Blog Post

Should firms help brand individual attorneys?


I was recently speaking with the CMO of a large and prestigious law firm, when he did something unexpected: he apologized for his website. It wasn't an ugly website. Rather, he apologized because the website had been conceived as “nothing more than a brochure to help brand the firm."

“We’ve come to the realization that our site needs to do more to help individual attorneys market themselves,” the CMO told me.

“Yes!” I enthusiastically replied. That’s exactly what needs to be done. However, I was surprised to hear him say it because, as I see it, the legal marketing world is just beginning to warm to this idea. So, I’m writing this blog post in an effort to bring everybody else around.

Why not focus on the firm?
First, let me say that I think that firm-wide branding should be an objective of every law firm website. However, it can’t be the only goal. In today’s market, it’s also vital to give attorneys and practice areas the tools to market and brand themselves. Why? As I see it, there are two primary reasons.

  1. Firm-wide branding is very difficult.
    Branding works best when the focus is narrow. Law firms tend to be very broad -- often with hundreds of attorneys, dozens of practice areas, and offices scattered around the globe. Trying to create a brand that meaningfully applies to all of those different elements is a very long and difficult process.
  2. A law firm is the sum of its parts.
    Good law firm brands (think Cravath, Bois Schiller) are built on the reputations of their individual attorneys and practice areas. Brand building is a slow process of promoting the skills and experience of the individual parts that make up the firm. Any effort to superimpose a “brand” on a faceless group of attorneys will probably show little, if any, return.

How can your website help attorneys?
Your firm’s website should aim to be more than just a firm-wide branding device. It needs to become a platform that individual attorneys and practice areas can use to make the case for why potential clients should hire them.

This means that the firm’s website needs to be flexible enough to allow attorneys and practice areas to promote themselves in a way that makes sense for their particular markets. For example, one group might need to write articles, another attorney might want to use video content, and a third might want to use podcasts or photos. Most traditional firm-focused websites are too rigid to accommodate different messages and oddball content.

Should firm-wide branding efforts be abandoned?
Absolutely not. Firm-wide branding should always be part of the marketing mix. However, any law firm brand initiative needs to substantiate the firm’s brand claim through the work of its individual attorneys and practice areas. Anything short of this simply won’t ring true.


18 comments... read them below or add one.
  1. Earl Smith says:

    Robert – Nice blog post. However, I think that you’re fighting an uphill battle. I don’t expect that most law firms will start thinking this way anytime soon. They’re afraid that they will spend lots of $ investing in building the “brand” of a particular attorney – and then lose that guy to another firm. Short term thinking? Perhaps. But this kind of risk-averse behavior is characteristic of law firms. And I don’t expect that will change anytime soon.

  2. Robert,

    So true, I’ve been saying this for years, but you’ve done a great job of describing the issue. Look for my article in the National Law Journal on the same topic in the next couple of days.

    Keep the good stuff coming.

  3. Great post again Robert.

    It’s interesting that, when I worked in-house, we spent so much time working with individual Partners, senior associates etc to help them with their individual marketing efforts (in addition to building client and sector focused teams) but really didn’t pay a lot of attention to their individual profiles on the website.

    I think one of the major hurdles is that marketing roles within law firms are just so busy and it can be a nightmare trying to build content for websites. I remember pulling my hair out trying to meet with partners to get basic info for their profiles.

    Absolutely agree that websites should seek to demonstrate individual’s expertise as well as collective expertise and build/reflect the brand. It’s just a question of how to do this and juggle an already busy workload. It’s definitely an area I’d outsource if possible.

    Interested in others views on this.

    -Kirsten Hodgson

  4. It must have been nice to hear a CMO voice that. It’s a sign law marketing is moving in the right direction! I remember chatting with you awhile back about law firm websites and your knowledge has resonated with me since!

    Law firm attorney bio’s are the most visited parts of any law website. It’s been my experience that most are cookie cutter print outs of credentials, schools attended, etc. They aren’t inviting and you don’t get to know the attorney at all.

    Branding each attorney individually benefits the firm as a whole. People like doing business with people, not businesses. It’s my view that law firms should dedicate more resources to creating exceptional bio pages. They’ll see more results in the end!

  5. Very nice blog, thank you. Since I began “studying up” on marketing, social media, etc., one of the things I always seem to read is that clients hire lawyers, not law firms. Whether this is true or not, I do not know. However, it does make sense to me.

