I wonder what Atticus Finch would have thought about the legal profession’s current obsession with brand creation and management. Maybe I watched too many cowboy shows as a kid, but my subliminal response to the word “branding” is a wince. My more conscious, client-advocate response isn’t positive, either.
- As usual, my main concern is with the average “Main Street” client — consumers and business persons who are unsophisticated when it comes to purchasing legal services. The sophisticated business client, which often uses major marketing campaigns and strategies itself, can usually protect its interests quite well when confronted with lawyer marketing (and, although once willing to pay extra for an elite image, many have revolted against the premium prices charged by the well-branded, “top” law firms)
- With famous branded consumables like Coca-Cola and Hershey’s chocolate, or even large-ticket items like Ford cars or Apple Computers, the average consumer can personally, or through readily available information, compare and contrast the offerings.
- The inexperienced or unsophisticated legal client has virtually no way to compare law firm options. That’s usually true both before and after a particular engagement. Infrequency of the need for legal services and the relatively large cost makes comparison shopping even more difficult or impractical. It is the imbalance of information, of course, that creates the lawyer’s fiduciary obligations.
With over one million lawyers, in a “mature” market, and facing partial technological obsolescence, the goal of most lawyer marketing in 21st Century America is to attract “quality” clients — those who want extra services despite premium prices. Branding is seen as the magic wand for creating the quality client. (e.g., here and here) It focuses on creating perceived value and perceived credibility (even if separate from actuality) — on establishing a premium brand that will allow higher fees. As I voiced in a post yesterday, this makes me uneasy, no matter the decency and quality of a particular lawyer or firm using the marketing techniques.
A look at Trey Ryder’s website, for example, makes the focus on premium pricing quite clear. While explaining How to Interview Prospective Clients: Focus on Their Problems and Your Credibility for Success, therefore, Ryder suggests:
Step #11: Quote a fee for each service. Use the contrast principle so your prospect views your fee in the proper perspective. Before quoting your fee, mention a larger number; then by contrast your fee won’t seem so high. After you quote your fee, restate one or two major benefits your prospect will gain from hiring you.
In his essay How to Charge More Than Other Lawyers and Attract Better Clients, Ryder has, inter alia, these edifying things to say:
All of your attorney marketing efforts should be designed to increase credibility. As your credibility soars, your law firm marketing efforts allow you to charge more than competing lawyers. Here is how to increase your fees and attract better clients.. . .
When faced with a question about why another lawyer charges less than you:
3. Emphasize that a low fee is an obvious sign of weakness — because if the lawyer had even a moderate level of knowledge, skill and experience, he would charge more.
5. Emphasize that you don’t know (or can’t be sure) what the other lawyer offers. And, since he charges less than you, it’s logical to conclude that he offers less than you. It could be less knowledge, less experience, less skill, less service. Is it worth the risk to find out?
6. Then, with a question in your voice, add: “I wonder what he’s leaving out.” With those six words, you increase doubt and arouse skepticism. And you do this legitimately because neither you nor your prospect knows what criteria the other lawyer uses to establish his value.
Ryder may be a bit ham-handed, but the importance of premium pricing can be readily seen at Matt Homan‘s far more polished and nuanced website. It is implicit in his concept of “value billing,” as we discussed here. It can also be seen in Matt’s vision of Meaningful Marketing:
Do one thing right. Meaningful Marketing is about building a trust between customers and your brand. Trust is built on the belief that you and your company have a higher-than-normal level of expertise in a specific area. This trust results in greater customer loyalty and less price sensitivity. (emphasis added)
The superficial focus of much branding theory and activity is also disconcerting. At Homann’s weblog, it means an overweening preoccupation with firm naming (e.g., here and there). At Ryder’s, it’s concern over finding just the right name for your niche. In Niche Marketing: Define A New Niche To Seize A Big Competitive Advantage When Marketing Legal Services, Ryder says
IMPORTANT: Take your time and make these decisions carefully. Create different terms for your niche and ask clients and friends for their reaction. See which niche names do and don’t appeal to them. See if they have an idea what the niche name means. The name you attach to your niche will likely determine its success or failure. So make this decision slowly, carefully, wisely
[F]or individual lawyers, [intense competition] means increased pressure to establish themselves as individuals. That doesn’t just mean establishing expertise in a specific area, it also means creativity, speaking skills, a compelling personality.
Creating a Southwest Airlines ambiance is also in vogue — but, never, the low-cost, low-price aspect that secured its brand. Instead, Matt Homann — perhaps taking Marty Neumeier’s definition of a brand too literally (“a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or company“) — is planning a BBQ and baseball outing for his clients. This takeoff on SWA’s chili cookoff (which is for its employees, to create family feeling and boost morale) may make a client or two feel warmly about a law firm, but it’s hardly at the core of providing caring, professional service (at a reasonable price).
None of this is reassuring or inspiring — earning your client’s trust so that you can charge him and her more. Rather non-fiducial, don’t you think?