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| 17 minutes read

CMO Series EP27 - Valerie Brennan of Munger, Tolles and Olson LLP on building a brand that reflects the firm's clients, capabilities and goals

Despite being a firm's most valuable asset, best practice around building a legal brand is very much lacking. In this episode of the CMO Series, Alistair Bone is lucky to be joined by a legal marketer setting the best practises around law firm identities and brands. 

Valerie Brennan, Chief Marketing Officer at Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP, has been on the journey of defining the firm's brand multiple times and brings us her expertise on how to build a brand that effectively reflects and influences the clients, capabilities and goals of the firm.

On the podcast, Valerie shares:

  • Why brand is central to marketing in all industries and the defining factors which are unique to legal marketing, plus her own experience with law firm brands 
  • What makes an effective legal brand and how firms can begin to identify what their brand should be
  • What the key influences are that firms should take into consideration when planning for their brand
  • The outputs firms should expect from undertaking a branding exercise 
  • The first steps in rolling a brand project out to the wider firm
  • How marketing teams can achieve buy-in and the consensus needed to start, and then implement the brand changes
  • Best practice tools to support any firm’s branding project
  • The biggest challenges and stumbling blocks in any branding exercise 
  • Advice for marketers considering this kind of project


Intro: Welcome to the Passle Podcast CMO Series.

Ali: Welcome to the Passle CMO Series podcast. My name is Ali and we're here to discuss all things professional services, business development, and marketing. Despite being a firm's most valuable asset, best practice around building a legal brand is very much lacking. We're lucky today to be joined by a legal marketer setting the best practices around law firm identities and brands. Valerie Brennan, CMO of Munger, Tolles & Olson, has been on the journey of defining the firm's brand multiple times and brings us her expertise today on how to build a brand that effectively reflects and influences the client's capabilities and goals of the firm. Hi, Valerie, and welcome to the podcast. 

Valerie: Thank you so much for having me. I'm happy to be here. 

Ali: Pleasure. Really looking forward to having you on. So just to kick things off, I just wanted to open up with a question around brand, obviously. So brand is so central to marketing in all industries, but it's perhaps influenced by some factors unique to the legal profession. Valerie, what's been your experience with law firm brand? 

Valerie: Well, the definition of a law firm brand hasn't changed. I think what's really changed over the years is how we brand law firms. But before we dive into that, I think it's important to define what a brand is. So as marketers, I think we often hear that what lawyers understand the brand to be is a logo or a tagline. And at the most basic level, this is not wrong. But the concept of a law firm brand needs so much more than these elements. It's the firm's identity, it's the client's perception, it's the reputation, and it's how the firm recruits for talent. Although forget an interview that I read with Phil Knight, the co founder of Nike, who describes a brand as something that has a clear cut identity, and it sends out a clear and consistent message over the years. So whether it's Nike or a law firm, a brand definition remains the same. But being law firm marketers, we face unique challenges, and there are three huge challenges that I see. So challenge number one, a law firm can actually have hundreds of brands. The law firm brand acts as an umbrella, but there are numerous different sub brands under each law firm. Let me explain. So there's different lawyers who serve different clients in different ways. And so the challenge for CMOS and for managing partners is really syncing those individual brands with the overall brand of the law firm. The second challenge is that law firms are essentially a marketplace, a two sided marketplace. You need both clients and talent for a law firm to be economically successful. So one will not exist without the other. So as CMOS and as managing partners, you need to consider both when you're developing your brand. And this is even more important now with increasing competition. And then the final challenge is that a law firm brand must be dynamic clients. We know expect law firms to be anticipatory, and sometimes clients don't even know that they have a legal problem. This makes it imperative for law firms CMOS and for managing partners to constantly monitor how legal and regulatory and political trends are impacting their clients and to evolve the brand accordingly. 

Ali: Yeah, that's a really interesting overview. Nice way to set up the pod. I know that certainly when we initially discussed you coming onto the podcast, something that was really clear was that that brand was informed by and impacts countless aspects of the law firm. So what makes an effective legal brand and how can firms begin to identify what their brand should be? 

