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Marketing: Industry Focus Is the Holy Grail

By Burkey Belser
September 21, 2011
Marketing: Industry Focus Is the Holy Grail

Last week I sat on a panel with Deb McMurray (Content Pilot) and John Simpson (Hubbard One), moderated by John Buchanan (Howard Rice) at Legal Tech SF. Per usual, we had a blast and, based on the evaluations, the audience did, too.  Even as I was up and about ranting on the latest web trend, I was being dragged down by the realization that a very big structural impediment is preventing law firms from realizing their potential.

I've been at this awhile so forgive me for a short foray into history. Law firms are actually gawky, awkward vehicles for the practice of law. Lawyers have been for centuries raised to perform solo. Even today, individuals are encouraged to "build their practice" from a young age. As a result, as law firms have grown, they've naturally built their organization around "practice areas." Thus we have the uneasy, queasy competitive practice group whose individuals are being encouraged to develop the group and themselves as well. Without getting too, too close to Darwin, Sunday's NY Times (9/18/11) suggests that the individual will win that battle, not the group; i.e., stars will too often jump to another team if the price is right, the team be damned.

That's a problem for the law firm, but not nearly as great a problem as this: our research, confirmed again and again over 20 years, tells us that buyers wear their industry hat when looking for legal services. In other words, buyers have no particular interest in dealing with this internal law firm battle.  They want industry expertise. They want advisors who know their industry, know its vocabulary, its trends and its challenges. Accounting firms figured this out 30? 40? years ago, creating enormously successful consulting operations. In the meantime, law firms fuss around with the practice group thing and miss the boat entirely.  Shame on them and their advisors.

There's an opportunity out there for some brave soul in some large firm to win the war. Legal is an enormously fragmented industry. Our research shows that no single firm has more than 4-6% unaided name awareness in any category (i.e., practice area such as litigation, deals, antitrust, energy, etc). This is because law firms are maneuvering to win battles (practice areas) that aren't being fought. Clients, meanwhile,  are doing battle within an industry.

We had a great time in San Francisco with our presentation.  You'll probably see it again. But while our enthusiastic chatter may give you a better website---better designed with better technology---it won't propel you to market leadership. Your firm may be rich. For many, that's plenty.  Your firm may be admired. For others, that's the brass ring. But unless you have the courage to see your services as your clients do, your firm will never be great.