Law Firm Branding – The Danger Of Illusory Brands

Over the last ten years, we have witnessed advances in law practice technology, the expanding roles of paralegals, and the outsourcing of legal work. Yet despite all of these cost-cutting and time-saving advantages, many law firms, especially the large ones, remain struggling for their very survival.

Only a decade ago, law firms were enjoying remarkable levels 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 acquire 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 truth, firm leadership rarely understood the branding process or what the concept of branding was actually intended to accomplish. But it didn’t really matter, revenue was climbing and profitability remained 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, one which would shake the financial foundations of even the most profitable of firms.

For law firms, 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 wasn’t long until the legal landscape was littered with failed firms both large and small.

In trying to deflect further losses, firms began 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 nation’s major law firms, with more than 1,000 partners between them, had completely failed in a span of about seven years. Against this background, law schools were still churning out thousands of eager law graduates every year. Highly trained young men and women who were 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 piece of business. The collegial “team-driven” identity and “progressive culture” that firms spent millions of dollars promoting as their firm’s unique brand and culture had vanished as quickly as it was created. While financial times were tough, in truth many of the big firms had the resources to survive the 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 was happening, we must first remove ourselves from the specific context and internal politics 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 pronounced as their own did not match up against the 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 building 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 against the 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 willing to risk exposing the firm’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 firm’s inability to come together and develop effective measures to withstand these pressures could usually be traced directly back to the lack of partner leadership. A firm 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 dynamics of the person who pretends to be someone he is not- ultimately it leads to confusion, frustration and eventually self-betrayal.

It’s easy to indulge in self-praise when economic times are good. Some partners might even attribute their success to all 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 vicious 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 supposedly driving the firm’s success. In truth, when times got bad, these values were nowhere to be found, except on the firms website, magazine ads and brochures.

The point is that when a firm is actually driven by its cherished beliefs and core values, the firm will begin to 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 collapse and deterioration of so many law firms in the past few years is a compelling testament to the importance of 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 proposition. For this reason I am convinced that firms driven by fear and greed are firms destined 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 cherish 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 aspire to be and risk your firm’s heart and soul in the process.

Seven Steps for Picking the Best Birth Injury Law Firm

Choosing a law firm is never easy. A commercial on television, billboard on the side of the road, or advertisement on your favorite web page tells you very little about the quality of the firm you select. Recommendations from friends are good, but only if you happen to have a friend who previously had a lawsuit in the same area as you. Referrals from other attorneys who may know the leading experts in the area you need can be helpful. Still, the process of choosing a law firm can be largely mysterious.

Let me help clear it up. If you suspect your child was injured by medical negligence and are looking for the right firm, here are some steps you can follow to choose the best lawyers for the job:

1) Make sure the firm specializes in birth injury cases. Wouldn’t you rather hire someone who is familiar and comfortable with the area? Law firms with lots of experience in birth injury will be far better equipped to deal with your case than those who are new to the field. If you are getting a recommendation, ask to be referred to a firm whose specialty is birth injury.

2) Look at the firm’s credentials and rankings. There are a number of websites and publications that rank attorneys and law firms. These can provide useful information about a firm’s value, success, and reputation. Check out Martindale.com, Best Lawyers, Super Lawyers, and the US News rankings of best law firms.

3) Choose a law firm with medical professionals on staff. Success in birth injury cases depends on nuanced knowledge of both the legal and medical system. If your law firm has doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals working for them, they are better prepared to handle the subject matter and win your case.

4) Make sure the law firm knows how to say “no” to too-low settlement offers. Defense attorneys may offer attractive settlements that may be, in reality, far lower than the actual cost of lifetime care of a severely disabled child. You need an attorney you can trust to turn down offers when appropriate.

5) Pick a firm that has sufficient financial resources. Law suits can take years from start to finish – and when the payout only comes at the end, some firms will not be able to make the necessary investment. By looking at the size of a firm’s staff, the number of years they’ve been practicing, and evidence of successes, you can get some idea of their financial depth. This is needed if you want them to keep experienced attorneys and staff working on your case, potentially for a long time.

6) Do not choose a firm who demands payment up front. Injury attorneys are typically paid a portion of the payout if they win or settle your case. A good firm won’t rush you to sign an agreement if you are still uncertain. Make sure they are easy to reach and keep you updated on the progress of your case.

7) Don’t assume your firm has to be confined to your geographic area. Some larger law firms are licensed to practice in many states.

Wikipedia Marketing – Use a Wiki to Market a Law Firm Or Practice

Wikipedia is a very important tool in a tech-savvy legal marketers’ arsenal. Web technologies like RSS from blogs, wikis, forums, and other kinds of channels into feed-enabled portals create buzz about an attorney or law firm.

Wikipedia has a massive traffic volume and influence in search engine results. The site also tends to attract a tech-savvy audience that researches RSS and other Web 2.0 technologies. Presented carefully, a strong presence for a law firm with relevant Wikipedia entries can help drive traffic to the Firm’s website. In the ever-expanding world of social computing, it makes sense for firms and attorneys to take the plunge into Wikipedia, but it is just as important to learn the rules of the game first.

GETTING STARTED

When creating the firm or attorney page, first check the state bar’s rules for the filing requirements for public advertising and written, recorded, electronic or other digital solicitations. In Texas, all attorney advertising copy must be submitted to the Advertising Review Department. However, since Wikipedia entries are assumed written by a neutral third-party the pages don’t officially fall into the “advertising” category.

Here is the official word from the Texas State Bar Advertising Review Department Director Gene Major; “Read the Texas Disciplinary Rules for Professional Conduct. Rule 7.07(e) lists the type of exemptions the Bar allows without submission for approval from us. These exemptions include publicly available information about the attorney or law firm, business card-type information about practice areas, firm website and information concerning legal issues, such as news articles, legal articles, editorial opinions, or other legal developments or events.”

