The Firm Is Dead! Long Live the Firm!

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I read an interesting business section “obit” today: Clark, Thomas & Winters, Austin’s oldest continuously operating law firm, has closed. No official cause of death was given, but it couldn’t have helped that former partner Walter Demond was indicted in 2009 and in May will be tried on charges of felony theft, misapplication of fiduciary property and money laundering involving client Pedernales Electric Cooperative.

What’s interesting to me as a branding and marketing case study is that the “new” firm that occupies Clark Thomas’ old offices, Duggins Wren Mann & Romero, is comprised of 29 former Clark Thomas attorneys. Notwithstanding, in an Austin American-Statesman article reporting the firm’s formation last month, spokesmen insisted it’s entirely new — but did not explain how:

“Senior partners David C. Duggins, Casey Wren, James Mann and Celina Romero  all worked for Clark Thomas, along with managing partner David Gilliland and 24 other attorneys, officials said.

“Chuck McDonald, a spokesman for Clark Thomas [and now for Duggins Wren], said the new entity ‘represents the significant core’ of the older firm. Its offices will remain for the time being on the 15th floor at the 300 West Sixth Street building, where Clark Thomas is located.

“Gilliland emphasized Monday that the new firm of Duggins Wren Mann & Romero is exactly that — a new firm, not Clark Thomas under a different name.

“‘This is a completely new venture,’ Gilliland said. ‘We have good practices and stable clients. It’s just the best for everyone involved.'”

And that means….?

Well, according to Duggins Wren Mann & Romero’s generic, barebones current website, “The attorneys of Duggins Wren Mann & Romero, LLP pride themselves on supplying successful solutions for the legal and business needs of clients throughout Texas and the nation.” Compelling stuff.

Further,

“Until recently, the attorneys of Duggins Wren Mann & Romero, LLP practiced with one of Austin’s oldest, largest and most prestigious law firms.  These attorneys have continued their commitment to each other, their clients, and to the level of service and values they bring with them.”

Apparently the Clark Thomas legacy is valuable enough to use as leverage in establishing the new firm’s pedigree, but notorious enough not to be mentioned by name.

Doubtless, it’s a very difficult maneuver they’re trying to execute here, but they’ll have little hope of quickly moving off the “Used to be Clark Thomas” default brand if they approach branding/rebranding obliquely and timidly.

My advice to Duggins Wren Mann & Romero (not that they asked for it):  Awkwardly and unconvincingly dancing around the Clark Thomas legacy only brings more attention to it. Take ownership of the best parts of the Clark Thomas heritage, incorporate it forthrightly into your own foundation story, then move on to define and articulate the new firm’s unique vision, values and capabilities. Get some customer testimonials to build third-party credibility. And the sooner the better.

If you were tasked with such a daunting branding/rebranding challenge, how would you approach it?

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