Branding is top concern for private practice law firms but what do the clients think?
Here’s one for your next pub quiz. What’s the single biggest challenge facing The Lawyer’s top 100 UK firms?
The answer is not recruitment, lack of work or even lack of money. According to reputation agency Eulogy, it is brand differentiation.
In a recent survey of 313 partners, finance and business development directors across The Lawyer’s top 100 UK firms, Eulogy found that 51 per cent of those listed in the 61-100 revenue bracket saw brand differentiation as their top challenge, compared with an average of 41 per cent across the whole 100.
True, many of those partners sitting in the office of top 10 firms are unlikely to be nodding in agreement. In this category, 60 per cent said pricing was their greatest challenge.
But the invasion of new entrants into the legal profession – most recently insurance intermediary BGL’s acquisition of Minster Law, throws the question are new legal providers such as Co-op, Admiral and BGL contributing to a mid-market identity crisis?
“I don’t think Virgin is going to rock up and start challenging Link-laters, but I do think firms are going to bring in sector specialists who don’t have legal backgrounds,” answers Jamie White, creative director and founder of Blackbridge Communications. “Firms are starting to say, ‘Okay, we’re working with a mobile technology company, let’s bring in mobile technology experts’. Pricing programmes alone aren’t going to save the legal industry.”
If pricing programmes can’t do it alone, perhaps the advertising nous of big consumer brands can help. After all, if meerkat Alexander Orlov can do for the legal industry what it did for BGL website Com- parethemarket.com – making it the fourth most visited insurance website in the UK and the ‘Simples’ catchphrase part of the nation’s lexicon – doesn’t every firm need to pay attention?
As the legal profession has opened its doors to big brands, so it has attracted experts from outside the profession.
Mishcon de Reya turned to advertising specialist Elliot Moss as its director of business development in 2009, a move that could have been considered a risk or at least unusual given that his 15-year career in advertising (12 of which were spent at Leo Burnett, the agency behind the recent TV campaign for the Co-op’s legal arm) were not particularly
focused on law.
“Most fee-earning lawyers have never worked in a ‘normal’ business, except during the vacation or as part-time jobs,” write Des Woods and Henry Marsden in their report The Development of Client Relationships in Legal Services, by the Møller Group at Churchill College, Cambridge. “In fact, many have very little idea of how these businesses function and what drives the people in them. They think it’s similar to their own firms – it’s not.”
For Mishcon, hiring from outside the industry has paid off. Since 2009 the firm has achieved a whopping 76.3 per cent increase in turn-over, which has risen from £47.3m to £83.4m. Rather than trying to be all things to all people, Moss’s strategy is to build a conversation with a targeted audience.
“We’re not – last time I looked – a car or a fashion brand, and this is not like buying a holiday from Club Med,” says Moss of his strategy. “Advertising is about speaking to your target audience, so [with Mishcon] it’s about having an intelligent conversation. We don’t insult our audience by using clichés or telling them we’re the best. It’s about being clear about what we have to offer and why that is relevant to them.”
So instead of trying to control the firm’s brand Moss has focused on engaging potential clients in conversation, striking deals with the Financial Times and Jazz FM to do so.
“People might say, what on earth does a law firm have to do with Jazz FM? But more than 35 per cent of the listeners also tune in to the Today programme, where a number of our partners have spoken on various issues,” argues Moss, who himself hosts a weekly radio show on Jazz FM called Jazz Shapers. “We have a defined target audience – we want to target business leaders and opinion-formers, and talk about the issues that matter to them.”
But do clients actually care about computerised meerkats, Jazz FM or publishing deals with the FT? When The Lawyer called one of Mishcon’s former clients they had no idea the firm had struck a publishing deal or had a radio show.
“It’s a dialogue-led world now, so the idea of controlling your brand has gone out the window,” White highlights, making clear that Moss’s strategy is about curating a firm’s image to new clients rather than raising profile. ”If someone goes on Twitter and says you’re a wally, that’s far more damaging than having a logo that’s 3mm too far to the right. You can’t control your brand anymore because it’s a combination of what everyone else thinks – it’s about curation, not control.”
Paying for the package
If a brand, made of parts that clump together to form some sort of identity, is so impossible to control, should firms even bother?
“In many respects a brand is basically the difference between paying £300 an hour for a lawyer at X firm and paying £800 an hour for a lawyer at Y,” answers De La Rue legal director Douglas Denham during a chat over a coffee. “Why do we pay £5 for this cappuccino when we could go down the road and pay £2 for something that tastes the same? The answer is that we’re happy to pay more for the whole package – the service, the ambiance, the premium brand reassurance. The same can apply to law – you pay for what you perceive to be a premium product. I suppose a lot of [the decision-making] can be subconscious.”
