Branding Your Law firm
How Five Law Firms Designed Their Logos to Stand Out From the Pack
We asked area law firms how they came up with logo designs that communicate who they are.
Revamping a logo identity is tricky business for any law firm, especially one that’s more than 100 years old, as was the case with Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. But in 2014 the firm decided it was time for a change, so it hired the branding agency Siegel+Gale. The partners knew they wanted something “unique and more contemporary,” says Despina Kartson, the firm’s chief of business development and marketing. But the challenge was clear: how to modernize Morgan Lewis’s identity while still retaining the heritage and professionalism it’s been known for since the late 1800s.
Developing brand recognition is crucial because it creates a snapshot of a firm’s business personality—e.g., traditional and sophisticated, colorful and friendly, or tough and exacting—and sets the tone for what customers can expect. Most law firm logos tend to be fairly conservative, sticking with a safe, classic typeface and only one color. But new firms open every year and competition for clients is steep, so everyone is working hard to distinguish themselves from the pack.
Sometimes, though, getting the executives at a law firm to understand the need for a logo redesign can take some persuading. Victoria Spang of Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton can attest to this. In 2011 the San Francisco–based chief marketing officer approached the firm’s executive committee with the idea that the firm’s logo needed updating. The members were open-minded but still reluctant. “It takes time to embrace change,” Spang says. So she waited a few months before bringing it up again—and this time she tried to win them over with examples.
Once committee members saw Spang’s sample designs, they warmed to the idea and gave her the green light to hire branding experts Brand Culture in Los Angeles. In the end, everyone was satisfied with the updated identity. Her advice for firms: Keep the number of decision makers small, between three and five people. Otherwise, the time spent on this endeavor will lengthen substantially, and you’re likely to end up with a watered-down design.
There’s also a learning curve for any design agency working with attorneys. “Lawyers are the most challenging clients to work for because they’re so verbal, and their analysis of the visual and what it should communicate comes from such a different place,” says San Francisco designer Arin Fishkin. Translation: Lawyers take things more literally, while designers are always looking beyond the obvious—for subtler, deeper layers of meaning.
The following case studies reveal the thinking behind several new logo designs, some of which revise existing logos while others were done for new firms willing to take some creative risks. But each firm shared a desire to break away from the traditional visual nomenclature of the legal landscape.
Morgan, Lewis & Bockius
Locations: 28 offices worldwide
Practice area: Full service
Logo designer: Siegel+Gale
Logo created: 2014
Typeface: Custom design, based on Brown
Working with branding agency Siegel+Gale, Morgan Lewis developed a strategy to implement something modern and unique. “We came up with the phrase ‘always on,’ and this guided our design,” says Ricardo Beltran, senior designer at Siegel+Gale’s New York office. The consultants presented three options to marketing chief Despina Kartson and her team. The one that resonated simply featured the name of the firm, but in a sans serif typeface (with no flourishes on the letters) instead of the former serif, and a distinct orb on the letter r. Going from serif to sans serif may seem like a subtle change, but it conveys a totally fresh image—one that’s forward-looking and crisp, as opposed to the old-fashioned stodginess of serif.
The orb-ified letter is meant to get across an even more specific aspect of the firm’s identity. “We were thinking of the idea of being results oriented,” Beltran explains. “So the r gave us an opportunity to convey that.” Morgan Lewis went for it in a big way. “It’s a subtle and unexpected design element that speaks to our out-of-the box thinking,” explains Kartson. The firm decided to use it as an iconic design element in all its visuals, in everything from infographics to page numbers and charts.
50 Balmy Law
(previously Oliver & Sabec P.C.)
Location: San Francisco
Practice areas: Art, entertainment, IP, and nonprofit
Logo designer: Arin Fishkin
Logo created: 2015
Typeface: Univers Ultra Condensed and Blair
50 Balmy is both the name of this small, woman-owned firm as well as its address. Balmy Alley is an open-air art gallery located in the heart of San Francisco’s multiethnic Mission District. The two-member firm was formerly named after its two principal attorneys, but when one moved to a different practice last year, a new name and logo were needed.