  6. Richard Pinto says:

    Good article. A good example, as an ex-journalist who has seen the efforts, is Milbank’s project finance group. The team have been aggressive in promoting their lawyers, with noticeable results – they have great success at the awards dinners every year. In 2010, for instance, every Milbank PF partner was ranked by Chambers. Make of that what you will, chicken-egg,benefit of directories, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Those lawyers then form a cadre from which the rest of the team and the firm all benefit. And even should a lawyer leave, the “ex-Milbank” tag has benefit, as the place where good PF skills were learned. For a lawyer, they’d want that label, gaining benefit from working with such prominent lawyers on a good practice group; and this reflexively provides Milbank with further credibility.

  7. Robert,
    As usual, you are spot on. I contend that law firm branding is the equivalent of Proctor and Gamble trying to brand itself. It doesn’t make sense. Instead, P&G intelligently brands Charmin, Dash, Iams, Luvs, Tide and Gillette separately. This is what law firms should do – brand their lawyers, who after all, *are* the product.

    -Larry Bodine

  8. Larry,
    Great analogy. The P&G brand is important, but customers do not have an affinity with P&G — their loyalties lie with the products they’ve grown attached to, like Charmin.

    John Hellerman of Hellerman Baretz Communiations wrote an article that does a fantastic job of making this point. “Five Marketing Lessons from Howrey’s Graveside”

  9. The article makes a great case for why law firms should consider marketing the individual attorney. However, I am not sure a totally agree. Accounting firms are very similar to law firms and at my firm we have taken the position that there is a hierarchy to brand – (i) The Firm, (ii)The Practice (products/services) and (iii) The Expert (e.g. the CPA, etc.). We take this approach because we want our firm to be known as experts within the industries we serve – not necessarily the partner in charge of a given practice area. There are countless examples of firms that have been success with branding at the Expert level – perhaps even some firms have seen success combining their brand hierarchy to include both Firm and Expert level branding. However, there are an equal (if not a greater) number of examples where successful branding is only occurring at the Firm level – and it makes sense that it would stay there. For example, you would never see any of the Big 4 (e.g. E&Y, Deloitte, etc.) brand a partner — it just doesn’t make sense. If a partner were to die in a preverbal bus accident or leave the firm, would the practice go away? — perhaps the answer is ‘yes’ in a small firm but I have a hard time believing that a larger firm is truly the some of its parts and would allow an entire practice area to disappear because of one partner.
    To be fair, Larry Bodine (a commentator) makes an excellent point in support of the author when he wrote, “…I contend that law firm branding is the equivalent of Proctor and Gamble trying to brand itself. It doesn’t make sense. Instead, P&G intelligently brands Charmin, Dash, Iams, Luvs, Tide and Gillette separately. This is what law firms should do – brand their lawyers, who after all, *are* the product.”
    Amy Campbell, a marketing and communications consultant at infoworks!, wrote a phenomenal whitepaper on brand architecture called Brand Architecture: A Method to Madness (I am sure you can Google it) – in this whitepaper she says that brands like Charmin, Dash, Luvs, etc. are ‘Mono Brands’ – and by her definition a ‘Mono Brand’ is a brand that is strong and does not require the corporate brand to survive. Each product identifies specific customer need. A ‘mono brand’ is often used by large conglomerates in diversified lines such as P&G, UniLever, etc. and proves useful when extending product lines vertically in order to gain shelf space or market share. A ‘mono brand’ also protects the parent or corporate brand if a product proves harmful and/or causes death.
    What does all of this mean? It means that law firms need to define a long term grow strategy and build a brand architecture that makes sense for their firm. To some firms the ‘mono brand’ approach, building a brand for each attorney, makes sense – especially if a lawyer commits fraud and/or an illegal act – under this model it would prove much easier to separate the attorney from the firm. However, to other firms a ‘corporate brand’ approach is more palatable.
    So — I ask the world, “what is your brand architecture and does it make sense for your firm?”

  10. Robert – I enjoy reading your blog posts, which I access through linked-in/twitter. I think you’re spot on with this. In the time period from 1995-2008, law firm marketing efforts were focused almost exclusively on trying to promote a firm-wide brand, institutionalizing client relationships. There was a huge growth in this period in law firm websites, CRM systems, marketing materials etc.. – all with the purpose of tying to convince clients that the law firm has brand value. You hire a lawyer, but you also get the firm. It made sense as law firms were expanding aggressively at this time, opening lots of overseas offices, where they were less well known locally.

    But there has been a definite shift. Things are swinging back towards promoting individual attorneys. The financial crisis and subsequent economic crash has been a major factor, as has the rise of social media. For years, law firms actively discouraged promoting individuals (I used to hear this all the time – “we don’t have a star culture” – which I never understood), but this is changing. Also, firms in the UK are abandoning the traditional lockstep model, which encourages uniformity in marketing terms, and moving to the more individualistic US-style merit-based/eat-what-you-kill system.

