The power of brands in consumer industries is well recognized in China. So why is branding still a new phenomenon in the legal services sector? By Alice Gartland

“You don’t have a choice about whether or not you have a brand. You only have a choice about whether or not you manage it,” says Suanne Colley, who leads the Asia Pacific marketing and communications team at US law firm Skadden Arps ­­Slate Meagher & Flom.

Amy Norman, a former lawyer who is now a strategist at brand consultancy Wolff Olins in London, agrees. Wolff Olins advised Linklaters on its branding strategy in 2002, and has just finished advising PwC on a global rebranding. “People talk about you whether you like it or not. What you have to do is put good things out there in the world for them to talk about,” she says.

Amy Norman, Strategist, Wolff OlinsAccording to Norman, branding is often seen as purely a marketing issue, but it’s actually about the whole office culture. The brand shapes “what your capabilities are, what you offer the world and what you look like,” she says, emphasizing that a law firm’s brand “choreographs” its internal and external relationships, and “needs to resonate with a lot of people”.

For clients, the focal point of their experience of a brand is their interaction with the firm. “On the client side, corporate personality is found in the total experience of the firm – even how you answer the telephone. Everything matters,” says Colley. Crucially, she points out that purchasing a professional service is “risky, even if it’s only an opportunity risk”. A good brand can reduce a potential client’s perception of that risk, and can generate business.

Robert Sawhney, Managing Director, SRC AssociatesBut some say that consciousness of branding has yet to permeate to the heart of the legal profession. “Within the professional services sector, law firms are the furthest behind in terms of the understanding and application of marketing,” says Robert Sawhney, managing director of a Hong Kong-based consultancy, SRC Associates. He believes that law firms tend to take a “superficial view” of branding. “A brand is much more than just a logo, it’s about culture,” he says.

From the inside out

In 2002, following a series of mergers, London-based international law firm Linklaters embarked on a rebranding exercise. This brand-building process was driven “from the inside out” says Oonagh Harpur, head of the Linklaters’ partnership secretariat, starting with an analysis of the values that defined the firm and how they should inform the way the business operates. Linklaters then conducted workshops in its offices across the world to ensure that the values identified were relevant to the daily working lives of the firm’s people.

More than eight years on, the Linklaters brand remains central to the life of the firm. “In every one of our mergers or where we laterally hire, we are looking for cultural fit and values,” says Harpur.

Linklaters’ international client base also demands brand consistency. “You want to know that when you meet us in Hong Kong or New York that you are going to have a similar experience,” Harpur says. Not only do the visuals have to be consistent (because “it’s the superficial stuff that communicates your integrity”), but the advice clients get must also be consistent. “The legal advice has to be excellent, but it also has to be delivered in a way that is consistent with our brand,” Harpur concludes.

Sawhney concurs: “If there isn’t seamless integration between the different offices handling the work for a client, then the point of having multi-jurisdictional offices really fails.”

Keeping it real

It is easy to take a cynical view of branding. Many firms talk about the same things: integrated service, teamwork, corporate social responsibility and work-life balance. But is this anything more than spin? Turning the rhetoric into reality can be difficult.

It is not enough just to say what a firm’s brand is. “You have to give people the tools to make it real,” asserts Norman. For Wolff Olins, this means helping clients conduct training sessions on topics such as how their brand influences pitches: how pitches are presented, how content is prioritized, and so on.

Even firms with strong brands in the main jurisdictions in which they operate can struggle when they enter new markets. Where a firm has moved into a new market to follow and support its existing clients, branding may not be an immediate issue. But in the longer term, the firm will need to win new business. Its brand can be a key source of competitive advantage.

So how good are international law firms’ brands in China, and how do domestic firms compare?

PRC law firms are “well down the brand management spectrum” and “lagging behind”, says Sawhney. And although he believes that international firms are often much further along that spectrum, he “wouldn’t rate any of them as good”.

Is this really true, and if so, why?

Tipping point

It is often said that PRC law firms are set up like barristers’ chambers in a common law jurisdiction. Each partner generates his or her own profits, with a client base built on his or her individual relationships. As a result, “a partner from one practice area will not share information or cooperate with another partner,” says Sawhney. That places the individual lawyer and his or her relationships above those of the collective, so there is little incentive to develop a common brand.

However, many PRC firms have expanded rapidly with offices throughout China and in foreign jurisdictions. Competition among them is intense and a hierarchy of firms has emerged. This means there is a focus on league tables, rankings and getting the visual identity of a firm consistent. There is also increasing appreciation of the role that the brand can play in client relationship management and organizational development.

Many PRC firms are at a “tipping point” says Colley. What were previously small partnerships, which she says “automatically lead to individualized and personal marketing”, are now “substantial businesses where the whole is more than the sum of the parts. That’s why brand has become crucially important for some firms in China.” In this context, Colley adds that marketing the brand becomes more important “because it makes trust become more generalized”.

