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The Acritas Brand Index has long been considered that definitive arbiter of brand good taste in the legal sector.  Rather like the Debrett’s of the legal branding world.  Once again, this summer, they published their UK & London Brand Indexes, following hot on the heels of the US Brand Index, published in March.

The reports are the result of many months of first-hand research.  Calling General Counsels in organisations with $50m+ the team collects data based on questions around:

  • Top of mind awareness – based on the first five firms that come to mind, captured in order of mention.
  • Favourability – based on which three firms respondents feel most favourable towards.
  • Consideration for major M&A – up to three firms respondents are most likely to consider, captured in order of mention.
  • Consideration for top-level litigation – up to three firms respondents are most likely to consider, captured in order of mention.
  • Most used firm – up to five firms use for most of their high value work overall, and for inbound work as well those most used by non-UK based respondents for their UK-based legal work.

On the face of it, the results were as we would have guessed.  Magic Circle and Big Law leading the charge.  The usual pretenders to the crown following hot on their heels.  Freshfields held onto the top slot for a second year by scoring highly in the ‘front of mind awareness’ and ‘firm most used’ categories.  Herbert Smith shot up four places specifically because of their abilities in top-level litigation.  DLA PiperBaker & McKenzie and Slaughter and May have all risen three places because of their “well-defined offerings”

Commenting on the firm’s position, Christopher Saul, Senior Partner at Slaughter and May, said: “Our organic growth and multi-specialist approach has allowed us to build a highly collegiate team of lawyers who offer clients a calibrated, commercial view. This, together with high partner involvement and a focus on value add rather than time spent, helps us to build genuine trusted adviser relationships with our clients.”

Paul Rawlinson, London Managing Partner at Baker & McKenzie said: “We feel that this stand-out performance is down to our instinctively collaborative approach with clients and increasing ‘fit’ of our client proposition to UK corporates and banks in today’s global economy.”

Two other movers in the ranking, Squire Sanders (which climbed eight places this year to rank 15th) and Addleshaw Goddard (which gained four rank positions and lies in 14th place) were successful because they had developed their industry focus and client relationships across borders and exposure among the in-house counsel community following the launch of their Value Dynamics toolkit, respectively.

The story in the US Index was much the same.

 

So, what can we learn from this?

You could be forgiven for questioning the point of this report.  Surely the major firms are so large that they’ve become brand neutral.  Can you really, actually, differentiate a Top 50 firm on brand?

The answer lies (well-hidden, admittedly) in the summary from Acritas.

“Overall, the Index reveals that firms which have continued to invest in building their brands and market positions, despite the economic downturn, are reaping the rewards.”

Huh?

Let’s look back at the reasons for success.  Front of mind awareness driven by a strong track record for performance, client relationship development and providing them with what they need and want.

In short, relationships.  Brand isn’t about logos and flashy marketing campaigns.  These firms could never sponsor or advertise again.  They could probably even kill off their websites (certainly the services and sectors pages).  Yet they’d still have the brands that make them different from each other.  It’s become a bit of a mantra to us, here at EC Towers but we say it again.  By virtue of the fact that you are a Top 50 firm, clients and prospects assume that you know the law.  But what they don’t know (and decide upon) is whether they like your people and their approach to doing business.  Whether they trust you and want to work with you.  Whether they like the way you deliver your services and work with them.  That’s what your brand is all about.

Perhaps seemingly stating the obvious, Managing Partner magazine said of the report, “Law firms that are strongly differentiated and have clear offerings and identities are most able to succeed in the highly competitive UK legal market.”

Looking at both the US and UK 2014 reports what they meant by that was the firms that had listened to their clients, focused on relationships and invested in people had built strong brands.

Having a wide range of tactical services that you provide is not the same as having clear offerings.  Clear offerings means having worked out what clients need and want and then delivering it.  It’s understanding what’s valuable to them.  Importantly, it means having communicated it in a way that demonstrates that you think and work in the way that client wants you to.  They you’re on the same page as them.

Communicating this strong brand lies first and foremost in the way your people conduct themselves.  That means professionally during transactions but also through their marketing, client care and other interactions.  Does a consistent culture and approach shine through?  Do clients get the same service irrespective of service area or seniority?  Does everyone from the receptionist through to the Managing Partner deliver the same level of value, consistently to clients?  Is the language you all speak genuinely the same and grounded in action and belief? Could your clients tell you what it is that makes that firm so special?  And would the firm listen and use this information if they were told? That’s branding.

So, can Top 50 law firms differentiate on brand.  Of course they can.  Because irrespective of whether you’re a Top 50 firm or a one-man-band, your brand is the sum total of the people involved in the firm.  The differentiation lies in recognising this, articulating it and using it to underpin growth, innovation, client relationship management and service offering.

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