Experts agree, making the whole subject of branding a thorny one. “
There are more connections between the cells in your head then there are stars in the universe – we have all that electrical activity going on and of course we can’t be conscious of it all,” explains Daniel Bennett, a project manager at -Ogilvy & Mather’s innovation lab. “If you play French music in a wine shop, sales of French wines soar, but if you play German music you see a reverse in sales. But when consumers are asked what influenced them afterwards only one in 44 people report buying because of the music. So we make a lot of decisions subconsciously, based on the tiniest contextual factors.”
What makes a brand, then, is a medley of influences ranging from the obvious (reputation, quality) to the subconscious (ambiance, labelling). But can we really compare the psychology of buying a bottle of red to picking a professional service?
The chairman of advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Jim Carroll, points to the impact peers can have when choosing a professional service. Unlike a bottle of wine or a cup of coffee, general counsel have to justify their decisions to the business and be aware of wider opinions in their sector.
“Fundamentally, brands are marks of trust,” says Carroll. “Originally they were symbols that assured you that the product you bought today is the same as the one you bought yesterday, but while branding starts with trust and reliability it becomes something about you. What do choices say about you? Often, you’ll see that when people choose one professional brand over another they may be choosing it because it’s associated with a greater level of innovation or authority compared to others.
“[General counsel] will need to defend their choice to others in their business and may be aware that those in their sector know of their decision. It’s about shared belief and associations – a buyer is buying into a set of associations and values.”
Indeed, when The Lawyer spoke to general counsel [see ‘Why do companies use the firms they do?’, page 24], industry reputation – in effect, the experiences of your peers filtered through the media – was the stand-out influence on decision-making.
Who these peers are depends on the industry the in-house lawyers work in. General counsel working for public companies such as British food manufacturer Premier Foods, are more likely to go with “well-known” firms such as the magic circle, while others say they would choose smaller or specialist firms, based on personal relationships or sector.
“If a deal is high-risk complex and has high visibility at board level then the trusted brand of the magic circle or the top 10 is who management will recognise and believe provides protection,” outlines Premier Foods general counsel Andrew McDonald. “The relationship I’ve got internally is that people will trust me to find a good legal partner, but looking across the piece more generally the reputation of firms will be a factor for GCs – nobody ever got fired for hiring a Slaughter and May.”
Meanwhile, former Harvey Nichols legal director Maninder Gill, now head of IP and retail at Simons Muirhead & Burton, says he only instructed firms if they got the thumbs up from colleagues or peers.
“We’ve used big, well-known law firms in the past and had terrible experiences with them,” he says. “It’s all about the lawyer – people we’ve worked with before or those recommended by others. Any in-house lawyer is going to ask around [regardless of good branding] – none of my colleagues or peers would give a toss about the branding of a firm.”
In that sense, branding is time wasted without the right lawyers to carry those relationships.
“The first rule of understanding what clients want is that the external lawyer acts for individual people in the firm, not the firm itself,” write Woods and Marsden in their report. “Our research suggests that there is a period of ‘work testing’ which occurs over three or four
cycles of work delivery, at which point the firm becomes trusted in their competence to deliver this work on a regular basis.”
Once that initial relationship is established, Marsden and Woods found that client expectations began to change.
“Basic work delivery is taken as a given and the testing of service delivery is built upon a different set of criteria,” they write. “The key to understanding the nature of these tests is to understand the budgetary position of the in-house lawyer. Year-on-year the in-house lawyer is expected to innovate in terms of service delivery. The same piece of work needs to be done a couple of percentage points cheaper or a couple of percentage points faster than it was done the year before.”
This might explain why 60 per cent of firms in the top 10 of the UK 200 said pricing was their biggest challenge this year, compared to the 51 per cent in the 61-100 range who said brand differentiation was. Having got their foot in the door with successful branding, their focus is on maintaining relationships.
“The corporate brand gets you noticed, but it’s your personal brand and relationships that get you the work,” adds co-founder of Møller, Derek Klyhn. “The initial stage of the buying process is checking who you can approach – the relevance of the brand then changes from corporate to personal as the buying process moves on.”
One firm that has all this nailed is Wiggin. The media boutique pits itself as a media business that offers specialist services to its clients that go beyond legal advice, such as helping BBC Worldwide secure financial upside for 3D feature film Walking With Dinosaurs.
Likewise, Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) is known for its upfront approach to seizing market opportunities and offering clients more, recently launching a pay-as-you-go service that expands on its Lawyers on Demand (LoD) legal resourcing business.
