Brian Inkster, the founder of law firm Inksters and a legal marketing pioneer, explains what branding really is –and how to create and use an authentic brand for your law firm. (Updated 30 September 2020)
If you think your law firm doesn't need a brand, you are not alone. Many lawyers think brands are for alternative business structures and multi-disciplinary practices, not firms like theirs with a proud history and reputation. Or they think of branding as little more than coming up with a logo.
But branding is much more than that – it's about your reputation, and how you manage it. Your law firm has a brand, whether you realise it or not. And in a competitive market, the right brand is a vital part of standing out from other law firms.
"Your brand is what other people say about you when you're not in the room"
Jeff Bezos, Amazon
What is a brand?
In broad terms, your brand is the firm's identity and personality. It's how people think about your firm, and what sets it apart from others. That may sound a little nebulous, but actually brands are very recognisable. You instinctively know the difference between Hogan Lovells and Irwin Mitchell.
The most obvious part of a brand is your visual identity – the firm's name, logo, the colours you use in your brochures and so on. But the most important part of a brand is completely different. It's how clients experience your firm, every time they come into contact with you – whether that's visiting your website or making an enquiry – and how they are treated as a client.
In many ways, your reputation is your brand. It attracts people to the firm. From then on, every time you interact with a client, by living up to your 'brand values' you can confirm what they think and strengthen your reputation.
Your brand is a strategic asset. It underpins how you market the firm and the service you provide to your clients. As a law firm that relies on reputation and relationships, you need to define and nurture your brand.
"Every partner and every employee makes a difference to your reputation, for better or for worse. Branding helps ensure everyone is pulling in the same direction, towards a common goal"
Sarah Boustouller, head of marketing and partner (non-solicitor), Stephensons
What use is a brand?
- Awareness. Unless you have a substantial marketing budget, your brand is unlikely to bring instant national recognition. But it provides a focus for your marketing and builds name-recognition with your target market.
- Attracting clients. Your brand tells clients what you can do for them, and what sets you apart. Clients feel that your firm is a good 'fit' for them.
- Credibility and trust. Clients understand what they can expect from you, and believe you will deliver it. A strong brand supports the cross-selling of services from other practice areas.
- Collaboration. Your brand provides a set of agreed core values for the firm. It helps build communication and trust between partners, instead of a series of autonomous silos.
- Lawyer development. The firm's brand supports associates and junior partners and helps them raise their profile. They get invitations to speak or join the board of a not-for-profit because the firm's name is trusted.
- Recruitment. Potential recruits have a better understanding of what the firm is about, and choose it over other alternatives.
- Pricing. A strong brand helps justify premium fees.
If clients "buy the lawyer, not the law firm", surely it's the lawyer's personal brand that really matters? Many lawyers, keen to develop their personal reputations, certainly think so. The reality is more nuanced.
For most clients, buying legal services is a two-stage process. Typically, the first stage – when they get a personal recommendation or search online – is about the firm. Does the firm feel right for them? The second stage, when they meet the lawyer, is about the person. This often holds true even when the first time they come into contact with the firm is through a particular partner.
In effect, the client is influenced by both the firm's brand and the individual's brand. The firm's reputation is strengthened by the reputations of the partners, and vice versa. Both the partners and the law firm as a whole should work to develop these brands. The firm's brand should be more than just the sum of the partners' individual reputations.
The reality can be more complex. Part of developing a brand for the law firm is creating processes that deliver a consistent client experience. But getting partners to follow these processes may be easier said than done. And what about that partner whose whole approach is just different?
If partners are allowed to just do their own thing, you may well be damaging your reputation and sowing the seeds of conflict. A well-managed branding process helps the partnership develop a consensus and encourages partners to buy in to what you agree.
"What's the firm's brand worth? When the partner who deals with a client retires, you soon find out"
Jon Baker, author and speaker, The Excedia Group
Defining your brand
You cannot simply decide what you want your brand to be. An authentic brand must reflect the reality of your firm's values and behaviour. Unlike most marketing, which starts by looking at what clients want, branding starts by looking at who you are.
If you haven't already, start the branding process with a discussion among the partners. What is the firm's purpose/ What are your core values? What is your vision of what you want to be? Which clients do you want to work with and what differentiates you from other firms?
You'll probably want to set up a team to take things forward, supported by a branding expert. Use surveys and workshops to involve associates and employees. You need to understand what they think the firm's brand is and how they would like the firm to develop in the future.
Look outwards to see what other people think of the firm. Review client feedback and media coverage. Actively solicit client opinions on every 'touchpoint' – what they see online, what it's like when they first contact you, their experience of dealing with lawyers and with administrative contacts. As well as what people think, how do they feel about the firm?
You should be able to come up with a small set of brand values that express what your firm is, or wants to be, about. But you'll also find that the way the firm behaves doesn't quite live up to that promise, and that the client experience could be improved.
Your brand identity
Asking questions helps you understand your own unique brand identity.
- Are you a specialist, with expertise in a particular sector or practice area, or do you offer a broad range of services?
- Are you local, national or global? What communities do you want to be a part of and how do you approach this?
- Which do you value more – technical expertise or commercial awareness?
- How focused are you on understanding client needs and providing excellent service? How responsive are you when clients contact you?
- How far do your concerns for ethics, justice and making a social contribution go – what difference do they make to the way your firm behaves?
- What is the firm's personality? Is it more heavily weighted towards efficiency and getting the right outcome, or being friendly and approachable?
- How do you see yourself positioned? Prestigious and with premium fees to match? Value-for-money low prices?
- How important are your history and traditions to the firm? Or are you more about being modern and innovative?
- What are the firm's weaknesses?
Compare yourselves with other firms, and how people perceive them. What differentiates you? If you are a mid-market firm offering a wide range of services, how do you stand out from all the other similar firms?
Using your brand
The key to a successful brand is consistency. Everything your firm does, and the way all your people behave, should reinforce your brand promise. Your firm's brand is reflected in the look of your offices, the way people dress and the quality of your marketing materials.
Engage everyone in the firm in thinking about how they can bring the brand to life. Identify processes where clients aren't getting the experience they should and make changes. Look at the whole client journey, from visiting your website or looking at a brochure onwards. Make sure employees and partners get the training they need.
At the same time, you can use your brand to help brief a designer to create a stronger visual identity for the firm. For many firms, this involves a bit of updating – less scales of justice and old-fashioned typefaces, more strong colours and a clean logo.
Build your marketing messages on your brand, so that you are communicating the values that set you apart. Update your website to match.
Everything matters, even processes where clients aren't directly involved – the way colleagues are treated is a reflection of your firm's personality. If everyone in the firm can 'live the brand', you create a powerful business culture and a firm that truly stands out.
"As far as branding goes, actions speak louder than words"
Ian Gandy, head of digital, Travelers
Branding top ten
- Be authentic – your brand must reflect who you really are.
- Build a partnership consensus on what the firm stands for.
- Address any conflict between individual partners and the firm's values.
- Involve and consult employees to understand what really happens.
- Listen to feedback from clients.
- Identify how you can differentiate yourselves from other firms.
- Develop processes that ensure the brand is consistently delivered.
- Focus on personal interactions between clients and the firm.
- Work with everyone in the firm to understand and live the brand.
- Develop a strong visual identity.