Firms get image-conscious

Are practices getting value for money from hiring expensive designers? asks Helen Jones
"L awyers are being ripped-off by consultants who tell them what they want to hear rather than give them meaningful advice," says John Grey, of the design company Halpin Grey Vermier, which has carried out an audit of the corporate literature of the UK's top 50 legal firms. While it is a neat twist on the perception that lawyers rip off the general public, Mr Grey says it is a problem. Marketing is increasingly important to commercially aware law practices, he says, and many have begun to address the issue of visual identity. In a bid to present a contemporary and professional image, they are using designers to produce expensive glossy brochures, letterheads and logos.

Although they are spending thousands of pounds, they are not getting value for money. Mr Grey says law firms are merely offered carbon copies of their rivals' brochures and they are all virtually interchangeable. In the past, law firms were differentiated by their specialisms, but now that firms are broadening their services it is not so easy for clients to choose between them. Mr Grey says look-a-like brochures fail to stamp any sense of individuality on firms competing for business.

He says law firms adopt two distinct styles. "There is the worthy Victorian look bearing the names of the partners. Nearly all use the same logotype and 'serious colours' - navy, grey, dark green, or maroon for the adventurous. They contain reams of badly written information for potential clients and use lots of pictures of men in grey suits pretending to be answering the phone or engaged in a meeting. It looks more like a local council planning session than an aggressive go-getting business that will do its best for its clients."

The alternative, he says, is to choose an illustrative collage in an attempt to appear modern, but "unfortunately, they all look very similar and are just copying a style currently fashionable at accountancy firms". However, while the majority are adopting a "safe" stance, Mr Grey says one or two firms are braver. "We particularly appreciated the delightfully restrained literature of Lewis Silkin, and Masons has taken an unexpected but appropriate approach. They have both used design effectively."

In the main, the problem is not one of budgets, says Mr Grey, but of attitude. Lawyers by nature are fairly conservative and so designers give them a solution that they know will be approved by the partners rather than one that will do an effective job.

Charles Trevail, director of corporate identity company Sampson Tyrrell, agrees. "Lawyers have not accepted the fact that their firms are brands and, as such, don't manage their image or identity very well. Accountants are taking a much more enlightened approach."

Mr Grey adds: "When we talk to those responsible for marketing at top law firms, it almost invariably turns into a counselling session. Many are very demoralised."

One man responsible for marketing for a London law firm, says: "The problem is that marketing isn't taken seriously and the partners don't understand how important a good distinctive visual identity is."

His views are echoed by another, who says: "The partners are fearful of change and the word design is enough to terrify them. Their view is: what will the clients think? But client companies tend to be much more forward-thinking. It is not as if I want something avant-garde. I'm not proposing a flashing neon logo outside the premises or scratch-and-sniff brochures."

Mr Grey says a new visual identity will not have the same immediate effect as advertising or direct mail, but the right creative application can act as a strategic asset that will grow over time: "It is worth commissioning something that will communicate the firm's qualities and values."