Law Firm Differentiation and Delivering A Signature Client Experience

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By Mike White

“We insist on excellence”; “We staff matters leanly”; “We understand your business”; “We always put the client first”; etc. These are just a few of the yawning refrains of law firms trying to appear “different” in the marketplace – we all can agree that marketing pablum is not in short supply! The truth is that law firms aren’t very good at understanding (let alone articulating) why they may be very different from their key competitors. And you can’t expect clients to be any more enlightened about real areas of differentiation than are the providers themselves. So what we’re left with is a marketplace of cynical business consumers who believe their law firms are overcharging for an intangible service they view to be no more than a sophisticated commodity. If law firms really are that different, how can they make themselves “more different” or differentiated vis à vis peer firms, and – more importantly – in the eyes of their clients and prospects?

Let’s step back a minute and look at an example outside of law. McKinsey may be the preeminent professional services firm on earth. Despite hiring really accomplished people, their consultants still attribute most of their success to being part of the McKinsey platform and learning “the McKinsey way.” If asked how McKinsey is differentiated in the marketplace, a McKinsey consultant would cite a laundry list of features – “We hire really smart people just like our competitors but we additionally look for five to seven personality traits that we feel help us deliver better consultants to our clients”; or, “All tier I management consultants produce great work product but we feel that our disciplined methodology around putting together a client study is special and produces better insights – we’re a bit dogmatic about our process but we feel clients benefit . . . “; etc. Any McKinsey consultant could point to 10 to 15 other qualities that make the firm and each consultant “special.” More importantly, McKinsey’s clients and the market recognize many of these qualities.

Differentiation only matters and is only appreciated if it confers benefit on the client. Differentiation – if we are to embrace it and care about it at all – should be experienced by your clients both directly and indirectly. If your clients are benefiting from the way you deliver your service but it is not perceptible to them (e.g., professional training in the early years that produces a certain kind of lawyer and a certain kind of work product), then your lawyers need to educate clients and prospects about these less perceptible differentiating elements.

While the commitment to client-experience innovation does not require a firm to perform open heart surgery on itself, it is very much a multi-faceted and multi-disciplinary mission. Among other things, it involves a lot of discovery, research and development, training, packaging/productization, and implementation that can be pretty unnatural for firms. It’s also a marathon, not a sprint. A firm and its practice groups must evolve incrementally yet persistently over a sustained (i.e., multi-year) period of time. As you think about your own firm’s need to differentiate more meaningfully, keep in mind a few of the following thoughts:

This Is Not a “Branding Exercise”

Real differentiation is not just taglines or slogans; rather, it is reflected in a portfolio of processes, managerial methods, recruitment criteria, technology, cultural sensibilities, training, firm structural features, incentives, and other elements that represent the unique ways in which the firm “does business.” These elements have to be operationalized in appropriate ways across the firm – they have to be real, and they can’t be “vaporware.”

You’re Already Doing It

Some of the most differentiating features of a firm or practice group exist right under your very nose. For example, when a small subgroup within your corporate M&A practice group routinely gets its hands dirty with post-acquisition business-integration issues, that expansive approach to M&A work is a unique feature of the M&A group; all M&A lawyers  – and the firm as a whole – can benefit from being known for this approach, and delivering a signature client experience. Think of how many other powerful “best practices” already exist within your four walls which could be inventoried, syndicated, and called on to support a signature client experience!

Innovation Needs to Be Part of Your Culture

Differentiated client experiences are “innovative” client experiences. Firms that are serious about delivering a law firm analogue of “the McKinsey Way” to their clients have to be innovative. Legal innovation today is most powerfully presented in the areas of legaltech, process, alignment, and analytics/decision support. Spend some time thinking about these areas as you build out your own firm’s signature client experience.

“Team of Teams” Rather Than a “Flotilla of Rafts”

Process and integration “win” over individual celebritydom and “artistry.” Yes, clients and prospects need to know you are a firm made up of great individual legal artists – if prospects are already talking to you then they have largely concluded this already. However, in order to leapfrog other law firms that prospects might be considering, you need to do a better job of explaining why your artists become turbocharged through their interconnection and integration with the other lawyers who are part of the same firm platform. Your firm should be a “team of teams” rather than a “flotilla of rafts,” and your lawyers should be able to educate prospects about how structural and cultural incidents of such translate into real, objective value to them.

The above highlights represent just a few of the important elements in a thorough client-experience innovation initiative, which by definition has to be holistic. Take the time to understand all the ways in which your firm and its lawyers are special today; take the time to discover additional client-benefiting innovation elements that you are not yet, but could be, supporting. Do all this – and more – and you’ll be well on your way to creating a “signature client experience,” and as a result, and very different law firm!