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Ask the Experts

Does a Small Law Firm Need to Have a Brand?

By The Editors

Question: Ours is a three-lawyer litigation firm with high-profile experience in a narrow issue. Obviously we don’t have the luxury of an in-house marketing department like the big law firms. But we certainly have the capability to best them in the courtroom. We’re wondering if our small law firm has to invest in a fancy “brand” to compete in the marketplace.

Ask the Experts from the LMA

Valerie NelanValerie Nelan: Many sophisticated legal services buyers will tell you they “hire the lawyer, not the law firm”—so the real task is for your firm to “brand” each lawyer. Start by creating a plan. Since your firm is small, each lawyer’s individual plan should be an extension of the firm’s overall strategy and goals. Identify the types of clients who need your firm’s experience and figure out how to get in front of them. Talk to your current clients—seriously, go visit them!—and ask for introductions to people who could benefit from your services. Make friends with the legal reporter from your local business journal, write articles and speak at conferences if it makes sense, consider leveraging social media (that’s a whole other column), and don’t forget about referrals from your fellow lawyers.

Many litigators point out that they are the last kind of people that clients want to call, and that’s fair—litigation, especially bet-the-company kind, isn’t what anyone wants happening to them. Your job is to make them think of you if the unthinkable happens. No amount of shiny marketing bling can make up for hard-won experience, and it can’t beat face-to-face meetings, either.

Valerie Nelan is a business development manager at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC, an AmLaw 200 firm. She coaches lawyers and is the business development liaison for the firm’s financial institutions and labor and employment practice groups and two industry service teams. Reach her at or @ValerieNelan.

Nathan SmithNathan Smith: You don’t have to spend big bucks to make a big impression. Clients always hire lawyers first, law firms second. The well-branded firm serves as a supporting mechanism for a well-branded attorney. The law firm, regardless of the size, should possess a brand that conveys the “soul” of the organization and, quite frankly, this is easier to do in a smaller firm with a niche practice. If you serve a narrow market, make that obvious in your branding. Large firms have to be everything to everyone. A legal services buyer that is looking for something very specific wants the very best in that field. Align yourself with what you’re good at. Own it. And make it a point to make sure the market knows that you are dedicated to XYZ practice—and only that practice. Focus on getting yourself, as a lawyer, into the center of attention in your niche field. Your firm brand will only support your claims as being the right fit for that particular niche.

Today, it’s not expensive to consult with a professional to identify a singular brand position. It’s also not expensive to communicate that position via websites, logos, business cards, social media (free!) and other marketing channels. The first step: Get in the mindset that you own this niche. It’s what makes you unique. Sell that uniqueness—and don’t get caught up in the massive brand promises that the big firms are obligated to make.

Nathan Smith is the director of marketing at Gunster, an 11-office business law firm in Florida. He has been in the business of legal marketing since 2000 and has worked for both legal services providers and in-house with law firms for over a decade. He also advises law firms independently through exclusive consulting arrangements. Nathan can be reached at and

Stacy A. SmithStacy Smith: Research shows that, when measuring law firm branding ROI, there is a direct correlation between a strong brand and superior profitability and firm value. Many lawyers believe “brand” simply equates to developing a firm logo when, in fact, your brand should be the first step in your firm’s tactical marketing strategy or unique selling proposition. Your brand should reflect the legal needs of your core clients and be unique to your firm. It should convey (a) who you are; (b) your scope of services; (c) where you provide your services; and (d) what makes your services unique.

Part (d) is of the utmost importance—(a), (b) and (c) rarely set you apart competitively. It is (d) that will provide your branding hook. Once you have established your brand, you can concentrate on marketing your small, experienced, specialty firm.

On average, without a brand, only less than 10 percent of your prospects will even know you exist; branding about doubles that statistic. Therefore, small firms trying to compete with large firms are smart to develop an effective brand to increase their presence and build awareness of their firm in an overcrowded marketplace.

Stacy A. Smith is the firm administrator and director of marketing and client relations at Carter Conboy in Albany, NY.

That’s a Good Question! What’s Yours?

No, not every law firm has a professional marketer or business development coach on staff to answer questions. So send us your questions via email or use the comment section below, and we’ll pass them on to the experts at the Legal Marketing Association. Watch for the best ones here in Ask the Expert. 
The Legal Marketing Association provides professional support and education as well as opportunities for intellectual and practical information exchange.


Categories: Ask the Experts, Daily Dispatch, Law Firm Marketing, Managing a Law Firm
Originally published May 16, 2013
Last updated April 13, 2018
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