Navigating the complexities of law firm branding: strategies and tips

How law firms manage their brand reputation is an increasingly important part of their strategy. But, because of some unique market complexities, it can be extremely challenging to move the needle.

Crowded out

As well as legal services being highly intangible and people-based, the international legal market is arguably one of the most crowded competitive environments there is, with literally hundreds of similar-sized, high-class players around the world offering nearly identical services to the same corporate and financial clients.

And if that wasn’t challenging enough, every one of these top firms is structured as a private partnership rather than a public company.

This means that the decision-making team of even the most modest-sized international law firm is usually much larger and more emotionally invested in the subject than you’d deal with on a branding project for a Fortune 50 corporation. Believe me, I’ve done both.

I’ve had the pleasure of advising many of the world’s leading international law firms on their brand strategy over the last couple of decades and can honestly say that it’s never stopped being a truly fascinating and intellectually engaging topic from my perspective, despite the challenges. Maybe because of the challenges.

Along the way, I’ve learned a few things about what works, which are captured in this article.

“Many firms could transform their performance – as much as doubling or even trebling their annual profitability”

1) Start with the business case

You won’t get out of the starting blocks without it. A law firm’s brand is arguably its most valuable asset; however, most partners do not readily or intuitively link the firm’s brand with their team or practice’s performance.

Nevertheless, the massive amount of published data on law firm finances does provide convincing evidence that many firms could transform their performance – as much as doubling or even trebling their annual profitability – if their brand was strengthened to be one of the strongest, rather than one of the weakest, in their peer group.

“Many of the themes in your strategy will demand a more potent brand”

2) Get leadership commitment

Great if you have it from the start, but more realistically you might only start with your leadership team’s ‘acceptance’ of the need for a review, rather than a visceral commitment to see it through.

Start by looking at your firm’s current strategy and work out exactly how a more substantial investment in branding will connect with the firm’s agreed strategic ambitions. Many of the themes in your strategy will demand a more potent brand.

Once you’ve gained leadership support, create as many opportunities to engage with them along the way as you practically can. Then, by the time you are making recommendations to the partnership, your leadership team will have had plenty of time to get fully behind the initiative and overcome any caution and scepticism.

3) Consult widely with partners and clients

The more you invest upfront, consulting widely with partners and clients, the better the long-term return. Current clients are the best source of insight into what you already do well – after all, they hire you because they think you’re the best at something.

It’s also essential to consult beyond your existing clients to find out what might be working for you or against you in a broader market context.

Treat the partner consultations as a two-way exercise — an opportunity to engage and overcome any scepticism as well as gain insights into the brand messages. This approach can also be an effective way to begin to engage with any maverick ‘difficult’ partners who have the potential to derail things later on.

And, as well as taking soundings from associates and business services teams, don’t forget to include your newer/smaller offices in the exercise — they probably feel the brand challenges more than anyone.

“Big ideas drive transformational change throughout the business world”

4) Find a big cornerstone idea

Big ideas drive transformational change throughout the business world and when it comes to law firm branding a big cornerstone idea is invaluable. Life is pretty frenetic inside a modern international law firm, and it’s all too easy for strategic initiatives to get lost among the day-to-day pressures to serve demanding clients and hit challenging performance targets.

A big idea helps capture the hearts and minds of your people and enables them to connect with it on a visceral level as well as a more nuanced message-driven one.

As well as being big, brand ideas need to be simple (or they won’t connect) different (or they’ll be seen as generic), and true (or they won’t resonate).

Outside of the firm, a big cornerstone brand idea helps cut through the maelstrom of content and communications that clients receive from law firms; from those they already know and those who want their attention.

Big ideas are inherently interesting, and whatever is said about information overload, the truth is that we are all consuming an increasingly large volume of content, just as long as we find it interesting and choose to engage.

5) Build a robust brand framework

Alongside the big idea, you’ll need to define a clear and disciplined structure for your brand strategy to have any hope of holding it together.

There’s no one way to do this, but a good model should capture; a clear articulation of your brand positioning which should be aspirational but not meaningless; your brand proposition to clients that communicates what makes you unique and the best for solving their particular problems, and your key messages that get further into your strengths and benefits on a sector-by-sector level as well as at an overall firm level.

Another increasingly important part of a good brand strategy these days is purpose. Purpose can be a potent part of a law firm’s brand narrative, but it’s not easy. People are increasingly wary of ‘purpose-washing’, and, as with challenging topics like diversity & inclusion, and sustainability, a weak brand purpose is probably worse than none at all.

“Purpose can be a potent part of a law firm’s brand narrative, but it’s not easy”

6) Keep the ‘corners’ on the recommendations

Lawyers are trained to argue. They may not necessarily have much experience in the disciplines of branding, but they will instinctively scrutinise your carefully developed proposals and try to identify any holes.

