At the recent Marketing Partner Forum, the relationship between a law firm's reputation and the way it brands itself to clients and the overall market took center stage
AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. — How a law firm presents it brand and carefully enhances its reputation have become more critical in today’s legal marketplace as increased competition from different types of legal service providers offer clients a wide array of choices.
Not surprisingly, this was a hot topic during the recent Thomson Reuters 29th annual Marketing Partner Forum. One panel discussion, Still Waters Run Deep, took a close look at the dynamic that client challenges pose to law firm reputations.
I moderated the diverse panel, which included Craig W. Budner, Global Strategic Growth Partner at K&L Gates; John Hellerman, President & Founder of Hellerman Communications; Chris Hinze, Chief Marketing & Business Development Officer at Steptoe & Johnson; and Gina N. Shishima, Ph.D., Chief Strategy and Operations Partner at Norton Rose Fulbright US.
Why brand and reputation
The session started out with an audience poll that asked how important a law firm’s reputation is. While most respondents indicated reputation was very important, this set the stage for a conversation around why reputation is a critical driver in shaping the perceptions of many firms.
Panelists described several key factors, primarily the relationship between brand and reputation. Brand is an implicit promise firms make to their stakeholders, while reputation is the perception of how a firm is delivering on that promise, panelists explained. One way that a positive reputation can bring a firm success is by building a repository of “reputation capital” — a reputation bank, so to speak, that provides benefit of the doubt in the event of a crisis situation.
It was the mention of “awareness”, however, that demonstrated the implicit value of a strong reputation. Panelists largely agreed that a positive reputation drives brand awareness of the firm, which leads to both increased business and higher retention rates for talent. Indeed, this factor is increasingly critical as firms face an even tighter than normal recruitment landscape at the start of 2022.
The clients’ perspective
Next, panelists explored the client in-take process as the first step in the client journey, drawing a distinction between legal conflicts and business conflicts. There was consensus that both communication and firm culture play a pivotal role in resolving any concerns or divergent views within the firm at this critical stage.
But what happens once a client is on-board, and a solid client situation deviates from the ideal? This question highlighted the challenge firms face when drawn into a public predicament in which, for legal and pragmatic reasons, they are unable to defend themselves even as allegations continue to mount. This point highlighted the challenge of reputation risk and the fine balancing act firms must take to ensure they are both saying and doing the right thing.
The panelists also recognized that today’s multi-stakeholder environment can prove challenging, requiring many law firms to ensure their words and actions meet the expectations of diverse audiences. This challenge is apparent when trying to bridge the expectations of a younger generation whose views and experiences are often quite different from those held by more senior practitioners. Once more, the idea of a coherent firm culture grounded in common values was seen as the path through multi-generational and geographical differences.
What to do
Panelists also offered some tangible take-aways for law firm leaders looking to ensure reputation stability in an environment that is experiencing significant change. These included:
Start with values — A defined set of firm values supports the firm’s vision and shapes its culture. This also enhances team cohesion and creates a sense of commitment in the workplace.
Hold key conversations — The simple act of communicating was mentioned several times. Panelists felt that having direct and frank conversations among individuals or in small groups is a simple and underutilized way to bridge internal or external conflict.
Provide context — Sharing background information and highlighting the broader context for a situation can help secure greater alignment around a common cause.
Deliver facts — Providing straight, factual details when encountering difficult issues or conflict helps to foster greater understanding and a willingness to appreciate diverse perspectives.
The panel concluded with some practical tips grounded in a metaphor that law firms need to be a beacon of light in the darkness of reputational danger; and can activate factors such as culture and values, authentic leadership, and meaningful conversations as a way to navigate conflict or crisis and lead with confidence.