Ask any industry commentator to pick the best commercial law firms and expect a long pause as monotonous logos, ampersands and corporate typefaces spin in their spirit.
All the big firms proclaim that they provide bespoke, world-class legal services, charge attractive fees to do so, and can talk a good game when asked about the things that can’t be monetized, like diversity.
But that doesn’t help customers when making choices and arguably does the industry a disservice as companies strive to stand out.
Fortunately, there was always one distinction to fall back on: geography. In simpler times we had British companies, American companies, German companies, etc.
But now even this classification is rapidly losing its meaning. This all made sense when companies derived most of their revenue from a single region, with an obvious single headquarters and culture that emanated from that single point. But few companies still fit this model perfectly.
Which of his offices can be said to run Baker McKenzie, for example? It is originally from the United States, but its global chairman, Milton Cheng, is based in Hong Kong, its largest office is in London, and its largest revenue region is Europe, including the United Kingdom.
Various others – often vereins – have grown into sprawling masses with a seemingly random mix of regions constituting the largest operation, the nationality of the leaders, the seat of management and the most important location for revenue. Think Dentons, Norton Rose Fulbright and Herbert Smith Freehills. For dozens of companies, it has become difficult to fixate on a geographical descriptor.
Easy, companies say, just call us international. The problem with this is that almost all major law firms are international to some degree, even those famous for their single site strategies.
Compiling various law firm rankings for decades, Law.com International has decided to draw a line for its longstanding UK ranking: a firm’s geographical domicile is the country in which it has the most lawyers .
This will have a significant effect on this year’s UK Top 50 ranking. Gone are many transatlantic firms, including DLA Piper, Hogan Lovells, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, Gowling WLG and Womble Bond Dickinson, all of which have more lawyers across the Atlantic in the UK. Most of these firms are already listed in Am Loi 100 anyway.
The venerable British name that is Ashurst will also disappear – the original home of Mr Slaughter and Mr May, but a firm that now has more lawyers in Australia. And Taylor Wessing, who has more lawyers in Germany.
Losing these names may seem strange to some, but the alternatives are worse. Assessing UK revenue alone, for example, would mean that many companies clearly based in the US, such as Latham & Watkins and Kirkland & Ellis, would be large enough to feature in the ‘Best UK Companies’ ranking. .
The truth is that the most sensible way to rank international law firms these days is to rank globally. That’s why Law.com International’s Global 200 ranking is so important.
There will be more debates to be had of course. We are increasingly keeping tabs on which institutions qualify for legal classification and which revenues may be included. For now, it makes sense to define a law firm as an institution that derives most of its revenue from providing legal advice to others. But the convergence of legal and other professional services could darken this picture in the future.
The best promise we can make is that we’ll keep coming back to the methodology to make sure it’s fit for purpose. Because these problems do not go away.