Following are some thoughts to get law firm leaders’ juices flowing about competitive advantage, competitive intelligence and ways to differentiate law firms for the long run. However, if you’re a man or woman of immediate action, stop! Then study and think about competitive strategy. (Start by reading Michael E. Porter’s “The Five Competitive Forces That Shape Strategy” in the January 2008 Harvard Business Review.)
1. Educate your firm’s other leaders about these issues. It takes persistence to create and sustain competitive advantage and you cannot do it alone.
2. Don’t confuse strategy (finding and leveraging a sustainable competitive advantage) with steps, tactics, actions and models you will put into practice and modulate, depending on market conditions, to implement your strategy.
3. Don’t expect to create the same new services and values at the same pace everyone else is moving and still come out ahead. That’s a beginner’s mistake.
4. Don’t create products and services that you cannot protect or that your competitors can easily copy. Invest instead in finding and defending longer-term competitive advantages.
5. Don’t imagine that your competitive advantage rests in serving a single industry that is newly hot and rush in only that direction. Some firms no longer with us once pinned their hopes on dot-coms, life sciences and real estate. If everyone on board shifts to starboard and the winds shift (as they always do), things can go quite tipsy.
6. Don’t assume that what one general counsel tells one reporter who writes a story about it is what all your clients think. Most of your clients and prospects do not talk to reporters. Nor do they all agree with each other or even with those who claim to speak for them.
7. Get comfortable with the idea that you must spend a lot of time listening to and learning from your firm’s key clients and prospects. You must understand accurately and deeply their challenges and how they want to be served differently. Although consultants will be happy to interview your clients for you, keep at least some of this role for yourself. If you need coaching to become a good interviewer, get it, but don’t waste this opportunity to build out your own human intelligence network.
8. Although clients have a legitimate interest in your business, they have no business running your business. Any advice they offer about how your firm should change is offered from their own legitimate but limited perspective of how they would benefit from those changes. If you ask clients how your firm should be run and they tell you, they will think you have agreed to do their bidding. Disappointments will surely follow.
9. Although you must learn what key clients and prospects need in the way of legal services and how they regard your services, do not assume that doing what they think will benefit them will equally benefit your firm. Your firm’s long-term business interests, although aligned with clients’ business interests, are not the same as theirs.
10. You have no obligation to share your firm’s strategy with anyone outside your firm. In fact, it might even become a competitive advantage not to tell your competitors, clients and suppliers how you plan to best the competition.
Ann Lee Gibson, PhD , is principal of Ann Lee Gibson Consulting. She consults with law firms on competitive intelligence and business development initiatives. She is a Legal Marketing Association Hall of Famer and a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management.