Branding Your Law Firm – and Yourself – in the 21st Century

Jennifer Colwell, president of the Nebraska Chapter of the Association of Legal Administrators, meets with her team at McGill, Workman & Lepp, P.C., L.L.O. Colwell is one of 500 Certified Legal Managers worldwide. (Photo by Don Shepard/Don Shepard Photography)
Elizabeth A. Elliott
The Daily Record

A successful law firm relies on the talent of its attorneys and staff that provide excellent service to clients. It takes branding around whatever makes a firm unique to make it resonate with people and stand out. Branding goes beyond the logos.

It’s a brave new world out there in law firm advertising. From being forbidden, to being discouraged, to embracing it, law firms have discovered the value of advertising. Gone is the stigma of the shocking and sometimes crude television ads of attorneys “chasing ambulances.” As rules [written and unwritten] have changed, so have law firms’ approaches to reaching potential clients. They have embraced not only the traditional mass media, but social media avenues as well.

Part of the reason for that necessity is the way people prefer to receive information. One study showed that “19 percent of millennials who have ever had a legal issue say they’d rather text or email their lawyer than talk on the phone or face-to-face, compared to 14 percent of [all] Americans.” Options for communicating with potential clients must be offered, and that includes texting, live chat, e-mail and other methods, according to a Clio study. And that includes how you connect with them in the first place.

Since the rules of advertising have changed, it is imperative that lawyers know those rules. The Nebraska Rules of Professional Conduct provide guidance to lawyers on the ethics of advertising, according to Liz Neeley, executive director of the Nebraska State Bar Association. (Find the rules here:

If you are a new law firm, you need to first identify your target market.

“My favorite analogy in marketing is that it is like a hot air balloon. It takes a lot of energy and effort to get the balloon in the air, but very little to sustain it. Give frequent bursts to remind people you’re there,” said Jennifer Colwell, president of the Nebraska chapter of the Association of Legal Administrators.

Long-established law firms cannot grow stagnate when it comes to branding. “The best companies have reinvented themselves many, many times over 100 years. Those who failed to reinvent themselves didn’t make it 100 years,” Colwell said. A law firm marketing consultant or advertising agency can share success stories, making more senior partners feel comfortable with the change, she pointed out.

“As the oldest and largest locally-based law firm in Nebraska (founded in 1873), we understand the importance of the solid foundation on which we were built,” said Meredith A. Williams, marketing director at Baird Holm LLP.

“However, it’s equally important to show our clients the ways in which we are engaged in constant evolution – of our systems, processes, people – especially as technology changes. A law firm, or any business for that matter, cannot enjoy 145 years in existence without being nimble and progressive-minded.”

Within a law firm, everyone must understand the brand and who the firm wants to be. “Creating a culture of business development is critical and having everyone understand the brand and who the firm wants to be is very important,” Colwell said. “Encourage your attorneys and staff to tag the firm when they are participating in community events or can take the opportunity to promote your clients’ successes.”

Being proactive in branding is a way to stay on top of the message. “If you don’t tell the public what you want them to know about you, they’ll make it up,” Colwell said. “Be consistent in your efforts across all platforms, including the work product that leaves the office.”

Little things can make a big difference in branding. “How you answer your phone or how you present yourself relative to competitors can make a big impact on your brand out in the real world where competition is fierce,” said Bryan Wells, senior client development consultant for FindLaw serving Nebraska and Iowa. “What technique works best is going to vary from firm to firm. But for everyone, it begins with understanding that your brand extends beyond your logo.”

Communication with clients throughout the process is key when rebranding. If a firm is located in several states, Colwell said to cater the branding to the individual markets.

Once a firm understands its brand, it can feel more confident in marketing decisions. Wells gave the example of a two-person practice in Ralston. “Play up that boutique vibe by highlighting your personal attention to detail, your specific expertise and your convenient location with ample parking,” he said. “You might not need everyone in downtown Omaha to see your billboard, but you might want to target commuters within a certain income bracket with smart Facebook advertisements.”

Attorneys within a large law firm should create a personal brand. “Large firms may not need all individual lawyers to develop their own business, but the more well-known a lawyer is directly translates into more business for the firm and higher compensation and independence for the individual,” Colwell said.

Attorneys can keep their LinkedIn profiles updated, share content, speak for organizations and businesses and be involved in the community to build their personal brand.

They don’t have to build their brand alone.

“If they have a firm marketing person, they will have someone to give them guidance. Attorneys should stay consistent with firm branding,” according to Roy Sexton, director of marketing for the Legal Marketing Association Midwest Region. “The firm already is spending money on that branding. See if they have templates for things like white papers,” he said.

Consulting clients is another key. “Find out from your clients what sets you apart and keeps them returning or what has been successful,” he said. “If you can speak the language of business people, make it part of your brand.”

Wells said the most obvious change that social media has brought to legal marketing is that it makes brands more accessible. “In a literal sense, Facebook and Twitter have made it incredibly easy for consumers to connect with brands on their terms,” he said. “In a bad customer service scenario, that might look like someone complaining about a delayed flight on Twitter. In better circumstances, it might mean a favorable review posted on your firm’s Facebook page or a prospect reaching out with a legal question in the comments on an article you shared.”

Wells said the casual nature of social media allows for brands to show more personality. “Studies have shown that legal consumers, in particular, value things like trust and empathy nearly as much as a firm’s reputation or location.”

Posting candid pictures of their local activities or sharing relevant articles that reinforce their expertise, said Wells, expands beyond the traditional attorneys standing in front of a wall of books. Social media has influenced branding in both positive and negative ways. “It is more effective and less expensive than traditional advertising,” Colwell said. “It is also more time-consuming and difficult to manage.”

Attorneys are familiar with cases where social media goes awry and may be nervous to use social media for brand development. Much attorney work, such as articles and white papers, may be visible only to a certain audience.

“Social media allows me, as a marketing person, to get content into others’ hands and create an awareness of the work of the attorneys,” said Sexton.

Consider the status of your law firm or personal brand and reach out to a marketing professional if it is time to rebrand.


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