Law firm branding has been around for decades, writes Briana Everett, but many law firms in Australia are not getting it right.
In a climate of globalisation and the internationalisation of the legal industry, branding is now, more than ever, imperative to maintaining a presence in the industry and achieving business success in an increasingly competitive market.
The recent rebranding process undertaken by Deacons to become Norton Rose Australia is an example of what is to come, as more international firms announce their arrival in Australia. With the risk of further mass departures of partners from firms in the wake of global law firms opening on our shores, Australian law firms need to understand how to effectively brand their business, focusing on their people in particular - rather than simply investing money in new designs, logos and websites.
Misconceptions about branding
But before firms can do that, they need to overcome some major obstacles - including the tendency to focus on the "end game" rather than the rebranding process itself.
According to Robert Sawhney, a marketing and strategic management consultant for professional services firms across Asia and Europe, law firms tend to be externally orientated when it comes to branding and mistakenly look at branding as a separate concept from their overall strategy.
Sawhney claims law firms start on the wrong foot by focusing on the final results - by updating their website or producing a new logo for the firm. "The problem is they look at branding as something quite distinct or separate from their overall strategy. So they misunderstand it and that's when they go straight to the end game," Sawhney says.
Instead, says Sawhney, firms need to start from the inside and focus on developing their people. "Think about the branding in terms of how it's going to affect [the] firm, and the people in the firm, and the services. And then - how is that going to improve the value [delivered] to clients?" he explains.
"You've got to be willing to go beyond the superficial steps, instead of changing your website design and go right into the culture of the firm."
During a branding process, law firms should ask themselves how they can improve the services they offer to clients and involve everybody in the firm, according to Sawhney, so all employees understand the values and the brand the firm is trying to develop.
Sawhney also warns law firms against hiring a branding consultancy that has expertise working in the consumer goods field. He says this leads to significant time and resources being spent on designs, new logos and glossy brochures, while neglecting the people in the firm, who are the ones delivering the brand every day through their interaction with clients. Unlike consumer goods companies, a law firm's services are intangible and Sawhney points out that clients choose the individual as much as the firm and therefore there should be a balance between the firm brand and the individual's brand.
Key steps to successful branding
In most cases, law firm branding is more internal than it is external, says Sawhney. He reminds us that branding is not about promotion and that it is the touch points between the firm and the client that really affects the branding process. After all, once a lawyer is interacting and talking to the client face-to-face, if there are no changes in the way that lawyer deals with his client to enhance the value of the services delivered, there is no point in changing anything else. It won't make any difference.
The first step in the process, according to Sawhney, is to examine the firm's vision, its mission and strategy, plus the distinctive cultural values of the firm. He suggests looking at the history of the firm, its background, and the partners, but warns this will involve some extensive interviewing of partners, other staff within the firm as well as clients, to get their perceptions. Then, he says, integrate all those factors into a coherent framework and confirm what the firm stands for and what value the firm wants to deliver to clients.
Understanding the importance of working on the brand internally, the human resources and marketing director at Corrs Chambers Westgarth, Cindy Carpenter, says collaboration between partners and the HR and marketing teams is key to getting to the heart of client needs and improving the firm's brand. Carpenter says HR and marketing teams within firms need to work together with partners to develop the tools and approaches that will help deliver on client needs and accordingly, improve the firm's brand.
Carpenter, working with the learning and development team, developed new tools and approaches to help lawyers and partners on a number of improvements - including pricing differently; project-managing their matters; and providing more transparency around how matters are unfolding.
Branding in 2010
With more international firms expected to pave their way into the Australian market, Sawhney emphasises the importance of focusing on the brand of lawyers themselves, as much as the brand of the firm itself. He asks, in his article Branding the Law Firm: "If, as has happened in some cases, a substantial portion of a law firm's top people leave, does the 'brand' still have the same value?" and concludes that more than likely, a firm will become an empty shell devoid of value, unless they can manage to achieve a deeply embedded brand - which very few have.
"If law firms can get away from the perception that branding is about promotion, and that it is externally orientated and understand that branding is as much an internal process as it is external...then I think they'll be on the road to taking branding more seriously," Sawhney says.
Demonstrating the need for branding in an international climate, last year Deacons began the huge task of rebranding itself following its merger with Norton Rose, announced in July 2009.
Nine months on, marketing director of Norton Rose Australia, Marcus Warner, reflects on what has been months of "frantic activity" to get the firm ready by 1st January 2010.
Warner explains the need for consistency of a brand, particularly when dealing with an international firm across 23 countries. He says the aim was to achieve a consistent brand across the world, in all jurisdictions, so that clients expect a similar level of service no matter which office they walk into. "I think that's absolutely critical and something I think law firms to date haven't really focused on and in order for them to be successful - they have to," Warner says.
He describes how other professional services firms, such as accounting firms, underwent the process seven or eight years ago making very clear the return on investment and that "law firms are really just catching up."
Norton Rose Australia have set the ball rolling for branding in Australia and the legal profession watched closely as the firm unveiled the results of their rapid rebranding process.