While the pandemic’s first year slammed the world for the worst, it’s upending the legal services market for the better.
Brand is about who you are, what you do best, who you do it for, why you do it, and how you do it differently from all others.
Strategy is about tightly and consistently targeting only those clients in your core market who value your brand, and negating all the rest.
None of these statements are new and they’re as constant as the North Star. Like the North Star, a one-of-one legal market position is consistently reliable with the key factors of brand and strategy providing navigational guidance and supportive boundaries in an ever-changing consumer-driven world.
So, my question is: How do we in the legal services sector leverage lessons learned from the first year of this global pandemic?
I believe our best bet is to focus firmly on a collaborative, inclusive and customizable legal market ecosystem that serves client first and us second. To do this successfully, we need to retain and improve that which matters most and ruthlessly jettison what no longer works. This will enable a rebirth for us to build back stronger.
I look forward, not back. However, to put this argument into context, let’s glance at “that was then” before moving through “this is now” and onto our future state.
Historically Famous Turning Point
The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on March 11, 2020. However, the date for this part of the world being paused and the legal industry turned on its head was March 15, the last day before lockdowns began in earnest.
The irony of this timing wasn’t lost on anyone with a calendar. March 15 was a date known to ancient Romans as a deadline for settling debts and a notorious turning point in 44BC for the assassination of Julius Caesar. So, with its reputation as a rotten day, March 15, 2020, played true to form.
100 Years Ago
The last global pandemic had a two-year run that started in 1918, and swept through in three waves and a suspected fourth less virulent wave before being declared finished in 1920. With estimates that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected and the estimated number of deaths worldwide was 50 million, the Spanish Flu as it was known, was merciless.
One Year Ago
At this time last year, scores of us in this part of the planet had been stuffing our cupboards with white stuff – namely flour and toilet paper – anticipating that while we hunkered down, these staples of our privileged first-world lives would become scarce in the months to come. And they were. Flour went into the overdrive production of sourdough bread and it’s a safe bet that with almost everybody bunkered at home, toilet paper was unspooling at rapid rates.
As for the legal services market, it along with the rest of the working world had been rocked with people fleeing workspaces and office towers as though participating in Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls. Fretting about flour and TP became secondary to people staying safe while being able to conduct business in a world that went virtual overnight as well as frighteningly silent.
In fact, the world went so quiet that during the third week of March, I was able to walk down the centre line of Toronto’s Bay Street unimpeded. From the top where I’m based to where it ends at Lake Ontario, the aorta of Canada’s financial heart that normally pulsates with the energy of the country’s major banks, corporations, law and other professional services had been stilled. No people or traffic. I could have heard a dime drop. Eerie doesn’t begin to describe it.
As of this writing, the world has lost more than 2.6 million people to COVID-19 with almost 120 million cases worldwide. While those are the current yet ever increasing reported numbers, it’s safe to assume legions more have been left uncounted.
Obviously, COVID-19 is not a one-year-and-done health crisis. Even though there are vaccines, not everyone will be inoculated and even if they are, it would be naïve to believe that a vaccine will be a silver bullet that ends this virus fast and permanently.
As for the legal world, many of us have transitioned to doing business online – often wishing for avatars to replace us on Zoom calls – while coping with lives offline that involve managing home and hearth, and hearts and health.
Our lives, both personal and professional, will continue to change as we move through this crisis and as a result, we must keep learning to adapt.
So, a year into the pandemic we’re asking: What now? Where to? What will we jettison? What will we take with us? Who are we? What will we become?
Back to the Office?
Even is there’s a partial return to the office, it’s fair to expect that digital will be the preferred go-to format for conducting business. While online gatherings have become tiresome and tiring, these Hollywood Squares/Brady Bunch-style meetings will keep us starring into computer cameras for some time to come whether we’re in a formal office environment or working remotely.
A plus of the pandemic is that it’s been proven that the daily business of witnessing documents can be done electronically.
Even the courts have proven that when push comes to shove, virtual trials are do-able.
For example, three Chief Justices who are the senior-most officials of Ontario’s court system expect judicial procedures to be handled in three ways: in-person when necessary, virtually when it makes sense, and a hybrid model depending on proceedings. Interestingly, in a court environment that historically shifts as quickly as the Earth’s tectonic plates, the three Chief Justices observe that it took a pandemic to make this change happen.
The Home Office?
In many instances, we’ll continue to connect digitally with each other from home even when we’re physically able to do otherwise. In fact, doing so in some instances may be a preferable and more beneficial way of doing business.
Many lawyers have been telling me that they’ve been able to deepen client relationships due to the speed and ease of online meetings. With travel being curtailed and our digital ability to be in the intimate environment of each other’s homes, any pretence of formality has been set aside in favour of adopting attitudes and behaviors that are more understanding and forgiving, which are human qualities of connection.
