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- Competitive Positioning and Differentiation – and How to Get There -

The term “strategy” is derived from the Latin term “strategem”, a military term meaning “outflanking the enemy.” How clear and compelling is your firm’s strategem for outflanking your principal competitors?

In the competitive world of today’s legal industry, it is important for a law firm to have a defined position in the marketplace. This is especially true of midsize law firms, many of which suffer from being “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

When clients think of your firm, what unique competencies or strengths come to mind? Does the firm have clearly defined areas of expertise? Are you a “go to” firm for certain specialized services or industries? Just as important, can the firm deliver on that promise? Are there internal constraints that minimize the firm’s true external potential?

When Coburn Consulting looks at the strategic positioning of a firm in the marketplace, we focus on Key Issues and Opportunities (KIOs). These questions pinpoint the KIOs that have relevance for most firms:

Strategic Questions for Law Firms

What is the partnership’s (or leadership’s) collective vision for the firm over the next five years? What are the firm’s goals in terms of size, practice and client mix, and geographic reach?

At what market level / tier does the firm compete? At what level would we like to compete? How satisfied are we with our current position in the market? How much ambition does the partnership have to take the firm to a higher level?

Is our overall market position advancing or eroding? If we continue on our present course for the next 5+ years, what will our market position most likely be?

Are we “getting invited to the party” as much as we would like? Are we able to attract the quality of clients and matters that we would like?

Are we spread too thin? Do we lack focus / critical mass? Are we trying to be “most things to most people”? Do we have sufficient depth?

Do we lack differentiation / distinctiveness? What are we especially “known for” or “known as”? For what specialties / characteristics are we “branded”?

Is our profitability adequate for competitive purposes? How much investment capacity do we enjoy? With our currency, how strongly can we “play the game” from a recruiting and marketing standpoint?

Are we growing sufficiently? What are our future growth ambitions and goals? If growth is desirable, to what extent should we rely on “organic” vs. “acquired” growth?

What practices / specialty areas do we consider to be the best opportunities for future growth and profitability? Do we have any practices that detract from our success as a firm?

How integrated and unified are we as a firm – among both practice groups and offices?

Are we sufficiently diversified? Do we have too many eggs in too few baskets?

Do we offer sufficient geographic reach to service our clients and to capitalize on future practice expansion opportunities?

Do we offer sufficient practice / industry specialization? In which areas are we considered “experts”? In which areas would be like to be considered as such?

How’s our productivity? How much of a problem do we have with under-productive partners?

Are we sufficiently leveraged? In which practices do we need greater use of associates / paralegals?

How adequate is our practice group organization, planning, and management? How much importance do we attach to practice group effectiveness?

Is our lateral recruiting sufficiently competitive? To what extent are we losing desirable laterals to larger / stronger firms?

Do we have any issues regarding service quality / client service / client satisfaction? Do we have adequate information about how our clients view us?

How adequate is our marketing, client / practice development? How adequate is cross-selling?

Is our technology adequate for our current and future needs? Are we making the most of our existing technology platform?

How adequate is our financial information? What are the key performance indicators that we should be tracking and sharing within the firm?

Is our firm leadership / governance adequate for our current and future needs? Does the firm’s governing body pay sufficient attention to longer-term strategic vs. shorter-term operating issues?

The ultimate goal of a strategic plan is to define the firm’s value-added to its clients, clarify its brand among competitors, and enhance its competitive position. Coburn Consulting helps firms develop plans that are both visionary and practical – visionary in the sense that it stretches the boundaries of current thinking – and practical in the sense that, ultimately, the product becomes a series of concrete action initiatives that get assigned, scheduled, and carried out.

Strategic Planning Process

  1. Background materials review: In preparation for this process, we review some basic background information on the firm, including financial and operating performance data, top client list, practice and industry concentration, etc. We will also like to see copies of past planning memoranda and any other information relevant to our understanding of the firm.

