Author: Micah U. Buchdahl
Let’s just start with the premise that branding is not optional. Every law firm, practice group and individual lawyer has a brand. The question is whether the market dictates it or you control it yourself. Ideally, you want to control the message to the best of your ability. But it takes planning, strategy, implementation and ongoing monitoring to be truly effective.
BusinessDictionary.com defines branding as the process involved in creating a unique name and image for a product in the consumer’s mind, mainly through advertising campaigns with a consistent theme. Branding aims to establish a significant and differentiated presence in the market that attracts and retains loyal customers.
Renowned marketing professor Philip Kotler defines branding as a “name, term, symbol or design, or a combination of them, which is intended to signify the goods or services of one seller and to differentiate them from those of competitors.” It is the concept of differentiation that is lacking in most law firm branding efforts.
Nobody is suggesting that an Am Law 100 firm is spending six-figure sums annually on print advertising in corporate counsel-targeted publications because a general counsel is thumbing through a magazine looking for representation. But there is clearly a reason for doing so. It is image advertising and brand awareness marketing. It is branding.
Every law firm and lawyer strives to be the Kleenex, Xerox or Tylenol of the profession, where you replace “I need a criminal defense lawyer” with “I need Johnnie Cochran.” In the case of Cochran, who passed away in 2005, his firm has grown significantly since his death. With offices nationwide, the firm has basically franchised the brand to lawyers in markets across the country. It is a combination of the law firm brand and the individual attorney brand morphing into something significant and rarely achieved.
The power of the law firm brand is not limited to consumer audiences. You can argue that Cravath has a brand for mergers and acquisitions to the corporate counsel crowd or that David Boies carries a powerful individual brand for litigation. Those are both brands that transcend basic geographical or practice boundaries. Branding for plaintiffs’ firms often follow the same methods and formulas as is used for consumer products. For most corporate firms, the tact is more along the lines of professional services (following the same leads as accountants and architects, for example).
Most attorneys will argue that their individual brand trumps that of their law firm. The client hires the lawyer, not the firm, so why should the firm invest so much in brand identity? Why spend money on a “brand” when it is the good work lawyers do that truly develops the reputation in the marketplace? Proper development of an individual brand is a subject for another column. It is at the core of any lawyer’s success at becoming established, but the individual brand is just that—individual—and a different conversation.
WHY A FIRM BRAND IF CLIENTS HIRE LAWYERS?
My oft-used line about what happens to your book of business if you get hit by a bus tomorrow always goes over like a lead balloon in conference room conversation. But it leads to the very real importance of developing some sense of firm loyalty and identity with the client.
In addition, it is a key component to succession planning for the same reason. If the law firm has not developed any sort of connection with the client, a lawyer’s retirement can lead to a company putting the legal work back out to bid.
For associates and junior partners, the stronger the firm brand,
the easier it is for them to build their own books. A strong firm brand can help a lesser-known attorney get the better speaking gig, appointment to a prestigious nonprofit board or be quoted by the media.
I work with plenty of journalists who won’t consider interviewing an attorney if the name of the firm does not resonate with them.
The same theory holds true when in-house counsel explains to a company’s leadership or board that they hired XYZ law firm. Just as many law firms like the “safe bet” for some business decisions, so do the clients.
A strong brand that the firm controls allows for greater success in implementing a strategic plan, remaining consistent in messaging and putting the firm in a better position for cross-selling, whether the intent is geographic or practice-driven—usually both.
Finally, the firm’s brand goes a long way in helping with recruiting, whether it is newbies out of law school or lateral hires. I think back to my days coming out of law school in Philadelphia. The reality is that I did not know much difference between the names of Am Law 100 firms and small boutiques. A strong brand in the legal and civic communities automates the process of being known in the circles you seek.
In this issue of Law Practice, you’ve read about the rebranding efforts of the ABA Law Practice Division, changing from its prior incarnation as the Law Practice Management Section. I’ve had the privilege of working on this rebranding effort as a member of the Division and as a past chair. Rebranding included a new name, logo and change in messaging. Yet it was important not to lose the market recognition and value—the brand equity—we had established. This is similar to many of today’s law firm rebranding efforts. We don’t want people to get the idea that the good name, reputation and skill sets have left the building. You need to rebrand without losing all that went into creating the original brand.
In recent years, law firm merger mania has led to changes in long-recognized law firm names. For example, Fulbright & Jaworski, identified for so long by many as a Houston-based national firm, recently became Norton Rose Fulbright. If it follows typical name brand patterns, the Fulbright part will eventually drop off and it will become known as Norton Rose. This type of rebranding is part of the law firm marketing fabric today. It is a serious concern when firms change names, merge, shift locations or add new practices. You want to retain the good without diluting the great, while touting the new. More law firms are not really branding today, but rebranding or refreshing the brand. An unknown brand is still a brand—it’s just a weak one.
Some of the drivers that go into a rebranding effort include who your clients are, what barriers exist for your firm in today’s market, public perception, competition, industry trends and changes in the areas of practice. At the same time, you need to look at your internal and external messages, where you market and/or advertise, the firm culture, budget and staffing. If there is no media buying involved and/or no staffing to implement, you take that into account when finding your optimal brand position.
What is your law firm’s position in the marketplace? This takes into account elements such as geography, practice, uniqueness, client base and characteristics. For some, the law school pedigree is a key element (i.e., lots of Ivy League). For others, it is the library of representative clients or matters. Your position is a combination of what you perceive it to be and what outsiders see. But ultimately, the goal is to determine a position in the market—and reach it. Proper positioning goes hand in hand with brand development.
ADVERTISING AND PROMOTIONAL STRATEGY
I’ve seen law firms that believe their brand is what they put on the side of a coffee mug or pen. Others think that it is what you see in a print ad, billboard or television commercial. While it is not inaccurate to say they are devices used to connote the image, they are not “the brand.”
Niche branding is popular with many small law firms that want to tout something very specific. If you are truly a boutique that does one thing and one thing well, marketing a niche is one of the easiest things to do. From the website to print pieces, the images, message and target are relatively simple to define. The problem is that the vast majority of law firms don’t want to be that limited, and as you eventually start to float away from your brand, you end up diluting what you worked so hard to create.
This leads me to another repeated boardroom conversation where I ask attorneys to tell me their favorite law firm brands—and what makes them effective. The question is usually met with silence and blank stares. A law firm brand should be distinctive, memorable, positive and easy to recall. It should be what you want it to be, and therein lies the challenge. Most law firms simply cannot do this on their own because the members are too close to the action. It is the outsider who determines a brand’s effectiveness, not those who make up the “products.”
CONSISTENCY IS PARAMOUNT
Regardless of whether you are implementing a new branding effort or refreshing an old one, the importance of consistency should not be ignored. It is the lead marketer’s role in a firm to own the brand and do his or her best to protect it. That includes everything from consistency in colors, logos, imagery, messaging and promotional language to discussions relating to where the firm name appears and how the wrong place might send a message that is off-brand. Sometimes bringing in the wrong lateral or adding the wrong office or practice group designation is damaging. It is the brand that you are selling and people are buying. While the concept might seem foreign to some attorneys, the truth is that it is at the core of everything you do. We’ve all got brands. Make sure you are protecting yours.