A dynamic law firm growth tactic involves opening an office in a new geographic market.  To move a firm into virgin territory requires careful thought about issues that go beyond simply hiring new lawyers.  Indeed, expanding a firm’s footprint requires many considerations, including good intelligence about the new market’s practice characteristics, bar personality and mores, prevailing rates, client expectations, and real estate location/economic issues.

No less important is finding the right pathfinding lawyer to open, manage and market the new office.  A lawyer’s lawyer may seem ideal, but if he or she tucks away into the new home’s bunker, the firm’s splash into the market will be more like a ripple. The best hiring decision lies in identifying a least one lawyer that brings the right blend of professionalism and front facing energy that advertises the firm’s new office as serious and formidable, and one that clients, lawyers and the business community will accept.

But even if good market intelligence is coupled with finding the perfect office leader, firms jumping into a new market should be wary of common pitfalls that can turn new office elation into old office despair.  Faltering in a new market can usually be tied to one or more of the following five mistakes:

Adopting a beachhead mentality.  The thrill of the chase makes some firms focus solely on getting the new office opened with good lawyers, an adequate stable of clients and a good lease.  The thinking goes that once a beachhead is established a natural progression inland will follow.  But it doesn’t work that way. A market entry without a long-range plan for post-opening initiatives will squander momentum and lead to atrophy.

Acting solely on opportunity.  Too often the notion of entering a new market is the outgrowth of an unsolicited opportunity that seems fortuitous.  If thinking about a new market is spawned by good fortune coming from somebody’s misfortune or wanderlust, the needed diligence and thoughtful examination likely is an afterthought.  An unforeseen opportunity and its momentum can endanger the making of a measured strategic decision.

Integrating one-way.  Kudos to the firm that enters a new market committed to integrating the new office into the rest of the firm. But many integration plans are too weighted towards acclimating the new office into the greater firm.  While there is logic in exposing the new lawyers to firm processes, procedures and culture, getting the larger firm platform to commit to the new market is equally important.  A plan integrating the entire firm into the new market will pay dividends.

Thinking that additional growth will be easy.  At the opening of most new offices the firm declares that it intends to expand and expects to be a multiple of its opening size within months.  It is not so easy. The new office, an interloper in the new market, has no record of performance, has not experienced success and is an unknown quantity.  Few great candidates will be willing to risk a move to such a nonentity.  Lawyers willing to join often have baggage that makes them generally. If a law firm thinking about a new market does not know how to solve the recruitment riddle, it should re-think its foray into the new market.

Treating the new market like a second-class citizen.  Except in the case of market openings that are specialized for a narrow purpose, no firm should go into a new market if it does not intend to compete at the highest levels of its selected niche.  To do so, the firm must invest in the new market with a plan to pervasively become known in the legal, civic and social community. A firm unwilling to make that investment should consider passing.

 Opening an office in a new market can be big news.  It can also lead to bad news if executed incorrectly.  Before your firm descends into a new market, will it guard against these five common mistakes?