To remain relevant and solvent, we must quit admiring problems and instead tackle and fix them.
In The Next Decade of Legal Services – Part 1 – Embracing Law Market Change, we discussed how the global legal market is getting tighter, tougher and more fractured. Embracing change is key to survival. This is where knowing what to change, why to change, and how to do it can help.
Change management is about deploying strategies and tactics that enable consistent evolution. Here are a few that work well for today’s law firms and law companies, regardless of operational structure.
Astute positioning leads to legal market differentiation. It is at this point where your market differences become both your strength and brand.
This is because market positioning requires examining a firm’s or individual’s legal offerings in the cold, hard light of business rather than from the more familiar aspect of practice. Understanding what industries, clients, services and practices are financially strong now, and expected to remain profitable, will allow you to define your market position and, in turn, build brand strength. This will entail a ruthless financial audit — no exceptions — to determine which practices, teams, individuals, industries and clients will continue to be profitable well into the next decade.
For law firms, market positioning (or repositioning) can be sensitive and politically charged. Individuals or groups may feel slighted or disenfranchised. Even though market positioning is based on hard numbers that prove profitability and assess current and future legal market conditions, it’s fair to expect resentment, anger and hurt to surface.
Developing a tightly defined market position is tough. It should be. It’s the true test of whether you have the grit and determination to cut a swath through the competition by claiming key strengths, defining demonstrable traits, and remaining unwaveringly dedicated to your market position and brand.
Legal services providers with that grit and determination will ruthlessly examine themselves from the perspective of their clients and target markets. They will then need intestinal fortitude to rightsize and reposition their offerings. This is when understanding profitability and industry strengths come to the fore, since rightsizing can mean trimming down to fighting weight.
For example, removing or spinning off an individual, group or practice to operate as a standalone can be an astute decision that often benefits all parties, who can then cross-refer and often operate without conflict. Or, some individuals or groups may continue their practice in a business-as-usual manner, even though the firm repositions in the market and rebrands accordingly. For example, a corporate commercial firm may continue to handle certain matters, such as real estate or private wealth representation, but not promote the practice.
Low-cost centers. It has become a client expectation that sizable firms will have a low-cost center — either onshore or offshore — operating as a back office for commodity work. Many European firms have opened back offices and supply chains in other countries to lower their costs of doing business. In some instances, they have moved infrastructure such as finance, IT, marketing and business development offshore. On a smaller scale, for smaller firms, commodity work can be outsourced to less expensive legal talent, such as contract lawyers, paralegals or clerks, or to lawyers in less expensive geographic markets.
Low-cost centers can also take the form of legal services providers — human or machine — that work within the legal services supply chain.
Clients don’t care about your practice; they care about their industry. Understanding your clients’ industry strengths is critical to retooling or rightsizing your firm. What’s more, approaching your market by industry sends the unmistakable signal that you reflect the world of business.
Mapping clients’ industry codes. Dunn & Bradstreet operates a classification system originally established by the federal government. Every company and thus every client has a Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) or North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) code, which is determined by a company’s primary line of business. (Clients select their own code.)
When you map your client roster by industry code, it provides sharply defined industry strengths — and gaps in your practice. This information helps you organize and retool to face the market by sector. It provides direction for business development efforts by way of prospective client targeting and makes it easier to evaluate marketing opportunities and justify your spending decisions.
Rewards are evident when clear and concise positioning — along with acquiring business-savvy talent and key clients that sit squarely in the center of a firm’s expertise wheelhouse — enables a clearly differentiated and unique legal market brand.
When many legal brands are as fungible as peanut butter, a one-of-one brand acts as a beacon to attract ideal clients needing a particular type, talent, and delivery of legal service expertise.
Marketing and Business Development Investments
The most important marketing and business development resources are focused on clients — namely client relationship management (CRM) tools and your website and online profile.
- A solid yet flexible CRM database. You are nothing without client data. A robust CRM is the central data hub — a holding tank of every scrap of client information along with who on the legal services provider team knows who at the client company — where finance, marketing, business development and technology are stakeholders.
- A well-mapped, up-to-date online presence. People want to work with people they like. While hiring legal talent often happens through a personal referral, an online presence is essential. This is why a well-mapped, easy-to-use, story-telling-not-selling, search engine optimized, consistently well maintained and updated website is a must. Your site has five basic uses:
- It helps people find you.
- Prospects use it to learn about you.
- Clients use it to validate their decision to hire you.
- Law students and lateral hires use it to assess you.
- Other lawyers use it to check you out.
Ditch directories and content aggregators. Rather than being one of one, you’ll wind up being one of many, and the only people who make money this way are publishers appealing to egos. Google and other search engines are the world’s directory of everything, including legal talent. Spend your energy instead on your website and thought leadership.
I’ve left the best for last. Client care is what lawyering is really all about — helping people understand and solve legal problems. It’s where lawyers who care shine most brightly. It also brings us full circle to the first “First Principle”: Clients Call the Shots, as discussed in Part 1.
While clients do call the shots, the lawyer-client relationship need not and should not be adversarial. Instead, the relationship should be collaborative, seamless and completely transparent
A successful client care strategy starts with … listening. The most recent Canadian Lawyer annual corporate counsel survey found that 87.8% of large companies surveyed were not asked for feedback by their law firms. One way to address this (and set yourself apart from the competition) is to establish a formal and permanent client service interview program. Ask questions, listen carefully and clarify responses. Who you interview may vary. In some instances, it may be a CEO or GC, while in others it may be legal ops or procurement.
A common client complaint is that their outside lawyers don’t know the client’s business. Lawyers who are students of their client’s business and the industry in which they operate realize a return on investment in more than financial form. Results also include better ease of communication, unsolicited referrals, mutual goodwill, a higher profile and solid reputations.
A Final Word
I have avoided talking about innovation. That’s because “innovation” is an overused and tired term that simply means making something better.
Making legal services better has been happening in the global law market for the past couple of decades — some improvements are obvious and others not. Observers talk about these changes while participants do them. While both observers and participants have their place, to stay relevant and solvent for the next decade we need to quit admiring problems and instead tackle and fix them.
Ideas that enable legal services to survive and thrive will continue to come from accountants, management consultants, law sector advisors, engineers, technicians, professional services industry experts, and those with applicable business backgrounds — many of whom may have legal understanding and know-how. They’re ready to offer a helping hand. My best advice is to let them.
This article originally appeared in Attorney at Work, February 2020.
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.