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As lawyers are accepting the cold, hard truth that practicing law is not enough in today’s competitive environment and that marketing is crucial, in comes branding. The goal of branding is to create a brand name and advertise it until it becomes widely associated with a particular business or practice, according to some experts. Others say branding is just a relatively new, hip term for marketing. According to Christine S. Filip, a founder of Filip & Caminos, a marketing and public relations firm in Manhattan, branding is a coherent message about the firm that shows up on the Web site, the brochures, in the media, and every time a lawyer talks about the firm. “Whether it is a single message or a set, it is coordinated communication about why you are unique,” she explained. Branding might seem like a harmless buzzword, but invoke it in a room full of law firm marketing people and fireworks fly. Not only is there no consensus about what “branding” means, but there is also no consensus about whether law firms and other professional service organizations should try to brand their wares. No one disputes the necessity of promoting a practice through a combination of public relations, client relations and quality work. But how and where the marketing dollars should flow is a matter for debate. Some marketers say that in today’s competitive environment, creating a brand is crucial, not just for Nike or McDonald’s but for law firms and accounting firms. Meanwhile, others claim that while sneakers and hamburgers can be branded, it is futile to brand a service. DIFFERENT VIEWS “Branding is largely irrelevant and impossible,” said David Maister, former Harvard Business School professor and a consultant for professional service firms on management issues. Law firm partners would be better served by learning what their clients read and then reading it themselves, said Maister, who has published widely on the subject. And, compared to full-page advertisements, this is inexpensive, and something large, medium and small firms can do, he added. “If you can’t answer the question about what your clients read and what keeps them up at night, you are in trouble,” agreed Richard Levick, president and co-founder of Levick Strategic Communications, a media relations firm based in Washington, D.C. But spending marketing dollars on branding is seductive for partners because it is something others have to do, said Maister. “It’s a vain hope that we can get some marketing benefit without the partners having to change their behavior,” he explained. Burkey Belser, president of Greenfield/Belser, a marketing firm in Washington, D.C., that specializes in law firm branding, disagrees that the concept is useless for professional service firms. “Branding a law firm is critical,” said Belser. “A brand name has enormous effect on the marketplace,” he said. Belser claims that “branding is the bedrock of marketing” and that American businesses have known this for a very long time. “Just because law firms have just discovered it does not make it any less effective nor does it make it a fad,” he said. Yet some firms will have an easier time branding and marketing than others, admits Belser. For instance, firms that operate mostly by partner consensus, ones that have fewer resources, and firms with a less credible position in the marketplace will have a harder time choosing and promoting their brand, said Belser. Many medium and small firms fall into this group. Ellen Toplin, president of Toplin & Associates, a Pennsylvania-based marketing and public relations firm that specializes in representing professionals and service organizations, takes the middle road. Although she said that “branding” for the most part is a marketing term currently in vogue, some firms can be successful in building a brand and standing out from the crowd. But law firms must be careful not to promote to the wrong crowd, she warned. Promotion must be geared at current and future clients, she added. “Sometimes the branding efforts are more successful with your own colleagues than with the clients,” said Toplin. NICHE DEFINITION The more defined the law firm’s niche, the more the firm is able to compete, she said. Thus, many smaller firms are better off focusing their energies and dollars on attacking a few industries or locales that they already serve. They should advertise in their clients’ trade papers instead of spending money building a brand for the masses, she said. Anne Wright, a senior managing director and director of the Corporate Group in the New York office of public relations giant Hill & Knowlton, agrees that firms need to stay focused. One way to do this is to train all lawyers in a practice to be spokesmen for the firm and to stay on message, she said. She added that partners need to get to know journalists and make themselves available. Another way to focus is to join organizations that clients belong to and write for the publications they read, she said. An inexpensive way to target a client is to invite them to a roundtable lunch discussion or a firm retreat, she suggested. At the luncheon, a partner should speak on an issue of importance to the client and if possible, invite the client to explain how they handled it, she added. Maister agreed that it is crucial to know your client’s business and to really care about it, or at least act as if you care. “Be a better counselor or adviser, not just a better lawyer,” he said. “Deal with your clients as you wish you could be dealt with.”

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