London

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”?

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