There’s an interesting discussion in the legal blogosphere these days about, well, legal blogs. James Beck and Mark Herrmann at the Drug & Device Law blog wonder why law firms undervalue blogs, and provide four plausible explanations, three of which relate to demonstrable financial benefit for the firm. Ron Friedmann at Strategic Legal Technology furthers the point about the importance of lead generation for law firms, but he also makes what I think is a key point: the benefits of blogging tend to accrue to the individual author rather than the firm. That has a lot of implications for law firm marketing, and more besides.
I actually don’t think a law firm with more than a handful of lawyers really can blog, because blogging is by definition personal and can only really be performed at an individual, not a corporate level. A firm can set up a number of blogs for its lawyers to write, seeking brand power: a fleet of lawyers all writing great blogs on important subjects under the firm’s letterhead. But these blogs will all have different voices, use varying degrees of formality, address matters in more or less depth, publish at different frequencies — each one reflecting the individual behind it. All that these blogs will have in common is the banner and design.
The thing is, lawyers aren’t cans of Coke: a law firm can’t issue a brand promise about what each and every interaction with its lawyers will feel like. The same applies even more so to lawyer blogs: you can’t brand tone and personality, and a great blog invests heavily in both these things. Blogs, by definition, can’t support a law firm brand.
Cookie-cutter law firm blogs that all read and sound the same, or from which each writer’s personality has been sufficiently excised such that only a bland reporting style remains, don’t build audiences because they don’t strike up relationships with readers. Flat, briefing-style articles on new developments are what populate the newsletters that clients read, skim and discard. You can’t make a connection through a bulletin; but you can connect with a real person, and that’s what makes blogs work.
This is where blogs illustrate the real problem for law firm marketing in the 21st century. It’s well established that consumers, even sophisticated consumers of legal services, rely heavily on brand when making purchasing decisions. It’s one of the reasons law firms throw so much money into advertising and sponsorships: bolstering name recognition. Historically, law firm brands were stronger than most lawyers’ individual brands, so your average lawyer sought to position himself with a firm that lent him the most prestige. That relationship is now turning around.
These days, firms increasingly want to associate themselves with a lawyer’s brand — witness the pride with which firms trumpet the lateral hiring of a respected expert in a given field, and the writeups such moves receive in the legal press. It’s an oblique recognition of the rising power of the personal brand, the impact that a lawyer’s name and reputation can have on a firm’s standing. This is especially strong in the law, an industry that relies heavily on the strength of personal relationships between lawyer and client, and it becomes incredibly strong when the Internet gets involved.
Blogs are the perfect vehicle of modern lawyer branding. If every lawyer in the country started a blog, each would be as unique as that lawyer’s fingerprint. An individual lawyer can, through her blog, show herself to be, yes, smart, expert and thoughtful, but even more importantly, memorable, personal, unique — all the things to which people are attracted, and precisely those things that a law firm cannot be. Firms are things; lawyers are people — and clients prefer people.
This is what really threatens the underlying fabric of law firms: the brand-recognition rationale for lawyers to group themselves in one building under one name is fading away. When a lawyer can establish her credentials and her personality through a blog (and, of course, through related marketing and promotional activity), she starts to ask herself: what do I need the firm for? Law firms are nothing — literally, nothing — without the professionals who populate their halls, and they have less and less leverage over those professionals all the time.
As Seth Godin says, the world has been unbundled. Law firms, which are ultimately about bundling legal talent into a powerful and recognizable entity, face an existential challenge in fighting this centripetal market force. No wonder firms shy away from blogs, standing there at the eye of the storm that threatens to pull them apart.