Making Your Firm Look Good: Working With Designers

Once upon a time there were two law firms, both founded in the same year. As they struggled to build their clientele, they both realized that they needed to build an image as well. At a partners’ meeting, Law Firm A debated the image issue at great length, accompanied by rhetoric that would make a seasoned juror weep. Eventually one-third of the partners decided they didn’t want any part of the discussion, another third was vehemently opposed to anything but the most conservative image, and that left a few mavericks bound and determined to “take this firm into the 21st century”.

The mavericks go out on their own and hire the design firm that one of their best clients uses for their packaged goods business. Their creative brief to the designers is (you guessed it) “Take this firm into the 21st century.” The designers are thrilled. They come up with creative that is sure to clean up at the annual graphic design award show. The mavericks are taken aback when they see the first presentation: it’s very “out there”. Perhaps their idea of 21st century differs from the designers’ ideas? After much tweaking, they can’t decide whether they like the result, so they present it to the partnership to “let them decide.” Mayhem ensues: the conservatives hate the design, the one-third that didn’t want any part of the process quibbles over single words and shades of colour, and all of them attack the mavericks for the time and money they’ve spent. The mavericks wash their hands of the project, which languishes in a drawer.

Law Firm B has a similar partners’ meeting, but as soon as the debate begins to turn on the merits of dark blue and Times Roman font, the senior partner says, “Wait a second here. What are we good at?” A spirited discussion ensues. “So who do we want as our clients?” Less spirit, less discussion, but eventually the partners agree on what they’re good at and who they want as clients. “Now,” says the senior partner, “Since we’re lawyers and not marketers, let’s get somebody in here who can talk to us about the image we need to attract the clients we want.” They ask around for recommendations from other professional services firms and eventually interview three agencies: a design firm led by a former law firm marketing director, a full-service marketing agency that specializes in professional services firms, and the agency that designed their favourite law firm website. They learn something from each of the agencies and eventually select the one they think they can work with best. Within a year, they have a new logo, stationery, website, newsletter, and signage.

You think Law Firm A is fiction? Sadly, it’s a composite of several firms. The one that’s fiction is Law Firm B—the ideal client.

If your firm has a marketing department, leave the selection and briefing of design firms to them. It’s part of their job to know what designers need from their clients and how to “translate” the firm’s marketing needs into information that the designers can use. Your job is to ensure that your marketing department has a clear understanding of the firm’s business goals.

So how can we rewrite Law Firm A’s scenario? The first lesson is that however well-intentioned, a project led by a few mavericks who don’t involve the partnership will not end well. Leadership (not micromanagement) should come from the firm’s senior management.

The second lesson is that a good creative brief is worth its weight in gold. A creative brief is a document prepared for the creative team to give them a picture of their client’s current issues, strengths, goals, preferences, and competition. Rather than telling the designer that you want to change the colour of your logo and to make sure that one of their suggestions is dark blue (yes, real example, I’m afraid), have someone who understands the process take you through the exercise of determining what you want to achieve. Then have that person write the creative brief for the designers. If you have a marketing department, they should write the creative brief; if not, a marketing consultant who has experience with professional services firms would be your best bet.

The third lesson from Law Firm A is that a design firm that’s done great work for a packaged goods company may not be appropriate for a law firm where the product is intangible—and talks back. After 17 years in this business, I’ve learned that there’s no substitute for experience with clients in the same industry. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: after all, lawyers sell their experience within certain industries. It gives clients a comfort level that you know their situation and their needs.

The fourth lesson is that if you don’t like a design, say why it doesn’t work for you—don’t try to fix it yourself. So, “This design is a bit too ‘retail’ for us; our clients are large companies that value discretion” will get better results than “Tone down the colours, take out all of the moving stuff in the background, and move the picture to the left.”

And finally, never, never, NEVER present for approval something you don’t like or aren’t sure about. I’ve made it a personal rule to present to my clients only those alternatives that I know will work, that I think suit them, and that will create the image they need. That way, if they choose my least favourite alternative, I can still work with it.

I’ll end with a few McCaffery Maxims about working with designers:

  • Just like law, good design is often more complex than it looks.
  • Good design costs money: you get what you pay for.
  • Involve designers in the project from the beginning, not just the “prettying up” at the end.
  • Good designers won’t want to do “what the other firms do”; they want to make you stand out.
  • Good design can be both form and function.

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