A perennial question, not susceptible to any definitive resolution, is the classic, “Do you hire the lawyer or the law firm?”
I actually think this is one of those too-cute-by-half semantic tricks designed to inveigle the unwary into Talmudic debates where only the person who originally posed the preposterous query can possibly come out ahead. Because the answer is, of course, both (or neither). Even Atticus Finch or Clarence Darrow would have been more successful with a powerful firm’s infrastructure and support behind them, and conversely I dare you to find a great firm featuring second-rate lawyers.
This train of thought was prompted by an observation over dinner a few days ago by a friend who is both a lawyer and a McKinsey alum. He remarked that McKinsey relies on its brand for attracting clients, but law firms seem to rely on high-profile individual practitioners. As evidence, he pointed to the striking difference between mckinsey.com and the website of virtually any law firm: On mckinsey.com, it’s virtually impossible to find any individuals at all, whereas a prominent–sometimes the most prominent–feature of law firms’ sites is always “Professionals” or “Attorneys” or “Our People,” with extremely detailed bios of each individual.
Doubt me? Take a look:
This is the page at McKinsey–>Home–>About Us–>Who We Are–>Leadership (under “Who We Are,” there is no option other than Leadership, making the navigation a bit redundant, but there you have it). Now, as best I can determine it’s the only page at mckinsey.com that features any identifiable individuals.
Caveat: If you navigate to a specific location (e.g., their New York office), you can them use their “profile matcher” to find individuals, but you can only search by continent (Americas, Europe, Asia) and by one of 10-12 background areas. If you click on the (first name only!) of any individual thus identified, you learn where they are and when they joined McKinsey, but nothing about their educational background or any real professional details beyond an explanation–seemingly in their own words–about why they love working at McKinsey.
By contrast, here are just two randomly selected law firm home pages. Of course, there’s nothing random about the selection at all: They are merely two largest US and UK firms.:
Skadden prominently features “Attorneys” as its second high-level navigation option at the top right, the lead story under “Firm News” has to do with adding “prominent patent litigators,” and the entire bottom third of the page is devoted to a profile of an individual partner (it rotates automatically).
As for Linklaters, “Who we are” is one of only three top-level navigation options, and one of only two aimed at clients (“Join us” is obviously not).
You get the point. At least if websites are thought to be a window into a firm’s soul, McKinsey believes clients hire the firm and we are behaving as if clients hire the lawyer.
Well, so what?, you may be thinking.
I attended a PLI event here in New York last month where the keynote speaker offered one prediction with a high degree of confidence: That we are moving into a world where law firms’ brands will matter as never before. Now, if your firm is like most, you haven’t thought about branding very much, or if you’re on the cutting edge you’re just beginning to. But I happen to think the speaker was on to something.
Indeed, for at least a few years now the London-based firm Intangible Business has written about “The UK’s most valuable law firm brands.” And David Morley, Allen & Overy’s worldwide Senior Partner, writes in his most recent annual firm report that “a clear identity” is one of the four most salient challenges he identifies (the others being strategy, people, and technology):
A clear identity
The other big change that I think we will continue to see is the increasing importance of a strong global brand and identity. Law firms have traditionally shied away from branding and talked more about reputation, but that will change.
In any industry, the biggest players are those that have a clear and truly global brand, and the legal sector is no different. It is particularly important for Allen & Overy to get this right as we face more and more competition.
As our work is mainly business to business, we are obviously not exactly a household name – no law firm is. But it’s important that we continue to sharpen our brand so that we are at least a strong name in corporate boardrooms, banks and other financial institutions.
I know David well (and, disclosure, consider him a friend), but that has absolutely nothing to do with why I cite what he has to say on this score. Rather, in my experience, David is deeply thoughtful, reflective, and far-sighted about our industry–a managing partner who steadfastly resists the lure of being drawn into the quotidian crisis du jour in order to focus on the long-term important and not the short-term urgent.
What’s yours? You have thought about it, haven’t you?