Firms must be different, not just sell differentiation

01 May 2022 By Jerome Doraisamy

Law firms like to talk about their points of difference, but if they aren’t actually being different, it undermines credibility and reputation, as well as breeds distrust, argues Fionn Bowd.

Like any other professional services entity, law firms understand and appreciate the importance of having a good workplace culture and talking about it to prospective employees. Summer clerkship seminars and careers fairs are where I first heard about how BigLaw firms prioritise the cultural environment of the clerks they bring in.

If all law firms are saying much the same thing, Bowd chief executive Fionn Bowd said, it leads to an underlying question about “the difference between real market differentiation and marketing spin”.  

Speaking recently on Legal Lightbulbs – the new podcast stream from Lawyers Weekly and Bowd, in which Ms Bowd and this writer seek answers to the questions that lawyers may be afraid to ask out loud themselves – she said that where law firms tend to go wrong when selling their points of difference is that they focus on the external, rather than the internal.

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“It’s not that you need to sell differentiation; it’s that you need to be different,” she proclaimed.

“If you’re not in fact different, then the selling is just spin, which is another word for lies. And that’s what we’ve got to be really starting to focus on is the difference between being actually different, and telling people that we are different. Because it undermines our credibility and undermines our reputation, and it leads to this general sense of distrust.”

How we got here

There used to be a number of things, Ms Bowd mused, that law firms could hang their hats on – such as being the firm that only took those with first-class honours.

Then, the number of firms, and size of those firms, grew.

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Now, she said, “there is this terror about scaring away any clients. And this fear that if we position ourselves in any particular way, there’s a client out there, an imaginary client out there, who’s going to look at us and say, ‘Oh, well, that firm’s not for me’”.

“So, the firms try to position themselves safely, with no risks, as a safe pair of hands, as having the best clients, the best lawyers, and the best work, and being the biggest, and therefore, the best, because that’s a safe choice,” she said.

What ends up happening, however, Ms Bowd noted, is that a lot of big firms may be positioning themselves in the same ways and to the same clients.

If a client cannot tell the difference between products, Ms Bowd went on, the only thing they can compare on is price.

“There’s two kinds of washing detergent. They both work the same. So, you just buy whichever one’s on sale,” she posited.

“Everyone who sells washing detergent wants to believe that they have these millions of loyal clients, customers who always buy their washing detergent, whether it’s on sale or not, because they like it the best. They want to believe that about themselves, but it’s simply not true. That’s not how customers work, and that’s not how consumers work, unless there is really something special about your washing detergent or unless your branding is just overpowering the good, so that people feel good inside when they buy it, or it is genuinely the best-performing item.

“The firms are failing on both of those.

“They’re failing on a human emotional connection response to make people feel good about buying the service from them. And they’re failing on the actual product differentiation, the sale of the thing of the legal services. And, what that means is that, every time, it just comes down to price.”

What firms must do

In Ms Bowd’s view, law firms that want to truly differentiate themselves in the marketplace “need to be spending a lot of time working out who you really are, and then sticking to that”.

“Why did we come together in the first place? What motivates us? What do we really care about? What is the work that we love doing? What is the work that we are best at doing? What is the work that we really think that we are better than most people, when we do it? What is it about us that’s different or specific to us in terms of how we work, how we engage with each other?” she said.

Another non-negotiable, she added, is the need to embrace things that are often seen as negative – particularly if they are true.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being honest about saying, ‘We really do work incredibly hard, and what that looks like is this: it’s these kinds of hours, it’s these kinds of conditions. But here’s the deal, three years with us and you will be trained to a level of a fifth or sixth year from another law firm’.

“Don’t pretend to everyone that they’re going to make senior associate or partner. Don’t pretend that if they all work 80-hour weeks constantly for three years, that they will make senior associates or partners because they won’t. Because everyone’s doing it, so that’s not the key thing. Be honest about it,” Ms Bowd advised.

Many businesses, inside and outside of law, are “terrified” of being honest, she reflected.

“I think things that are seen as negatives can and should be part of your truth-telling, as part of your product and brand story and differentiation, just as much of as the things that are positive and seen as positive about you, should also be seen as part of that truth-telling and brand story,” she said.

This is essential, she submitted, because – across the board – law firms are failing to sell their expertise in meaningful ways.

“If we were the way we thought we were, then we would all be like that partner. Every partner in every firm would be like that partner, but in their own areas of expertise. That’s how we think of ourselves, but it’s not how our clients think of us. It’s not how we position ourselves,” she said.

“If you look at our profiles on our website, you cannot tell what we really specialise in, because we’re too busy being all things to all people. So, we put down 50 different areas of specialty. And so that’s how we need to actually look to the people who are buying our services. And that’s how we actually need to perform.”

The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Fionn Bowd, click below: 

Firms must be different, not just sell differentiation
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