With so much change and so many unanswered questions, there’s never been a better time to stand out through your thought leadership.
Writing and publishing content often feels like tossing a needle into the internet haystack. That’s challenging enough. But if all you’re doing is recycling the same old ideas, and trying to make them relevant to the biggest audience possible, then it’s not even a needle. It’s just more hay.
The way to stand out is to create content that is more client-focused — that is, content created for a very specific, often small, audience. You don’t need to reach everyone, just the cohort of individuals and businesses that requires the type of contextualized insight only you can offer. By showing up over and over for your audience, you’ll generate awareness, and people will come to trust you. Awareness and trust are the building blocks of business development.
From the client’s perspective, deciding who the right lawyer is for the job will become obvious. After all, why would a client choose an unknown commodity when there’s someone consistently showing up in their inbox and social feeds with solutions to the very problems they face?
Lawyer Thought Leadership: Narrow Your Focus
When you set out to become a thought leader, you need to approach it with the mindset that you must write for someone, not everyone. You must narrow your focus. Businesses and individuals succeed when they focus on less, not more.
Across all categories of service offerings, there are continuums of premium brands and commodity ones. Those in the premium category narrow their positioning — the articulation of what they do and for whom they do it — to the point that there are few, if any, available alternatives to what they offer. They solve discrete problems for distinct audiences and do it exceptionally well. Assuming there is a market for what they offer — and they deliver high-quality work — these firms dominate and earn healthy profits.
In the context of legal services, this means you don’t have to be the smartest lawyer to be successful. You merely need to be sufficiently narrowly focused to reduce (or even 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 to participate in an RFP process designed to identify the lowest-cost provider for commodity work. The specialist will get an urgent phone call when it really matters. Law firms also benefit from a narrow focus. By way of example, consider Kirkland & Ellis’ dominance in generating high-margin litigation, transactional, and restructuring work from the private equity industry. The objective of narrow positioning is to be perceived as less interchangeable, and Kirkland & Ellis has few counterparts in the PE space.
It requires patience, but 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. You won’t want to go back to the feelings of uncertainty and angst that afflict the generalist 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.
And, yes, one of the most important benefits of having a narrow focus is that it allows you to create more and better thought leadership content.
Make Your Expertise Visible Through Thought Leadership Content
Just as your narrowly focused work has a compounding effect on your expertise, so does the thought leadership content you produce. In “Good to Great,” Jim Collins introduced the concept of the “Flywheel Effect,” which I’ve written about here before. The flywheel effect describes the increasing momentum 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.
There’s a flywheel effect to thought leadership as well. The best way to get the thought leadership flywheel turning is to resist the urge to write for the masses. Instead, have a specific person with a specific job title in mind and address their needs. Write like you’d speak to them.
Fight your instinctive belief that the best way to reach a big audience is to write something broadly relevant.
Trust that a narrowly focused article that is hyper-relevant to a small constituency will make a more significant impact (on your reader and on your practice).
People want to read content that seems like it was written specifically for them. If you have clearly defined positioning for your practice, it will be far easier to craft and contextualize content that stands out.
A good way to get started is to consider what I like to call the Focusing Question: What does my ideal client need to know, understand or believe before they will do business with me?
The objective, of course, is not to sell through your content by overtly pitching your services, but rather to address — with laser focus — the questions, challenges and opportunities that your audience is grappling with. Do that well, and your audience will come to the logical conclusion that you’re the right lawyer for the job.
There has never been a better time for lawyers to stand out through their thought leadership because there have never been more unanswered questions due to the rapid pace of change. To capitalize on the opportunity, think big but act small.
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