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Law Firm Strategic Planning 101: What Clients Do You Want to Serve?

Too many lawyers mistakenly believe that the strategic core of their firm is defined by their substantive expertise. If you ask them what their firm does, they say things such as, “We are business litigators” or “family law specialists”. And if they are at a bar association event or other venue where other lawyers are present, they define their expertise more narrowly. The accomplished business litigator might, for example, say that he “focuses on trade secret disputes.”

There is both an obvious and subtle problem with defining your firm primarily in terms of your substantive expertise. The manifest defect is that it provides no competitive advantage. It doesn’t begin to explain how you and your firm are at all different from all the other lawyers who claim to have the same substantive expertise as you do.

The more subtle problem is that it tends to devalue lawyers by artificially limiting the scope of the services they could provide. Lawyers who can handle trade secret lawsuits are generally also able to litigate a wide range of other business disputes including breach of contract claims, fraud, unfair business competition, and other business torts.

There is a better approach to defining your firm’s strategic center. Identify the clients you most want to serve. That’s what has contributed to the growth to the largest law firms in the country. For the most part, they don’t define themselves as having certain kinds of lawyers. They have grown because they serve large corporations, and as those corporations have become global, so have the law firms. As data privacy became an issue for these corporations, these firms developed an expertise in that area. Likewise, as intellectual property became a larger share of the value of these corporations, AmLaw 200 firms moved heavily into IP and especially patent litigation. And if, in the future, global corporations start using drone technology extensively, you can be sure that at least some of these law firms will start developing an expertise in drone law. Some already have.

It’s especially important for small firms to position themselves as serving the needs of certain clients. Among other benefits, it will make it much easier for them to have repeat business. For example, a business litigator I know worked with the top executives of several local businesses. She noticed that many of those executives owned second homes that fronted a series of lakes. When one of the executives called and asked for assistance involving a lakefront boundary dispute, the lawyer saw this as an opportunity to develop an expertise in such disputes. Had the lawyer defined himself as a particular kind of litigator, this opportunity would have been missed. By focusing on how to help a particular kind of client, she and her firm were able to grow and expand into an area that they had never previously considered.

Focusing on serving particular clients works as a business development strategy only if you take the time to learn about your clients and what is happening in their lives. Most service companies see this as axiomatic. But the culture of too many law firms is resistant to investing heavily in understanding their clients. They act as if it’s too salesy or unprofessional to do so.

In today’s competitive market for legal services, such an attitude can be fatal. In my consulting work, I have seen firsthand that positioning a firm as an alternative to those who merely tout their substantive expertise can be fun and profitable.