Vol. 75, No. 4, April
Branding the Profession:
Educating the Public About the Value of Lawyers
This spring, the State Bar begins a long-term, concerted effort to
brand the legal profession... that is, consistently use a unified
message to educate the public about the value lawyers bring to their
clients and their communities. The message mirrors three key qualities
that the public values most about lawyers: expert advice, problem
solving, and community service.
hen we hear the word "brand," we might think of Maytag
brand washers or Coca Cola brand soft drinks. But viewed in a broader
sense, branding has applications in the law profession, as well. Think
of a brand as a promise, says Michael Flaherty of Madison-based Flaherty
& Associates, who acted as a consultant to the State Bar. The
purpose of a branding effort for lawyers is to revitalize the legal
profession's promise to the public. "In an era when people are
increasingly cynical of law and lawyers," Flaherty notes, "it's
important for the Bar to focus its efforts on helping lawyers reconnect
with their communities."
A few years ago, Flaherty orchestrated a similar effort for the
teaching profession in the "Great Schools" campaign of the Wisconsin
Education Association Council (WEAC), which carried the tag line, "Every
kid deserves a great school." Public opinion of teachers had plummeted;
many people saw teachers as whiners who cared only about scoring higher
salaries. When the teaching profession's reputation took a hit, so did
political support for funding education. The WEAC campaign countered
that trend by focusing on what schools and teachers were doing right and
why Wisconsin's schools ranked among the best in the country. "After two
years," Flaherty reports, "74 percent of Wisconsin people strongly or
somewhat strongly support teachers and think they're doing a terrific
job. Negative opinions are down to 6 percent. That's absolutely amazing,
and it didn't happen by accident."
He cautions that rarely does a campaign sway public opinion so
dramatically in a mere two years. Plus, it's inherently easier to
stimulate public support for children's education than for the legal
profession. Even so, a branding effort on behalf of the legal profession
is an effective way to "humanize lawyers and personalize the idea that
they are experts in the law," Flaherty contends.
Moreover, he adds, it's critical to focus on one unified message for
the entire profession. "If you have multiple messages out there, you
have no message," Flaherty emphasizes. "You need to support a consistent
message, and it has to be repeated and repeated and repeated."
Still, some would argue that a brand consists of only words and that
no matter how many times those words may be repeated, they can't change
people's attitudes toward attorneys. Public perception hinges on what
lawyers do, these observers would contend, not on what lawyers say about
themselves. Trina Gray, State Bar media relations coordinator, couldn't
agree more. "But," she notes, "if lawyers are doing all these good
things for the public and for the profession, why don't we talk about
them in a consistent way and make people aware of them? Why don't we say
that lawyers are committed to serving the public and show the many
different ways they do that? That's the focus of the branding effort -
to educate the public about the value lawyers bring to their
Laying the Groundwork
A State Bar steering committee was formed to address attorneys'
ongoing concerns about the public's deteriorating perception of the
legal profession. Ultimately, the steering committee developed a new
brand for the legal profession that supports lawyers as problem solvers,
expert advisers, and people who serve the community. Those top three
qualities resonate with the public and lawyers and form the foundation
of the branding effort. To help promote these concepts, the steering
committee developed an entire communications effort - known as a brand.
The main elements of the brand are the three key qualities that the
public values - problem solving, expert advice, and community service;
and the tag line - Wisconsin Lawyers: Expert advisers. Serving you.
An early phase in developing the brand entailed collecting actual
data on what Wisconsin people already think about lawyers - not the
anecdotes, the jokes, and the general impressions, but rather real data.
To gather that information, the Bar hired Chamberlain Research, Madison,
to conduct a preliminary telephone survey of 600 randomly selected
Wisconsin adults, with a representative mix of racial, gender,
geographic, and other demographic characteristics. Those preliminary
findings helped shape a second survey of another sampling of 600 people,
this time posing more targeted questions. The second survey found
- When asked about their overall impression of attorneys, 35 percent
of respondents stated it was "favorable" or "somewhat favorable."
Another 35 percent pegged their impression of attorneys as "neutral."
Members of this latter group would be most open to changing their
opinions of lawyers.
- More than 60 percent of respondents had used a lawyer in the last 10
years. Of those, 43.4 percent said the outcome they valued most from
that experience was obtaining expert advice. The second-highest
response, at 25 percent, was that the lawyer helped solve a
- Those people who had never used an attorney's services were asked
which single characteristic would most improve their impressions of
lawyers. The top responses were about equally split among "helping
people solve problems," "advocating for their clients," and "serving
Coupled with findings from the public surveys were comments elicited
from focus groups of attorneys held in La Crosse, Madison, and
Milwaukee. In these groups, lawyers had a chance to register their views
on what they perceived is their value to the public.