Valerie: So I'll start with this. Everything, including a law firm brand, has to start and end with the client in mind. So an effective law firm brand, I would say, is one that a client's perception of the value that a law firm brings aligns with what the law firm says it does. So ultimately, when you're deciding whether your brand is effective, it's about the client experience that's at the heart of what your brand should be. So as chief marketing officers or managing partners or members of executive leadership, you really have two areas of focus when developing a brand. So number one, using the resources that you have to ensure that the law firm's brand comes out in all client facing activities, whether that's a client alert or closing a matter or even how you greet clients in the lobby. And the second job is to really continuously evaluate whether the law firm brand is delivering on its promise. And this requires a tremendous amount of client listening and really understanding where a law firm staffs are. And you asked another question. You asked, how can a law firm begin to identify what their brand should be? And it's actually really that simple. It's asking that question. So kudos to you for asking that question. But what I've found in all my over 20 years in the legal industry is few firms are willing to step back and ask that question and assess their strengths and their weaknesses objectively. Most law firms, you'll find, will have a good sense with one or two areas of practice that they're really good in. But if pressed, many law firms will not be able to identify what their true differentiation is. You'll hear generic things over and over. You'll hear things like breath and depth. You'll hear things like innovative. But what does this mean? And so many firms will not take the time to dig deep because this is an involved process. But a law firm, in doing so, will need to look at both quantitative and qualitative data as a baseline when trying to establish what their brand is. 

Ali: Certainly, and taking into consideration those various points that you mentioned there, particularly that idea of the clients, what key influences should firms take into consideration when planning for their brand. And also with that, how do they impact the output of that brand project? 

Valerie: Definitely. So I think one of the key influences and I'll keep on saying this because I think it's so important, but the key influence should really be the voice of the client. And this is the qualitative part of evaluating what a brand is and what a brand could be. And you're going to want to measure the different elements of how you do business with clients. What is the functional value that clients see in having a relationship with you and understand how a firm will fit into a client's need? That is the very basic those are very basic questions that you'll ask when you're trying to understand whether a law firm is delivering on its brand promise. CMOs and managing partners should conduct client feedback interviews to explore client satisfaction, explore client needs, and map out how the brand is delivering on these different areas. The other part I mentioned quantitative data. What you can do as a CMO and as a managing partner is really look into the history of where you've been with your clients, what clients are the most profitable, what is the client acquisition cost, what is the lifetime value of a client? And really look at the financial data, because that will tell you a story of the type of work that you've done, the type of work that the firm does well in, and the type of work that a client finds value in. Clearly, there's considerable planning that goes into a lot of what you're discussing there and the work that does go into that initiative like this. 

Ali:What outcomes should firms come out of that planning process with?

Valerie: Definitely. So there's some clear a lot of times people shy away, or I should say a lot of times law firms will shy away from doing branding exercises because they don't see that there is some sort of tangible output. Right. Or a tangible outcome. But really, if done right, and if you take the time and again, this is a process that really takes time, and it takes involvement, and not just involvement from the marketing team, but involvement from every part of the firm. But if you do it right, you'll come out with certain outputs. And so I'll go through a couple, and these are my four, I think, most important outputs that I've seen. And I'll address them by, say, stakeholder. So number one, for managing partners, the output is that you will have and you will be able to create within the firm a deep understanding of what your clients truly desire and the value that they see in the law firm. This is going to assist you in every aspect of operating the law firm, whether it's marketing or recruiting or your growth plan. For Rainmakers and for those lawyers who are nurturing junior attorneys and teaching junior attorneys how to get business to help sustain the firm, you'll have a competitive edge, because law firms that do branding exercises will be able to position themselves. They will be able to say what particular niche they occupy and demonstrate how they're different from competing law firms. They can point to differences when you're pitching a client. So put yourself for a second, as we've all been there as law firm marketers and lawyers. But put yourself for a moment in the place of a client. You're in a client pitch. And suppose a client is interviewing ten law firms, and suppose that each of those law firms says almost the same thing. So how can the client make a choice? So a branding exercise will help a lot to solve that problem, because if done right, it's going to inform the firm at every level of the firm of what the favourable points of differentiation are. And that's something you can take with you in every coin pitch you can take with you, any place you go, any networking activity that's very valuable for chief marketing officers, the value of a branding exercise is coherent, relevant marketing communications messages will be relevant to clients. They'll align with their needs. And it will also help, I think, from a very practical level with public relations and media relations, because you will know exactly the firm's point of differentiation when pitching reporters. And then lastly, for the entire firm, there's a value. Again, this branding exercise is not just a marketing activity. A branding exercise can help create internal cultural alignment. This will help everyone understand, whether it's a lawyer or a member of the professional staff, how they fit into delivering value to a client. And we will all be speaking the same language. We know what goals we are striving for. So it's really important. 

