Lawyer blogs vs. law firm brands

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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.

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4 Responses to “Lawyer blogs vs. law firm brands”

  1. Karl Schieneman

    I agree that blogging and podcasting offer opportunities for lawyers to distribute more information to their potential clients and hopefully connect with them. I also agree with your point that individuality is a tremendous barrier to promoting podcasts as law firms do not tend to reward individuals until they are very successful and walking out of step from the firm is sometimes risky for your career. However, another barrier is technology and generational. The blogging and podcasting space is generally comprised of younger “voices” and loose cannons. Young lawyers are not generally entrepreneurs. They also do not have time to invest in a new and emerging field like blogging and podcasting. Time will solve these issues as the field develops a better track record. Perhaps the answer is in better branding of podcasts? For an example, I am branding The Making Law Easy show and recording multiple podcasts on a variety of legal topics. Check out my work in progress at http://www.makinglaweasy.com/wdlg-radio/. I can’t tell you what the clients think because this is fairly new and I have spent a good deal of time on this. But it feels right so I am going to continue in this direction.

  2. Doug Cornelius

    Jordan –

    I think you are giving big law firms more credit that they deserve. I agree that there is a big tension between the institutional take that law firm marketing would want to impose and the more natural, personal nature that works better in a blog.

    I have not heard many thinking ahead to whether the content belongs to the firm or not and whether it is portable. Most firms just want to disassociate themselves with the blog.

    I think the firms are missing out in the marketing opportunity.

  3. Kevin OKeefe

    “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.”

    Really not sure where you pull that out of the air. There are individual lawyers blogging on their own or as part of practice groups who are expressing their insight and commentary on topics within their niche. And doing so quite successfully.

    And I guess Sun which has 1,000’s of blogs, including ones published by their in-house counsel and CEO? Being done for better communication, knowledge gathering, and networking – all for the benefit of the corporation.

    And I guess the 1,000’s of blogs microsoft emloyees have has not worked to improve the image of the company among developers across the globe?

  4. Jordan Furlong

    Doug, you may well be right — law firms probably aren’t giving blogs this much thought. But I do suspect it’s in the subtext of their reluctance to climb on board the blogwagon. Law firms like the command-and-control approach, while blogs are subversive: they rise from the bottom up, not the top down. Most law firms don’t think that way, and they tend to instinctively avoid phenomena that do.

    Kevin, I think you misunderstand me. Some of the best blawgs are written by lawyers within huge law firms. But for the most part, these blogs are lawyer-initiated and lawyer-driven; the firm does not play a directing role. On the rare occasions when a firm does start up a series of blogs on its own initiative, activity often drops off quickly and months can go by between fresh postings — as you know, blogs need passion and frequency to survive. My point is that a large law firm can and should encourage its lawyers to blog, but (a) there must be a committed, enthusiastic blogger driving the effort, and (b) the bulk of the promotional reward will go to the individual blogger (as it should — she’s the one doing all the work).

    My post said nothing about multinational technology companies successfully instituting and growing a blogging culture. I’m focusing on large law firms, which are as hidebound and risk-averse as you’re going to find in the business world, and where the whole business case for existence depends on strengthening the firm brand first, the lawyer brand second or lower. Blogs go against their grain on both these counts.

    Large firms need brands so powerful that clients will stick around even if (when) individual lawyers leave — they want lawyers strong enough to attract and keep good clients, but not so strong that these clients will follow them wherever they go. But blogs are being sold (rightly) to lawyers as vehicles by which they can promote their own brand, identity and expertise, no matter where they work. With lawyers moving around so much these days, any personal brand promotion, especially a blog, can’t help but undermine a firm’s position in the marketplace. That, fundamentally, is why I think a large law firm’s marketing goals are not compatible with blogs.

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