The “Smiling Lawyers” Trap

by Ross Fishman
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Smiling lawyers – the new cliché.
In the past few years, firms have gradually migrated away from the historic clichés, the gavels, globes, skylines, handshakes, columns and many others.  And those have been filled with others.  The most prevalent one currently is what I call “smiling lawyers.” 
We need to strive for impact in our marketing.  More creativity works better, it helps you stand out, so that you can use the viewer’s attention to convey your message to them in a memorable way.
Of course, a marketer’s job isn’t to make art or pretty pictures, or win accolades or awards, it’s to make the firms more money.  Period.
The first few firms that used actual photos of their lawyers in their marketing were revolutionaries.  But now that every third new website uses them, as a viewer I can’t help but think, “THAT’S what makes them unique? They’re a $100 million organization representing clients around the world and the single most important thing they want me to know about them is that their lawyers are nice?” 
The visual has simply lost its impact and effectiveness when it’s not supported by a real differentiated strategy.  It’s not that you can’t use photos of your people effectively, it’s just that there has to be some substance behind it.
It’s the absence of strategy that’s the real problem.  When your underlying message seems to be “See?  People work here!” then you’re missing a rare opportunity to help the visitors understand why they should hire your lawyers rather than those from other firm whose professionals also seem smart and had childhood orthodontia.  They won’t remember your site two minutes after clicking the Back button.
However, if the firm could agree on their target audience, USP, and how to say it in a way that those clients would find persuasive, THEN for the first time they have something to illustrate.  THEN, if the best execution of that strategy include photos of your lawyers, at least it’s in implementation of a plan, it’s not just because the firm couldn’t do anything better, or didn’t even try.
Too many agencies these days are simply persuading marketing committees to use those photos because (1) people like seeing pictures of themselves – i.e. it’s easy to get approval, and (2) they couldn’t come up with a brand message or execution that could have driven business.
Remember, a website is just one of many tools we have to help drive additional business to a firm.  And when you analyze it critically and honestly, it’s hard to prove that doing the same thing as everyone else generated significantly more revenue.  But as long as the lawyers don’t really expect it to, then no one seems hurt.
If we reinforce the lawyers’ low expectations for their marketing materials, then they won’t value what we do – these marketers will be viewed as people who shovel meaningless brochures out the door, albeit using the internet as a shinier shovel.
Our industry can do better.  But it won’t happen any time soon if law marketers continue to settle for what’s easy instead of what’s effective.  If firms simply do the same thing as their competitors, then we’re ultimately just trading one cliché for another, skylines for smiling.

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Ross Fishman
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