The future of law firm branding

My semi-monthly column is up and running at Slaw. As always, I recommend you go read it there, because I guarantee you’ll find other very cool stuff at Canada’s best legal blog. If you haven’t visited lately, you might not know that Slaw has added great new bloggers like Dave Bilinsky, David Canton, David Fraser, Nick Holmes, Patricia Hughes and Omar Ha-Redeye to its roster. Go read my column there today. Continue Reading

We are all solos

Law firms ask a lot from their lawyers: work hard for long hours, respond immediately to clients and colleagues, accept and promote the firm’s culture, support overall firm profitability, and so forth. But law firms give a lot back, too: steady income and predictable bonuses, centralized resources, shared overhead costs, exposure to clients, and general collegiality, to name a few.

But the most essential thing law firms do for their lawyers is to share their brand — to give their lawyers the boost in personal prestige and profile that comes with being associated with a respected name and identity. Set aside all the recruitment and retention pitches — the overriding reason why lawyers stay with a firm for the medium-term or beyond is that the firm’s brand evokes confidence, lends legitimacy, and enhances the lawyer’s personal brand. (For an example of what happens when a firm’s brand collapses, watch the unhappy tale unfolding at Heller Ehrman).

That, at least, has been the traditional way things have gone. More recently, though, in the age of the lateral hire, we’ve seen firms acquire lawyers in the hopes that the lawyer’s personal brand and reputation will reinforce or even enhance the firm’s brand. We’ve also seen the rise of lawyer free agency — rapid lateral movement among firms by lawyers at all career stages, such that it gets harder for firms to base their brands on individual lawyers or practice groups. Most importantly, the combination of associate fungibility, hard economic times and partners’ determination to protect PEP at all costs has resulted in recurring waves of lawyer layoffs, making an indelible impression on lawyers that loyalty to employees is not a law firm characteristic.

These and other phenomena mark the rising importance and influence over the last decade of the lawyer’s personal brand, something that was once foreign to all but a very few outstanding practitioners. Individual lawyers have less need to be associated with a law firm’s brand, at least beyond the first couple of years of practice, because they have become more adept at fashioning their own reputations and taking charge of their own careers. Continue Reading

A few good lawsuits

I’ve glimpsed the future of legal marketing, but isn’t it. A new website that has generated a remarkable amount of publicity for a concept that’s not exactly groundbreaking, allows would-be litigants to share the basic outlines of their potential legal claim with an online system, without divulging confidential information. The site will then provide an assessment of whether the claim is meritorious, and if so, the user will be put directly in touch with a lawyer — the one who has bid the highest amount, on top of a $1,000 registration fee, to be at the top of the list of referrals for that particular case.

There are, perhaps needless to say, a lot of issues here. There’s the company’s name, designed to attract attention from the kind of people (familiar to many lawyers) carrying around a grievance in search of someone to compensate them for it. There’s the question of whether the assessment of the user’s situation, to decide if he has a case worth bringing, will be inclined to have an unusually low “Yes” threshold in order to encourage business. And there’s the fact that the site links the client with a lawyer not based on whether that lawyer really can best serve the client, but on whether she outbid her competitors in an auction for the #1 referral spot. tells us very little about how online legal marketing will develop. As I’ve said before, the success of future web-based initiatives is going to depend on the degree to which they encourage community and collaboration — a meeting of minds and interests online in an environment of mutual provision and gain that rewards reliability and trustworthiness. Until that sort of community fully develops, start by writing a good blog and posting testimonials from satisfied clients — you’ll get a solid marketing presence online, and for free.

Interestingly, though, I think there’s actually the germ of a good access-to-justice idea here, in terms of an online service that helps people determine if they have a case or not. You’d take the same basic template and have people submit enough details of their case to have its merits analyzed. But the analysis would be done by independent lawyers who wouldn’t be able to take on the case after offering their analysis of its merits, thereby removing the temptation for a lawyer who could derive business from the case to think there’s more to it than there actually is. Continue Reading

The new brand landscape for law firms

I received a package the other day from a prominent law firm announcing a rebranding, which seemed to consist of a shorter name and a clever new logo. There didn’t seem to be anything otherwise new or different about the firm, so the brochure went straight into the blue box. But I was reminded of a remarkably similar mailing I received, something like eight years ago, from a big firm that, like this one, had shortened its name, come up with an abstract logo, and called it rebranding.

So it might be time to review what a brand is and is not. This is important, because right now, we’re on the verge of a major shift in the law firm brand landscape.

