Howrey 3: When is a Law Firm Brand Too Good?

Day three of a Howrey retrospective. Most of these comments spring from the interview of Howrey CEO Robert Ruyak in the WSJ Law Blog. The Law Blog pointed out that Howrey was well known for lititgation expertise. In fact, its advertising tagline put it very well: "In Court Every Day." I'm not sure when I first heard this, but I recall thinking that it showed confidence, almost to the point of a certain swagger. I had heard about Howrey before regarding its antitrust expertise. Now we know that an advertising slogan is not a brand. A brand for a law firm is the total picture of what clients know and what potential clients think. For a firm that wanted to be known for litigation expertise, Howrey's tagline really supported a strong brand perception for lawyers comfortable and confident in court. But here's the problem: clients may want to hire lawyers with deep litigation experience. I am very confident, however of the following: Clients do not want to be in court every day. Sometime in the last five years or so, most general counsel came to a realization: all litigation is bad. Some is worse than others, and some necessary for a while, to be sure. A bottom line for litigation is emerging: you don't want to be in court and if you are you want to get out fast. Even when you win in court, you often lose. You can't collect on a judgment, your legal fees exceeded the amount at issue, the opportunity cost of senior executive time is way out of whack. And then there's the dispute that every GC fears the most. When the CEO, a board member, or a senior VP utters the words: "This is really important to us. It is a matter of principle." Run for the hills. I kid you not that GC careers have hit the beach over cases like that. So we return to Howrey. Great that you are known for litigation expertise. Awesome that you are In Court Every Day. But not on my dime you aren't, for every matter, all the time. Mr. Ruyak mentioned how lower-cost discovery vendors hurt the firm. That can't be the only reason for Howrey's downfall, but it sure didn't help. Unbundling discovery services is the easiest thing for clients to do since most litigation is discrete, not continuous. And if it's the latter, it is just begging to get outsourced, or in-sourced, but not blindly (and continuously) high-priced law-firm-sourced. So Howrey had a very effective law firm slogan and a distinct brand. Yet in the current, competitive, cost-conscious legal world, something bad happened: The Go-To Lawyers became the Run-From Firm. Tomorrow, we end the examination of Howrey by asking whether large law firms and contingency litigation work really mix. (To be clear, I respect that it has to be a difficult time for all involved at Howrey; I hope the people leaving do well and those still there find something better. This goes for all staff, not just the partners-with-clients the legal press focuses on.)

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