How then is “true” branding accomplished?

First we must be honest with ourselves. A firm’s brand is in essence the firm’s collective persona and unique service offering—it should tell all who do business with the firm, friend and foe alike, what the firm stands for. A firm’s brand must evolve out of the inspired values of the firm’s leadership—it cannot be dreamed up by advertising executives. For a brand to be compelling, it must be real. It must be an honest expression of the true culture and values of the firm. There must be a strong and tangible alignment between what a firm really is and what it says it is. The first step must be to understand what the firm is now. From that starting point, we begin to figure out where the leadership would like to take it. In some sense, branding is a process of reinvention. I have found that the firms that need this process the most are the least willing to buy into it. There is no easy answer or shortcut to the process. That’s because you can’t brand what you are not—no matter how clever your marketing consultants might be.

Are you saying these types of descriptions won’t attract clients?

No, they may indeed attract clients, and they may very well be what the firm is all about or part of what it’s about. But chances are, unless the firm’s leadership has gone through the process of figuring out what really is important to them and has clearly articulated it, the branding process is a guessing game. Sometimes this results in a kind of window dressing—a pretense or a show for the sake of image. This does not result in powerful branding. Here’s one way to find out if a firm is clear about who it is: Ask five of the firm’s partners to describe the firm and what distinguishes their firm from the rest. In most firms you’ll get five separate responses. If the firm’s leadership does not know what it stands for, how will its clients and the market at large?

What is your position on firms employing sales teams?

I am skeptical. It may not be fair, and I know that I may not be on friendly ground here—but I don’t believe that sales, as we commonly understand this term, is especially suitable to how lawyers acquire new clients or get engaged in new matters. This is especially true if the ones doing the selling are not themselves lawyers. First and foremost, lawyers are selling themselves—their experience, their judgment, and their ability to counsel clients. Legal representation is a relationship-intensive process. Our job as lawyers is to counsel clients, provide them with options, and help them separate the emotional side of a problem from the facts—and if that job is done well, then the client is in a much better position having received our counsel, and we have gone a long way toward earning the client’s trust. Trust is like planting seeds, and the ones that plant and nurture this trust should be the lawyers. Few people will argue with the idea that the best place to get new business is from your existing clients—and clients are impacted by good lawyering driven by client-centric service values, not firm-designated sales representatives.

What about those who argue that “true” salesmanship is about consistently delivering higher levels of client service?

Now we are really getting into semantics—if you want to define salespeople as firm employees who are committed to providing clients with high levels of service (preparing and coordinating meetings, assisting clients, and pampering them in wonderful ways) then call them what they are—client service representatives. Such people have as their primary responsibility making sure that the clients they are assigned to remain satisfied. If clients are not satisfied, they let the partners know fast, and getting clients what they need becomes a team effort. Also, such people are in a perfect position to help out with satisfaction assessments and suggest and implement ways of offering higher levels of service. But this is different from going out to find new business. The intention is different. So is the result.

Are we getting hung up on the word “sales”?

Of course we are, but more importantly, the clients are hung up on it, and that’s what really counts. If a firm seeks to acquire more clients by using teams of salespeople, why would they use a term that emotes such negativity? One of the major roles of marketing people is to ensure that clients don’t get turned off by a firm. Lawyers deal in highly personal matters, and prospective clients often come to them in a very vulnerable state. What clients seek is information—the options and the strength of the firm’s experience and judgment. This, as I see it, is the job of lawyers, not salespeople.

If a firm decides to use salespeople (or whatever they decide to call them), the marketing department supports their efforts in the same way it would support the efforts of anyone else in the firm who deals with clients. This is called “service management,” and the marketing department must play a major role in pushing these efforts through the firm and to the clients, where they belong.

So you don’t believe firms should market themselves?

Of course they should market themselves—but we must first agree on what it means to market. If you think that marketing is just a nice way of saying “sales,” then I’d say no to marketing. If you’re saying that marketing is a nice way of saying advertising and promotion, then I would caution you that you may be taking a very limited view of marketing, and I would ask you broaden your perspective. In fact, the idea of “perspective” goes to the heart of what marketing is all about. You might say that how lawyers view marketing is often why marketing is such a highly charged subject and so difficult for lawyers to get their minds around.

Is it possible to advertise too much?

Yes, especially at the consumer level. Too much advertising can result in media overload, making choosing firms seem difficult and arbitrary. I also think that media overload can result in over saturation of the marketplace; too many firms are vying for the same viewer. Firms—particularly those at the consumer market level that represent clients in matters of personal injury, family law, criminal defense, taxes, and bankruptcy—can find themselves competing for advertising space with other local firms. What becomes problematic is that lawyers begin to see client acquisition solely through the lens of advertising and promotion.

Are you saying that firms rely too much on promotion?

Actually the real problem is far more fundamental and pervasive: Law firms have mistaken promotion for marketing. Seeing client acquisition solely through the lens of advertising and promotion is dangerously counterproductive. It offers a limited perspective that puts law firms on a collision course with the unique service demands of practicing law. It is not that “marketing” is fundamentally at odds with the practice of law. I think just the opposite is true. But when promotion—and, particularly, advertising—becomes marketing rather than one element of it, law firms can find themselves flirting with trouble.

Law firms are service-driven enterprises. Client loyalty is built around relationship-building, information, and trust. Marketing is more about defining service in the context of clients’ wants and needs than about running local television commercials or coming up with clever new tag lines.

Today, thanks to an increasing presence of in-house marketing and practice development professionals, firms are beginning to understand a much broader meaning of marketing. Similarly, firms are finding new and better ways of delivering service that is consistent with their commitment to both their clients and their profession.

How should firms think of marketing?

Marketing is more about firm values than it is about coming up with bigger ads and smarter slogans. Marketing works best when there is no separation—no inconsistency—between what a firm says it is and what it actually is every day. Marketing done well shapes the experience clients and others have with the firm. It adds to others’ perceptions of the firm. For the lawyer, this type of marketing requires a willingness to try on different perspectives; different ways of thinking. Some say this is contrary to how lawyers have been trained to think. Lawyers are said to be too rigid in their thinking; too linear in their logic. I really take exception to this. I think they have an enormous capacity to think from different perspectives—it’s just a matter of shifting perspective from the lawyer mind to the marketing mind.

Do you think Elvis is still alive?

Approach>Q & A    
Copyright 2014 Henry Alan Dahut. All rights reserved.