“We were looking for something that was edgy and different but that also reflected the professionalism and scholarship of the firm,” says principal Brooke Oliver.
The firm hired San Francisco designer Arin Fishkin, who was excited that they wanted to do something different. After Fishkin presented a few design concepts, Oliver and her team gravitated toward a sans serif solution because it looked more contemporary than the others. But something about it wasn’t quite right, Fishkin recalls. “We took a step back and listened to the attorneys, and what I heard was that they were looking for something more solid and symmetrical.”
So she came up with a design that captured rectangular elements within a square. The unexpected twist of the sideways zero came from the attorneys, not Fishkin. “It really sort of knocked it out of the park,” she adds. “They were willing to be more risky than I thought.” As for the colors, Oliver hails from the Southwest and is drawn to turquoise and silver, but Fishkin modified the palette to make sure it still conveyed a professional tone and wasn’t overly cheerful or bright.
Oliver notes that clients have responded very positively to the new logo—with an unintended benefit: “The logo is on our invoices, and people seem to pay their bills faster.”
Fish & Tsang
(previously Fish & Associates)
Locations: Irvine, Redwood City
Practice area: Intellectual property
Founded: Fish & Associates, 2007; Fish & Tsang, 2014
Logo designer: Steve Brown
Logo created: 2014
Typeface: Customized from Evolution, with Arial and Calibri
When Mei Tsang became a full partner at Fish & Associates in 2014, she and founder Robert Fish renamed the firm Fish & Tsang. Tsang had some strong opinions about how she wanted the firm to be branded. “Law firms are often about promoting the main attorney as a rock star, rather than the firm,” she says. “We wanted to tell prospective clients and the community that we are one unit.” Tsang didn’t have to go far to find a designer: Her husband, Steve Brown, is Fish & Tsang’s creative director.
Brown tackled the rebranding project by focusing on the initials of the partners’ last names. “At first I looked at more classic serif fonts, but they didn’t feel fresh or balanced,” Brown explains. “I love simplicity, and less is more in my view.” He eventually settled on a sans serif font for the initials, which he customized so that each letter is an inversion of the other. “It’s the yin and yang of the firm, and it’s also a nod to Tsang’s Chinese heritage,” he says. The ampersand facilitates movement from one letter to the other. “That represents the rest of the firm by binding everything together.”
The colors are another story. Typically, law firm graphics tend to stay away from bright colors, but Tsang was drawn to a vibrant palette to represent the personality and diversity of the firm. Red and orange are used on the main logo, but staff members have a choice of five other color palettes for their own business cards.
Brown also created several graphic artworks that hang on the walls. “When we moved into this office, we didn’t want the conventional cookie-cutter landscapes,” Tsang says. Instead, Brown created unique abstract murals for the IP firm’s lobby and common spaces in Irvine by colorizing portions of patent drawings. “The artwork is really representative of us, and it brightens up our whole space,” Tsang says. “Last year we were voted one of the best places to work in Orange County, and a lot of that has to do with the positive energy you feel when you walk through the doors.” (The firm received the same honor again this year.)
Location: Los Angeles
Practice areas: Intellectual property, real estate, and business law
Logo designer: Ahmad Asrofi
Logo created: 2015
Typeface: Trajan Pro
After working in big law for 15 years, Matthew Swanlund founded Aesthetic Legal earlier this year, and he was looking for a logo to reflect the change in focus. “I wanted my brand to be indicative of the creative people I represent, and of the firm’s underlying philosophy to protect and promote artistic endeavors.
Swanlund decided to post his request for a designer on CrowdSpring, an online marketplace connecting clients with creative professionals around the world. He listed a price and a deadline, and received a broad range of submissions from multiple designers. “There were a lot of uninspired designs,” he says, “but one resonated with me.” Indonesian designer Ahmad Asrofi had created a simple logo integrating the firm’s initials, with a check incorporated into the A.
“It has a dynamism and elegance in its simplicity,” Swanlund explains. “The critical element is the integrated ‘yes’ check mark, which is meant as a confirmation that the client made the correct choice.” Swanlund chose blue for the logo to communicate “familiarity, strength, and honesty.”
