Edge International

Differentiation: The Whole Product

Mike White

Either in the course of my “client experience innovation” work, or in helping groups of partners do a better job finding new clients, I hear the following frustration, “We’re a great law firm! However, as great as we are, we’re no different from other great lawyers at other great law firms who do what we do. Frankly, I find this reality to be really discouraging . . . “.

I largely agree with this lament . . . but only as far as it goes. No doubt it is challenging for a firm and its partners to differentiate themselves in a market at a purely technical level (i.e., based on good lawyering alone); however, corporate consumers of legal work are not just buying “good lawyering” per se – they are often buying much, much more. It is in relation to the “more” that law firms can in fact differentiate themselves.

Commercial legal-services consumers (corporations, in-house lawyers at corporations, business managers who engage outside law firms directly) buy a “whole product” rather than just raw lawyering. For example, they buy a non-technical sensibility that when curveballs emerge during the course of a legal matter, the lawyer-client decisioning about the surprise will be really effective. Or, for example, they often buy benchmarking information you provide about how other clients might assess certain risks and be guided by those insights. They are buying a lot of things outside of “lawyering” that make up the whole product.

An emerging procurement feature in what law firm clients are buying relates to cross-disciplinary integration. Companies want to see all of their providers (lawyer, strategy consultant, business insurance risk consultant, capital markets adviser/investment banker, CPA, etc.) link their insights with other providers outside of their discipline in ways that make sense. For example, litigation lawyers should have a seat at the table when the risk-management consultant quarterbacks the corporate risk-assessment process. Transactional lawyers should play a role in the post-acquisition business-integration process being managed by outside management consultants. Learn who are the other non-law firm advisers to your clients and try to partner with them in this way with “hybrid” insights and solutions.

Certain client types really appreciate the role a law firm can play outside of “lawyering” in helping them do what they do as a business. For example, private equity funds are most challenged by their low-quality (and quantity) deal flow; today they have a hard time finding well priced companies in their focused sector in which to invest. Any law firm that can directly – or indirectly (through the law firm’s clients and other relationships) – enhance a private equity fund’s deal flow will transcend the noise and position itself to be retained.

Law firm clients give law firms credit for being “better” just by being “different”; despite this, law firms do a really bad job of differentiating themselves. Law firms that do try to differentiate do so at a purely technical level (“. . . No. Honest! We’re really, really, really, really . . . technically smarter and better than your existing law firm you’ve used blissfully for the past 25 years . . . “). Clients aren’t generally in the business of generating legal work; rather, they have “jobs to be done” that throw off “legal symptoms.” Learn about all of a prospect’s “jobs to be done” that drag “legal symptoms” along with them, and try to make those jobs easier.

Finally, ask your lawyers the following: Are you a better lawyer by virtue of your being part of our firm than you otherwise would be at a peer firm? If the answer is yes, create an inventory of all of the reasons why such is the case. In so doing, you’ll begin to build an inventory of firm differentiation that your lawyers can use during their outreach with prospects and others in the market.

So, don’t be constrained by the limits imposed by conventional differentiation. Learn about your prospects’ “jobs to be done,” and sell your “whole product”!

A Business Development Reality Check

Gerry Riskin

Remember when things were busy and prosperous, and meeting a prospective client was a joy? There was a spring in your step and, while you were not cavalier, your future did not depend on any given individual so there really wasn’t a whole lot of pressure on each greeting or encounter.

Remember that more senior lawyer in your firm who used to feed you a ton of work until she retired, or was laterally hired away, or whose own practice dried up a bit so she stopped sending the work down?

The New Status Quo

Now, there has been a bit of a drought in your practice. A few deals that were coming to you collapsed. Some clients who professed to understand an imminent need postponed anyway.

The industry you focus on is going through difficult times.

Your clients have some new awareness of how to put the fee pressure on you. Even long-standing clients are doing RFPs just to keep you sharp.

You read about alternate fees and you’re not quite sure when to use them and when not. You read conflicting reports about the receptivity of clients to alternate fees: first you’re told clients love them and demand them, and then you are told that clients reject them and see them as a device for you to extract more from them.

Trust out there seems to be waning.

Your internal meetings tell you that many of your colleagues are in the same boat. While there’s comfort in numbers, the pervasiveness of the problem does not bode well for your next compensation review.

So, the anxiety grows. The greater the anxiety, the less you want to deal with this. You didn’t like schmoozing at the best of times… and you don’t like it any better in the worst of times.

What to do?

I wish I could tell you that there was a magic button that would solve all of your problems. All you would need to do is make a one-time investment of $99.95, and every time you pressed the button, new and profitable clients would walk through your door. The magic button would be available in your choice of colors and designs. You could set it to “Silent,” or select the bell tone of your choice. When you pressed it, in would walk your ideal client and all you would have to do is simply listen for a few minutes to learn exactly what they wanted you to do for them in exchange for the substantial amount of money they were offering.

Well, guess what? The equivalent of that button is available to you right now – and there is no cost involved! Instead of money, this magic button requires you to invest some time and thought. Furthermore, the button does not conjure a paying client every time you press it… instead, you have to press it multiple times for every client you get, and for those you already have. But the end result will be the same: you will build your practice instead of watching it decline.

Pressing the button is a metaphor, of course. The “push the button” activities available to you right now include such strategies as the following:

  • Visit client premises.
  • Phone the client between matters to find out how the last matter is unfolding.
  • Follow up on the client’s personal issues that he or she has mentioned to you… How did the surgery go? Did your daughter get into that university?
  • Send an unexpected gift that relates to the personal interest of your client… Who would’ve thought that there’s a new book on butterfly collecting?
  • Invite your client for lunch… or for a cup of coffee in the morning… or for a beverage after work.
  • Know enough about the client’s business and industry that you can make it the topic of conversation. Impress the client further by asking smart questions that could only be asked by having done some research first (which you can often acquire by spending five minutes on Google).
  • Say “yes” to client invitations even if it means a bit of a sacrifice on your part.
  • Express appreciation for every referral… and I don’t mean via email. How about a personally written thank you card that goes out with a stamp on it? (Trust me: the referral source will be flabbergasted.)
  • Do an optional “lunch and learn” at the premises of business clients, small and large. Prepare properly for them by knowing who is going to be there, interviewing them to fine-tune content, and ensuring that they have valuable takeaways that are relevant to them.

I can add to this list but you get the idea. You have the button, and you didn’t have to pay for it. You just need to keep using it.

Soon it will be the “Happy Holidays” time of year, and there will be a lot of socializing. By all means participate. However, keep in mind that it’s how often you push the button during the other eleven months of the year that will correlate to your business development success.