Is there any value in a law firm brand?

After the recent spate of mergers and the odd brand relaunch – the most recent being the relaunch of CMS, following the combination with Nabarro and Olswang – I’m left wondering whether there is any value in a law firm brand.

I say this only because the consistent pattern has been to subsume a firm or firm into a larger firm and then dump the legacy name or names.

This is what CMS has chosen to do, with CMS managing partner Stephen Millar telling Legal Business: “It’s been very much agreed from the outset that we go to market as a CMS brand. CMS is the bigger brand, it’s an international brand. Nabarro and Olswang are great brands, particularly in their sector areas, but when you bring three firms together you very much have to go with one, particularly when there’s different parts of CMS.”

Do you though? “…very much have to go with one”?

Well, in point of fact, you don’t have to do anything at all, in particular. The fact that everyone else seems to do it is neither here nor there (as my mother might say “if everyone else jumped off a cliff, does that mean you would do it too?”)

But I think it’s worth reflecting on what might be inferred from such a choice.

Certainly, outside the service industry, this doesn’t happen for the most part where a brand is a successful one. BMW didn’t dump the Mini name when it took over the company, reasoning that there was a positive brand-association with the Mini name that it could exploit to sell more small cars. Kraft didn’t dump the Cadbury name for its chocolate bars. Dell didn’t get rid of the Alienware name when it bought the niche PC manufacturer. Tesco didn’t suddenly rebrand Giraffe ‘Tesco Café’ when it bought the chain it later decided to sell.

So what does CMS’ decision – and I’m not saying it’s the wrong decision, by the way, nor a unique one in the legal profession – say about the value of the brands it has chosen to leave by the wayside (ie Olswang and Nabarro).

Now, Olswang and Nabarro had both spent a lot of time and money on their brands. Olswang operated in a universe of clients whose main assets are intellectual property, and who are, consequently, very brand-conscious, so you could say the firm was operating right at the sharp end of law firm branding. Nabarro, meanwhile, had become practically synonymous with real estate in the UK, in an industry where your name is often as good as your word.

Both firms, I think it’s fair to say, had built up considerable brand value in their key client sectors.

CMS itself had established a brand presence in particular industries and across the legal profession in general, but was several rungs beneath the firms it has acquired in some of their respective key service offerings.

Looking at the current edition of The Legal 500, for instance, it’s notable that while CMS and Olswang are ranked similarly for ‘IT & Telecoms’ and ‘Pharmaceutical & Biotechnology’ (in London), Olswang is two rungs above CMS in ‘Intellectual Property’ and first-ranked in ‘Media & Entertainment’ where CMS does not feature.

In the directory’s highly-contentious (I should know, I used to edit it) Real Estate section, Nabarro is in the first tier, CMS the second for ‘Commercial Property’, while in the crucial ‘Property Finance’ table, Nabarro is again a rung above CMS, and the two are ranked similarly for ‘Construction’ and ‘Planning’.

Now, I don’t want to get into the vagaries of how directories are compiled, but I think these particular rankings are pretty accurate, and what that says to me is that there is a degree of explaining to do – more so in some market segments than others – about why a brand might choose to defer to a lesser or, in a few cases, broadly equal one.

In this case, the names ‘Nabarro’ and ‘Olswang’ have consigned themselves to history.

So what, you might say, but I think this decision has deeper ramifications in the short term.

In other complex mergers/reorganisations in other sectors, companies sometimes decide on an entirely new brand name to give something of a fresh start, and to be able to have a conversation with clients of all the legacy parties about what’s new. Think of Aviva or Centrica, for instance, but there are plenty of examples.

CMS could have done that, but chose not to, and in so doing revealed that somewhere, at some point, it was decided that the CMS name had value and, by inference, those of Nabarro and Olswang did not. You can dress this up however you like, but it’s just plain logic.