In even happier news, if connecting online from home continues as it has, we may rarely need to trade our sweats and bunny slippers for decent duds and dress shoes. Cramming ourselves into office-appropriate suits and footwear might cramp our style, never mind our sourdough stomachs and fat feet.
While dressing decently might be an expectation of the office environment, expect workspaces to be trimmed and repurposed.
When the day comes that we’re comfortable gathering in large numbers, office real estate may be primarily used for client entertainment, large-scale meetings, war rooms, and the like. Until then, modular space with moveable walls that enable mix-and-match sizing may be the norm. Hoteling – a ‘book an office for a day’ scenario adopted years ago by other businesses, including the Big Four – may be a consideration since not everyone will want or be able to work in a formal office setting every day. Office nameplates might be goners.
Speaking of goners, what might happen to art collections? While some firms house and display spectacular works of art, doing so at a time when so many have lost so much may perpetuate tone-deafness. Even in pre-pandemic times, clients who noticed a law firm’s art would say to me, “Is that what my fees bought?” Sensitivity to negative inferences such as this may lead to the Emily Carr’s, Jean-Paul Riopelle’s, Group of Seven’s, and the like being mothballed or put on the block.
Client sensitivity has never been more important. While many legal service providers did well financially last year, scores of their clients suffered personal and professional hardship, and are continuing to struggle.
It’s telling that practices, such as restructuring, bankruptcy, litigation, employment, estate, and family law have been surging and probably will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. It’s likely that some of the people needing these services will be your clients. And even if you may not offer services such as these, clients will welcome and remember your support, ideas, referrals, compassion and humanity.
Expectations around client service levels have changed drastically. In the earliest days of the pandemic, a GC observed that he had never had such fast response to his communications and that speed on everything from queries to work turnaround would be an expectation on which all legal service providers would be measured in future.
Speed and common sense are valued as much as expertise depth and experience breadth. So are factors pertaining to insight, forethought, trend-spotting, and well-considered risk-taking that pertain to every day business.
These traits and value markers are not the domain of any one class of legal service provider. And that’s a benefit not only to clients, but also the legal services market.
Much as office space may now be configured in mix-and-match style, so too is customized collaboration among providers in the legal services market.
The digital working world means that anyone anywhere can be on a client’s dream team. It is entirely possible for an organized client or an agent acting on a client’s behalf to construct various and customized dream teams that can be continually scaled up or down depending on changing needs and mandates by swapping out providers with different skills and talents who are located in various jurisdictions and working in an assortment of time zones.
Engaging with one, two, nine or 19 law firms or companies to handle a file or client portfolio may be a thing of the past. This is especially true for a cherry-picked team of individual players that may include all manner of service providers some of whom may be lawyers along with people who have never practiced law in their lives and have no intention of ever doing so.
Our Flat World
While the Earth is round, the working world is flat. The global pandemic has created an opportunity where flatness is a plus.
This means that savvy clients are not apt to be as dazzled by the world’s major legal services players as they may have been pre-pandemic. It also means we can jettison that acronym of otherness, ALSP, because as of now all players in the legal services market are alternatives to each other.
The full range of service providers from global, big law and Big Four firms, to mid- and small-size firms, boutiques and soloists, law companies, paralegals, and any other players in the legal services ecosystem have a shot at making dream team rosters while also having the latitude to act as free agents.
With clients being able to select and trade players on their customized service team rosters, providers who act on their understanding that a unique market position sets them apart from the competition will have the inside track.
For legal service providers of all types and stripes, a one-of-one market position boils down to a single factor: Dare to be different. Difference is instilled through and supported by amplification of unique brand traits and consistent target market penetration.
The One-of-One Advantage
I work with legal service providers ranging from firms to companies to soloists helping them achieve one-of-one positions in their target markets. As a result, they serve current clients of their choosing and develop a wealth of ongoing prospective business opportunities that sit squarely in their legal services wheelhouse.
When they get out of their own way and become one-of-one, they continually surprise themselves with their levels of confidence and success. It’s thrilling for them to experience measurable and obvious growth. And it’s gratifying for me to pass along lessons learned years ago when I got out of my own way to carve out a legal market position that has resulted in being one-of-one for what I do.
The point is that one-of-one positioning is very real and entirely doable. For those who are daring and audacious, the gains are plentiful and sustained.
Now that the working world is flat is when competing and engaging on points of differentiation has never been more important in the legal services market.
This is true for legal service providers for whom one-of-one positioning guides their ability to recognize and pursue the right opportunities. It is also true for consumers of legal services who recognize the value of one-of-one positioning and hire accordingly.
Heather Suttie is an internationally recognized legal market strategy and management consultant to leaders of premier law firms and legal service providers worldwide.
For 25 years, she has accelerated performance within law firms and legal service businesses — Global to Solo | BigLaw to NewLaw — by providing consultative direction on legal business strategy, market strategy, management strategy, and client strategy. The result is a distinctive one-of-one legal market position and sustained competitive advantage culminating in greater market share, revenue and profits.