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A little more than two years ago Lindsay Thompson surveyed the image of his two-person Seattle law firm, Thompson Gipe, and decided it looked, well, boring. He hired a public relations consultant — who also happened to be a client — and soon found himself immersed in long conferences about how to run the practice. The conversations challenged him to think clearly about what kind of clients the firm wanted to attract and how he and his partner, Anthony Gipe, could deliver good value for their rates. Thompson came out of these ruminations thinking it was all “just mumbo jumbo; a lot of talking and nothing else.” But by the end of the process Thompson had a very detailed and clear idea of what services he wanted the firm to provide, who it should seek out as potential clients, and how the firm could distinguish itself from other firms in its client service. The firm then developed a logo, Web site and marketing strategy that would accurately and precisely convey this message to the people they wanted to work for. Thompson Gipe, in short, had branded itself. In traditional marketing terms, branding is the impression people form of your firm — associating an instantly recognizable theme or set of attributes with the firm’s name and clearly seeing your firm as different from others in the field. Branding is far more than a firm logo, Web site, new letterhead or where and how the firm promotes itself — although all of these trappings are part of the branding process. According to branding consultant Joe Walsh, from Greenfield/Belser in Washington, D.C., branding at its core refers to “the discernible message behind the splash of color.” Most experts will tell you that branding is basically a two-step process. First, you craft the firm’s image. Then you advertise that image. According to Walsh, lawyers who have undertaken a branding campaign usually jump right to the advertising. But advertising is only useful, he says, if you’ve first gone through the process of self-consciously crafting an identity. In defining a brand, marketers suggest that you begin by concretely answering several questions about your firm’s identity: Who are you selling to? Who is your competition? What kinds of problems are you solving for your clients? What are the trends, issues and developments that are key to the demographic you are targeting? You should be able to answer these questions in plain English and distill the result into a sound bite that’s no more than 60 seconds long. “I am a lawyer” is not one of the descriptions, according to Lynne Hagan, senior partner at InterAct Marketing in Tenafly, New Jersey. Successful branding demands that you own a single piece of real estate in the minds of your clients and prospective clients. One obvious way to stand out is to specialize in a certain kind of law: The seven attorneys who make up San Francisco’s Pillsbury & Levinson do one thing — sue insurance companies on behalf of policy holders over coverage disputes and any acts of bad faith by the insurer. The firm will represent any kind of client — individual or corporation — and it takes on any kind of insurer, from disability to homeowner to commercial liability. The tagline on the firm’s Web site reads: “Insurance Attorneys: Advocating Policy Holders’ Rights.” Another less obvious way to distinguish your firm from others is by providing services to a particular group of people or by playing to strengths in the way the firm dispenses services. When Lindsay Thompson queried clients — a regular step in his firm’s follow-up process — to find out what quality of service stood out about the firm, he was told that it is known for technological sophistication, adopting new hardware and software innovations more quickly than most law firms usually do. For instance, the firm instituted an electronic billing and payment system, which shaves paper work costs and labor time at both ends. The firm plays to this strength in its marketing efforts. Thompson Gipe, which is involved in civil rights issues that stem from sexual orientation, also wants to be known as a firm that handles all kinds of matters of importance to gays and lesbians. One unusual way it spreads the word is by sponsoring an award handed out each year at Seattle’s Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Unless you’ve been to business school or spent some time plying your skills as a marketer, you should think about hiring someone to help you craft your message. According to Walsh, a firm should typically expect to spend anywhere between $10,000 and $30,000 upfront. (If you know your way around the consulting market you could spend less. Thompson Gipe slapped down roughly $5,000.) Walsh says the initial fee can rise quickly if a firm commissions a lot of quantitative research such as client surveys. Interestingly, Pillsbury & Levinson did not use a consultant. When Philip Pillsbury and Arnold Levinson teamed up to focus their practice on the insurance specialty, they did so because, as they say, they “decided to do one thing and do it really well.” This approach is the building block of branding, and Pillsbury and Levinson did it intuitively. Lawyers, of course, are in the business of providing legal services. As a result, all of the marketing-related defining and introspection means nothing unless your firm actually behaves the way you say it will. Samantha Ettus, president of Ettus Media Management in New York City, cautions that “implementing a brand requires acting consistently. You have to make sure that all efforts and activities of the firm reflect the brand.” If the firm’s brand, for example, revolves around a slogan such as “We keep our lawyers,” the firm needs to embrace a culture and employment policies that encourage attorneys to stay. Hagan, at InterAct Marketing, says that self-definition requires a lot of bravery because it involves making a strategic decision about a firm’s specific identity. By distinguishing your firm in some way, you also run the risk of cutting yourselves off from work or clients looking for a different style or expertise. Five years ago, Martin Rose and Harold Walker walked out of Gardere & Wynne, a large multi-practice firm in Dallas where they had been litigation partners. Frustrated by what seemed to Rose as Gardere’s cautious litigation philosophy, the two partners wanted to craft a very specialized trial practice that emphasized their courtroom experience and enthusiasm for taking cases to trial. In selling themselves as aggressive trial attorneys, Rose acknowledges that Rose Walker may put off potential clients that are more inclined to settle disputes rather than take them to trial. Indeed, the firm has effectively cut itself off from an entire category of clients. At the same time, the firm is luring clients who are not shy about winding up in court. Spending in the range of $150,000 to $225,000 per year, the firm has an advertisement running somewhere every month, mostly in legal trade publications. But believing it would reach more prospective clients, the firm also decided to advertise in American Way, American Airlines’ in-flight magazine. Rose says the firm has already received one request for its services as a result of the ad. Ann Sherman is associate editor of Small Firm Business magazine, an ALM publication affiliated with The Recorder

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