These days, your knowledge is not
enough to stand out from the crowd. But before I explain why that's the case,
and what you can do about it, let me quickly explain how this post came to be...
Charlotte, the senior partner in the
Family law team spent hours gazing at the clouds trying to guess the weather
for the department picnic
One of the benefits of Twitter is connecting with a whole
heap of like-minded people, and one of those that I follow most closely is Julian Summerhayes who like me, is a former lawyer who
continues to serve the legal profession in a different capacity.
Julian is also a prolific blogger,
who posts great content on a daily basis, and (as with my
previous mash-up post on law firm sales)
I'm delighted to be able to add my thoughts to his recent post "what you know makes all the
The text in italics is
You know your area of law really,
really well - that badge 'Expert' suits you nicely. The
knowledge, wisdom and expertise that you have gathered would fill a small house
(there may even be a best seller lurking somewhere beneath all that baggage).
Your clients, once they find you,
are prepared to pay handsomely for your advice, and you have contributed, in
your time, to some stellar billing at your firm. You would like to feel
that you are one of the best in your field.
But the market doesn't feel or look
right. When you last did a Google search for your area of law, there were,
surprisingly, quite a few more lawyers than you anticipated, espousing a degree
of knowledge or calling in your specialist area.
Here's where my take on the problem
comes in. Communicating technical quality is pretty tough. In a crowded
marketplace, an individual or firm trying to differentiate on quality can have
a tough time being heard. For a start, as I've written before, the
definition of "quality" is not always easy to pin down when we are talking
about legal services. However, putting that issue aside for a second, one
of the big problems is that legal services really need to be experienced to be
judged, and so simply telling prospective purchasers about quality is
often not effective.
If a buyer strippers away all the
generic language from the websites and brochures, how can they really assess
quality without buying the service? Directories have their place, but having
been interviewed by them (both while in private practice and in-house), I don't
think they are sufficiently placed to accurately assess the quality of legal
services in any real detail.
What I would be more inclined to
rely on, would be a personal recommendation from another in-house lawyer I
trusted - perhaps the reason why word of mouth recommendations have long been
the gold standard for law firm business development.
The Internet has been both a
blessing and curse when it comes to communicating
with prospective clients both. It offers a multitude of ways to
communicate cheaply with buyers all over the planet. Messages can be tailored,
and a combination of traditional websites, social media and email communication
allows the type of dialogue with prospects that even ten years ago would have
been unthinkable. On the flip side, if all your competitors are doing the same,
it makes standing out from the crowd in the cloud even more difficult.
And to you, what once felt special,
now feels like every other area of law - a commodity. Of course, this is
no different to the life-cycle of any product. You only have to look at the
electronics industry to see a clear correlation. If you are feeling that
you area of law is just another run of the mill service then the situation is
likely to get a lot worse.
Commoditisation of legal services is
another topic I've written about before. While
working with the legal process outsourcer last year, the extent of this trend
was very apparent. While we've seen certain areas of law like residential
conveyancing move in that direction for years, what's fascinating is
that there are now plenty of areas of commercial law which are
starting to commoditise around the edges - due diligence (corporate work),
discovery (litigation) etc.
As legal services become more
commoditised, particularly where there is a blend of commodity and bespoke
service (for example, consider a piece of commercial litigation where evidence
is organised by some cool software from a vendor like Autonomy, the discovery
exercise is largely undertaken by an offshore LPO, and the litigation strategy
and trial work is run by a top-end commercial law firm), communicating the
difference between service providers will become even more challenging.
For the commodity part, the
difference may come from speed (faster!), price (cheaper!)
or availability (24×7 online access to documents), yet for the
bespoke part the competitive advantage may still come from the skill of the
individual lawyer (better!). For the commoditised part of the service, there
are likely to be hard metrics that can be used to describe the benefits of the
service in clear terms, yet for the unique, more complex elements, we return to
the challenge of how to communicate this skill in such a crowded
In a moment when more services are
driven on line, the client will begin to disassociate the brand solicitor with
the delivery of legal services. They will not assume that you know anything
more than the legal portal through which they engage. Now is the time to
consider how, and in what form, you should leverage those short-cuts and silver
bullets that have saved your clients time and money.
Here I think Julian's post
highlights one of the differences between the business and consumer legal
markets. In the world of commercial legal services (with which I am most
familiar), there are some pretty well established brands which will be
recognised and understood by the buying community the world over - Baker &
McKenzie and Clifford
Chance spring to mind as examples. The consumer market is very different,
and much more fragmented. Other than perhaps Eversheds and Irwin Mitchell,
I struggle to think of many domestic legal firms that have created a strong
brand nationally that helps consumers identify them as a provider of legal
services and also communicate the quality of their offering.
Your gut instinct is to keep things
locked down: "These are my most prized pearls of [valuable] wisdom" but you are
missing a huge trick. In Web 2.0 world, with the plethora of free legal
information, you can expect that most clients will be informed to a greater
extent than ever before, and what was once locked away amongst a secret cabal,
is now out in the open.
As Carl Shapiro wrote in Information
Rules (a book that applies economic theory to the information and technology
industries - a good read) information (in price terms) tends to free. The
combination of technology, globalisation and deregulation is making basic legal
information far more widely available than ever before in history. Of course
much of the profession's skill is in how that information is applied and used
effectively, but over time much of that knowledge will again become more widely
So, as Fat Boy Slim might say,
"right here, right now", what can you do about it?
If you truly want to steal a march
on your competitors, and that includes your on-line bedfellows, then you need
to consider how you can package your intelligence in such a way that clients
feel obliged to stay with you or new clients instruct you. This means going
beyond the ubiquitous free download that has become common place, the tired
question and answer and understand that information would truly float your
clients' boat. It may be a White Paper, a survey or even some intelligence that
repackages a case or two, but you need to consider the idea of giving away for
free something that has true value.
My take on this would be to really
put yourself in your prospect's shoes? What is it you can do to help them? Is
there a cost effective way you can provide them some benefit and also get them
to experience your service? It's not new, but I've certainly seen "free"
workshops do this very well - the workshop itself provides some really useful
guidance and helps identify and raise awareness of a problem. The remedial work
requires support from external lawyers - surely those that ran the workshop are
best placed to provide that advice? It's not a guaranteed sale, but it's a
business model that management consultants have successfully used for years and
can be adapted for many different scenarios.
Don't lose sight of your knowledge
and skill - that's the price of entry to the game these days, but do think hard
about how you communicate it in a crowded marketplace, and remember that the
best way of communicating it is for the client to experience it for themselves!
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