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No ‘Magic Circle hegemony’ on high-quality legal services

Firms with regional roots claim top spots in latest benchmarking survey

27 July 2016

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Retaining a Magic Circle firm does not guarantee outstanding service levels or value for money, a new survey of corporate clients and general counsels has found.

The standard of firms' service delivery is 'high and rising', but expense and value for money remain a concern for clients, according a Nisus Consulting survey of more than 2,000 UK and international respondents.

Retaining its top spot from last year's report, Addleshaw Goddard proved to be the most client-focused firm and was given the top ranking for performance and value.

Another practice with regional roots, Osborne Clarke, took the number two slot, standing out for its commerciality of advice, which is 'based on a tight focus and specialism in certain markets'.

Magic Circle outfit Allen & Overy placed in third, followed by 'premium brand' Shoosmiths in fourth and Magic Circle wannabe Herbert Smith Freehills in fifth.

Other firms featured in the report were found to excel in particular areas: DWF, for example, shined in sixth place by offering value for money, while DAC Beachcroft - which finished outside the top ten - stood out for its compliance with agreed client budgets.

In seventh place, Slaughter and May, the only other Magic Circle firm to feature in the top ten, received the highest score in several service dimensions: progress updates, responsiveness, strategic thinking, technical expertise, problem solving, advice quality, and documentation quality.

Clyde & Co, Ashurst, and Squire Patton Boggs rounded off the top ten firms.

When it comes to the qualities which clients look for in their legal advisers, the research highlighted that responsiveness and availability are seen as being less important than personal chemistry and the ability to problem solve and think strategically.

'Every firm is striving to make itself stand out from the crowd,' said Tim Nightingale, managing director of Nisus Consulting. 'Our research confirms what we all knew: it is difficult to do that on technical expertise alone - there is almost always someone down the road who can do what's required as well as you can.

'The standard of service delivery in the legal sector is high and rising, which is unsurprising given the degree of competition in every segment.'

However there are still question marks and areas for improvement, with clients viewing law firms as expensive. 'No firm for which we have data leaves clients believing they got more value from instructing them than they had anticipated at the outset. Quite the opposite. And that remains a challenge for every firm,' added Nightingale.

Similarly budget compliance was found to be good in some areas but poor in others and a 'bone of contention for many'.

The report also highlighted disparities between firms' delivery of value and service, a particular cause for concern for some in an increasingly polarised market. Nightingale argued that the latest Nisus Consulting report proves there is no 'Magic Circle hegemony' for service delivery.

'If we had dared to suggest 15, or even ten years ago that Addleshaw Booth and Co., a firm founded in Manchester and now in London, care of a merger with Theodore Goddard, would come top of our performance and value index survey, with Osborne Clarke - a firm from Bristol, in second place, we would have been treated as a laughing stock,' said Nightingale.

'If we had asked the same audience who they anticipated as coming out on top, there is no doubt the Magic Circle names would be first and foremost, but this is not the case. There is no Magic Circle hegemony.'

He continued: 'When it comes to delivering service and value, and building loyalty, you don't need to be the largest, to be based in the City or to have a global network, you just need a clear and present focus on the client. Your firm needs to be built on clients' needs.'

Brand recognition also bears consideration for those firms looking to enter or climb the rankings next year, with Squire Patton Boggs used as a cautionary tale. Placed tenth this year, mention of the global firm left several FTSE-100 heads of legal (HoL) visibly 'flummoxed'.

In a blog post to accompany the report's launch, Nisus' Graham Archbold explained that some 'blank faced' HoLs 'didn't know' Squire Patton Boggs, or still thought of it as 'Hammonds' or 'Squire Sanders & Dempsey'.

On being informed of the firm's roots, one HoL said: 'Well, I wouldn't use a firm with a name like Squire Patton Boggs - looks too American for me. They should have kept Hammonds, then I would at least know who the hell they were.'

Another responded disparagingly: 'Squire Patton Boggs what a dreadful name!'

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor for Solicitors Journal
john.vanderluit@solicitorsjournal.co.uk
 @JvdLD

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