Lawyers in small law firms sometimes like to poke fun at their large-firm competitors by calling them “dinosaurs.” While there’s some truth to the comparison, it’s also worth recalling that the dinosaurs had a pretty good 200-million-year run and would still be around but for that asteroid. Size might not be everything, but it’s still a lot, especially in a market like law where most consumers aren’t highly sophisticated and will take scope and scale as reliable indicators of quality.
Accordingly, smaller firms need to work harder not just to differentiate themselves on a basis unrelated to size, but also to firmly establish that “fewer lawyers” does not correspond with “lower quality.” Differentiation usually comes in three categories:
Focus: Large full-service firms are vulnerable to the suggestion that trying to do everything means they don’t do any one thing extremely well. Small firms focused on a particular narrow practice area can claim “boutique expertise” and “niche specialization” to boost their attractiveness.
Service: Small businesses have always emphasized their “personal touch,” and no market could use that touch more than law. Extraordinary standards of client response, communication, accessibility and service can set smaller law firms apart from the giants, which rarely prioritize these things.
Price: Proceed with caution, because “lower price = lower quality” is a powerful presumption in this market; in addition, you don’t want to price yourself below profitability. But lower overhead and more efficient procedures can raise legitimate price advantages and should be promoted as such.
Online marketing is an excellent way for smaller firms to express these differentiators, because it scales so easily and affordably. You can’t afford full-page ads in a national magazine or billboards at the airport and you shouldn’t try — leave mass marketing to the mass firms. A small law firm can punch far above its weight class through a superb website, a powerhouse blog, tremendous content distribution, and a hard-earned reputation for great results on a small budget. Here are some suggestions for each of the foregoing categories.
1. Focus. This is where the strongest ties can be created between a firm’s strategic positioning and its online marketing. Here are a few thoughts:
- Generate lots of superb content on your focused practice area.
- Promote your specialties throughout your website, principally on your practice area page, your lawyer biographies, and your home page.
- Choose the few things (if not the one thing) you want to be known for and push it hard.
- Publish at least one blog on your narrow practice area and update it at least once week.
- If there are profitable sub-niches, isolate each topic in a separate sub-category.
- Use Twitter, JD Supra, and LinkedIn as distribution channels for your content.
- Identify industry or other community media outlets in this area and strike up relationships with their editors.
Make it clear to the world that you own this practice area in this market, that no other firm knows as much or can turn out as much insightful and relevant insight as your firm. Resist the temptation to generalize as a fallback position; have confidence in your ability to serve your chosen niches and make it what you’re known for.
2. Service. Many small firms, however, find themselves obliged by circumstance to generalize their practice and/or their market; but that doesn’t mean they can’t still stand out. Extraordinary client service is within the reach of every law firm of every size and type.
- Choose a client service standard at which you can be (and want to be) exceptional and make it a core element of your practice, e.g.,
- Return every call the same day or within 24 hours;
- Guarantee clients their money back if they’re not fully satisfied with your work;
- Give clients 24/7 access to a private website for status and billing updates on their files, but send them a written update every month regardless.
- Then make this feature of your business the backbone of your (online) marketing, e.g.:
- Write a blog about your fixed-fee approach to billing or your relentless focus on customers.
- Cover your website with testimonials from clients raving about your service standards.
- Pitch articles to journalists about the personalized legal audits you create for every client or the training you give your lawyers and staff in emotional intelligence.
Find the service-based hook that will set you apart in a tough market and become famous for it.
3. Price. The risks of marketing on price are detailed above. Nevertheless, we’re now in a period of great economic turmoil that could go deeper and longer than many people suspect, so it would be unwise to ignore price as a competitive advantage. This is especially the case for smaller firms, since they disproportionately serve individuals and small businesses hit hardest by the recession, and because price is a factor upon which large firms simply cannot compete, for structural and cultural reasons.
- Document automation, cloud-based practice management software, virtual assistants and project management are just a few of the ways in which internal costs can be reduced so as to allow lower prices without consequent hits to profitability, quality or reputation.
- Market these measures: tell the world about the programs, practices and priorities you use to reduce costs.
- Blogs, newsletters, Twitter accounts, and press releases should relentlessly use terms like “efficient” “automated,” “streamlined,” “user-friendly” and “systematized.”
- Use your content production and publishing arms to ensure that your firm is known not simply for being affordable, but for being smartly affordable.
- The key to marketing on price is to articulate the cause of the price advantage — you cannot let clients perceive that you cost less because you’re not as good. You cost less because you run a tighter ship.
In terms of marketing, survival and success for small firms in the decade to come rests on one thing: being remarkable. It almost doesn’t matter what you’re remarkable for — what you do, who you do it for, how you deliver it, how you price it, how you relate to your clients, whatever. What matters is that you stand out, that there’s something arresting and noteworthy about you and your firm. Know what sets you apart — and then take steps to ensure the rest of the world finds out.