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According to the team at US law blog Above the Law, brand strength is probably second only to revenue growth as the biggest worry facing large law firm lawyers in the US.  After all, as Above the Law’s Staci Zaretsky said, “a brand is something that will keep clients coming back, and usher in new and exciting business opportunities”.

To understand legal branding a little more, we need to ask one question: which law firms are setting the standard?  Actually, there are two… what is the standard for best practice?  More on that in time.

To get the ball rolling, the legal researchers, Acritas, have produced two reports on the leading legal brands.

Last week we looked at their research which identified the world’s leading law firm brands.  This survey polled leading general counsel around the world and, in the battle for ‘perception’ and ‘power’, there was one stand out winner – Baker and McKenzie.

But what we’re concerned with today is the latest Acritas publication, which ranked the top law firm brands in theUnited States.  They might be over a pretty big pond from us but it’s not all Michael Douglas-types and Ally McBeal…  There is much we can learn from this in the UK.

According to the second annual US Law Firm Brand Index survey, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP emerged as the leadingUS law firm by brand strength.  Who?  Well, we might not have heard of them over here but wow… now that is a great name, if nothing else!

This ranking was compiled by asking five open-ended questions to some of the world’s leading general counsel in the US and around the world.  The questions were the following:

  • Which US law firms first come to mind.
    And which did they:
  • Most favour
  • Most consider for top-level for litigation
  • Most consider for top level for M&A
  • Most use for high value work

So, we have a basic standard for ways to identify the most popular brands.  From this we can, potentially, set out a test to measure brand effectiveness… but more on that with time, as we said.

Here’s a full list of how the survey finished – the top 25 US law firms by brand:

  1. Skadden
  2. Jones Day
  3. Baker and McKenzie
  4. Latham and Watkins
  5. DLA Piper
  6. Sidley Austin
  7. Kirkland and Ellis
  8. Mayer Brown
  9. Morgan Lewis
  10. Gibson Dunn
  11. Sullivan and Cromwell
  12. McDermott Will and Emery
  13. Fulbright and Jaworski
  14. Hogan Lovells
  15. K&L Gates
  16. Wachtell
  17. Weil Gotshal
  18. Vinson and Elkins
  19. Baker Botts
  20. Simpson Thacher
  21. Ropes & Gray
  22. Foley & Lardner
  23. Davis Polk
  24. King & Spalding
  25. Reed Smith

In a changing world, people and businesses are jumpy, uncertain and unsure about the future.  And for law firms this means that brand strength is more importance than ever.  By building brand equity and projecting strength, law firms can calm client worries and concerns.

Now we couldn’t get to see the full report, and talk about why these great people ranked so highly, but even looking at the websites, we can learn a lot and get an idea of the things we might consider in measuring brand effectiveness.

But one thing that did resonate, about legal branding projects in a time of uncertainty, was a quote from brand strategy consultant Keith Lucas, who said: “In essence, a brand is simply ‘a promise of what to expect’”.

Also, listen to an Acritas podcast on harnessing the power of the law firm brand.

Whilst we know that the legal sector is made up of more than just the top 25 names, for big law firms the main lesson that we can draw from the latest findings from Acritas is simple: in order to build brand strength and notoriety in the United States, law firms need to get big whether through organic growth or through mergers.  When you review all of these 25 firms you can see clear, strategic (we hope) growth, in particular over here in the UK.

That’s right… it’s about the right type of growth.  Namely: international growth.  As the world shrinks, firms are required to be more flexible and also more willing to operate outside of their back yard.  As the founder of Acritas, Lisa Hart Shepherd said: “most people go with international firms as opposed to individual firms in individual regions.”

Does this signify the end of the ‘local’ law firm?

We say a very loud “no”.  For smaller law firms, the lessons are broader but important nonetheless. The primary driver should be the ambition to be the go-to-firm for a niche and specialist practice area.  Go “boutique or bust” is something that we’ve heard many times before, including from leading legal commentator David Lat of Above the Law.  Whilst the big firms might be flexing their international muscle, this does open up an opportunity for the smaller, regional practices to step forward and fill the gap.  People are still going to want to see someone approachable (to them at least) when they get divorced, or encounter a business dispute.  Therefore, we suggest that international expansion, particularly between the UK and USA, also opens opportunities for smaller firms to step up to the front where establishing their own, niche brands are concerned.

But let’s finish on a lighter note, the brand valuation consultancy Intangible Business recently carried out research which looked at legal branding by comparing favourite chocolates with well-known law firms.

Eversheds was compared to KitKat, while CMS Cameron McKenna was compared to Toblerone. You can read more about this interesting comparative study by clicking here.

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