Although they tend to be used interchangeably in legal marketing, the terms “brand” and “reputation” are not the same thing. Firms live and die by their reputation, but it’s debatable whether law firm branding is even possible.
Rees Morrison gets to the heart of the matter in a post recapping a recent conference organized by Georgetown University’s Center for the Study of the Legal Profession:
“I don’t recall any general counsel I have consulted to who think of law firms they use as ‘brands.’ They don’t say, ‘X firm is a global leader,’ or that ‘Y firm puts clients first,’ let alone that ‘Z knows Canada.’ My sense is that inside counsel amalgamate impressions of the style and ability of individual partners they have dealt with from the firm mixed in with fragments of articles read or conferences spoken at by the lawyers of the firm all combined with some ads they have fleetingly glanced at as well as remarks made by peers and colleagues. The pastiche doesn’t rise to any level of ‘brand’ clarity [emphasis added]. Other than size or ‘AmLaw 100 I think’ they don’t store impressions as overall brands.
“When pushed, a general counsel can always dredge up broad impressions of a firm: ‘A has uneven quality,’ ‘B litigates aggressively,’ or ‘C mostly does patents,’ but those are scattered attributes, not an overall, let alone distinctive, brand, and they are secondary.”
Morrison quotes conference panelist Ken Grady, general counsel of Wolverine Worldwide, observing, “Law firms talk about a single brand with hundreds of channels (the partners); I see hundreds of brands funneled through a single channel” [emphasis added].
In other words, the currency of legal marketing is personal reputation, not firm brand.
The problem with the general practice of legal “branding” is that it tends to fetishize standardized visual identity and slogans — taglines, logos, websites, collateral, Powerpoint templates, business cards — as the embodiment of the firm. Writing last year about the “‘rigorous branding analysis’ that led to an office-by-office and practice-by-practice review” at Baker & McKenzie, Jayne Navarre identifies a tail-wagging-the-dog aspect of the process:
“…It wasn’t the visual results that made the re-branding most valuable to the firm and its clients, it was the process—the rigorous branding analysis—and the outcome of that exercise that enabled them to re-connect with clients and ultimately drive their revenues.”
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