Tellus Law Group
Location: Santa Barbara
Practice area: Environmental law
Logo designer: Oniracom
Logo created: 2015
Typeface: Custom design
When Kristin Larson walked away from her previous job as an attorney at a large law firm in Washington, D.C., she knew she wanted to start a practice that targeted middle-market business and corporate clients who need environmental health and safety counsel at an affordable rate. She decided to call her new firm Tellus, a Latin term for earth, and she wanted her logo to reflect that elemental spirit.
“I wanted it to be organic and represent the natural world, but I didn’t want anything too fluffy or cute.” After looking at hundreds of websites and researching numerous design and branding firms, she discovered Oniracom, a creative agency in Santa Barbara whose design sensibilities really resonated with her.
“The first concept they came up with was to turn the T in Tellus into a strong tree, like an oak.” But when Larson asked several friends and colleagues for reactions to the idea, they overwhelmingly agreed that the tree was too soft and didn’t have qualities that suggest a defender of law. So the designers and Larson went back to the drawing board. After more research, Larson chose a bird of prey as her symbol because, as she says, “I am a fierce advocate for my clients.”
Jacob Tell, CEO and creative lead at Oniracom, says Larson came in with a clear vision and goals. “We’re happy that we went with the bird,” he says. “It has a nice energy and movement that the tree didn’t have.”
Hiring and Working with a Logo Designer
When hiring a creative firm to tackle your identity, give the designer a memo that summarizes your business and what you want to achieve with your brand and logo. Be specific, but don’t dictate. “It’s important to step back and allow the designer to do discovery and summarize the essence of what you are trying to convey,” says Bill Gardner, principal of Gardner Design and founder of LogoLounge, the largest database of international logo designs. “Then let them come back with suggestions.”
Victoria Spang, Sheppard Mullin’s chief marketing officer, says it’s helpful—but not essential—if a design firm has worked with professional service firms before. What’s more important is that the design firm is talented, flexible, and patient. And just as the designers need to listen to the lawyers and understand their objectives and the firm’s culture, says Spang, “so too should the lawyers listen to the designers who are the true experts in branding.”
As for what you should expect to pay, there’s no one-price-fits-all. Fees depend on the designer’s experience and on the scope of the project: Are you asking for just a logo design, or a whole new brand experience that includes a website, brochures, stationery, and additional collateral materials?
Don’t be tempted to go with the lowest fee or the quickest turnaround—you might waste even more money and time in the long run. Brooke Oliver, founder of 50 Balmy Law, recommends interviewing two or three designers to see if they can work within your time frame and budget. “Be sure you know how many revisions are included in the design fee, and what the rate will be if you exceed that,” she says. “And be sure that in the retainer agreement, the designer transfers ownership of all rights, title, and interest in the logo to your firm.” Under copyright laws, designers normally retain rights in what they create, Oliver says, and many contracts affirm this. “If you want to own your firm’s identity, you have to negotiate for that and get it in writing.”
Oliver also recommends getting colleagues at your firm to review and comment on the submitted designs, including key administrative and paralegal staff, who will have different and valuable perspectives. Outside opinions can be helpful, too. Kristin Larson of Tellus Law Group suggests test-driving a new logo with an informal focus group of trusted friends, external advisers, and clients.
Proceed with Caution
Designer Bill Gardner says the generic visual language for law can be broken into six categories. The challenge is to use them in a way that transcends clichés. “I would never suggest using one of these icons as the entire extent of your identity,” he says. “They should be the starting point to define the category. A good designer will go beyond that and make it unique to that firm.”
Griffin, eagle, lion, lighthouse
Scales, Lady Justice, the blindfold, a sword or staff
Liberty Bell, Statue of Liberty, torch
Gavel, columns, hall of justice
Owl, lamp of learning, flame, books
A version of this article appears in the October 2015 print issue of California Lawyer as “Branding Your Law Firm.”
Emily J. Potts has been a writer and editor in the design industry for more than 20 years. She and co-author Bill Gardner will publish LogoLounge 9 this fall.