Is “Birds of A Feather” Branding a Smart Marketing Practice for Law Firms?
As the old adage goes, birds of a feather flock together. But does that mean that lawyers of certain feathers – whether it’s a gender, race, nationality or sexual preference – should flout them to attract clients of similar plumage?
This question came to mind while reading this Gina Passarella’s Pittsburgh-Post Gazette piece about Pennsylvania law firms gearing up to serve the LGBT community now that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage has been overturned. Naturally, given the potential new business opportunities created by the new policies, there’s a concern that some law firms will be tempted to add LGBT to their list of practice areas to attract LGBT clients — even though they aren’t necessarily familiar with the legal issues or sensitive to the LGBT community’s needs and concerns.
That critique is fair enough, but small firm attorney Angela Giampolo, who’s also president of Gay and Lesbian Lawyers of Philadelphia suggests that firms ought to tread cautiously on to LGBT turf. From the article:
Aside from cultural sensitivity is the fierce loyalty the LGBT community has when exercising its purchasing power, said Angela Giampolo of Giampolo Law Group and president of Gay and Lesbian Lawyers of Philadelphia.
“I want a gay martini served to me by a gay guy at a gay bar surrounded by gay people,” Ms. Giampolo said of her purchasing preferences. “Italians go to Italians, Jews go to Jews and pink dollars go to pink people.”
Giampolo’s observation is nothing new. After all, many clients do seek out lawyers who share the same background. But should lawyers do the same? That is, should lawyers actively promoting their gender, nationality, race or preference as a unique selling proposition, suggesting that these characteristics confer a level of understanding of the issues and concerns faced by similarly situated prospective clients?
On the one hand, the “birds of a feather” selling strategy makes some sense. Often, communities hold fealty towards its members — hence, the veritable rainbow of women and African American or Asian or Hispanic or LGBT or church or synagogue bar and business associations that exist today. And in a world of online generic services like LegalZoom, carving out a niche that serves the unique needs of [fill in the blank group] is a smart business draw.
At the same time, “birds of a feather” marketing can give result in deceptive marketing or offensive stereotyping. For example, imagine a female lawyer representing harassment and domestic violence victims, who claims to have an edge because as a woman, she can understand her clients’ perspective. While that may be true to some degree, sometimes, close affinity between a lawyer and client can also lead the lawyer being blindsided by issues that she might have recognized if she’d been more objective or analytical about the case. Indeed, Ted Olson, one of the lawyers whose work has contributed to marriage equality, had little affiliation with the LGBT prior to taking on the cause.
Second, focusing on protected class characteristics can also lead to discriminatory practices or stereotyping. Recall, blogger David Shulman’s series on the Prefer a Jewish Lawyer bench ads. None of us want to return to those days.
What do you think of birds of a feather marketing? Post your comments below.
For many practice areas it can be very effective. Many clients select lawyers based on “comfort and chemistry.” It is only natural that it will often be easier to have the necessary “comfort and chemistry” when client and lawyer have similar backgrounds.
You are correct that a practice focusing on the LGBT community is going to likely encounter issues if there isn’t a clear reason why that practice makes sense. I personally market in the local LGBT community in San Diego because I am open about my sexual orientation and my marriage to a man in all of my marketing (on my about me page). But I also do so because I want to make it clear that I am not going to be judgmental to lesbian clients or clients who happen to be transgender. In the divorce area especially clients are worried that they might encounter an attorney who doesn’t approve of their marriage or domestic partnership and may make the initial consultation uncomfortable by some offensive remarks.
Members of cultural and national origin groups sometimes harbor the harshest prejudices about other members. As an immigration attorney I’ve heard more than once from a client that she wanted an “American” lawyer, not someone of her own national origin. That might be understandable (albeit prejudiced) for someone coming from a country with a dysfunctional legal system and low standards for legal professionals.