Most law firm client relationships are pretty robust and it takes a pretty powerful proposition to dislodge them. A strong brand narrative can help.
Well served, thank you
From talking to countless general counsel over the years about their law firm relationships one striking feature is that, on the whole, clients like their current lawyers and think they do a pretty good job. In short, clients are well served by their law firms.
Of course this doesn’t mean that these same clients don’t often pull their hair out about eye-watering bills and perceived lack of understanding of the pressures they face – especially corporate clients. They do, but they also tend to think that these are problems with law firms in general not their lawyers in particular, so changing them is unlikely to make these problems go away. Better the devil you know and all that.
This presents a problem to leaders of premium law firms with ambitions to grow: how to win more than your fair share of the pie? Growing your firm in a flat market of course means that someone else must lose. A recent American Lawyer study pointed out that despite this mathematical truth almost all the managing partners they spoke to were ‘living in denial’, anticipating revenue growth above 5% in 2014 despite simultaneously projecting an overall flat market.
To penetrate the fortress of a well-served client a law firm needs something to tempt the client to consider that the grass might be greener on their side of the fence. A powerful brand narrative can do the trick. This brand narrative must be compelling enough and tangible enough to run ahead of the firm and be capable of impinging itself on the consciousness of the potential client from a distance, (or at least the distance across a lunch table).
The trouble is that a brand narrative that says, “we’re fantastically good lawyers” isn’t going to cut it – they already think that they have fantastically good lawyers. To be strong enough to overcome this inertia, law firms need to develop brand narratives that say “we’re fantastically good lawyers and we have this something else that makes us special”.
Big, different, true
To be convincing that something special has to fit three criteria: big, different and true. Big enough to be genuinely compelling, different enough to stand out from the crowd and true enough for the firm’s lawyers to live up to. That may sound quite daunting but in reality most elite law firms became elite for good reasons; the challenge is to try and get a good grip on what each firm’s ‘secret sauce’ is, brush it off for the 21st Century (or reinvent it if it’s outmoded) and embark on a set of initiatives to get the world to take notice.
Weil Gotshal is a good example. Weil’s brand narrative is all about being top tier lawyers who don’t sit on the fence; they’ve made ‘judgment’ a hallmark of the way they serve their clients all around the world. Wachtell’s brand narrative is something to do with ‘extreme focus’; lots of firms aspire to the ‘bet the farm’ type deals, Wachtell is explicitly organised to specialise in only this type of work. Their famous one-to-one leverage is a proof-point of this. In another direction Baker & McKenzie has established a strong narrative around their global ‘fluency’; offering clients a more dispersed and genuinely global approach than their Anglo-Saxon rivals.
Before the crash a few ambitious firms with strong leadership had taken on this task. They have benefited tremendously from having developed a compelling ‘value proposition’ that helps them prise open the most tightly closed doors of Fortune 500 clients and other institutions. Since then the flatness of the future landscape has led many other firms on both sides of the Atlantic to make a concerted effort to sharpen up their brand ‘battering rams’ and be ready to answer the dreaded ‘why should we consider you?’ question that smart clients tend to ask when confronted by yet another sales pitch.
Answering it isn’t easy but if you have plans to grow by 5% in a flat market, you can be certain you need a sharp response.