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Law firm mergers require smart branding

Change is tough for all of us. But law firms seem to struggle more than most when it comes to doing anything differently from how it’s been done for, oh, say the past hundred years.

So a law firm merger can be a time of incredible disruption and anxiety for those involved. Plus, successful mergers of any type require leadership to articulate a clear vision and rationale for the future. But since most law firms are partnerships, with each partner in essence an owner of the firm, law firms needs to cope with hundreds of leaders who each has his or her own vision. It’s hard to “rally the troops” when every troop feels like a general.

This is where smart brand strategy comes into play. Law firm combinations require a particularly nuanced approach to building brand. Let’s get the expected out of the way first. Yes, you need a new name, logo, visual identity system, website, messaging, and suite of marketing communications that present the combined firm in a consistent way. But how do you get there? And what other issues and opportunities should you be anticipating? How do you manage the process to be sure it gets done in a timely, smart, and successful way?

And, thinking big, how do you build enthusiasm for the merger with the partners, associates, administrative team, and, ultimately, clients and recruits?

Here’s what you need to know:

1. A strong merger results in a new firm that’s greater than the sum of its parts. A poorly strategized merger results in a couple of weakened legacy firms that co-exist uneasily under one roof. Building a strong brand requires finding ways to bring the firms together — what are the firms’ common values, aspirations, personality traits? — and then using those commonalities as the basis for a clearly articulated positioning strategy. To accomplish all this, you need a significant research process that is not only about discovery; it also needs to be about educating partners, associates, and the administrative team on the importance of a strong unified brand, helping them all feel heard and valued, and ultimately building consensus throughout the new firm.

2. This consensus plays a critical role when it comes time to make creative decisions, such as new name, logo, website, etc. During the research phase, you can educate partners and others on the importance of having smart strategic underpinnings to all creative work, and get them away from making decisions based on personal likes and dislikes. Then when it’s time to get sign-off on creative work, you can point out how the new designs are tied to the strategy, which itself should come directly from the research.

3. Agreeing on a new name can be one of the hardest hurdles to overcome in bringing two or more firms together — partners tend to be emotionally attached to their firm’s name, and politics and ego often come into play. Rather than creating names that are a long list of dead partners’ names (and arguing over whose name comes first), many smart firms have aimed for much shorter names: Skadden, Weil, Pillsbury, Dentons. Shorter is easier to remember, spell, type, and pronounce — all important qualities in an increasingly globalized world. Again, getting to a strong, clear solution like this requires an approach that combines research with strategy to show the firm leaders and all partners why the chosen name is the best way to go.

4. While these creative decisions are important, the biggest mistake law firms make when rebranding is focusing only on design and messages. Your firm will be judged in the long run for its work, not its logo. Remember that actions are more important than communications — “what we do” trumps “what we say.” It’s vital to get your people thinking about how they deliver on the brand promise in every interaction, from client meetings and recruiting situations to internal interactions. This behavioral-driven approach to brand-building is what helps to make McKinsey and PwC strong brands. And who in legal doesn’t want to have a brand as strong as McKinsey’s?

5. And finally: Think big! The strongest brands in every category stake a claim that is unique. Whether your new branding is a subtle evolution or a dramatic revolution, it gives you a platform to clearly introduce the new firm and communicate what it stands for. We encourage you to go big and bold. Stand out from the pack and demonstrate how you are distinctive and relevant to the market. Be noticed. Be memorable. Be a leader. And don’t be the same as everyone else.