What’s in a name?

I seem to have a habit of working for organisations that then very inconveniently change their name after I've left. First it was The New Opportunities Fund (although to be fair no-one knew who they were even when I worked there), then the Consumers Association (now it’s all Which?) and now it's law firm Russell Jones & Walker (RJW to their friends).

Following its takeover by Australian giant Slater & Gordon, the firm is quietly dropping its name. Despite the heritage of the old name, it's unlikely anyone will feel any great sense of loss at its demise.  At least, not like we did about Opal Fruits and Marathon bars and I am quite sure it all started going wrong for the banks when Midland, the ‘listening bank’, became HSBC.

If any of the partners were wondering whether losing the RJW name would cost them clients, particularly the trade union ones, they would have been heartened (or horrified) to learn that in the main the feeling, apparently, was they should just get on with it.  And at least it was a logical as well as necessary name change, unlike the Post Office’s disastrous change to Consignia or Yell’s more recent (and bizarre) change to Hibu.

Name changes for corporations (rather than products) are rarely just a cosmetic exercise and come along with a requisite culture change (at least in theory).   Reliable (or possibly not) sources tell me the old RJW management team has grown from four to a whole floor load, many women and / or Australian.  I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that some ex-partners might still be recovering from the shock.

Thus the antiquated and wholly inefficient partnership model is transformed into something resembling a modern corporate, which, for all its failings and the all-too-frequent lack of meaningful regulation, has significant advantages over the traditional partnership model still used by most law firms, not least greater transparency and ability to raise capital.

And capital is what law firms are going to need to compete.  Hot on the heels of the latest developments at Co-op Legal and QualitySolicitors comes news that both the AA and Saga have applied to become alternative business structures.  Already providers of legal services, this means in future both companies will have greater flexibility in how they provide them to consumers. 

It might all sound a bit dry and of little interest to the average consumer, and indeed I can’t imagine there is anyone anywhere looking to write a will or sell a house who has even the slightest interest in the internal management and financial arrangements of the firm they approach.  But that’s largely because they don’t have to, instead being able to rely on regulators and brand profile.

Lawyers are notorious for dismissing the importance of brands and like to think their personal reputation, professional expertise and, doubtless, exemplary customer services are all they need to ensure the consumers keep coming.  This may well have been true in the past, when there was little to distinguish different law firms and consumers relied heavily on personal recommendation.  It isn’t true any more.

Whatever lawyers might think of them, consumers like brands.  They will be loyal to brands they feel a connection with and which understand what they need, and deliver it.  Now I am not a marketing expert, but it seems to me that if a brand is powerful enough to allow consumers to feel comfortable about, for example, getting banking services from a supermarket then it’s not a great leap for them to buy legal services from a motoring organisation. 

The chief executive of Saga, the over-50s specialist, told the Legal Futures website that the ‘power of a brand’ such as Saga is recognition and reassurance. Interestingly, Saga recently came joint top with the AA for ‘customer favourability’ and ‘satisfaction with service’ in an IPSOS Mori survey on corporate image.  You can easily imagine its 2.7 million members wanting to use their service that promises to help them navigate a difficult market, provide transparency and accessible and affordable services.

QualitySolicitors recognised the importance of branding quite some time ago and deserves a lot of credit for starting to build a consumer legal brand before the rest of the profession had even noticed anything was happening.  As a purely ‘legal’ brand, it is probably some way behind these household names, but as the market becomes increasingly consumer focused, don’t necessarily expect it to stay that way. 

None of this is to say there isn’t a place for the more traditional approach of many law firms, only that they are no longer having it all their own way.  For the time poor consumer who wants legal help but who knows little, if anything, about the market, having the option of going to a reassuringly familiar brand can only be a good thing.  

Posted in: Consumer rights

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