Law Firm Brand Awareness (or Lack Thereof)

Jeremy Hessing-Lewis

Where are the Law Firm Brands?

Ask your neighbour/brother/Facebook friend to name a law firm. What’s the first name that pops into their head? In most cases, your neighbour will hem and haw before drawing a blank. Why? Because there really aren’t any dominant legal brands.

While some might attribute this lack of brand awareness to the relatively small number of decision makers (mostly corporate executives and in-house counsel) who retain large law firms, this explanation falls apart when you consider the relative familiarity of accounting brands like Deloitte, PWC, and H&R Block. In legal speak, law firm brand awareness can be described as sui generis

Two Exceptions

There are two exceptions in the world of law where firms have actually been able to carve out something of a public profile. The first exception belongs to the local personal injury firms featuring prominently in the Yellow Pages or in outdated local  tv ads. Often the brand message of these firms is diluted down to the image of middle-aged white men speaking in platitudes about their ability to fight for your rights.

The other exception, at least in our market, is Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP. While Fasken’s obviously spends a considerable amount of money on marketing, their brand awareness is mostly due to their affiliation with the Vancouver Canucks. Not only are they counsel to the Canucks, but they also have their brand prominently displayed on the boards at Rogers Arena (in company with Viagra, Tim Hortons, and Save-On-Foods).  For an average game, the Canucks draw over 20,000 fans to the arena while another 600,000 to 1.5 million enjoy the game at home. During last year’s playoff run, Fasken’s received top billing as over 10 million viewers per game tuned-in to watch the final round. With every cross-ice pass or crushing hit into the boards, Fasken’s logo burrowed deeper into the public imagination.

Components of Brand Awareness

I’ll leave a thorough definition of brand awareness to Wikipedia. For our purposes, I’m hoping to answer the following question: “What combination of factors create brand awareness?” In my books, there are two pieces to this equation: the brand itself and visibility.

1. The Brand Itself

The brand is your firm’s trademark and personality. It is an asset developed to carry your firm’s goodwill forward. Interestingly, many firms are only now turning their attention to the firm’s brand.

Part of what we do at Skunkworks is develop brands for law firms. This generally means that we prepare a corporate identity package for the firm with accompanying print collateral. We draw inspiration from core practice areas, the style of the partners, and general aesthetic considerations. Currently, Law firm branding is at a fairly interesting junction. With the rise of international firms, the retirement of founding partners, and the popularity of law corporations, law firms are finally beginning to embrace innovative and creative brands.

While it may not be surprising from a marketing perspective, a firm’s brand needs to be both distinctive and memorable. Examples of strong brands include Smart & Biggar or MOFO. A relatively weak brand might be Davies, Ward, Philips & Wineberg LLP, which having been shortened to Davies, is now both nondescript and dangerously close to Davis.

2. Visibility

Once you’ve developed your trademark and brand identity, you need to find ways to make your brand visible to prospective clients. For firms drawing their clients from outside an elite group of corporate executives, this requires that the brand be seen by the general public and understood in the context of legal practice. There tend to be two major barriers at this stage. First, lawyers are conservative and generally prefer to receive business via personal referrals (often for good reason). What’s more, taking risks with innovative brand awareness campaigns is generally frowned upon by legal peers or by the law societies themselves. To some extent, prospective clients also expect their lawyers to keep a low-profile. High visibility lawyers are often viewed as grandstanding or just plain sleazy (ambulance chasers).

Second, visibility costs money. Traditional high visibility platforms such as the Yellow Pages or Television advertising are very expensive (although relatively cheap compared to sponsoring the Canucks). These platforms also tend to work better for firms with narrow retail-type boutique practices with high-volume client bases rather than general practice firms. For this reason, it’s often the personal injury lawyers or immigration lawyers at full practice firms who are keen on brand awareness. Invariably, other partners are reluctant to foot a bill for a marketing effort in support of one area of the firm.

Fortunately, online options (display ads, social media, etc) now offer an affordable middle-ground between doing nothing and blimp ads. Particularly appealing is that online ad networks offer pricing based on visibility. For example, you can pay for banner ads by the number of impressions they receive. You pay X amount of dollars for Y amount of people to see your message/brand.

Conclusion

Law firms are slowly turning their attention to brand awareness. From sole-practitioners to national firms, we’re seeing an increase in the willingness of lawyers to invest in branding. So why hasn’t Skunkworks developed stronger brand awareness for its clients?

  1. We’re working on it. We are lucky to have some pretty great clients. Not only do they invest in marketing, but they are also interested in keeping their firms visible among professionals and the general public. Brand awareness takes time and we have several retainer clients for whom we aim to expand their brands over the coming months and years.
  2. It’s still expensive. Branding can carry a considerable up-front cost. By developing case studies and attempting to gauge return on investment, we hope to make a compelling case for building law firm brand awareness. We’re also constantly reviewing new channels to increase visibility while reducing costs.
  3. Law firms are changing. From flat rate billing to mega-firms, the practice of law is undergoing a period of change. Part of this process involves the corporatization of law firm business models. While a lawyer’s name was once a brand unto itself, this doesn’t translate into modern firms. As law firms adjust, we’ll be seeing more interest in branding.

By the close of my career, I’d be willing to bet that there will  be an H&R Block, a Ferrari, and a Starbucks of law. I guess we’ll see.

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