The toughest brief

Law firm Freshfields’ first chief marketing officer Libby Chambers is looking to drive the brand sky-high. The former Barclays senior marketer talks to Michael Barnett about her grand plans.

Freshfields is in the middle of transforming the way it markets itself. The top-four law firm used its sponsorship of the Olympic Games to put itself on the world stage and help it move towards being a recognisable brand. And with Libby Chambers – its first chief marketing officer and a former global marketer at Barclays – on board, the firm plans to push into international markets.

International growth in countries where it hasn’t previously been established requires going beyond the usual attention to quality of work and the lawyer-client relationship, Chambers argues. “Those things remain true, but what becomes much more important is your ability to build your brand.”

Its Olympic sponsorship has already won it work further afield, advising the organisers of future Games (see case study here) but Chambers says the US is its next big market. “We have served, in one fashion or another, two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies in the past. But the US is 43 per cent of the global legal spend that is available and we are completely under-represented in that market. So while we have opportunities in areas such as Africa and South America, we are really looking hard at the US as an area from which we can grow,” she says.

As a limited liability partnership, Freshfields rarely makes its financial breakdowns public but, according to Chambers, only 22 of its top 100 clients are US-based – although 82 have used its services in the US. Freshfields is already relatively well known there she says, but mostly in niches such as mergers and acquisitions (M&A).


The firm’s 2,500 lawyers are located across 28 offices in 16 countries but its strongest footholds are in the UK and western Europe.

Freshfields is the fourth largest of the four ‘magic circle’ firms in the UK, with a turnover of £1.14bn, although it ranks top on the legal industry measure of profit per equity partner, earning £1.3m per partner in 2011 (see table here). It is also now the best-known legal brand among target customers, according to legal market research firm Acritas.

As it tries to build up its brand and reputation in the US, Freshfields is not primarily seeking to steal work from US firms in the domestic market. Instead it is hoping to be trusted to hold the hands of American companies as they venture abroad.

“You see that lots of US companies have big growth aspirations,” says Chambers. “Not just in western Europe, but markets all over the world where we have a long track record of doing M&A, and supporting litigation. We are an obvious choice for a company in the US that needs a firm outside the US. Because of our network, our experience and our model of working, we can happily sit alongside their US law firm.”

But with expansion in mind, Freshfields is having to change other aspects of its corporate culture and focus much more on its brand.”

The biggest part of doing that is learning how to communicate Freshfields’ brand positioning in the legal market to a new audience of prospective international clients. This is not something law firms have historically been used to doing. It starts with identifying what the Freshfields brand means to customers in its established markets, such as the UK, where it has been around since the Bank of England became a client in 1743.

Chambers says the first part of her job when she joined the firm last year was working out which of those attributes “can be distilled into the five or six things that we are distinctively known for”. It was this process that led to the development of Freshfields’ new branding and it was, she claims, the first time the firm had ever sought formally to answer questions such as: “What is our corporate identity? What does our brand stand for? Why are we different from and better than the competition?”

Having done so, Chambers used the answers to construct Freshfields’ first brand manual – a reference tool that sets out clients’ most important strategic concerns and points out the case studies and resources that best illustrate the firm’s campaigns, industry knowledge and legal insights in those areas. Chambers admits that most of Freshfields’ partners – all trained in legal rather than business disciplines – won’t have memorised the manual, which runs to 106 pages cover-to-cover. Instead, they will “dip in and out” when “topical” issues arise.

“The real audience for this is marketing people around the world who have to use it and work with the brand in their own markets,” Chambers adds. “It gives them the rules of the road and how to do it.”

Nonetheless, the partners have shown respect for the new influence of marketing at Freshfields’ top table. As chief marketing and business development officer, Chambers has a partner-level role, which means she attends all partner meetings without holding full partner status. The Legal Services Act, which reformed the legal industry last year, does now allow UK law firms to make non-lawyers into partners for the first time but this isn’t the case in the US or other international markets whose regulations Freshfields needs to satisfy.

But although Chambers’ position is recognised by partners as equal, she still has to ensure her voice is heard. Her legally trained colleagues not only tend to be intellectually astute, they are also paid to argue for a living. Thankfully, lawyers’ innate attention to detail also brings with it a high regard for specialist knowledge – including the knowledge of how to build and grow a brand, she says.

“They would assume that I am the one who’s in the best position to figure out what our corporate identity ought to be and how to deploy it in all the different channels where we market. There is a bit of professional respect for expertise and that ends up being how you engage, because no matter how data-driven you can be – and I am quite data-driven – a lot of things are judgement calls.”

Chambers also brings to the table an intimate knowledge of the financial services industry, which makes up the largest part of Freshfields’ business, at around 40 per cent. Indeed, she argues that the need to understand the client’s business is something that sets apart the role of a marketer at a professional services provider from a similar role at any other company.

