By Gina Rubel
This blog is an excerpt from Legal Marketing Coffee Talk, Episode 2020.08.17. The program is produced by Rob Kates, owner of Kates Media. During this discussion, Roy Sexton, the Director of Marketing at Clark Hill PLC, served as the host. He interviewed Lisa M. Simon, Chief Marketing and Business Development Officer at Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie LLP.
The full program can be viewed online at https://youtu.be/Svu2GvB0x3o.
Roy Sexton: Branding and pandemic would be the name of your memoir. What does that look like, and how does that exercise unfold right now?
Lisa Simon: We started down this road a long time ago, maybe a year ago, and it’s a fairly significant lift in that this is the first time that this firm has taken the time to join all the different mergers, combinations, in a way that’s going to bring us together. It’s been a very slow and on purpose, methodical process. Lots of internal conversations, getting everybody on board, lots of external research, the whole deal. And we were actually about to, not do the big reveal, but start to introduce it in March at our partner retreat, which of course, didn’t happen.
Like everything, we shut it all down; we weren’t sure when you’re going to revisit it. And like a lot of things with this pandemic there was I think a silver lining in that. I was hoping that we could tweak it a little, I didn’t think it was quite ready for prime time. By “it,” I mean, we were a little off on the strategy and some of the visual components. That gave us a chance to sit on it, rethink it. Again, one of the upsides of this pandemic is it allows you to reflect on things that you might not have reflected on before. All of that has allowed us to revisit it, revisit a strategy, and revisit the design elements (visual graphic elements).
Roy Sexton: What is a law firm brand? How do we see it in our daily life, and why is it important to any organization, but particularly to a law firm, that might not always understand the power of a strategic brand?
Lisa Simon: The one thing I say a lot about branding, especially when it comes to law firm branding, is this is as much if not more an internal exercise than it is an external one. The best part about going through a process like this, if it’s done the right way, is the amount of time and care that’s taken to build that brand promise internally before you turn it around externally. It’s about who you’re going to be with your clients and who you’re going to be out in the marketplace. In order to carry that out, you have to get everybody on board internally to understand and convey what that brand promise is.
A lot of people who haven’t been through this consider it the name, the logo, the visual elements, the tagline, all of that, and that’s the end results. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been given some latitude and some time and some resources to educate the firm on what this process can be like. Not everybody gets that opportunity and so they’re pinned against a wall to have to just do the last part of it, the visual elements, so I feel fortunate. I’ve worked with some smart people who have taught me a lot about branding, so to get to this point has been a culmination of a lot of things.
Roy Sexton: Well I think that’s the power, right? And it is interesting to me to hear you speak about that you have an organization that’s invested in the process as much as the outcome. At Clark Hill, we’re going through a similar exercise. And similarly you were saying your offices are all across the Southwest, we also have grown, as many law firms have, by lateral acquisition, by merger, by partnership with other firms across the country, and gone from a very Michigan-centric firm to one that’s now coast-to-coast; but never stepping back and saying, “Well additively, what does our culture look like now?”
When I started nearly two years ago, I would run into one particular attorney in the elevator in Detroit, and every time I would just in my head go, oh, don’t, don’t, please don’t. And he’d always look at me, and he’d say, “Well, you got us a new logo yet?” As if that’s what I’m here for, that’s all I do, or where’s my cheese sandwich, deliver it and leave. And we’re on the 35th floor so I would have some time, and I would usually try to explain quickly, and I’ve tried different things that never seem to land correctly. It’s important because it tells people who we are and what we are, and he would look at me like, “You don’t want to do your job.” In my mind, I was thinking, “No, no, you don’t want to understand the point.”
I am fortunate that I work for a brilliant human, much like you, who happens to be in Dublin, Ireland, not Phoenix, Arizona. She also is very empathic and certain about what that sort of storytelling exercise can do to transform the organization. With her and our team, I have had the latitude to build our law firm brand over time. And like you, we were going to launch it this year, and then we thought, well no. It feels a little tone-deaf, although I’m tired of hearing people say that phrase, and it’s just going to get lost in the noise, so let’s wait until next year and let’s spend a little more time to get it right. As humans, storytelling is so important to us. I have a theater background. I talk about that frequently. We as marketers, whether it’s the visual language, the written language, video, or other things we use to tell our organizations’ stories, are the reasons why people will pick up the phone and give our attorneys a call.