Practically-speaking, subsuming Nabarro and Olswang partners into CMS does not require legacy CMS partners to say anything other than “meet my new colleagues” (if indeed they are required to say anything at all) whereas every Nabarro and Olswang legacy partner has a whole story to tell to clients, some – I would hazard – rather more complicated a story than others.

I can’t think that new pitches for work by CMS will spend a lot of time mentioning the legacy names, and I would have to surmise that the new branding strategy will be going in the opposite direction – why beg the question at all, instead focus on the new, strong CMS brand. Within a year, the merger will feel quite historical and thus the legacy names will become irrelevant at best.

New recruits, meanwhile, will not look at the positions of Nabarro and Olswang in the directories, or read articles by partners at Nabarro and Olswang, because only CMS is now relevant, and when the directories complete their annual cycle this September, Nabarro and Olswang will simply be footnotes.

In effect, everything that Nabarro and Olswang stood for has now disappeared, replaced by everything CMS stands for (whatever that may be). That is wiping the slate clean of years of carefully-lodged brand messaging in every client segment where Nabarro and Olswang held some kind of sway, and replacing it with something else entirely.

Is that always a good thing, I wonder, especially if – for some clients – the name that replaces the one you’re used to doesn’t have quite the cachet?

I was once part of a company which was a leader in its field and which was taken over by another company, and the name changed, despite the new parent having a very much lower standing in the market. Two years after the takeover, I was one of only four people – out of about 150 – from the old company, and I left the year after. It struck me at the time that all the brand value built up in my old company over nearly 20 years had simply dissolved, vanished into the ether, and the new company had not gained ‘market-leader’ status either.

I am not suggesting that will happen at CMS – or indeed any other firm which takes over another only for the legacy name to disappear (for instance Chadbourne & Park, following its folding into Norton Rose Fulbright) – but I think it raises a legitimate question for lawyers.

Is there any real brand value in a law firm name, or is a firm simply a convenient shell, a name to put on the door of what noted US legal market observer Bruce MacEwen once termed “a hotel for lawyers”?

London bikes

Valueless values

As regular readers of my blog will know, there are a variety of issues which, not to put too fine a point on it, really grind my gears. I have enough hobby horses to stock a small cavalry regiment.

The subject of Values – or rather, I should say, corporate values, those statements of something-or-other that law firms feel they should have on their website – is in the vanguard of that little regiment of little horses.

My colleague Jamie White – creative director of Blackbridge Communications, and, for my money, the market-expert on law firm branding – and I once put various sets of these values in front of HR and marketing directors at a seminar, inviting the participants to guess which Magic Circle law firms they pertained to. We were unsurprised when nobody could guess. We were slightly surprised that some of those people failed to pin the values to their own firms.

This does not, in my view, impugn the professionalism of those individuals. But it does demonstrate that the ‘values’ in question were so generic that they were, indeed, and ironically, valueless.

ValuesI would love to see a firm have the cojones to put a statement on its website, in the Values section, along the lines of: “we were going to pay a consultant £40,000 to help us work out our values, but we decided to save the money and just say that we’re really, really good lawyers who care about your business”.

Actually, that would be just as pointless, not least because that statement still exposes what I think is a fundamental gap in values-based thinking: the difference between truth and aspiration.

The cleverest value-statements recognise this. They talk about striving for excellence, rather than being it, encouraginginnovation rather than demonstrating it, pursuing commercial solutions rather than always delivering them.

This is clever because it recognises that the law firm is a living, breathing thing that develops organically, and is rarely, if ever, 100% anything at anything. However, it also underlines that the values-statements are just that, statements. They correspond to the service a client will get from the law firm only insofar as every member of the firm – partner, associate, manager, assistant, secretary etc – believes it and lives it in every interaction.

The reality is that this is far from the case.