King & Wood is one of the most internationalized PRC firms. At the most basic level, its name is versatile and works well across international markets. It is easy to understand in English: “It sounds like there is a Mr King and a Ms Wood, although there isn’t,” says Mark Schroeder, who until recently was head of marketing at the firm.

More importantly, King & Wood has worked hard to coordinate its different practice areas to provide the scope and quality of service that its international position demands. Schroeder says the firm is not like a barristers’ chambers, and “partners often refer work to other practice areas”. He believes this approach stands out “in a developing jurisdiction like China, where most matters of a given client tend to be handled by one lawyer”.

Early days

Anthony Zhao 赵靖, Senior Partner 高级合伙人, Zhong Lun Law Firm 中伦律师事务所 Brand strategy has assumed a central role in the development of other PRC firms seeking to build themselves a reputation. Anthony Zhao, a senior partner at Zhong Lun Law Firm, says “branding is a new topic for Chinese firms”, which now need to “consider their position and what their strengths are”.

Zhao points out that although clients often approach a firm following a personal recommendation, in China’s rapidly developing market there are always newcomers and a firm’s ability to convey its message to “unknown” clients is also important.

Echoing Colley’s tipping point remark, Zhao emphasizes the importance of the firm’s brand in creating a “centralized platform so that all partners can work together and share experience and knowledge”. He believes that the partners at Zhong Lun recognize not only the “value of that centralized platform, but also its image”.

The name Zhong Lun signifies adherence to ethical principles (see also A rose by any other name on page 51). According to the firm’s website, it signifies a commitment “to comply fully with the letter and spirit of the law, rules and ethical principles that govern us”.

Internally, Zhao claims that this manifests itself in a practical and methodical approach to business development, which he describes as a “middle way”, and a focus on transparency in the governance of the firm. As Zhao explains, “transparency generates trust – both between the lawyers and their clients and between the lawyers”.

Zhong Lun is grappling with the issues thrown up by nationwide expansion, opening new offices while developing a consistent firm-wide culture. Zhao also says the brand is crucially important when recruiting the best students from law schools. “The image and position of the firm with clients does not necessarily translate into a good name or image on campus,” he says, so Zhong Lun has put effort into developing its brand image for its campus tours.

Consolidation

Many PRC law firms have expanded rapidly and now have offices throughout China and overseas.

Although this gives them the market reach that they need, it may take much longer to foster and implement a firm-wide brand strategy.

Dacheng Law Offices is one of the largest law firms in China, and its rapid expansion offers an interesting case study. The firm has 30 branches across the country and is committed to international growth, too. It opened a New York office last October. Executive partner Dennis Deng describes how the brand is important in bringing that network together: “Local firms who come on board see that by becoming part of Dacheng, they are becoming part of a strong brand that will help facilitate their development.”

Dacheng is celebrating its 16th anniversary. Deng explains that the firm is using the anniversary as an opportunity to host an event to bring people from the different offices together. Key events from the firm’s history will be celebrated to help consolidate the Dacheng brand.

Titan efforts

Sophie Wang 王清辉, Titan Law Firm 天地人律师事务所, Senior Partner 高级合伙人 It’s not just the biggest and most international PRC firms that recognize the importance of brand. Sophie Wang is a senior partner in the London office of Titan Law Firm which has its headquarters in Changsha, Hunan province. Wang agrees that the traditional organizational structure of a PRC firm can place partners in competition with one another, but she is determined that Titan should do things differently.

“China is a society based around relationships. Each lawyer only has limited time and resources to build a broad network, and as a business you have to collectively market yourselves. For that, you need a brand,” says Wang. It is for this reason that she says Titan has focused on the wider role that its lawyers, and the firm as a whole, play in its community. She says that social responsibility and the need to create a better society are the driving forces behind the firm, and the values that define its brand.

This is not pure altruism. It is a brand strategy that, if implemented properly, could offer significant returns. Wang describes how the firm is focused on three key relationships: with its clients, the public and the government.

Suanne Colley, Head of Marketing, Asia Pacific, Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & FlomThe firm is attempting to build trust with the public, and build brand awareness, through a free hotline that anyone can call for advice on family law, property and traffic incidents. It offers commercial clients pro bono advice on certain matters, particularly where the issue involves navigating the Chinese legal system. And it takes a proactive approach to its relationship with the government. “As the legal profession we need to maintain our independence, to challenge the government where necessary, but also to view the government as a partner and to work with them to improve their management,” says Wang. Some members of the firm have gone on to work in government roles and the firm has also been involved in discussions on the development of legislation and legal infrastructure.

At the most basic level, the English name Titan was chosen to reflect the firm’s Chinese name, Tiandiren, because it is easy to pronounce, is phonetically similar to the original Chinese, and because it reflects strength (see also A rose by any other name on page 51). Beyond that, building a brand is about selecting and investing in “people who share the same values,” says Wang. The firm is now trying to build its brand in London.

Being astute

For international firms with offices in China, whose operations are small in comparison with their headquarters, having people with good connections is also important. But a firm’s brand plays a significant role in maintaining client relationships, building new ones and creating synergies across international offices.