1. A new name and a new logo do not constitute a new brand. A brand is a promise — a guarantee of identity, reliability and/or quality. A brand is what your customers come to expect about your product’s or service’s performance and delivery.

2. Whether your brand is a good one or a bad one depends almost entirely on how well or how poorly you perform that function and delivery.

3. An effective brand is unique, or at least easily distinguishable and differentiable from the competition, and is aligned with your actual conduct. An ineffective brand is one that’s belied by what you actually do — a company that doesn’t follow through on its brand promise hollows out the brand’s effectiveness.

Now, law firms are, generally speaking, terrible at branding, for a couple of reasons. First, most firms don’t stand out from their competition in terms of the services they offer, the solutions they recommend, the rates they charge and the manner in which they bill. So it doesn’t matter how they brand themselves, they all act essentially the same way and are effectively indistinguishable from clients’ points of view.

Secondly, when law firms do make brand promises, they don’t keep them consistently, if at all. Partly this is because their promises are abstract and extravagant — how can every law firm have “top-tier practitioners” with “leading litigation and corporate abilities” who “provide the highest quality legal services” (quotes taken at random from law firm websites)? Here’s a fun exercise — read 50 law firm sites and count how many firms work for “many of the leading corporations and financial institutions in the world.”

And partly it’s because most law firms have no mechanisms to enforce follow-through on their brand. How can clients expect a consistent type of service when every partner is effectively autonomous, project management templates are rare or non-existent, and key talent leaves and enters the firm like a carousel? So most law firms suffer from the twin brand defects of not offering anything uniquely distinguishable from the competition, and not offering it in a reliable fashion.

That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: the range and types of brands available in the law are exploding as we speak. Continue Reading

Be your own platform

This morning, the Supreme Court of Canada released its long-anticipated decision in Keays v. Honda, a wrongful dismissal case that concerned the extent to which punitive damages should be awarded under Canadian employment law. The plaintiff, who had scored an unprecedented $500,000 in extra damages at trial, saw his notice period cut from 24 to 15 months and his aggravated and punitive damages wiped out altogether. It’s a powerful signal from the country’s highest court that punitive damages are to be reserved for the most outrageous instances of conduct, which the 7-2 majority felt were not present. But that’s not why we’re here.

In the last 24 hours, I’ve received three e-mails and one phone call from lawyers advising me that the SCC decision was imminent and offering to write an article or be interviewed for a piece in National on the judgment. Among other things, these requests are a compliment to our magazine: they demonstrate that lawyers consider National a leading publication with which they would like to be associated — that our brand carries sufficient weight within the profession such that it would be beneficial to their reputations to appear therein. I’m certainly happy about that.

Now, here’s the thing: we’re the wrong publishing vehicle for them to pursue. In practical terms, National publishes just eight times a year, and the issue currently in the editorial process won’t be circulated until mid-August — and even then, this edition’s lineup is already set; the next issue with any degree of lineup flexibility arrives on lawyers’ desks in late September. By the time we publish anything on Keays, months will have passed since the decision was released and it will be the oldest of old news.

Moreover, National covers a wide range of issues, as befits the periodical of a nationwide lawyers’ association, and employment law is not our focus. Employment lawyers seeking to raise their profile should be looking at periodicals specific to this field, especially those to which corporate clients subscribe — that’s the audience these lawyers ought to be trying to reach.

But there’s something more fundamental at work here. Continue Reading

Twittering your clients

Every so often, a topic explodes into the legal blogosphere and gets everyone talking. We’re seeing one of those explosions right now, thanks to Twitter. If you haven’t heard of Twitter, or if you have but you’re not sure just what it is, you can read the Wikipedia entry for a general backgrounder. If you’re looking for the lawyer’s angle on Twitter, I strongly recommend this article by Steve Matthews at Stem Legal, (and check out Steve’s ingenious legal tweet site, Legal Voices), but there’s great stuff in recent blog entries by Doug Cornelius, Connie Crosby and Kevin O’Keefe too, to name just a few.

Unlike all these folks, though, and many more lawyers besides, I’m not on Twitter — not yet, anyway. This isn’t because I don’t see the value, which most certainly is there from a marketing or micro-blogging perspective (not to mention emergency communication uses). My primary obstacle to Twittering is that I don’t have a wireless PDA or Blackberry, and, the good Lord willing, I never will — I’m quite happy to be unburdened by the expectation of 24/7 reachability.

