The Leader Column

Any law firm worth its salt nowadays prides itself on its brand. Of course, half the time they are deluded. Countless partners in all sorts of different firms bang on that their brand is all about being commercial, innovative and – I say, here's a new one – client-focused. (Memo to those partners: please don't embarrass yourselves any further. You're part of a service industry: being commercial, innovative and client-focused is supposed to be a given.)
Andersen used to pride itself on its brand too. But within a few short weeks the firm's reputation has been almost entirely destroyed. Think Andersen, and you might once have called to mind dynamism and a peculiarly clinical efficiency, albeit tinged with arrogance. Think Andersen now, and you think shredding. If anything, Andersen's main fault seems to have been that it was just a little too client-focused for its own good.
Because of the actions of a handful of people, an entire professional services business is on the verge of collapse. It is ironic that four years ago Andersen pulled out of a merger with what was then Wilde Sapte because of the threat of a number of individual partners leaving. Even a handful of defections would destroy the value of the acquisition and of the brand, the Andersen argument ran. How times change; according to various press reports, half of Andersen's US practice is now headed for the door.
And as we reveal in this issue, Garrigues is halfway out already. As one of the elite firms in Spain – along with Uría & Menéndez – Garrigues has long been the jewel in Andersen Legal's crown. Andersen lawyers would always point to Garrigues to shore up their argument that their model could attract quality operators; the firm's abrupt exit from the organisation will be a blow. Meanwhile, another of the Andersen Legal jewels, Dundas & Wilson, is considering its options. A leading recruiter admits that he simply cannot sell Andersen Legal to any candidate, saying: “I'd question the commerciality of any individual who even says they're interested in looking at Andersen.”
The Andersen crisis should worry anyone in professional services, particularly in the international firms. Andersen's brand was a powerful one, built up over decades. The fact that its reputation has been destroyed by the activities of a few people should be a wake-up call. Can every international firm really be sure that every lawyer in every far-flung office is really doing what they ought?