    The problem is that law firms move at a snail’s pace. As anyone who has worked in a large law firm marketing department will know, it is frustratingly slow, particularly when it comes to websites and intranets. There are interminable meetings, endless back-and-forth, a lack of courage to push things through for fear of upsetting a partner somewhere. It is often death by committee.

    The idea of individual lawyer micro-sites which break free from the rigidity of law firm brand guidelines and a conservative consensual culture is a good one. But my prediction is that most of the action will take place in third-party sites that are less constrained and more innovative. We already have the likes of linked-in, Avvo, and other legal directory products. There will also I’m sure be new entrants in the next few years in this space. While law firm websites will become more dynamic, what these external products will do is provide lawyers a place where they can express themselves more freely, and content will migrate to them.

  11. Robert,

    This is an excellent post (including a wonderful exchange among a crowd of reliable commentators), further justifying your own firm’s strategic decision to focus on microsites. I have always believed that marketing budgets were best allocated predominantly to practice groups, particularly those targeting specific industries. (Full disclosure: My support for this approach is consistent with the growth of my and my partners’ transactional practice, serving the media and communications industries. ) Richard Pinto makes an excellent point in his remarks about Milbank’s high-profile “cadre” of project finance lawyers. ( As an aside–Milbank recently demonstrated a highly unsual willingness to invest hard dollars in its 3rd –7th year associates– through the firm’s new (and very expensive) [email protected] speed-business skills program.

    For most firms, an all-firm brand is unpersuasive. Power brands require robust core culture (few firms have escaped the culture-eating virus of lateral mobility) and tolerate few glaring weak links in practice groups, departments and/or individual attorneys. Clients may appreciate the convenience of “one-stop shopping”, but the smartest ones hire firms on the strength of (i) the select partners who will quarterback the client’s matters and (ii) the practice group(s) serving the client’s industry.

    Law firms should, of course, be doing more to help their lawyers self-promote, especially when it comes to the associates languishing in the billed hour trenches in which many large firms house their young talent. They deserve both formal and informal training in networking and business generation if they are to have any shot at building the book of business essential to large firm survival– and your associate microsites are internet friendly examples of this type of support. Needless to say, the real –sometimes the only–money is invested at partner level, where the short-term need is greatest.

    I agree with Earl Smith that few firms will want to invest too many dollars building an individual lawyer’s brand—fearing that he or she will take the resulting billables to a rival firm— an entirely rational concern and another argument in favor of practice group marketing.

    But I worry less about lateral mobility than further deterioration of the firm culture. If marketing resources flow disproportionately to the rainmakers (established and annointed) the result will be no better than the loss of a key producer. Large law firms are well known for their failure to reward collaborative practices. Truth be told, the compensation model in virtually all firms –at both associate and partner levels– has never been informed by the notion of team play. The most successful “team” efforts, ironically, often take the form of “silo” practices, those just as likely as the lone wolf rainmaker to jump ship for cash.

    So the smartest strategy (and likely the most collegial play a large firm can tolerate), is a bold investment in high producing and high potential “Marquis” practice groups. This will work in favor of the firm IF the practice group even-handedly deploys its allocated funds, providing purposeful guidance and support to all, including associates and young partners. Robert–this is where you come in!


  12. Jay Pinkert says:

    If you’re correct, doesn’t that undermine the value of belonging to a larger firm? This analysis could also be used as an argument in favor of virtual firms — individual brand expressions; unified by shared vision and values, not shared offices.

    Before the bandwagon gets too full, it would be prudent to consider the law of unintended consequences as well.

    Once you start branding individual lawyers and practice groups, what’s the value of belonging to/retaining a larger firm? Does it benefit clients or partners? What happens when one of your cash cow clients asks a “branded” rainmaker, “Why don’t you go off on your own?”

    And are you not in effect enabling and underwriting potential spinoff firms? To borrow from Richard’s example, what’s keeping Milbank’s project finance group from splitting off on its own?

    Sub-branding at the individual and practice group level makes a lot of sense, but it needs to be accompanied by a clear and persuasive narrative in support of the master brand, or you’re essentially “virtualizing” the firm.


  13. Jay, good question. The thing is, good rainmakers will always benefit from working with a large firm because they have a “deep bench” and all of the respect and trust that goes with it. Certain types of work will require the larger organization that a big firm provides.

    An individual attorney that has his own brand only builds the larger firm brand. He could absolutely leave at any time, but then who would do all of the work he brings in? Would he even be able to make the same pitch without having great people to support him at the firm?

    This is really not an issue of abandoning the big firm brand, but recognizing that a successful strategy will allow a firm to brand both the individuals and the firm as a whole.

  14. Jay Pinkert says:

    Adrian, thanks for responding. Always a genuine pleasure to exchange ideas with you.

