How to Apply “Ikigai” to Brand your Law Firm for Success

Is this you?

You’ve been running your law firm for a few years. You’ve got a manageable client base that pays the bills; your website is clean and classy (if you do say so yourself), with steady, if not overwhelming, traffic; you’ve got happy clients who’ve provided testimonials and referrals for you; and generally, your business is… OK.

But not great.

What’s missing?

Could it be your brand?

Brand? What does “brand” have to do with running a successful law practice? What is a brand, anyway? Are we talking about having a sharp-looking logo, a graphically pleasing website, and slick business cards? Or a catchy tagline? And how is that anywhere near as important as just being the best darn lawyer in your field?

Actually, your brand isn’t your logo, your website’s design, your business card, or your tagline. If it was, you’d be right to believe that brand isn’t all that important to the success of your business. When was the last time your logo brought a client in the door?

Here’s what your brand is: it’s your identity—your key differentiator. It’s how people can tell your law firm from others, and why they should choose your firm.

“Ah, yes, the things that make my firm different!” some lawyers might be thinking. “Of course. Well, my firm is different because of our years of experience, our knowledge and competence, our ethics, our tenacity on behalf of our clients, and, our compassion. In fact, we say those very things right on the home page of our website!”

And… well, so does pretty much every other law firm.

Those things cannot distinguish your firm. There are just too many good, experienced, competent, ethical, tenacious, and compassionate law firms out there, in every practice area.

Let’s face it, legal services are largely a commodity business. Just offering good legal counsel is not a differentiator—and therefore, cannot uniquely identify you to potential clients.

So, if that is how you are marketing your firm, welcome to the club; you’re in great company, and have no real chance of standing out.

Identity Crisis

To stand out, your customers must be able to quickly identify your firm as uniquely better for them.

That’s what a strong brand does for you. In a commodity market as saturated as the legal business, your brand identifies your firm as something truly different and better.

Alright. How do we cultivate this brand? Where does it come from?

The answer to this may well come from Japan. Let’s take a trip.

Finding Your “Ikigai”


“Ee-kee-guy.” That’s how you pronounce it. “Ikigai” comprises two Japanese words: “Iki” (to live) and “gai” (worth). I.e., “reason to live,” or as the French call it, “raison d’être”—reason for being—your life’s purpose; your “why.” The Japanese consider it their reason to jump out of bed every morning, greeting the morning sun and all the opportunities to enjoy the day (it is no accident that the national symbol of Japan is the rising sun).

You can think of ikigai as that which uniquely brings you joy and a sense of purpose—what you’re passionate about. It can be something as simple as the waft of aroma and swirl of warm liquid in your mouth as you take your first sip of morning coffee. It can be that hobby or craft that puts you in the zone for hours on end without any sense of where the time has gone. It can be any number of things that bring you joy.

The reward of ikigai is a supreme sense of fulfillment, of purpose, of simple delight, of peace, of flow, and, if your ikigai coincides with something people are willing to pay for, it can be what you do for work.

No two people have the same exact ikigai. You may not know what yours is just yet, and maybe you haven’t thought about it in this way before. Or perhaps you have a pretty good idea of what it is for you, but you’re still exploring.

Finding and enjoying your personal ikigai is a lifelong pursuit that can bear delicious fruit. Your ikigai is part of what makes you… you. It’s part of your identity. Indeed, your family and friends probably identify you in large part by your passions, interests, and things that bring you joy. When our time on earth has passed and our loved ones eulogize us, the things that fueled our ikigai are likely what they’ll talk about.

This brings us to your business. Can your business have an ikigai, and can that help you understand that unique identity, your reason for being, that will differentiate your firm for the clients that need you?

The answer is yes!

Ikigai For Your Business

For the Japanese, ikigai is just a natural part of daily life, as it has been for more than a thousand years. In the West, however, the concept of ikigai has gained significant popularity in the past decade or so as a framework for finding our purpose in life. A standardized western interpretation defines your ikigai as the intersection of your answers to these four core questions:

  1. What do you love doing?
  2. What are you great at?
  3. What does the world need?
  4. What can you get rewarded for?

Blending several congruent models for helping your firm find its “ikigai,” including Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circle” and Jim Collins’ “Hedgehog” concept, plus my own enhancements, I present to you this visual model for finding your firm’s identity and turning it into a successful brand. The labels in black outline are for finding your personal ikigai, while the gold labels are for your business.

Ask yourself the following four questions and take as much time as you need to discover the answers that really resonate with you.

  1. What does your firm love doing? This involves your whole team, including you, because everyone on your team needs to be inspired by your firm’s pursuits to do their best work. What is it that your firm can do in service of your clients that will bring your team the most fulfillment? Is that the kind of work you’ve chosen for your firm to do? (If you’re a solo, this question is just for you.)
  2. What are your firm’s unique strengths? What can your firm do better than any other firm? Notice we ask what you can do better than anyone else—you may not be doing it yet, but your team has the capability to learn how, get the required resources, then deliver. Equally important, what unique qualities of your firm—culture, personality, relatability, service—can make the experience of working with your firm inimitably delightful for the people you want to serve?
  3. Who do you serve? These are the people whose needs you are uniquely qualified to fulfill. Resist the temptation to answer, “We’re here to serve everyone who needs our services,” because not everyone does. Take your time and determine, in specific detail, which subsegment of the population you can serve better than any other firm. There must be a specific group of people whose needs are not being adequately met yet, for whom you are the very best fit. That is the niche you can own in the market.
  4. What brings profit? This is the work that people are willing to pay you for that will not only pay your business expenses, but also bring you sufficient profit to support a comfortable living for your team, invest in the growth of your firm, and allow giving back to the community.

The intersection of your love and your strengths is your passion.

The intersection of your unique strengths and what people will pay you for is your value proposition.

The intersection of what people will pay you for and what people need is your opportunity.

The intersection of what people need and your love is your mission (the needs you aim to fulfill) and vision (how the world can be a better place through your efforts).

When you do what you love, leveraging your unique strengths to meet people’s specific needs in a way that no one else can, for which people will gladly pay you, you have become a purpose-driven firm aligned with your ikigai. This is your reason for being–your “why”–and the reason for clients to choose your firm.

With your identity crystallized, and your best-fit clients identified, you can now market with a distinct advantage. Your ikigai-inspired, client-focused message–on your website and in your social media, blog posts, and advertising–will stand out from all the other firms, resonating instantly and powerfully with the people you’re best-aligned to serve.

That’s one strong brand you’ve got there!

About the Author

Ron Marcus is the marketing director for the San Diego County Bar Association, and has more than three decades of experience in branding and marketing.

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