For instance, one major firm – I won’t say which one for reasons which will become obvious – has ‘innovation’ as one of its values, as many do. I recall talking to a client at a major investment bank whose experience of the firm was quite the opposite. He related having to repeatedly give the firm’s tax team documents provided by his accountants in order to prod them into developing the kind of innovative thinking they claim is embedded in their DNA. This is not an isolated example. It does not mean the firm is not innovative – it might or might not be – but this client scoffed openly at the idea as a result of his direct experience.

Managing this kind of reaction over dozens of practice areas and hundreds of partners is clearly impossible, but this is a firm which, while it has a reputation for excellence, never really struck me as being that innovative. Its website, for instance, is not particularly innovative, it does not seem to offer any particularly innovative services or interesting resources. If it wasn’t for the firm telling me it is innovative, I wouldn’t leave with that impression. Certainly, numerous conversations with its clients over the years have not convinced me of the validity of the claim. I can only surmise that the firm either thinks it is innovative – in which case I would ask against what benchmark, and how is this tested and retested – or, more likely, it wants to be regarded as innovative.

I would say that the firm’s feedback-response system was lacking in this case. The first time a client prods you when you have fallen down on one of your values is the time for self-examination, discussion, must-do-better. You don’t let it happen time after time.

In the maelstrom of corporate values, most of the useful signifiers – quality, excellence, commercial – have been so devalued by contrary experiences that I would doubt any client or prospective client of any law firm believes any of it. At £300, or £400 or £800 an hour – substantially above what pretty much any other tradesman charges for their time – most clients would expect quality and excellence, or striving for either, as a given. Commercial? What does that mean? As opposed to ‘uncommercial’, I guess, which is, bizarrely, the term most often applied to lawyers in my hundreds upon hundreds of conversations with clients over the years.

So, if that is the problem, what is the solution?

Well, before I say anything else, I’m quite happy to take £40,000 of your money to give you my in-depth thoughts on values! But on the basis you might want something a little more digestible, here goes…

First off, work out what it is you are FOR. What is the purpose of your organisation?

Most law firms I know do not have a ready answer for this. In fact, at a dinner with one client recently, I asked a group of partners what their purpose was. “To make money,” said one. “Profit,” said another, nodding. They all felt likewise. Similarly, in conversation with a law firm managing partner at a Top 30 firm last year, I asked what his strategy was. “To make more money,” he said. That would be an aim, not a strategy, by the way.

I contrast this with business outside the bubble that is law.

IHG, the hotels group, used to make most of its money through buying and selling hotels. Then, it took a long, hard look at itself and asked itself whether it really wanted to be a property company. No, it decided, it wanted to ‘Create Great Hotels Guests Love’. For IHG, profit became about delighting the customer, rather than making a turn on buying and selling bits of real estate. And so it sold virtually all of its nearly 5,000 hotels and now manages or franchises them, with a view to creating absolutely the best customer experience.

Or take Apple. Or Google. Or Pixar. Or Ferrari.

All of these companies simply ooze purpose. Yes, they want to achieve great shareholder returns but they inspire in their customers a loyalty, a faith, in fact, which goes beyond lining their pockets.

Ah yes, you might say, but these are not professional services organisations. It’s easy with products, more difficult with services.

To which I say, take professional services giant EY, one of the ‘Big Four’. Its purpose is defined as ‘Building a Better Working World’, rather than ‘Making As Much Money As Possible’.

You may say, “what on earth does that mean?”, but frankly any fool can see that it can mean any number of things. What is very clever about it, for me, is that it inspires thinking about what it might mean, ideas about how its people might put this into practice. It gives EY a banner to march under, a direction, a vision, a purpose.

I don’t think many law firms have this. I think they have become sunk in a never-ending game of relativistic PEP-comparison – “mine’s bigger than yours” – and in the process reduced a short-term business to a mayfly one. Talking to a managing partner friend of mine the other day, he opined that it is “impossible” in the law to invest for the medium-term, never mind the longer-term. “Oh, you can have the best intentions, to put aside a few million to invest in this or that, but when it comes to the crunch, if PEP looks as if it’s going to be a little bit off, you come under the most enormous pressure to manage to that year’s draw”. It is not the first time I have heard this, nor will it be the last, and it illuminates perfectly the strategy of the Top 30 managing partner I mentioned earlier – to make more money.

