Branding — the cementing of an image of quality, specialization and price point into the minds of clients — is becoming of the utmost importance in today’s heavily crowded and hyper-competitive legal marketplace.
Indeed, with the rise of alternative legal service providers, including heavyweights like the Big Four accounting firms, and the splintering of legal practices into increasingly specialized niches, those law firms and legal service providers who do not work to make their name known to clients, risk being forgotten in the market altogether.
“I think what we’re seeing is that the legal dynamic — the way legal services are viewed, purchased and delivered — as a whole is changing,” said Lisa Hart Shepherd, CEO of research firm Acritas. “And I think that branding is particularly important for firms that might be changing as well or those seeing the market change around them.”
Hart Shepherd explained that as competition increases, almost all legal players are becoming more efficient and better at the way they operate, raising what has become the table stakes in clients’ eyes. “What that means is that everybody has to up their game to get clients’ attention.”
Acritas has the numbers to back up this perspective. The firm just released two recent surveys on branding in the legal space — its ninth-annual Global Elite Law Firm Brand Index and its second-annual Global Alternative Legal Brand Index. While the law firm index steadfastly underscored the power of large, global law firm (Baker McKenzie was named the top law firm brand for the ninth year in a row), it was the index of alternative legal service providers (ALSPs) that raised eyebrows.
The Big Four Move In
In that index, the Big Four accounting firms — Deloitte, EY, KPMG, and PwC — recorded dramatic gains in brand strength over the past year. Indeed, PwC Legal, which made a play to challenge traditional legal business models this past year, was in the top spot, while Deloitte and EY came in closely behind.
“It’s not just PwC Legal that both old law and new law need to fear,” Hart Shepherd said. “All of the Big Four have seen significant increases in brand strength over the last 12 months.” Worse yet for traditional law firms, she explained, was that clients are liking the work they’re seeing from these ALSPs, and as a result, more money is moving away from traditional law firms. In fact, even the categorizing of legal work between law firms and ALSPs works to the law firms’ disadvantage because while the legal industry may be fixated on distinguishing between the legal work delivered by lawyers and other professionals, in reality, clients just want effective solutions to their broad portfolio of legal matters, she noted.
In each index, ranking was determined by surveying senior in-house counsel, who were asked to name legal service organizations or law firms (depending on the index) that are the first ones that come to mind and which ones they most favor.
That’s why, Hart Shepherd said, it was significant that other organizations in the ALSP index didn’t really fall in brand recognition, they were just surpassed by the growing branding power of the Big Four in the legal space. “It’s not that these other legal brands have weakened,” she said. “It is simply that PwC Legal has set a higher bar at the top of the Index, and this year more and more clients every day are becoming aware of what these organizations can offer.”
What Can Law Firms Do?
Given this branding might, what can traditional law firms do to ensure they remain top of clients’ minds when it comes to providing legal services?
Conversely, it’s often more of what not to do, Hart Shepherd said. Too often a law firm’s positive reputation and highly regarded brand may take a beating if its legal work becomes slipshod or if communication with the client falls off. “That is often the biggest drag on a brand,” she added. “Lawyers have to make sure they are staying within the lines, staying in touch between matters, and keeping up those regular touch points, especially when it can be done in collaboration with more traditional marketing approaches.”
Law firms still do have a strong advantage in legal expertise in the clients’ minds, if not in the day-to-day performance of routine legal work. Firms should use that expertise and leverage the knowledge base and knowledge sharing that can be mined out a law firm to more proactively approach the client with legal solutions to challenges the client may not yet be aware of.
Further, law firms should not dismiss the appeal of their younger lawyers to a younger generation of clients, particularly those in high-tech and next gen sectors. “It can be as simple as remembering to promote your brand to clients over social media, because like in all things, it’s always best to work together collectively in reinforcing the same messages,” she said.
Hart Shepherd said that if there was one main take-away from the findings in both recent indices, it’s that no one in the legal ecosystem should be unconcerned about their competitive position. “Even those at the top can’t be complacent, because at the top everybody is trying harder.”