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The Big Reveal — Strongest American Law Firm Brands

Interesting results posted recently in The Strongest Law Firm Brands in the Land which delineates a study on law firm brand recognition by brand research company, Acritas? The question mark is intended because the most mentioned firms in telephone interviews with high-revenue clients, of at least $1 billion, are not surprising. The results included Skadden, Jones Day, Kirkland & Ellis, Sidley Austin, and Wachtell.

Various questions were asked, including which firm the GC and AGC respondents would hire for bet-the-company matters, which the respondents’ have more favorable attitude towards and which they would hire for large M&A matters. The rankings apparently changed slightly on favorability as opposed to which were best known.

Place Still Counts.
One of the interesting things about the study results is that brand awareness for law firms is still somewhat tied to geographical area. The western mainstays, Gibson, Latham & Watkins and Morrison Foerster were top of mind for western interviewees and southern strong-holds remain Baker Botts, Fulbright & Jaworski, and Vinson & Elkins.

A Difference That Matters.
Apparently, as a profession we don’t seem to make the connection between brand recognition and winning business. According to various marketing and branding experts interviewed about the study results, as a profession we do not focus on differentiation. I have spoken with many law firm marketers and managing partners who are quite dismissive when questioned on this point. “Of course our clients and potential clients know our strengths and what makes us different.” Really? Have you asked them lately?

Many lawyers assume that their markets understand their points of value. But that is often not the case. As a partner in a firm, you know what you do. You must assume that others do not. Assume that the rest of the buying world would not be able to articulate the differences between your practice and the firm down the elevator. You have to make this clear to win the business. And the clarity of this message must be authentic, interesting and memorable.

Brand Works.
There are lots of great lawyers around the country that aren’t as well known, but have the talent and resources to represent major clients successfully. Some great high-quality law firms that have been around for a very long time, do not make this list. Some law firms that have big internal problems with management and culture are sitting on this list.

In my opinion, GC’s and AGC’s have a bit of a fear factor hiring lesser known firms and lawyers. Although many GC’s have told me over the years that they “hire lawyers, not firms,” strong law firm brands do factor into the hiring decision. Lesser known firms can suffer from the reluctance of law departments to hire great lawyers in not-as-well-known firms.

A client might be concerned that the hiring decision could be second-guessed later depending on the results. Hiring a lesser known firm could be perceived as carrying greater risk, because if the outcome isn’t favorable heads might roll on the hiring decision. That means just being a great lawyer with the expertise to win a case might not be accepted as compelling. This is true even though the well known counsel and firm competing for the hire have lost and lost badly in other matters.

It is a fact of business life that clients can also be concerned about the power of public perception of the lawyers lined up on either side — even if the lesser known lawyer or law firm actually has greater ability. What if a client could see to the end of a case and the lesser known choice would actually secure a better outcome? We all know what the hiring decision would be in that case.

The skill and ability of the lawyer and the depth of the firm, not just its ranking and brand strength, should compel the hire. But in our world, perception can quickly become reality. This is what firms are up against in creating a place for themselves to win business.

Looking objectively and benchmarking your brand can be enlightening and humbling. Inherent in this process is developing clarity on your firm’s differentiators and communicating this to potential clients in cohesive and powerful brand development and management.

Given the legal market and competition for clients, brand becomes more, not less important in winning the business.

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