Big Law – the future global elite brands

Transatlantic mega-mergers are challenging the existing international elite of law firm brands. The next decade will see a dramatic shakedown among the contenders to become the future global elite firms — many will succeed, more will fail.

Ever more global
The term global is of course a relative one when it comes to law firms. Although many have radically transformed themselves over the last decade or more from powerful national firms into substantial international brands, none can yet be said to be global in the way that say, PWC, McKinsey or Goldman Sachs are global.

The Big 4 accountancy firms, Bulge Bracket banks and top management consultancies are truly global entities with strong global brands — at or near the top in every key market around the world — attracting the top clients and top talent simultaneously in a virtuous circle of market dominance.

In the legal sector by comparison the strongest international brands currently fall into two categories: the elite ‘international but not yet global’ US or UK based firms with large international operations (Linklaters, Latham & Watkins, Skadden, etc) who have the ‘bet the farm’ credentials but not yet the reach, and the global ‘premium but not yet elite’ firms (Baker & McKenzie, DLA Piper, Dentons, etc.) who have the global reach but still in the process of earning their stripes as go-to firms for the market’s most significant matters.

A third way
Whilst these firms made all the running in terms of significant changes around the turn of the century, recently (apart from Dentons) they have been relatively quiet on the transformation stage, leaving the spotlight to the series of global mega-mergers of silver circle firms — mostly but not exclusively reaching out across the Atlantic to find their partners (Hogan Lovells, Norton Rose Fulbright, Herbert Smith Freehills, etc.). These newly internationalised firms join an interesting 3rd group to watch (already comprising firms like White & Case and Mayer Brown) which are currently further along the elite curve than the global firms and further along the global curve than the elite firms.

It would be premature and foolish to predict which strategy will ultimately win out in the race and it’s possible that firms will emerge from all groups – what’s easier to predict is that those firms that are not even in the race are not going to win it. Their future — if they want to retain their relevance to clients for ‘bet the farm’ matters — probably lies in specialism by market, industry, practice or combination (a topic covered in another post ‘Specialists in a World of Generalists’).

Game on
This sets the scene for a dramatic and potentially rapid and painful shakedown over the next decade of the brand landscape among the international firms — King & Wood, Malleson is perhaps the highest profile example so far even if there were certainly other factors involved — as they fight for position in the race to get into the breakaway pack of genuinely global elite law firms.

The prize is huge — to gain an increasingly unassailable position as one of a select group of global elite law firms, handling the bulk of the largest deals, transactions and disputes for the Fortune 500 and largest financial institutions. The $64,000-dollar question is who will make the cut as all of the contenders face significant hurdles to develop this brand positioning.

Ian Stephens

CEO and Founder of Principia, the world's most experienced branding and innovation consultancy for professional service firms.