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It’s Time to Overcome Your Fear of Narrowing Your Focus

By Jay Harrington

I live in Traverse City, a small town on the shore in northern Michigan. In the summer, we swim in Lake Michigan. In the winter, we hit the slopes. If I want to keep my beer cold at the beach, I buy a Yeti. If I want to keep my body warm while skiing, I buy North Face. I don’t shop around for the lowest-price cooler or jacket. I invest in the best product that I know is going to solve my issue, and I’ll pay the premium price the brand commands. Similarly, while few clients relish the idea of hiring a lawyer, they desire the outcomes that only a lawyer can deliver.

Are You the Yeti of Your Area of Practice?

Across all categories of product and service offerings, there are continuums of premium brands and commodity ones. Those in the premium category narrow their positioning (i.e., the articulation of their value proposition) to the point that there are few if any available alternatives to what they offer. They solve discrete problems and do it well. Assuming there is a market for what they offer, and their product or service is of high quality, they dominate and earn healthy profits.

In the context of legal services, this means that you don’t have to be the smartest lawyer to be successful, you merely need to be narrowly focused to reduce, or eliminate, the competition. A lawyer who offers one area of practice expertise for one industry will be perceived as a more valuable resource to those in the industry than another lawyer who purports to specialize in almost everything for everyone. The generalist may get an opportunity (if you can call it that) to participate in an RFP designed to identify the lowest-cost provider for commodity work, while the specialist will get an urgent phone call when it really matters.

The Compounding Return on Narrow Expertise

A curious (and delightful) thing happens when you decide to get narrow: You get big opportunities as a result. Joe Flom built his brand as the go-to lawyer for hostile takeover work during the 1960s — work that was considered undesirable at the time. By the 1980s Flom was widely considered the top corporate lawyer in the country and led Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom to the top of the legal industry. In 1966, Larry Sonsini joined a few other lawyers who had started a boutique firm in a small town in California with the intention of exclusively serving startup technology companies. In the decades that followed, firms from across the country raced to set up shop in Silicon Valley to compete with the firm that came to be known as Wilson Sonsini Goodrich Goodrich & Rosati.

If you summon the courage to stay in a single lane, you’ll come to know what it’s like to operate at a high level of competence, and you won’t want to go back to the feelings of uncertainty and angst that afflict the generalists who often gets in over their head. Indeed, there’s a compounding return on expertise — when you’re disciplined enough to maintain your focus, you get better and faster at a rate that’s impossible for a generalist to keep up with. When you deal with the same types of clients with the same types of issues, you start to see patterns and make connections that others can’t. Instead of constantly getting up to speed on an industry and its statutory and regulatory framework, making initial assessments and determining a course of action becomes instinctual.

Specialization not only helps to become a better lawyer, but it also changes the power dynamic in the business development process. As a specialist with a narrow focus, you have more leverage when pricing your services and setting the terms of an engagement. Instead of prospecting, the specialist is presented with opportunities that aren’t subject to a competitive process. A specialist can sift through them to identify the right fit. Among the hallmarks of expertise is selectiveness, whereas the generalist has a tendency to chase every opportunity.

Keep in mind — and this is important — if you want to be perceived as an expert, it’s not just the quality of your legal work that helps position you as one.

How you behave in the business development process sends strong signals to a prospect about whether your claim of expertise is warranted. Are you the real thing or just another lawyer who fancies themselves as an expert in everything? Your willingness to say no, to discuss fees upfront, to refuse to participate in an RFP process, to project measured confidence, and to not be pushed into making concessions that aren’t merited will all attract the right types of clients and repel the wrong ones.

Making Your Expertise Visible

At the end of the day, whether the benefits of specialization redound to you is not up to you. You can’t anoint yourself an “expert” (or even call yourself one under the ethics rules). You can stake a claim of expertise through your narrow positioning, but ultimately it’s up to the marketplace to decide. To influence those you hope to serve, you must make your expertise visible and offer forms of social proof that evidence your assertions. Unless expertise can be validated through referral or reputation, it must be demonstrated through thought leadership expressed in the marketplace of ideas. Accordingly, as I’ve written here before, one of the most important things a lawyer can do to become a well-recognized expert is to produce and publish high-quality content. Yes, you must write, podcast, produce videos, and/or speak publicly so that your ideas rise to the level of your ambitions.

