On the Edge: What Clothes?

By Deborah McMurray
Published in Strategies: The Journal of Legal Marketing

Many years ago, there lived an emperor. He loved new and extraordinary clothes so much that he sacrificed nearly all else in order to have them. One day, a pair of swindlers chanced upon the emperor—they held up the finest fabric in the world, in between two of their out-stretched fingers.

They convinced the emperor that it was not only the finest cloth that he had ever seen, but that anyone who wouldn’t agree surely was a fool. Well, the emperor was certainly no fool! He fingered the cloth and saw it glisten in the sun’s glory. The warp and woof almost spoke to him. He had to own it.

The emperor paid these swindlers a handsome sum and sent them to weave this glorious fabric into the finest suit of clothes imaginable.

Upon delivery of the special suit, the emperor danced from room to room, claiming it a perfect fit and showing the remarkable outfit to his wife and as many of his subjects as he could find. Not wanting to appear a fool, his wife shrieked with delight, as did the emperor’s subjects . . . one by one. For they were not fools, either.

A celebration was brewing in the streets in anticipation of the grand parade. The emperor took his right place under the canopy in the grand procession and regally stepped, stepped, stepped into view of all the townspeople. They all gasped, for they had heard of the exceptional costume and none wanted to appear a fool, then cheered, much to the gratification of the emperor.

"But he has nothing on at all," said a little child at last.

Substitute "law firm" for "emperor."

Branding works. It’s proven in all industries, even in the legal industry. However, some law firms spend fortunes on "brands" (like the emperor’s clothes) that don’t really exist. Lawyers want brands for a variety of reasons—with many of these reasons being valid. Perhaps it’s because other law firms have one, they think it will make their selling cycles shorter, they will be recognized by their peers and communities.

But some law firms want branding to be easy and they often find graphic designers who will convince them it’s easy—it’s those firms that aren’t getting their money’s worth.

If your law firm leaders want to be "branded," and if they have found a designer that will "do it," caution them. That is, unless your lawyers are willing to do the tough analysis and hard work. Branding works, but it isn’t easy; it takes time and money, and most importantly, it takes courage to be different. If they aren’t willing to take the time to identify key points of differentiation and understand the unique personality of the firm, why bother? The money they spend (and it will likely be considerable) won’t work to get them closer to their strategic vision and it won’t distinguish them from their countless competitors.

How can you tell the design teams and consulting groups that can take your firm to the next level from the ones that will take your money, but aren’t delivering the goods? It’s easier if you know the questions to ask:

1. How long have they worked in the legal industry? For whom? Wait a minute, you say—we want an agency with "fresh" ideas, so we don’t want to hire anyone that’s worked in the legal industry.

Do you think your clients would say this, when considering their outside counsel choices? "We want fresh ideas, so we don’t want to hire a law firm that has experience doing securitization or outsourcing deals."

Experience in the legal industry means you save time, and as the marketing director, you can save face. You don’t have to teach the agency the difference between a tort and a torte, and they don’t ask your $500/hour lawyer, "What is the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act?"

2. What’s their approach to finding points of differentiation? Avoid the agencies or graphic designers that say, "I’ve got 25 logos/taglines here inside my trench coat—pick one you like."

Agencies that don’t know the legal industry and your business frequently design for the law firm as opposed to designing for its clients. They’ll give you scales of justice, globes, columns and other "lawyer-like" images.

3. What’s the agency’s methodology that drives its creative decisions?

4. Do the taglines and other creative they suggest distinguish your firm (because of your personality, whom you represent, your strategic vision, how you do business, etc.) or could they be pasted on to other law firms just as easily?

Suggesting that your firm might appear as foolish as the emperor may be a little harsh, but wouldn’t you rather be honest about what you’re getting (or not getting) than walk outside and be caught naked?

Deborah McMurray is a strategic marketing consultant to the legal industry. She can be reached at 214.351.9690 or mcmurray@contentpilot.net.


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