Online Reputation Management (ORM) has become one of the latest marketing and brand buzz-concepts. This is one every leader and manager of law firms as well as all legal professionals should be concerned about and should understand.

Much has already been written about ORM, as any search on the internet will show. I have found

My colleague Jordan Furlong and I penned an article in August 2014 on NewLaw  for the ALPMA website. In that we defined NewLaw as “any strategy, structure, model, process or way of delivering legal services that represents a significantly different approach to the creation or provision of legal services than what the legal profession traditionally has employed”.

We featured some firms as examples of NewLaw, including some from Australasia. At the time it was quite easy to identify firms ‘doing something different’. In the short time since then, this type of ‘new’ simply does not seem so unique and special any more, and a number of firms are doing something in this space.

We didn’t mention Nexus Law Group then, mainly as we didn’t know of them or what they were in the process of doing. That has changed: Nexus Law seems to be getting a lot of attention and recognition and it appears, for good reason.
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Each year I carefully review Interbrand’s excellent report on the top 100 global brands. No professional service firm brands feature there so you may well ask, what relevance do these largely commercial or corporate brands have for law firms? The reason I do is that Interbrand provides useful summary reports as to why these brands

Many law firm partners want their firm to either be pre-eminent or to seek pre-eminence. Few realise that there is a serious price to pay.

Look at the vision statements of most firms and chances are you will find words like ‘successful’, ‘leading’, ‘premier’, ‘top’ or similar. Nothing at all wrong with that. But the key thing to realise is that to seek and achieve such lofty visions takes serious commitment, both at the top and throughout a partnership. Without that understanding and buy-in from all partners, leaders and managers in a firm, any visioning or strategy process will be flawed from the core and likely be doomed to failure.

‘Pre-eminence’ – ‘yeah, that sounds good, let’s go for it’ one will hear law firm partners say, but how many realise that there is a price to pay for such lofty visions? The reality is that most firms seek pre-eminence or some version of it. However, if they are truly serious about such a vision, they must realise it takes enthusiastic and consistent commitment and adherence by a majority of partners to a wide range of key things. The firms that manage to achieve this rise to the top and stay there while others muddle along.  (Sean Larkan, Edge International)

What then is this price to pay if you seek such status? In essence it goes to the heart and core of everything you do in the firm but here is a framework of some key things that I feel will be an essential part of any such quest:

  1. Leadership: strong, trusted leadership, not just at the top, but throughout the partners and managers, and a proper understanding of leadership and how it can be fostered and developed;
  2. Direction and Vision: clear direction from the key leaders and an agreed vision bought into and understood by all as to where they want the firm to go and what they want it to be. This takes a very clear understanding of ‘basics’ such as which practice areas, industry sector areas and geographic areas will be focused on and how the firm will differentiate itself through particular ways of delivering service;
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In the April edition of Edge International Communiqué three of my partners address important issues and provide insights and outline opportunities for the legal profession:

Jordan Furlong, in Law Firms and Women Partners: You’re Doing it Wrong emphasises that if firms are following typical practices in how they promote women into equity

The Gouldian Finch, research conducted at Macquarie University in late 2012 has shown, uses just one eye and one side of its brain to choose its partner for life. In the study published in Biology Letters the researchers found that ‘Beauty, therefore, is in the right eye of the beholder for these songbirds, providing, to our knowledge, the first demonstration of visual mate choice lateralization‘. Black-headed males choose black-headed females, and used only their right eyes and left side of their brains to do this.

Here’s looking at you kid, that is, if you are on my right-hand side and are the right colour – the Gouldian Finch chooses its mate by using only  its left brain and right eye. While clients may not do precisely this, we need to recognise they are all individuals, are different and use different criteria to choose our firm or our partners for that next assignment. It is also these individuals who determine the power or otherwise of our brands – Sean Larkan (Image: (c) www.birdsville.net.au)

This provides a timely reminder – we somehow seem to assume that all clients fall into one amorphous group – ‘clients’  – and that all our marketing and approaches to them can be similar and should produce the same results. Of course, this is wrong. Each client is very different. Each individual at every client is different. And it is these individuals who choose our firms or the partners at our firms for their next assignment. It is also what they think, these individuals, that constitutes our firm brands, and the individual personal brands of each of our partners. Some of these individuals are notoriously one-eyed. Others adopt what one may call a balanced approach, taking all factors into account. In each case we need to understand and respect this.

What can we learn from or do as a result of this?

  1. firstly, simply understand and respect their individual differences. Some clients are definitely left-brainers, detail people,  even pernickety (excessively precise and attentive to detail; fussy), want every ‘i’ dotted and ‘t’ crossed, while others rely on trust and relationships and that you will do the right thing by them and ‘sort out the detail‘ – the ‘just tell me where to sign‘ type. Others are a wonderful balance between these extremes;
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LEX AFRICA, widely regarded as Africa’s leading, and certainly its largest, law firm network, celebrates its 20th anniversary at a time when there is unprecedented interest in Africa and attention from foreign investors and businesses. From humble but determined beginnings in 1993 with just five founding firms, LEX AFRICA has grown steadily to now number 29 country members. Recently Boussayene Knani & Houerbi of Tunisia joined this vibrant network.

As Nigel Shaw of founding firm Kaplan & Stratton in Kenya told me recently growth for this leading African legal network has not been a numbers game; it has been all about quality. : ‘. . . . in time, building on our founding principles, I would like to see us have a network that covers the whole of Africa and still with firms of lawyers who are considered to be the very best in their jurisdictions’. LEX AFRICA has long recognised that doing business and undertaking legal matters in Africa presents some special challenges. As a result, one of the key founding principles for the network was to only admit as members leading law firms from strategically important African countries – this underlying principle has built a strong foundation of quality to ensure clients referred to any member will be in good hands. This provides comfort to both the referrer and clients.

