A View from New York

Recently, a US law firm provided me with what it thought was its public relations mandate. “What are you going to do to help us 'brand' our firm?” it asked. “What would you like to brand?” I replied. Out came its list of 12 practice areas. “Twelve?” I asked. Forget it. Branding by definition is owning a word, or at most a phrase, in the minds of prospects and clients. Yet law firms, with their flat decision-making partnerships and resultant inability to prioritise, are constantly asking their marketing professionals to brand the un-brandable.

Nike doesn't try to brand all its lines of athletic equipment and apparel. Instead, it works hard to affiliate the concept of getting off the couch and exercising – to “Just do it”. That's branding. What position does your firm own?

The law firm experience with branding has been an uncertain one worldwide. In the US, we've seen a mixed bag. In some instances, firms here have achieved notable successes. Some developed brands simply by pursuing specific practice areas: Skadden Arps Slate Meager & Flom developed an M&A brand as a result of its extraordinary early history targeting that business. Skadden Arps' M&A brand certainly persists, even though the firm underwent massive practice area diversification in the ensuing years.

Today, US law firms such as Shaw Pittman are more consciously intent on developing a brand identity as they develop specific practice niches. In Shaw Pittman's case, those niches include IP and outsourcing. Thus, an inveterate firm like Hale and Dorr has decided to totally revamp its identity to feature high-tech oriented law, and it is centering all its marketing efforts around that emergent identity. It doesn't matter whether or not it calls it branding. That's what it is doing and I'm sure it would be happy to admit it.

'High-tech' helps define brands based on legal expertise or a targeted industry or both. Most brands reflect some combination of expertise and industry. In Los Angeles, Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp has decided that its long and eminent history as an entertainment firm is a springboard to an IP and venture capital brand. It wants to be known as LA's only real Silicon Valley law firm.

In Washington, Howrey & Simon branded itself the nation's biggest complex litigation boutique, and capped off the brand evolution with the tag line, “In Court Every Day.” I spoke the other day to a lawyer in Kansas City who is not a litigator, but who approvingly recognised the Howrey tag at once.

A few firms, but not many, have succeeded with a more generalised approach based on their institutional cultures or histories. Shearman & Sterling took a look at its history and realised that its legal work for the likes of Abe Lincoln and Jay Gould was very innovative, so it drew a skein from the past to the present. The brand: “We were big and innovative then, we're big and innovative now, we'll be big and innovative tomorrow.” Someone suggested the line: “1,000 Lawyers. No Wait.” The firm declined.

Unfortunately, these are salient minority examples. Most US law firms still look very much alike. The problem is that virtually all law firms think that, simply by changing the name of their marketing efforts to branding, they can somehow dominate a market. Equally problematic, US law firms spend on average only 1.5 per cent of their budgets on marketing. Their clients spend 15 per cent.

Branding requires three elements: being first in a category; being focused; and a substantial budget. By definition, branding requires being first – name the second person to fly solo across the Atlantic. Studies in the corporate sector show that, in one 25-year period, 80 per cent of those products that had branded and were first in the minds of their consumers remained first 25 years later. In other words, branding is an investment, not an expense.

US firms have many excuses not to brand. Law firms are partnerships and find it nearly impossible to make this kind of decision. Lawyers have little or no experience in marketing and feel the need to bring lawyering analysis to the marketing discussions. And, of course, they don't want to spend the money.

On the other end, in less than five years, there will be 10 to 15 global law firms. Most of these will be law firms that have successfully branded.

Richard Levick is the president of Levick Strategic Communications and can be contacted at rlevick@levick.com.

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