Rank outsiders: Why law firms need a new sales and marketing playbook to unseat market leaders

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If the daily hire alerts dropping into my inbox are anything to go by, law firms are making big plays for growth in 2019. Bringing in new expertise and leadership to bolster existing practices and – increasingly, it seems – build new service lines and capabilities.

Perhaps more than any other industry, law firms have deeply ingrained reputations for particular specialisms. “Such and such is the go-to firm for that” and “we’re really known for A – clients don’t know we do B” are phrases I hear time and again when talking to clients about their commercial goals and competitive landscape. These are partly explanations offered for why they are not winning work in particular areas, despite clear commercial potential. But it also reflects the structural reality of an industry that likes to put firms and professionals in boxes.

Legal rankings and directories are a prime example of this. Law firms funnel huge resources into submitting very detailed profiles of people and practices with the aim of making it into the top tiers. It’s easy to see the appeal. Rankings are supposed to act as a reference for buyers of legal services. “About to do a deal in X market or Y sector and unsure of the leading firms? These are the people to speak to.” Law firms and buyers are provided neat parameters – this is where you play. This is your wheelhouse.

Not only does this represent poor buyer service – why should clients choose between a limited group of legacy leaders and count out smaller, more innovative or less established firms, which may actually be in a position to offer different, or better suited services? For partners and business development leaders, it also means it’s incredibly difficult to grow an offering beyond the firm’s calling card. And you can’t win work you’re not considered for in the first place. Firms may be able to continue to expand in existing areas of strength, but creating new commercial opportunities in new areas will have the greatest impact on growth.

So what is your firm doing to build consideration for new services? How are you going to unseat ranked firms to win new work? This is where I see a disconnect. Business development and marketing initiatives tend not to be conceived to drive new consideration or open up opportunities where they don’t exist already. Budgets are allocated to support established specialisms and individuals, not future big bets, and campaigns do more to confirm what buyers know you can do rather than challenging them to consider you for something different. It’s a strategy designed to maintain the status quo rather than build new fast growth teams and services.

Over the next few weeks in a series of blogs, I’ll explore what a new sales and marketing playbook might look like. I’ll argue that a different approach is key to drive consideration, generate demand and convert opportunities when growth depends on establishing new services and capabilities, and unseating ranked incumbents.

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