Develop your brand: how law firms can stand out from the crowd

In today’s legal markets, corporate or consumer, many of the law firms look and feel the same. There is very little differentiation – they are often completely interchangeable offering similar services, delivered by similar lawyers, to similar clients, from similar offices, charging similar prices and promoted through similar websites. Alright, there is a broad segmentation depending on whether you are looking at large international firms, or single-jurisdiction commercial practices or high street firms, but within these classifications it is often hard to separate firms.

Now, many years of business practice have shown us that firms that succeed over the long term in an industry tend to be the ones that differentiate their offering from those of their competitors, thereby attracting more customers/clients because they are providing extra value. These strong ‘brands’ are often able to charge a premium for their products/services and also find it easier to attract the best people, which creates a virtuous circle which further strengthens their brand position.

A law firm brand has three components:

  • Positioning
  • Behaviour
  • Image

Firms wishing to manage their brands effectively need to understand how these three elements work together. Unlike in B2C (business-to-consumer) markets where 'image' plays an important part in promoting the 'brand promise', in legal markets it is the least important of the three elements. Lack of recognition of this fact is the reason why law firm rebrands often fail to deliver the hoped-for benefits.

Positioning: An effective brand is one built around a clear, differentiated proposition. In legal services this equates to an identification of the types of clients that are going to be targeted, in which markets, with which services, and the ways in which these services are to be packaged, priced, promoted and delivered.

Behaviour: In the service sector, the brand experience is heavily dependent on the interactions between the organisation's employees and its customers. In legal services, these interactions are even more important, with the brand that a firm builds in the market being the aggregated result of all the experiences that clients, prospects and opinion formers have when they interact with the firm's staff, from partners at one end to receptionists at the other. Rude or arrogant behaviour and sloppy or negligent advice from just a few people can easily damage a firm's reputation and hence its brand.

So, a firm must think very carefully about the sorts of individuals that it wishes to employ and what behaviour traits it expects from these, as the resulting culture will either underpin or undermine the brand. For this reason, recruitment, training and career development are very important for a law firm and the success of its brand.

Image: The final element of the brand is the firm's visual identity which comprises its name, logo, strapline, and other components associated with its visual communications including fonts, colors, and graphic elements. It also includes the style and production values of its website, advertising and other promotional activities, as well as the design and feel of its offices and reception areas. In a law firm, all of these have to be aligned with the 'positioning' and 'behaviour' for the brand to work effectively.

Evolution or revolution?

In my experience, the strongest law firm brands have evolved, often over decades, rather than as a result of some top-down, centrally-imposed, overnight branding exercise. In the past, many law firms have attempted to rebrand by just changing their image, usually by changing their logo and corporate design styles, and of course this does nothing to enhance the brand or the fortunes of the business, as fundamentally there is no change to the brand offering.

I have recently been working with a medium-sized UK law firm which is one of the few that I have come across which genuinely stands out from the crowd. Over the years, it has been quietly getting on with life, responding to clients’ needs, recruiting and retaining great lawyers, and growing a market-leading reputation for itself. This has definitely been through evolution rather than revolution, although strong, visionary leadership has played a crucial role in its success.

In terms of positioning, this 30-partner firm has been helped by being very narrowly focused on a niche where its expertise is now second to none. A lack of overseas offices has also meant that it has not been distracted from growing its core business.

In terms of behaviour, or culture, the firm’s lawyers are universally recognised by the market for being approachable, down-to-earth and thoroughly nice people to do business with. Recruiters comment on how easy it is to recruit into the firm because of the quality of work on offer and the better work-life balance compared to many other City law firms. As a result, staff turnover is low. The fact that half of the partners are women, including the senior partner, is also a contributing factor to the firm’s strong culture.

Although not a key factor in clients’ choice of using the firm, their new contemporary offices and matching marketing collateral, including new website, project an image of a dynamic firm going places.

So, if your firm is looking to stand out from the crowd, start by assessing what your strengths currently are and then build your brand around these.

Kevin Wheeler is a consultant and coach who advises law firms on all aspects of marketing and BD, including how to define, build and exploit a strong brand position in today’s extremely competitive legal markets.

Filed Under: Legal Services

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