An American Law Firm in London

US-headquartered law firm brands continue to make significant headway in the London market.

This headway is particularly visible in the high-profile arena of M&A, where, according to sources, most deals with a UK target today include a US firm as a principal advisor. Only a decade ago, these firms hardly got a look.

Today, more than half of the largest City of London firms call the US home, and five of the ten largest firms in the City are names that, ten or fifteen years ago, many UK clients might not have heard of.

What branding issues will these firms face in gaining further traction, and how should these and other US firms looking at London consider market positioning?

Reports of my death are much exaggerated.

Despite the significant revenue growth many US firms have seen in London, even the biggest—Kirkland—is not nearly as big as the largest Magic Circle firm, Linklaters. The most prominent UK firms continue to grow in a way that belies any sense that they are feeling disruptive commercial pressure.

Indeed, in terms of US firm dominance, the UK legal industry has always been an outlier compared to the other professional services sectors.

When it comes to accountancy, investment banking, and management consultancy, the once-dominant and independent UK firms have long since been acquired, merged, or driven out of business by the more aggressive and dominant US firms.

In contrast, the brand names of many City of London law firms today have existed since Charles Dickens wrote The Pickwick Papers.

Five of the ten largest firms in the City are names that, ten or fifteen years ago, many UK clients might not have heard of.

The UK firms, given a bit of breathing space by the structural features of the legal market and a great deal of momentum by the strategic foresight of former leaders, have not only survived but have also led the globalisation charge themselves.

The big UK firms expanded internationally, in numbers, before the Americans came to town. They established large and high-quality networks (almost everywhere apart from the US) using more or less the same playbook as the US management consultants and investment banks did, merging local country partnerships into their business model in return for quickly transitioning to a single global brand name.

This gave them much more resilience as the US firms began to operate in London, offering UK clients a seamlessly integrated offer across many international jurisdictions before many US firms had even stepped outside the US mainland. White and CaseMayer Brown, Cleary and Baker McKenzie are notable exceptions.

These ambitious UK firms also began to invest in building strong international brands ahead of their US peers – thinking about things like clear global market positionsbrand differentiation and internal cohesion around their marketing strategies – so that by the time the US firms started arriving, they stood head and shoulders ahead of the Americans in almost all non-US markets with consistent and clear market-leading brands.

This has served the UK firms well until now and, in many ways, continues to serve them well. This makes the challenge the US law firms face much harder than their predecessors like McKinsey and Goldman, who faced off in London against relatively small, primarily national players who were frankly taken a bit by surprise.

With acquisitions and mergers elusive at the top level, US law firms must build their market shares organically. This raises at least three key brand marketing challenges: brand awareness, brand of origin perceptions, and brand relevance.

Who did you say you’re with?

One of the more surprising marketing hurdles to overcome is that most UK clients are so overwhelmed with premium law firms that they can barely remember much about the UK firms they’ve grown up with, let alone have room for new ones who appear seemingly from nowhere.

It can be a little disconcerting for those partners who have grown up with a door-opening establishment name on their business cards to find that their firm’s brand awareness doesn’t even register a flicker in many circles.

With acquisitions and mergers elusive at the top level, US law firms must build their market shares organically.

Of course, this varies by individual, sector, and client type. Still, I’m often reminded in my research that beyond the bubble of the legal industry, most clients, even those who deal with law firms day in and day out, often know little, if anything, about more than four or five firms.

And that’s not much more than name awareness. Even when they know the name, their level of knowledge beyond that is often shallow and highly outdated.

There’s no quick fix to this, but the first step is to understand where you start from in the sectors you are targeting and build a focused and realistic plan to build targeted awareness of your firm and the very beginnings of your story.

Gathering the evidence can also be helpful internally because back home, it can often be hard to believe that “a firm as prestigious as ours should be investing in something as grubby as name awareness.”

Born in the USA

When clients begin to scratch the surface of your firm’s brand, one of the issues that will quickly come up is ‘country of origin’, which is a powerful force in branding; it’s an inherent part of any brand story, and we humans are storytelling animals after all.

Think about the more obvious examples. BMW sells cars that might be designed in the UK, manufactured in Brazil and sold in the US; nevertheless, ‘German engineering’ is a big part of the BMW brand proposition and the values we buy into as customers.

