Law firms have highly tuned levels of expertise, yet they fail over and over again to articulate their difference effectively.

“Everyone uses blue. Blue is not a differentiator—that’s why we chose brown.”

A colleague repeated this statement to me as he was lamenting the state of branding discourse in the legal industry. He had recently attended a panel discussion of “experts” and was appalled by what he heard. Apparently, overuse of the color blue was the central argument. But this leads to another question—while blue may be a very popular color for a number of brands, does its widespread use really impact the ability of a law firm to differentiate its merits from its competition? In other words, in the case of blue v. the spectrum, is color even the appropriate argument?

A branding program does include visual elements such as color and typography, but it also includes verbal elements such as taglines and messaging crafted to distinguish an organization from the competition. Product features, images, customer service and other intangibles round out the picture of how a brand is perceived. Brands are as complex as human beings, and the most successful have distinct personalities.

Like a person, how they look is only one piece of the puzzle. How they behave, what they say, what they stand for is more important to us. The role of branding is to differentiate a product or service against the competition and avoid commoditization.

Discussion of color aside, the legal industry presents some of the most challenging branding problems. Differentiation is difficult. An afternoon spent reviewing websites of the largest law firms across the U.S (the AM Law 100), resulted in eye-glazing sameness, with text abounding in generic clichés. It’s rare that a micro-percent of difference, is evident while scrolling and clicking through page after page. One firm claims, “Exceptional firm, extraordinary people.” Another has a series of “absolutes”—absolute integrity, absolute determination, etc. Another boasts, “The firm to see.” And yet another claims with resounding large type, “Deep expertise.”

These statements simply represent the minimum of skill that you would expect from any professional, let alone a law firm. They are verbal filler.

Often, the most repeated content on law firm home pages is third-party accolades from various publications such as Chambers. Chambers and Partners is a London-based journal that has been ranking law firms and lawyers since 1990. The qualities on which rankings are assessed include technical legal ability, professional conduct, client service, commercial astuteness, diligence, obvious qualities most valued by clients. Yet, there are so many categories of rankings—“Ranked X in Y,” or “The Best Z”—that one wonders how much credence to give to said rankings. Everyone gets a trophy.

Just because you’ve won a prize, doesn’t mean you are solidly positioned in your market.

There are a few law firms that stand out as exceptions. One is Los Angeles-based Quinn Emanuel. Quinn Emanuel’s site reflects a bold personality that states, first and foremost, that it is “a global force in litigation.” It completely owns who it is, reinforcing its unbridled drive to win on every page.

The site incorporates edgy color combinations (lime green, turquoise and black) and a parallax (this word is likely unfamiliar to your audience) interface on its home page. While the design has some typographic issues, it is unique for several reasons:

First, its messaging is direct and declarative. $47 billion+ won for plaintiffs, 88 percent of trials won, 2,441 trials and arbitrations.

The career section cleverly alludes to the structure of a trial: The Opening Statement, The Evidence and The Closing Statement. The Opening Statement tells recruits exactly what they will be doing; it outlines the real work. The Evidence? Trial lawyers not just litigators—every piece of copy reinforces the idea that Quinn Emanuel is fierce, goes to trial and is staffed by brilliant, aggressive people. The copy is so powerful; it sent shivers down my spine. The Closing Statement: “We really are different.” And I believe it.

A second example of an effective legal website is the newly launched Boies Schiller Flexner site. BSF is also a leading litigation firm but the site takes a different approach. While Quinn Emanuel is 100% aggression, the new BSF site is understated and elegant while clearly establishing their leadership position and place in some of the most historic legal issues of our time. From marriage equality to opening markets in space, BSF truly operates in realms that are groundbreaking, historic, and at times without precedent.

Abandoning the typical approach to a law firm site, the site models a look similar to innovation-driven industries like technology and venture capital. These sites telegraph clear, concise messages and enhance the user experience by removing unnecessary features and extraneous information.

Since most visitors to law firm sites enter through search engines, seeking partner’s biographies, this area was given special attention. The content has been restructured, rewritten and shortened to enhance the mobile experience. The visual design and user experience has been modernized with tabbed hierarchies and file drawers for related information. The attorneys were previously photographed in triptychs, at their desks in shirtsleeves. The new approach is clear, sophisticated and a more dignified presentation without being stodgy. The photos were shot in a manner that can be leveraged across the desktop and mobile site and for use with the media.

Practice area descriptions were also rewritten. The news section, an area with ample content was reorganized with a new sort and search feature along with multiple ways to get related content. The design supports a positioning that simply says Leadership.

One might conjecture that many lawyers feel marketing is a tawdry discipline beneath their education and skills as professionals. Yet successfully creating brand differentiation not only highlights points of contrast, it also can define and burnish an image that may not be clear to others.

Effective branding is not about choosing the perfect color palette consisting of blue, green or whatever; it’s about giving concrete, authentic meaning to abstract concepts and establishing a unique position in a market to eliminate the competition.

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