Read the website or review the marketing materials of any law firm within arm’s reach of you right now. What will you find? Virtually everyone pitching clients on the same few terms: lawyer excellence, lawyer expertise, lawyer experience, and lawyer pedigree. And law firms wonder why clients keep saying, “I hire the lawyer, not the firm.” Who’s been training clients to do that?
The problem, of course, is that law firms everywhere employ excellent and experienced lawyers, so that’s hardly a distinguishing feature. In the result, few law firms really stand out from the pack, and clients have little to go on when making purchasing decisions.
Now that we’re in a buyer’s market for legal services, clients have come to recognize that most of the old competitive criteria are either table stakes (clients kind of expect lawyers to be excellent) or irrelevant. Your clients, I promise you, truly don’t care where your lawyers went to law school. Clients are instead looking for firms that:
(a) really are identifiably different from other firms, and
(b) market themselves on criteria that match clients’ interests.
That’s why it’s critical that your law firm’s Competitive Strategy focus on distinctiveness.
I like “distinctiveness” better than “marketing,” because the latter term refers to something law firms do to markets, while the former term reflects the way in which markets view law firms. To be distinctive is to stand out from your competitors in ways that matter to clients. That sounds incredibly simple, yet hardly any law firm manages to pull it off.
For example, most law firms’ content marketing consists of information that interests lawyers — case comments, legislative updates, regulatory developments, and other residue from our law school experience. Too few firms produce marketing content that matters to clients: risk management checklists, estate planning do’s and don’ts, how to respond when you receive a litigation hold, and so forth.
Clients are looking for law firms that stand out on criteria that matter to them. If you want to know what those criteria might look like, go back to the Client Experience Checklist in the last chapter. Do you demonstrably stand out from other firms on the basis of your firm’s:
- Assurance, or
And if so, can you prove it?
To be distinctive in a buyer’s market is to know and act upon what matters to clients. To be competitively distinctive, though, you need to go one step further. You need to know and act upon what matters to clients that will affect their purchasing decisions.
You could, to pose a frivolous example, invest a lot of time and money into becoming the world’s nicest and friendliest law firm, such that clients swoon over how thoughtful and considerate you are when dealing with them. This would not, I suggest, be an especially high bar to overcome.
But unless extreme thoughtfulness persuades a current client to keep giving you work or a potential client to switch providers and move their work to your firm, I’m not sure it’s worth the effort. What will move the needle on buying decisions? What matters enough to clients that they’ll change their buying habits? If you don’t know, let me suggest that you take some clients to lunch, on your dime, and ask them.
Distinctiveness can take different forms, of course. Global mega-firms, for example, base their distinctiveness on their capacity to offer pretty much any legal service pretty much anywhere in the world. For a client that actually needs that capacity, it’s a real selling feature.
Other clients are looking for a firm that specializes in their particular need, which offers an advantage to niche players who have decided to do a very small number of narrowly focused things and do them very well. Niche specialization offers the added advantage of narrowing your playing field and reducing (sometimes to zero) the number of firms you’re up against.
So one of your first orders of business, when designing a Competitive Strategy for your firm, is to understand the drivers behind your clients’ (and your prospects’) legal services buying decisions. Why do they purchase services from the vendors they use? How important are the deciding factors, and in what priority order are they considered? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, call up your clients and ask them.
It’s the client’s priorities that matter, not the firm’s. That’s the iron rule that should undergird every law firm’s Competitive Strategy.