In the legal sector it can be difficult for firms to build genuinely distinctive identities. However, over the past decade or two firms have seriously begun addressing this, making considerable investments to develop what they hope will be distinctive firm-wide brands and coherent workplace cultures.

The Brief asked a number of law firms and branding aspects about their experience and advice when it comes to establishing, maintaining and communicating what makes one legal business different from another.

When it matters most

Eighteen months ago the 85-year-old Top 100 firm Kingsley Napley set about considering how to ensure its brand reflected its current identity and demonstrated differentiation from its competitors. The process, which was overseen by business development and marketing director Leor Franks, had two main phases: “research and development” and “testing and deployment.”

“In the first phase,” Franks explains, “our research involved soundings and data on what Kingsley Napley meant to our people, their clients, and others in our ‘ecosystem’. This identified some key traits that were taken to development.

The process defined a ‘positioning’, by creating a series of ‘strapline’ options – short phrases that succinctly outlined our purpose, culture, and unique value-add.

In phase two, he continues, they took these options to stakeholders and tested their resonance. Once they had consensus, they moved to create and deploy a new visual identity that reflected the key traits of the chosen strapline.

This included a new logo, updated colour pallet, revised descriptions, and a range of digital and physical collateral, including building signs.

“With all the R&D undertaken, I was assured of support for our strapline ‘When It Matters Most’,” Franks says. “This reflects who we are as a firm – one that clients trust on topics of great significance to their business or personal lives.”

Gaslighting and Marmite

The connection between culture and branding is essential, according to Victoria Moffatt, founder and managing director of LexRex Communications, a specialist PR consultancy for the legal sector.

She says, “Brand identity is inherently intermingled with culture, and it’s really important that leadership teams are honest and clear about what the culture really is within their practice. If they are either unaware of certain aspects of the culture, or they choose to ignore them, and try to promote a brand that doesn’t chime with reality, they create problems for the firm in the future.

“Pushing a brand that doesn’t reflect reality is akin to gaslighting. It does two things: it erodes trust in the brand and creates cognitive dissonance for both staff and clients, some of whom will vote with their feet and leave as a result.

It’s important to remember that not everyone likes Marmite. There are some law firms that will never attract certain clients, and that certain individuals would never work for, and that’s absolutely fine. As long as there are enough people who love the Marmite firm, the brand is effective.

The next level

Birketts is a 160-year-old UK Top 50 law firm, which last year embarked on a major project to revitalise its brand. As a result, explains the firm’s head of digital marketing, PR and communications, Sarah Finch, the firm has positioned itself with the strapline “Next Level Law”.

The brand revitalisation project followed a review of the brand’s perception externally and internally, consulting with existing and potential clients, colleagues and intermediaries.

Finch says, “Next Level Law brings to life a law firm that is more rounded, more human and more ambitious, and one that is focused on taking our clients and people to their next level – whatever it means for them. This is a really important aspect, because we don’t just want our brand identity to reflect what we offer to our clients, but also the culture of Birketts and what we offer to anyone who works here.

While we constantly strive to understand and meet the demands of the ‘next level’ for our clients, we also seek and welcome diversity of thought, background and attitude from the colleagues in our teams. In today’s world, where attracting talent is as important as attracting clients, it was vital that our identity serves both of these stakeholders so that it is a true representation of the firm and what we stand for.

Communicating the culture

The importance of brand and positioning for attracting and retaining staff, not just clients, is one increasingly being recognised by firms. Matthew Claughton, managing director at the criminal law firm Olliers Solicitors says that, while his firm places “huge emphasis” on strategic planning, it regards culture even more important.

When it comes to brand identity, he continues, “Wherever possible we focus on characteristics that distinguish Olliers from other criminal defence law firms or teams. It doesn’t matter if it’s the culture, our position in marketplace, career progression or working conditions.”

The firm also offers a structured education programme, with an Olliers Training Academy.

As far as we’re aware, we are the only criminal defence firm that has its own internal accreditations which lawyers undertake,” Claughton says. “Uniquely at Olliers, lawyers have ability and freedom to take control and shape their careers – developing specialisms of their choice within criminal defence.

Picture perfect

Executing any overarching brand strategy involves the implementation of a series of tactical initiatives.

Jean Philippe Glaskie is the owner of PR agency Peppermint Soda, which works with the national firm Maguire Family Law. He recalls a project undertaken when MFL was opening an additional office in Altrincham, Greater Manchester.

He explains, “Maguire Family Law wanted to raise awareness in the area, positioning itself as a caring and family-orientated practice. While considering how to meet this challenge, we identified that the managing partner was a keen photographer and launched a competition — open to everyone in the vicinity — where local people were encouraged to photograph anything in the area they admired.

“The competition was a huge success, generating massive coverage (including broadcast), and culminated in a grand awards ceremony. MFL's profile was boosted exponentially, and the community now associates them with the area and all things positive.”