Your firm’s best marketing investment could be a CBO.[This is the second half of a blog post arguing that law firms that want to charge higher rates, enhance their business development, and improve their lateral hiring should hire a Chief Branding Officer. Click HERE for Part 1.]
4. Leading corporations have Chief Branding Officers. Law firms should too.
Who is in charge of maintaining and enhancing your firm’s public reputation? Who has the specific buck-stops-here job description of defending it against attack and growing it strategically? In most firms, the typical answer is “no one.” In the age of the Internet, that can be a costly mistake.
Of course, most major law firms have a skilled, experienced Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) or Marketing Director. Some also have separate, independent Chief Business Development Officers (CBDO). Other firms combine their senior professionals as CMBDOs.
In my 30 years’ marketing and branding experience, it’s my view that no more than a dozen these proficient professionals deeply understand how to create a real brand.
Branding is a narrow specialty area of expertise, one that is outside of their skillset. Today’s big-firm marketers are mostly department administrators, attending meetings, managing the team, helping set priorities, and generally keeping things running smoothly―it’s a critical administrative function. But very few of them know how to create and grow a true brand (or have the time to do so). This is an enormous missed opportunity for firms looking to swiftly grow their reputations or raise their rates.
5. The brand is why top firms can charge higher rates.
A brand is what persuades nervous clients to pay much more per hour for big firm work they could get at similar (some would say superior) quality at smaller firms. “No one ever got fired for hiring Skadden.” Or Kirkland. Or JonesDay. Or the other top AmLaw 50 brands. And no, it’s not always a function of size―Bartlit Beck and Quinn Emanuel offered that same CYA protection when they had barely dozens of lawyers. And some AmLaw 200 firms charge relatively low rates and provide very little cover. Their weaker brands don’t merit it.
Most large firms are well known; it’s a function of their sheer size. They have boots on the ground in many cities, and dozens or hundreds of skilled in-house marketers. Most of the AmLaw 100 firms have visibility but not differentiation. They have name-recognition but they don’t stand for anything.
If they did, they wouldn’t illustrate their website home pages with generic skylines, bridges, or colorful abstracts. Their messages overwhelmingly come down to “We’re big, which means we’re smart, so you can safely hire us.” In the legal profession, “big” tends to imply quality but it doesn’t create a differentiator against the lawyers toiling at all the other firms roughly your same size. “Big” is not a brand.
Rebuilding or growing the brand is critical for fast-growing firms.
The names and order on the AmLaw 200 list have been changing rapidly in recent years as the profession’s merger frenzy has created innumerable new mega-firms with combined names, like the 2018 merger of two quality firms, US-based Bryan Cave and UK-based Berwin Leighton Paisner (which they’re apparently seeking to rebrand as “BCLP” for Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner). Rather than using the solid ~150-year-old “Bryan Cave” name (or perhaps following the profession’s naming convention of “Bryan Cave Leighton” or perhaps “Bryan Cave BLP),” this blended 1400-lawyer global “BCLP” firm will be building its brand from scratch.
Regardless, I’d suggest that every leading firm could benefit by having someone fiercely focused on figuring out their unique story and telling it persuasively to the marketplace day after day, year after year. But it’s a skillset very few CMOs possess.
I spoke with one of the legal profession’s leading CMO-recruiters recently who told me that law firms don’t understand the value of their brand, so they’re not hiring for that skill. That’s such a missed opportunity―a skilled Chief Branding Officer can have more impact on a firm’s profitability than most other C-level positions, and surprisingly quickly.
Imagine the growth in revenue and profitability if every single lawyer in a firm was perceived to provide more value? How much more profitable would a firm be if it could immediately raise every lawyer’s rates by $100 or $250 or more per hour?
How much stronger would a firm be if it became the go-to firm for the top laterals and recruits? Firms with the strongest brands can do that.
A strong brand means fewer headhunter fees.
Top firms can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in recruiting fees every time they bring in a new partner. I can almost guarantee that a larger firm that’s spending millions of dollars per year on headhunter fees could get a significantly better return on those dollars if they invested more of it in brand-building, particularly in the legal community. And building a quality brand is an investment in the firm that lingers for many years, as the marketplace’s perception is changed for the long term. Paying a recruiter for a one-off hire isn’t building anything for the future; it’s just wrangling another good lawyer.
Big firms need their own in-house Joe Flom, a marketing professional (not one of your lawyers) who is singularly focused on making the firm a must-use organization. Someone must be in charge of persuading the top laterals that their fortunes would be greatly enhanced if they left the brand-name firm where they’re currently working to join this amazing new organization. Someone in the firm must have the mission of convincing the business marketplace that the lawyers at the firm are worth paying more for.
That’s what a skilled CBO can help accomplish. The major corporations understand this and are desperately focused on building and maintaining their brands. It’s why people pay extra for fungible Marlboro cigarettes or Nike shoes, or drink Coke rather than Pepsi, regardless of the results of objective taste tests.
And it’s why “no one ever got fired for buying Skadden.”
Need a new brand or website?
Start by reading the definitive book on the subject, “We’re Smart. We’re Old. And We’re the Best at Everything. The World’s First No-BS Guide to Legal Marketing and Branding” available at Amazon here. Contact Ross Fishman directly for more information at +1.847.921.7677 or firstname.lastname@example.org.