Establishing your brand in the law firm marketplace

by Micah Buchdahl

From the IMA Archives

My nose is running. Get me a Kleenex.
I've got to Xerox something.
You've got a headache? Did you take some Tylenol?
If you shut up and behave, I?ll get you a Happy Meal.
I'm getting sued? Call F. Lee Bailey!

Everybody strives for brand recognition. Few actually achieve it. While the practice of law falls under that mysterious "professional services" category, it does not mean we cannot try to achieve recognizable "brand" status in the industry. The art of branding is not for every attorney or law firm, but if you have the right "product" and the right "approach", you too can benefit from establishing a brand.

What exactly is a brand? It can be your name, the name of your firm, a logo, a slogan, even a practice area so tied to you that it becomes your brand. Often, it is a combination thereof, and it does not establish itself overnight.

I would suggest to you that "Johnnie Cochrane" or "F. Lee Bailey" is a brand. Their names are synonymous with the practice of law, recognized instantly by all. Those gentlemen also might be recognized under the "dream team" mantra. It was a slogan generated by media exposure, and now synonymous with a group of attorneys. Businesses spend millions unsuccessfully trying to get something like that accomplished. Thanks OJ!

Slogans are also part of branding efforts. Two law firm slogans pop into my mind, without prodding. One, a Washington, D.C. firm, which I will not mention, was so ridiculous that I remember it for all the wrong reasons. It was laughable. The other, "Lawyers who get IT" belongs to Fenwick & West. I remember it because I would see the advertisements repeatedly in publications that I read each week. In my case, these ads appeared in magazines relating to technology. Not necessarily recognized by all, but remembered by the target audience, those in the technology industry.

The name of the firm can be a brand. In the last few years, firms have strived to follow the corporate marketing approach of shortening its name, making it easier to recall, write and promote. Can you imagine if Campbell Soup Company s was called Campbell, Morrison, Smith and Johnson's Soup Company?

Of course, I've also seen firms take their name recognition for granted. What egos we have! Recently, an advertisement in The Philadelphia Inquirer promoted a charity function with a few major sponsors. One of them was a law firm that recently started going with the "one name" approach. I clipped the ad, and did a very unscientific study, asking a dozen non-lawyers if they knew what this "company" was. Not a single person knew who they were, or guessed law firm. I did the same study with a dozen colleagues, who all knew it was a major Philadelphia law firm. If this same ad were running in The Legal Intelligencer, I would think the brand was established. But, what good did this branding do in helping establish their firm's name in the minds of non-lawyers who might also seek legal guidance. Understanding the current level of your brand's awareness among your target audience is critical before you embark on growing your brand's awareness.

Law Firms that depend on joe/jane consumers for business, i.e. closing on a home, personal injury, draft a will, divorce, etc., are likely to follow the same attempts in establishing a brand as any company focusing on consumer marketing. Those firms seeking to establish a brand among fellow practitioners through referrals, corporate counsel business, etc. will take a different approach.

The rash of mergers among law firms often leaves the new entity struggling to establish a new name, a new brand. Trying to mesh two, not-always-compatible firms together. More than likely, the two firms agree on a new name, and invest lots of cash to establish this name through advertising, client mailings, and web site development, to name a few.

Cash can be a shortcut to establishing brand recognition. When Andersen Consulting recently changed its name to "Accenture", the new name and logo was backed by millions of dollars of print and television advertising, in addition to numerous sponsorships. My guess is that most people interested in professional services know already that "Accenture" replaced Andersen as its brand name. Major corporations spend hundreds of millions annually to both establish new brands and reinforce market position and share against competition. How much do you spend on your branding efforts? Branding is an investment, and you cannot sit there and immediately establish an ROI. A solid, long-term plan will allow for increased profitability.

How do you go about establishing a brand for you, your firm or practice?

Philip Kotler, renowned marketing expert, describes branding this way. "A name, term, symbol or design, or a combination of them, which is intended to signify the goods or services of one seller and to differentiate them from those of competitors."


Develop a positioning statement. What is it that you want clients to come away with? Remember, we are not interested in how you want to be perceived, but how you think your client's will perceive you.

  • What is unique about your or your practice?
  • Is it your geographic location?
  • Or your resume?
  • Your client base?
  • A practice specialty?
  • What are are the characteristics of your firm?


Is your "brand" your firm name, a phrase, a design, colors or symbols? Earlier, I mentioned that I thought "Johnnie Cochrane" could be a brand. How about Gerry Spence's cowboy get-up? One or more elements make up your branding strategy.

Advertising and Promotional Strategy

  • Is your brand?
  • Distinctive?
  • Memorable?
  • Positive?
  • Easy to recall?

How will you promote your brand? It is important to have a well thought out, executable plan that is focused on building your brand over the long-term. It takes time, patience and money to establish it. Working in coordination with public relations and marketing firms, media buyers, and relevant organizations can be your best approach. For example, a consumer-based firm probably wants to make sure a campaign begins before spending the $50,000 on next year?s yellow pages. A firm trying to make a splash with corporate counsel probably wants to buy ad space from the American Corporate Counsel Association (ACCA) and attend their annual convention. Think before your develop and spend.

Leave the true marketing campaign development to professionals! I've sat in lots of boardrooms listening to horrible ideas from some great practitioners. I've seen campaigns orchestrated by amateurs. Have an outsider meet you, meet your clients, have focus groups set up, test out concepts do it right! Create a client profile, and work from there.

Look at your competitors. Recently, a TV commercial appeared on the screen with two soda machines next to one another, Coke and Pepsi. My wife (the real brand marketer in our household) says, "oh, a new commercial for Pepsi." I asked her how she knew that. And she said that the "market share leader" -- #1 in the category -- never brings up or promotes the #2, #3, #4, aka the followers. Ever since then, I immediately see that every time someone makes a comparison, it is someone striving to be more like the market leader. Think about it. Do we have law firm brands for M&A, or PI, or in a city or state, that is like Hertz or McDonald's?

Good branding and other marketing efforts do not replace good lawyering, but for most firms, trying to differentiate you from an "apples to apples" comparison is getting more and more difficult to do. Giant firms acquire boutiques to plug holes. Recruiting wars for summer associates and lateral hires have the same issues. Why you? Why not them?

Next Steps

If you plan on developing a branding campaign, take your time, think and be prepared to invest both monetarily and otherwise for an extended period of time.

  • Select a (small!) committee to oversee the branding program.
  • Determine a budget.
  • Hire professionals to guide you through the process.
  • Do not make compromises to try and please everybody create a brand that is best for the firm overall.
  • Be consistent in incorporating your branding and following your position statement in everything that you do.

Good luck, and happy branding!

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