The world's top 50 most valuable law firm brands

Highlights

  • Ranking the 50 most prestigious international law firms by 'total distributable profits' gives a more rigorous and substantive basis for assessing their relative brand strengths. 
  • According to our analysis Kirkland & Ellis and Latham & Watkins are the world’s most valuable global law firm brands closely followed by Skadden Arps.  
  • The top 50 global brands are heavily dominated by US-heritage firms, due to the continued global importance of the US legal market, but only one of the top 10 (Skadden) is a New York-heritage firm.
  • The UK-heritage Magic Circle firms along with Herbert Smith Freehills make up the rest of the top 50 securing 3 spots in the global top 10 despite having very little presence in the lucrative US market.
Data Source: The American Lawyer (Note. Global PEP data not published by Norton Rose Fulbright) 

Hiding in plain sight

A wise, ex-McKinsey consultant told me more than 10 years ago that instead of PEP or revenues, law firms should focus on growing their admittedly less catchy, ‘overall distributable profits’ ­– in other words average PEP x number of partners that can be sustained at that average, as a truer measure of brand strength. 

Actually, he didn’t say brand strength because it was 10 years ago, when brand in professional services mostly meant logos and colours. But these days the role of brand in professional services has caught up with the outside world and the interconnections between commercial performance and brand strength are more commonly understood.

This insight, simple as it sounds, is the key to the link between relative brand strength and relative commercial performance measured in terms of ‘overall distributable profits’; the methodology behind these rankings.

Economics sidebar – why profits are a good measure of relative brand strength in Big Law.

The key to this insight lies in the underlying dynamics of the global law firm market which although quirky in many ways is, in economic-theory terms, a fairly frictionless or ‘pure’ market (lots of competitors with relatively low market share, low barriers to entry/exit, similar products and good price visibility).

In other sectors profits can be heavily influenced by ownership of critical IP (pharma), regulations and licences that thwart competition (telecoms), assets that bar entry (energy), effective monopolies or oligopolies (big tech), etc. none of which applies in any significant way in the premium legal market.

Firms only succeed commercially over time if they compete effectively year in year out for what they earn and because the purchase cycle is relatively short clients can react quickly to any perceived changes in the relative competitiveness of any one firm.

Being a relatively ‘pure’ market, individual firms (and their partners) compete based on 3 components: reputation (what those who’ve experienced you think about your service), relevance (what problems you’re perceived to be best at solving and where geographically you solve them) and visibility (how well known you’re known to the clients around the world who have those problems – and the budgets to pay for your services).

These 3 components added together comprise a firm’s ‘brand’ – the combined brand equity of the firm and the partners within it (who also have brands of their own) – arguably the only source of sustainable competitive advantage that a law firm has.

Path to growth?

Staying super-focused on existing markets and clients and fending off competition for premium work is hard, as is entering new markets and building reputation for quality there. Doing both simultaneously is exponentially more challenging and without a strong brand impossible.

As law firm leadership teams know only too well, profitable, non-dilutive growth is highly elusive and the market forces at work appear to be contradictory making internal messaging complex let alone external ones.

On the one hand communicating a message to partners and teams around raising profitability through a focus on doing more of what you already do best, billable hours, efficiency, etc. On the other hand, communicating the need to make targeted investments for future growth, which inevitably means doing things you don’t do as well, in places you’re less well known and for clients who may not know you very well, if at all. This means investing heavily in non-billable marketing and business development activities (including bringing in laterals).

Hats off to those executive teams that can communicate that lot in simple coherent terms to a bunch of independent-minded partners spread around the world! Despite the challenge some leading firms are managing to do both and build stronger global brands as they do it – these are the firms leading the rankings.

From the top

Interestingly, and totally unscientifically, this ranking intuitively ‘feels right’ on the whole – with few if any exceptions it’s hard to argue that the firms leading this ranking are the runners and riders currently leading the field in the race to become the future global elite law firms.

Data Source: The American Lawyer

A closer look

Digging into the rankings a bit deeper there are some interesting observations:

  • The top 2 firms in the rankings, Kirkland and Latham, have established a significant lead on the following pack.
  • The US firms dominate (44 of the global top 50) due to the relatively massive size of the US market – which generates more than 50% of global legal fees and if it were possible to separate out ‘premium legal fees’ this proportion could be even higher.
  • Despite this US dominance only one of the top 10 (Skadden) is a legacy New York firm. Maybe this shows that the firms from ‘elsewhere’ have been more aggressive in their growth strategies beyond their home cities and have learned how to do it profitably and effectively along the way. Whether it shows that the legacy New York firms are behind the globalisation curve or just 'big enough fishes in a big enough pond', (i.e. New York) only time will tell.
  • The UK-heritage Magic Circle firms along with Herbert Smith Freehills make up the rest of the top 50 securing 3 spots in the global top 10 despite having very little presence in the lucrative US market. This indicates that these firms continue to benefit from major international expansion undertaken in the early 2000s to many major financial centres ahead of the vast majority of their US competitors.
  • An interesting thought experiment is to consider that a merger between one of the Magic Circle firms and a highly New York-centric firm such as Sullivan & Cromwell or Simpson Thatcher would instantly catapult the combined firm to the no.1 global brand spot (assuming lots of continuity of course).

In terms of strategy, 3 models appear to be the most successful:

  • Brands that can sustain 100-150 partners working on premium work mainly from New York or London (this group tends to be very much concentrated on one or the other, not both).
  • Brands that can sustain between 300 and 400 partners focused on premium work from a larger group of commercial centres (including at least one of New York or London and increasingly both).
  • Brands with closer to 1000 partners, more geographically spread but making a good average PPP. 

Right now, the most successful brands are in the 3-400 partners group but with two 1000-types (Jones Day and Baker McKenzie) holding their own in this company.

So, what now?

What does this analysis imply in terms of the questions leadership teams should ask themselves about the role of brand in future growth strategy?

  • What brand strategy will most effectively help us grow our ‘overall distributable profits’?
  • Can we trade up by targeting a more premium level of work that generates higher PPP? What will it take to achieve this, what are our sources of competitive advantage and how do we market this effectively?
  • Can we build out by expanding our brand to be more relevant to more clients? What will it take to achieve this, what are our sources of competitive advantage and how do we market this effectively?
  • Can/must we do both at the same time?

Our perspective is that a strategic narrative based around a 5-10-year horizon to grow brand equity (measured by overall distributable profits) is the most effective way to communicate a coherent package of (apparently counter-productive) strategic initiatives to partners and achieve good levels of buy-in and support.

In coming weeks, we’ll build on this 2016/17 snapshot with an historical look and see where today’s leaders have emerged from. We’ll also take a deeper look at those international firms with legacy UK roots (i.e. cover the ‘US market eye’ for a moment) and see how these firms stack up.