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Position, position

25 August 2005

"Position, position, position!" is the unison cry of all would-be property investors and speculators. The mantra is not a bad bit of advice, especially where the investor intends to sell the property later. Investors know that the position of the property is the most important consideration a purchaser will take into account, other than the purchase price and aesthetics of the property. The same mantra should apply to a firm's strategy and marketing initiatives. In a country overcrowded by lawyers, and law firms all supposedly offering the same service, the prospective client is spoilt for choice. The success in securing a new client engagement or retention of existing clients is the firm's ability to convince the prospect that the services and skills it possesses are the ones best suited to meet the client's needs.

Law firm marketing and business strategy has never been more important than it is today. With an ever increasing shrinkage of work reserved for lawyers, a more informed client base and the unregulated growth of lawyers and law firms in the industry, the success and continued existence of law firms will be based on their ability to apply business and marketing principles that separate them from the pack and distinguish themselves as the law firm of choice. This article explores the strategic and marketing concept of law firm positioning using a few noticeable and real life examples of firms in South Africa that have recognised the positioning value statement.

Ask the pizza man
So, how can lawyers best learn and understand what "positioning" is and what its strategic value will be to their firm? Simple, ask your local Pizza Man. Take for example the Scooters Pizza Chain; it's hardly known for its cheap prices, quality of food or value. Rather, Scooters relentlessly promotes and markets its speedy delivery. As they say "39 minutes or it's on us ". The positioning strategy of Scooters is based on speed and, as a result, people associate Scooters as embodying the fast and reliable delivery of hot food. In a food market where competition is tough, Scooters has taken a bold position and highlighted its distinctive competitive advantage over its competitors.

Law firm positioning
To position your law firm is a task that starts by first listening and understanding what your clients and future prospects need from a legal professional. The process of positioning is given form when one focuses on the needs of the client and complements it with the resources to fulfil that need. The process is completed through the continued marketing of the firms' skills and knowledge, thereby satisfying the needs of the client. While the recipe would seem simple, it is not. Too many firms place far too little time in this exercise and simply become known as a general practice that serves the needs of every client. It is akin to taking a shotgun to kill an ant!

Having followed, with much interest, the development of law firm marketing by American law firms, the latest thinking in strategic law firm marketing is that law firms must position themselves to service the three general classes of needs of clients, these being: Expertise, Experience and Efficiency. According to Al Ries and Jack Trout's marketing classic, Positioning :
1. You must position yourself in your client's mind;
2. Your position must be singular, having one simple message;
3. Your position must set you apart from your competitors;
4. You must sacrifice and can't be all things to all people, focus on one thing

Today's clients are looking for law firms that show an ability to meet their specialised needs. How do they choose? They choose by being influenced by the firm's positioning within the industry. In South Africa, several law firms have heeded the advice in this article and established themselves as the law firm of choice in the minds of their existing and future clients, through a strategic positioning statement. For example, when one thinks of the best corporate law firms in South Africa, the name of Webber Wentzel features immediately. When one talks of trade marks, the name of Adams & Adams will be mentioned; when one deals with patents, we look to Spoor & Fisher and, closer to home in Cape Town, the property specialists are known by the name Buchanan Boyes Smith Tabata.

A firm that establishes a reputation as the best to deal with a particular client need is sure to secure its market share and set the firm up to capture further market share from those firms too busy being a jack of all trades to its client base. Some will argue that the modern South African law firm is one offering a rainbow of services to its clients and that to pigeonhole one's services is not a viable long-term strategy. While I admit that this is the case, it eliminates from the strategic thinking and evolution of the practice of law the idea that law firms must be proactive and adapt to the market. Clients no longer seek out one particular firm for all their matters; they seek out the firms that are best equipped to deal with their specific needs. The availability of several service disciplines is a good idea, but it must be seen as a support service to the firm's main areas of expertise or core competencies.

As a starting point in law firm positioning the following broad positioning categories have been identified with their unique characteristics.

The expertise positioning strategy
This positioning strategy places the firm as the industry expert in legal matters that are at the forefront of legal development and specialised legal practice. In South Africa today, this would include Internet law, constitutional law, patent law, cross border commercial law, legal forensic auditing and other specialised services. To secure such a positioning strategy within the industry and in the minds of the clients will require the firm to, firstly, establish the capacity to offer the expert services. Such firms would need to hire a talented pool of professionals from various industries, top law schools and from other leading law firms. On-going training, peer-learning and apprenticeship within the firm are vital to ensure that the experts are always kept well abreast of latest developments and remain the "experts" within the profession. High salaries and retention of skilled professionals through an "up or out" promotion system would ensure that the firm retains only the best and the brightest.

