The Pecking Order

Russell McVeagh has emerged at the top of the pecking order of legal firms, with Bell Gully just a smidgeon behind and then only a slight gap to Chapman Tripp.

That’s the results of a price performance comparison survey of in-house counsel by legal measurement firm Team Factors with the Corporate Lawyers Association (CLANZ).

Others rating well were (in order) Buddle Findlay, Simpson Grierson, Kensington Swan and Minter Ellison. Meredith Connell and the Crown Law Office (which does not take private clients) also rated well on performance – although behind the top three. However, they scored particularly well on cost being cheaper than the big seven by a noticeable margin.

Other firms rated were DLA Phillips Fox, Brandons, Anderson Lloyd, Duncan Cotterill and Hesketh Henry.

Ron Pol of Team Factors, which undertook the study, says although the matrix illustrates relativities between firms, “it doesn’t mean any firm is necessarily preferred over another. For some work, clients need top performance, and are prepared to pay; yet for other work, they just need the job done, so why pay more?

“Third, the matrix was produced from extensive research involving nearly 30% of the country’s in-house counsel; these are some of the most sophisticated client representatives, typically for large companies and government agencies.”

It is a survey of in-house counsel who are typically employed by bigger organisations. “For firms with mostly SME or personal clients, further research would provide a richer picture.”

Like hens in the barnyard, the biggest law firms are obsessed with the pecking order and how they are seen in relation to each other.

They, their clients, and other lawyers talk of the big three – Chapman Tripp, Russell McVeagh and Bell Gully – and even to list them in that way can be taken to imply a hierarchy within the trio. Others refer to the six leading firms, those three plus Simpson Grierson, Minter Ellison, Buddle Findlay and perhaps Kensington Swan.

But what about Anderson Lloyd, which is big in the South Island but not in Auckland, or Duncan Cotterill, and Phillips Fox. In Auckland the perception of ranking is largely based on a firm’s reputation in the Auckland market. The rest of the country doesn’t count – much.

Some clients using the big three see Russell McVeagh pulling slightly ahead of the other two, but opinion is divided. Others see Simpson Grierson as bidding hard to join the top tier. “Nearly there” some say while others see daylight between the top group and Simpson Grierson.

Still others put the daylight between Simpson’s and the rest of the second tier. Minter Ellison are said to be real comers and “on the rise.” DLA Phillips Fox are said (even by themselves) to be different, and Buddle Findlay sees the bragging and skiting as out of place with their culture.

Nearly every firm said they were busy – “recession, what recession, it hasn’t reached us”. And the conversation continues …”but anecdotally we hear that some of the others are struggling a bit, particularly the boutique operators.”

Nearly every firm said their approach or their culture or their people or the way they conducted their relationships or some other special something made them just that much better than their rivals.

Minter Ellison says “one of our perceived characteristics is excellence without attitude.” Buddle Findlay says “we are low key but not good skites.” Bell Gully looks to a raft of international awards as evidence of its excellence. Chapman Tripp points to its full service and full national presence. Russell McVeagh says “our brand stands for excellence.” And Simpson Grierson says it’s proud that it walks the talk by treating its people well.

The new reality for the big firms is that clients are in control, and can exercise that power to their advantage provided that they know how to do so. They can select the firms on the panel, allocate the work, and require totally dedicated performance. General or in house counsel control the flow of work and hence the revenue stream of the major firms.

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