There’s also the problem of limited time and attention: I’m barely able to to get through the morning newspaper, and the only magazine I subscribe to (The Economist) can go unread for weeks at a time — if I subscribed to Twitter, I’d very probably miss most of the traffic. But maybe most fundamentally, I just don’t have enough interesting things to say that often. This blog is about it, folks. Status updates at home would look like “Refusing Claire’s entreaties to watch another episode of The Backyardigans,” while tweets at work would be a fairly constant stream of “Editing another article.” I think the world can get along without that, and maybe the Internet ecosphere would benefit too.

Anyway, my primary interest in Twitter is to wonder if there are lawyer applications beyond marketing and publishing, and I think there might be. I’d be interested in seeing how lawyers use Twitter as a client communications tool. Twitter offers lawyers the chance to issue instant, real-time statements wherever they are, to clients who avail themselves of the Twitter service (and more of them do every day). Here are some ways that might deliver value to clients: Continue Reading

Burn your newsletters

Ah, the law firm newsletter. The simplest and humblest of law firm communication vehicles – a collection of lawyer-written articles on new statutory or case law developments, bundled together into a stiff, saddle-stitched document that’s mailed out to clients on a regular basis (or more recently, placed online and e-mailed). What could be a safer and more broadly acceptable marketing tool? Well, there’s the problem, really.

The necessity and effectiveness of law firm newsletters have been long overrated. Partly this is because the content is written by lawyers, and is therefore a reliably tortuous read. Partly it’s because a general legal update is of limited interest and use to clients, who don’t really have time for FYI documents that don’t deal directly with an immediately relevant matter.

But mostly, I think, it’s because law firms have never given newsletters the attention, support and priority to be anything other than pretty mediocre and indistinguishable from one another (if I took the banner off two random law firm newsletters and switched them around, could you tell the difference?) That’s because firms don’t take newsletters seriously as publications in their own right.

Law firms sometimes seem to think their newsletters, print or e-mail, are competing only against other law firm newsletters for clients’ attention. They’re not. They’re competing against every business and industry publication their clients read, usually produced by large publishing companies with decades of experience. Unlike law firms, these companies don’t regard their periodicals as a sideline, a nice marketing tool – they treat them the same way law firms treat their work product, as the lifeline of their businesses. So it’s not surprising that in this competition, law firms are outgunned from the start.

Have you read any of the top publications in your clients’ industry sector? Gerry Riskin used to ask this question at managing partners’ conferences, and would get only a few hands raised in affirmation. If you did read them, and you compared them to the newsletters law firms produce for the same client audience, you’d feel embarrassed for the firms. The leading industry publications receive focused editorial direction and excellent quality control, are written by experienced staffers or freelancers, and are professionally designed and produced with high-quality magazine stock (or web architecture), art design and imagery. Law firm newsletters, it can safely be said, don’t and aren’t. Continue Reading

Late-night marketing

Sometimes, the best innovations are the simplest — just a matter of looking at a familiar situation differently.

A dominant topic of discussion in legal practice has been the late hours many lawyers are forced to put in and the damage it does to personal life, “work-life balance,” etc. So along comes Boston lawyer James Perullo, who looks at this situation and turns it on its head: he only works late. His law practice operates from 6:00 to 10:00 pm Mondays to Fridays, and employs lawyers who, like him, have other jobs during the day (he does contract IT work).

The key to the practice, of course, is that clients have day jobs too, and they don’t like having to duck out of work to attend to a personal legal situation. So “After Hours Law,” as James has branded the firm, is immediately attractive to them.

What’s interesting, though, is that working late or unusual hours is not rare at all for lawyers, as the comments at Carolyn Elefant’s blog post on this topic make clear: Susan and Stephanie both provide examples. But the simple genius of what James has done, as he suggests in his own comment to Carolyn’s post, is to make it the focal point of his firm’s branding and marketing. The fact that the lawyers work late is the hook.

See, the rich irony is that while lawyers complain about being stuck at work past 5:00, clients picture lawyers as only working until 5:00 and being unavailable otherwise. After Hours Law glimpsed this disconnect and is exploiting it (to great effect — articles in Law News Now and Small Firm Business, posts by Carolyn and now me). It’s one of the neatest examples of innovation in legal marketing I’ve seen in a while.

What’s the next evolution of after-hours practice? Well, legal work is already being offshored to India, the Philippines, Finland and Israel, to name just four countries scattered around the global time zone map. Can the first 24-hour law firm be far away?

The perils of client interviews

Via Larry Bodine comes this Legal Intelligencer article about law firm Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll, which has hired a 30-year veteran journalist to be a full-time client interviewer, asking clients about their needs, perspectives and complaints about the firm’s services. It’s a good, innovative idea, not least because it involves a tactic that too few law firms embrace: bringing in professionals from other fields. In particular, firms could benefit by adding more media expertise to their marketing and client relations departments, including print, TV, and especially online and new media. But that’s a story for another day.

