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A street sign for King St. West hangs off a light standard at the corner of King St. West and Bay St. on Jan 12 2015.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Norton Rose Fulbright LLP has once again topped a survey of corporate general counsel as Canada's top legal brand, and the consultants who compile the numbers suggest they show the No.1-ranked firm and second-place Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP pulling away from the pack.

The ranking by British legal marketing consultants Acritas is based on interviews with 249 Canadian corporate counsel, and also includes data from 107 corporate counsel from big businesses outside Canada about their preferred Canadian firms.

The survey asked corporate counsel who have senior responsibility for buying legal services on behalf of organizations with annual revenue of more than $50-million (U.S.) questions about their "top of mind awareness" of Canadian law firms. They were also asked to rank firms on "favourability" and asked which firms they considered for major mergers and acquisitions and litigation and which ones they used most over all.

Blakes topped the 2013 results, and Norton Rose ranked first in the 2012 survey, in a result that surprised many observers but came after a massive marketing campaign promoting their rebranding.

The rest of the top five in the 2014 numbers, being released on Monday at a reception at Norton Rose Fulbright's Toronto office, includes: McCarthy Tétrault LLP in third, Stikeman Elliott LLP in fourth and Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP in fifth.

Elizabeth Duffy, vice-president of Acritas U.S. Inc., says the rankings show Norton Rose Fulbright and Blakes pulling ahead of their rivals, unlike results in previous years that had three or four firms clustered near the top of the leader board across the survey's different categories.

Both firms are quite different. Norton Rose Fulbright was created when the London-based global firm entered Canada by merging with long-standing Montreal firm Ogilvy Renault in 2011. Blakes, founded in Toronto in 1856, is a long-established national firm with 500 lawyers and a charter member of the unofficial group of elite Bay Street law firms known as the "Seven Sisters."

But Ms. Duffy says the survey shows those old labels just aren't as relevant to clients any more, as she noted similar changes within London's market, which has a similar grouping of traditionally elite firms called the Magic Circle.

"Just being a really important and strong and well-established Toronto firm isn't necessarily the only thing or the best thing that clients are looking for any more," Ms. Duffy said in an interview. "Clients really want to work with a firm that they feel reflects their culture, their diversity, their aspirations, and their personality and their business ethos as well. So it's a lot more complex and complicated now."

Regardless of whether firms achieve this by joining with an international brand, or maintaining their independence, Ms. Duffy said, the survey shows that the two leading law firms are succeeding by "investing in their relationships with their clients" and responding to their needs.

Next year's survey, however, could look quite different, as it could see a new name on the charter with the recent announcement of another global law firm, DLA Piper, moving into Canada via its merger with Vancouver-based Davis LLP.

Andrew Fleming, Norton Rose Fulbright's Toronto managing partner, said the ranking shows his firm's merger strategy was not a flash in the pan: "When we went to Norton Rose, it was a bit of an advantage because we were the name on the tip of everybody's tongue, because we were the latest story on the Street. So you can forgive the surveys a little bit early on. But now ... I think we are demonstrating staying power here."

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