I was participating in a law firm marketing conference in Sydney, Australia recently.  I heard speaker after speaker emphasize the importance of firms creating a strong brand so that clients have a greater association with the law firm than any individual lawyer.  Now, isn’t that the dumbest thing you ever heard?

This goes back to the conventional wisdom that law firms should “institutionalize” their clients so that the clients’ relationships are with the firm rather than any individual lawyer.  The value in this is that the client is bound to the firm which makes cross-selling easier, permits easy substitution of lawyers on engagements, and (the real reason) makes it harder for defecting lawyers to take their clients with them.  On its face, this institutionalization sounds like a wonderful idea.  The only glitch is that, with rare exceptions, it doesn’t work.

Here’s the problem.  There is an old maxim that clients don’t hire law firms, they hire lawyers.  Of course, the way sayings become old maxims is that they turn out to be true, and that is certainly the case as to the way that clients purchase legal services.  While law firms aspire to be like Ernst & Young or McKinsey, where the firm name sells, only a few firms – just a handful – have reached this level.  In fact, there is a simple test of the value of your firm’s brand in the buying decision.  Ask your receptionist or whoever answers the firm’s general number how many phone calls come in asking to speak to “a lawyer” about an engagement (not counting the guy who wanders into your waiting room with a shopping cart and a tinfoil hat).  Then, ask somebody in the mailroom how many RFP’s arrive addressed simply to the firm.

The difference between law firms and any other professional services firm goes to the core of our legal system.  English law gives individuals the right to appoint a personal representative to act on their behalf.  This privileged personal relationship is rivaled only by the doctor-patient and priest-confessor relationship.  And, while we have evolved from the one-to-one relationship between lawyer-client, the principle continues, even between the people who hire lawyers on behalf of global corporations and members of 3000 attorney law firms.

Despite our desire to institutionalize clients, we encourage lawyers to write articles, give speeches, and become involved in civic organizations and anything else that build their personal reputation.  Then, when they have successfully created an individual brand, we fail to use it to the law firm’s benefit.

So, what does this mean to law firm branding efforts?  I think there are three lessons to be learned:

1.  Branding, as most firms try to do it, is almost impossible to do.  Trying to convince potential clients that Smith & Jones “means business” is a scheme designed to enrich their public relations firm.  (The first time I gave my father a stock tip from my broker he asked me, “If he’s so smart, how come he’s not rich?”  Ask the same question of your PR agency – what’s their brand?)

We sometimes forget that there is a big difference between name recognition and a brand.  If you want name recognition, murder your spouse.  It will be in all the papers and everyone will know your name.  If you want a brand, become real good at something very specific.  Want a benchmark?  Harley-Davidson owners tattoo the company logo on their bodies.  Now, that’s branding.

2.  Brand based on dominance.  Wachtel may be one of the few nationally branded law firms in the U.S.  Its brand is a boutique law firm that does the largest and most sophisticated corporate transactions.  But, if you look at their website you’ll see that they do litigation, real estate, bankruptcy and all the other stuff general practice law firms do.  How could they possibly build a brand as a 150 attorney general practice firm in a city where it takes 500 lawyers to be invited to the game?   Instead, they knowingly (or luckily) built a brand on their area of dominance which, as luck would have it, happens to be the practice that is the most capable of spinning off other work in other areas.

The key is they chose an area of dominance and built the brand around it.  That’s not politically popular in many firms, especially among partners in practices that don’t enjoy dominance, but it’s the only way that it works.  One of the most successful, recently developed brands is Starbucks.  When you think of Starbucks you think of coffee, but go into a Starbucks store and you’ll see 138 (at last count) non-coffee items, ranging from music CDs to breath mints, that have nothing to do with coffee.  But, you’ll never see Starbucks try to roll that stuff into their dominance-based brand.

3.  Support individual brands.  If you have the preeminent lawyer in a practice area or industry, use her or him.  Build the brand around the strengths of individual lawyers.  If that’s the way the marketplace wishes to identify and select law firms, cater to it rather than trying to change the marketplace.  Sure, there is a risk that the person may leave and take clients along.  But the stronger the individual brand, the more it gets tied to the law firm and the greater the risk to the individual of losing the brand in a defection.

When a lawyer has worked hard to create his or her own brand, position your firm to support the brand and take advantage of it.  It is a futile waste of a valuable asset to do otherwise.