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Law Practice Magazine

The Marketing Issue

Branding: The Foundation of Practice Management

Steven Skyles-Mulligan


  • Prospective clients do not have the ability to distinguish between the quality and effectiveness of one attorney’s work versus another’s.
Branding: The Foundation of Practice Management

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An increasing number of firms—including small firms and solo practitioners—are starting to recognize value in some sort of organized and consistent business development and marketing activities. Sometimes, though, there is a tendency to overlook the core foundational piece underlying every effort to build and sustain a practice. This cornerstone is the brand. Every firm and every individual attorney has one; savvy practitioners make the extra effort to define, cultivate and nurture their brands. 

Understand How Brands Work

We can all readily think of brands. Household names like Gillette, Costco, Microsoft, Amazon and Charmin come to mind, as well as luxury labels like BMW, Gucci, Rolex and Prada, and hospitality providers such as Virgin Atlantic, Hilton Hotels and Red Lobster. Disparate as these enterprises are, they have one thing in common: Each in its own way evokes certain feelings and ideas. These amorphous semi-conscious responses are key to the success of these brands.

It gets even trickier. No two individuals will have the same visceral response to a particular brand concept or name. Someone who came home from a trip with bedbugs in their suitcase is not going to look fondly at the hotel that provided them, and an expensive item that wears out quickly is likely to create negative associations. On the other hand, a store that has consistent inventory, a dry cleaner who can accommodate quick turnarounds and not mess up your stuff, and an airline agent who is helpful in rearranging travel plans will all create some level of warm feelings and positive perceptions of the organization they represent.

While we may think that attorneys are highly trained professionals who float above this kind of gut reaction, they do not. Once a client has worked with an attorney—or knows someone who has—they will have a whole range of subconscious emotional responses when the lawyer’s or their firm’s name comes up. Creating and maintaining a successful legal brand depends on understanding, anticipating and managing these feelings.

Recognize What You’re Selling

Attorneys tend to think they are in the business of providing legal advice and services. On the surface, that’s true. But often, prospective clients do not have the ability to distinguish between the quality and effectiveness of one attorney’s work versus another’s. This is exacerbated by the frequently urgent need for legal services, either to mitigate a threat or to leverage an opportunity. What clients can easily determine, whether they are consciously aware of it or not, is how they feel when they work with an attorney. Far more than the tangible legal services, what attorneys are actually selling—and what clients are buying—is the experience of receiving those services. That is what attorneys need to manage to build a successful brand.

Shape Your Image

I’ve often said that brand exists at the intersection of image and reputation. At the most basic level, image is what an enterprise says it is going to provide, while reputation is customers’ prevailing perceptions as to how well it kept its commitments. If overall client experience aligns with commitments made, the brand is strong and viable. If there is a significant disconnect between commitment and delivery—either among a growing number of clients or a small group of vocal clients—the brand weakens and becomes more difficult to market.

An effective law firm image involves three key elements:

  1. Who the firm works with. Note that this isn’t everyone; some clients are a good match for some firms but not for others. You should know who you want to work with and why you want to work with that type of client. The work may be satisfying, the ratio of fee to effort may be favorable or you may have an interest in a particular industry.
  2. What the firm is offering to provide. Again, this cannot be everything because no attorney does everything equally well. More than once, I’ve seen trusts and estates attorneys claim to offer elder law services without a deep understanding of their nuances. This is a recipe for client disappointment and will quickly weaken a brand.
  3. How the firm is going to provide a defined set of services to the identified pool of prospective clients. This includes things like type and frequency of communications, billing practices, availability and response times. While the other two elements may require occasional tweaking, this one will need constant management, as it is where your reputation will be truly solidified.

It is a good idea to write this out, even if you feel like you already know it. Every person associated with your firm must understand these core elements and work to meet these commitments. In addition, when it is time to create or revise a firm website or brochure, these core elements can and should be woven into your essential content.

Avoid Reputation Killers

In the course of running a busy practice and trying to help as many clients as you can fit into the day, it is appallingly easy to inadvertently build a reputation that bears little or no relationship to the image you want to project. Here are some pitfalls to watch out for:

Response times and availability.

Clients generally feel that their matter is urgent and deserves your immediate attention. Commit to a window for responding and stick to it—and get everyone else in the firm to support this. Inform every client of your usual response times.

Billing issues. While clients may come to appreciate your advice and efforts on their behalf, your billable hours have no inherent value to them, and nobody welcomes the surprise of a big bill. It may make sense to explore alternative fee structures. If you are more comfortable with hourly billing, consider raising your rates enough that you can absorb some of the less significant interactions and activities. Regardless, make sure that your bills are clear about the work and its significance to the client.

Lack of firm-wide buy-in. The actions of everyone who works in your firm or supports it—including the administrative staff—will impact your reputation. Set and monitor standards for courtesy, written and verbal communications, and de-escalation procedures. This can be especially challenging in firms with multiple attorneys because every individual has their own brand and reputation in addition to those of the firm.

Communication misalignment. This is perhaps the most nuanced and potentially perilous area because it needs to be tailored for every client. Know and use clients’ favored communication mediums. Establish an expectation for frequency of updates. Understand their information tolerance level and the amount of guidance they need in evaluating options. Make sure that you have asked all the questions before you provide the relevant answers. When there are disagreements, hear your client out without defensiveness and look for a mutually acceptable solution.

Put It to Work

Once you have defined the image you want for yourself and your firm and have taken reasonable steps to ensure that your reputation lives up to that image, you can build your overall marketing plan around this brand. Build time for business development into your weekly schedule. Consider your visual presentation and type treatment of your firm name, logo, headshots and other items. Pick marketing activities that support your image, including helping you connect with the clients you really want. Share your knowledge and perspectives with engaging content that emphasizes how the information impacts your clients.

Taking the time to define your brand and incorporate it into your everyday activities will make your practice more successful and help it run more smoothly.