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Branding the law firm

Having a strong brand has never been more crucial for law firms. Increased competition, consolidation, and globalization, coupled with greater client sophistication and changes to the regulatory landscape, all mean it’s more important than ever to be clear about what makes your firm distinctive, relevant, and authentic. But the branding process for law firms has a unique set of challenges attached to it, and there are important considerations to keep in mind if you want a successful outcome.

A band of equals.
Most law firms have a partnership structure, which means they are traditionally much more consensus-driven than corporations, financial institutions, or other organizations. In many firms, majority rules: either all partners have an equal vote, or they believe that they do. Even in the world’s largest firms — where there are designated leaders and committees in charge of initiatives such as brand or website — those leaders are often loathe to take a stand or make a decision without buy-in from the partnership. Branding programs at law firms often go south because the agency’s approach didn’t adequately address the need for consensus from the outset. When done properly, however, a brand program engages partners right from day one and ultimately gets them committed to the brand strategy and enthusiastic about creative solutions.

“The B Word.”
Over the past few years, we’ve seen law firms get more strategic about brand. Still, at the beginning of many an engagement, we’re warned by the marketing team not to use “the B word” with lawyers, who we’re told will react negatively to the idea of brand within the legal category. Undoubtedly, there are lawyers who don’t have a taste for brand-building, but more often than not, the marketing department is underestimating the lawyers’ level of understanding about brands. The majority of the lawyers we meet grasp how essential a strong brand is in the increasingly competitive legal services market. For one thing, their corporate clients are focused on building their own brand value and expect their law firm to be as professional and business-savvy as they are. Also, as law firms continue to look for ways to demonstrate their value, they want to be able to clearly articulate what sets them apart. And finally, a new firm that emerges from a merger needs a way to come together as a unified whole, which a solid brand strategy can provide.

In search of strategy.
A firm’s brand strategy should help to move its business strategy forward. But what if your firm doesn’t have a clearly articulated business strategy, or worse, no business strategy at all? You’re not alone. Law firms have traditionally been very slow to catch up to other professional services in this area. In fact, we’ve found that the more successful the firm, the less likely it is that they have gone through a formal business-planning process. The attitude is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The branding process, when done correctly, often results in getting the partnership to begin the conversation around business strategy and in many cases can help to serve as a foundational blueprint for the firm’s business direction and aspirations.

People = brand.
Unlike many other categories where the product is the star — whether it’s an iPad, an X5, or a bottle of Coca-Cola — in legal services, it’s all about the people. It might even be fair to say your people are your brand. And in order for your firm to successfully “live the brand,” your people must not only participate in the brand development process, but also understand how to deliver on the brand promise, values, and traits in what they do each day. This is why for us, a law firm branding program is much more than a new logo, messages, website, and materials. Instead, the most successful programs include an engagement component that helps lawyers and staff alike understand the strategy behind the brand, and gets them to think about how they can bring the brand to life for clients in real and tangible ways.

Brand as a platform.
All sorts of actions and initiatives can benefit from a brand-first approach. Thinking about process from the standpoint of your brand can be a powerful way to differentiate your firm and even build a stronger culture. You can use the brand to approach all sorts of questions. For example, how do you conduct a pitch in a way that is consistent with your brand strategy? How do you approach recruiting? How do you run meetings? How do you answer the phone or greet people at reception? This sort of work has been part of the branding model in other services categories for years, and the law firms that employ this model are leading the way in building highly differentiated organizations with a strong internal culture.

Is there an expert in the house?
Branding a law firm is very different from other types of branding, for the simple reason that law firms are a breed apart. A law firm branding project requires help from professionals who are not only branding experts, but also experts in legal. Not only will they deliver smarter work, but they’ll also earn the trust of the lawyers at your firm. You don’t want an important project derailed by strategists or designers who refer to the firm as “a company” or who speak about lawyers as “employees” — these may seem like minor missteps, but they can immediately discredit the consultant in the eyes of the lawyers, and reflect poorly on the executive director or chief marketing officer who brought in the agency. And consultants with a strong background in legal branding bring an understanding of where the legal services category is headed, what competitors are doing, and what clients expect from their firms today. Those types of insights are typically very valuable to the lawyers, who are then more interested in participating in the overall project.

Have you worked on branding projects for law firms? We’d love to learn about your experiences.