AMID mass redundancies, scathing commentary from former staff and heightened competition as law firms scramble for less work, the importance of branding is being sharply assessed by Australian firms.
“Brand is real, it’s important and it’s something that is easily damaged,” Gavin Bell, managing partner at Freehills, told The New Lawyer.
Firms have long invested small fortunes into their marketing departments, and this is especially true at Freehills, which in recent years has had four main media and communications personnel. It is not unheard of in the market, however, that some partners believe they are more important than such branding, that they are the real brand, and that it is them that bring in clients.
But as firms are forced to cut staff, the issue of brand is being reassessed. Some in the industry have questioned whether many firms will survive as the economy worsens and deep cuts are made in their senior lawyer numbers.
While most large firms are sufficiently broad and deep that a departure of one partner doesn’t have a significant brand effect, “if you’ve got a rogue partner in the sense of somebody doing something wrong, that can seriously impact”, Bell said.
The collapse of Arthur Andersen in 2002, and the status anxiety and client defections that occurred involving that firm, was a sharp reminder to law firms globally that brand matters. “It had problems in one office and within months the organisation imploded,” Bell said.
But as firms batten down the hatches amidst a worsening economy, Bell thinks brand will help many firms sail through the worse of it, arguing that there will be a “flight to quality”. His comment come as the firm became the first in the top tier to announce a pay freeze in all offices.
Pressed as to whether the partner brings in the work or the firm, Bell labeled it a combination. “I think the majority of work is a combination of personal relationship and firm brand,” he said.
“The brand is more than the Coke symbol in a sense. In law firms and professional services it reflects a service and culture that you’d expect.”
Brands are being reassessed following US firm Latham & Watkins’ possibly short-term fall from grace in how it was perceived in the market. While its partnership or client base has recently had some worthy competitors, from a branding perspective it was in a league of its own.
But damage was soon inflicted on this darling law firm as a result of stealth layoff accusations and a reversal in its recent growth.
The editor of LegalWeek.com, Alex Novarse, said the firm’s marrying of strong leadership, clear strategy and strong quality control made it the easiest client in recruitment. The firm was once described in an influential US directory as “a cult, but a happy cult”, and bottom line performance was also impressive while it achieve a five-year period of growth and profitability, Novarse said.
Yet this year the firm finds itself a world away from that former glory. Its 2008 results saw partner profits down 21 per cent, one of the sharpest of any US firm. A widespread belief that the firm’s expansionary instincts got the firm into trouble, given that the fall came on the back of a mere 4 per cent drop in revenue, left the firm with a tarnished image, Novarse said.
And then came the controversy on the US blogosphere. “[The firm] has been dogged by suspiciously specific claims that it is engaging in widespread stealth layoffs,” LegalWeek.com reported. “That brand – that cult- went right to the heart of what made the firm so distinctive and effective.”
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