Are the lines between the tiers being redrawn? With new heavy hitter entrants coming into the market, mergers, tier changing lateral Partner moves and pursuit firms acquiring more international market share, quality of work and better conditions and mentors it can be a confusing space to navigate. Firms are also often placed in more than one category or ranked differently per location. Countless categories are being formed from Big 6, top tier, internationals, upper mid-tier, mid-tier, nationals, east coast firms, boutique and specialist boutique.
One question to really ask is… do these breakdowns or categories effectively reflect the strength of a particular practice area for a firm, its Partners or team or their transaction history and size? Do they still adequately describe to potential clients where the best service and execution in a niche will be after a series of mergers or high level lateral partner movements? By labelling the firms, the industry may be reflecting them inaccurately based on perceived success or past success, or overlooking the specialist practices due to their boutique or Australian independent status.
Unsurprisingly, the big six firms (and the practitioners within) are regularly acclaimed amongst the various legal directories. However, what should be noted are the players outside of the 6 that are executing large scale growth strategies and demonstrating impressive technical ability. For example, in the Chambers and Partners Rankings for Construction Law in Australia 1/3 of the highest rated six firms are from outside the “big six”, with a global (Norton Rose Fulbright) and an independent (Corrs Chambers Westgarth) in this fold.
Leading into 2018, when assessing the right team to align with, it is important not to be swayed by the “labels” of law firms, especially when they may be an out-dated representation. Each firm is a complex structure that has its strengths in the market and a simple label cannot effectively demonstrate their long term position or future strategies.
When assessing potential firms it is important to consider:
- Recent transactions and matters over the last two years – this period can demonstrate a contemporary practice not historical success.
- Specific Partner background – how were they trained? Often they will replicate that style of management, it is important to look for values that align with yours.
- Ratings in your particular specialisation – industry directories such as Doyles, Best Lawyers, The Legal 500 and Chambers Partners can provide solid insight.
- Law Firm “Acritas” ranking particularly focuses on how strong that brand is in the Asia Pacific.
- Recent acquisitions at Partner and Senior Management level to identify who is moving there and why.
- Team Structure – is there philosophical and structural room in that particular team to deliver your next step?
- Their long term growth strategy for that practice area… is there clear investment going in / is that a focal point for the brand?
Let’s reflect on global versus Australian independent versus specialist boutique in your chosen field. The traditional market dominance of the top six in revenues and their ability to operate outside of the domestic market has earnt them their top tier status. However what is apparent in many cases is the tie ups with international decision makers and financial controls. No doubt, they can offer global exposure from Australian shores and some of the most complex matters available to private practice but are they still unique in that offering?
Depending on your practice skillset and what your aspirations are long term, it is important to not be swayed by the labels of law firms and consider first and foremost, the individual partner and their existing team structure and work content because it may surprise you.