Law Firm Branding – The Danger Of Illusory Brands

Over the last ten years, we have witnessed advances in law practice technology, the expanding roles of paralegals, and the outsourcing of legal work. Yet despite all of these cost-cutting and time-saving advantages, many law firms, especially the large ones, remain struggling for their very survival.

Only a decade ago, law firms were enjoying remarkable levels of growth and prosperity. Firm coffers were full and firms were spending significant sums of money on promoting themselves in order to enter new markets and acquire premium business. Some firms even began experimenting with branding. In those days, branding was mostly viewed as just another form of advertising and promotion. In truth, firm leadership rarely understood the branding process or what the concept of branding was actually intended to accomplish. But it didn’t really matter, revenue was climbing and profitability remained strong. But what so many of these firms didn’t expect was that, in just a few years, our economy would be shaken by a deep and fierce recession, one which would shake the financial foundations of even the most profitable of firms.

For law firms, the recession that began in 2007 had, by 2010, penetrated the most sacred of realms- the proverbial benchmark of a firms standing and achievement- profits-per-partner. For many firms, especially mega-firms, the decline in law partner profits were reaching record lows and it wasn’t long until the legal landscape was littered with failed firms both large and small.

In trying to deflect further losses, firms began to lay off associates and staff in record number. But the problems went much deeper. There simply were too many lawyers and not enough premium work to go around. It was a clear case of overcapacity, and it was also clear it was not going to improve anytime soon.

More than twelve of the nation’s major law firms, with more than 1,000 partners between them, had completely failed in a span of about seven years. Against this background, law schools were still churning out thousands of eager law graduates every year. Highly trained young men and women who were starved for the chance to enter a profession that once held the promise of wealth, status and stability.

As partner profits dwindled, partner infighting grew rampant. Partner would compete against partner for the same piece of business. The collegial “team-driven” identity and “progressive culture” that firms spent millions of dollars promoting as their firm’s unique brand and culture had vanished as quickly as it was created. While financial times were tough, in truth many of the big firms had the resources to survive the downturn. Instead, partners with big books of business were choosing to take what they could and joined other firms- demoralizing those left behind.

To understand why this was happening, we must first remove ourselves from the specific context and internal politics of any one firm and consider the larger picture. The failure and decline of firms was not only a crisis of economics and overcapacity, it was also a crisis of character, identity, values and leadership. Sadly, the brand identity many of these firms pronounced as their own did not match up against the reality of who they actually were. In other words, for many firms, the brand identity they created was illusory- and illusory brands ultimately fracture in times of financial stress.

Ultimately, the branding process must also be a transformative process in search of the firms highest and most cherished values. It is, and must be, a process of reinvention at every level of the firm- especially its leadership. The transformative process is fundamental to building a true and enduring brand. Without it, firms run the risk of communicating an identity that does not represent them, and this is the danger, especially when the firm is tested against the stress of difficult times.

How this miscommunication of identity was allowed to happen varied widely from firm to firm. But generally speaking, while firm leadership was initially supportive of the branding process, in most cases these same partners were rarely willing to risk exposing the firm’s real problems in fear that it would expose their own.

While decline of law firm revenue was clearly attributable to both a bad economy and an oversupply of lawyers, from an internal perspective the firm’s inability to come together and develop effective measures to withstand these pressures could usually be traced directly back to the lack of partner leadership. A firm that proclaims to be something it is not- is inevitably doomed to failure. Say nothing of the psychic damage it causes at the collective level of the firm. It is no different then the psychological dynamics of the person who pretends to be someone he is not- ultimately it leads to confusion, frustration and eventually self-betrayal.

It’s easy to indulge in self-praise when economic times are good. Some partners might even attribute their success to all that clever branding they put into place years before. But, when the threat of financial crisis enters the picture, the same firm can quickly devolve into self-predatory behavior- a vicious cycle of fear and greed that inevitably turns into an “eat-or-be-eaten” culture- which for most firms marks the beginning of the end.

For any firm playing out its last inning, it is simply too late to rally the troops or reach for those so-called cherished values that were supposedly driving the firm’s success. In truth, when times got bad, these values were nowhere to be found, except on the firms website, magazine ads and brochures.

The point is that when a firm is actually driven by its cherished beliefs and core values, the firm will begin to live by them, especially in times of adversity. The firm will pull together and rally behind its leadership, and with clarity of purpose, each person will do what needs to be done to weather the storm. But when there exists a fundamental contradiction between what a firm says they are, and how they actually conduct themselves both internally and to the world- the vendors with whom they do business and the clients they represent- the firm will never reach its full potential. It will remain dysfunctional and it will risk joining that growing list of failed firms.

The financial collapse and deterioration of so many law firms in the past few years is a compelling testament to the importance of insisting on truth and integrity in the branding process.

In 2014, it is clear that business-as-usual in our profession is no longer a sustainable proposition. For this reason I am convinced that firms driven by fear and greed are firms destined to eventually self-destruct. That is because, no matter how much these firms try to brand, they will never be able to brand truthfully, and therefore they will never be able to compete against more progressive and enlightened firms- those that do not worship wealth and power, but rather cherish personal and professional fulfillment.

There is a choice for those who believe their firm is worth saving- reinvent yourself to reflect values that are truly worthy of cherishing, or risk devolving into something less than what you aspire to be and risk your firm’s heart and soul in the process.

Tax Relief Firms – Is it a Law Firm, Accounting Firm, Or Something Else?

