Maybe your small firm can't compete against the Goliaths - but maybe it doesn't need to. Develop your own strategy, put it into practice and then leave it up to the big guys to "compete" against you! Here's how to get started. . .
Solos and small firms have the same resources available to them that large firms have -- although admittedly, in some areas, not on the same scale. They can create websites, develop brochures, publish newsletters, conduct research, produce documents and serve clients just as well as or even better than "the big guys." They merely need to get over their inferiority complex, if it exists, and implement the strategy.
The key to implementing this "tiptoe" strategy lies in six letters: FTCOCS.
"F" is for "focus." The small firm must focus much more sharply than the large firm in a number of areas:
- Types of clients. Firms of all sizes have basically two types of clients: institutions (companies, public bodies, etc.) and individuals. In most cases, the small firm has the edge in serving individuals if it focuses on them and on the types of services they need, such as estate planning, family law, elder law and -- in a growing number of cases -- immigration. The small firm also can compete successfully for institutional clients. More on this below.
- Practice areas. The term "boutique" describes a smaller firm that focuses, or specializes, in one practice area. Intellectual property is an excellent example. Employment law, environmental law, immigration and alcoholic beverage law are others. Litigation also can be a successful niche for a solo or small firm. An Ohio attorney handles complex litigation for major corporate clients by having a cadre of contract lawyers whom he employees as he needs them.
- Industries. Even the largest full-service firms cannot be all things to all people. But the small firm can be all things to a few people by specializing in an industry and becoming a full-service firm to clients in that industry. A few examples: pharmaceutical companies, colleges, shopping centers, restaurants, automobile dealerships, group medical practices.
- Marketing. Don't try to do everything. Focus on a few tactics and execute them well. For example: Websites, newsletters or client alerts (send them via e-mail), booths at trade shows, seminars, videotapes. A small, one-office firm in Illinois has built a national practice by making instructive videotapes and sending them to clients all over the country.
"T" is for "technology" - a powerful competitive weapon. Everyone now can have access to information and research that used to be limited to large firms with extensive resources. Document assembly and retrieval is now available to any size firm. And the Internet has helped equalize the competition among law firms of different sizes. A solo in the Midwest, for example, has built a national immigration practice without leaving his office.
Small firms must be creative, particularly in their marketing and client service (more on that below). A well-designed website that is informative, not just firm-focused puffery, will bring new business. E-mailing informative (there's that word again!) newsletters and client alerts, as mentioned above, not only builds a firm's reputation but brings new business.
Small, easy-to-read brochures are effective. For industry-focused firms, presenting a well-done booth at trade shows also can help develop firm recognition and bring business. Creativity is also essential in the old, tried-and-true marketing basics: "Publish or perish" and "speak or suffer."
Creativity extends to pricing. Fixed fees, hourly rate plus contingency, reverse contingency and blended rates are all possibilities for a small firm to be more creative in its fee structure than its giant competitors.
Outstanding Client Service
Focus, technology and creativity all can be brought to bear in client service. But for the small firm to stand out against the giants, it must promise "OCS"-"outstanding client service." This means being proactive as well as reactive. Learn the client's business and industry. Don't just "return phone calls promptly"; place calls to clients to keep in touch between matters and to find out how they are doing. Go visit them, even when there are no legal matters to discuss. Offer to conduct in-house seminars for their people. And be alert for ways to help them in other areas: Recommend an accountant, real estate agent, travel agent or even a good babysitter.
Two firms in Pennsylvania have created an interesting approach to client service. They each bundle various menus of services, at fixed fees, for small business owners. The client can choose those services it feels it needs. In effect, these firms serve as the client's in-house legal department.
Final point: Not every lawyer or staff member will be a "salesperson" who brings in new clients. But everyone in the firm can and must be a marketer by doing something. Write an article, give a talk, join and become active in a group, track a lead, shake a hand.
Don't envision yourself as meeting the big firms head-on. Start tiptoeing around their footprints, and see how successful you will be.