Jan/Feb 2002

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Practice Development

Business Card Makeovers: Broadcasting a New Message

Phillip M. Perry

Design changes are conveying that law firms are as dynamic and contemporary as their clients in the business world. From sophisticated colors and logos to CD-ROMs with hyperlinks, business card designs are entering new territory. The innovations snappily tout lawyers’ marketing savvy.

Is the plain-white business card destined for the scrap heap of history? Maybe so, judging from the exotic hybrids sprouting from law firm marketing departments everywhere. Vibrant colors, textured papers, snappy logos, odd sizes, two-sided printing and even ventures into electronic presentations have transformed the lawyer’s business card. It has changed from solid witness to sobriety and conformity into vibrant herald of business acumen and marketing savvy.

Show Your Stuff

For an idea of how imaginative a law firm can be, consider Day, Berry & Howard. Its aggressive emerging companies group wanted to cultivate new business from the nascent technology corporations attending a recent venturecapital trade fair. Here was the challenge: How could the firm, which maintains offices in Boston and three Connecticut cities, distinguish its lawyers from others wooing the same prospects? The answer seemed to be to highlight the personal characteristics most admired by enterprising capitalists. Aggressiveness. Expertise. Out-of-the-box thinking. An understanding of business issues and a willingness to grapple with them.

Easier said than done, of course. Anyone can claim to be savvy about the business world, but how could the firm communicate its message convincingly, and in short order, amidst the hustle and bustle of a trade show? The firm answered the challenge with a series of 11 "trading cards," similar to those issued by baseball teams, to hand out to show attendees. Each card featured a full-color photograph of a lawyer from the firm’s emerging companies group. On the back was a list of top 10 tips on subjects relevant to nascent businesses, such as protecting trade secrets, avoiding venture traps and understanding trademark law.

The 3.25-by-5-inch cards communicated just the kind of new thinking and marketing savvy that would be attractive to people launching new companies. "It was a creative way of getting through to these folks," says Cynthia Kelly, director of marketing for Day, Berry. "And it reflected the personality of the firm." Day, Berry is quick to point out that its innovative cards have not replaced so much as augmented its older business cards. "The trading cards are not sized for a rolodex," Kelly says. "And the information on the backs of the cards does become outdated quickly." Yet the cards are a big hit, and the firm is considering rolling them out to other departments.

Speak to the Client

The Day, Berry & Howard experience tells in small what is writ large everywhere: a new respect for the business card as a vehicle of communication to a client pool that demands greater marketing sophistication from its legal counsel. "Lawyers no longer regard the business card and letterhead as just office supply items, but as cornerstones of an identity program," says designer Burkey Belser. His Washington, D.C. firm, Greenfield/ Belser, Ltd., runs an annual survey of trends in letterhead and related stationery design at the nation’s 100 largest firms.

But what kind of identity is to be conveyed? "The motivating force for all this is that clients want lawyers who understand business issues and think like businesspeople," says Belser.

While the old black-and-white stationery pointed to a stodgy and elite legal profession, the new cards show that the lawyers understand the contemporary business environment. "They broadcast a specific message," says Belser. "They state: We are not above and separate from you, superior to you or better than you. We are just like you."

A law firm needn’t create an entirely new form of business card to convince clients of its comfort with the business world. The traditional 2-by-3.5-inch card, respected for its portability and application to a rolodex, is itself undergoing dramatic change in terms of color, logo and layout.

For example, a few years ago the Minneapolis firm Gray, Plant & Mooty replaced its plain business card with one designed to portray the firm in a vibrant way. "We wanted to liven it up, to open the window and let the air and light in," says Kathy Lester, the firm’s director of business development and marketing. "We wanted a logo that looked more like that of a business rather than a law firm."

Part of the challenge was to present a colorful contemporary look but still communicate the firm’s history and integrity. "We selected a perfect square logo because it was strong visually and looked solid," says Lester. The square is made up of three horizontal bars of green, maroon and dark blue, separated by white space. It features a shortened firm name overprinted in gold letters. And in another change that communicates an entrepreneurial spirit, cards include lawyers’ home phone numbers.

Other law firms are trumpeting their marketing message in a rainbow of striking designs, colors and logos. Here are examples of the innovative design elements revealed in a recent review of scores of business cards:

? Foley, Hoag & Eliot (in Boston and Washington) uses a blue gyroscope logo and individual data on the card front, and matching blue color with firm information on the back.

▪ Tressler, Soderstrom, Maloney & Priess (in Los Angeles) has an engraved logo combining the first letters of the firm’s name in a rectangular box.