She was chief marketing officer at Barclaycard, and then at Barclays’ retail and commercial banking division. She worked closely with recently installed Barclays chief executive Antony Jenkins and today Barclays is one of Freshfields’ biggest clients.

“We have a large roster of the usual banks that you would imagine – global money centres – plus a large roster of private equity firms and insurance companies. Because of the heritage of the City of London, this is an area of our expertise that is quite deep,” says Chambers.

That experience will also undoubtedly be handy for a law firm that is helping financial companies through one of the worst periods in their history. Banks have been “buffeted by regulatory reform and a huge amount of challenges around capital structure and reputation”, as Chambers puts it. Barclays has been among the most severely affected, owing to its part in rigging the Libor inter-bank interest rate, and Chambers admits that her former boss Jenkins has a big brand repair job to do, in order to restore the trust of customers and regulators.

The increasing demands on clients such as banks have been the biggest factor in pushing Freshfields and other law firms to become more marketing-orientated, Chambers says. Commercial law firms now have to think more about their branding because clients’ needs are becoming more sophisticated and particular, and legal services providers have to ensure they are known for their ability to offer a bespoke package.

She cites information security as one example of clients raising their expectations of their law firm. Those in the financial sector particularly find themselves under strict requirements to protect consumers’ data and now also expect their legal provider to meet the same standards.

“In almost every area that you look at, the fact that the bar is rising for clients means the bar is rising for us. That drives a lot of what happens,” Chambers says.

Libby Chambers

She puts this above the reforms of the Legal Services Act as the biggest reason for change at Freshfields. But she admits that the new law, which came into force last October, will change the industry more widely. Among other things, it means that UK law firms can now accept outside investment, raising the possibility of them being listed on stock exchanges – although again, this would currently preclude them from doing business in markets such as the US.

UK personal injury firm Russell Jones & Walker, owner of the Claims Direct brand, has already taken advantage of the new rules, with its acquisition by publicly traded Australian firm Slater & Gordon. The Co-operative Group has also signalled its intention to hire 3,000 lawyers over five years as it offers services that were previously reserved for independent legal practices.

These developments are mostly restricted to the consumer-facing legal market, where Freshfields does not compete. But Chambers says one important effect of the law for the firm is likely to be that new fee models emerge.

“We will look at those innovations and ask what aspects of those make sense for us to be proactively doing. We will always look at whether that enables us to give the full-service, premium, very high-end offering that we think our clients expect,” Chambers says.

She stops short of suggesting that loyalty cards could be one of these innovations, although she jokes that “the principle of a loyalty card, which is that if you buy more from us you get a discount, certainly applies, whether we’d like it to or not”. And in this respect, her marketing job doesn’t differ much from that of any other customer-focused organisation.

Earning more work from existing clients is one of the main planks of Freshfields’ growth strategy, both in the UK and internationally. Indeed, the desire to be able to cross-sell to a client is what principally guides Freshfields’ branding and marketing in general, and that aim goes hand-in-hand with its growth markets strategy. Freshfields gets about half its overall global revenue from a tightly defined set of clients that doesn’t change much from year to year, according to Chambers.

“When a big chunk of your business is coming from the existing client base, what you really have to do is keep them satisfied and loyal, and cross-sell effectively. A client might be working with us in the UK and Germany, but are they working with us in Moscow? If not, they should be. Say they are working with us on a big corporate M&A deal, perhaps there’s some tax advisory work we could be doing too. In Hong Kong, if we did their initial public offering, do they need ongoing compliance advice?”

As Freshfields ventures out further in pursuit of international growth, increasing its business with existing clients and promoting the brand will help this magic circle firm wave its wand in new markets.

Libby Chambers – CV

Non-executive director, Hibu (Formerly Yell Group), January 2012 – present

Non-executive director, The Home and Savings Bank, June 2011 – present

Chief marketing and business development officer, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, March 2011 – present

Chief marketing officer, global retail and commercial bank, Barclays Bank June 2008 – November 2009

Chief marketing officer, Barclaycard, June 2006 – November 2009

Chief marketing and strategy officer, Bingham McCutchen, May 2004 – May 2006

Enterprise marketing executive, Bank of America, January 2003 – May 2004

Senior vice-president, global strategy and new business development, Reader’s Digest Association, July 1998 – December 2002

Principal, McKinsey & Company, October 1989 – July 1998


The UK magic circle firms’ finances

  Revenue Profit per equity partner (PEP)
Clifford Chance £1.30bn £1.08m
Linklaters £1.21bn £1.24m
Allen & Overy £1.18bn £1.1m
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer £1.14bn £1.3m


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