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”?


Lateral partner hiring: the new Gold Rush

This week started with a mega-feature in The Lawyer on one of my favourite topics, partner lateral hiring, in this case talking about how US firms’ stronger financials will mean they can pick off the UK high-flyers with ease (’-stellar-city-financials-put-uk-high-fliers-in-hiring-line/1007673.article)

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Are they getting partner hiring right in Oz?

A very nice boost for my research on Partner Lateral Hiring (blogs, passim) from the leading Australian legal publication, LawyersWeekly this week.

I’ve had a lot of interest from the UK, as well as from the US and Europe, which has been quite heartening, but reinforces my earlier view that not much work has been done to date on the success of partner lateral hiring.

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Should we feel squeamish about Squammonds?

Should we feel squeamish about Squammonds?

The forthcoming merger of Squire Sanders & Dempsey, Ohio’s most prominent international law firm, and Hammonds, the UK national firm which shares with Mark Twain the distinction of having been declared prematurely dead on at least one occasion, has not had an overwhelming effect on commentators and the legal press.

The Lawyer (6 September 2010) reckons the tie-up looks “distinctly like a shotgun marriage”, wondering whether a battered and bruised Hammonds – having dropped from 15th to 24th largest UK firm over the last decade – has the stomach for the kind of radical re-engineering it says multinational clients are demanding of the national/international mid-market firms.

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Verein today, gone tomorrow?

What seems to be a growing US merger ‘tidal wave’ – predicted by Denton Wilde Sapte chief executive Howard Morris in a recent issue of The Lawyer (Read it here) – is being, in part, facilitated by the use of the Swiss verein, a highly flexible limited liability structure, which facilitates separate profit pools, among other things, in multinational partnerships.

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Will SNR Denton work?

Will SNR Denton work?

In some other sectors, the merger of the 59th largest firm in one country with the 22nd largest in another would barely raise an eyebrow.

But the recently-announced merger of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal (SNR) with Denton Wilde Sapte is predicted by the chief executive of DWS as being at the leading edge of a ‘tidal wave’ of similar deals to come, and has gripped press and online message-boards.

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Horse and carriage or chalk and cheese?

Denton Wilde Sapte chief executive Howard Morris seems pretty confident he is on the crest of a ‘tidal wave’ of US-UK mergers, according to commentary in this week’s issue of The Lawyer (

Morris is quite probably right. Law firms, after all, have a tendency to be followers, thinking, often without much serious analysis, that if everyone else is doing it, they should too.

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US mergers: evolution in action

The vogue of the Transatlantic Merger has gathered pace this year, with the newly-minted Hogan-Lovells and SNR Denton (the latest, combination of Denton Wilde Sapte and Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal) well underway, and SJ Berwin rumoured to be the next, with Proskauer Rose circling.

Those who fear this looks like consolidation in the legal market are a little off-beam, but those who fear Americanisation are most certainly correct.

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