Law firms failing to stand out

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Law firms may well be the last bastion of the unbranded. Consider these statements, found on the websites of some of the market leaders:

  • “one of the world’s leading law firms”
  • “a world-class international law firm”
  • “one of the most prestigious law firms in the world”
  • “our people are our difference”
  • “a commitment to delivering high quality service”

Any of the firms we reviewed could claim any of these, and that’s the point. None stand out.

Let’s be clear, there is a sense of tiering that separates Magic Circle law firms from the rest in the UK. Most qualify for this elite club on the basis of being big. But big is a precarious leadership claim. Reed Smith has proven how easy it is to become a top 15 firm from nowhere in 5 years. The merger of UK-based Lovells and Hogan & Hartson, the US law firm, is seen as just the start of industry-wide consolidation. It will be interesting to see whether the new Hogan Lovells brand will be launched with a clear sense of the organisation’s unique points of differentiation. It will be a shame if this incredible opportunity becomes a naming exercise following the path of least resistance.

Marketing has long been seen as beneath many law firms, overly commercial in a business that is about relationships and service. But branding is, of course, much deeper than marketing. The firm’s brand should clearly reflect the philosophy behind the business and the firm’s way of working, both of which should provide means to the end of ‘leadership’, ‘world-class’ and even ‘prestigious.’

This clarity of purpose will deliver real business results. When shortlisted among their peers, they should be winning more often. When recruiting graduates, they should be attracting the best, for whom their culture is distinct and ‘for them.’ When discussing fees, they should be able to maintain a premium because their added value is clear. This has to be a priority of any Managing Partner or CEO, particularly if the leaders in the industry want to emerge from recession and command premium pricing again.

I met this week with a management consultant who specialises in dealing with senior management of US and UK law firms. He wholeheartedly agreed that law firms overlook their brand at their peril.

Goldman Sachs and McKinsey have shown how a single-minded approach to their positioning relative to their peers can set them apart and drive real, long-term business value. So the question seems to be: which of the law firms is going to step up in order to stand out?

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