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. Today, brand opportunities are opening up everywhere — not primarily in new industries or practice areas, although there are a few of those, but in how a firm delivers value to its clients. Service delivery, billing parameters, value definition, client communications, risk sharing — these and many other key elements of customer relationships, which have lain dormant and ignored for years, are coming to sudden life.

Take the oldest complaint in the book — the billable hour system — as an example. Clients have moaned for decades about how the billable hour removes the burdens of accountability and risk from the lawyer (though clients share some of the blame for not pushing harder), and conventional wisdom called the billable hour unkillable.

But now there are firms that have successfully staked out this ground and branded themselves as having abandoned the billable hour altogether. Clients sat up and took notice as, one after another, Summit, Valorem, Tucker Ellis & West, Shepherd Law Group, Rosen Law Firm, Waite, Schneider, Bayless & Chesley, and others I don’t even know about swapped billables for flat fees or other mechanisms. And banning billables isn’t just for clients, either: new recruits looking for a law firm that’s different will also be drawn to Ford & Harrison, Strasburger & Price, Thackray Burgess or Moore & VanAllen, which have to various degrees eliminated billable targets for associates.

You can’t be the very first firm to give yourself the non-billable brand, but you could be the first in your region, or your practice area, or the particular niche you’ve carved out. And if you don’t want to rely on fixed fees as the foundation of your brand, that’s fine — there are many others. You could be the first firm on your block to:

  • work with your clients to design a list of criteria to define the “value” of your services;
  • redesign your fees to build in risk-sharing and even success bonuses to all matters;
  • make client communication the cornerstone element of a successful retainer;
  • outsource or automate every non-essential aspect of a client’s matter;
  • offer an unconditional money-back guarantee if the client is less than 100% satisfied;
  • follow through on a promise that every client call or e-mail is returned within four hours.

There are lots more you can think of that would apply directly to your region or practice area, or that meet a need you often hear clients talking about (assuming you’re listening to them). These are the new brand opportunities opening up across the profession — the new promises you can make, and keep, to current clients and future clients. This is how you can differentiate yourself from your competitors — not through names and logos, but through the on-the-ground reality of value definition and service delivery.

And don’t wait too long to adopt these brand strategies, either — they’ll be snapped up a lot faster over the next few years than you might think.

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