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In “Why Lawyers Really Struggle for Work-Life Balance,” I outlined six steps for building a practice that pays well, runs smoothly and allows you to have a life. In this post, we’ll discuss the fifth step, better market focus.
Young people go to law school as idealists: “I want to help people.” But they come out of law school with a different view: “I want to be a litigator,” or “I want to do estate planning.”
They’ve started believing their purpose and their skills are one and the same. That’s why most lawyers, when asked what they do, will say “I’m a litigator” or “I do estate planning” or, worse, “I’m a lawyer.”
That thinking is wrong. Dead wrong. In fact, the lawyer’s skills are just tools. Important ones, but not the lawyer’s real purpose. Your purpose is still “to help people,” to help clients achieve a benefit or result. Lawyering skills, like the ability to negotiate a settlement or write a brief, are just the vehicles that help get the clients to their goal.
So, the next logical question is who should you be helping?
For the lost and undirected, the answer is “Anybody who needs my services.” This is where the boat begins to sink, or at least founder. Because marketing to “anybody” isn’t possible — unless you have a few million dollars to throw at it annually.
And let’s face it. Even attempting to market your skills is a tough way to go, too. Scores of competent litigators and estate planners and real estate attorneys are already out there marketing their skills. Besides, many are more skilled and have more credentials (and often more money) than you.
You may be good, but you’re not unique. So how do you compete?
Surprisingly, it’s not about becoming “the best.” It’s about becoming the most trusted.
The most successful lawyers in smaller towns are known, either personally or by reputation, as a “trusted advisor” regardless of their practice area. (See David Maister’s seminal book “The Trusted Advisor.”) They’re the first person many area residents think to call for advice (and maybe services) for any legal problem.
The successful trusted advisor in a small town gets all the legal calls first, no matter the nature of the problem. These lawyers get to pick what they can help with, and refer the rest to other attorneys. And that builds a big “refer back” group.
Even if you’re in a big city, you can become a trusted advisor in a small town. Here are a few examples.
So “market focus” means finding your own small town in the big city. Or owning your actual small town by becoming the “trusted advisor” instead of just a lawyer.
Identify a specific group you have some affinity with: special interest, ethnic, religious, business or other groups. You are … a veteran. A Native American. Married to an Argentinian. Second-generation Irish. Involved with environmental issues or politics. A member of a Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran or other church or temple. Parent of a special needs child or have a family member with a disability.
That’s your target market. A smaller, more definable group you have some honest connection with.
In targeting an affinity group, you don’t start cold. You start with an intrinsic advantage: something in common. You’re not a stranger, you’re one of us. People are more trusting of, and like to do business with, people who are like them.
The most powerful form of marketing is and always has been, personal. Building reputation and long-lasting relationships. That’s hard to do when you’re trying to market to “anybody,” but far easier when you have something in common with members of an affinity group.
One of the great advantages of focusing on an affinity group is that you effectively reduce the competition. There may be dozens of lawyers in your area who practice what you do. But you’re the only one, or one of only a few [fill in the blanks] lawyers, who share my interests, concerns or ethnicity.
And as your practice grows, you needn’t be confined to your small town. The reputation and referrals you build will pull you naturally into a wider marketplace — but one still driven by referrals, reputation — and trust.
So stop trying to market to everyone. Stop trying to compete with the more experienced, higher-profile, big-spending lawyers. Find your own “small town.” You’ll not only find prosperity, but also greater practice satisfaction and balance.
Successful lawyers learn new ways to operate their firms so they can keep building their practices while having (or recovering) a life. Here are six steps to help you do just that.
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