Law Firm Branding: A New Model for Differentiation

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Pillsbury Senior Business Development Manager Vanessa Petrea explores the age old question of who do clients hire - the law firm or the lawyer - and other branding model trends in her LMA Annual Conference 2019 recap.


Clients hire the lawyer, not the firm. At least that’s what general counsel often say. Kalev Peekna and Ryan Schulz of One North presented at the Legal Marketing Association’s annual conference and addressed this long-standing myth. Their session, “From PSO to PSB: A New Model for Creating Differentiated Brand Experiences,” provided compelling evidence that clients almost always hire more than just a lawyer. Attendees also learned about a new model to differentiate brands for professional services organizations (PSOs).

As if they had a crystal ball, Kalev and Ryan predicted that the general counsel panel the following day would include a comment by a panelist professing, “I hire the lawyer, not the law firm.” They were right. Less than 15 minutes into the program, a panelist said those exact words.

As a level set, Kalev and Ryan reminded us that our brands –personal and professional – aren’t always in our control. Your brand is comprised of what people say about you when you’re not in the room. Your brand is not your company name, logo, tagline, or color palette. And, branding impacts recruiting as much as business development efforts, which is why an intentional strategy is critical.

Firm branding, as the One North presenters made clear, absolutely impacts who companies hire. Would a GC of a Fortune 100 company really hire Morgan Smith from Smith & Associates, P.C. for a bet-the-company litigation? Doubtful. And proceed to pay that lawyer more than $1,000 an hour? Not likely.

The reality is that firm brands carry weight in a board room. C-suite executives and company leaders have perceptions about firms based on their branding efforts, intentional or unintentional.

For simplification, PSO brands should be thought of as the overarching umbrella brand. In the consumer products market, you might think about Coca-Cola, General Mills, or Tide. Under these household name brands, there are numerous sub-brands that have their own branding strategies, advertising budgets, and super fans.

Way back in 2015, legal marketing leaders were talking about brand differentiation using similar analogies. (e.g., do you buy General Mills or do you buy Cheerios?) John Hellerman penned an interesting Q&A article called “Minding Your Firm Brand” featuring branding advice from Jason Bovis, Peter Darling, and Mary Young. In it, Jason Bovis stated, “Historically, many firms have subscribed to the idea that law firm brands are nothing more than a mosaic of the individuals who comprise the firm. There is merit to this approach, but I see us moving into a new era in which the brand strategy of the law firm becomes essential.”

Kalev and Ryan would agree with Jason. As more proof, the Big Four accounting firms have already figured this out and are now moving into the legal sphere.

Brand differentiation strategies that work for consumer products don’t necessarily translate to the professional services world. Obvious pain points include complex ownership structures, lawyers “owning” their books of business, marketing and business development professionals reporting to different firm leaders, and, more importantly, a brand typically requires a singular vision from a singular leader.

Why should firms care about branding? Effective branding can drive revenue, create client stickiness, and attract and retain talent.

One North offered a branding model that encompasses three levels: (1) the firm, (2) practice/industry groups, and (3) individual lawyers. In practice, it might look like this scenario:

  • Firm Brand: Showing you the way.
  • Litigation Practice Brand: We help clients see around corners.
  • Lawyer Brand: Here are three examples of how I have helped clients anticipate what is around the corner.

Tackling a PSO brand is a multi-year effort. One North advised attendees to start by analyzing where you stack up at all three levels and look for internal champions at every level. If your firm already has a strong firm brand, consider a brand strategy for the practice or industry groups that aligns with the firm’s overall brand strategy as an actionable next step.

Individual lawyer brands are important but there are distinct benefits of creating a cohesive brand between the firm, the practice, and the lawyer. 

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