90% of what one law firm does will be the same as its peers. 10% will be distinctive. The challenge is to articulate, communicate and demonstrate what that 10% is.

And that challenge is growing as competition becomes even more intense. Just a quick look at the figures shows that the need to be distinctive will grow, not lessen.

Growth?

 

Last year the top 200 UK law firms grew by just 2.4%. The first 100 firms grew by just 2.3%, the second 100 firms by 6%. A quarter of firms saw revenues remain the same or decline*.

This becomes even more worrying when you realise that the pace of growth has slowed from the previous year. Firms can no longer rely on maintaining their share of the market and hope the market gets bigger each year.

The trend for rates is still downward and clients continue to demand more for less. Increasing use of panels and commoditisation will keep squeezing firms. Consolidation will continue. Growth in the new world means increasing your share of a decreasing market, which means taking work from competitors.

Finding growth is difficult. Growing when you offer nothing distinctive is almost impossible. To survive, let alone thrive, law firms need to stand out and be crystal clear about their market proposition.

On the inside: Values

 

Values are the foundation of what makes an organisation distinctive. They’re about culture and personality. Exploring the specific values law firms have and the type they fall into, a number of things emerge. Some are obvious, others less so.

First, all law firms say the same thing. Straight away, law firms are telling clients and prospects that they are all exactly the same.

All law firm values fall into one of nine traditional types:

  1. Building relationships: Being approachable and friendly, building strong relationships, flexibility
  2. Client focus & commitment: Exceeding expectations, being ambitious, putting clients at the core of the firm
  3. Commerciality: Business focus, pragmatism, understanding the client’s business
  4. CSR: Citizenship, sustainability, being a responsible member of the community
  5. Excellence & quality: Technical quality, rigour, attention to detail, precision
  6. Innovation: Creativity, entrepreneurship, original thinking, continuous improvement
  7. People & respect: Investing in people & talent, mutual respect
  8. Professionalism & integrity: Accountability, working hard, taking responsibility, behaving with integrity
  9. Teamwork: Collaborating, being collegiate, working together as one team

Of these, the most common law firm values listed in descending order are:

  • Teamwork
  • Integrity
  • Respect
  • Excellence
  • Commitment
  • Quality

But some of these values don’t hold true. The most popular specific value is teamwork, for example, but most law firms still talk about the challenges of cross-selling and encouraging partners to work with colleagues in other practice areas. This gives the impression that many firms choose values they think clients want, or represent what they would like them to be, rather than what they actually are. This is dangerous. A broken promise is worse than no promise at all.

Other values, meanwhile, should be redundant. After teamwork, for example, the most popular values are integrity, respect, excellence and commitment. These should be redundant as lawyers should embody these qualities as a matter of course. So should everyone who works for the firm. You wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) recruit people who aren’t professional and dedicated or do not have integrity.

Law firms are telling the world that their people are highly able technical lawyers who take their jobs seriously and work hard. Put another way, they are highlighting the 90% of their business that’s exactly the same as their peers rather than emphasising the 10% that makes them distinctive.

Law firms need to work out what that something else is that characterises their culture and approach. To do this they need to spend more time finding out from their clients and people what it’s like to work with them.

From the inside out

 

Your values are the DNA of what makes you distinctive, so what you communicate externally needs to be consistent with what you’re doing and saying internally. However, there’s a clear mismatch between the types of values that law firms have and their marketing messages.

Top five types of values:

  1. Client focus & service commitment
  2. People & respect
  3. Innovation
  4. Professionalism & integrity
  5. Teamwork

Top five law firm marketing messages:

  1. Client focus & service delivery
  2. Sector & commercial knowledge
  3. People & relationship building
  4. Size & scale
  5. Technical quality

‘Client focus & service commitment’ values talk about exceeding client expectations and being committed to their success. ‘Client focus & service delivery’ marketing messages are about delivering services consistently across borders, offices and practices – similar headings, but very different meanings.

While sector & commercial knowledge and people & relationship building are the second and third most popular types of marketing message for law firms, ‘commerciality’ and ‘building relationships’ rank only seven and eight out of nine as values. While ‘people & respect’ is the second most popular value type, what it means is investing in talent and treating colleagues with mutual respect. ‘Innovation’, ‘professionalism & integrity’ and ‘teamwork’ are three of the top five values, but they hardly feature at all in law firm marketing.

Law firms are saying one thing internally and something else externally. This disconnect is clear and dangerous. Firms are telling their people to behave in one way and promising clients they’ll receive something very different. They’re telling their clients that sector & commercial knowledge and people & relationship building are two of the most important things, but telling their people that they are two of the least important.

Uncovering and articulating

 

Being distinctive isn’t about having a great idea. It’s about a process of discovery, about discovering and then articulating something that people haven’t noticed.

First, what you articulate needs to be relevant to the markets you’re in, the clients you work with and the work you do. It’s intrinsically linked to your strategy, about where and how you want to compete. It needs to be important to the people you’re selling to, otherwise they won’t be interested in it.

Second, it needs to be authentic. For your people to consistently think and behave in a certain way it has to feel real, otherwise they won’t do it. If you want your people to go out and talk about it they have to believe it. If they don’t, you’ll be found out. It’s much easier to believe in something that’s real than something that’s not.

Last, it needs to be distinctive. Whatever you say can’t be timid, bland, boring or half-hearted. Articulate it in as simple and straightforward a way as possible – ideally a word, statement or phrase. Contrast, don’t compare. Be bold and confident. The whole point is to stand out. Say what you do and do what you say.

And having uncovered and articulated how you’re distinctive, you need to embed it and communicate it relentlessly and consistently, both internally and externally.

In the second part of this blog, Lee will look into how firms can become more distinctive, in the context of making their bids stand out from the crowd.

* The above piece is an abridged version of the full report ‘Differentiation is dead: Law firms and the search for distinctiveness’. The complete version, including detailed figures on law firm growth in the top-200, can be read by clicking here.

Lee Grunnell can be contacted at: lee@thirteenideas.com

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