Law firm brand - are you the Colbert Report or SNL?

One of the biggest decision a new solo attorney needs to make is this: who is the brand? Is the lawyer herself the brand, or is it something separate from the lawyer?

Let's look at three archetypes.

1 - The Colbert Report.

Most solos brand their firms this way. On this approach lawyer is the firm's brand identity. We all watched the Colbert report because... Colbert. With a "Colbert Report" law firm, people come to the firm because of the principal attorney's reputation.

There is nothing wrong with running a Colbert Report law firm. My wife runs a highly profitable forensic psychology practice called, unimaginatively, Dr. Julia McLawsen, PhD. But she doesn't need to be imaginative. Lawyers go to her because she does awesome work. She doesn't have any interest in bringing on other psychologists - she just wants to do her thing and get paid for it.

Colbert Report branding becomes an issue only if you want to build a practice that's bigger than just you. Sure, there are loads of multi-lawyer practices laboring under the masthead of a (long dead?) founder. But in my view, that's needless baggage, and a missed opportunity to use the firm's name to actually communicate something about what the firm does.

But on the other hand there is...

2 - Fresh Air.

Terry Gross - obviously - is the greatest interviewer of all time. But her radio show isn't Terry Gross Hour, it's Fresh Air. But have you ever listened to the show and gotten, "Terry Gross is out today; I'm (nobody) filling in."

Well, you can call the show whatever you want, but we're listening because we want to hear Terry Gross. Maybe the stand-in is just fine, but he's not who I want to hear, and I can't change stations fast enough.

The lawyer analogy is a firm that wants to be bigger than its principal but just isn't. It's now common to visit a lawyer's website and everything is discussed in the plural first-person: "our practice areas include;" "our experienced legal team does X;" "we serve clients super good."

Then you jump to the bio page and see that it's just one lawyer.

Again, there's nothing in the world wrong with running a one-professional shop (like my wife). But it comes across as cheesy if you're trying to be something that you're not. If you're a one-lawyer shop, own it.

Caveat: if you're legitimately planning to grow your practice, obviously there's a chicken and egg period. It makes sense to build a bigger (than you) brand identity if you're on the path to growth. Just don't think that you need the bigger brand to look important.

3 - Saturday Night Live.

A small percentage of solos are on their way to becoming the SNL of law firms.

SNL isn't about a particular comedian. In fact, there's one single thing that SNL knocks out of the park: recruiting. Time and again, SNL scouts and recruits talent who will go on to be genre-defining comedians. Sure, it sucks when SNL loses Ferrel or Belushi. But we keep coming back because we know that SNL - the thing SNL - will continue to deliver.

If your law firm is legitimately on the path to growth then you'll need to be some version of SNL. Perception of your firm shouldn't be inexorably tied to you or any other lawyer. It's fine if clients love you, just like we loved Belushi, but the gold standard is whether clients associate their great experience with something bigger than you.

How do you do that? That's a conversation for another day. But you can't even get started until you commit to one of these paths.