There has been an increasing interest in and focus on Africa in recent years not least of all due to the location of the SKA (single kilometre array) satellite station on the continent. Member firm Werksmans played a pivotal role in SKA project and it is anticipated member firms will continue to provide support to it.

I chatted to a few long-standing members and include some of their thoughts below but need to declare my interest – while managing partner of Werksmans back in 1993 we founded the network so I have remained keenly interested in its phenomenal growth and evolution over the past 20 years. I was chuffed to attend the AGM in 2012 in Maputo and be part of the 20th anniversary celebrations recently in Cape Town RSA. What struck me when I met many of the members at the Maputo meeting was how well they seemed to know one another. Clearly, regular personal contact and the building of relationships over many years seems to have built trust and respect and ensured active communication amongst members. It appears to have stood LEX AFRICA in good stead.

  1. I asked Osayaba Giwa-Osagie of Nigeria what initially attracted him to the LEX AFRICA network and what has kept his firm so active and committed since then?

As the Senior Partner in Giwa Osagie & Co, it was my responsibility to attract new clients to the firm and also to expand the firm. Many years ago I met Charles Butler, CEO of Werksmans and we struck up a good relationship after we had some good dealings with each other. We joined because we wanted to belong to a reputable network with a strong brand that would provide comfort to anyone who dealt with us. In turn we were comfortable knowing we had to earn our keep and produce quality legal services.

  1. What do you find most powerful/valuable about your membership? What do you like best?
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A fundamental of a successful brand is building trust. You build trust when other individuals who experience your service, product and brand offering trust that you will deliver on what you offer to do thereby achieving what I term ‘Brand Fusion™’. In turn this builds loyalty, that much sought-after, but rarely achieved status. But, it can be won. It just takes effort and making sure you do in fact deliver on what you offer.

It seems so obvious doesn’t it? Why would firms not do this? However, it is surprising how few organisations and professional service firms deliver; those that do, you will notice, achieve lasting success based on sound fundamentals with a trusted brand at the top of the list.

Always deliver what you offer. So, if you say ‘contact us’, make sure your website and links actually make it easy and intuitive to do just that, ‘contact you’, and make sure it is a person at the other end! If it does not, don’t offer it, as you will simply annoy actual and potential customers and lose their trust, respect and this will hammer their loyalty.

Let’s consider one very simple and obvious example where countless organisations slip up. Ever had an issue with a product or service and tried to communicate this with the company or organisation concerned? Ever tried to get hold of a real human via their ‘contact us’ link? I bet you have! I have, often, and sadly I must say most companies come up wanting, particularly the bigger, most ‘successful’ ones. The reason is simple: ‘contact us’ in plain English means you can get in touch with a person in our organisation in this way. The reality of experience proves all too often this is not the case.

While I have the feeling that most law firms don’t perform badly on this example (mainly because you can in fact get hold of a human being when you have an issue and more often than not even the head of the firm). For the sake of the profession, long may this continue. But you need to remain keenly aware of getting even these simple things right and all the other stuff that you ‘promise’ to potential clients and recruits. You then need to test everything else that you ‘offer’ and make sure this is experienced at every touch-point by everyone who comes into contact with your organisation. The truly great organisations do this, even the big ones. That is why their brands engender trust and loyalty. Remember, people who trust a brand ‘buy now and ask questions later’. 

I have recently experienced two encouraging exceptions to this:
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Alternative growth structures such as Swiss Vereins, global alliances, non-merger affiliations, expansion strategies and a great deal more is covered in the latest edition of the Edge International Review. It provides essential insights for legal leaders – in fact, just what legal leaders need to know about!

The latest edition

Law firms don’t recognise that the balance of power in relation to their employment brand lies not in their hands, but in the hands of their employees. To make matters worse, some of this power also lies in the hands of former employees, potential employees and other “employment stakeholders” such as recruitment agencies and digital media channels dedicated to commenting on the foibles of law firms.

Law firms don’t appreciate that the balance of power in relation to their employment brand lies with their employees, and even their former and potential employees, as well as with other parties like recruitment agencies . These other parties determine the brand. Firms assume it is what they offer that matters, but that is but one small component in the mix. (© Sean Larkan 2012)

This is because a firm’s employment brand is based on how the firm is perceived and experienced as an employer by existing employees, past employees and potential employees, as well as by other parties such as recruitment agencies and the media. Its employment brand is not what the firm thinks it is, but what these ‘others’ think it is.

This is a harsh lesson for most firms to stomach. It can be mystifying. Firms assume their employment brand is based on what they say in their recruitment materials, on their website, what they do, what they decide to offer employees as part of their employment package, and so on.

Instead, the power lies in the hands of others, the firm’s employees, past employees, potential employees, and others in the recruitment and media industries. What employers offer to their employees is merely part of what we call their employment brand offering. Firms still have a great deal of work to do to build their employment brand. For a start:

  • you must clarify your employment brand offering – identify, clarify and agree all the things you do offer to existing and potential employees and what makes working for the firm special and sets it apart. Bear in mind that standard features and benefits don’t make much of a difference; they don’t differentiate a firm as all firms offer them anyway – if they don’t now they can easily and quickly replicate them;
  • you must achieve Brand Fusion™ which is essentially ensuring that what you offer is actually experienced or has been experienced in the case of past employees. This is no mean feat given that you are largely dependent on the exigencies of individualistic, independent-minded partners to act as your front-line troops in making this happen;
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