Design is finally moving up the corporate agenda in the traditionally conservative legal sector after years of dull logos and flaky branding. Consultancy 48 Fitzroy is working on the rebranding of City law firm Kingsford Stacey Blackwell (DW 1 May) and in November last year Design House revamped the identity for one of the largest law firms in the Channel Islands, Ogier & Le Masurier (DW 15 November 2001).
There is now a trend towards globalisation within the industry which is forcing firms to take branding seriously, according to Catrin Griffiths, editor of industry magazine The Lawyer.
‘The major firms have offices pretty much everywhere,’ she says. ‘Clients are getting bigger and [demand] a unified front end.’
She praises Osborne Clark, a firm widely considered to have led the way in developing a genuine brand within the sector. Griffiths says the firm’s ‘orange cat’ identity, designed by Fishburn Hedges and winner of the Design Business Association Design Effectiveness Award in 1997, has achieved real stand-out and recognition within the sector.
Fishburn Hedges head of design Chris North says the Osborne Clark rebranding exercise involved carefully defining what the firm wanted to be.
‘[The brand] was very carefully crafted,’ he says. ‘[The cat] encapsulates what you want your law firm to be – powerful and thoughtful, but able to be aggressive when you need it to be.’
‘Most law firms now have a corporate identity, but a good corporate identity is not the same as true branding,’ he adds.
But are firms in the sector still doing enough to communicate their message? Griffiths doesn’t think so. ‘Lawyers talk a lot about brand, but they tend to mean it in a reputational sense. Most have their own logo, letterhead and website, but it’s [usually] not branding in the strategic sense,’ she says.
It’s symptomatic of the legal sector that branding, in the sense which other large commercial organisations conceive it, is virtually non-existent. Even the biggest firms are barely known outside their direct sphere of influence. Yet the top 100 firms turn over £8bn each year and represent the tip of a highly profitable industry.
‘It’s an old-fashioned industry and logos will generally be letter-based and are almost always blue,’ says Griffiths, only half tongue in cheek.
Mark King, director of marketing at SJ Berwin, which revamped its identity to reflect a move into a broader European market, agrees.
‘Many law firms are unsure of what branding means. The lawyer is often the brand, and clients are buying the legal expertise of that lawyer. [The concept] of branding the whole firm is difficult to get across.’
King feels many firms don’t look beyond the colour of their logo when revamping an identity. He believes firms need to become more brand aware.
‘Identity and brand design needs to be a natural extension of a firm. We saw a range of terrific and fresh designs, but there were [issues] when we tried to apply them across the firm’s range of offers,’ he says.
‘For example, in litigation [the design] needs to be strong. If [the litigation team] is sending out a tough letter to a difficult opponent something fluffy on the letterhead can undermine the case.’
AMD In Real Life senior designer Richard Budd led the creative team responsible for SJ Berwin’s new identity. He says that although the firm did not have a graphic representation of its brand it had an ethereal brand that could be represented.
‘We were bringing out something that already exists,’ he comments. ‘It is the nature of partnerships that they tend to be personality-oriented.
‘We needed to identify the personalities of the individual partners and let them come to the forefront. So we let people in the firm be who they are and picked [those traits] in creating the identity.’
Aziz Cami, managing partner of The Partners, which has worked with more than 12 firms ranging from Clifford Chance to smaller, niche players, agrees that firms need to start expressing their ‘personality’.
‘[Designers] need to get under the skin of each individual firm and find nuances that dictate the style of firm,’ he says.
His view is that appropriateness of design in this sector is to do with a confident, skillful and sophisticated touch. Opportunities for creativity exist, but need to be appropriate for the culture and market.
‘Design and designers will lose credibility if it’s not appropriate. The most important thing is not just creative execution, [consultancies] need to work hard to get an understanding of [a firm’s ] nuances and culture.
Cami cites law firm Lewis Silkin as an example. He says the firm’s strong client base in the media and advertising sectors gives the consultancy a more creative remit.
‘The work we’ve done for them has been different. We can get away with more witty and innovative ideas,’ he says.
Cami also says it can be difficult to gain consensus and align the whole firm around one message.
‘Law firms have a very flat structure with extremely talented and powerful people. [Designers] need to try to align people around a direction and message and make incremental change rather than huge leaps,’ he says.
There is obvious potential for design in this sector. The challenge for design consultancies is to help firms develop a truer sense of corporate branding in what is at present an individual-led and personality-driven sector.