Often, this intense scrutiny can improve the recommendations; you can also be sure that any issues highlighted early on won’t go away later in the process, so it’s best to address them head-on.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, the best way to get overall buy-in from the partnership to the recommendations is to work hard to maintain their integrity in the face of feedback (i.e., don’t say yes to every suggestion).

This is because, in the end, you need passionate and vocal supportive partners even more than you need to address the most conservative detractors — many of whom will remain ‘anti’ no matter how much you compromise.

If you allow too many corners to be knocked off, you will lose the commitment of those influential and ambitious partners who support change but won’t back a lukewarm solution.

7) Create a team of brand advocates

The most effective way to gain traction across all offices and all practices during the development and implementation phase is to organise a team of brand advocates made up of partners, associates, and business services staff.

You’ll need to think carefully about the team’s makeup; they should ideally be senior enough to be influential but not necessarily the ‘official’ leaders of offices and practices who may not be able to give it enough focus.

A large international firm might need 40+ advocates, a smaller one maybe 10-15, and it’s essential to get them together as a group (virtually these days of course) to immerse them thoroughly in the work done and plans made.

Allowing them scope to influence the plans is also a smart idea.

8) Do a few things brilliantly well

‘Don’t boil the ocean’ is a phrase that lends itself particularly well to the best implementation process for a new law firm branding strategy.

Once you’ve got buy-in to the brand and your implementation plans are formed, an effective way to create good initial momentum is to make a concerted effort to ensure that the first initiatives are executed in a highly imaginative and impactful way.

Whether it’s a big piece of thought leadership, an impactful new website, or a major business development initiative, the effect can be worth it if you over-invest in them a little.

They will attract attention and help more sceptical partners believe that ‘things can be different around here’.

“Your firm’s brand is driven far more by clients’ interactions with your people than by your logo”

9) Don’t confuse brand with a logo

Don’t allow an initially ambitious branding initiative to become a narrow logo and colours project.

Your firm’s brand is driven far more by clients’ interactions with your people than your logo. These tools have a role, and they can be far easier to control than partners’ behaviours in pitches. However, if you change the shop window and don’t address what’s actually inside the store, any brand impact will be superficial and even counterproductive.

Interestingly, engaging partners in the behavioural aspects of brand development, at the same time as communications, can lead to far more sustainable and far-reaching change.

10) Use the power of symbols

Some brand implementation initiatives have the potential to have a disproportionate amount of impact due to their symbolism — so it pays to make good use of them.

These symbols are often quite specific to each firm and may even appear relatively trivial from an outsider’s point of view; particularly if they are culturally symbolic. For example: getting a particular individual to give active support for the brand initiative, creating your first firm-wide thought leadership piece, and weaving the brand theme into the next annual partner meeting.

In a particular firm, these might demonstrate and communicate many symbolic messages beyond the content itself.

11) Engage your people first

After a lot of time and hard work with the leadership team getting to a set of approved brand recommendations, it can be very tempting to ‘get on with it’ and launch it externally. Tempting but very risky and likely to invite an internal backlash based on lack of information.

Take time to engage the broader firm with the journey you’ve been on with the leadership team. Expect people to be sceptical and unsure why law firm branding is important, explain how this will make things better for them and their practices, and allow them a little time to get used to it before launching it externally.

Then, they’re more likely to support it and be able to explain the benefits to their clients and colleagues.

“Ultimately, the purpose of investing in law firm branding is to drive performance and profitability”

12) Measure what you can

In an ideal world, you’d set up a complex econometric model that isolates the brand impact from all the other variables that drive performance: partner selling ability, the result of strategic investments, market swings, etc.

You can’t do this, even if funds were unlimited. But, although not everything can be measured, some things can be.

You can measure internal perceptions of the law firm’s brand among a cross-section of partners and staff before and after to see how things change. You can also conduct regular reputation surveys (or buy into syndicated studies) among your clients and prospects.

These indicators are just that; indicators that clients are beginning to perceive your offer as more valuable, more relevant to their needs, and less commoditised in the market.

When they sense this premium, they will be willing to pay more for it. That’s where we started with the business case; ultimately, the purpose of investing in law firm branding is to drive performance and profitability. There will naturally be many owners of this increased performance.

However, if you measure things consistently, reasonable people will be prepared to accept a direct link between the brand initiative and improved performance metrics if there is good evidence that market reputation perceptions have also improved at the same time.

Fortune favours the bold

If all this seems a bit overwhelming, remember it’s a journey, not an event. Not everything has to happen at once and as things develop there will be opportunities to recalibrate.

The potential benefits, if you can help your firm get its arms around strategic brand positioning and reputation building, are immense, and certainly worth the challenge of getting it started.

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Ian Stephens

CEO and Founder of Principia, Ian is the trusted advisor on branding to leaders of many of the world’s most prestigious international professional service firms and knowledge-intensive B2B businesses across a range of sectors including law, consulting, strategy, technology, engineering, and innovation.