The shadow of the tree

European service providers such as law firms are getting wise to reputation management



"It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently”.

This famous quote by investment guru Warren Buffet is one of the best explanations we have today of the importance of reputation.

As far back as the Roman Empire, Latin writer Publilius Syrus wrote that “a good reputation is more valuable than money”.  Nowadays, reputation is a well-worn concept, used in both a corporate (corporate reputation) and a personal (personal branding) context. In the case of manufacturing companies, both their brand and reputation allow them to create an experience for those stakeholders, connecting them to the company and its values.

But reputation becomes more important, if possible, when it comes to service companies which cannot rely on the tangibility of a physical, manufactured, product. Service providers have to deal with the subtleties of the ethereal service they provide, which increases the importance of reputation as a strategic asset and complicates, as a result, its management. When the intangible is based on talent and knowledge, as is the case for big law firms, the importance and complexity of managing reputation is even greater.

Legal reputations

The role of big law firms in the economies of most developed countries has grown in recent decades. They advise on the most important business transactions that take place in these markets (corporate deals, litigation, etc.), and as such are at the heart of their economic engines. On many occasions, these firms also play an important role in the legislative machinery of their countries. Given the growing importance of these firms, they must manage relationships with more and more stakeholders (clients, prospects, employees, providers, bar associations, public authorities, universities, journalists, competitors, etc.), all of whom are capable of influencing (positively or negatively) the firm’s reputation. This demonstrates the quintessence of reputation for these firms, not only as a sales tool, but above all as a matter of survival.

As most readers no doubt already know, corporate reputation is defined, within a company, by a wide variety of elements that includes the services that are provided, the financial performance of the company, the working environment for the employees, the social responsibility actions that are undertaken, the emotional appeal the company awakens and the vision and leadership it deploys (source: Reputation Institute).

Reputation is closely linked to the overall strategy of the company and, as such, it has to be considered as a responsibility of the company as a whole, not only of a few people at management level. From top to bottom, from the CEO to the most junior workers, everybody in the organisation has an active role to play when it comes to conveying the messages that will create the most positive reputation. In the case of law firms, this situation is magnified by the fact that lawyers, as the firms’ core resource, have to act, at once and amongst others, as technicians (providing legal advice to clients), as sales representatives (developing business and prospecting new clients), as after-sales managers (solving issues with the service provided), as communicators (by attending events, dealing with the media or simply conveying messages to external stakeholders) and as group leaders and coaches, in addition to their role as managers, taking care of many internal managerial functions.

Reputation plays a very important role in every aspect of a law firm and in every person in the firm. In recent decades, the legal sector, pioneered by English and American firms, has professionalised most of these areas by providing vital support to the lawyers and making these tasks easier. Now it is not only up to the associates and partners to protect the firm’s reputation, but also to the professionals from the marketing and communications departments, who provide the most precise tools for efficient reputation management. It could be said that communications departments at big law firms have stood out over time for managing what I like to call “the shadow of the tree” – the ‘tree’ being the law firm.

The shadow of the tree

The shadow is what we first see of the tree: it is its reputation. Consequently it is vitally important for a firm to make sure that the image that is cast by the shadow faithfully represents the real thing, the real tree. Law firms have moved on from a very conservative and traditional model, in which reputation was based purely on the quality of the services delivered, to a more modern perspective, in which reputation encompasses many other factors (as we will see later) and involves many people, other than just clients. We, in the communications departments of law firms, have to excel at both an external and an internal level to make sure that the expectations generated by the shadow are met by the tree. At the end of the day, no company can control reputation since it is created in the eyes and ears of others, but organisations can listen, learn and generate behaviour that has an influence on reputation.

At Uría Menéndez, we have worked hard to create a solid reputation during more than 30 years of innovative professional practice, evolving from a 10-lawyer law firm in the mid-1970s, to the modern firm of today with over 500 lawyers and 16 offices across Europe, America and Asia. Lawyers are sought after to solve the most complex problems in the most complex circumstances. Therefore, the relationship created from the very beginning between the client and the lawyer has to be based entirely on trust and credibility. This explains why law firms, as well as other professional service providers, must learn to manage, with precision, an intangible within an intangible.

