Challenges of Law Firm Differentiation
The objective of the differentiating proposition is to communicate to consumers that buying from you will give them a specific benefit. This benefit must be unique to you and be powerful enough to move the buyer to choose you. Where there is insufficient differentiation between businesses the buyer’s choice is more likely to come down to price.
The aim is to have such an effective positioning, and strong USP (unique selling proposition), that buyers believe there is simply no substitute for your service. For example, if you are willing to do things differently to everyone else and meet clients on Saturday and Sunday when other law firms are closed, then your target market who values the possibility of meeting at the weekend would be hard pressed to find a substitute for your service.
It is not easy to differentiate a law practice in these desirable ways. For example, you may be the only lawyer advising on iPhone Apps when you start, but soon find that other firms also start to offer that expertise so that you are no longer unique simply by virtue of your specialist topic area.
For most businesses offering a wide skill set like intellectual property, it helps to narrow the focus to one niche at a time. The benefit of doing so and going after a specific niche (such as trademark registration) is that you’re likely to stand out among others who focus on the same general area. Paradoxically, narrowing your focus to acquire depth of expertise and fully understand buyers’ concerns, and the industry, is likely to attract work in your broader subject area too (in this case intellectual property generally).
So, you then move on to serving other niches within the broader scope of your specialist services. While specialisation is a differentiator, if you target separate industry niches to deploy your subject areas of the specialism, you’ll be more likely to attract work than offering services to everyone.
The problem: using generic messages
The sort of differentiating position which is ineffective, and which is quite common among law firms effectively has the message “We are smarter, more experienced, do a better job, are tougher litigators” etc. It can be quite same to make claims along these lines:
Our firm is big/small and old and has a distinguished history. We offer the technical skills of a large firm and the collegial culture of a small firm. Our lawyers work as a team. We are efficient, service-oriented and we partner with our clients. We are very community-service oriented.
These are common statements you see on law firm websites.
Illustrating messages with generic photos of city skyline, building, lobby and/or conference room, a group of lawyers staring seriously at the camera with law books in the background, and area courthouses – especially their columns and their front steps are all too hackneyed.
The Power of Industry Niches
Obviously if you uncover a multi-billion industry that no law firm has yet targeted you’ll do very well.
Apparently Slaten Law in its early days some 20 years ago stumbled on the pest control industry when it helped a few clients from that industry. This was a finite universe, where everyone went to the same conventions and read the same publication, Pest Control Today. So, the firm’s website was revised to feature crawling termites ….and bugs…” The firm went all in on serving that industry.
The firm’s website today has moved on. During its journey to its current situation it identified further markets, such as Dram Shops, Automotive, Nursing Homes, and therefore no longer used a Pest Control focused website. But the firm’s experience illustrates how powerful it is to focus on one narrow niche at a time.
However, it’s a mistake to assume you are then stuck with just that one niche. It’s quite common to have several niches.
USPs: Learning from John Lewis and Domino’s USPs
A strong USP can have enormous power.
For example, John Lewis’ strap line, Never Knowingly Undersold reassures people that if they shop at John Lewis they will get good quality products at a fair price.
A USP answers the question “why should I do business with you over all the other options available to me?” Domino Pizza’s answer when it first developed its USP was:
“You get fresh, hot pizza delivered to your door in 30 minutes or less — or it’s free.”
Law Firm USPs
The Chicago-based labour and employment firm Laner Muchin, focused on the message of “responsiveness” for its USP
Noticing that lack of responsiveness was among the biggest complaints clients expressed about law firms, while its partners’ ethos was to return all client phone calls within two hours, the firm decided to go with the message “Two Hours. Period”.
Laner Muchin issued a challenge and used advertising to push this challenge to non-client prospects (a group that was more likely to be dissatisfied by their existing lawyers’ lack of responsiveness): They said “Call your current lawyer and leave a message to return your call. Wait an hour or two (to give your lawyer a decent head start), then call one of our lawyers and leave the same message. See who calls you back first. We’re betting it’ll be us. If it’s not, we’ll buy you lunch and donate $100 to your favourite charity.”
This was a win/win proposition because when the firm won the challenge, they made a strong positive impression on someone in a position to hire them. On rare occasions when they lost the challenge, their punishment was a lunch date with a potential client!
The specific differentiating message Laner Muchin adopted reflected the way they did business (that is, their ethos of returning calls within 2 hours). They then embedded that into their entire culture.
So, what you choose for a USP has to be sufficiently important to your ideal clients to help sway the decision to hire your firm.
This is where it helps for firms to analyse their culture. If you’re a small practice this exercise will be easier to do. Larger firms may need to engage someone to interview partners and staff in the firm to discover a possible USP to use.
It is undoubtedly important to differentiate a business, and a law firm is a business like any other.
The fact that it’s difficult to do perhaps explains why none of the larger UK law firms have developed unique and memorable USPs.
Plenty of firms try to use the desire to “exceed client expectations” as a USP. However, this is so common that it’s not a differentiator. It’s up there as one of those generic messages I outlined earlier that law firms tend to use. Your USP needs to be your own unique message about how you do business. For example, what specifically do you do to exceed client expectations? Be specific.
In future posts during 2019 I’ll focus on USPs and differentiating strategies from other service sectors outside law.