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Law Firm Branding and Recruiting

I thought it was the most insecure thing I ever heard a grown man say: “What will everyone think of me if I join that firm?”

He was a partner who was open to making a move. His firm’s merger three years prior increasingly conflicted him out of work, resulting in progressively downward dips in originations. I made an effective presentation of my client’s opportunity based on his intrinsic motivations and the desires he shared with me about his ideal situation. But in spite of my enthusiastic pitch, he declined to go forward based one thing: my client’s perceived brand status within his practice area. Indeed, his pass on my opportunity was based on the preconceived idea of what everyone else might think about him joining that firm.

Some partners can see through this and view the substance behind the thin patina of branding. But there are many who, in spite of the strong business case, perceive too much risk in moving to a firm with questionable brand equity. No matter how well that nice-looking quality luxury car feels on the open road, at the end of the day it’s still a Kia, not a Lexus. That’s the power of the impression of a brand. Fortunately, I was able to quickly maneuver in my presentation by employing certain principles based on the psychology of influence, and pressed enough tangible hot buttons that caused him to agree to meet with my client. That was a close one.

Brand equity holds prominence in the minds of others when considering a lateral move. When I shifted from recruiting executives for corporations to recruiting partners for law firms, I quickly learned how this subtle attribute of a law firm carries so much weight. I became adept at telling good stories about law firms by realizing that the attitudes about a law firm’s perception in the market could develop positive equity and real energy in the minds of others.

I created a framework or a system in my mind to help me understand and manage the various aspects of law firm branding as they relate to recruiting, and have since started advising my clients during my search work on how they can increase their brand status to add to the sizzle in their recruiting efforts. Remember, recruiting is marketing.

This is not a model based on scientific research, but on my own individual conversations with thousands of partners about what they think of other law firms and how they consider opportunities.

Here are a few ideas and suggestions for your firm:

1. Always regard your firm’s brand from the viewpoint of those outside of it. We all think our own children are the smartest and best looking in the class. You need to look at your own firm objectively from the perspective of a reluctant prospect who has a lot to lose if the move to your firm goes wrong.

2. There are three aspects of a law firm’s brand: that of the firm itself, the brand associated with each practice group, and individual personal brands. There are some firms I have encountered that have weak brand status compared to other firms overall, but they have a unique practice group that is highly regarded within its practice area. As such, this practice-level brand can add value to the law firm brand. Or perhaps there is a single individual who can lend credibility to the firm overall and enhance the firm’s brand status. Firms and practice groups can borrow from this individual brand equity to enhance their own collective brand.

3. Consider utilizing brand-building tools when you tell your story. Here are my favorites:

• Recent hires. Show that smart partners choose your firm and you will elevate its status based on a principle of influence called Social Proof. (Visit Dr. Robert Cialdini’s site www.influenceatwork.com to learn more about the psychology of influence in business. I have known Cialdini personally since the late 90’s and built my entire search practice on his methodology). If the recent hire was in a position of leadership and influence with his or her previous firm, make sure you mention that.

• Rankings. I’m always surprised that some firms don’t seem to mention this in visible places on their websites. Check to see if your firm does.

• Mention a blue chip client, if possible. It’s even better if it’s a household name.

• Share the who’s who of your partnership: This would include former elected officials, former Chief Counsel of Fortune 500, and former high level government officials.

• Discuss, if possible, recent successful high profile cases involving name brand executives. If you see your success mentioned in the Wall Street Journal and non-legal media, then you are on the right path.

If you follow these recommendations in building your brand, you’ll never have to worry about prospective laterals feeling insecure about making a move to your firm.

Copyright © 2014 Scott Love

Scott Love grows law firms and accelerates attorney careers by conducting partner-level and group searches for law firms and facilitating law firm mergers. He has been a career ‘headhunter’ since 1995 and is a graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy. Scott lives in Washington, DC, with his wife, two children, and a toothless rescue dog named Smoky. He can be reached at 202-737-5555. To learn more, please visit www.attorneysearchgroup.com or email him at scott@attorneysearchgroup.com.

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