The tax relief industry has experienced significant change over the past several years. As the economy worsened and Americans faced increased financial pressures, many people and businesses sought relief from the strain by not paying their taxes. In response, an enormous number of tax companies started sprouting up to absorb the unprecedented demand for tax services. Tax gurus on late-night TV and radio advertise, they’ll “settle your tax debt for pennies on the dollar.” Despite being tax geeks ourselves, we couldn’t make sense of which tax companies are good and which are bad.

Tax Relief Firms – Choosing the Right One For You

Under the broad umbrella of “tax relief firms,” there are three types of professional firms: Law firms, CPA Firms, and Hybrids. The first two types are self-explanatory, and since there’s really no industry-standard name for the latter category, calling them a “hybrid” is probably acceptable. But which of the three categories is right for you?

Law Firms

As you know, a law firm is made up of ONLY lawyers. A law firm may employ assistants, like paralegals, but a tax attorney is ALWAYS the person ultimately responsible for any tax work performed. All tax attorneys employed by a law firm are subject to the ethics rules and disciplinary action of their state bar. A tax attorney may generally represent any client in any state on any U.S. federal income tax matter.

The pros to employing a law firm are that you can feel comfortable that (i) an attorney is the one ultimately responsible for your tax matter, (ii) you have a clear method to file grievances (i.e., with the sate bar) if the attorney screws up, and (iii) lawyers are subject to strict ethics rules so they should work according to the highest of standards. The cons are that law firms generally are more expensive than the other two types of tax firms. Additionally, some law firms (or attorneys) do not focus solely (or even primarily) on tax related work, so they may lack some of the skill and expertise needed to fight the IRS. Just ask your attorney what other types of work he or she performs, and that will give you a sense of whether tax (and specifically, tax relief) is his or her specialty.

CPA Firms

At CPA firms, you will obviously find CPAs (i.e., certified accountants), but you may also find tax attorneys. Like law firms, it’s nice to know that at CPA firms, there is a professional behind the scenes who is ultimately responsible for any tax work performed on your behalf. The pros and cons of CPA firms are similar to those of law firms, except the method of reporting grievances with CPAs isn’t as well defined (but exists nonetheless) as it is for attorneys. CPA firms are generally a little less expensive than law firms.

“Hybrid Firms”

The hybrid firms include tax relief firms that are not law firms or CPA firms. Tax relief firms in this category employ a mix of tax professionals, including tax attorneys, CPAs, and so-called “Enrolled Agents.” Enrolled Agents are tax professionals certified by the IRS. They are neither attorneys nor CPAs, but are tax professionals that the IRS has concluded (either through examination or experience) that they are qualified to represent taxpayers before the IRS.

Many tax relief firms fit in the “hybrid” category. Lots of the tax firms that advertise on the internet and radio are made up of tax attorneys, CPAs and enrolled agents and thus are hybrid tax relief firms. The pros are that these companies generally charge less for tax relief work and are very good at performing tax services and working with IRS since tax controversy work is their specialty. The cons are that unlike law firms and CPA firms, these hybrid firms are largely unregulated, so there’s no clear channel (like, for example, the state bar for attorneys) to file grievances. Since they are unregulated, many of the hybrid firms are just plain bad and if they rip a client off, there’s little recourse, except the traditional routes of going to the BBB or other quasi-regulatory bodies.

Tax Relief Firms – Is it a law firm, a CPA firm, or a hybrid?

Here’s how you can determine whether a certain tax relief firm is a law firm, a CPA firm, or a hybrid firm. First, don’t assume anything just because an attorney or CPA works at the tax firm. As explained above, this is meaningless. Second (and the most obvious), just ask! A tax relief firm should have little problem telling you how it’s organized.

Marketing A Law Firm: You Will Need A Law Firm Website

Each year there is more and more online competition for lawyers as law firms reach out to the internet as another mode of marketing a law firm. Lawyers are spending more of their marketing budgets building websites instead of advertising in the traditional ways such as in the phone book.

Traditionally law firms spent a great deal of their marketing budgets on phone book ads. However, it seems that the phone book is becoming obsolete. When was the last time you used a phone book to research a company? Instead of turning to the phone book people now turn to their cell phones, computers, and iPads to research companies and law firms.

Most people these days have access to the internet and most are online multiple times a day. Many use the internet for their work and they sit in front of a computer several hours a day. This means that the rules of marketing a law firm are changing.

It is possible to build a successful law firm using online marketing you just need to have some measurable goals and an understanding of how to get there. Many law firms will pay some web guy to create a website for them. The problem is that just having a website isn’t enough. A pretty website with a great design alone won’t get you business or make your firm more successful.

When people search for something on a search engine such as Google they usually browse over the results on page 1 but most people don’t go much further than that, they don’t click through to see the results on page 2 or 3 and there’s even less of a chance they will click through to pages 5 or higher. If a searcher doesn’t find what they are looking for on the first page or two then they will typically do another search with different keywords. You need to get your site on the first page so that it can be found quickly and easily.

If a law firm just has some web guy create a law firm website they might discover that their website isn’t ranked well on the search engines. Many law firms aren’t even aware of where they rank in Google; they’ve never Googled themselves or asked their web person.

Hiring a professional marketing firm that knows how to bring qualified leads to the firm will give you a big advantage over the firm that just hires a web guy. Thousands of people use the internet to find lawyers. They use the major search engines to type in keywords and search for lawyers in their local area or they search for the best lawyers in a specific field of law. When they do their search, you want to be on the front page when they type in your town or your practice specialty. You want to be as high on the search engines for as many keywords as possible.

A professional website design team will be able to design a site for your firm that not only looks great but one that can be found on search engines and converts site visitors to clients quickly. You want people coming to your site who are looking to hire a firm that specializes in what you do. Hire a web design firm who knows how to get clients to the top of search engines and who has experience in marketing a law firm.