There are a few critical questions that successful firm leaders need ask of themselves and ask of all of their partners on a regular basis. Here are two questions worthy of spending some time discussing at your next meeting:
- Can we define some distinctive attributes about our firm that clients would value?
One of the most difficult questions that we all face, and one that is sometimes articulated but is always on a prospect’s mind, is: “Why should I choose your firm (your practice group/you)? What makes you distinctive, and what specific added-value do you bring to my particular business matters that I can’t get anywhere else?”
Those last six, very discomforting words go to the heart of the matter and should be of special note. In short, it’s “What makes you so special?”
And flowing from all of this, to what extent have you fashioned a credible, dignified and believable answer that demonstrates how you are differentiated in a way that clients may actually find valuable?
A curious irony is that most firms go to great lengths to look like every other firm. In fact, a common reaction that I’m likely to elicit from the management of any firm when first presenting a new market opportunity is: “Can you please give us a list of the other firms which are doing this.”
In answer to the question “Upon what basis is your firm truly differentiated from your competitors?” partners respond, but only after taking some time for reflection. The typical response usually will include some reference to the firm’s full breadth of services and high technical proficiency (and to get some sense of how effective that response is, simply Google “leading full-service law firm” and you will see more than 40,000 entries, while “full-service law firm” gets you nearly 3 million results!)
This pause for reflection is interesting. It doesn’t suggest that the question came as a total surprise, as one that had never been asked before, or that this is an issue that this partner has not regularly considered. What it does suggest is that despite any previous contemplation, a wholly satisfactory answer has not been found and that a suspicion exists in the mind of this partner that he or she is offering, at best, only a superficial response.
Competitive advantage means getting out in front, by focusing on some area in which you can be unbeatable. By definition, if you are doing what everyone else is, you don’t have an advantage. Consider how you might answer these questions:
- What are we best at?
- What are we world-class great at?
- What makes us unique?
- How are we going to serve our clients in a way that nobody else can?
- What “wow” new services can we offer?
- What are we going to do that will truly lead the market?
Successful firms don’t stop asking these questions, and they certainly don’t stop even after getting a dignified answer.
- How much time are we investing in growing our skills?
Every progressive law firm today is focusing enormous attention on issues related to handling their client matters more efficiently, learning project management skills and exploring various alternative fee arrangements—all very noble and important undertakings.
But is that all that is required to be competitively successful in the practice of law?
Indeed, one might argue that while these programs should not be abandoned, it should be asked whether these initiatives are not simply allowing the firm to find ways to be more efficient at making buggy-whips (translation: improving our ability to deliver more commoditized services)? My point: Rather than focusing exclusively on today, a firm leader should examine how his or her firm is spending the time investing in the future—on building their lawyers’ skills, and on making the lawyers and the firm itself more valuable to clients tomorrow than they were yesterday.
What you now know, are able to now do, and what your current practice’s success is built upon will unavoidably depreciate in value unless you actively work on learning new things and building new skills. Continual “know-how” development is a lifelong requirement, not an option. Unfortunately, the systematic development of skills, if left unattended, does not happen by itself.
The truly gifted lawyers continually ask themselves one question: “What is it that I know today, that I didn’t know at this time last year?” Or to put slightly differently: “What is it that I can do for clients today, that I could not do for them one year ago?” This question is intended to provoke how we might best make ourselves “indispensable” or find ways of providing clients high-quality services that others cannot.
With an eye toward becoming indispensable, the most successful professionals are constantly on the grow. Much like in financial planning where one of the key principles is to “pay yourself first,” highly effective professionals devote a portion of their time to personal growth and developing new skills that will be of value to their clients both today and in the future.
Are you paying yourself first?