Law firm brand success calls for leadership, education and structure!

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By Sean Larkan | Apr 24, 2018

Brand is such an important asset and so fundamental to the success or failure of every law firm that it is a strategic, not an operational or administrative, issue. It is therefore surprising how few firms invest in developing a common firm-wide understanding of brand and a supporting strategy – or put in the effort to strengthen its various components. Those that do reap some remarkable rewards.

Firms with well-known brands will sometimes feel they don’t really need to spend time on their brand as it is in ‘good shape’ and they haven’t had to do too much to get it there. What they fail to realise is that their brand has become what it has by accident, or even luck, as an off-shoot of other things being done well, rather than being a successfully implemented strategic initiative.

The importance of developing a common understanding around brand, but keeping things as simple as possible while doing it, cannot be over-emphasised. There are hundreds of thousands of books and articles on brand, many of which relay different approaches to brand, and use unique pieces of jargon. It can all become very confusing to non-brand aficionados. For brand to work in a law firm, it has to be broken down to a succinct educational and implementation process. Senior lawyers simply do not have the time or the stomach for anything more complex or time-consuming.

The first thing to understand about brand, and contrary to common belief, is that brand is not what we think it is or what we offer to the market by way of our skills, reputation and other attributes, but, quite simply, it is what others (mainly clients or non-client influencers) think.

And that is where the first challenge arises. Brand is a very personal, individual matter. It is about what individual people (or an aggregate of them) feel and think and experience about our brand. We can’t tell people how to feel and think; they will decide. This requires appreciation and respect and then the effort to address this challenge. There are many subtleties involved and no quick fixes; it takes time, persistence and consistent effort and interactions to influence such feelings.

Even those firms that have been educated around a common understanding of brand often find themselves derailed from sufficient focus and effort to grow and develop their brand. This is why it also takes the involvement of senior leadership and management, which in itself is another challenge. Such people do not often feel they need to get involved in such matters and prefer them to be ‘done by marketing’.

Two other important things to understand about brand are firstly that brand comes to the fore in three main forms – organisational brand, individual (usually partner) brands, and employment brand. Each needs to be understood and nurtured. These types of brand also need to be aligned, as they strongly influence one another. For instance, a well-regarded employment brand will contribute to a firm’s overall brand, while a strong organisational brand will contribute at least something to an employment brand.

A second important characteristic is that the most important foundational element to brand is trust. Trust is at the heart of all strong brands, and again relies on how individual people feel and think about a brand. It is very personal. It takes effort, consistency and time to build trust in a brand. Hard to build, easy to break.

One of the biggest influences on this issue of trust is ensuring that what the firm promises (e.g., on its website or in its published materials) is actually delivered on by the firm and everyone in the firm, achieving what I call brand fusion.

Let’s look at a simple example; a firm may make some bold statements on its website and in graduate recruitment brochures about taking an interest in individual staff development and ensuring new employees get good coaching, access to good work and so on. If a number of partners do not do this (a common issue!) or even the senior HR personnel clearly do not see to this, there will be no brand fusion and trust will never build in the employment brand, resulting in massive opportunity cost to the firm. This cost can come in the form of delays in hiring and higher recruitment costs, not getting access to the best people, higher-than-normal staff turnover and so on.

A very useful exercise to provide structure and discipline is to develop a short-form, written brand strategy. I always recommend in an early iteration of such strategies that the first focus be on education and creating a common understanding around brand. It is then important to achieve consistency by ensuring all new entrants to the firm are carefully inducted into this understanding and appreciation around brand. The strategy also has the benefit of identifying leadership around the effort, creating direction, highlighting strategic key objectives around the brand, allocating responsibility and providing for some form of report-back and review of progress. In this way one can ensure key members of the firm are involved in the project from an early stage and that over time, desired results are achieved.

Even with the above efforts and other key related initiatives, experience has shown that brand initiatives invariably need to be followed up on, stress-tested, updated and re-energised from time to time.

Without doubt, without this type of approach and some needed structure, discipline and leadership, one of your firm’s most powerful and valuable assets may be relying on chance for its survival and prosperity.