The Flywheel Effect

Just as your narrowly focused work has a compounding effect on your expertise, so does the thought leadership content you produce. In his book “Good to Great,” Jim Collins introduced the concept of the “flywheel effect,” which describes the increasing momentum that companies achieve when they land on an effective process for producing, marketing and selling products or services. It takes a great deal of effort to turn the flywheel at the beginning, but then it picks up speed and continues to reinforce a business’s advantage. According to Collins, “Each turn of the flywheel builds upon work done earlier, compounding your investment of effort.”

There’s a flywheel effect to thought leadership as well. When an expert sets out to produce thought leadership for a narrowly focused audience, the process forces her to crystallize her thinking and sharpen her arguments. Her thought leadership attracts the attention of prospective clients, some of whom will hire her. Through the work she does for those clients, she deepens her expertise. As a result of her experience, she is then in a position to produce more insightful thought leadership. And so on. The flywheel turns faster and faster.

It’s Time to Get Serious About Business Development

Many lawyers treat business development the same way they do bathing suit season — they work hard at it when they need to. When spring break approaches they hit the gym, and when October rolls around they start raiding their kids’ Halloween candy. Similarly, when they’re slow at work, they ramp up their business development efforts. Then, they tamp things down when business picks back up. Legal business development becomes a rollercoaster; a cycle of ups and downs that creates stress and uncertainty. Action is driven by urgency, not strategic planning.

A lawyer who is driven by circumstance may get by, but they’ll never get ahead.

The problem with a sporadic approach is that lawyers often overreact and overcorrect when times get slow. They engage in a bluster of business development activity that brings in work — often more work than they can handle at the moment. So they stop all business development activities to focus on the work they have. Then … you guessed it. The cycle repeats. A lawyer who is driven by circumstance may get by, but they’ll never get ahead. A lawyer with a narrow focus, on the other hand, can avoid all the ups and downs because they have a system in place, powered by their narrow positioning, to generate high-quality, profitable work on a consistent basis.

Are you struggling to gain traction with your marketing and business development? Do you find yourself bouncing from opportunity to opportunity with no clear direction? Are you frustrated by the fact that you’re constantly reinventing yourself? If these questions hit a little too close to home, then it probably means that you’re spreading yourself too thin and casting too wide a net. The best path forward is to take a step back to examine your beliefs, analyze your behaviors, and honestly assess your approach.

Living the Dialed-in Life

What if, instead of always feeling scattered, you could approach each day with clear goals and direction? Rather than hunting for new clients, what if clients started hunting you because of your reputation as a recognized expert in a particular industry? What would it mean to your practice and your life if, instead of constantly spending time getting up to speed, you could answer questions and determine a course of action immediately and instinctually because you’re so dialed-in on the issues?

That sort of transformation is within your reach in the coming year, but it requires the courage to make some tough choices. To transform, you’ll have to say no more often, which is hard. But remember, every time you say yes, you’re saying no to something else anyway.

Will this be the year you finally get serious about business development and not only write down ambitious goals but actually achieve them? Nothing is stopping you other than a limiting belief that building a big book of business requires positioning yourself broadly.

If you want more business, build a narrowly focused practice.

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Jay Harrington Jay Harrington

Jay Harrington is the owner of Harrington Communications, a leading thought-leadership PR and marketing agency that specializes in helping law firms and lawyers build awareness, influence and new business. Jay is the author of three books for lawyers on issues related to business and professional development, including “The Productivity Pivot,” “The Essential Associate” and “One of a Kind: A Proven Path to a Profitable Practice.” He podcasts at The Thought Leadership Project and writes a weekly email newsletter. Previously, he practiced law at Skadden Arps and Foley & Lardner. Follow him @JayHarrington75.

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