Law Firm Branding – The danger Of Illusory Brands
Over the last a long time, we have witnessed advances in law practice technology, the increasing roles of paralegals, and the outsourced workers of legal work. Yet despite all of these hamilton law firms cost-cutting and time-saving advantages, many Law Firm s, especially the large ones, remain struggling for their very emergency.
Only a decade ago, Law Firm s were enjoying remarkable numbers of growth and prosperity. Firm coffers were full and firms were spending significant sums of money on promoting themselves in order to enter new markets and find premium business. Some firms even began experimenting with branding. In those days, branding was mostly viewed as just another form of advertising and promotion. In fact, firm leadership rarely understood the branding process or what the concept of branding was actually designed to accomplish. But it didn’t really matter, revenue was climbing and profitability stayed strong. But what so many of these firms didn’t expect was that, in just a few years, our economy would be shaken by a deep and fierce recession, the one which would shake the financial footings of even the most profitable of firms.
For Law Firm s, the recession that began in 2007 had, by 2010, penetrated the most sacred of realms- the proverbial benchmark of a firms standing and achievement- profits-per-partner. For many firms, especially mega-firms, the decline in law partner profits were reaching record lows and it has not been long before the legal landscape was littered with failed firms both large and small.
In trying to deflect further losses, firms begun to lay off associates and staff in record number. But the problems went much deeper. There simply were too many lawyers and not enough premium work to go around. It was a clear case of overcapacity, and it was also clear it was not going to improve anytime soon.
More than twelve of the state’s major Law Firm s, and with than 1, 000 partners between them, had completely failed in a extend of seven years. Against this background, law schools were still churning out thousands of eager law graduates every year. Trained young men and women who have been starved for the chance to enter a profession that once held the promise of wealth, status and stability.
As partner profits dwindled, partner infighting grew rampant. Partner would compete against partner for the same little bit of business. The collegial “team-driven” identity and “progressive culture” that firms spent vast amounts promoting as their business’s unique brand and culture had vanished as quickly as it appeared. While financial times were tough, in fact many of the big firms had the resources to survive the economic downturn. Instead, partners with big books of business were choosing to take what they could and joined other firms- demoralizing those left behind.
To understand why this is happening, we must first remove ourselves from the specific context and internal nation-wide topics of any one firm and consider the larger picture. The failure and decline of firms was not only a crisis of economics and overcapacity, it was also a crisis of character, identity, values and leadership. Sadly, the brand identity many of these firms noticable as their own did not match with reality of who they actually were. In other words, for many firms, the brand identity they created was illusory- and illusory brands ultimately fracture in times of financial stress.
Ultimately, the branding process must also be a transformative process in search of the firms highest and most cherished values. It is, and must be, a process of reinvention at every level of the firm- especially its leadership. The transformative process is fundamental to developing a true and enduring brand. Without it, firms run the risk of communicating an identity that does not represent them, and this is the danger, especially when the firm is tested with stress of difficult times.
How this miscommunication of identity was allowed to happen varied widely from firm to firm. But generally speaking, while firm leadership was initially supportive of the branding process, in most cases these same partners were rarely ready to risk revealing the business’s real problems in fear that it would expose their own.
While decline of Law Firm revenue was clearly attributable to both a bad economy and an oversupply of lawyers, from an internal perspective the business’s inability to come together and develop effective measures to withstand these difficulties could usually be traced directly back to the lack of partner leadership. A strong that proclaims to be something it is not- is inevitably doomed to failure. Say nothing of the psychic damage it causes at the collective level of the firm. It is no different then the psychological mechanics of the person who pretends to be someone he is not- ultimately it leads to confusion, frustration and eventually self-betrayal.
On the web indulge in self-praise when economic times are good. Some partners might even credit their success to all or any that clever branding they put into place years before. But, when the threat of financial crisis enters the picture, the same firm can quickly devolve into self-predatory behavior- a bad cycle of fear and greed that inevitably turns into an “eat-or-be-eaten” culture- which for most firms marks the beginning of the end.
For any firm playing out its last inning, it is simply too late to rally the troops or reach for those so-called cherished values that were apparently driving the business’s success. In fact, when times got bad, these values were no place can be found, except on the firms website, mag ads and brochures.
The point is that when a strong is actually driven by its cherished beliefs and core values, the firm will quickly live by them, especially in times of adversity. The firm will pull together and rally behind its leadership, and with clarity of purpose, each person will do what needs to be done to weather the storm. But when there exists a fundamental contradiction between what a firm says they are, and how they actually conduct themselves both internally and to the world- the vendors with whom they do business and the clients they represent- the firm will never reach its full potential. It will remain dysfunctional and it will risk joining that growing list of failed firms.
The financial break and degeneration of so many Law Firm s in the past few years is a compelling testament to the significance about insisting on truth and integrity in the branding process.
In 2014, it is clear that business-as-usual in our profession is no longer a sustainable task. For this reason I am convinced that firms driven by fear and greed are firms most likely going to eventually self-destruct. That is because, no matter how much these firms try to brand, they will never be able to brand truthfully, and therefore they will never be able to compete against more progressive and enlightened firms- those that do not worship wealth and power, but rather love personal and professional fulfillment.
There is a choice for those who believe their firm is worth saving- reinvent yourself to reflect values that are truly worthy of cherishing, or risk devolving into something less than what you wish to be and risk your business’s core in the process.
We as lawyers are able, indeed the responsibility, to play a valuable and constructive role in this transformative process. And, in this particular process, we finally have the chance to redefine our profession. I speak of what Justice Berger referred to when he exhorted our profession to become “healers of human conflict. “
I often wonder what it would be like professionally if we were viewed by the public as healers of conflict rather than perpetuators of conflict. I wonder what practicing law would look like and what values and choices we might make as healers. Perhaps we might choose values like union over division, add-on over exclusion, and wisdom over cleverness.
Undoubtedly, it is not easy to think of the legal profession as being consisting of healers. It takes some imagination, and yet personally, the very idea of it actually materializing in my lifetime or even in my children’s lifetime deeply moves and inspires me.
To accomplish this we must move from a state of daydreaming to a state of assuming. To a state of living out the values we have chosen to embrace. It dares us to be more than what we ever thought possible both personally and professionally.