Law firms need Chief Branding Officers.
In Law, and every other profession, the firms with the strongest brands charge higher rates and generate greater profits. If you want to credibly charge more per hour, you must convince the market that your work is worth more. That is, you must either:
- (a) Start doing objectively better legal work than you’re doing now, or
- (b) Convince clients that your current work is worth paying more for.
The obvious problem is that it’s nearly impossible to do (a) and very few firms know how to do (b).
1. What separates the leading law firms is The Brand.
In “Confessions of An Advertising Man,” advertising pioneer David Ogilvy said:
“There isn’t any significant difference between the various brands of whiskey, or cigarettes, or beer. They are all about the same. And so are the cake mixes and the detergents, and the margarines… The manufacturer who dedicates his advertising to building the most sharply defined personality for his brand will get the largest share of the market at the highest profit.”
Clients tend to feel the same way about their law firms: “They’re all about the same.” And when services are similar, their pricing must be too.
What separates similar-looking services and products is the brand. Studies show that the strongest brands in every industry lead the pack. Is Marlboro the world’s best-selling cigarette brand because they actually taste better than their competitors? Of course not. But people still pay extra for the red-and-white box. Why? The Marlboro brand.
2. Building a strong brand is the best investment a firm can make in its future fortunes.
Read that last sentence again a few times out loud. It’s a critical point.
After decades focusing their marketing departments on MarCom activities, savvy law firms in the 2010s started adding more business-development professionals. Now it’s time to move to the next level and add in-house branding expertise as well. Here’s how the pieces fit together:
- Marketing creates the opportunity, it tells prospects that you’re out there, it builds awareness and name recognition and helps add you to the short list.
- Business–development activities help you get selected off the short list.
- Branding lets you charge more for it. A brand isn’t a logo or website. It’s your marketplace reputation. It’s the perception of value you create, the expectation clients have for the services you provide. A brand defines and sells the organization’s culture to its own personnel. IBM’s brand is why “no one ever got fired for buying” them. It’s the same for most of the AmLaw 50 firms.
3. Skadden’s dominance was created by Joe Flom’s branding brilliance.
Many years ago, I spoke with Joseph Flom, the historic leader of Skadden Arps Slate Meager & Flom who was largely responsible for Skadden’s remarkable growth in size, stature, and revenue in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Flom candidly admitted that he’d helped build the powerful Skadden brand proactively and strategically.
In an old Forbes article, Flom was quoted as calling Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson his “personal hero,” because “from him I learned the value of a brand.” In the early 1990s, I was an in-house marketer at Winston & Strawn. In the early ‘90s, most major law firms still considered marketing to be distasteful and beneath them. The widespread perception was that only mediocre firms would be so weak or mercenary as to proactively market their lawyers’ services or hire marketing professionals.
But Flom had seen an enormous opportunity and secretly hired 20 full-time in-house public relations professionals to broadcast the Skadden brand to the media. Skadden quickly gained omnipresence―their deals were regularly written about in every major legal and business publication. They seemed to be absolutely everywhere.
Skadden quickly became the world’s best-known law firm, the first global law firm brand, the first firm with $1 billion in revenue. Sure, they were great lawyers, but so were innumerable other top NYC firms that few executives outside of Manhattan had heard of. Flom was a visionary, possibly the most strategic marketer in the history of the legal profession. (He’s my personal hero.) Skadden built their brand thoughtfully and intentionally. So can your firm.
4. Leading corporations have Chief Branding Officers. Law firms should too.
Nearly all major law firms today have a skilled 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’ experience, only a small handful of these skilled professionals deeply understand branding.
It’s just 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 function. 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 lock in 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 brands. And no, it’s not merely a function of size―Bartlit Beck and Quinn Emanuel offered that same CYA protection when they had barely dozens of lawyers. And some large firms charge relatively low rates and provide very little cover.
Do you know what “BCLP” is? A law firm? A bank? A CPA firm? Management consulting?
Consider the recent merger of two quality firms, US-based Bryan Cave and UK-based Berwin Leighton Paisner, now called “BCLP” for Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner. This blended 1400-lawyer global BCLP firm is building its brand from scratch. The most-common naming convention would be to select the biggest or best-known of the merger partners, or the one with the name that worked best in multiple languages (here that would have been Bryan Cave) and call themselves “Bryan Cave Leighton” or “Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner” and gradually lapse to simply “Bryan Cave,” a short, simple, memorable, and easy-to-spell name that should work in languages worldwide.
(Consider e.g. the 2018 mergers of Hunton & Williams with Andrew & Kurth to form “Hunton Andrews Kurth,” or Clark Hill’s combining with Strasburger & Price as a larger, unified “Clark Hill.”)
Of course, as easy as these decisions are in theory, they can be difficult emotionally and politically. Although I have no inside knowledge of the BCLP naming negotiations, I’ve been involved in at least 50 of these discussions in other firms. (In one major national 600-lawyer merger, the lawyers remarkably selected the firm name by an egalitarian coin flip.)
The decisions are commonly made to salve the professionals’ egos rather than select what’s in the long-term strategic interest of the larger organization or its critical brand. That’s unfortunate, but it’s the reality that exists across professional services.
Some early indications suggest that the combined firm will primarily use “BCLP,” rather than the actual firms’ names. If true, the brand-new “BCLP” firm could be starting at a disadvantage. 900-lawyer Bryan Cave was founded in 1873, with 25 pre-merger offices. Berwin Leighton Paisner’s 675 lawyers worked from 14 offices in 11 countries, dating to 1970, with its constituent parts dating back as far as 1932. That’s a lot of boots on the ground pushing out those firms’ names to the buyers of legal services.
However, the “BCLP” letters have no legacy, no reputation. Few high-powered executives in 2019 were bellowing, “Get me BCLP!” For credibility in new-business meetings, the firm’s lawyers must say e.g., “We’re the old Bryan Cave firm.”
So, someone needs to build the BCLP brand, and fast. Someone must be singularly focused on persuading the marketplace that “BCLP” lawyers are worth US $1000+ (~885 Euros) per hour. And that’s not what most CMOs do. They’re pulled in too many other important directions. They’re too busy running 25, 50, or 100-member marketing departments. And that’s not their training or responsibility anyway. I’ve rebranded over 200 law firms, and not more than a handful of those firms’ internal marketers credibly possessed this skillset. They were hired to perform different tasks. Perhaps BCLP’s new CMO has that expertise, I don’t know.
Regardless, I’d suggest that every leading firm could benefit by having someone fiercely dedicated to figuring out what their unique story is, how it’s different. What makes it better than its competitors. And how to tell that story persuasively to the marketplace day after day. Year after year.
That’s simply not a skillset most CMOs possess. I spoke with one of the legal profession’s leading CMO headhunters recently who told me that law firms don’t understand the value of their brand and 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.
Imagine the growth in revenue and profitability if every single lawyer 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 more per hour? How much stronger would it be if it could attract the top laterals and recruits? Firms with the strongest brands can do that.
Big firms need their own Joe Flom, someone singularly focused on making the firm a must-use entity. Someone must be in charge of persuading the best laterals that their fortunes would be greatly enhanced if they left the high-quality firm where they’re currently working to join this amazing new organization. Someone must convince the marketplace that their professionals are worth paying a sizable premium 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 objective taste tests.
And it’s why “no one ever got fired for buying Skadden.”
I could be wrong, but it might be quite a while before any firm named “BCLP” will be able to make that same claim. It will be interesting to watch how things develop.
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.