Getting into the marketing game

This is the second in Canadian Lawyer online’s year-long series Managing Partner Forum. Each month the leader of a Canadian law firm will share his or her thoughts on some of the challenges and successes of running their firms.


We’re not necessarily doing it because we want to. We have to. (And when I say “we,” I mean Pitblado Law. I’m supposed to remember to use that whenever I refer to the firm. It is one of the branding elements that my colleagues and I are getting used to.)

It all started out innocently enough. A few of the other firms in our regional market started hiring marketing directors and running snazzy-looking advertisements in the local newspapers. Many of them featured nice pictures of the lawyers in the firm instead of the usual scales of justice and other formal-looking legal symbols. Their ads also had some positive-sounding taglines. It all looked and sounded so professional.

My partners were concerned that our market share might start to dry up if we didn’t get our own fancy ads up and running beside those of our competitors. We’re lawyers, not marketers, so we decided the answer was to hire a marketing director.

We came up with a job description for the position. We knew we needed better-looking ads. At least one of our partners reminded us of that fact every time another firm’s ad appeared in the newspaper.

Within a few months, we had hired our very own marketing director. Not surprisingly, he had no direct experience marketing law firms. How many people can claim that they do?

During our interview process, we quickly realized the marketing of law firms was not a big field and none of our candidates had ever worked for a law firm. Fortunately, our marketing director was very capable with a wealth of marketing experience and plenty of insight (he demonstrated this to us during his interview by pointing out the many inadequacies of what was then our web site).

“Good points,” we said. “We’ll hire you. Now go and quickly build us a new web site. By the way, will you have a look at the fancy ads our competitors have? We need some of those, too.”

But he didn’t jump right away. He told us our first order of business was to tell him who we were and how we were different from our competitors. Since he wasn’t familiar with the legal market, he did some initial research. He had to admit he had trouble telling one firm from the other. He said we all seemed to use the same adjectives to describe ourselves — big, experienced, been around for a long time — and if he didn’t know any better, he might have guessed that we were all trying to be clones of each other.

“More good points,” we said. “Please come up with something unique. As a matter of fact, we have a few lawyers who have surfed the Internet and found some really outstanding sites we could emulate.”

Again, our marketing director didn’t jump. Instead, he told us that in order for our marketing to be meaningful and to resonate with our target market, we needed to describe ourselves — or perhaps a somewhat idealized version of ourselves.

Suddenly, we were in the branding game, too.

We needed to find out who we were, or at least who we were for the purposes of presenting ourselves to the public. We also wanted to find a corporate persona that would distinguish us from our competitors. There was no sense saying we were a fine bunch of competent lawyers. That describes everyone else in town. Or, at least that’s how they describe themselves.

We soon discovered there was no magic marketing bullet, no quick branding fix. The process, which involved interviewing many of our lawyers, our staff, and a select few clients, took months. Thankfully, after a while, a theme started to emerge.

Many years before, we had established a written set of values as part of our strategic planning. Originally, the value statement was intended to guide us in our planning. But over time, those values had come to guide our relationships within the firm. They included principles such as a fair and accommodating workplace where we cared about each other’s work/life balance.

We promoted a healthy work environment and tried to be supportive of each other. Our values could be summarized by one word: respect. Not surprisingly, that attitude and approach to working with each other was reflected in our relationships with our clients.

That nailed it. This marketing stuff wasn’t so tough after all! We thought we had the essence of who we were. It was our people and our approach that would distinguish us.

Next up would be turning those concepts into our brand. Our partners were still largely supportive of the exercise (they were all anxiously awaiting the new ads). Some of the more cynical ones may have expressed the occasional concern about basing our brand on something as simple as “our people,” but for the most part, they were willing to wait and see how it would all turn out.

An advertising agency was retained to develop the creative. They helped come up with the tagline that would be the core of our messaging and they created the look and feel of our new web site. The phrase “We understand” was chosen to reflect a more client-centric approach. Many new web site approaches were proposed. Since the vast majority of law firm site users go straight to the lawyer profiles, we decided our site would skip the home page and instead open directly on a lawyer’s profile.

But these weren’t going to be your traditional profiles featuring the high school yearbook headshots. Instead, we would have pictures that showed them pursuing a hobby, a favourite activity, or a sport.

We told our creative team that there was one thing they couldn’t touch, our logo. We thought what we already had was perfect. It had our name set in a very professional font in a traditional blue colour with the tagline “barristers and solicitors.” The very look of it said “serious lawyer.”

A mock-up web page was then developed and a focus group was invited to the ad agency for a preview. We enthusiastically approved the concepts shown to us but realized that something stuck out like a sore thumb. The old logo just didn’t fit with the other new style elements. With a surprising lack of remorse, we abandoned it and asked that a new one be developed.

The new look was then rolled out at a firm retreat. Those of us who were more intimately involved with the process anxiously waited for the reaction from everybody else. Luckily, it was a hit and we were treated to a standing ovation. Everyone loved what they saw. Our marketing director was given the green light to build the site, our stationery, and the other elements that would reflect the brand.

Our challenges, however, weren’t over yet. While the younger (and younger-minded) lawyers generally enjoyed the process, some of our other colleagues were more than a little difficult.

It turns out that while the idea of a more casual photograph sounds great in theory, not everybody thought it should apply to them. We discovered the process of taking pictures at a variety of sites throughout the city was a huge task, too. Some people, for example, couldn’t decide where to take theirs.

We also needed our lawyers to answer a few questions to provide the text that would personalize them and show them as real people. Our research showed that many clients, other lawyers in particular, will look at the lawyer’s profile while having their first telephone conversation with them. While the concept met with general approval when proposed, when it came time to play ball, sometimes it seemed like we were pulling teeth.

In the end, our new web site went live in June 2011. It’s still a bit of a work in progress, but we hope to have all of our lawyers’ profiles revamped within a few months. Each week we add additional content and information for our clients to use.

The feedback we’ve received from the outside world has been overwhelmingly positive. The lawyers who complained the most have moved on and, we suspect, forgotten that we even have a web site. Some others pushed back on various elements but eventually accepted them.

Now our job going forward is to do ongoing brand training so our brand evolves over time and stays relevant and top of mind in the marketplace.

Oh, and after all that? We got some fancy ads, too.

Bruce King is the managing partner of Pitblado LLP in Winnipeg. The firm’s snazzy new web site can be found at and also visit its new law blog PitbLAWg.

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