Category imperative

Brand positioning is relative, and it’s complex. Take The Lawyer UK 200 Annual Report – the most extensive and detailed study of law firm finances available. When we pore over the financials and interview managing partners and finance directors, the variety of law firm structures proliferates year-on-year. That
makes categorisation increasingly vexed.

Managing partners all have their own agendas on benchmarking. When we began the UK 200 (or 100, as it was back in 1999) it was easy. UK firms were UK firms with little overseas presence, and a merger meant a domestic combination. Nowadays, the picture is more complex and our job is to build a workable industry consensus where comparisons remain meaningful.

It can boil down to something as simple as which table you’re in. If a firm with a UK heritage has merged with a US firm is it immediately deleted from the UK-focused category? This is what happened to legacy Hammonds (now Squire Sanders), which now refuses to give UK figures. Other organisations, such as DLA Piper and Hogan Lovells, are portioned out across tables as their US and Emea businesses are distinguishable.

Financial ranking underpins the brand. As the global legal market evolves, The Lawyer Global 100 may become more significant, but at the moment it is still too dominated by US outfits to make it meaningful to any other than a dozen or so UK firms.

Which brings us to CMS Cameron McKenna (see feature), which has long been frustrated that Norton Rose – a combination of several firms within a Verein – is treated as one organisation when its own 10-firm European practice is not. CMS’s case is simple: What do clients see? How is work referred?

Of course, CMS’s positioning is as much about strategy as historic state of play. When you want to pull off a US merger, being a £692m-turnover European business is a lot more compelling than a £168m-turnover UK firm. It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase revenue recognition.