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The “B” Word: Branding a Law Firm

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From our years of experience working with law firms, we suspect that not much fazes this bunch. Except perhaps the dreaded “B” word – branding. When the mere mention of a “rebrand” is uttered, the finance officer protests (and secretly cries), the facilities manager begins ordering signs, the HR department puts out a hiring freeze, the IT department purchases new servers and the Managing Partner become even more evasive than usual.

No doubt about it, branding is a BIG can of worms. But should you choose to open it, you needn’t suffer a long and excruciating process nor break the bank. Done right, and with the proper buy-in, branding (or strategizing) helps differentiate your law firm and makes you stand out from the competition. It’s a strategy for calculated growth and sustained business success, not an exercise in drawing pretty pictures (although great design does play a part).

No doubt about it, branding is a BIG can of worms. But should you choose to open it, you needn’t suffer a long and excruciating process nor break the bank.

Marketing and branding affects every member of the law firm:

  • Technology and HR professionals manage the “product” (your attorneys or lawyers)
  • Facilities Officers oversee the “place”
  • Finance department controls (or tries to) the “price”
  • Marketing professionals direct the “promotion”

All areas need to work together from the same strategy towards the same goals.

Since branding is so huge and a reader’s attention can only be kept for so long, we’ve boiled it down to the essentials just to get you thinking about how your professional service firm might benefit from taking a good hard look at your current brand (or lack thereof).

What is a brand strategy?

While branding may sound rather conceptual, it’s actually very calculated and concrete. A good brand strategy is “a clear set of plans and actions, governed by a single stated direction”.[1] These plans and actions enable a business to improve its competitiveness, and boost its position and reputation in the marketplace.

Why does my law firm need a brand strategy?[2]

Besides giving people like us – legal marketers – something to do, a well-planned and executed brand strategy:

  • Makes a client’s selection process easier by clearly articulating your offerings, and more importantly, telling them why to choose you
  • Provides greater client loyalty and less vulnerability to price changes and crises
  • Provides unity among lawyers, clerks and assistants as it reaffirms your core values and shared mission
  • Provides a consistent message and direction from which to base business decisions (provides a reason to say no to initiatives that aren’t driving the firm forward)
  • Allows for higher profits and increases a client’s willingness to pay premium prices
  • Helps a firm attract and retain the best talent
  • Increases marketing communication efficiency and effectiveness
  • Gives the firm consistency between internal and external messages

What makes a legal brand?

The typical path to creating your brand involves a deep dive into your firm – its history, core values, and future goals. During the discovery phase, you need to uncover what drives the firm, what its goals are, what its vision is, what you really offer clients and what makes your law firm so special. To get your best results from branding, you need to become passionate about the subject matter – your firm and its people.

What do we need to research?

Everything. That is, everything we can about your firm. Research is where you need to start for any strategic marketing exercise. For a law firm, you want to interview your lawyers and staff, talk to your clients, see what messages you are already putting out there through your website, communications, advertising etc. You want to research your competition, audit your processes, technology, efficiencies and location.

When performing a brand audit, you want to understand[3]:

  • Who you inherently are as a law firm. Look at all your tangible and intangible assets such as the firm’s activities, the markets you serve, governance, offices and locations etc.
  • What you believe in as a firm. This includes your firm’s collective values, beliefs and assumptions – not just those of the attorneys, but also your staff.
  • What you say you are. For this, you want to audit your firm’s advertising, PR, press, and word-of-mouth communications.
  • What you are seen to be. This is key and often overlooked by law firms. You need to know what your clients, competitors, referrals, your Bar, judges, students, etc. think and say about your firm.
  • What is promised by your firm and expected of the brand. This is essentially the unspoken covenant of what you deliver.
  • The stories you tell each other. This can include the tales, rumors and legends about the firm or the folklore that has been passed down to all new recruits. These are the stories that help the brand come alive and be relatable.

Essentially, your brand will be built around what makes your firm unique from all the others. Whatever that differentiating factor is, it must also be something that you can realistically deliver on each and every time you interact with a client. 

As you work through the process of discovering your unique offerings, you want to keep three things in mind:

  • What service features and/or attributes do you offer to clients?
  • How do your services and attributes directly benefit your clients?
  • What higher level need is being fulfilled for your client? Or, what is the true solution a client wants from your services.

Here is a very simple example for illustration purposes:

  • Smith & Smith Law Firm practices personal injury law and offers a support service that clients can call into seven days a week and an attorney will come out to see them within 24 hours.
  • Because accidents can happen on any day of the week, clients are able to reach a legal professional even on the weekend and get immediate service, care and advice.
  • Being injured in an accident is stressful and having to wait to speak to a professional only exacerbates one’s stress and anxiety; this service feature provides immediate relief to clients because they are able to get an answer to a question or start legal action without having to wait until the next business day. Ultimately, a client feels important and valued, as well as having absolute confidence in their legal representative because they are willing to be available to them beyond what is normally expected.

Again, the trick to determining what sets you apart from your competitors is striking the right balance between what will genuinely appeal to your clients but might be hard to deliver on a consistent basis and what is easy to deliver but is not particularly unique or compelling.

But, what really sets us apart?

When you are going through the strategic process of articulating and uncovering the brand of your law firm, you need a set of criteria by which to evaluate your brand associations or points of difference. You might be fortunate enough to come up with a whole host of things that your firm believes set you apart, but how do you know what is meaningful? Evaluate everything based upon[4]:

  • Does this really matter to our clients and the members of our firm?
  • Can we actually consistently deliver this?
  • Will it motivate our clients, and potential new hires, to choose us over another firm?
  • Is it really distinctive from our competition?
  • Does it fit with our overall firm direction and strategic plan?
  • Is it a true benefit to our clients and employees?
  • Is it aspirational?

You have the roadmap, now what?

Determining your brand is only half the job. The other half, which is equally important particularly in the professional services sector, is living your brand. From the moment a potential client walks in the door, they must experience your brand in action. Everything from building signage and accessibility to printed materials and how they are greeted by staff must be in line with what you have decided your brand will be.

Staff – including lawyers, clerks, assistants, and admin – play a critical role. The most successful brands are built from the inside out. It is imperative that staff understand the brand’s positioning so that their actions are consistent with firm messaging. With the right internal marketing strategy, all employees should know how to properly handle each client interaction.

Here are some ways to help gain that critical buy-in and support from the top down:

  • Firm Partners can communicate brand messaging and promises to all staff, providing a clear explanation as to how and why clients, and ultimately the firm, will benefit
  • Select brand champions from all areas of the firm and charge them with identifying ways or opportunities to deliver upon the firm’s promises
  • Communicate how each job function or role in the firm fits with the strategy/brand and set clear expectations of client service levels
  • Allow employees to develop their own ways to deliver on the firm’s brand promise
  • Ensure employees are empowered to put these practices in place
  • And, most importantly, hire for fit. Ensure everyone you bring into the firm understands the vision and is engaged to deliver upon it.

And now back to drawing something pretty!

[1] Schulich School of Business “Building your Brand Equity Strategy for Higher Profits” (2005)

[2] Sinclair, Roger. “Brand Equity as the Agent for Customer Renewal and Retention in Professional Services”, Prophet, June 2003.

[3] Punjaisri, Khanyapuss; Wilson, Alan. “The role of internal branding in the delivery of employee brand promise” Brand Management, Vol. 13, No. 1, 57-70, September 2007.

[4] Schulich School of Business “Building your Brand Equity Strategy for Higher Profits” (2005)

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