Turbulence in the legal profession, and the business world itself, make these difficult and unusual times. The loss or consolidation of so many venerable law firms has altered the competitive landscape for firms of all sizes. It’s likely, for example, that the major firms will accelerate a long-standing practice of reaching into the lower end of the market—the very market of the smaller firm. For the smaller firm, competition for clients will come from unaccustomed quarters.
Can David beat Goliath Again?
Can the small law firm successfully compete with bigger firms? History says yes. Here are some ways you will go about it.
- Don’t be sanguine about the health of your firm. You may think you’re in good shape today—that you have a substantial share of a specific industry or market, that your reputation will protect you from assault by competitors, that you are immune from competition. In a rapidly changing world, however, this is when you are most vulnerable. Changing economic conditions, new regulations, an undercurrent of skepticism about the profession—all of these and more require that you be ever alert.
- Save your current clients. Your current client base is your first line of defense in a highly competitive environment, in which your best clients are coveted by larger firms. Examine your work with each client frequently to assure that you are truly meeting their current needs. Be sure you understand the client’s industry and business. Be sure your person-to-person relationship is in good shape. And above all, pay strict attention to the quality of your own work.
- Seek new business from existing clients. In the average mid-sized or smaller firm, there should be a 20 percent annual growth in business from existing clients, even in slow times. This is accomplished by frequent conversations with clients about their business (not yours.) If you are listening carefully, you’re likely to hear some new problem about which you can say, “I can help you with that.” Remember, your client’s business may not be static, but instead, changing as the client’s own markets and business change. Without a client relationship that keeps you in touch, you can depend on two things. First, your business for that client will remain static, and second, sooner or later somebody else will have that discussion and you’ll lose the client. Avoid the “I didn’t know you did that” syndrome.
- Organize for productivity. The future lies with the lean, mean machine. That’s the one with full control of process, expenditures and business practices. Don’t be afraid, though, to invest in technology that works for you, such as extranets that tie your system to your client’s, and mobility tools. Just make sure your technology is equal in capability to your clients’ and compatible in ways that count. Manage your firm for profit first, and comfort second. If you’re profitable, you’ll be comfortable.
- Focus on business. Know what business you’re in, and carefully consider any changes in your business model or the services you offer. Know what skills you have, and work to sharpen them. In these times of changing regulations and technology, continuing professional education is a necessity, not a luxury.
- Modify your culture. For generations, the legal profession has relied on the notion that clients needed it more than the other way around. After all, nobody wakes up in the morning and says, “What a great day to sue somebody.” Business comes to lawyers because it has to. The lawyer writes the solid contract, or protects the client from inequity, or writes the unassailable will. But is your firm always the one that business comes to for these services? Today, the demand is for more competitive services, and for services that actually help. The culture of the law firm must shift from an abstract professionalism to an aggressive market-centered orientation. Once, perhaps, firms could rely on their professionalism alone to attract clients. Not today. Change the firm culture to meet the demands of competition.
- Market. Simply put, you’ve lost the option to market because your competitors are marketing—and they are after your clients and prospective clients. Your firm’s survival depends on understanding and using the skills of professional services marketing. While marketing is itself a profession, and few practicing lawyers have the experience of a professional marketer, there is still a great deal you can learn to do. You should know enough to deal comfortably with a professional marketer. You should know how to define the market for your services and how to look at your firm and services in terms of the needs of that market. You should understand the tools and vehicles of marketing needed to project your services and capabilities to your market. You should know how to strategize and manage the effort, even if it is implemented by professional marketers. And should you believe that the need for you to market is precluded by your current success or reputation.
- Challenge yourself. Today’s business world is more dynamic than ever. More innovation, more competition, and globalization that touches even the smallest firm. All demand more of the lawyer. To be a successful, you must constantly search for new ways to meet these new challenges, and demand more of yourself. Frequently ask the question, “This is the way I did it yesterday. Is there a better way, or a good reason, to do it differently today?” Ask this to keep from getting stale, and keep your clients from going to another firm that isn’t.
- Learn. Continuing legal education is necessary to sharpen skills and keep up with new rules and regulations. But the world of the lawyer is no longer limited to the legal profession. Today you must understand more about business, government, globalization, technology and relationships than in the past. You must become acutely aware of the larger world in which you function, constantly learning about context, as well as honing your skills.
- Think increments. A secret of success in business is to understand that you don’t have to be substantially better than your competitor. It takes only the smallest increment to be the best. A slightly better understanding of your market. An article or two more in your client’s industry publications. A touch more visibility in your marketplace. A bit more active in your networking groups. It’s amazing how little difference there is between firm number one and firm number two. If you think about the small differences you can make in your own practice, then you’ll be number one in your area and market.
Bruce W. Marcus is a Connecticut-based consultant in marketing and strategic planning for professional firms. He is editor of The Marcus Letter on Professional Services Marketing, author of the new book, Professional Services Marketing 3.0 and co-author of Client at the Core. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
GIFT IDEA: Order Bruce Marcus’ excellent new book, Professional Services Marketing 3.0 from the Attorney at Work bookstore and give the gift of beating the competition.