    I absolutely agree with your first point — certain types of work will require the larger organization that a big firm provides — but that’s effectively a niche argument. Further, how much of a typical large firm’s total book is comprised of that type of work? Does your hypothesis hold for mid-size and small firms?

    The rest sounds like wishful thinking, though. Come on, a savvy rainmaker knows enough not to move without bench strength and clients already lined up. He or she could easily bring the “great people” supporting him along. What’s keeping them at the mother ship? Great hours? Rapid advancement? Also, there’s plenty of talent on the street, and plenty of “virtual” paladins to network in.

    My basic point is that rock star treatment for individual lawyers/practices does not come without risks to the master brand, and to the stability and continuity of the business. The risks might not be large and/or outweighed by the benefits, but they are worth evaluating, and then developing a mitigation strategy if necessary, before going down that path.

  15. Adrian and Jay,

    I would frame the issue rather differently–as I don’t hear Robert or any other commentator here advocating expansion of marketing support for the highest producers. Right now the rainmakers do get rockstar treatment in pretty much any firm–at compensation time and otherwise. The rainmakers get the marketing support they demand, and if for some weird reason they don’t, they walk.

    I hear Robert asking instead whether firm-wide marketing resources should benefit a broader demographic (in addition to supporting the “master brand” I agree must be maintained). (Robert–please chime in if I am off the mark.) The GreatJakes microsite model allows for a more thoughtful, and practical, allocation of branding dollars. The high producers are already flight risks, for a host of reasons, but there may still be time to focus on retaining other high quality lawyers, and their practice groups–an ultimate beneift to the rockstars anyway (at least I’d like to believe they’d see it that way).

    Each year BigLaw’s top rainmakers have the opportunity to ask for more (whether or not justified by the firm’s gross revenues–as the AmLaw numbers make clear), even if it means cutting people and other expenses to bulk up profits. The practice group at large and the individuals who offer bench strength do not necessarily get the support or respect accorded the rockstar, UNLESS he or she moves some of his or her origination and receipts into their (deserving) columns before comp time. A common, and sensible, practice a decade or two ago, sharing credits is increasingly rare— almost as rare as the loyal partner who leaves some marbles on the table at the end of a bad, or flat, year to assure that his or her colleagues don’t take too hard a hit.

    Broad based practice group support, covering all the lawyers-young and old- in the group, would offer more general benefit to the firm at large than the normative practices we observe in large firms today. All this is likely moot, sadly, as this approach will likely not appeal to the large firms other than on a one-off basis, where an influential practice group or office (unilaterally) elects to allocate its marketing dollars in this fashion. Many firms have specialty groups who negotiate an aggregate group compensation based on group receipts and other contributions, leaving them free to fairly compensate (and retain) those whose value is not reflected in client receipts marked with their initials. However, this more “corporate” approach to compensation only works if managed by a few fairminded rainmakers, operating as benevolent despots. Ironically, these guys can turn out to be lower flight risks: they value more than dollars, in fact, they may even hanker for collegiality and unity of mission.

    Finally I don’t see large firms as the ideal platform for a given rainmaker except–as you both suggest–the complexity (or simple bulkiness) of the work demands–unless of course enough of it can be effectively outsourced. Quality of life and practice isn’t what it once was, or what it should be–a fact I hope will sustain a lateral mobility trend favoring boutiques and small firms, rather than the mega-firms. David Boies had the right idea when he started a new firm to take on only cases “that really matter”. Now his firm is 200 strong. If he doesn’t yield to the genetic imperative to expand he’ll be able to have and retain professional quality of life the sane among us would sacrifice cash money to recover.

  16. […] the past several months the team at website development and marketing firm Great Jakes has been making a persuasive case for fundamentally reconceiving law firm websites as marketing […]

  17. Good post. It is becoming increasingly difficult for those firms who are in lock down with respect to the promotion of individual lawyers. The sheer exponential growth of social media platforms that encourage individual voice is challenging that one-dimensional approach of marketing law firms. A great example was with a major law practice that we worked with recently where the firm itself was imposing pretty tight restrictions on lawyers promoting themselves individually as opposed to the firm. When we did a comprehensive analysis of the firm’s web platforms, lo and behold, here were all these Twitter and Linkedin accounts from lawyers within the practice who by reference to the firm were attached, unknowingly. It resulted in a re-think on the firm’s part and now an integrated strategy where there is well considered alignment between the firm’s brand and the individual brand of the lawyers has been instigated. So, they’re singing from the same hymn book.

  18. […] the past several months the team at website development and marketing firm Great Jakes has been making a persuasive case for fundamentally reconceiving law firm websites as marketing […]

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