Although the firm has been on a bumpy ride of late – it announced 100 staff redundancies earlier this year – its ability to respond creatively has traditionally stood it in good stead. Recruiters have described the firm as entrepreneurial, can-do, businesslike and opportunistic, while a focus group asked to compare well-known firms with a chocolate brand last year likened BLP to luxury British chocolatier Hotel Chocolat.
The LoD service, which provides lawyers to in-house teams and other law firms on a secondment basis, has also won BLP brownie points among clients. Having used LoD lawyers for the FT in the past, FT’s GC Tim Bratton announced last week that he was to join the company as practice development director.
“Your first question should be where you are trying to get your name out,” says CEO John Banister, who became Wiggin’s first non-lawyer partner in January 2012 after the firm converted to a legal disciplinary partnership. “We’re obviously sector-focused, so the bit that’s most important to us is getting the brand recognition in the sector in which we operate.”
So lets go back to our proverbial pub quiz. Is the industry about to be dominated by a fictional Russian meerkat? If comments from Minster chairman Adrian Christmas are anything to go by, BGL may be planning to bring its advertising nous to the legal industry.
“Marketing of legal services is the holy grail that nobody has yet achieved,” Christmas enthuses. “Advertising is in BGL’s armoury.”
The client relationship might be the keenest weapon for a successful law firm but nothing bad ever came from spotting a gap in a tired market. Just ask the meerkat.
Why do companies use the firms they do
Channel 4’s 10-person legal and compliance team, headed by Prash Naik, advise on all content-related legal and compliance issues in the making and broadcasting of programmes on Channel 4, both before and after they are shown. Naik tells The Lawyer why they do not use big firms.
“Most clients care about who their lawyer is,” says Naik, on the day of his 18th anniversary at the broadcaster. “Our litigation work has followed many of our external lawyers as they have moved firms. It’s always about the individual lawyer and not the firm or brand they worked for.
“To be fair to big firms, if you’re doing beauty parades for big companies, branding is important. But with specialist work it’s different. We specifically do not use large firms, partly because big firms tend to act for a lot of companies we investigate, they can by unimaginative in litigation and their costs are prohibitive.
“In contrast, smaller firms are driven by individual reputations and are much more cost-effective. We don’t want to pay for a paralegal, a trainee, an assistant and a partner like you do at a big firm. Smaller firms will drop everything for us – they are hungrier for the work, they think out of the box and can often run circles round the big firms.”
Firms used include: Burton Copeland, Wiggin, Brodies
Maninder Gill, now head of IP and retail at Simons Muirhead & Burton, was Harvey Nichols’ first legal director. Prior to that he spent seven years as legal director of Northern & Shell, which produces the Daily Express and OK! magazine.
Speaking from his 12 years’ experience in-house, Gill agrees that it’s about the person, not the brand – in fact, he adds that few of his peers care about the latter.
“We’ve used big, well-known law firms in the past and had terrible experiences with them,” he says. “It’s all about the lawyer – people we’ve worked with or those recommended by others. Any in-house lawyer is going to ask around – none of my colleagues or peers would give a toss about the branding of a firm.”
The tech company
In January 2009, Brian Chadwick became Miniclip’s first lawyer. Now Miniclip is the world’s largest online gaming site, Chadwick holds the dual role of general counsel and group director. The company’s main legal counsel are Brown Rudnick and Rouse.
“We like to think of ourselves as a strong brand, so if a firm represents well-known clients such as FIFA [as Rouse does] we’d be more likely to use them,” he says. “It goes back to reputation. When I instructed Rouse two years ago I suppose I just knew [they were the ones we wanted]. I’d already had one or two experiences with them and knew who their clients were.”
But it’s also about wider industry knowledge, Chadwick highlights.
“Osborne Clarke, for example, would know that a client in the mobile games industry wouldn’t want to read a 27-page contract so would automatically do it in three,” he says. “It comes down to efficiency, I know if I speak to someone with industry knowledge I’ll get a better product.”
That said, Chadwick says he would consider using the larger, magic circle firms for big litigation.
“If we were going to do big, expensive litigation in the UK we would go for the brand – the magic circle, the heavy hitters. Who has won a case similar to the one I’ve got? If I see a firm has won a similar case I will call them. Personal relationships are relevant but not decisive. If we lost I couldn’t go to my board and say ‘we used my mate’.”
Firms used: Brown Rudnick, Rouse
The building society
Nationwide Building Society has delayed the launch of its general panel review until the autumn. The last review, in 2009, saw Allen & Overy, Burges Salmon, Eversheds, Nabarro and Olswangall successful in their bids.
