An Opportunity Hiding in Plain Sight: Using Diversity as a Differentiator

Topics: Client Relations, Corporate Legal, Diversity, Law Firms, Women’s Leadership Blog Posts


As firms compete for business in the “New Normal” business climate, the good news is that 64% of law firms participating in the 2016 Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute Annual Marketing and Business Development Benchmarking Survey report they have defined their competitive advantage, or differentiator.

The survey findings were presented at a session titled “Legal Industry Trends: A Data-Driven Dive on Legal Marketing and Business Development Across the Industry” at the Legal Executive Institute’s 23rd Annual Marketing Partner Forum in mid-January.

The bad news is that the differentiation strategies used (see chart below) can be only described as mundane. Can you even imagine a large, full-service firm that doesn’t emphasize its commitment to building client relationships, breadth of industry expertise and exceptional standards of delivering client service?


The session’s presenters — Silvia L. Coulter, Principal Consultant at Law Vision Group, LLC, and Steven R. Petrie, Chief Strategy Officer at Faegre Baker Daniels LLP — summarized law firms’ dilemma thusly: “The law firm notion of competitive advantage is generally simplistic and may fail to meet the standard criteria: unique, sustainable and valued.”

In a follow-up interview with Nicole Cudiamat Minnis of The National Law Review about the survey, Petrie noted that differentiation is “the million-dollar question for traditional law firms, many of whom are perceived by clients to be virtually indistinguishable.” Ouch!

An Innovative Alternative

One blindingly obvious solution is for firms to focus on diversity as a competitive advantage. According to Dorothy Quann, Vice-President and General Counsel of Xerox Canada Ltd., who participated on another panel at the conference focused on the topic of diversity: “I think a firm is missing out if its diversity efforts are something it doesn’t want to highlight — it’s totally a competitive advantage.”

But it’s not enough to include the usual commitment to diversity on the firm’s website and include diverse attorneys in pitch meetings. Clients are increasingly unwilling to just take a firm’s word that it is taking the subject of diversity seriously — they are asking for metrics to prove it. Jan Anne Dubin, CEO and Principal at Jan Anne Dubin Consulting and the moderator for Quann’s panel, the metrics that clients seek are quantitative; these include, for example, the numbers of diverse candidates in a firm’s pipeline, how many diverse attorneys serve on important committees as well as statistics on retention and promotion of diverse candidates.

What If It’s Still a Work in Progress?

If the metrics tell a story that support a firm’s commitment to diversity, then things fall into place easily. Sometimes, however, despite the right intentions, the numbers don’t reflect the effort expended. So then what? Even in that case, firms should still be able to tell a compelling narrative about what they’ve done and how they’ve done it.

Let’s take women’s initiatives as an example; almost every firm has one. Unfortunately, few have demonstrated much success in moving the needle toward gender parity and some have even inadvertently caused damage according to a “Report of a National Survey of Women’s Initiatives: The Strategy, Structure and Scope of Women’s Initiatives in Law Firms” issued by the National Association of Women Lawyers Foundation. Some firms, however, have enjoyed better outcomes by following the Report’s strong recommendation that firms pivot from “soft programming” (such as networking) to programs targeting the factors that have a direct impact on advancement within firms.

The Just Add Women® Initiative Toolkit Series, for example, is a series of six skill-building meetings focused on the kinds of factors women lawyers must negotiate for career success, including stretch assignments and timely and specific feedback. The story one such firm can tell about implementation of this program by engaging both male and female equity partners to facilitate the sessions is one that would clearly demonstrate the firm’s determination to help retain and promote women. As one male partner said: “I had no idea of some of the issues women commonly face until I learned about them during the sessions. It changed the way I think about some things.”

Providing specifics about the efforts a law firm has made to further diversity connects the dots for clients more persuasively than just completing a “diversity survey”. Additionally, this approach has the added advantage of enhancing client relationships in a truly meaningful way — through shared interests.