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What to say when you have nothing to say

Solving the messaging dilemma for larger law firms 4 comments

Many large firm websites lead with hollow marketing messages like “Every Client Matters” or “Experience. Integrity. Results.” These taglines are empty words. They further nobody’s cause.

As I mentioned in my last post, nearly all large law firms find it difficult (sometimes impossible) to craft a strong marketing message that resonates across the entire firm. For these firms, I have a simple recommendation: “Say nothing.”

A weak, soulless headline or tagline can hurt your credibility and cast doubt upon all the words that follow. So, strike the homepage headline. And instead use sophisticated design, beautiful imagery and high-quality content to communicate your message.

We want a message!

My “say nothing” approach isn’t always received well. Most attorneys are verbal and prefer their website to have a bold headline that speaks to their strengths. The problem is that strengths differ from practice to practice and office to office. There might not be any strengths that apply across all 250+ attorneys, 50+ practices and 10 offices.

Is a powerful message even possible for large firms? Can a law firm that’s an amalgam of cultures and histories really develop a firm-wide message that truly resonates? I think so. But solving a large firm’s messaging problem takes more work (and pain) than most firms are willing to endure. Below, we outline how to do it.

What’s the problem?

Before we discuss a solution, let’s talk about the real problem. Most perceived “messaging problems” aren’t actually messaging problems, they’re business strategy problems. What’s the difference?

  • It’s a messaging problem when you understand what distinguishes your firm, and you’re searching for an effective way to communicate that message. A true messaging problem can be solved by the marketing department.
  • It’s a business strategy problem when you’re having difficulty finding any distinguishing characteristics that apply across your entire organization. This challenge is bigger than the marketing department. To solve this, you need to create a new reality for your firm as a whole.

If your firm has spent years struggling to develop a firm-wide message, chances are that the underlying problem falls into the category of “business strategy.” So, how do you solve this kind of problem? What’s the secret to developing a compelling firm-wide message that resonates? It all begins with “positioning.”

Four Steps to Creating a Powerful Message

Step 1: Positioning

Positioning is about finding a distinct market position (or niche) that gives your firm a sales advantage over its competitors. For example, among carmakers, Volvo’s position is “safety” and the Prius is “environmentally conscious.”

Your firm should select a positioning that:

  • None of your immediate competitors has yet claimed,
  • Will resonate with key prospective clients, and
  • Reflects a “truth” about your organization.

Where do you begin? BTI Consulting has identified some qualities that provide the highest level of differentiation for law firms. I’d begin by exploring whether any of these qualities could be the basis of your firm’s positioning:

  • Commitment to help
  • Client focus
  • Understands the client’s business
  • Provides value for the dollar
  • Anticipates the client’s needs
  • Innovative approach

Once you’ve identified your positioning, you can start crafting a message (headline/tagline) that powerfully communicates it. With the positioning nailed, this message should practically write itself.

Step 2: Substantiation

Marketing messages are often just empty words. Every firm claims to “provide value” and be “committed to its clients’ success.” So, how do you make it real?

To rise above the noise, you’ll need to demonstrate that your firm’s positioning is woven into its culture, and rooted in solid processes. If your firm claims to “understand its clients’ business,” you need to publish a manifesto that explains exactly how you do this across the entire firm. Creating the manifesto will probably require that your firm adopt some new policies and procedures that support its claims. For example:

  • Regular client visits – Promise to perform at least one onsite “learning” visit per year for all regular clients, at no charge.
  • Google Alerts – As a matter of policy, attorneys set up Google Alerts for each client, its products and key competitors.
  • Secondments – The firm actively encourages its clients to embed one of its attorneys onsite for a one-year stint.

Step 3: Internal Buy-in

The purpose of the firm’s positioning is to help attorneys sell their services. If your attorneys don’t feel comfortable with the positioning and fail to incorporate it into their sales pitch, it’s useless.

So, how do you achieve buy-in across the firm? Here are some tips:

  • Make the case that the new message is more than some pretty words. Attorneys need to know that it’s rooted in a sound understanding of today’s legal marketplace. A PowerPoint road show might be necessary to communicate (in person) how the initiative positions attorneys for success.
  • Get management on board. If the firm’s executive committee and superstar rainmakers support the firm's positioning, it will have legs.
  • Make it ubiquitous in the firm’s internal communication. This will help your message feel permanent. If the positioning is perceived as the “flavor of the moment,” people will tend to dismiss it.

Step 4: External Communication

For your positioning to “move the needle,” every bit of your marketing communication needs to reflect it.

  • Your website’s homepage headline should succinctly communicate your message.
  • Your firm’s manifesto should be published prominently on your website.
  • Case studies should speak directly to your positioning and explain how it has delivered value to your clients.
  • Your positioning should be summarized in a tagline that appears on every piece of printed and electronic collateral.

It’s important to realize that you’ll likely become bored with your message long before the marketplace does. Resist the temptation to change your positioning before it has been given a chance to take hold and show results.

This can’t happen at my firm

You’re probably thinking, “Thanks Dion, but that’s a tall order. It could take years!”

You’re right, it takes lots of time and effort. And a consensus-driven culture could make it nearly impossible to develop (and substantiate) a unique message that resonates in the marketplace. As I mentioned in my last post, for most large firms it’s probably better to just say nothing.

What do you think?

Is a deadpan message like “Leaders in Law” better than saying nothing? Is there a quicker and easier way for a large general practice firm to develop a meaningful message? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please leave a comment below.


4 comments... read them below or add one.
  1. Veronica Williams says:

    Great read. The issues you bring up don’t just apply to large law firms, they apply to any law firm that is merely a collection of sole practitioners operating under the same roof (or collection of roofs).

    I think your hypothesis that no message is better than a lame message is correct because I believe the target audience will feel the dissonance between the message and the experience and that will create dissatisfaction over the long run.

    I have always been a proponent of the idea that there are three ways to brand anything; who, what or how. For law firms, who should really be about the types of clients or industries that receive the highest benefit from your services. What would address the types of services you provide (snooze). How, I believe, is the best differentiation there is for a law firm. How do you what you do differently from your competitors that makes the experience of working with your organization better than any other? Is it how you structure your client teams? Is it how you use technology to improve efficiency? And does that translate into better quality legal service or lower bills? Do you provide custom alternative fees that demonstrate you are committed to managing hours billed?

    But, you can only use this type of messaging if the entire firm is committed to upholding the standard of delivery. Until law firms change their ownership structure, this level of standardization seems unlikely for most law firms.

  2. Amy Knapp says:

    Thank you so much for writing this blog post! I immediately sent it to a client who is just not ready for a tagline and got them to agree to skip it for now. You hit the nail on the head.

  3. Per Casey says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with this post and the preceding post. The rub, however, is that it is often just as challenging for a firm to decide how to ‘say nothing’ as it is for them to come up with a meaningful, non-generic headline and value statement. In all of the examples you pointed out, there was likely a lot of time spent to decide on the visual direction, to build consensus and to approve the final design.

    Not to take anything away from your thesis here, it’s absolutely right, but firms should appreciate that ‘saying nothing’ isn’t that much less work than finding a tagline/strategy that fits for them. Especially when you consider that even without a perfect tagline, firms still need to have some semblance of a strategy to guide their content marketing efforts.

    • Hi Per!
      You are completely correct. Creating a website with design that subtly communicates the qualities of the firm, AND achieves the firm’s business goals is not easily done. That is indeed the rub. Thankfully there are firms like Tenrec and Great Jakes around to help! :)

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