to a 15 point increase in brand strength over the last year – the third largest point rise in the 2015 US Index overall.

Further evidence of the size and power of the encroaching pack lies in the example of K&L Gates which, with its Index score of 52, lies in eighth place this year. However, that same score would have secured the firm third place in 2013.

As the gaps between ranks continue to close at the top end, it becomes increasingly difficult for firms to stand out from the crowd.

Developing a strong identity is now an imperative and those able to match their offering most closely with clients’ needs stand to reap the greatest rewards.

While Acritas’ research reveals that expertise, service and relationships remain the top factors driving clients’ favorability towards law firms, most of the top players have now raised their game in these areas to the point where it has become difficult to successfully differentiate on these factors alone.

The most forward-thinking of the chasing pack are now focused on meeting clients’ stated desire for a new set of attributes which include value, commercial awareness and business understanding. As clients’ needs for international expertise continue to expand, those firms who can meet their requirements on a global scale have the greatest competitive advantage of all.

Commenting on this year’s US Law Firm Brand Index line-up, Elizabeth Duffy, Vice President of Acritas, US, Inc., said: “The big question for firms pursuing the top positions is whether it is better to be known for your all-round performance across the full set of measures that contribute to brand strength, or if you would be best placed to take up a niche, specializing in one particularly stand-out area offered by your firm.

“Getting this fundamental strategic decision right requires detailed understanding of the market and your clients as well as an honest assessment of where you are now versus your ability to get to where you want to be in the market.”

Whichever stance firms choose to take in the battle for supremacy, a crucial success factor lies in aligning clients’ perceptions and the firm’s offering. There is little merit in positioning your firm as a specialist in M&A when the overwhelming market view is that you are not.

The point is well illustrated by examining each of the factors that contribute to the Index in isolation (see methodology below). By measuring performance against a single factor, the results look radically different.

For example, DLA Piper’s fifth rank position is heavily influenced by clients’ high levels of awareness of and favorability towards the brand. However, were the firm to be measured on premium work alone, it would come tenth.This is a similar case for Baker & McKenzie (third) and Norton Rose Fulbright (11th), firms which in recent years have also climbed the ranks and succeeded in ‘punching above their weight’ by converting their high awareness and favorability among in-house counsel to consideration and engagement.

The brand positions of Wachtell (=19th) and Cravath (17th) on the other hand are much more strongly influenced by their expertise in premium work. They would lead in an Index measuring premium work alone. Tending to rely on their established reputations to dominate this highly specialized niche, they have had less need to focus on raising overall awareness and favorability. This approach currently works for these premium players with distinct clients, although the market will ultimately decide whether this is sustainable in the long term.

Few firms hold such a privileged position. For the rest, brand-building is not optional but obligatory for survival and growth.

“There is no ‘right answer’ to the question about which approach to take in the pursuit of success in today’s market. Every firm has its own particular goals”, explains Acritas US, Inc. Vice President, Elizabeth Duffy. “However, our data makes it very clear that investing in awareness-raising and building favorability with clients accelerates a firm’s progression to the top tiers of its chosen niche.

“Firms vying for the highest positions in the Index need to ensure they are ‘firing on all brand cylinders’ by offering that elusive combination of service, expertise, commercial awareness, value, business understanding and geographic coverage.”

It’s a tough job, but there’s still room at the top.


The US Law Firm Brand Index is based on data from Acritas’ 2014 Sharplegal study of the global legal market comprising interviews across 55 countries with 2,381 in-house counsel who have senior responsibility for buying legal services in organizations with revenues of $50m and above.

692 interviews were conducted by phone with senior counsel in the US between January and October 2014.

The complete survey includes more than 60 questions about law firm brands, usage and market trends.

Five of these questions were used to generate Acritas’ US Brand Index:

  • Top of mind awareness
  • Favorability
  • Consideration for major M&A
  • Consideration for top level litigation
  • Most used overall.

The Index also takes into account the views of a further 183 non-US-based senior counsel who were asked which firms they used for their US-based legal needs.

For further information or to arrange an interview with Elizabeth Duffy, please contact:

Julia Banks, Communications Director, Acritas

or Michelle Nesbitt-Burrell,

on +44 (0)808 178 3020


To download your copy of the Acritas US Law Firm Brand Index 2015 please click here.


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