Why is everything in legal so bland?
This is one of the most rehearsed lines of marketing or business development teams: “How do we differentiate the firm from the competition?”
And you don’t have to dig deep to see that, for all the marketing hoopla, in many parts of the legal industry there is little to distinguish one firm from another.
This might be down to a number of reasons. Why break the model if the firm is making respectable profits? Is the market really ready for something so remarkably different? Of course, there's good, honest fear, or inertia, or the pain of failure (see my point number (3) below).
Perhaps it's an insular perspective of the profession - how many people have the breadth of experience to see the firm from the outside in? It's hard to see what needs changing if you're deep inside the tent. Or it could just be a lack of series/grunt money to break free from mediocrity...
Even if these overstep the mark a bit, how many firms have dedicated serious time to unpacking the very serious question of differentiation?
As trite as it may sound, the people are the organisation, and this should be reflected in who you hire to brand your firm. Perhaps firms need to mix it up just a bit more, and hire for weirdness. Or, if the budget doesn’t exist, how about inviting to lunch people who are a little left field - perhaps a few artists, retailers or poets? Don’t always go for the safe option: the design agency. They think they're clever with a new design but, in truth, they will not want to stray too far off the beaten track.
Yawn, yawn and another long yawn but, really, how much of the core values of the firm are reflected in the design, branding or perception in the market?
It's rare that one stands on the shoulders of the other. Ask around - what do people think are the core values of your firm? How would you properly reflect them?
That's never an easy question to answer. After all, what does client excellence look like? But, in any branding exercise, you need to resolutely maintain the firm’s message, integrity and values. Why? Because anyone out in the market will need not only to espouse those three vital things, but also be confident that they are backed up by the branding, service delivery and back-of-house capability they're fronting. It might sound feeble, but meaning what you say, and saying what you mean can and indeed should be a point of differentiation, even if your ‘tune’ is not meant to please everybody.
The middle ground is often where the bland gets even blander.
Everybody should take immense pride in what they do and continually add value through hard work and continuous learning. The firm should value those people that want to go off and study, for example, even if the subject is not exactly on point. You need to make sure you're not breeding a factory of clones. More than that, you need to open up the firm’s culture to make sure people can speak their minds if things seem out of whack.
Ask your clients every day how you can get better. Innovation doesn’t just happen - it arises when you get things wrong, not when you continually get things right. This is not an excuse for poor standards, but it is in the gaps that you understand where innovation starts, and not where you need to close the door.
It is important that you cherish service over fees. This message is not an easy one to accept. The normal retort is that 'service is our sine qua non' - but, in truth, your thing is profit, and of course service is important, but not to the extent that it is discussed in firms. The culture of meetings hardly helps. Why don’t you make sure that every meeting starts with service and, rather than constantly looking at banal client feedback forms, get a few clients in to share their experiences? That will make the whole exercise far more meaningful.
Ultimately, the only way that service, as a differentiator, is going to make its way to the top is if you make bigger promises and stand by them.
Yes, brand is important, but often it is superficial, and without the resonant values to underpin the strap line or brush mark or colour.
Too many firms still think of their brand as their logo. Of course, that's the arrowhead of the brand, but the bulk of the effort goes into delivering on the brand through every touch-point in the firm. That includes the way people are perceived. So don’t get drawn into a rebrand unless you know what your clients cherish, what they don’t like and what is middle of the road. You ought to know what the brand is or what you want it to be.
Standing out means standing apart. It doesn’t meaning changing direction to the extent that people can’t work out that you are, in fact, a law firm. Some firms have gone too far in that direction that, unless they're a household legal name, many putative clients would struggle to work out what they really do. That doesn’t mean you should stand behind the word ‘solicitor’ that still adorns many a firm's website or letterhead, but it also doesn’t mean that the outer wrapper shouldn’t reflect the inner substance.
One last point: differentiation is only a factor if you are going to do something with it.
Simply looking different, without proper PR, advertising, social media engagement and people prepared to take the message out there, will simply mean that you forget why on earth you went to all that trouble. And you don't want that - do you?
How does your firm find differentiation? Tell us in the comments, below.