For years, a premise behind law firm growth was the recognition (or belief) that many clients required a broad range of services. Sensing a need, and wanting to meet it, law firm leaders sought to build not only bigger law firms, but also ones that offered many substantive specialties. As the thinking went, once a firm client was in the door a cross-selling culture would lead to the client’s every legal need being met under one roof.
In the case of most firms, this strategy has not been completely successful. Fundamentally, few clients want to be “under one roof” but would prefer to spread around their dollars if they must be spent at all. As one in-house lawyer noted last week, great firms may have some great lawyers, but many of those same firms’ lawyers are largely interchangeable with lawyers at other firms. In addition, since garden-variety work does not need a cuff-link popping lawyer leading an army of lawyers, a lot of legal work ends up a lower rate shops. And in the case of many clients, the perceived value of insourcing is reducing the business law firms can even hope to control.
Law firms are beginning to recognize that being all things for all people may not work. Above the Law’s recent article cites a report from Citi Private Bank Law Firm Group that notes that many of the law firms enjoying success in 2014 are engaged in transactional practices. While the dearth of dispute resolution matters could simply be cyclical, Wiley Rein has jettisoned its bankruptcy practice, apparently in the belief that narrowing its specialties will serve it better in the long run. And an increasing number of voices argue that reducing one’s specialties not only stimulates focus, but it also allows a firm to differentiate itself in the marketplace.
For 2015, successful law firms should focus on what they do well, try to improve on those areas of expertise and use that strength to grow their client base around that expertise. The same focus may cause them to consider eliminating distractions by narrowing the array of services offered. In examining whether to focus on a narrower practice, law firms should consider the following:
The Opportunity to Cross-Sell Does Not Justify Marginally Performing Practices. Too many practices are not at the top of their field. If they are not, leadership should consider their elimination. Play to win, not to show.
Clients Don’t See Much Value in Being Under One Roof. One-stop shopping is of little benefit to most clients, especially when the cross-sold practice is not any better than the same practice at 50 other firms. Many clients don’t see the need to aggregate matters at one firm, so stop acting like they all do.
All Things Being Equal, Price May Drive Business Away. A law firm’s non-premium practices are interchangeable with many other firms. That being the case, the only thing many law firms have to sell is price. If you have to reduce your margins to gain the cross-sold business, do you really need that practice?
Insourcing is a Message. Clients that insource a lot of legal work still use outside law firms for the premium matters-the stuff that is beyond routine. Even if you haven’t been hit hard by the insourcing trend, consider the fact that routine work is easy enough for clients to do themselves or your competitors to match at each step. Insourcing is telling you to focus on what is hard and what you do well. Ask yourself if you really need the rest.
Clients’ Buyer’s Market Will Continue. Don’t wait until 2016 to see how things turn out. Business may improve marginally but any improvement could prove illusory. All the dynamics exist to stimulate your focus on the future. Don’t wait.
Competition among law firms is growing at the same time law firms’ differentiation seems to be shrinking. For 2015, focus on what makes your law firm special and build from that strength.