Does a small general practice law firm have a future in a small market?

Does a small general practice law firm have a future in a small market?

A partner from a law firm in a small legal market (under 500,000 people) in the United States asked me this question a few days ago.

The answer is really one of definition. While the term  "general practice" is relatively benign, claiming to be "full service" can be toxic for a small law firm.

Business clients, even in smaller communities, are rightfully skeptical of small firms (which, for purposes of this discussion, includes firms of up to 20 lawyers) that advertise  expertise or significant experience in dozens of practice specialties.  When probed, many of these claims are based on one case or one transaction that might have happened years ago.

Our firm works with smaller law firms, both in the United States and worldwide, to develop and execute marketing strategies that work in smaller legal markets.  Our experience and observations suggest three points that a small law firm should consider:

  • Avoid the temptation to tout yourselves as a "full service law firm." Not only does such a claim lack credibility among sophisticated business clients and high net-worth personal clients; it can also unnecessarily raise their skepticism among the things that you really do well. And no news travels faster in a small market than the experience of a client who has been disappointed by mediocre performance or poor client service.
  • Focus on the client sectors in which you are already strong.  If some of your best clients are, for example, in the construction industry, be sure that you understand their businesses better than any of your competitors.
  • Don't be afraid to refer a client to a competitor for work that is outside your area of expertise. Of course, there is a risk that the competitor might "steal" you client. If that happens, it probably was likely to happen even without the referral. The much higher probability is that sending a client to another firm, when you cannot give the client the best possible service, will actually increase the loyalty of that client to your firm, as well as make the client more likely to refer you to others.

The risk to small law firms that try to do it all is that you usually end up doing nothing particularly well. This is a sure formula for invisibility in the competition for the types of potential clients that your firm needs the most.

Read more at the Walker Clark Worldview Blog.