Branding and Other Useless Legal Marketing Activities

Contrarian views on Legal Marketing from an unorthodox legal marketer.

While not immediately apparent, the 9/11 tragedies affected the way in which we view advertisements. There is a heightened awareness of the unessential and the hollow, and wise legal marketers will avoid high-concept initiatives.

First off, the 'big, new ideas' out there are neither big nor new. Legal marketing is just now falling prey to the marketing gimmickry that plagued California start-up companies in the nineties.

There are certainly plenty of "award-winning" big idea merchants out there ready to spend law firm money on the sort of bold branding techniques more common to consumer products companies. The strategy is always the same: spend a lot of money, develop an "identity," congratulate yourself, repeat.

Currently in vogue, we have the preferred advertising style of the late nineteen-nineties, the abstract conceptualism that supposedly establishes law firm brand via bold and essentially incoherent association with nature or art (just like how when you see a lush waterfall or idyllic, muted landscape, you're supposed to think "I should buy a Lexus!"). Whether or not such a strategy was ever appropriate for a law firm is debatable, but it seems especially false in the post-9/11 world, where a bubbling brook or windswept landscape as a background to a discussion of legal services seems odd at best, offensive at worst.

From my perspective, putting really serious money into law firm branding is probably a waste of both time and energy. A law firm's true "brand" is its hard-earned reputation, its demonstrated excellence in specific areas of legal practice, and, for better or worse (mostly worse) it's rankings in various surveys (such as AmLaw).

Branding Missteps

Law firms' costly marketing mistakes are legion, but I would like to mention just two examples here that I think are illustrative of my point that high concept, no matter how sexy, does not always translate.

The first example of marketing world conceptualism not translating well to law world reality involves a seemingly simple and innocuous issue: font. A major law firm, on the American Lawyer 100 list, not too long ago deployed a new firm identity incorporating an unknown but (at least in the opinion of the outside designers who chose it) classy and stylish font. The problem -- and nobody bothered to think about these issues before the new font was deployed firm-wide -- was that the font was so uncommon that none of the firms' stakeholders (clients, vendors, et cetera) could view it on their computers. Further, the owner of the font (in case you didn't know, the creators of fancy fonts like to enforce their copyrights) required a royalty every time it was used. The total cost of the fiasco -- including the wasted time, aggravation, and the still uncalculated costs of the IT-department retread -- diluted whatever style and concept impact the new font might have had to the point of irrelevance. In a less text-intensive business this sort of font goof would not be a very big deal, but in law firm, the business of which requires production and consumption of reams of text on both screen and paper, usability, and not style concept, should have been the driving rule.

In another example, a major firm, on the AmLaw 100 list, spent a large sum of money on a brilliant new recruiting campaign. The campaign was fresh, distinct and immediately spotlighted the cleverness of the firm's marketing staff. It got rave reviews from law students who enjoyed the quirky humor, and from journalists who were delighted to finally have something vaguely interesting to say in regards to legal marketing. But there was one small problem. Although the campaign arguably raised the firm's name recognition quotient among prospective associates, it had no impact on whether those lawyers ultimately chose to work for the firm or not. It became rapidly obvious that the sort of attorney who makes career decisions based on marketing campaigns was not really the sort of attorney the firm wanted. When implementing the campaign, nobody bothered to ask the difficult return-on-investment questions that other businesses, having been burned by marketing in the past, now instinctively ask. If the recruiting campaign results in one additional "star" associate that otherwise would not have made it through the doors, then the firm has just spent several years of that associate's salary to get her there. Someone should have asked precisely how many "star" associates would be required to justify the cost of the recruiting campaign. Also, and this is something I keep forgetting but am reminded of when I speak with law students or young lawyers: they are pretty savvy. As one New York University law student sagely remarked to me while I was writing this article: If you keep saying you're not about hype then you're probably about nothing but hype.

Low-Cost Marketing Steps

There are many simple, low-cost steps a firm can take to immediately make their marketing materials more usable. Full text searchability of all materials on a firm's website is one. This allows users, such as potential clients, to obtain a focused result: practice areas, articles, biographies, all tied to the potential client's area of interest. This allows the potential client to obtain the information they are interested in immediately, rather than having to troll through general website copy that by definition is indistinguishable from any other law firm website.

Tying lawyer articles and educational materials into the practice focus is another simple but effective improvement that firms can make to their websites. That way, when users reads a practice description detailing an attorney's expertise in a particular area of law they can instantly link to a scholarly article proving the fact.

Yet another step, one that may seem radical now but will likely become more common in time, is to require each associate in the firm to contribute something to the firm's website or promotional materials each month or two. Contributions could include a short article, a bit of research on a rapidly evolving area of law that the firm's clients are interested in, or anything, really, that shows the attorneys' involvement with the business of the firm's clients as well as the wider community.

CRM programs (customer relationship management) for law firms can be very useful as well, and worth spending money on, but there must be an underlying commitment from the firm's lawyers to actually use the systems, because experience shows that most lawyers won't bother. FindLaw and other legal resource websites have extensive archived analyses of contact-management and other legal marketing productivity tools.

Effective, focused pitch materials are also increasingly useful and important. A law firm can, with relatively limited time and cost, assess a potential client's needs and customize a pitch using all of the communication tools it has available. It is certainly time to go beyond the 8.5 by 11 pitch letter. A good Powerpoint presentation is a start, but there is an even better tool, one that I think will become more popular in the near future: a discrete, secure section of the firm website where prospective clients can go (when provided with a temporary username and password) to access the kind of information that is too detailed and client-specific for the public website but that, unlike hard copy pitch materials, fully utilizes links and interactivity. This allows the client to learn about the firm through an active experience rather than simply passively receiving a pitch. By tying the firm's website to pitches and client development, and providing learning experiences for potential clients, the firm leverages the value of all its marketing and communications materials.

In conclusion, experience, usefulness, steadiness, client-focus, all the traits that law firms are supposed to stand for, are still in high demand. Perhaps even more so in the post-9/11 environment. Those firms that protect their long-standing reputations will be in a good position, and the firms that were once embarrassed by their boring and respectable images will probably be glad they never tinkered with them. While it is never easy to quantify the value of marketing, law firms would be well advised to remember that usability and intelligent communication should always supersede the more nebulous goals of concept and style. The best advice to lawyers in the post-9/11 world is to remember that they are still lawyers.