If you’re among those who enjoy the spectacle of “Battles of the Brands” among law firms, the Acritas Brand Indices provide unsurpassed grist for your mill. The 2015 Brand Index For [large] Canadian Law Firms was released last month, showing that Norton Rose Fulbright has regained from Blake, Cassels & Graydon the crown it wore in 2013 and briefly surrendered in 2014.
I offered an analysis of this report, as well as a critique of law firm brand indices in general, in this article at Bloomberg Business of Law. Here at Law Firm Web Strategy, however, I’d like to talk more generally about the idea of a law firm’s “brand,” and to suggest that lawyers who spend time and money pursuing strong brand recognition for their firms might be hamstrung by an unseen but critical flaw in their firms’ service delivery model.
You can find many definitions of “brand” in the legal context, most portraying brand as a complex amalgam of myriad interconnecting factors. For myself, I tend towards a simpler definition: a brand is what it’s like to deal with someone. How your customers or clients feel following one or more interactions with your business, the impression they’ve gained and the likelihood that they’ll want to deal with you again, is your brand. It has little to do with tag lines, advertisements, or the colour scheme on your website. It has to do with the user experience of your firm.
This, at first blush, is not an encouraging thought for law firms: most clients experience a law firm through its lawyers, and many lawyers do not rank stratospherically high on measures like emotional intelligence and customer service. But even in firms whose lawyers are natural communicators (or who are carefully trained to appear that way), there’s a larger challenge: the inconsistency of the user experience across multiple points of contact. Clients’ experience with a law firm frequently varies according to the person, and especially the lawyer, with whom they’re dealing.
Now, if a client only ever deals with a single lawyer at the firm, then this isn’t much of a problem. But in that situation, it isn’t really the firm that the client is experiencing, but the lawyer: we’re really talking about an individual lawyer brand. A firm brand comes into play when many different people interact with a client, a far more likely occurrence for an institutional client or a complex matter. In those situations, the client is much more likely to experience a range of personalities, behaviours, and procedures, to such an extent that the client may sometimes wonder whether she’s really dealing with a single firm. When asked to describe the law firm brand she’s experienced, she might well respond, “Which one?”
Very few law firms train their personnel to deliver a consistent client experience, and few of those that do could claim great success in enforcing such consistency, especially among their lawyers. Never mind consistency of work quality and client communication: today, in some of the most esteemed law firms in the country, you could find two partners who don’t even bill their work to the same client the same way. To add to the challenge, law firms undergo an unusual amount of churn, through entrenched associate attrition and growing partner mobility, such that the lawyer who served you today might be gone tomorrow — and might even be calling you to see if you’d like to follow him to his new place of business.
This is why I think that in the near future, the brand champions among law firms will be those that can ensure a high degree of consistency in the client experience. And what will set those firms apart will be the degree to which they rely heavily on automated systems, predictable processes, and dedicated client liaisons to deliver their services more so than on lawyers. These firms will figure out that decision trees don’t bolt the firm for greener pastures, that intelligent systems deliver the same experience regardless of practice group and billing rate, and that client protocols don’t vary according to how many hours they’ve docketed so far this month.
If a firm’s brand is fundamentally rooted in its clients’ experience with the firm, then every unnecessary variance in that experience is going to shake clients’ confidence in and undermine the brand itself. Lawyers are, by nature, deeply resistant to conformist behaviour: if they’re the ones delivering your front-line service, you can count on your clients receiving mixed messages (and on remembering the negative ones far more than the positives). To improve your brand, start thinking about ways to solidify and upgrade the client experience — and to what extent your lawyers should or can play a critical role therein.