Law Firms and the Tradition Battle

The ‘traditional’ and ‘innovative’ dichotomy is a common messaging battle for lawyers. What would you say if I told you that you are making that battle up? It actually doesn’t need to persist, if you are serious about driving innovation in your firm.

Lawyers want to be innovative… but something is in the way

A common term that comes up when I run message architecture workshops with lawyers is “traditional”. It is closely followed by “conservative”.

These two terms are juxtaposed against an increasingly dominant desire to lead a field, to be innovative, to do things differently. Thought Leadership is the buzzword of the hour, and every lawyer wants a piece of it.

That desire to do things differently, move in a fresh direction, feel really at ease with the firm’s brand (etc) is why lawyers tend to come to me. They are strategically minded — they know where they want to end up. What they know is that their messaging or content isn’t working for them in some way. Often, it is perceived as a ‘time’ issue, or a niggling feeling that the brand isn’t right. Sometimes it’s project-​based: The website needs to be updated, for example.

What they don’t know is why it isn’t right, or what needs to be updated. Some of them don’t even know how to tackle this unwieldy beast.

A simple dip into generalisation answers the why. It’s because, while lawyers say that they want to be innovative, go to new places, really engage with their clients, they’re not willing to let go of ‘traditional’ or ‘conservative’.

Challenging tradition causes hackles to rise

Law IS traditional. Law IS conservative,” one lawyer stolidly argued in a session with me. “We can’t change that. It’s just the way it is.”

The lawyer stood there, dominating. It was as though she was daring other people in the workshop to challenge her; it was quite terrifying. Needless to say, nobody did rise to the challenge.

It is true that law is traditional: It has to be. It is true that law is conservative: rational logic tends to be. And, no, you can’t change the history of the profession.

What you can change is how your firm functions within a traditional paradigm. Just because law is like that doesn’t mean that you have to be.

The danger in feeling restricted by the wiles of a profession is that it stops movement and it stops disruption. It also stops a re-​imagining of how things can work.

Let’s look at this notion of law being traditional. If your perspective is that “this is the way it is”, there’s a whole wall of subtext. The more we think about it, the higher grows the wall. And standing at the top is our scary lawyer, daring us to climb it.

It means:

  • that the traditional partnership structure can’t be challenged
  • that the traditional way of making decisions (or not making decisions) can’t be disrupted
  • that your existing methodologies exist almost naturally
  • that your messaging has to be lifeless and impersonal, third-​person and bland
  • that traditional ways of thinking about promotion (word of mouth reputation, print advertising, radio ads) have greater weight than newer channels. They even have greater weight than a combination of old and new channels!
  • that new methods of engaging with people are to be mistrusted
  • … and a whole lot more, besides.

What you are really saying, when you put tradition and conservatism on a pedestal is that, while you say you want to change, you don’t. Not really. You’re not willing to do something different, because it disrupts your entire paradigm.

It also means that you simply cannot position yourself as a thought leader or innovator. You are hamstrung before you begin.

Embrace tradition, don’t be owned by it

Lawyers who are serious about moving their firms forwards can recognise that law is traditional and conservative, but can also work within it. When it comes to content strategy, this gives you far more flexibility. It enables you to recognise that the profession is traditional, but that your public has moved on.

The flexibility is not just in your messaging. It also impacts on the business structures and methods you have in place to manage it.

Here are some examples:

Perhaps the spelling and grammar takes a traditional form, while the language is simple, plain, and engaging.

Perhaps you have to stick to a traditional partnership model, because that’s how the firm’s business functions; but within it you build content creation, approval, assessment, and decision-​making systems that allows the firm to remain nimble and adaptable.

Perhaps your teams are built on a traditional model, but within those teams you collaborate and focus on outcomes collectively, leaving competition out in the market instead of in-​house.

Perhaps each team owns its messaging and methodology, given each team has a different audience.

The sky is the limit. Each possibility has a positive flow-​on impact. Each one changes how you handle your messaging and your content governance. They also change how your content is framed.

You can embrace tradition, and keep it part of your business. But the innovative firm will refuse to be owned by it.

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