The intersections of the public's and attorneys' lists of most-valued
qualities formed the foundation for developing the brand, which had to
accurately convey to the general public what Wisconsin lawyers are about
as a profession - and do so in only a handful of words that the public
would notice, find credible, and remember. (Please see the accompanying
sidebar, "Determining a Brand.") Over a six-month period, the steering
committee members settled on the three key components of the brand -
expert advice, problem solving, and community service. (Think of the
brand as the overall impression that you want to convey to the public.)
The steering committee then had to develop a tag line that could be used
to support the brand. (Think of the tag line as the logo that appears on
The steering committee created trial tag lines, finding it difficult
to incorporate all three concepts into one tag line. The committee
tested lots of different versions on public and lawyer audiences, before
finally nailing down the final tag line, Wisconsin Lawyers: Expert
advisers. Serving you.
Members of the steering committee include: Tess Arenas, nonlawyer
representative, Board of Governors, University of Wisconsin System,
Madison; Ann I. Brandau, Brandau & Waltz Law Offices LLP, La Crosse;
Kelly Centofanti, Milwaukee Bar Association president, Aiken &
Scoptur S.C., Milwaukee; Gerry Mowris, State Bar president, Pellino,
Rosen, Mowris & Kirkhuff SC, Madison; Kevin Palmersheim, Dane County
Bar Association president, Haley Palmersheim SC, Madison; James
Friedman, LaFollette Godfrey & Kahn, Madison; Derek Mosley,
Milwaukee County assistant district attorney; Marna Tess-Mattner,
Brigden & Petajan S.C., Milwaukee; and Pat Ballman, committee chair,
State Bar president-elect, Quarles & Brady, Milwaukee.
All phases of this project to date - including the research,
consultant's fee, message development, and testing - cost the Bar a
total of $15,000, or about 75 cents per member.
How the Brand Evolved
Distilling the three key concepts into the six-word tag line was an
arduous task that perhaps can be appreciated fully only by someone who's
been through such a process. "We wanted something that resonated well
with the public," notes Kevin Palmersheim, steering committee member and
president of the Dane County Bar Association, "but it couldn't be so
generic that you'd never know by looking at it that it concerned
lawyers." One example of a tag line the committee rejected for that very
reason, even though it played well in early testing, was "Serving the
community. Helping you." Those words could apply as easily to
firefighters or nurses as to lawyers.
On the other hand, the message couldn't be too restrictive, either.
It had to fit all lawyers, whatever their field of law or practice
setting. "The concept had to address the qualities of all lawyers,
whether they're litigators, business advisers, or fulfilling some other
role," points out Pat Ballman, Milwaukee attorney and steering committee
chair. "Lawyers serve different functions, and our brand needs to
Brainstorming was a vital element throughout the brand-development
process. Suggestions stirred lively debates and discussions about the
impact - subtle or overt - of the selected tag line words. For instance,
the phrase "Your trusted adviser" reminded some of Richard Nixon's
infamous "trust me" - not the sort of reaction the committee hoped to
"One of the suggestions I made that got rejected was 'When it's
important, call a lawyer,'" recalls Ballman. "Somebody said, 'Pat, that
sounds like the slogan for Ghostbusters.' So we threw out a lot of
ideas, mine and others'."
Concern also surfaced about the use of the term "expert adviser,"
which in the end did become part of the brand and tag line. But at first
some committee members worried that such usage might violate rule
restrictions against lawyers describing themselves as "specialists."
Wausau attorney Dean Dietrich, chair of the State Bar Professional
Ethics Committee, doesn't believe that's a problem.
Such restrictions exist, Dietrich explains, to protect the public
from being misled into believing that a lawyer has a higher degree of
skill in a specific legal area than he or she actually possesses.
According to SCR 20:7.4, a lawyer can state or imply he or she is a
specialist only if 1) the lawyer is admitted to practice patent law
before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, or 2) the lawyer practices
admiralty law, or 3) the lawyer has gained certification as a specialist
in a field of law from a named organization or authority accredited by
the American Bar Association. Furthermore, if a lawyer has that
certification and thus claims to be a specialist in a particular field
of law, he or she may be held to a higher standard of care in performing
legal services in that specialty area.
