In The value of legal market positioning our regular contributor Heather Suttie argues that definitive legal market positioning leads to a distinctive, authoritative brand for a law firm. And the corollary is that trying to be everything to everyone means a firm stands for nothing in no one’s mind.
Research (by beaton, my Voice of Clients consultancy) over many years amongst the clients of Australian and New Zealand clients of corporate BigLaw firms shows it is possible to differentiate a law firm and sustain a position in the served market. And, it’s no surprise that having a distinctive position correlates with superior client satisfaction, supporting Heather’s proposition that ‘legal market position is critical to surviving while your brand is key to thriving’.
Market positioning is foundational to business success. However, many legal service providers ranging from law firms, law companies and sole practitioners to paraprofessional organizations, legal outsourcing operations, legal tech, and legal consulting either inadvertently miss or choose to skip this important step. This is an unfortunate omission because market positioning enables differentiation, heightens recognition and leads to a well-defined brand that acts as a beacon for clients seeking particular expertise.
Granted, there are pluses and minuses of developing a solidly defined legal market position, however the risks are relatively minor and short-term while the rewards are enormous and will stand you in good stead for many years to come.
One of the reasons that market positioning is overlooked or sidestepped is that even though it’s a basic business principle, the consequences of this undertaking can appear to be personal. This is especially true if market positioning is not crisply defined and established prior to the start of a new business.
It is a more difficult process for a mature legal business, however it’s doable and can make all the difference in terms of survival. Mid to late in life legal market repositioning is a sign of changing times. At least it is in my experience, having helped legal entities reposition to take advantage of changing markets, client needs and conditions much more often in the last five of my 18-year practice than ever before, and I expect repositioning to accelerate as more competition enters the legal marketplace.
A mid- or late-stage position change is not for the faint of heart. However, it’s a sign that the entity recognizes a need for change in order to survive. Recognizing a need is one thing; acting on it demands audacity, perseverance, flexibility, patience and iron will.
This is because market positioning requires examining a firm or individual’s legal offerings in the cold, hard light of business rather than from the more familiar aspect of practice. Understanding what industries, services and practices are financially strong now and expected to remain profitable for the next 10 years will enable defined market positioning on which to build brand strength.
For law firms in particular, market positioning or repositioning can be a politically charged and sensitive undertaking because the potential exists for individuals or groups to feel slighted or disenfranchised. This is because even though market positioning is based on hard numbers that prove profitability as well as assessing current and future legal market conditions, it’s fair to expect that resentment, anger and hurt can surface as a result of focus being maximized in some areas and minimizing in others.
Furthermore, this is when a firm can leverage change to trim down to fighting weight. This means rightsizing where removing an individual, group or practice to operate as a standalone can be an astute decision that is often beneficial to all parties. Then again, it can happen that some individuals or groups may continue with their practice in a business-as-usual manner even though the firm itself repositions in the market and rebrands accordingly.
Rewards are evident when clear and concise positioning along with acquisition of business-savvy talent and appropriate key clients that sit squarely in the centre of a firm or individual’s expertise wheelhouse enables a clearly differentiated and unique legal market brand. This one-of-one brand acts as a beacon to attract ideal clients needing a particular type, talent, and delivery of legal service expertise.
Brand strength is the highly rewarded hallmark of a modern entity in today’s ever-changing legal service provider marketplace.
It’s understandable that developing a tightly defined market position and brand can be tough. And so it should be. It’s the true test for legal entities of all descriptions to demonstrate that they have the determination and grit to cut a swatch through the competition by claiming key strengths and defining demonstrable traits, and then standing firmly on their record by remaining unwaveringly dedicated to their market position and brand.
With a steadily increasing number of players coming into the legal marketplace, a solid market position that establishes you as the go-to whether by industry, expertise or geography that is supported by a unique, provable and market-differentiating brand is more vital than it has ever been before.
Heather Suttie is a legal marketing and business development consultant. She works with a range of firms from Global to Solo and BigLaw to NewLaw.
The Value of Legal Market Positioning was first published by Heather in Canadian Lawyer, March 2019.