11 Mar

How are you differentiating your law firm in 2020?

Differentiation is defined as the process of becoming different by growth or development. It is the development from the one to the many, the simple to the complex, or the homogeneous to the heterogeneous. What does this actually mean for a law firm? How does a law firm business seek to stand out of from the crowd in a market saturated with other great lawyers?

Why do law firms need to differentiate?

Traditionally lawyers have regarded themselves as unique in what they do and in how they present themselves. The history of the legal fraternity as a profession that is responsible for upholding and protecting the law and the complexity of thought required to develop, define, dispense and defend those laws and rights have all contributed to the long held view that the legal profession is a noble and distinctive one. However, the ever growing popularity of the legal profession in Africa combined with increasing harmonisation of laws and standardisation of legal practice has resulted in increasing homogeneity amongst African lawyers. To this extent, it is now a common observation amongst many clients that it is more and more difficult to draw true distinctions between lawyers and their organisations. According to many consumers of African legal services, 'law firms look the same, feel the same and say the same thing'.

Differentiation in an African law firm context

Globalisation, legal harmonisation, consumer sophistication and market competition across African legal services means that firms are having to work even harder to differentiate themselves. The changing nature of the competitive landscape in many African jurisdictions means that lawyers are increasingly facing competition from a wide variety of firms of all shapes, sizes, cultures and jurisdictions. According to Mark Cohen, the legal industry is transitioning from guild to marketplace. African law firms are essentially vying for a finite group of increasingly sophisticated legal consumers who are armed with technology and information that allows them to make much more informed purchasing decisions. The consequence? Differentiation is no longer a luxury or a buzz word to be tossed around by the elite law firms, it is an absolute necessity for any African law firms seeking to establish, achieve or maintain true competitive advantage.

Key differentiation strategies

So in this context what does differentiation mean for a law firm operating in Africa which is competing both with other domestic players and also potentially with international firms? Well differentiation is not about branding or clever marketing gimmicks that have zero substance. Furthermore, differentiation that is not driven by client needs is likely to be an exercise in futility. At its heart, differentiation is all about law firms possessing, articulating and demonstrating the necessary characteristics or attributes that enable it to be seen as separate or different from its key competitors. In other words differentiation is all about those elements that provides a law firm with a perceived advantage in the eyes of clients, targets and ultimately the marketplace. Essentially differentiation approaches or strategies can be grouped into the following 3 categories:

  • Hard or Focused Differentiation: This strategy focusses on a niche market by making a practice or service more desirable to a target audience with highly focused messaging. Hard differentiation is usually a challenge for the vast majority of firms as it involves focussing on one category of product or service to the exclusion of all else. Many firms begin with hard differentiation by focussing on a particular practice or sector but very often then expand their service offerings as the firm grows. Whilst having a full service firm does not preclude hard differentiation, having such a plethora of products and services often means that a firm is then reluctant to define itself as any one thing and would rather be regarded as a master of all. The consequence can often be significant dilution of the firms marketing message.

  • Soft or Traditional Differentiation: This strategy takes specialized aspects of a practice or service and applies a message highlighting its broad appeal to its audience. It usually involves emphasizing an aspect of the firm’s spirit or culture which can be achieved by developing a tagline or descriptive headline. Whilst its not necessarily difficult to create these forms of differentiation, the challenge with the soft approach is that for it to succeed it must be:
    • Factual (rather than aspirational)
    • Meaningful (to existing and/or target clients)
    • Believable (the firm must live and breathe it)
    • Demonstrable (there must be tangible ways of showing it)

  • Silent or Thematic differentiation: An alternative model of differentiation that sits between a firm being niche and having explicit headlines or taglines. Instead silent differentiation allows a firm to subtly position itself by virtue of particular themes which are then observable throughout the business. For example a firm that positions itself as being national and therefore has multiple offices across the country or the firm that seeks to be regarded as modern and therefore focusses on recruiting a team that thoroughly reflects this. Silent or thematic differentiation can either be used to enforce or reinforce a view about a firm or to dispel a myth or perceived misconception.

Some suggested focus areas for differentiating your law firm in 2020 and beyond

For a more detailed discussion about differentiation strategies or if you would like LGC to undertake an audit of your differentiating assets, please contact us at info@lareinegold.com.


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