Nowhere does the rule use the word "expert," Dietrich points out. And
while "expert" may seem synonymous with "specialist," he says there's a
crucial difference in the way "expert" appears in the tag line. It's
used to denote that all lawyers have expertise or training in the law,
rather than representing any particular lawyer as an expert in a legal
specialty. "If you say, for example, that you're an expert in labor
law," Dietrich explains, "then you will be held to a higher standard as
an all-knowing labor law expert. But in the tag line, the word 'expert'
is an adjective, not a noun, and it's used in a generic sense" to
describe members of the law profession.
Ultimately, after all the brainstorming, debate, and feedback, the
real test was the public's reaction to the brand. Throughout the
development process, "We had to keep stepping back to remind ourselves
that this message is not for lawyers," says Ann I. Brandau, La
Crosse attorney and committee member. "Rather, it's for the general
public. It was public input that got us to the brand we adopted."
Using the Brand
The next phase of the branding effort will involve communicating the
brand message to the public, so that people see it, hear it, and begin
to identify it as "a universal truth about what lawyers do for the
community-at-large and for their clients," as Brandau describes it. She
envisions multiple ways her local bar association in La Crosse might
incorporate the brand into its public law-related education and
community service communications. As just one example, every year her
local bar group sponsors a golf tournament to raise money for community
food pantries. "The brand could appear on any advertising or posters
about the event," she explains. "That's the whole idea: to get this out
there on every piece of information we send."
Other examples would be to print the tag line on local bar
association stationery, weave the message platform - that Wisconsin
lawyers are expert advisers and problem solvers and are committed to
community service - into interviews with local media, and include it in
promotions for Law Day events. If a law firm or local bar association
sponsors a public television program, at the end of that sponsorship
message could appear the words Wisconsin Lawyers: Expert advisers.
Serving you. Likewise, firms that market their services through
brochures, print advertisements, or media spots could include the tag
line or simply emphasize any of the three key concepts. The
possibilities are abundant. "If we as individual lawyers just assume
that the State Bar is going to get this message out," Brandau notes,
"and that we have no part in it, then this won't go very far."
Of course, the State Bar will play a role, as well. "Everything the
Bar does from now on will use the brand," says Ballman, speaking as the
incoming State Bar president. "And when I say everything, that's what I
mean. Every piece of paper will have it. We'll incorporate it into the
substance of every message."
Ballman emphasized that the Bar's branding effort is not a
short-term, glitzy advertising campaign to sell lawyer services. It is,
she says, "a long-term, public-focused communications effort to improve
the public's understanding and perception of Wisconsin lawyers."
All three components of the brand are equally important and should be
incorporated into lawyers' communications with the public, Ballman
reiterated. Different types of communications will support different
components of the brand. "For example," Ballman says, "if a firm is
sponsoring a community fundraising event, the focus of the message
should be on community service. If the firm is offering a free seminar
on estate planning, the focus should be on expert advice. If the firm is
promoting collaborative divorce, the focus should be on problem
The Bar will create tool kits for distribution at the Annual
Convention and through other routes in the coming months, including on
WisBar, the Bar's Internet site. These kits will provide ready-made
materials for law firms and local bar groups to use in communicating the
brand. A sample press release, for example, can form the basis for a
local newspaper story. Or a print announcement may fit the bill when the
local high school band requests an ad for its next concert program. "We
hear that a lot of firms, especially in smaller towns, get hit for that
sort of thing all the time," Gray reports. "And those who don't
regularly advertise struggle with those requests. So we can give them a
camera-ready piece that's not a hard-sell ad, but that says that lawyers
provide valuable services, and the law firm can add its name to it."
But why not leave it to local bars and individual firms to devise
their own messages about the legal profession, as they see fit? Based on
his experiences as a local bar president and on what he hears from
presidents of other local bars, Palmersheim predicts little would
happen. "It would fall through the cracks," he says, "because all
lawyers are busy with what we have to do on a day-to-day basis. We don't
have time to think about the big picture. This is a perfect type of
activity for the State Bar, whose role is to represent and work for the
That "big picture" outlook is vital if lawyers are to restore a
healthy public attitude toward lawyers and what lawyers do, Palmersheim
contends. "We're letting things change around us and trying to keep the
walls from crumbling in," he says. "I think rather than being reactive,
we need to be a little proactive. The branding effort is a start. I hope
lawyers get behind it by using it in their communications, because
that's the only way this is going to work."