  2. Internal interviews: We begin the process by conducting a series of one-hour interviews with a representative sample of the firm’s attorneys and administrative staff as a means of understanding the firm’s people, practices, and clients, and to test partners’ thinking on what they believe are the most important strategic issues and opportunities to be included in the planning program. Questions for the Partner Survey (see Step 3, below) will be framed from the types of issues raised in these interviews.

  3. Partner Survey: All partners (and, as appropriate, experienced associates and senior administrative staff) are asked to complete a confidential, anonymous questionnaire eliciting their views on the key strategic and operational issues of the firm. The questionnaire is tailored around the unique issues of the firm as identified in Step 2, above. The survey is returned to and compiled by a survey tabulation affiliate of Coburn Consulting and a composite summary of the results will be presented to the leadership team and, subsequently, to all partners.
  4. Client Telephone Interviews: Coburn Consulting conducts a series of 20-30 minute telephone interviews with 25 of the firm’s most important clients. The interviews elicit client views regarding the firm’s image and reputation, practice strengths and weaknesses, competitor assessments, industry specialization opportunities, and market and business development strategies. The interview guide is designed around the unique strategic issues and opportunities of the firm and its clients and markets.
  5. Market and Competitor Analysis: Coburn Consulting examines economic data and industry trends in the local market and in contiguous states to highlight growth and diversification opportunities that the firm might pursue. Included in such data is population size and growth, GDP size and growth, indices of investment in technology industries, transaction data in venture capital investments, M&A activity, patent filings, and other publicly-available data to assess the relative attractiveness of selected industries and/or geographic markets.
  6. Leadership Working Session: Following Step 5, a half-day meeting is held of the firm’s leadership team, facilitated by Coburn Consulting, to review the findings, conclusions, and initial recommendations of the planning process. At this stage, the leadership team provides suggestions on modifying or shaping the recommendations to best meet the firm’s culture and needs.
  7. Partnership Strategy Session #1: Coburn Consulting facilitates a half-day Strategy Retreat for all partners. The purpose of this session is to present, discuss, and agree on a Firm Vision, Firm Goals, and on a set of strategies that will best address the Key Issues and Opportunities facing the firm over the next 3-5 years.
  8. Action Plans: Following the Partnership Strategy Session, Task Forces are appointed to convert the agreed-upon strategies into detailed 12-24 month Action Plans. Each Task Force has between 3-5 members (partners, senior associates, and senior staff) and each meets on several occasions over a 3-4-week period. The task force process is facilitated by a member of Coburn Consulting both in person and via conference calls from Boston.
  9. Strategy Working Session #2: Following the completion of Step 8, Coburn Consulting will plan and facilitate a second half-day Strategy Retreat for all attorneys and others, as appropriate. The purpose of this session will be to present, discuss, and agree on the 12-24 month Action Plans that will best carry out the agreed-upon strategies for the firm over the next several years.
  10. Strategic Plan Distribution: Following Strategy Session #2, Coburn Consulting produces the final 3-year Strategic Plan for distribution to each partner.

Apart from providing the firm with a clear strategic “blueprint” for the next 3-5 years, a formal partnership-endorsed planning process gets the partners “on the same page” with respect to the firm’s vision, goals, and future priorities. Achieving a strong degree of consensus and garnering strong partnership “buy-in” around these key issues is the most salient leadership deficiency of most midsize and larger law firms.

Related Articles:
“Charting your Firm’s Course into the Future,” Legal Administrator (Fall 1986)

“Law Firm Planning – the Case for Starting Small,” Legal Administrator (November 1988)

“The Administrator’s Quick Reference Guide to Law Firm Strategic Planning,” monograph / workbook published by the Association of Legal Administrators (1995)

“Charting Your Firm’s Future Course,” Strategies, Legal Marketing Assn. (Sept. 2002)

“Where Do You Want to Go?” Legal Management (November/December, 2002)

“Making it Without Merging: Part I: Who Says Midsize Firms Can't Surge Ahead? - Part I," Of Counsel Magazine (June 2006)

"Making it Without Merging: Part II: Who Says Midsize Firms Can’t Surge Ahead While Staying Independent?” Of Counsel Magazine

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