The Myth of a National PracticeBy Burkey Belser
July 23, 2008
There’s a sticky issue that comes up frequently as we work with our clients to develop brand strategy—how to define a national practice. In theory, a precise definition shouldn’t matter much, but actually the wrong answer can derail a crisp brand message, lead the firm to murky brand waters, reduce the effectiveness of the brand and dramatically increase the costs of achieving brand recognition.
We want to begin with a proposition:
- If you and your firm are located in Chicago and receive a call from California for work to be performed in California and you’ve had no prior business relationship with the prospect, you have a national practice.
- If you and your firm are located in Chicago and your Chicago client takes you to California because they trust you and are happy with your work, congratulations, you have a loyal client. But you do not have a national practice.
A national practice is national in reputation.
In other words, just because you travel all over the country at the behest of your clients does not mean you have a national practice. It means you have a lot of frequent flyer miles. You can lay claim to a national practice when your reputation for your expertise and sagacity has extended beyond the natural boundaries of a region (city, state or multi-state economic cluster).
David Boies has a national practice; Skadden has a national (even international) mergers and acquisitions practice; Wilmer Hale has a national SEC investigations practice. Obviously the list could go on and on because many accomplished individuals and many accomplished firms have national reputations.
A brand in development should reflect both the reality of a firm’s business and its aspirations. You may have a thriving local or regional practice, but staking a claim to a national practice when it doesn’t exist has attendant risks and costs that you should recognize. They are:
Loss of focus
Effective branding demands that you make decisions not only about what you are and what you wish to be, but also about what you are not! If you wish to expand the geographical reach of your business, there are many good reasons to do so. A wider geographic pool of prospects diversifies risk, increasing opportunity and hedging against local or regional economic downturns. But if your claim to a national practice is no more than wishful thinking, then you will have watered down your message by making the claim. Yes, deep expertise and a broad reputation often trump local knowledge for a buyer, but local knowledge is a strong selling point for almost every service business. Even those with national reputations lose to local players. It’s best to have it all, but this is challenging. The Internet, video communications and jet travel may have all but eliminated geography as an impediment to doing business anywhere, but some buyers still feel more comfortable with a local touch.
Loss of credibility
If 95% of your business comes to your firm because of where you have offices, then you have a local (or regional) firm. A false claim to a national practice is easily exposed when a prospect asks what local companies you’ve worked with; how well do you know our market; what experience have you had with our unique challenges?
While the actual geographical footprint of a practice is in no way solely determinative of its scope, buyers can be forgiven if they draw conclusions from it. If you have six offices in Tennessee and one in Washington, DC, well, then, it’s reasonable to assume you’re a Tennessee firm with an outpost in the nation’s capital, no matter what you may claim to be. Should you claim to be a national firm—or even more modestly, a regional firm, risking your strong state position?
If you have offices in Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Washington, DC, then buyers will assume you’re a southeast regional firm. Should you claim to be a national firm, risking your strong regional position?
If you have offices in Boston, New York, Chicago and San Francisco, you have enough reach to be considered a national firm. Buyers will assume you have offices in those locations to support your local clients nationally. If you also have critical mass in each office, you’ve bolstered your claim to a true national practice. In other words, your geographical footprint can lend credibility to the claim of a national practice even if a practice is dominantly local. Perception can lead reality in this case.
A wider geography increases your marketing costs exponentially as you advertise in different local markets or travel to them to pitch new business, or to speak at or participate in national conferences. Marketing at the national level only is inadequate to building a national practice; you must also touch down at the local level.
When one or two are gathered together…
For many, the claim of a national practice is the triumph of hope over reality. If your ambition is to be national, then we urge you to admit reality and plan accordingly. (By the way, be careful what you wish for.)
Many firms that are, in the main, a collection of statewide or regional practicesdo have one or two practices that are truly national in stature. Is it fair to those practices to brand the firm as regional or local when their sights are set higher? Well, it depends. If the firm wants to hitch its wagon to those stars, then go for it. (Expect local practices to bolt, however.) Generally, all things considered—caveat, caveat—we believe the right thing to do is to separate those practices for special consideration and targeted marketing.
Doesn’t a strategic plan have anything to do with this?
You bet. That’s where branding starts. So all that’s been said before must be conditioned by the goals of a strategic plan. We simply didn’t want to make everything too complicated right out of the gate.
First of all, this article is perhaps most relevant to the small or mid-sized firm of up to, say, 600 professionals, just to pick a number. Firms in this size range are the ones most likely to be grappling with growth issues—both of individual practices and geographical footprint. In order to focus resources and build on strengths, these firms will likely target strong practices for special attention and existing or hoped-for offices for growth or expansion. Marketing efforts, then, perforce must be tiered. Lower tiers get subsistence support. The highest tiers get focused support and an inordinate share of the marketing resources. The role of the executive team, particularly the managing partner, is to lead the charge and manage the politics adroitly but firmly. And ultimately, we feel, that means recognizing the reality of national versus local or regional practices and placing them appropriately within the firm’s marketing plan and the firm’s brand strategy.
Now. Go forth and conquer.