There is no better marketing strategy than reputation itself. From our experience, we believe that the following aspects are crucial to the development of a positive reputation within a law firm:

  • Talent and training: we make great efforts to recruit the best talent, with which we can attract the best clients.
  • Quality: only with the deepest understanding of clients’ environments, needs and problems can law firms provide legal services of the utmost quality.
  • Corporate values: given the intangibility of the service provided, it is critical that the firm has a well-defined set of principles and values (mission and vision), and that they are faithfully conveyed generation after generation.
  • Organic growth: talent retention is the key to building long-lasting, trusting and credible internal relations. It should not be forgotten that the internal reputation of the firm is probably of greater importance than the external one. Only those who believe in the project and feel that they are a part of it can contribute to building a positive image, both inside and outside the firm’s walls.
  • Differentiation: in an extremely competitive market such as the legal sector, differentiation is not only important as a business development tool, but also as a reputation tool. Differentiation creates exclusivity, and exclusivity feeds reputation. Law firms are being compelled more and more to deliver ground breaking legal services while adding value to the experience.
  • Satisfaction and word of mouth: what better way is there to consolidate reputation than the positive feedback of those who were satisfied with our services? Law firms generate business though various means, but one of the main channels is client or fellow law firm referrals. Feedback may also be negative, but when it is dealt with in the correct way, it will also benefit reputation.
  •  Social presence: a law firm must have a nurtured social presence so as to cater for the needs of all the stakeholders with which it interacts. This includes the social responsibility actions that are taken by firms.

In general terms, the factors we have listed above allow law firms to close their reputational circle: talent and training bring out the best quality in the delivery of the services. If we add some well defined and conveyed values and principles, we can opt for an organic growth scheme and create a strong sense of belonging among our employees, which will – mixed with the correct amount of differentiation and the exact dose of social presence – inevitably create client satisfaction and positive client feedback. All of this will help, back at the beginning of the circle, to attract new talent, more training, new clients, and so forth.

Keep in mind that this mixture must be properly seasoned with a coherent communications strategy, which in our case has always been very low profile: a significant presence in the media does not necessarily mean a better reputation. The communications strategy has to be on a close par with the business strategy, which is why it is extremely important to evaluate when, how and why the firm appears in the media, and of course, in which media those appearances are made.

And from now on?

We have briefly looked at the importance that reputation has for any company, but especially for legal services providers. Bear in mind that this is not rocket science. Every law firm needs to have its own, well-defined, recipe book when it comes to reputation, based on its values, its mission and its vision.

This has never been truer than in the ever-changing world in which we live today, where new tools such as social media are exerting greater pressure on both corporate and personal reputations. Today, a reputation is not only built in 20 years and ruined in five minutes, as we noted earlier, but it can be built in 20 days and ruined in just a few seconds due to the infinite possibilities provided by the internet. Added to the importance of corporate reputation, we must take into account the importance of the personal reputation of each member of the firm. As we have seen, law firms are built on talent and therefore are built by many talented people. In many cases, these people have created their personal reputations within the walls of the company and by their own means.

This explains why firms should not only manage their own institutional reputation, but also consider and provide best practices for the management of the personal reputations of their lawyers and members. Nobody, not even big brother-ish communications departments, can control what is said by all the firm’s employees or what is said about them. Therefore, everybody in the firm must control their own personal reputation, respecting the wider group of people that is the firm to which they belong. The world has changed at an incredible pace, levelling communications both in time and in space.

The shadow of the tree is at this point more vulnerable than ever, being exposed to millions of loudspeakers that can shape and distort the tree, that bring with them enormous challenges for communications departments across the globe, which have to tune their ears, open their eyes and be ready to undertake some of the most complicated but passionate challenges the profession has faced for years.   

Dionisio Uría Ronsmans

Prior to his current role as communications and institutional relations director at Uría Menéndez, Dionisio Uría Ronsmans worked as an international trade fair organiser and consultant in an agency based in Madrid.