What really struck me when reading this article was the question: what is the firm actually going to do with the information gathered through the interview process? The client has given up time and energy to speak frankly and at length about its relationship with the firm — what is the firm doing to respond? This is an especially important question in light of studies that show clients who fill out surveys or otherwise reply to feedback requests have heightened expectations of future interactions with the firm: having been asked for their thoughts, they expect those thoughts to have an impact or be implemented in some way.

Ballard Spahr will shortly have reams of data from their top 300 clients (aside: “top 300” clients? I don’t think so. Do you have 300 best friends?), all of which will dutifully be circulated to the management team and to the key contact lawyers for each client. That’s the easy and fun part — everyone likes to learn what other people think about them, especially when it’s good. But what actions is the firm prepared to actually take based upon that data, especially when it’s not so good? Is anybody going to prioritize and follow up on the implementation of client suggestions, in particular the difficult or challenging ones, in the midst of the constant fire-dousing and unrelenting billing pressures of your average law firm?

Any firm that makes a point of collecting client data is also going to have to appoint a senior lawyer to ensure that at least some of what clients are asking for actually gets done. This lawyer would be charged with reporting to the management team what actions have been taken to follow through on what the client talked about in the three, six and 12 months following any given feedback session. Call it a Director of Feedback Compliance, or the Advocatus Clienti I wrote about a while ago, but this enforcement position is critical if busy, independent-minded lawyers are going to take seriously the obligation to digest and implement the results of client interviews.

Law firms put a fair bit of pressure on their marketing professionals to show ROI on marketing; I’d be more interested in knowing the ROI on client communications. Interviewing clients is a great idea, but unless the suggestions they make are fulfilled with real change in how the firm and its lawyers operate, it’s not only a waste of time and money, it’s also raising client expectations that will never be met, which will only cause bigger problems down the line.

Frankly, I’d appoint the Compliance Director first and hire the interviewer later — create the structure for feedback follow-through first, then collect the feedback. Real change only happens when serious enforcement measures are attached to it.

Client-based lawyer ratings

I haven’t written before now about Avvo, the online lawyer rating system that generated so much controversy when it was first launched last year. Most of what you need to know about the site can be found in this collection of articles at Legal Blog Watch, but in a nutshell: Avvo provides a numerical rating for lawyers based on a number of factors drawn from state bar records, court records, peer reviews and lawyers themselves. Avvo can rate lawyers with or without their permission, and does not reveal the nature of the mathematical model used to calculate the ratings.

Avvo got off to a rough start, publishing ratings for dead lawyers and ranking convicted felons above law school deans. These beta-launch problems helped support Avvo’s many critics and formed the basis for a class-action lawsuit. But the lawsuit was dismissed (although the judge was hardly complimentary of the defendant), Avvo continued to expand its reach and work on refining its system, and the company has now apparently made enough progress to start winning over previous skeptics like Robert Ambrogi and Kevin O’Keefe.

I don’t have particularly strong feelings about Avvo one way or the other. On the one hand, I’m supportive of virtually any initiative that tries to provide more information about lawyers to the legal services consumer — reliable third-party assessments would be much more helpful than narrow, one-way lawyer advertising campaigns. And I instinctively rally to the side of anything that shakes up the profession’s status quo and makes lawyers a little uncomfortable.

That said, there are clear and obvious limitations to how useful a numerical rating system can be for lawyers. I like Amazon reviews and Consumer Reports rankings as much as the next person, and I’m the first to say that lawyers would benefit from more exposure to the pressures of the consumer marketplace. But hiring a lawyer is not the same as buying a car or a plasma TV — you can’t reduce all that a lawyer brings to the table to a simple ten-point rating. Partly that’s because people aren’t objects and shouldn’t be treated as such, but also because every person’s interaction with a lawyer will be different, based on personality mix, the nature of the case, the timing of the relationship, and a host of other factors.

And this leads me to what I think is the most important thing about Avvo ratings: they’re not client-based. Avvo’s mathematical model crunches information only from public records and lawyer submissions; client ratings aren’t poured into the mix, though they are provided as additional data points. But such ratings and reviews are still relatively few and far between at Avvo, so what the site really provides is an undisclosed mathematical model’s estimation of how highly a lawyer should be regarded. That’s better than no information at all, or relying on what the lawyer alone feels like telling you, but not better enough to win me over. Continue Reading