Before constructing the framework for the Wikipedia page, the best advice is to list everything planned for the page, then read the individual state bar’s exemptions rule on filing requirements and make sure nothing on the Wikipedia list contradicts the state bar rule.

Wikipedia’s strict content guidelines must also be addressed and understood thoroughly. Wikipedia’s editors are basically anyone who owns a computer, and they can be merciless. Wikipedia defines itself as: an encyclopedia, not a forum for advertising or self-promotion, or a vanity press. As such, it should contain only material that complies with its content policies, and Wikipedians must place the interests of the encyclopedia first. Any editor who gives priority to outside interests may be subject to a conflict of interest.

There are no firm criteria to determine whether a conflict of interest exists, but there are warning signs. Adding material that appears to promote the interests or visibility of an article’s author, its author’s family members, employer, associates, or their business or personal interests, places the author in a conflict of interest. When editors write to promote their own interests, their contributions often show a characteristic lack of connection to anything the general reader might want to consult as a reference.

When constructing a page if its decided to write an article on an area of law where there is personal involvement, be sure to write in a neutral tone and cite reliable, third party published sources, its important to beware of unintentional bias. A neutral point of view is the key to success on Wikipedia.

The best learning tools here are examples. Houston attorney Mark Lanier’s page is a good model of how to write a Wikipedia entry properly. It can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._Mark_Lanier

You will notice Lanier’s page is categorized under American Lawyers/Living People. A page’s category is an important designation. According to the Wikipedia article traffic statistics (http://stats.grok.se/) Lanier’s page has been visited 246 times in June of 2008.

A law firm that created their Wikipedia entry properly can be found here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skadden%2C_Arps%2C_Slate%2C_Meagher_%26_Flom

This firm categorized their entry under: Law firms of the United States | Law firms established in 1948 | Law firms based in New York City. According to the traffic counter, their page has been viewed 6,508 times in June of 2008. That’s a strong audience.

Along with the successful pages we should also cite examples of problem entries. Haynes & Boone is a good cautionary tale. Their page can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haynes_%26_Boone

You will notice there is a warning header at the top of the page listing the entry as being written as an advertisement. Judging from the length of the page a lot of work went into building it. But there aren’t any external links except self-promoting websites and there are no references listed. Whoever wrote this entry probably thought the link to the firm’s website would be enough to justify the time and effort it took to build the page. However, a quick check of the page traffic counter shows the page was visited once in May and not at all in June. It is important to cite sources and make sure other articles link to the page from related topics. Make content relevant for the Wikipedia community, not just the firm.

CASE CITATIONS

You will notice from the Mark Lanier page example citations of some of his flagship cases. These cases should not be cited unless they are considered closed by the courts and all parties involved. If an attorney is involved in a court case, or close to one of the litigants, it would be very difficult to demonstrate that what is written about a party or a law firm associated with the case, or a related area of law, was entirely objective.

The courts or their parties could potentially notice even a minor slip up in neutrality in a court-case article on Wikipedia for an active case-in-progress, and this could potentially cause real-world harm. Because of this, restrict case citations and edits on other Wikipedia pages to cases officially closed.

STEPS FOR DEVELOPING THE PAGE

1. Research State Bar Professional Conduct Guidelines for filing requirements.

2. Research Wikipedia’s guidelines for content creation and editing, including standards for writing style, formatting, editing, adding links, etc.

3. Study the attorney and firm pages listed in this article and notice how they crafted their page, then make it easy on yourself and copy them with your own content.

4. Choose the proper category for the page. Study other related firms and attorney pages to distinguish the particular area that will most benefit your practice.

5. Find someone outside of your organization to do the actual development of the entry to avoid being deleted by Wikipedia’s conflict-of-interest policy.

6. Craft practice articles in the Wikipedia Sandbox:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Sandbox The Wikipedia Sandbox section of the site allows members to post draft articles, experiment with formatting, tone, and linking strategies, and receive feedback from the community

7. Write articles according to Wikipedia’s neutral point-of-view standards, which discourages users from putting spin or bias in articles. Remove all the slick marketing hype for the copy. This sentence, for instance, is similar to something that would appear in company marketing materials:
o “XYZ Firm is a diversified law practice focused on the highest level of customer service”
For Wikipedia, it needs to sound like this:
o “XYZ Firm is comprised of attorneys representing a number of diverse practice areas including, Intellectual Property, Maritime Law and Business Litigation.”

8. Strategically link related pages within Wikipedia. Guidelines state that content creators should provide relevant links to other Wikipedia articles.

9. Use external links to send traffic to a Firm’s site. Hotlinks are permitted in certain sections of a Wikipedia article, such as External Links. Be sure to add links to relevant Firm Web pages where possible. Use concise, targeted pages relevant to the Wikipedia article in question, rather than just linking to the company’s homepage. Add links to the firm’s Web pages, data sheets, and white papers in an article’s “References” section. Include links to third-party sites on company-specific pages to demonstrate neutrality.

Finally, take all the valuable content just created and add value to the Wikipedia community by expanding the information available on RSS technology.

TRACK THE RESULTS

Starting with the article traffic statistics, track how many people are visiting the Wikipedia page. Be sure to monitor where clients are hearing about the firm and keep a record of the new calls into the office and be sure and ask the client where they heard of the firm.

Wikipedia is a collaborative, constantly evolving site, and a firm’s page must be constantly monitored. The team responsible for overseeing the page must constantly be aware of edits to the page, participate in ongoing discussions about pages, and look for opportunities to add more relevant, useful content to the site. Provide value to the Wikipedia community and reap the rewards!