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I know. I know. You got a big year-end bonus check, and you’re happy. But I need to let you in on a little secret. It isn’t nearly as big as it ought to be. And, no, it’s not what you’re thinking. I’m not going to launch into yet another tirade about raising your hourly rate, paying associates less or cutting your overhead. It’s something else, and it’s right there in front of your collective noses. For most of the last several years, just about all firms of various sizes have been trying to brand themselves. Branded firms, like branded toothpaste or fast-food restaurants, use a single name rather than the full firm name. This process is supposed to 1) result in a snazzy firm logo that doesn’t look like everyone else’s; 2) use up all the deep pastel-colored inks and paints left over from the era when the market for avocado appliances tanked; and 3) create a single vivid image in consumers’ minds that will overwhelm their higher brain functions and cause hordes of them to be ecstatic over the chance to pay the newly enhanced hourly rates necessary to pay off the consultants who branded the firm. Talk about “Rawhide!” And so the venerable firm of Whitelipped & Trembling becomes Whitelipped!, and the firm’s mission statement (branding involves more missions than you find on the El Camino Real) becomes, “Keeping Your Potted Plants Alive in a Proactive, Supportive Environment.” The problem is that the snazzy firm logo at Whitelipped! ends up looking a lot like the one at Howells (formerly Howells & Imprecations), the colors all look like mud, and the clients don’t change. Offsetting images end up like offsetting penalties: a do-over. SELL, SELL, SELL So instead of this branding stuff, we should take a cue from the thoroughly nonbranded U.S. Department of Labor — would they be branded as work? — which long ago figured out where the real money is. I was at the fabulous Frances Perkins Building in Washington, D.C., which houses the Labor Department, some years ago and had some time to kill. I’d seen the statues of bronze yeomen laboring and visited the Official Portrait Gallery featuring pictures of all the secretaries of labor, including one without a name underneath; it must have been the spot of the unknown secretary. And then I saw it. A little sign on a stand; it had a blackboard and white plastic letters. It said simply, “Gift Boutique, Sixth Floor.” And there was a gift boutique. With coffee mugs, pictures of the building, adjustable ball caps, T-shirts, pens — you name it. I went wild. I got all my Christmas shopping done in one place. It was amazing. Well, I’m no fool when it comes to souvies, so I went over to the U.S. Supreme Court. It has a gift boutique, too. Plastic key fobs embossed in gold with a picture of the building, little snowflake crystals with plastic snow falling on plastic buildings, pens, portraits — nay, rookie cards — of all the justices, and a T-shirt that said, “I was affirmed at the United States Supreme Court.” You name it, it was for sale. Look, if the Department of Labor has a gift boutique, firms better get busy. We’ve got the stuff already –mugs, pens, magnets — but we’re giving it away. Firms that charge for use of heating and air conditioning giving something away? Come on. So here’s what we do. We merchandize. But not ourselves. Our stuff. No more boutique firms. It’s time for law firm boutiques. We’ve all got some empty offices just crying out for remodeling, and if they can put racks out at major airports, we can do it in our lobbies. Call it floor traffic. Call it curb appeal. Your bottom line is bound to look better when you’re selling high-end sweatshirts in addition to your time. And when you think about the concept, why not take it all the way? We’ve all got Web sites, so why not do some e-commerce? Vinson & Elkins could become V&E-bay, for example. That’s branding. We could do firm merchandising catalogues, sell our mailing lists, have Web sites and rings � Pomeranian breeders have Web rings, for heaven’s sake, so why shouldn’t specialty firms — send late-night faxes, you name it. But come on everybody. This offer definitely will not be repeated, and I know you don’t want your 2001 year-end bonus to suffer. Tom Alleman, a shareholder in Winstead Sechrest & Minick in Dallas, is at work on an adventure novel based on the recent Florida election mess called, “The Recount of Monte Cristo.” This being what he does for fun, it should come as no surprise that the opinions in this column do not necessarily represent those of Winstead Sechrest & Minick or its clients.

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