Monday, November 9th, 2015
By Gideon Grunfeld
I still come across lawyers who feel that the distinguishing feature of their practice is their technical skill as a lawyer. Most recently that sentiment was conveyed to me by a business litigator with about ten years of experience who feels that many of the lawyers he encounters aren’t as technically proficient or reliable as he is. He wanted to make that a central piece of his marketing strategy.
I understand the appeal of this message, but there are at least three reasons why it’s likely to have limited success attracting more clients.
First, lawyers are hired before they provide their services. Thus, the decision to retain a lawyer depends on whether the client trusts the lawyer, not whether the lawyer will in the future be technically proficient.
Second, It is exceedingly rare for one lawyer or law firm to have a material advantage in technical knowledge over all of its competitors. This is especially true for lawyers based in large US cities who serve business clients. No lawyer has a monopoly or anything close to it on any aspect of legal knowledge. Clients almost always have the alternative of substituting in another competent lawyer.
Third, it is possible for clients to perceive that one law firm is the go-to firm in their community for a particular service or legal problem. But a law firm doesn’t reach that status by proclaiming that its lawyers or level or expertise is superior. That message largely needs to come from others. If enough lawyers and clients and members of the media and other arbiters of taste identify a particular lawyer or firm as distinctive in some superior way, then that firm has created a brand.
But look around. How many law firms outside the AmLaw 200 have a brand identity? If you just mention their name that evokes a sense of higher quality lawyering. That kind of brand almost doesn’t exist in American legal services. Individual lawyers have established a personal brand, but even there the brand isn’t built on the lawyer saying they have better technical skills than their colleagues.
This is not to suggest that it isn’t important for a lawyer or law firm to be experts in their field. Expertise obviously matters once you are in a position to serve a client. And doing good work for a client is the best marketing strategy for keeping them as clients. What too many lawyers fail to appreciate, however, is that doing excellent work doesn’t constitute an effective marketing message for folks who have never retained you before. Part of the message to prospective clients involves your expertise. It is a necessary element, but it is not sufficient to attract new clients.
Being a lawyer in today’s turbulent times increasingly requires sophisticated marketing strategies and messaging. Lawyers who above all prize their technical expertise often don’t like to hear this message. But that doesn’t make it any less true.