Last month, I taught a new course called “21st-Century Lawyering” to upper-year students at Suffolk University Law School in Boston (where I hold the marvellous title of “Legal Innovation Strategist in Residence”). The course included a session on marketing a law practice, which in turn contained a section on branding and what it means in the legal context.
“Your brand,” I told the students, “is what you’re like to deal with.” This obviously includes your area of practice and expertise — why clients seek you out and what they get when they do. But it also includes your differentiating personal and professional factors (both good and bad) — what sets you apart, for better or worse, from the mass of lawyer competition. Everyone has a brand, whether or not they’re aware of it, created it, or would approve of it. “Branding” is the intentional act of making and keeping that promise of what it’s like to deal with you.
In the consumer context, “brand” still retains much of its popular meaning of “image,” a shorthand signal of what one should expect of a product or service. Brands used to be incredibly powerful and are still considered highly valuable (Apple’s brand is worth more than $100 billion, almost as much as the next two brands, Microsoft and Coca-Cola, combined). But as James Surowiecki writes in a recent New Yorker column, “Twilight of the Brands,” consumer brands also “have never been more fragile”:
“Consumers are supremely well-informed and far more likely to investigate the real value of products than to rely on logos. … When consumers had to rely on advertising or past experience with a company, brands served as a proxy for quality … Today, consumers can read reams of research about whatever they want to buy…. [The internet] has given ordinary consumers easy access to expert reviews, user reviews, and detailed product data. … Each product now has to prove itself on its own…. This has made customer loyalty pretty much a thing of the past. Only 25% of American respondents in a recent Ernst & Young survey said that brand loyalty affected how they shopped. For established brands, this is a nightmare.”
Legal services are not the same as soft drinks and software — yet. But the downward spiral of many legal services towards commoditization and the increasingly active and sophisticated purchasing strategies of legal clients both point us in the same direction as the consumer market. No amount of traditional advertising or marketing is going to reverse those trends.
That’s why I think an authentic public presence for your law firm, expressed principally through its online profile and activity, will continue to grow in importance. A website that states clearly and prominently what you do, how you do it, and who you do it for; blog posts written in your own voice with your own perspective; real testimonials from actual clients about working with you — these are now some of the most significant components of your law practice’s brand. Boilerplate practice descriptions and overblown advertising copy just won’t cut it (unless your practice really is boilerplate and overblown, in which case branding isn’t your biggest problem). There cannot be any daylight between your self-promotion and your real-life brand: the market will find that daylight and drive a truck through it.
If you’re running a law practice, then you already have a brand — whether you know what it is or not. That brand might be “commonplace, generalist, overpriced, hard to reach”; or it could be “distinctive, specialized, fixed-fee, responsive.” It doesn’t matter what you say you are; it matters what you actually are. You can’t manufacture a brand through advertising or PR, or at least, not for long; the truth will out, and your clients will be the ones to out it.
Figure out who you are, what you do, how you do it, who are the people you do it for, and what it’s like for them to deal with you; that’s your actual brand. Then build an online presence that clarifies, amplifies, and supports that brand. That’s how you’ll promote a successful law practice from now on.