The law firms that are most admired are those with the strongest brand presence in terms of public profile and differentiation from competitors. But those that are innovative, adopting new business/working methods in response to shifts in the legal sector, also score highly, suggesting that firms now tread a fine line between maintaining a solid brand reputation and embracing change.

This is according to latest research from recruitment firm Totum, which surveyed law firm management professionals across a range of functions. Participants were asked to name one firm (other than their own) that they most admire together with their reasons why. 

Totum received 213 nominations, of which 63 different law firms were named and 346 separate reasons given. Nominations were drawn up into a league table, which can be seen below.

League Table of Results



The reasons given were then categorised into groups (see the table below) including, for instance, brand presence, progressiveness/innovation, focus on client service, working environment, quality of people, ambition/growth, management team and firm strategy. 

Reasons for nominations


Brand magic


The league table is topped, perhaps unsurprisingly, by some big brand names. Slaughter & May takes the top spot with 27 nominations, followed by Linklaters, Allen & Overy, Latham & Watkins and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. These are firms repeatedly praised for their strength of brand and sterling market reputation – qualities that participants think make them stand out from the crowd.

It is notable too, that a further 10 votes are given to a firm’s awareness of its own identity and the maintenance of the same. In and of itself, this category does not gain as many votes as others such as strategy, ambition and working environment, but it seems no small coincidence that firms that are mentioned for knowing who they are and sticking to it often also seem to be admired for their brand presence and public profile. Those who get the internal messaging right have an advantage in terms of their external profile too.

With these firms, there is a sense of a virtuous circle too. They are frequently also cited for their top-quality lawyers and other legal staff. Brand attracts talent and with it some of the best clients and deals. This then reinforces their brand reputation. 

Innovation on the up


But interestingly, the findings show that there is another area that comes close to brand presence in gaining admirers. And that’s innovation. It is cited 48 times as a reason for the nomination, coming second only to brand (57 votes), and followed by 36 for client service or quality of client base. 

Firms are nominated for breaking the mould, being creative, thinking differently and being entrepreneurial. It is striking that some of the firms topping the league table clearly manage to combine both a strong brand presence with innovation – getting frequent mentions for both. On the other hand, some are specifically admired for their willingness to buck fashionable trends or resist change for the sake of change.

But of the 63 firms nominated, several are relatively new businesses – Riverview Law, Axiom, Keystone Law, PwC Legal and Radiant Law all get votes. This suggests that innovation is increasingly gaining recognition, becoming something of a brand in its own right. Consequently these firms are mentioned as the opposite of the stuffy law firm, making a virtue out of their willingness to challenge the norm and change perception.

Where’s the money?


Interestingly, despite law firm profit figures looming large in the press, this doesn’t seem to attract as much admiration as other areas. Or perhaps the figures are just not that memorable – people assume a firm is doing okay until dire warnings suggest otherwise. Yes, a few firms are cited for their ability to make a lot of money (mentioned 14 times in total), but far more common are the references to a firm’s rapid growth or successful entry into new (and challenging) markets – mentioned 25 times. 

Quality counts


What does seem to get numerous mentions is quality – whether it’s quality of core practice/sector groups (20 votes), quality of a firm’s legal and non-legal people (32 votes) or quality of client service or client base (36 votes). This is hardly surprising – quality across these areas goes a long way to making a successful business. 

It also links into overall branding. While firms are specifically nominated for excellence in one or other of these areas, quality also features regularly as an overall mark of brand distinction. When firms are described as oozing quality in every way or being uncompromising on quality, it is often in the context of superiority across staff, clients and service. Perhaps these are key areas across which brand values come alive. 

Working culture


That doesn’t mean, however, that firms cannot also choose additional and unique ways to stand out. Such an area, for instance, is in working environment/culture, which comes fourth on the list of reasons for nominations, behind client service, innovation and brand presence. Firms are specifically cited for their supportive culture, for caring for staff, being ahead of the game for people initiatives and having excellent career development opportunities and/or flexible working schemes. 

It is clear that people are far more aware of those firms that do this well and have built a reputation for it. Indeed, for some, it seems that working culture is becoming an important part of their brand identity, giving them a potential advantage in attracting a broader pool of talent.

Community players


CSR and external awareness comes further down the list of reasons for nominations but still gets cited five times. Firms are mentioned for their social and community values, but it is perhaps the smaller firms that stand out here, which get specifically nominated for their efforts to improve social mobility or take on work that’s about making a difference rather than securing profit. As a small firm, there is more opportunity to lay claim to a niche offering or unique selling point: avoiding trying to be all things to all people can be a real advantage here.

The big picture


Overall, the most recognised and admired law firms have a strong brand presence, perhaps borne of years of outstanding performance. They know themselves and are admired for their relentless pursuit of quality across their client base, their own talent pool and their practice/sector groups. But this is only part of the story. 

While service excellence looms large and can never be ignored, some firms seem to be increasingly setting a new brand agenda. They are known for thinking differently and for taking a punt on something new, whether that’s launching new businesses or setting the standard for a new kind of working culture in law. These firms are gaining recognition and increasing admiration for offering something different to both clients and lawyers – even for being visionaries in a legal profession steeped in tradition.

For all firms, there’s undoubtedly a fear factor: do you risk quality by doing things differently? But if this research is anything to go by, then that question has already been answered. For this league table shows that there are already firms that are successfully combining a reputation for both quality and innovation – resulting in a brand profile that offers reassurance as well as something new. 

The perception of successful law firms is becoming more varied as change sparks innovation among a rising number of law firms. In this multi-dimensional legal universe there may well be a place for entrepreneurs and traditionalists alike. 


For more information on the data compiled in Totum’s ‘Legal Market Perception Report January 2016’, please contact Gary Jones.


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