Thursday, November 20, 2008

Law firms shape brands in time of crisis

You might think that economic hardship is the perfect environment for lawyers – like Mother’s Day for florists or floods for looters. In fact, the current crisis hurts law firms. They are laying off associates, cutting bonuses and elbowing weaker partners out. Some firms have folded.

Who knew that litigation is discretionary? Some specialists are thriving, it seems. Firms that handle employment law are helping companies lay off workers and, on the other side, helping workers fight layoffs. According to Am Law Litigation Daily, intellectual property litigation is also booming as “companies suddenly see more clearly the value in their technology – and try even harder to extract revenue from it.”

But industry-wide, the economic malaise has left lawyers with a lot less paper to shuffle. The meltdown of credit markets and consolidation in banking has short-circuited law firms wired to financial services.

As firms compete for fewer dollars, the strength of their brands comes into play. No one wants to look like a purveyor of commodities. Clients ask, "Tell me again how your firm is different and better? And why should I pay your fees?" As the crisis sets in, managing partners and their marketing teams must sharpen their brand stories and have close alignment between excellent marketing and professional excellence.

Here’s the challenge for law firms: Although talents vary and cultures differ, major law firms present themselves in similar ways – and suffer from brand sameness. Most vow to fall on their swords for clients (calling it "client focus"). All claim to have specific areas of expertise and a love affair with collaboration. “No one owns a client here,” they say. “If I need advice I just call a dear colleague who lives only to help me build my practice."

In these times, law firms need a clear, DISTINCTIVE brand in order to attract top talent, appeal to merger partners, shore up and unify cultures under stress, and move into suddenly inviting markets. What face do law firms put on their organizations? Here's a quick tour of a few digital doorways:

Marketing professional services is tricky.
So much depends on the quality of talent. Brilliant, charismatic people generate new business and client loyalty. Professional ability trumps market-ability. Success carries the day and feeds on itself. Hence, the approach of the beautifully blasé leader, Wachtel, Lipton.

Lesson for the industry: It's best to have, like Wachtel Lipton, the highest reputation, the juiciest clients and the fattest salaries. Without that, at least you can package your people and practices proficiently. That’s where brand marketing come in.



Anonymous said...

Great points, Brandsinger. I have worked with the marketing teams at eight law firms, and have seen a great deal of excellent work proposed (both in-house and through agencies) and sometimes implemented. There is usually greater interest in "differentiating" marketing ideas among the less robust practices, and greater resistance to firm-wide branding among the lead practices (who may have stars with their own "brands" already). So the challenge is to gain agreement among the emerging and established practices, as well as the stars of the easy task.

brandsinger said...

Thanks for sharing that insight, anonymous one. You seem to be saying that branding is seen as a ticket to move up in the pecking order.
Quite valuable intelligence. But then, branding is, in the end, a means to solve strategic business problems.
Stay warm, brandsinger