Law firms are a brand consultant’s worst nightmare. Unique selling points (USPs) are the alpha and the omega of branding (this car goes faster, this mobile phone has more functions) and new business ideas are rarely launched without one or more USPs.
But at the top end of the UK legal profession in particular, the differences between law firms are far subtler and genuine USPs are rare.
The facts about firms, such as size, global reach and diversity of offering, are rarely unique. And law firms’ assertions about themselves are never unique and usually impossible to quantify.
The central problem is that law firms struggle to define themselves and struggle painfully to articulate what differentiates them from their competitors.
It’s no good actually asking a lawyer what differentiates their firm from others, because you’ll always get the same response: quality, excellence in client service, speed of response, commercial thinking, innovation, dedication, yada yada…
These factors are not unique and simply do not differentiate one law firm from another. All they amount to is an assertion of a firm’s value system, and most firms believe the same things.
This continual misfire has led to a collective misconception: that law firms are practically impossible to differentiate and that, as one HR director at a top firm puts it: “If you move from one top law firm to another, you’re really only changing the view out of the window.”
Oddly, although lawyers may not be able to articulate what makes them different, they do know what differentiates them at an intuitive level. Everyone knows that it feels different in Clifford Chance’s building talking to Clifford Chance lawyers than in, say, Allen & Overy’s (A&O) building talking to A&O lawyers. The differences may be subtle, but they are there.
The differences between firms are – common sense bit coming up here – in fact an agglomeration of thousands of micro-differences. Call it culture if you like – it lives and breathes in every part of every firm.
But how to articulate that in an external brand? Most law firm branding exercises end up being a bland run-through of values, and provoke apathy at best, cynicism at worst. Few firms are brave enough to really try to be themselves. Messaging is sanded down, visuals are muted and desperate designers fall back on safe, hackneyed images that candidates, unsurprisingly, find patronising in the extreme.
Only in the area of graduate recruitment are the brands allowed to breathe. Here they are often beautifully executed, if occasionally veering into the kind of ‘funky for the kids’ naffness that is like watching your dad dance to Dizzee Rascal.
Be under no illusions – every single piece of information, every view of every client or observer about every law firm in the market has its point of origin with the law firm itself. Culture is key. Values underpin culture, but in themselves are useless as external markers. It’s like asking someone what a particular building looks like and having them show you pictures of the steel and concrete frame.
Externalising a law firm’s culture into a workable employer brand is the Holy Grail, but the delightful thing about it, if it’s done right, is that each employer brand will be just as unique as the law firm it represents.
How to get it right is another question entirely. After all, you’ll always know when you don’t find the Grail. Getting it right means properly understanding the culture of such complex, fascinating organisations, not simply trotting out a set of generic value statements, and having the creative skills to articulate the subtleties in visual and textual ways across an increasing variety of media.
Until then, the bland plays on.