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How Law Firm Brand and Culture Can Lure Clients and Talent

Oct. 10, 2022, 8:00 AM

Today’s biggest challenges for law firms are recruitment and retention of top talent, and competition for clients. With legal hiring surging, associate turnover at record highs, and growing demand for work/life balance in the legal space, a firm’s brand and culture can sway potential recruits to join your firm, or it can drive them away.

Similarly, if a potential client perceives that two firms have equal expertise, it will make a choice based on chemistry and client service, which are shaped by a firm’s culture.

Think for a moment about your company’s brand. What comes to mind? Your logo? Your website? Your marketing materials?

While these elements are part of your organization’s branding, your brand is much more than that. It’s about who you are and how you do things, which means it’s very much about your culture.

Brand and Culture in Recruitment

The connection between your brand and culture is particularly meaningful when recruiting and retaining talent. Culture plays a big role in a recruit’s decision to join a firm or not, but a recruit can’t fully experience your culture before they’re hired.

That’s where your brand comes in.

An authentic, well-articulated brand will express your firm’s culture. It will work to attract the right people, and those people will be more likely to stay if there’s a strong cultural fit.

This is more relevant than ever. In a 2020 survey of the business leaders of 55 U.S. law firms, talent issues didn’t make the list of the top five risks threatening law firm profitability. Just one year later, the top three risks were all talent-related—lawyer recruitment and retention, staff poaching by competitors, and associate salary increases.

Initially, firms responded to these new challenges with a typical strategy: They threw money at the problem. But we’ve learned that higher associate salaries and generous bonuses aren’t enough.

Today’s up-and-coming legal talent belong to a generation that prioritizes such things as flexibility, a sense of purpose, and a feeling of belonging—all of which come down to your firm’s culture.

Reimagining Firms

Recent research on the state of the legal market, including a McKinsey report, concludes that addressing high rates of turnover will require firms to better understand why employees are leaving and accordingly reimagine their structure and operations in the post-pandemic world.

While compensation, work–life balance, and physical and emotional health are rightly identified by senior law firm leaders as contributing factors to an employee’s decision to leave, employees themselves cite other reasons as key to their satisfaction.

Firms will have to bind people to organizations by helping them find meaning in their work, feel appreciated, gain opportunities for growth, and believe they are making a contribution to a larger purpose, according to one survey’s findings.

Law firm members and employees want to find a place that offers levels of collaboration, competitiveness, collegiality, support, diversity, and inclusiveness that fit their personalities—in other words, a culture that fits them, and a brand they feel aligned with.

Take the return-to-work dilemma. In the summer of 2021, Morgan Stanley’s chief legal officer warned the company’s law firms that if their lawyers and employees did not return to the office, they might risk losing Morgan Stanley as a client.

Despite this threat, many firms chose alternative solutions that demonstrated their commitment to doing what’s right for their firm’s culture and their people, while still delivering on their client service promise.

A few notable firms still have no concrete in-office requirement for their lawyers. Quinn Emanuel decided that all US lawyers, from first-year associates to partners, can work from wherever they want, indefinitely. Further, the firm will recruit new associates who live in places where the firm does not have an office.

These bold decisions make sense for the brand of an aggressive litigation powerhouse that proudly describes itself, using a quote from a legal trade publication, “Better. Faster. Tougher. Scarier.” True to the firm’s clearly articulated brand and culture, Quinn Emanuel is not afraid to take risks to keep talent.

A well-defined and differentiated culture-driven brand can help guide business decisions and position the firm with clients as well.

Cooley found itself in a difficult client-versus-culture conundrum when its client, Tesla, asked the firm to fire one of its attorneys who had worked at the US Securities and Exchange Commission during a probe of Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Cooley declined, and Tesla and SpaceX followed through on their threat to pull back work from the firm.

It’s a stark example of how a strong culture and brand can give an organization the confidence and framework to respond to challenges in a way that is true to the firm, its people, and its values. Cooley’s decision, while resulting in the loss of Tesla as a client, helped to position the firm’s brand as supportive of its people and culture.

Pushing back on a direct client demand takes fortitude. It requires understanding who you are, being clear about how you do things, and having the courage to live that brand.

Data shows that customers increasingly choose brands whose values align with their own over those that do not. It makes sense that some clients will be inclined to work with Cooley because they respect the firm’s values-driven business decision.

And in general, having a strong sense of who you are—and who you are not—does a lot of heavy lifting: it helps you stand out from the crowd, communicate your value proposition to clients and potential clients, streamline the business development process, and attract clients who are the right fit for your service model and areas of expertise.

Defining and Communicating Firm Brand

Before you can live your brand, you have to define what it is, and ensure that your entire organization embraces it and rallies around it. Those firms that can articulate and communicate their brand and culture will find themselves at an advantage.

The process begins with speaking to clients and people at the firm, including a meaningful number of partners, to learn what they see as the firm’s differentiating factors that are highly relevant to clients and recruits.

Since law firms are service businesses with lots of competitors that offer similar practice area expertise, the differentiators often come down to norms, behaviors, and service approach, which again are closely aligned with the culture.

Based on these findings, a clearly defined strategy needs to be developed to serve as a framework for delivering on those differentiators through all communications and actions.

An authentic, distinctive brand driven by a cohesive and successful culture is a crucial asset to help your firm thrive. Whatever comes next, your brand and culture will be your guide.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Author Information

Siobhan Burns is a founder and principal of Clarity.

Bill Schroeder is a founder and principal of Clarity, a consultancy that leads brand positioning and organizational transformation programs for people-to-people businesses, with a particular focus on large law firms and companies, as well as a variety of smaller organizations and startups.