The crowd in the cloud

The crowd in the cloud

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 difference".

The text in italics is Julian's.

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 marketplace.

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 available.

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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