It can be hard to be different when everyone else is trying to do the same thing. The legal industry churns out volumes of content every year, but any casual reader could be forgiven for thinking that law firms essentially say the same things. This is curious for an industry which relies on the mastery of words and their interpretation. Standing out does not necessarily require creativity with language, but it does require substantive, compelling content focused on the key audience at hand, namely the client.
Indeed, Lucy Kellaway, writing for the Financial Times, recently reminded us of the potential pitfalls of creative language geared to a wide audience, letting rip against “corporate claptrap,” a wonderfully English way of describing jargon. She ended her 25-year battle against corporate nonsense-speak with a hard-hitting article that was as humorous as it was pointed. Lucy’s examples were wide ranging and entertaining, one favorite being Uber’s recent admission to having “underinvested in the driver experience.” Another winner? The attempt by a professional services firm to rebrand “downsizing” into “strengthening our alumni network.”
Lucy went easy on the legal sector, reserving her laser-like attention for decades-old examples from long ago forgotten recruitment materials. I suspect most of us have never used the word “knowlivator” in a sentence, nor would we describe ourselves as “winnomats” (winners plus diplomats). In addition to its entertainment value, Lucy’s article is instructive for anyone promoting law firm capabilities, as a quick review of law firm websites suggests that Lucy could have picked any firm, and used current material to make her point. Much of the content on these sites could not withstand Lucy’s scrutiny.
In our warp-speed revolving door of relentless news bulletins, surprise elections, executive orders, and shifting geopolitics, describing how law firms can be relevant is more important than ever. The legal industry is built on a core premise: providing high quality legal advice that helps clients to resolve the issue at hand and achieve their objectives. It is easy to pick on websites for the purposes of illustration, but this concept should be reflected in any marketing materials. It is disappointing, then, that more than one firm claims to be ‘uniquely placed’ to help their clients, without explaining how they are special or the circumstances in which their approach might achieve results. ‘Unmatched’ makes many similarly unsubstantiated appearances as a descriptor for ability, as does my hyperbolic favorite, ‘unparalleled.’ Always a bit of a headscratcher for me, that last one.
Granted, I did not spend an enormous amount of time reviewing websites, but current and prospective clients don’t either. Too many sites are self-referential; a history, lists of practice areas, a management team, awards here, accolades there, lateral partners everywhere. With great anticipation, I clicked on a “client focus” button on one website, to be greeted by an exhaustive list of the work that the firm had done for its clients, featuring that tired format of resume-padding favorites such as “advising x on y” or “representing y in z”. An articulation of the value that the firm delivers to their clients and why that is important was sorely missing, for the most part.
In our current era of doublespeak, fake news and tweeted policy statements, credibility is difficult to achieve and maintain. Creating compelling marketing material that truly differentiates your firm from any number of similarly high-quality, full-service or boutique firms is not easy, but it is important. Avoiding the hyperbole which has upset Lucy for the best part of three decades is only the start.
Placing the client at the center of the points of difference
The key to meeting this challenge is to position the client at the center of the points of difference. As a wise friend of mine once put it, “it’s all very well to come up with great law firm marketing ideas, but you have to ask yourself the most important question; ‘why would this matter to a client?’” It is a valuable test and one truly worthy of a ‘client focus’ button. It is also a test that translates to a wider audience. As someone who has been fortunate to practice law around the world, I understand only too well the bar rules and commercial sensitivities that come with referencing client work. That said, there is always room to move beyond rote referencing and with their permission, include the client in a more meaningful way.
Content on law firm websites and any marketing materials should focus on what clients need and write straightforward language to mirror those requirements. It never hurts to make the content visually appealing either. Reflect on how many times we see content such as “Representing America Corporate in its $1b takeover of Mom & Pop stores,” which can always be improved. Most clients think in commercial terms; is the story being told along these lines? One possibility: “The $1b acquisition of Mom & Pop stores was a key step towards achieving America Corporate’s publicly stated strategy of tapping into the global growth of organic food sales outlets. There were many competing bidders and considerable market scrutiny. Our international team drew on its experience in this sector, anticipating regulatory hurdles and completing the work required in one of the shortest time periods ever achieved for this type of acquisition.” Add a photograph or two and the reader will have a greater sense of the picture.
The writer’s adage of “show don’t tell” holds true here. Describe how your team collaborated, including with third parties to respond to the pressure of pulling off this deal in a tight timeframe. At its core, the decision to select counsel is a very human one, based on trust. You need to demonstrate that clients can put their trust in your expertise to help them meet their goals. Those of us who have been there know that there is nothing quite as bonding as being in a conference room with a client in the small hours of the morning working towards a seemingly impossible deadline. Clients need to know that at a time when they are going to experience their own career pressures, they can feel confident that they will achieve their goals by having you and your team at the board table alongside them and the half-eaten boxes of take-out.
Lawyers are skilled and experienced and usually know exactly what their clients need, often before their clients do. That is a given. They also sell themselves short, but that can be fixed with vivid substance and results, not empty hyperbole or vague platitudes. The real mastery required is the ability to describe capabilities using simple language centered on the client experience. That will resonate not only with clients and future clients, but with a wider audience including lateral partners, hopeful job seekers, enthusiastic graduates and curious journalists. True stories are credible and persuasive. Tell them. Who knows? You might never be accused of claptrap by the Lucys of the world ever again.
Louise Muldoon is an attorney, strategic adviser and business development professional with over 20 years of experience in the global legal community. After a decade advising Fortune 500 and multinational clients in London, Paris and Sydney, she transitioned to law firm business development, using insights gained in practice to create strategies to engage clients, drive profitable revenue and create competitive advantage. Most recently, she headed up Business Development, Marketing and Communications for Baker McKenzie in North America.