▪ Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal (in Chicago and other cities) uses black and slate-gray lettering on the front of a white card, with the first word in the firm’s name enlarged in gray with a yellow highlighted "o."

"In most cases, the logo for a law firm is made up of the signature alone," says Belser. "But increasingly firms are adding marks as well. Perhaps what is most interesting is what is happening on the backs of the cards. Information is being added, such as cities, tag lines and translations."

Multimedia Sounds Off

As amenable to design innovations as paper cards are, firms looking to expand their presence among clients accustomed to multimedia presentations might have other needs. Consider Toronto-based McMillan Binch. Here, the mission of the firm’s KNOWlaw Group was to communicate its multifaceted background to a client pool of media and entertainment, intellectual property and technology companies— and this at a time when these companies were merging interests and demanding a cornucopia of expertise from the lawyers.

"We had to figure out how we would tell our client what our story was," says KNOWlaw partner Simon Chester. Instead of a traditional brochure, McMillan Binch opted for a CDROM business card, using multimedia to communicate its wide-ranging expertise through images and emphasizing the interconnectedness of its practice areas with hyperlinks.

The medium, it seems, is as much a message as the information on it. "When we were considering this move several years ago," Chester recalls, "one question was, how many clients have CD-ROM drives? I said, it doesn’t matter if you can put an object in front of them that says: We are not a traditional law firm. We think in different ways and we recognize the realities of our clients in the merging of technology and cultural industries sectors. Here is a CD-ROM. If you open it up, you’ll find 120 fully indexed articles on the law as it affects you." The CD-ROM, then, he says, "was a low-cost way to put across information about us in a format that communicates to clients we speak their language and understand their issues."

The back of the disc jacket has the photos and phone numbers of the firm’s lawyers. "We discovered that people hang on to these discs even if they never open them," Chester says. "In contrast, business cards would just get tucked into pockets and lost in the dry cleaning." Although the CD-ROM has significantly reduced the use of traditional business cards, the firm still uses the latter for portability. As Chester notes, "When I go to a trade show, I can easily put a dozen business cards in the bottom of my briefcase."

Tip the Balance

Given the greater competition among law firms for the available dollar, the message is to change or lose ground. If current trends continue, law firms will experience an accelerating pace for change in identity designs. "Five years ago, there was a significant timing gap between marketing trends in other industries and the legal profession," says Stephen Mabey, chief operating officer of Stewart McKelvey Stirling Scales in Halifax. "Now the gap is shortened." He sees a two-year spread at present, but foresees that in the near future that may narrow to 12 months.

"Design changes have been resisted by lawyers who felt they were selling professional services rather than widgets," says Mabey, whose own firm introduced a stylized version of a wave as a business card logo in 2000. "But because of the influx of marketing into other professional service firms, lawyers are learning they must come into the same realm. They must demonstrate that they are ahead of the curve and understand the concerns of the business world, that they are dynamic and moving rather than stodgy and conservative."

As always, the driving force is the client—and the need to attract harder-to-land ones. Designer Belser likens the competitive jockeying to what banks and accounting firms went through 20 years ago. "The number of lawyers is two and a half times that of 1973," he says. "The economy hasn’t expanded at the same rate, so there is a substantial increase in competition. You have more pressure to get and sustain business."

Successful lawyers, then, will pay close attention to the details that tip the marketing balance in their favor. And when it comes to the business card, a design that communicates an understanding of challenges common to client and lawyer can make all the difference in the world.

PHILLIP M. PERRY ( is a New York-based, award-winning freelance writer who frequently covers legal issues. He can be reached at (212) 274-8694.



While law firms are venturing into bold new territory with their business card designs, the adventure stops at each firm’s front door: Once adopted, new designs are being shared by all lawyers in the firm.

"As recently as the 1980s, individual lawyers could select their own color, size and font for their stationery," says Sally Schmidt, president of Schmidt Marketing in Burnsville, Minnesota. As a result, the cards of six lawyers might look as if they came from six different firms. "With the modern movement into branding, law firms want to present an institutional identity that shows the lawyers are working as a team."

That uniformity is a bow to what is perceived as a client trend toward shopping for firms rather than for individual lawyers. "The most dramatic change in 10 years is that the emphasis has flipped from the individual lawyer to the firm," says Washington, D.C. designer Burkey Belser.

"The card used to be dominated by the name of the lawyer, and the firm name was small. Now the name of the institution outranks that of the individual lawyer." Belser does note an exception for firms of fewer than 15 lawyers, "where the emphasis on the individual lawyer is much stronger," he says.

—Phil Perry