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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 law 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, very 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 had branded itself. WHAT IS BRANDING? 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 of Washington, D.C.-based Greenfield/Belser, 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 if you’ve gone through the process of self-consciously crafting an identity. First, focus on the mechanics of defining your firm. THE PROCESS OF SELF-DEFINING 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 are you doing — what problem are you solving — for the client? � How will you provide that service? � What are the trends, issues and developments that are key to the demographic you are targeting? For example, where geographically are the people you’re selling to; is your desired client a family-owned business or a large corporation, or both? 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 of New Jersey-based InterAct Marketing. 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 of 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. It 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 — Timeslips — with clients, which shaves paper work costs and labor time at both ends. In its marketing, the firm plays to this strength. Thompson Gipe, which is involved in sexual orientation civil rights issues, also wants to be known as a firm that handles all kinds of matters for the gay and lesbian community. One unusual way it spreads the word is by sponsoring an annual award at the Seattle Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, held every October. THE PRICE OF SUCCESS 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 Joe Walsh, subject to where you work, the size of the market you want to tackle and the prestige of the consultant, you’ll probably spend anywhere between $10,000 and $30,000 up front. (If you know your way around the consulting market you could spend less — Thompson Gipe slapped down roughly $5,000.) Walsh says this figure can go up quickly if you commission a lot of quantitative research such as client surveys. Interestingly, Pillsbury & Levinson did not use a consultant. When Philip Pillsbury and Arnold Levinson joined up to focus their practice on the insurance specialty, they did so because 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. One thing that the lawyers who spoke with us reiterated is that they cannot calculate a rate of return that correlates with the brand they implemented. Each affirmed that their business was brisk and that they kept hearing their brand echoed back to them in the grapevine. When Lindsay Thompson hands someone his card and they say, “Oh, I’ve heard of you,” he believes his strategy is working. PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH Of course, lawyers are in the business of actually providing legal services. So all of this defining and introspection means nothing unless you actually behave the way you say you do. Samantha Ettus, president of Manhattan-based Ettus Media Management cautions that “implementing a brand requires acting consistently; you have to make sure that all efforts and activities of the firm reflect the brand.” So for example if the firm brand is “We keep our lawyers,” then you have to have a firm culture and employment policies that encourage your attorneys to stay. BRANDING IS NOT WITHOUT RISK Hagan of InterAct Marketing cautions that self-definition takes a lot of bravery because it involves making a strategic decision about who you are as a firm: we offer these kinds of decisions; we solve these particular types of problems; we serve this set of clients; we serve this geography; we offer services at this price. By distinguishing your firm in some way, you, out of necessity, cut yourselves off from work or clients looking for a different style or expertise. Five years ago, Martin Rose and his partner Harold Walker walked out of Gardere & Wynne, a large multi-practice firm where they had been litigation partners. Frustrated by what seemed to Rose as Gardere’s cautious litigation philosophy, Rose and Walker wanted to craft a very specialized trial practice that actually had experience going to trial and wasn’t afraid of the courtroom. Rose maintains that “the lie that litigators have sold to corporate America is that it is too risky to ever go to trial.” He says most of these attorneys simply don’t want to take the risk, professionally and personally, of performing in the courtroom. Dallas-based Rose Walker “views lawsuits not as a profit center for the lawyer but as a means to resolve client problems the right way.” If that means actually going to trial, then the firm will go to trial. In selling themselves as aggressive trial attorneys, Rose says that the firm alienates more cautious potential clients who want to settle at all costs. They’ve even had to turn down clients who are not prepared to go to trial. The firm has effectively cut itself off from an entire category of clients. But at the same time, the firm is luring clients who are willing to see the inside of a courtroom. 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 recently decided to advertise in American Way, American Airlines’ in-flight magazine. The first ad appeared this April, and the firm has already received one request for its services from it. Rose says it’s been a successful brand. Ann Sherman is the associate editor of Small Firm Business. She can be reached at [email protected].

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