Branding Hot in Texas: Managing Partner Survey Spots Trends in Lone Star State

Dec 2012 // Texas Lawyer

While a relatively healthy Texas economy, driven by an energy boom, continues to attract firms to the Lone Star State, firms are looking for ways to differentiate themselves in a crowded legal market.

“As of late, we can barely keep track of the firms setting up outposts in Houston,” says Douglas Atnipp, co-regional operating shareholder for Greenberg Traurig’s Texas region.

In 2012, Miami-based Greenberg launched a marketing strategy unusual for the 1,699-lawyer firm. It began advertising in Texas business publications to increase the firm’s name awareness, Atnipp says.

“It’s not something the firm typically has done, but we convinced firm leadership that Texas is a key market and we need name awareness” he says. “I think you have to brand yourself slightly differently in Texas than in Florida. Greenberg doesn’t have to do any branding in Florida; just mention the name and people know who Greenberg is. In Texas, we have to brand ourselves first as an outside law firm committed to Texas and that we are here to stay. We have to let people know our strengths — that we’re not an outpost, we have three [Texas] offices and 100-plus lawyers,” he says.

Greenberg opened the first of three Texas offices in 2002. Unlike some other out-of-state firms that might be opening Texas branches staffed by energy-only experts, Greenberg offers full services in Austin, Dallas and Houston, Atnipp says.

“We will feel we have achieved the true results we want when corporate leaders looking for lawyers in Texas think of the names Baker Botts, Andrews Kurth, Bracewell [& Giuliani] and Greenberg,” he says. “That to me is the measure of success.”

Branding is the most effective marketing tool for firms in Texas, according to 42 firm leaders participating in Texas Lawyer’s 2012 Managing Partners Survey. In 2007, firm leaders considered the firms’ websites the best marketing tool, and branding was ranked fourth, behind websites, entertaining and seminars. Sixty-two firm leaders took part in the 2007 survey.

The annual surveys collect data about management strategies and techniques used by small to large firms, both Texas-based and out-of-state firms with Texas operations. [Click here for full survey results.] The survey results provide a glimpse of how firm leaders rate the current year’s results and their expectations for the coming year.

“A core practice for us is energy,” says Emily Parker, managing partner of Dallas-based, 323-lawyer Thompson & Knight. “I think branding includes not just getting the name of the firm out but also identifying the firm as a leader in certain areas.”

Parker says firms can highlight their expertise through speeches, seminars and by what they emphasize on their websites.

“The risk of branding, of course, is that any firm has multiple constituents and types of clients,” Parker says. “I think you brand in different markets. Right now energy and oil and gas is as hot as a firecracker, so you play that up.”

Thomas Ajamie, managing partner of 10-lawyer Houston-based litigation boutique Ajamie LLP, has speaking engagements at industry events and radio programs, and he’s a commentator on cable television stations.

“I kind of get out there,” Ajamie says. “So I do all these things, get out and have a profile.”

But he says that 80 percent of the firm’s current cases are from previous clients, which is the traditional way of building a legal business.

“That’s the old-fashioned way,” he says. “Part of me wonders if it’s necessary to do CNN, NPR, etc. We get a small amount [of business] through those avenues.”

Nonetheless, Ajamie says he does not plan to abandon this method of gaining firm visibility.

“It’s still important to write and publish and speak on panels,” he says. “I think that it’s still important to participate in the community that way.”

Hiring News

Firm leaders are also more positive about hiring lawyers in the coming months than they were five years ago. Of the firm leaders participating in the 2012 survey, 28 percent say that the number of lawyers at their firms will grow by more than 10 percent by September 2013. In 2007, only 19 percent of participating lawyers expected significant growth by the following September.

“I anticipate some lateral hires in Dallas, some additional in San Antonio and some additional in Houston,” says Martin Beirne, chairman of Houston-based, 63-lawyer litgation firm Beirne, Maynard & Parsons. “With this booming energy market in Texas, we will see more of our Texas firms not only merging into markets in Texas but also along the Gulf Coast and in Mexico.”

Beirne says that large out-of-state firms will continue to open offices in the state but that there will also be a growth spurt in regional firms.

“We will see a rise in regional firms, both existing regional firms and firms that will become regional firms,” he says.

Hiring emphasis has changed from five years ago, according to firm leaders taking part in the 2012 and 2007 surveys. In 2007, 30 percent of firm leaders emphasized lateral partner hiring, and 33 percent were putting the hiring emphasis on new associates. But in 2012, 50 percent of the firm leaders are prioritizing lateral partner hires, and only 17 percent are emphasizing the hiring of new associates.

Dallas-based Munsch Hardt Kopf & Harr is looking for lateral hires, particularly in the energy arena, says Glenn Callison, chairman and CEO of the 118-lawyer firm.

“We continue to try and find ways to expand our presence in the energy area, which is an important driver not only for our region but the entire country,” Callison says. “We’ve had good success in developing an energy-related practice in the environmental and corporate finance areas but continue to be actively looking for individuals and groups that are more on the exploration side.”

Lawyers making lateral moves traditionally are the majority of the firm’s hires, he says. He says the firm is fortunate to be Texas-based.

“It’s still a fact that Texas remains the best place for business — and therefore for business law firms — to be,” he says.