Different strokes

different strokes

James WIlson|Tyler Wilson

It’s weird that law firm websites pretty much all say the same things. Weird, because if a successful ‘strategy’ requires a firm to differentiate itself from its competitors, why do so many firms simply mimic the competition?

As Professor Stephen Mayson explains in his book Law Firm Strategy, the essence of competitive advantage is that the firm offers something to the market that its competitors don’t or cannot. This may be a single thing, or a combination of things – but the difference usually arises from being unique, better, or cheaper. Crucially, the difference must bring meaningful value to clients – if they don’t see it as valuable, it brings no competitive advantage at all.

Being cheaper than the competition is the least attractive strategy because it tends to result in competitors lowering their prices to match yours and an ensuing ‘rush to the bottom’ of the market that can simply be self-destructive.

Being better than the competition is a long-haul project – entirely dependent on market perception and not simply what a firm says about itself. It requires a ruthless pursuit of consistent excellence in everything that the firm does, and by definition is a position only achieved by a very small number of firms.

Leadership in law firms is a particular challenge, because they are environments in which those being led aren’t required to follow.

Being unique (or at least easily distinguished from the herd) is the real challenge. In a crowded market, it’s difficult but not impossible to differentiate. I would suggest that the potentially unique combination for every firm is the one between its clients and people. What is it about the clients, what they do and what they ask the firm to do that might be different? What is it about the people in the firm and what they do, or how they deliver their service?

However, if ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, there are many firms where the culture is such that they shouldn’t waste time and energy seeking a common strategy. The successful execution of strategy requires partners to be willing to be told what they can (and more importantly cannot) do with their investment time (drop the term ‘nonchargeable’ time). Strategy gets executed using that golden pot of time the firm has to invest in activities such as business development, training and knowledge management.

Leadership in law firms is a particular challenge, because they are environments in which those being led aren’t required to follow. If your culture is not one akin to a rowing eight, with team members pulling in unison allowing someone to have a hand on the tiller, strategy will die a death in the bottom drawer. If the partners prefer to paddle their own individual kayaks in any direction they choose, embrace that culture and don’t waste your time strategising.

This article can be found in Briefing’s February magazine: Where next for knowledge?

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