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One and Only

The winning strategy of being one of one drives value and growth.

Leading law firm. Full service. Client focused. These throw-way platitudes are hallmarks of those who are indistinguishable in the legal services market and, as a result, are doomed to compete.

Be distinct. Stop competing. Own your market.

These are the hallmarks of smart and sustainable business.

Be Distinct

Distinct means being different from something else of a similar type.

According to the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, “Canada’s 14 provincial and territorial law societies govern over 136,000 lawyers, Quebec’s 4,200 notaries and Ontario’s 10,600 independent paralegals…” That’s a lot of legal talent, law firms, and legal service businesses, all of whom can be distinct from each other.

Lawyers as individuals are not homogeneous, neither are law firms or legal service businesses. And yet dull, stale, and insipid descriptions, offerings, and brands are the rule, not the exception.

But why?

Anyone who works with lawyers can tell you that they tend to be risk-averse yet competitive, reactionary instead of proactive, and rely on past precedents rather than forecast future states. This is why attempting to alter lawyerly traits is often as successful as a leopard changing its spots. However, leopards have unique spot markings that make an individual distinctive from others of its kind.

Similarly, every lawyer, law firm, and legal service business has a uniquely distinctive trait. Sometimes, it’s buried under platitudes and puffery, legacy and fantasy, and oddly enough, fear of being wildly successful that begets sameness, insecurity, and playing small. Other times, distinctiveness hides in plain sight having been dismissed due to familiarity.

The goal is to find the nut of distinctiveness. Doing so means gently peeling away all that is ancillary until the differentiating nut is revealed. Once honed and polished, that differentiating nut becomes your distinction upon which your business is built. 

Stop Competing

Competition is distracting, exhausting, and expensive. It leads to becoming a commodity that unless you’re geared for it, will fast become a competitive race to the bottom in terms of discounts and lower fees, narrow profit margins and collection write-downs or write-offs, and expectations of higher billable hours that lead to increased stress and accelerated burnout. 

Here’s the secret to beating the competition: Stop competing.

Scary? Perhaps. Doable? Totally. The key is re-engineering using data and science, goodwill and grit, and patience and peoplepower.

Here’s an example outside of the legal services industry, but with an objective and strategy applicable to it. Tactics, of course, differ.

Prior to entering the legal field, I spent 14 years in the broadcast industry. My last mandate was to turn around the news division of a television network’s flagship station that had endured consistently low ratings and revenues since its inception in 1975. This station was also battle-hardened after emerging from the longest strike in Canadian broadcast history and as a workplace, was considered career poison.

The objective was to build viewership that would increase ratings leading to higher fees for advertising, and to restructure and complete this turnaround within three to five years.

Traditional wisdom was to emulate the market’s #1 station and beat it at its own game. That strategy was flawed since the #1 station had wealth, resources, and talent in abundance. We didn’t.

Our turnaround strategy was to be distinct and not compete.

Tactics included covering local news to the exclusion of all else, producing shorter stories that converted to delivering more news faster, shifting ads to appear later in newscasts enabled the critical trifecta of news, weather, and sports to be delivered in the first 15 minutes, which was the only time period measured during ratings seasons, redesigning from stodgy to sleek, refreshing talent, and numerous other changes.

Being local, fast, and sleek made us distinctive and the results were dramatic. In 19 months, the station ranked #1 for late night news with an 8.57 per cent audience increase. For evening news, rankings jumped from a low #3 to high #2 with a 45.94 per cent audience increase. The news staff doubled and there was no increase in budget due to creative financial allocation.

During the following five months, the turnaround process transitioned to maintenance having undergone a total restructuring, repositioning, renaming and rebrand.

This successful turnaround was achieved in 24 months, which was much faster than the mandated three to five years. In addition to being a money-making ratings champ, the station enjoyed an energetic culture with a growth trajectory and had become a mecca for attracting more talent than it could ever hire. It remains successful and solvent to this day.

All because it became and continues to be distinct in local and regional markets as well as across the country.

This type of re-engineering is not unique to the broadcast industry. I have applied similar strategies in the legal services industry enabling law firms, legal service businesses, and individual lawyers to become distinctive and one of one.

Own Your Market

“Hell is other people” is a famous line from Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit, a depiction of the afterlife in which three deceased miscreants are punished by being locked in a room together for eternity. Sometimes I wonder if that phrase applies to law firm competition.

Recently I was asked to name a currently distinctive Canadian BigLaw corporate and commercial law firm. After 25 years in the legal field, you’d think I could name a standout. I couldn’t, which was its own commentary.

There was a time years ago when major Canadian corporate and commercial law firms were distinctive for unique services and strengths. However, those hallmarks have been lost to mergers, expansions, and adoptions of a smorgasbord of services that have morphed many of those firms into sameness.

Now, unless one is familiar with the inside workings and cultures of these firms – which have differences yet are not distinctive – and is looking at them from the market’s perspective, it’s hard to tell the players without a program and nobody wears team jerseys.

The only distinctive law firm I could identify was Mishcon de Reya, a UK-based firm that I’ve watched closely since 2002 and wrote about in 2010 when, dovetailing to its strategy and brand, it launched a unique website that was Google-like in design, programming, function, and results.

Mishcon continues to forge a one of one uniqueness that is distinct for various reasons. For example, when it acquired Flex Legal in January 2024, that action was on target, on brand, and underscored its distinctiveness.

But they’re them. You’re you – whether you are an individual, law firm, or legal service business.

Never copy. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness,” said Oscar Wilde who, to simplify his point stated, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

This is exactly why those who hone distinctiveness don’t have competition and own their markets.

They do so by being One and Only. You can, too.

This article appeared on Slaw, February 2024.

Heather Suttie is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading authorities on legal market strategy and management of legal services firms.

For 25 years, she has advised leaders of premier law firms and legal service providers worldwide — Global to Solo | BigLaw to NewLaw — on innovative strategies pertaining to business, markets, management, and clients.

The result is accelerated performance achieved through a distinctive one of one legal market position and sustained competitive advantage leading to greater market share, revenue, and profits.

The effect is accomplishment of the prime objective — To Win.

Reach her at +1.416.964.9607 or

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