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Differentiating from Competitors

Posted by Norm Rubenstein on Jun 21, 2016 10:00:00 AM


It is a definitive law firm conundrum: what strategy best positions a law firm for successful business development and brand-building? To answer the question, as always, we need to work back from the client.

In the current legal marketplace, informed clients increasingly hire outside counsel on the basis of specialized expertise. As a result, many savvy law firms have finally stopped trying to position themselves as “full-service.” Instead, they have begun to spotlight the real strengths that differentiate them from their competitors.

The rationale is simple. Informed clients do their homework. Whether they consult colleagues, ranking services or law firm websites, they have easy access to information that confirms in which areas — be they practice-based, sectoral or geographic — particular law firms are reputed to excel.

Those savvy law firms, recognizing that the most effective way to sell multiple services to a client is to base future relationship-expansion efforts on the client’s satisfaction with its initial experiences, accept that enjoying a larger share of its outside counsel budget will come from exceeding its initial expectations. (Well, from exceeding its expectations and also from the halo effect: the client’s willingness to believe that its new-found trusted advisor will only connect it with lawyers of equal ability and a comparable service ethic.)

When the client finds a partner based on the lawyer’s individual brand equity or his or her marketing, it takes the positioning decision out of the firm’s hands. But firms can’t rely exclusively on clients finding them. In seeking to attract clients’ attention and, over time, build multifaceted institutional relationships with them, firms first have to attract their attention. Experience proves that it is easier to sell something the marketplace already acknowledges to be one of the firm’s market-leading areas of expertise.

Not all law firm partners, however, appreciate this point. Instead, some continue to lobby their firms’ leadership for institutional marketing that presents all practices and partners equally. As a result, even firms that are growing in strategic ways — say, with an emphasis on middle-market transactions, intellectual property litigation or inbound investment from Asia or Latin America — may still articulate a value proposition that is not easily verified (e.g., “We are all things to all people”). Visit one of those firms’ websites and you are asked to believe that, from antitrust to zoning, the firm does everything to equal acclaim and with equal robustness.

How a firm best positions itself — in alignment with its strengths or in some aspirational mode that “leaves no child behind” — poses particular challenges for law firm leaders and their chief marketing talent. Do you position to accommodate your internal audience, or do you lead with your trump and subsequently sell additional services based on client satisfaction and a potentially ensuing halo effect? 

Like it or not, Chambers, Legal 500 and other services that “rank” law firms and their lawyers tell the marketplace, ostensibly based on what it has told them, that only some of your practices are recognized as market-leading. Sophisticated buyers of legal services and most in-house buyers, have law firm experience under their belts and know that every attorney or firm does some things better than others.  Asking them to willingly suspend disbelief is not a path to credibility.

It is instructive that many of the most successful law firms have begun a path to greater diversification and more expansive brand equity from a single stepping stone. There is perhaps no more oft-cited example of parlaying a firm reputation for premiership in one area into a larger platform than that of Skadden. Originally known for hostile takeovers and still synonymous with M&A, the firm used the halo of its initial reputation to introduce lawyers in other areas of practice to satisfied clients.

Don’t mistake me. I do not advocate putting all of your eggs into one basket; I only advise you to avoid making the identification of your strengths, the shortest route to a relationship, a scavenger hunt. Your website, and the content strategy that informs it, should play to clients with experience vetting outside counsel — clients who know or can easily research what you truly are known for. Once you make them a satisfied client of your firm, you are on path to greater loyalty that allows for the painless introduction of new lawyers and additional services.

A client’s trust is won experientially and sequentially, and the process takes patience.  While most law firms prefer instant gratification, slow and steady yields more enduring relationships. Clients who are well-versed will know that not all firms and attorneys have equal expertise in all areas of law. Differentiation from competitors is one method of leveraging a firm’s brand to develop a reputation for being a leader in a certain area of law that will then act as a stepping stone. Teach your lawyers to exploit the potential of your brand and cross-sell based on the client’s experience and satisfaction, a win-win process for firms and clients alike.


Norm Rubenstein is widely regarded as one of the legal industry's most experienced and innovative growth and positioning strategists. As the chief marketing officer of three global law firms and consultant to numerous others, Norm has collaborated with law firm leadership on strategy designed to increase client and market share, on award-winning branding initiatives, and on the evaluation of their marketing organizations and investments. Recognized for his professional services marketing leadership, in 2007 Norm was among the inaugural honorees of the Legal Marketing Association's Hall of Fame.

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