If I were in charge of marketing at a law firm, I’d be trying to learn how my firm could incorporate design principles and the user experience (UX) into its client-facing activities. Here’s why.
Most law firm branding efforts aim to create a reputation within the firm’s target markets for some specific quality by which the firm wants to be known or for which it wants to “stand out.” Traditionally, this quality has been lawyer-focused: the firm possesses elite expertise in a particular practice area or industry. More recently, firms have tried branding themselves through buyer-focused qualities such as client service, affordable prices, “business thinking,” and so forth.
Regardless of what brand the firm chooses to adopt, however, the branding efforts are always applied by the seller to the buyer, a one-way message from the firm to its market: the firm wants to influence what the market thinks of when it thinks of the firm. The law firm believes, as do most companies in other industries, that it’s in control of that “branding process.”
In reality, of course, law firms have very little control over their brand. Partly, this is because law firms have almost no mechanisms for quality control and no power to enforce protocols for lawyers’ behaviours and relationships with clients. A law firm that tries to force a partner to strictly follow a specified regimen when performing work and communicating with clients will usually be down one partner in short order. As for “expertise,” most clients assume their lawyers have it, and very few know or care enough to distinguish the fine gradients of expertise that separate one lawyer from another — and in any event, with partner movement rampant among firms, expertise has become mobile to the point of peripatetic, and therefore an unreliable foundation for a brand.
But there’s a more important reason why law firms can’t really create a brand: clients are already doing that for them. Clients don’t need any help, thanks very much, in deciding what a firm’s brand actually is.
This is because a company’s true brand is based upon the actual experiences of its users — hence, on its “user experience.” The key to a successful UX is design. Good design maximizes the quality of the experience by which a user reaches his or her desired outcome, by optimizing the process through which the outcome is achieved — not just the best result, but the best path by which the result is reached. Apple understands design and the UX, as the iPhone and iPad demonstrate; very few other computer makers ever have. BMW uses the tagline “The Ultimate Driving Experience” for a reason. Apple products work just as well as PCs. BMWs get you from A to B just as well as any other vehicle. But the experience of people when using these products is outstanding. That is the brand these companies enjoy.
Notice, however, that these brands were not built through advertising slogans or marketing campaigns — they weren’t manufactured by the company through repeated one-way messaging directed at consumers. The consumers themselves identified and validated the brand through their own experience. This is the real shift that’s taking place in markets of all kinds: people are deciding for themselves how they will relate to companies and products, rather than waiting for advertisers to tell them how they should feel. The rise of ad blocking software is a good illustration of newly empowered consumers deciding that they, not the products they consume, will determine the nature of the relationship between the two.
Every lawyer and every law firm has a brand, but most of these brands are inadvertent and invisible to their owners. When a lawyer fails to respond to email inquiries, or interrupts a client in the first seven seconds of their conversation, or sends a bill 20% more expensive than the original estimate with no warning or explanation, that lawyer has created a brand more powerful and authentic than anything the Marketing Department will ever come up with. The user experience of that lawyer is terrible, and therefore so is his or her brand. Multiply that effect across law firms with tens or hundreds of lawyers and staff: every point of contact between the firm and its clients is another data point in the firm’s true brand. Are clients delighted by their experience of using the firm? Or are they confused, frustrated, bewildered or infuriated? Tell me the answer, and I’ll tell you the brand.
That’s why law firm marketing professionals (or, in smaller firms, the partners in charge of marketing) should step away from tagline debates and advertising campaigns and instead pay close attention to improving the firm’s user experience. Your brand is what it’s like to deal with you. Figure out exactly what it’s like to use your firm: walk through the process of finding, assessing, contacting, conversing with, being served by, and paying your firm. These are among the most critical points of the law firm user experience. Upgrade these, and you’ll be well on your way to meeting your firm’s branding objectives.