Hogan Lovells is the product of a recent merger between Hogan & Hartson of the US and Lovells of the UK, and as such is a new name among law firms. According to David Craigen, head of the firm’s business development and public relations in Asia and the Middle East, Hogan Lovells has to be “astute as to how we optimize brand contact with clients in a particular market”.

Clearly, a firm’s visual identity needs to be translated in a way that is culturally sensitive and effective in the local market. But beyond that, it is open to question whether, from a brand management perspective, the China market presents unusual issues for a firm.

“In reality the challenges are no different from, say, Vietnam or the United Arab Emirates, where we also have offices,” says Craigen. “The overarching differential for each of these markets is how the firm channels its brand presence effectively.”

For Deacons, a Hong Kong-based firm, managing its brand effectively throws up some interesting cross-cultural issues. Di Jin Lüshi Hang (or its equivalent Cantonese pronunciation) is clearly the name of a Hong Kong law firm, phonetically closer to “Deacons” in Cantonese than in Putonghua (Mandarin), and using the traditional Hong Kong term for “law firm” rather than lüshi shiwusuo. These things, together with the use of traditional rather than simplified Chinese characters, demonstrate its Hong Kong roots; yet it is the firm’s capacity to provide expertise on the China region as a whole that is fundamental to its brand. Phillip McDonald, the firm’s head of business development, describes how Deacons offers Putonghua classes to its Cantonese- and English speaking lawyers to encourage them to become trilingual.

For PRC, Hong Kong and international firms alike, building a brand is a process. At the heart of that process are people and the capacity to build trust. However, as Colley predicts, as long as there is an abundance of legal work in China, “no one is going to have a proper debate around branding strategy any time soon”. Even if the long-term view tells us law firms should be engaging in just such a debate.

A rose by any other name

Branding a law firm is about more than just its name. But choosing a firm’s name can be fraught with issues of history and culture, as well as language.

As PRC firms expand by merging with other firms across China, form strategic alliances and set up offices overseas, they need to evaluate whether their name remains consistent with their position, strength, culture and geographical scope. A name that is easily recognizable, easy to pronounce and representative of the firm’s values and ambitions is key.

Whether a law firm’s “English” or “international” name should be rendered in pinyin, or has a meaning distinct from the firm’s Chinese name, are questions that are open to earnest debate.

Dacheng Law Offices has an English brand that makes straightforward use of the firm’s Chinese name. The firm recently opened an office in New York, where the name Dacheng will undoubtedly be pronounced with local characteristics.

In contrast, Grandall Legal Group took the view that given the increasingly international nature of work in the PRC, adopting a second, English-sounding name would be helpful. (Its Chinese name is Guo Hao Lüshi Shiwusuo). The firm chose Grandall because it conveys the scope, size, unity and strength of its Chinese name by combining the words “grand” and “all”. But things aren’t quite so straightforward: the firm’s Chinese website is www.grandall.com.cn, using the English name of the firm. The English website is www.grandall-law.com.

AllBright is the English name for Jin Tian Cheng Lüshi Shiwusuo. The two names appear unrelated. AllBright suffers from PwC syndrome – like the professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, the name consists of one word, but with a capital letter in the middle. Just as brightly, Broad & Bright is the English name for Shi Ze Lüshi Shiwusuo – again, no relation. That firm uses traditional Chinese characters in its logo.

The English name of Chang Tsi & Partners derives from the names of its founding partners, Spring Chang and Simon Tsi. Neither Chang nor Tsi are standard pinyin – Spring’s surname is Cang and Simon’s surname is Si. Even more quirkily, the firm’s web address is www.ctw.com.cn: the “w” is left over from a third partner who, we understand, has since left the firm. And the firm’s Chinese name – Zhu Cheng Lüshi Shiwusuo – makes no discernible reference to any founder at all.

Concerto Law Firm changed its English name to United Zhongwen Law Firm in a relaunch last September. The new name matches the firm’s Chinese name, Zhongwen Lüshi Shiwusuo, which remains unchanged.

Jan Liu & Associates, an IP firm whose English name followed the long international tradition of naming a firm after its founding partner, changed its name to LexField Law Offices after a merger in July 2009. Like AllBright, the new name is a single word, with a capital letter in the middle. Distinctive, or clumsy? Brand beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Mayer Brown JSM is the product of a merger between US firm Mayer Brown and Hong Kong firm Johnson Stokes & Master in 2008. The merger, however, didn’t go as far as unifying the combined firm’s Chinese name. Mayer Brown uses the name Mei Ya Bo Lüshi Shiwusuo. Mayer Brown JSM in Hong Kong retains the old Chinese name for Johnson Stokes & Master, Ma Shi Da Lüshi Hang. As demonstrated in March, when this magazine printed its first correction (see China Business Law Journal volume 2 issue 3, page 9), we were confused.

In 2003 a group of partners left Zhong Lun Law Firm and set up Zhonglun W&D Law Firm. Its Chinese name is Zhong Lun Wen De. Further confusion could be forgiven.