Putting the “service” into legal services (and having fun with law firm taglines)

Posted by Neil Rose, Editor, Legal Futures

A lawyer and their client tell each other what they want

It is often said that the commercial lawyers have less and less in common with their high street counterparts, but as the Financial Times/Managing Partners Forum survey demonstrates, both share the ability to not really understand what their clients want.

The problem, it would seem, is that lawyers think they know what their clients want. Or, perhaps, they know what they think their clients should want.

First of all their clients should want expert lawyers. I’m sure they do, but the reality is that there are dozens of substantial commercial law firms, most of whom could probably do the job equally well. Differentiation is a conundrum that keeps marketing people busy/in a job, and I don’t pretend there’s an easy answer (but this also explains why, budget pressures aside, it will come down to fees more often than the lawyers think it should).

So they then talk about their dedication to personal service/being down to earth/client focus/commercial mindedness etc etc. The problem is that everyone else’s messages are the same, so these are not boasts that are much help to anyone.

I spent half an hour going through a random selection of law firm websites. They all say pretty much the same thing. It was interesting to see some of the taglines firms’ branding wonks have dreamt up, from the somewhat basic “The Law Specialists” (Hull firm Andrew Jackson), through the rather wordy but rhyming “Giving you a lot more than just law” (Watford firm Matthew Arnold & Baldwin), “Everything matters” (does it really, DLA Piper?) and finally my favourite, “Making law make sense” (south-coast firm Eric Robinson).

Here are a few others: “It’s business. But it’s personal” (Mishcon de Reya having it both ways), “Clear concise advice” (Berrymans Lace Mawer), “Law, less ordinary” (slightly mystifying from Browne Jacobson), “Understanding relationships” (a bit dull from Charles Russell), “One firm worldwide” (Jones Day), “A business law firm with a distinctive approach” (DWF).

You can find some good ones in the US, unsurprisingly (and thanks to Stem Legal for pulling these together): “Damn fine litigators” (Foster Townsend Graham), “Great lawyers. Great law firm” (the modest Dickinson Wright) and perhaps the tagline that every big law firm should have, “All we do is work” (Jackson Lewis). My all-time favourite, however, is “Lawyers you’ll swear by, not at” (Harris Beach). It shows a sense of corporate humour that is extraordinarily rare.

I wonder if that is reflected in the client experience – in fact, I wonder if any of these and many other claims are really in the DNA of the firms making them, given the contrary, individualistic, pig-headed nature of many lawyers. To use, reluctantly, a very modern phrase, do firms really live their values?

It is easy to sit here and scoff at law firms’ sometimes amateurish efforts at branding (which is why I’ve done it). That one can name the very few practices that actually have carved out a distinctive profile on the back of particular expertise (think Herbert Smith for litigation, or Slaughter and May for corporate) reinforces the point. And then, of course, clients are often buying individuals rather than firms, so you wonder about the point of the whole thing anyway.

I’m no expert on these things, and could well be totally wrong to imply that many firms are building up brands and values without talking to their clients first. Because rather than focus on what the firm thinks it does well, surely the starting point should simply be listening to the clients and giving them what they want? It may sound like anarchy but that, this survey suggests, could be an excellent way to differentiate yourself from the competition. Who knows, maybe this service industry (the clue is in the term “legal services”) may even start acting like one.


    Readers Comments

  • Louise Restell says:

    As usual, spot on. I wonder if law firms are alone in this…you wouldn’t find many other service industries (and certainly not products) that would come up with branding without focus grouping it to death first. But I am pretty sure that my old firm (who shall remain nameless, ahem) came up with all their branding without really testing it on their customers (as you would expect, I gave them some feedback…)

    If you were being generous you could argue that they were being aspriational, but I think it’s more likely that they realise they have to have some sort of branding but they don’t really know what it’s about.

    At the risk of making myself unpopular with yet another professional group, I feel a bit about marketing staff in law firms the same way I do about HR staff in small organisations – if you were any good you wouldn’t be working here….

  • Kathryn says:

    The thing is, is that law firms have only quite recently got onto the fact they the law is no longer a mysterious area of ancient tomes and latin phrases and they are being forced to compete in a commercial market just like any other ‘product’.

    The application of the law is pretty straightforward in business, in the sense that you do it, do it on time and do it for a reasonable fee and apart from th essential expertise, there is very little left to differentiate yourself with. And there is only so low you can go with fees.

    The opportunity for marketing and brand-building is immense but I feel that law firms are a somewhat restricted, having to maintain a highly professional and formal image whilst seeking ways to distinguish themselves from their competitors.

    I cannot speak for other firms, but we are supported to live the values of our company and we do a lot within our community. It is my own opinion that our ‘extra-curricular’ activities increase the perception of our firm as being dynamic and also sucessful, but whether this translates into more business and cements customer relations remains to be seen…..

  • Really interesting read. I absolutely agree that you should start by looking at things from the client’s perspective – what do they want to buy rather than what services can I sell them?

    As you say people hire lawyers through recommendation and personal introduction – people buy people whatever the industry. A good start point would be to think about where to get out and meet potential clients and ask them what they need…

    We challenge leaders to think differently about their clients and differentiate their offering.

  • Interesting to read about all these taglines. I’ve just written a blog post over on our (Azrights) blog http://t.co/ADrINFE which was saying how important it is to try to ensure any brand elements like tag lines are capable of trade mark protection. Many of those you mention are not at all distinctive… I’ve also written about law firm differentiation on my personal blog which is linked to in the earlier blog mentioned. The message in the blog piece is that fims should take proper time to understand what differentiation actually means, and do their homework before engaging marketing or branding professionals. Otherwise, the danger is that they throw a lot of money at it, and still end up without anything worthwhile to show for it.

  • James Hunt says:

    This made me smile.

    At the risk of being too serious my thoughts are these.

    First generation law firms take their culture and hence their “branding” and unstated tagline from the founder partner. Stanley Berwin of Berwin Leighton and S J Berwin springs to mind. I wonder what Herbert Smith was like as a man and a lawyer. What too of Mr Slaughter and Mr May?

    The High Street law firm also took its name and unstated tagline from its founders who “put up their brass plates”. They were “men of affairs” known and respected in their local community.

    As sole practitioners their branding was their name and local reputation and doubtless the same with the small City firms started by Mr Clifford-Turner and Mr Coward and Mr Chance

    Firms now need the scale and so a common brand and tagline that defines the culture is needed. But how to embrace the individualistic and contrary when few firms have strong leadership from a founder entrepreneur? The answer is to “start again” and the recession combined with the legal “Big Bang” is going to provide the environment for that to happen.

    Cometh the hour cometh the men with their brands and taglines….

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