I guess there is nothing wrong with ‘Making More Money’ as a value. It is concrete, measurable, can be very specific. And it’s brutally honest.

But as Henry Ford said, “a business that makes nothing but money is a poor business”.

The poverty Ford spoke of is a poverty of the soul. It is something that many companies have already made the shift away from, whether they make soap powder or sell consulting services and they see business-sustainability in that shift; because the younger generation simply do not want to work for companies which do nothing but make money.

The law, as with many things, seems late to grasp this idea. But the more conversations I have with 40-something and 50-something lawyers who seem to want something more out of life, the more convinced I am that if law firms did more work on Purpose, and less on Values, the more of a future they would have.

What's in a law firm website?

What’s in a law firm website?

I spend a lot of my time, one way and another, trawling through law firm websites and Linked-In, informing myself – for various reasons – about what particular partners and departments, and ultimately firms, do and are capable of doing.

Some of this is competitor analysis for my clients, some for general market research and some for potential clients of the firms concerned.

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Good to better

Good to better

This weekend I’ve been re-reading one of my favourite management books, the classic ‘Good To Great’ by Jim Collins. If you haven’t read it, you need to, not least because it puts its finger on a problem which perhaps vexes the legal profession more than any other.

It starts off with the immortal line: “Good is the enemy of Great” and then proceeds to explain in devastating fashion why this might be so.

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A good presence on the web is a no-brainer

A good presence on the web is a no-brainer

After having spent several weeks trawling through law firm websites and partner profiles, engaged on various research projects, I remain quite mystified by some lawyers’ attitude to the fabric of their own business.

It’s not as if it’s that difficult to come up with a list of the deals or cases you have worked on, get it tarted up by your marketing department (or a consultant if you don’t have one) and create a sensible web-presence for you or your department. I’m not asking you to tweet your thoughts from a rainy platform in Chelmsford at 6.15am or commit to the wearisome grind of maintaining a live Facebook profile.

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Camerons’ route map to value

Camerons’ route map to value

Kudos to CMS Cameron McKenna for its publication of a new report, ‘The Future Of Fees: Your Route Map To Value’, available from its website, here:

The report is a summary picture of the firm’s conclusions following an extensive review of client attitudes gained from 150 client interviews, and outlines six different fee models, ranging from premium (‘Top Team’) to familiar (‘Hybrid’, ‘One Stop’) to the downright wacky (‘Fixed Rate And Cash-Back’). Before examining it further, it must be said that in relative terms, the publication of this report is in itself exciting. A lot of firms talk about how innovative they are, but CMS has put its cojones on the chopping block.

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Shoot down the eagles, sink the ships and bury the mountain-climbers…

Maybe I’m becoming a grumpy old man, but I swear to God if I see another law firm recruitment advertisement featuring an eagle, falcon or some other unfortunate bird of prey inviting the reader to let their career ‘take flight’, I’ll swing for someone.

What is it that drives law firms – or should I say their recruiters – to such desperate clichés? Attracting a lawyer seems to naturally call for a bird soaring somewhere or a bearded guy in a North Face parka climbing the side of a cliff (‘Climb to new heights’ – I counted three in a single issue of The Lawyer one week…).

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20 Years in the Law (well, almost…)

It staggers me to think that by this time next year, I will have spent 20 years of my life working in the Law, firstly as a reporter, then editor, then managing director, then recruiter.

During that time I have interviewed what I guess must amount to a couple of thousand lawyers, from NQs just about to embark on their career, to heads of department looking to move their team from one firm to another, to clients wondering which law firm to instruct. I’ve advised law firms on recruitment tactics, recruitment and retention strategy, press and PR strategy, business planning, advertising, branding, product development and training.

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