Posted by Neil Rose, Editor, Legal Futures
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.