But I don’t know how you’ve done it because you’ve had an incredibly storied career, and as Rob Kates was saying before we came on online, you look younger than both of us. So whatever Dorian Gray picture you have in your attic, I would like one myself. But you have been through a lot of phases of the legal marketing world and the legal industry.
Roy Sexton: How have you seen brand evolve over time, and how has that maybe informed this present exercise you’re going through?
Lisa Simon: One of the biggest differences is just the sheer need for solid and strategic law firm brands. One could argue that the need for a real strong law firm brand might not have been quite as much when I started in legal marketing 25 years ago, but as we know, things started to shift shortly after that. To me, part of it is just a general sophistication of the law firm business and law firms understanding and letting people know a lot about it. That’s been a significant part of the evolution, and just understanding the internal components that make that brand work.
It’s just not an external exercise. The reality is, and people get mad when I say this, but you can’t really differentiate a law firm. Some firms you can, but we’re in what’s called the hollow middle, we’re in the 101 to 200 land [referring to the number of attorneys in the law firm]. And that’s hard to do. So this is as much about getting people together, understanding what you’re about culturally, and trying to just convey it in a consistent way to the people who are listening. Hopefully, that’s your clients, and hopefully, it’s that second layer of people that will become clients beyond that. It’s just hard and expensive to do well.
Roy Sexton: I didn’t go to law school, so I don’t have that pride in having that degree or going through the Apprenticeship Guild Program that gets you to the tippy top. But living in Southeast Michigan for 20 years where the automakers basically control everything, if you aren’t in auto, you’re a commodity. I was in healthcare for a decade, we were a commodity, you’re in legal, you’re a commodity. And I’m with you in that people don’t want to hear that, they don’t like it, it doesn’t feel good, but we are, we’re something that’s bought and sold to some degree of interchangeability. And the thing that people have leaned into for differentiation, awards, programs, things of that nature, they don’t set anybody apart because we know these awards things are a dime a dozen, and we often know that whatever you say verbally is going to sound like everybody else.
But if you can create a visual shortcut that connects people to the culture of the law firm, both internally and externally, and then people who worked with you say, “Yeah, I like working with those folks, they’re good attorneys, they do excellent work, they have great outcomes, and they also have a good culture that I want to be around.” That is a point of differentiation.
Brand, when it is done well, you almost don’t notice it’s happening around you. You think about Apple or Disney or some of these companies. I’m a comic book fan, and there was a funny line. There’s a new series called Death Metal from DC, and it’s a hoot. It’s basically about the end of the world coming, and all the DC characters now look like they belong in a metal band. One of them looks at Batman, who has just talked about his Batmobile and his bat this and his bat that, and the bat other thing and she says, “Have you ever thought about the fact that you’re good at branding Batman.” I never thought about it that way.
Again, you see the Apple on the back of your phone, I also have Spiderman on the back of mine, and it bespeaks a cultural experience. It also speaks to what you think their culture might be like inside, so there’s more work there. That’s what we’re trying to capture in some microcosm of the law firms we work with.
You touched on something where I know attorneys because they’re trained to think in the billable hour if what we’re doing isn’t generating something externally, it doesn’t have value. We had a lengthy conversation this morning about the importance of internal communications, and I felt like I was pulling teeth a couple of times. We need this more almost than we need the external because we have 1200 acolytes that we could empower to tell the Clark Hill story, but we’re so worried about what the website looks like right now we’re not giving them the ammunition they need to tell our story externally.
I just turned a question to you into something about myself; it’s a gift.
Lisa Simon: No, no, no, I love that, and it also gave me time to think. We’re also being forced into this by our clients and by the people that are purchasing our services. The one thing that somebody smart taught me about brand is your brand is already out there. People are already talking about you; they’ve already formed their opinion. Your job is to either coalesce around that opinion if it’s one that you want, transform it, or rebuild it. Our legal buyers, the people that are writing those checks to us, they already have an opinion about us, they already think what they think about us. We must either capitalize on that or turn it around.