Ali: Branding exercises are just integral for so many more reasons other than marketing. And I think that final point you raised there about adding value as an employee is so important for people when it comes to businesses. And those four points that you mentioned are going to be really beneficial for our listeners, for sure. But when we look at this, we've really covered the planning, conception side of a brand project. It is perhaps a topic for another day, but on a high level, what are the first key steps? Enrolling a brand project out to that wider firm? 

Valerie: Yeah. So my experience working with law firms is that every law firm struggles with where to start. And it's not just law firms, it's every company that struggles. Where do you start when you're rolling out a brand project? But again, I think it all starts with looking within. Right. So as I said earlier about data and quantitative and qualitative data, I think step number one is to dive deep, take a deep dive and understand your existing client base. This is the place to start, I think doing a client based analysis, collaborating with your chief financial officer and others in the firm. To just understand what the firm has done historically, you'll need to give it a lot of time and resources. This is not an easy undertaking. But once you have that data and you can understand where you've been, that is a first step and foundation to understand where the brand is going. I think the second step and this is something I know that you all have touched on with other chief marketing officers that have come on the podcast. But it's the importance of understanding the key sectors or industry sectors that you serve. And in marketing, non legal marketing parlance, this would be called market segmentation. Right. So as a law firm, in order to develop the brand, you not only need to have that umbrella brand of who the law firm is, but you also need to have a brand for each of the market segments that you serve. So you do this by looking at your financial data, by looking at your law firm clients and grouping them. You'll want to focus on several sectors. What are the top three to seven sectors that you serve? That is a key, important step when branding. And then I think the third step, again, even before launching any type of branding initiative, is to really align with firm leadership. So again, I know I've said this a couple of times, but it is so important that a branding exercise is not just viewed as a marketing activity. There really needs to be buy in from every level of the firm. And as a chief marketing officer, you need to spend a lot of time on a communications campaign and to really get the endorsement of firm leadership even before launching this project. It's really important to do that. 

Ali: Certainly this might have seemed almost fairly daunting. Some of our listeners, some of the points we've been through there. But it's very clear as to what's important. Actually, projects like the ones we're discussing today really show how far marketing has come as a function in law firms. There obviously needs to be considerable buy-in across the firm, as you mentioned, for any sort of project like this to even begin. So on that topic, how do you actually recommend marketing teams achieve that buy-in. 

Valerie: Buy in is tough, it's difficult. And not every firm has the same level of buy-in to the value of branding activities. So I will give some advice, and I'm going to start with the proposition that the advice that I'm about to give is for those firms that maybe don't have a strong connection to branding. Right. Or strong belief in the value of a branding exercise. So the first thing that any CMO should do, especially for a branding project, is really understand the problem that you're trying to solve. Define the problem. I'll repeat that because this is so important. What business problem are you trying to solve in proposing a branding exercise? Is it that you're trying to grow clients in a particular sector? Is it that you're seeing issues on the recruitment side? With the type of talent that is coming in? You really need to view the branding activity as a solution. So it is critical to define the problem that you're trying to solve. Once you identify the problem you're trying to solve, the important thing we'll be doing that deep dive that research that we've talked about and really understanding what does the data say? One of the things that is really important, I think, even before approaching firm leadership, is and as we know, working in law firms is precedent is so important for lawyers. So coming up with the data and again, whether that's quantitative or qualitative, it should be some combination of both. And forth with the precedent that supports that the branding exercise can help solve the problem and can help dive deeper into where the law firm wants to go. I think it is really valuable. So I think those are the two initial steps that are just the baseline of starting a project like this. And it will also equip you with the information you need to persuade anyone who may not be a huge fan of branding exercises. 

Ali: So Valerie I just wanted to ask a question regarding some of the tools that may be used, and it'd be really interesting to know if there are any particular tools or techniques that you found really useful in defining the brand. 