“We look at our panel as an extension of us, so we want to make sure we get this right,” Nationwide general counsel Liz Kelly told The Lawyer earlier this year. “We spend a lot of time with our panel firms, talking with them about our strategy, getting them in to negotiation and project meetings. A lot of our credibility stands on this, so it is important that we have the right people.”
Of branding, Kelly adds: “While advertising provides the platform to showcase a firm, reputation continues to be a determining factor. It’s also the people who make up the reputation and give credibility – or not – to a firm, so their culture and values need to live and breathe their brand for it to be effective.”
Firms used: Allen & Overy, Burges Salmon, Eversheds, Nabarro and Olswang
The food company
Premier Foods, which is behind brands such as Mr Kipling, Hovis bread and Ambrosia creamed rice, was represented by Slaughter and May for all of its corporate work until December 2012, when it turned to Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer as an “alternative top-flight firm” for the divestment of British sandwich-filler Branston Pickle.
Slaughters were busy on other things at the time of the deal, giving Premier the chance to prepare for the possibility of it not being available for future deals.
“If a deal is high-risk and has high-visibility at board level the trusted brand of the magic circle or the top 10 is who management will recognise and believe provides protection,” says Premier Foods general counsel Andrew McDonald.
“The relationship I’ve got internally is that people will trust me to find a good legal partner, but looking across the piece more generally the reputation of firms will be a factor for GCs – nobody ever got fired for hiring Slaughter and May.
“Branding a consumer product is different to professional services because individuals are involved in law – it comes down to personalities and style. If you’re buying a BMW you’re not buying it for its personality. Controlling a brand as the firm grows creates the challenge of keeping the culture. The thing that made a firm special can quite easily be lost.”
Colour me legal
The law is no stranger to colour-related matters. BP attempted to trademark its dashing racing green (Pantone 348C at the time) to assure its distinctiveness in petroleum products, only to lose a trademark case and be forced to re-select (it uses Pantone 355C now). Cadbury’s had a tussle with Nestlé over its purple (Pantone 2685C) when the Swiss giant opposed the trademark registration on the grounds of distinctiveness. Meanwhile mobile operator Orange (151C) kicked up a fuss when easyJet tried to trademark the very similar 021C for use with its easyMobile service.
A quick look at the colour wheel right, which plots the primary corporate colours of the Top 50 law firms in the UK, reveals a remarkable clustering around certain shades.
Why might this be? Researchers have been studying the psychological effects of colour on individuals and groups for years. It is broadly held that your geographic, cultural and socio-economic background will almost certainly influence the way you feel when you are presented with a solid object that is overwhelmingly green. Or very, very red. Conversations are always charged with extraordinary opinion, and in law firms, where everyone’s an owner (often), the debate can get heated.
Law firms in the Top 50 have decided to play it safe. Black is perhaps the safest of all, but through use by many luxury brands and the extent to which it features in many cool, minimalist designs, it can have a sophisticated allure as well, particularly when paired with silver or grey, and can equally turn on bold and modern when used with a lot of white and the right typography. Olswang and Clifford Chance are among the users of black in a very modern style.
Blue can also be a very conservative colour, so it’s not surprising that many of the top firms generally favour dark shades of that colour, DLA Piper, Addleshaw Goddard and Ince & Co among them. Purple – with its regal and imperial overtones – clearly suits the tastes of a few others, most notably Slaughter and May and Dentons, the latter choosing a slightly zingier shade.
Bolder colours are much more unusual. Mishcon, Withers and Osborne Clarke – the latter also throwing a panther logo in for good measure – have colonised orange, while Berrymans Lace Mawer edges from the volcanic end of orange into fiery red, where Allen & Overy, Norton Rose and Wragge & Co have each staked out positions.
Among the real colour mavericks of the profession are Charles Russell, out there in the lush groves of forest green; Herbert Smith, replacing its former choice of black with a smooth turquoise redolent of Pacific lagoons; and Hogan Lovells, with a cool, understated green. Shoosmiths has one of the most unusual of all corporate colours in law, a jazzy lime which enhances its zeitgeisty new website.
Different colours also have different resonances in different cultures, which can be vital if you’re an international player. On a global rebrand for an NGO the chosen primary brand colour made perfect sense in all 48 territories but one, where it had the most unfortunate political significance possible. Finding positive connotations in every market are the key.
Colour will tend to stir the passions of most people, whether they acknowledge it or not. Some people will say they don’t care, or that it is utterly irrelevant to them or to their clients. Until you tell them management has chosen shocking pink or canary yellow.
Jamie White is creative director of Blackbridge Communications