As the race speeds up to avoid becoming – or being seen as – the Blockbuster of legal services, managing partners are under attack on multiple flanks. Three market dynamics come to mind as the most pervasive – albeit interrelated - threats. First, the accelerating technological innovation in legal service delivery. Second, the proliferation of new business models, ABSs and the re-entry of the Big Four. Finally, the need to respond to in-house counsel’s hunt for efficiency and value through innovation and differentiation.

Managing partners are exposed to many opportunities for differentiation and for responding to these uncertain market conditions. Many have determined those that fit their firm’s vision and market understanding. The challenge of course is that executing as well as the next firm creates little return, but tackled expertly, there is the potential to open up blue water from competitors. Which must be the point. Highlighted in this piece are three of those opportunities which focus on the successful delivery of:

  • An evolution of service delivery and marketing through technology.
  • A meaningful and memorable brand.
  • Strategic growth of profitable referrals.

1. The Digital Economy


What not to do? Hope the wave of digitisation, and client demand for tech-enabled efficiency and greater value, will bypass your firm or practice areas.

What to do? Respond to the digital economy in at least three ways. First, commit resource to building a map of the disrupters and start-ups looking to automate, apply algorithms, or somehow commoditise your client work. At least for your key practices. Then, conduct a thought experiment: if in five years many starts-ups are successful far beyond my current concern what do I wish I had done now (for example, become a part of the drive towards tech-enabled efficiency by initiating or identifying start-ups to partner with).

Second, embrace a digital marketing & thought leadership strategy that fits your firm.  Elements that I have seen work well include: coordinating and optimising firms’ online presence for lead generation; granular search engine optimisation by key sub-practice and sector; selective blogs with strong character; and Twitter and LinkedIn accounts focused on firm/practice and client news, juxtaposed with a Facebook page showcasing a firm’s culture aimed at employee engagement and high calibre recruits.

Third, facilitate lawyers’ ability to develop an active and engaged professional network on social media. What I have seen work well here are Linkedin ‘link generators’ that allow lawyers to share thought leadership to their personal network with one click.


  • Law – like most industries - will not escape the impact of technology and those that embrace the technology and disruption (early) will be better placed to benefit.
  • It signals to clients and prospects that you understand the frustration. It shows you are astute to the potential that technology can offer for efficiency and delivering better value and as a driver for improved consistency, risk management, speed and cost. 
  • Many firms generate copious thought leadership but few efficiently convert this to lead generation through their website and social media. Equally, many lawyers have exceptional professional contacts but few convert these to a dynamic LinkedIn audience that can be used to shared their expertise and extend their brand.

2. Brand not Bland


What not to do? Spend an average of 2.5% of fee income on marketing annually to end up with a redundant brand. That is, one that is broadly indistinguishable from peers and doesn’t consistently convey meaningful messages beyond ‘large, professional, full service, international law firm’.

What to do? Spend some time with branding experts distilling what your firm wants to be known for. Your values, quality, and practice strengths. Stand for something essential to you but different from the crowd. There is space in the market to be bold and memorable.


  • Many reasons, but a compelling one is that strong brands can be a short cut to greater fame and, all being well, fortune. Developing brand recognition, in parallel with the desired messages and associations, is critical.
  • Successfully deploying a brand means you can communicate far beyond your direct marketing reach. Wherever your firm is mentioned whether in conversation, media or marketing channels, those messages are reinforced. Eventually clients and the market participate in conveying that message too.  It means prospects and market players may know key, positive and thoughtful information about you before any direct interaction. 
  • A brand with character can help distinguish your firm and its service offering from ever more aggressive traditional and non-traditional competitors.
  • Once you have your brand messages you can apply those to your firm’s environment; brand can emanate from your staff and lawyers, your furniture and website, your managing partner and your media coverage.  It's what you (in every form) say about you. But if it's not deliberate, it's diluted.  

3. Are you referring to me?


What not to do? Ignore the second largest source of work. Firms often focus almost exclusively on business development initiatives that seek to upsell and cross-sell into existing clients. However, most new law firm business results from referrals in one form or another – a gold mine that is rarely given the appropriate resource. Many firms are not in a position to easily identify which sources of referrals are the most frequent, high margin, repeated, at risk or reciprocated. 

What to do? Get visibility of the full breadth of your recurring referrals from other law firms, financial services, accountants, client to prospect/client, business contacts, alumni or friends and family. Develop and execute plans to grow, replicate and secure the most attractive referral relationships.

Why? Developing the right intelligence and resources will position your firm to be one of the few able to proactively protect and grow referral sources. And one of the very few firms able to answer:

  • Which are the most profitable or most frequent sources of referrals?
  • Which referrals are at risk and which are adequately reciprocated?
  • How to manage, secure, reward and grow the best sources?
  • Which partners have contacts who are super-promoters?
  • How to integrate clients’ referral value into key client programmes?
  • What would it take for the most profitable clients to refer more clients like themselves? 

Naturally there are other ways to differentiate but those offered here are well placed to impact a firm’s growth and market position if the firm gets behind them and they are executed distinctively. Building consensus around the opportunities to pursue is the first step, but how those projects get delivered can become a bigger challenge. Managing partners, mired in the myriad issues of running a modern law firm, often welcome outside expertise to deliver against those opportunities to the highest standard.  As the wave of disruption accelerates, making these opportunities to differentiate count will become increasingly critical.


Al Keve is a legal services consultant advising across the spectrum from law firms to legal tech start-ups. Al has held a variety of management, commercial, marketing and business developments roles in the legal sector.  For over 7 years, Al was the Global Director of Business Development in the international law firm of McDermott Will & Emery UK LLP, based in NY and London.

Al can be contacted via LinkedIn at:









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