The No Homers Club: collective brands in the law

What’s the most valuable brand in the legal marketplace? The answer will depend on which segment of the market you’re looking at, of course, and no matter the jurisdiction, arguments are sure to erupt. But for the most part, there’s very little hard evidence to support one choice over another. Earlier this year, the UK firm Superbrands ranked the strongest brands in the British legal marketplace, and found the Law Society of England & Wales came out on top, followed by Eversheds. But surveys like that are rare, and most of the debate over law firm brands’ relative strength remains anecdotal.

From my perspective, however, I don’t think the strongest brands in the legal space belong to firms at all — they belong to clubs and collectives. In the UK, there’s the “Magic Circle“; in the US, there are “white-shoe law firms“; and here in Canada, there’s the “Seven Sisters.” Throw in Australia’s “Big Six” and South Africa’s “Big Five,” and you start to see how every country conjures up a small group of large firms that are somehow considered to be a cut above the rest.

These “clubs” shouldn’t be confused with rankings such as the AmLaw 100 or the US News & World Report‘s Top 14 law schools: even though these groups rarely change membership or even rank order, they’re still categorized according to a set of metrics that can and do change from time to time. Nor are these collectives the same as global networks like Meritas or Lex Mundi, voluntary referral and collegiality collectives with a central organization. Club membership is involuntary (you can’t nominate yourself), ethereal (who exactly invented the “Magic Circle,” anyway?), and permanent.

Although these clubs deliver enormous benefits, it’s worth asking whether they’ll stand the test of time. As globalization spreads and new firms rise, different brands will evolve that could relegate the old clubs to historical footnotes. Already in Canada, we’ve seen the Norton Rose/Ogilvy Renault merger change the local law firm landscape — there are already several firms larger than some of the “Seven Sisters,” and Norton Rose OR will surpass them all in size. Will we see the growth of a “Global Circle,” a handful of the largest and most highly regarded firms worldwide, a collective brand for the 21st century?

At any rate, I’m not as interested in these established clubs as I am in the question of how “collective branding” likely will evolve in future. The market value of membership in one of these groups is demonstrably high, so it would figure that there’d be interest in developing and populating more of them. The field for large and expensive law firms’ brands is pretty much filled at this point, so the obvious next areas in which these clubs would develop are smaller, more regional and more practice-specific. Here are a few possibilities:

  • Regional Groups: Which local firms in Edmonton, St. Louis, Manchester or Melbourne are clearly superior to all the rest? What are the most highly esteemed firms in Quebec or Colorado? Criteria would vary according to whether you’re focusing on general-practice or specialized firms, and whether you’re talking about the consumer or corporate marketplace.
  • Boutique Groups: Which are the finest IP boutiques in Canada? What is the most exclusive grouping of specialty litigation shops in the United States? Or in California? Or in Silicon Valley? A one-stop reference point to answer these questions would be useful to clients, but it would be invaluable to law firms in terms of prestige and profile.
  • Online Groups: The day is coming, and fast, when virtual or Net-delivered legal services are so ubiquitous that a market need will emerge to separate the finest wheat from the rest. Call it the”Cyber Circle” — a small collection of virtual firms that are recognized to be head and shoulders above the rest.

Two questions are raised by this discussion. The first is: who decides? The firms themselves obviously can’t. Bar associations certainly can’t be seen supporting some members’ firms above others. Law schools? Maybe, but query whether their views would have legitimacy in the profession. Judges? Nope. The likeliest candidate would be a journal or periodical of some kind, preferably legal (US News and World Report‘s pernicious influence on law school rankings is the exception that proves the rule). The American Lawyer has made its name with the AmLaw lists, but again, these are rankings, not clubs. There’s no “#1 Magic Circle firm” — in these clubs, all members are equal. There’s an opportunity here for publications, especially regional and specialty ones, to become players in the branding game.

The other question is: why should we care? This has resonance for me and for anyone who has viewed exclusive societies of all kinds as the worst kind of elitism — the “No Homers” club brought to life. Why should we concern ourselves with a group whose members are chosen through an opaque process and proclaimed to be much better than non-members? Because like it or not, these collective brands wield a tremendous amount of power. People like shorthand methods for narrowing a large field of choices down to a select few, and if that method imbues the selection process with the promise of high quality and reliability (especially important in the law), all the better.

The Magic Circle and its fellow brands exist for a reason, and there’s reason to think more might develop down the road. Keep your eye on the future of collective brands in what promises to be an increasingly noisy and complicated legal marketplace.

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