Why Clients Like – and Refer – Law Firms

Because law firms aren’t cars or sodas or sneakers, the importance of branding is often overlooked. But while law firm brands may not inspire the kind of fervor that drives Harley-Davidson tattoos on their bodies, they nevertheless can drive reputations, revenue and referrals.
To be sure, Altman Weil reports that a firm’s brand is the second-most important hiring factor – after the reputation or experience of an individual lawyer – and that a premium brand can generate a 10 to 20 percent increase in fees.
And research from Acritas shows that the same qualities that will drive clients to favor a particular brand also are linked to the motivations behind referrals – the No. 1 source of new business for lawyers across all practice areas.

After analyzing more than 50,000 reasons that clients favor particular law firms, Acritas developed a list of eight primary themes that drive favorability in the legal industry.

In order of “favorability,” or “what clients like,” they are:

  • Expertise. Where is your legal acumen dominant? In the Acritas report, “expertise” can include work quality, specialist knowledge, star individuals, breadth of services or results achieved. Expertise is the dominant brand driver in every single market worldwide.
  • Service. How well do you treat your clients? This can encompass perceived responsiveness, availability and accessibility.
  • Relationship. To what extent do you develop caring, long-term relationships with your clients?
  • Value. What value do you bring for the money spent? Despite the pervasive chatter about value in the legal industry, value comes in at the middle of the pack, whether it is defined as competitive rates or general value. Law firms that prioritize value messaging may be particularly vulnerable to legal tech or the Big 4.
  • Business Savvy. How well do you understand the client’s business and industry sector?
  • Style. How do you practice – and how will you present as an extension of the client’s own brand? This covers a “multitude of different descriptors,” among them professional, practical or innovative. (Note: Acritas reports that only 1 percent of clients talk about innovation as a reason they favor their law firms.)
  • Geography. Where are you located? For some large clients with multijurisdictional legal needs, convenience and ubiquity are important; this also covers the niche of specific geographic locations, where Acritas notes “clients appreciate a firm…grasping the local laws and knowing the regulators or business culture.”
  • Reputation. Are you the stalwart of your market? Does your reputation, heritage, size and prestige intimidate opponents? If this your brand strategy, take a fearless self-inventory: As Acritas writes, “Very few firms have this quality, as it is often founded on years of history. It is a hard drive to build from the ground up.”

It’s imperative to chart the link between favorability and the likelihood of recommendation, i.e., referrals, which Acritas found to “map almost identically.”

“Business Savvy” jumps up to become a top-three consideration for referrals, shuffling the order with Relationship and Value/Pricing, but otherwise, the lists are eerily similar: Expertise and Service are major drivers of both likeability and referrals, and Style, Geography and Reputation don’t really move the needle for either.

What This Means for Your Firm

First, recognize that your firm very likely has a brand already – regardless of your marketing efforts or lack thereof. Indeed, a brand is not a logo or a tagline, but a collective identity; “Insufferable but The Best in Maritime Law” or “Stodgy and Old-School” are in fact brands. If you have not purposefully managed your brand – with relevant communications and consistent evidence – you may be stuck with an identity shaped by the word on the street.

Any new branding effort must be authentic: It must take into consideration the heritage, reputation and peculiarities of the firm. If “Stodgy and Old-School” tried to overcompensate with a techy modern look, it would fall flat. (And it could risk alienating the clients who actually chose the firm for its stodginess; they exist. Truly.)

Second, in any branding effort, remember that Expertise reigns supreme. While you could deploy an effective brand in any of the categories above, Expertise drives as many referrals as Service, Value/Pricing and Geography combined. Clients want remarkable individuals, notable practices and a track record of results. They want a safe choice, whether that means “boardroom cover” or peace of mind; your brand should offer purposeful reassurance.


  • What are the practices, industries or other niches where you can truly shine? (“Every practice” is not an answer; think of just one to three. One is best.)
  • What are your competitive advantages there?
  • How can you prove it? An effective legal brand is built just like an effective legal argument: with evidence.
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