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March 9, 2011 6:48 PM

A Cleansing Look at Law Firm Marketing and Messaging

Posted by Aric Press

Ken Grady is a lawyer who knows about branding. As general counsel to Wolverine World Wide, Inc., he handles legal issues for a company with 4,000 trademarks and 12 household name brands—Hush Puppies, Merrill Shoes, Wolverine boots, among them.

So Grady smiles as he compares the law firm marketing he sees to an old commercial for Bacon Bits in which an owner is talking to her dog. And all the dog can hear is: “Blah, blah, blah, Bacon Bits. Blah, blah, blah, Bacon Bits.”

Given the dog’s interests, that message works pretty well. But not so much with potential clients, Grady told the opening session of Georgetown Law School’s annual conference on the state of law firms and their clients. “With law firms, it’s become ‘blah, blah, blah Law Firm name. Blah, blah, blah, Law Firm name.’ Try asking general counsel about what stood out after listening to a law firm (pitch), and we can’t tell you anything,” he says.

The conference, hosted by the law school's Center for the Study of Legal Profession, started with a brief and bracing call from Mitt Regan, the center’s codirector. Regan described the legal profession as having lived through a “series of shock waves” in recent years, with some of them accelerated by the great recession--and all of them leading to fundamental shifts in how “we think about providing legal services.” In Regan's view, clients are now seeking more efficiency, innovation, and flexibility--pressures that he thought had even begun to be felt at law schools.

The initial panel during which Grady ran through a series of pop culture references that didn’t reflect well on his law firm suitors opened with Lisa Hart, the head of legal research firm Acritas, reviewing the buying habits of the world’s largest clients. Based on five years of survey data, Hart reported that:

•Favorable impressions are based more on expertise and service than price or “savvy.”

*More than half of the time, decisions to hire firms are based on practice and geographic expertise. Cost is less important.

*Expertise and service are the key factors in retaining relationships.

*And service is the most important element in leading clients to recommend firms to others.

Grady didn’t quibble with the research, but said that he really takes general expertise for granted. What he wants from law firms that come around seeking his business, he said, is expertise tailored to his needs. “What I’m really looking for is can you deliver specific skills relevant to what I do in a way that is of value to me and my clients,” he said.

By contrast, Grady said that what he sees from too many firms is analogous to an early scene in the film Pretty Woman. He recalls that the wealthy, lonely millionaire client portrayed by Richard Gere turns to Julia Roberts, playing an unusually attractive prostitute he's just met and asks her, “What’s your name?” Her reply: “What would you like it to be?”

Often, Grady said, when he meets with law firms, “I feel like Richard Gere. ‘What do you do,’ I ask the firm, and they say, ‘What would you like us to do?’ This may be a bitter pill for some firms but you don’t do everything.”

In his view--and in the view of others on the panel including Wendy Bernero, the chief marketing officer at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson and Jolene Overbeck, the CMO at Hogan Lovells--branding is  about making and keeping promises to clients. Grady said that when he hired a firm to handle some of his European, Middle East, and African work, the firm in question made two promises.

First, the firm said it had experience in his retail sector and could deliver a “cohesive practice unit” rather than just cobbling together firm lawyers who had once handled some sort of retail matter sometime in their careers. Second, they could deliver efficient service, including parceling some of it out to other providers. Both promises, he said, were kept.

The session ended with a brief and amusing talk from Dan Ross, president of Wechsler Ross & Partners, a New York branding firm. Ross described a survey that WRP conducted a few years back searching the Web sites of the Global 25 law firms.

Ross said that what he found was that 18 of the firms had described themselves using some variation of “global,” “leading,” and “excellent.” The others sought to be different. But four failed, opting for declarations that either weren’t client focused—“community!"—or were too vague to be helpful—“everything matters!” Ross singled out Greenberg Traurig’s “built for change” for praise because, he said, he thought it addressed clients’ needs to hire lawyers at moments when they are threatened by change.

But Ross's warmest comments went to Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. On their sites, he said, neither firm sought to boil down their messages to single slogans. Both had arresting designs. Skadden eschewed marketing, emphasizing content instead and speaking in what Ross called a “bold and confident” manner. Gibson, he said, had a “smart, knowledgeable, even sassy” approach that was almost journalistic. (He meant it as a compliment.)

“Lawyers didn’t lose their personalities when they won law degrees,’ he insisted.

 

 

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"Blah, blah, blah" reminds me of what Analog Device's GC Margaret Seif told me in my LMA Strategies story "Providing Real Value to Clients." She said law firm marketing is "throwing material into the wind."

Firms should invest more of their marketing dollars into strengthening and expanding their client relationships. As Seif said, too many firms "don't have any idea what it means to work with the client or develop a bond in the relationship."

That's why many companies are conducting their own performance reviews of their outside law firms.

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