Valerie: Absolutely. There's a lot of tools out there to help marketers and help managing partners to find the brand. One of my favourite tools though, is created by Stephen Meyser and Mats Urde at Harvard University called the Corporate Brand Identity Matrix. I affectionately call it the Matrix. But this tool is designed for corporations, but it can guide law firms through an examination of the internal and the external influences that shape their brand identity. So as to the internal elements, the matrix focuses on a firm's mission, its vision, its culture, its competencies, because these things need to factor into what a brand is. And the questions that this part of the matrix asks are what's our mission, how do we work, how do we behave, what are we good at and what makes us better than the competition? So the external elements, these elements relate to, how does a law firm want to be perceived by its clients and other stakeholders, including the media and recruits? These external elements focus on the value proposition, the relationships with city Council, and where the firm is positioned relative to law firms. So questions include things like this, what are our key offerings, how do we want to appeal to clients? What should the nature of our relationships be? And what is our position in the market and at the centre of this matrix? And by the way, this is truly a matrix. It's a three by three grid. So at the very centre of this matrix, it's the law firm's brand Corps. And this question is, what does the law firm stand for, and what are the enduring values that underlie the service it delivers to the clients? So this is a tremendously valuable exercise. We've done it at our firm, done it at other firms, and you can adapt it obviously for your own firm and for what you are trying to achieve. But at every level the firm can weigh in on this matrix. And each of these nine categories will illuminate a different type of firm capability. And you'll also be able to see if the brand is clear. So this exercise, I highly recommend it. I can provide you with the link, and you're welcome to share it with your listeners. But it is something that I stand by. And the best part about it is doing it is really enjoyable, and it's a way to just connect with your colleagues. 

Ali: Yeah. And hopefully in the near future we can expect an article from you on this as well. I know it's certainly something that you're passionate about and have been working on a lot.I think it’d be foolish of us to discuss all of this and not actually have a little look at what the biggest challenges or stumbling blocks for a project like this might be. 

Valerie: No, branding exercises are never easy. There's a lot of roadblocks. There's a lot of challenges. And when I think of the key challenges, I'll go through a couple. So number one, I think it just goes back to this concept of the importance of the client voice and experience. But it's the failure to understand the client voice. The brand is there for the client and to not seek client feedback or to not look at client data. That is a huge stumbling block. The next challenge or stumbling block that I see is when there's an undue reliance on generalities when defining the brand. So too often you will see law firms or lawyers, they want to bypass the hard work of going through the data, of sitting down and having workshopping sessions and asking the hard questions of both clients and also internal stakeholders and want to fast forward to the more flashy aspects of building a brand, like creating the brand messages. But you really can't get to that point until you do the work. So that's why I think a lot of times we will hear law firms and other companies even say we're different because we're innovative. But you really have to dig deep. And I think if you don't dig deep, you're doing yourself a disservice. And then last, I think a lack of patience and trust in the process. Again, a successful branding exercise doesn't happen in a single workshop or the creation of a one pager with firm messages. There are no shortcuts. It has to be a continuum of strategic exercises, a partnership with marketing, a partnership with various stakeholders across the firm and this success in branding does not happen overnight. 

Ali: Yeah. Thank you for sharing that. And I'm sure that's going to be really valuable in terms of our final question. I just wanted to ask you, if you had to deliver a single piece of advice or take away for marketers considering a project like this, what would it be? 

Valerie: I think in this time of flux, in this time of increased competition, I think a branding exercise - it’s actually the right time to do it. And I think right now, given not only the pandemic but just the changes that we have seen over the last 10, 20 years in business, it is the time where a chief marketing officer can have a seat at the table and to really explain what it is that clients want and that is so important to every aspect of the firm and every aspect of the firm's growth strategy. So I think, really, again, viewing a branding exercise is not just a marketing activity, but really something that's inextricably intertwined to client growth, client retention, and talent retention. I think really viewing it as that and using this as an opportunity to add value to the C suite, there's no better time than now. 

Ali: Thank you very much and just demonstrate how this really does touch upon so many different aspects of any law firm. It's been an absolute pleasure to have you on the podcast today. I really appreciate you sharing all of your knowledge and experience and just adding that value both to us here at Passle, but also to our listeners. So thank you very much for joining. 

Valerie: Thank you for having me.


Everything, including a law firm brand, has to start and end with the client in mind.


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