On the other hand, Fiat doesn’t tend to emphasise being Italian because, fairly or unfairly, the idea of ‘Italian engineering’ doesn’t have the same positive brand connotations.

A good illustration of the power of the country of origin for a global brand in the other direction is Hugo Boss – another German-owned brand; only ‘German fashion’ doesn’t have the same ring as ‘Italian fashion’. Armani can play up its place of origin; Hugo Boss hides it.

When we think about any new professional service or B2B brand, we think about where it comes from as our brains try to navigate the very crowded’ shelf’ in front of us. Not necessarily to ‘accept’ or ‘reject’ but more to’ tag’ it.

Goldman Sachs and McKinsey are as American as BMW is German, and they don’t try to interfere with this because most of the connotations are positive.

Then, in simple terms, just as ‘German engineering’ is a broad, amorphous concept that varies by the individual brand, some consistent themes are’ tagged’.

In the case of a US law firm, we might think they’ll do business in an “American” way: they’ll be pretty aggressive, they’ll be high-quality lawyers, they’ll probably charge high fees and want to do high-value work, the individuals on the team might change (rotations and lateral churn), they won’t be as familiar with ‘London ways’ good and bad, they come from a mainly singular jurisdiction, unlike the patchwork UK/EU system.

None of these stereotypes is necessarily accurate or fair, particularly when Brits and other European lawyers increasingly staff the firms. While some might be barriers, others can be highly advantageous in brand marketing.

Goldman Sachs and McKinsey are as American as BMW is German, and they don’t try to interfere with this because most of the connotations are positive. But you can bet that when they meet UK civil servants in Whitehall to talk about public sector projects, they tend to try to tone it down a bit.

So, what should US firms do? First, find out the generic client perceptions of a US law firm among the client groups you are targeting. Then, on top of what you know or can work out about any specific perceptions they already have of your firm, develop a strategy around which you can tell your story to the market.

What’s so special about you then?

The third prominent theme to think about is brand relevance; what’s distinctive about your offer that means clients should consider you for their legal work in a particular area, even though they are most likely perfectly well served by any number of incumbent law firms already?

Again, it’s a good idea to get some good client insight to avoid guessing. Hopefully, some of the assets you bring to the table will come from the US: market-leading strengths in particular sectors, experience with similar clients, and maybe even bigger clients they will respect.

This is where you can incorporate some of the country of origin brand ‘tailwind’ into your narrative as long as it seems authentic.

For example, Quinn Emanuel, the litigation-only firm, knows that US litigators have a brand that fits their natural style well. So, without having to do much at all, they start with a good set of expectations – a good brand ‘tailwind.’

How many more ‘top tier’ firms can London take before the top tier calves like an iceberg into different parts?

Here at the marketing end of the sales funnel – just getting on the consideration list – there’s not much space for details, only simple, powerful hooks that aim to catch attention, not necessarily convert a sale (which comes much later and involves space for many more details).

The ideal scenario is to develop a brand strategy that weaves a path through these three themes simultaneously – so you have one consistent go-to-market brand strategy, not many. The plus side of being relatively unknown is that you start with a blank canvas, a chance to introduce yourself as you’d like to be known, and you do not need to overcome outdated perceptions.

Then, by layering on some positive aspects of the country of origin perceptions that you discover, you can turbocharge specific themes because they already exist in the client’s mind. Finally, add the particular sector and market relevance points your firm can bring to the table.

It’s a subtle business like all aspects of premium professional services branding.

Standing out from a very high-quality crowd isn’t easy, but a strong brand marketing narrative can help build a sustainable platform for your firm that you can build on incrementally year after year.

Looking ahead

Who knows what will happen next? Will all the US firms in London go further, or will some rise as others fall back? How will big and quite big UK firms respond? Will the US firms penetrate beyond the more ‘global’ sectors? Which ones will do this best?

Today’s leaders have some advantages, but how many more ‘top tier’ firms can London take before the top tier calves like an iceberg into different parts? Interesting times.

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Ian Stephens

CEO and Founder of Principia, Ian is the trusted advisor on branding to leaders of many of the world’s most prestigious international professional service firms and knowledge-intensive B2B businesses across a range of sectors including law, consulting, strategy, technology, engineering, and innovation.