The internal ability of the firm to deliver the service allows the firm to communicate its position through an effective marketing strategy. Clients seeking a firm with expertise will engage the firm based on it's positioning strategy established through the exposure of its talented professional staff by way of their appointments to various boards, their writing of books on their field of expertise, speeches they have given and how often they have been quoted in the media. Success in client engagements further enhances the firm's reputation when such successes are communicated to existing and prospective clients.

The position adopted by such law firms is one of exclusivity with a small yet established client base. The skills and experience gained and developed here are always at the cutting edge of the latest legal principles and are pioneered by these types of firms. Clients regard these firms as the "blue chip" law firms and help enhance the stature of such companies in the market place. Examples of such firms would be Webber Wentzel, Spoor & Fisher, Buys Incorporated and Adams & Adams.

The experienced positioning strategy
The positioning strategy of law firms to service a client's need for experience are those firms whose clients, rather than needing the profession's most creative talent, want a firm that has an accumulated experience in handling certain problems and would rather not take an expensive "start with a blank sheet of paper" approach to the problem.

The experienced positioning strategy is effectively communicated to the market not through the highlighting of an individual talent or reputation, but rather through an institutional reputation based on the raw talent and ability of the collective firm to apply its knowledge and resources to a particular problem. The experience is then highlighted in the firm's ability to apply its efficiency and productivity systems to resolve the client's needs. This form of positioning is perhaps best illustrated through the law firm of Cape Town-based Buchanan Boyes Smith Tabata.

The firm's entrenched positioning strategy is one of being the property specialists. The marketing and practice development hereof is found in the institutionalising of its experience though it's network of property specialists, real estate agent relationships, client newsletters on property matters, property law marketing brochures, property law seminars and the ability to pull on its collective intellectual capital to resolve specific property-related matters.

The positioning strategy is strengthened by the firm's continual addition to its collective experience through hiring of focused professionals in property law, intense training of staff in matters of efficiency and productivity using the latest technology geared to conveyancing, as well as a marketing strategy to re-affirm its dominant experience as the property law firm of choice in Cape Town.

The efficiency positioning strategy
A client may seek out a professional whose service is one that guarantees efficiency above all else. This will be the domain of law firms whose bread and butter is built on work such as debt collections, the administration of estates, administration orders, etc.

The efficiency position strategy is premised on a clear understanding of the work involved, and a highly committed team which hasthe latest resources to do the job quickly and efficiently. The aim is not necessarily one of experience or expertise and does not demand the full attention of an attorney to apply his/her skill to a matter (although he/she is responsible for managing the system).

The efficiency is built around good systems that optimise economies of scale, which allow for the processing of large volumes of work and the management of fees. Clients are therefore encouraged to send more work to the firm. Efficiency is managed by employing strict systems and encouraging a strong work ethic among well-trained staff. The work is of such a nature that it is repetitive; meaning that employment of low-income staff is a strong consideration in managing costs. Revenue is one based on volume and the strict management of costs. Examples of such firms would be Snyman en Vennote who have specialised the practice of debt collection.

The marketing of such a service is one premised on word of mouth, the ability to highlight successes in court or turn around times, regular communications with the client and also the establishment as an efficient staff culture. From the client's perspective, the fact that fees are low is offset against quality of experience and expertise.

Implications
Positioning the business of the firm to ensure long term growth and shareholder value is critical in today's overcrowded climate. A focused plan to build a unique and well-recognised reputation will, in the long run, secure for the firm its existing client base while attracting future prospects. Like Scooters, we all basically serve up the same services and have all been educated by the same universities. To stand out from the bunch and to attract (and retain) new clients means that firms must be seen to be different from their nearest competitors. We need to have the firm and its people stand for one thing which the client will recognise and say "hey, those are the guys best suited to deal with my case".

Good luck.

Sean Bosse is an attorney at Guthrie & Rushton (Cape Town) with a strong passion for what he calls "The Business of Law". Sean completed an MBA in strategic management and marketing and wrote a thesis on brand development by law firms. Before joining Guthrie & Rushton, Sean worked as a strategic business management consultant for an international internet service provider. Please feel free to contact him at: sbose@grlaw.co.za

Reader Comments: 2
Trudy Kemp 29/08/2005:

As a Marketing Director for one of the companies you refer to in your article, I think the advice and understanding of law firm marketing you offer is invaluable. Having been trained in England at a marketing school for professional services, the reality is that professionals don't know enough about strategic marketing to get the best out of their business.

Well done and I look forward to future articles.

Kay Bremmer 31/08/2005:

Ghost Digest Team, Sean Bosse & Sean Gillander. I was referred to this site by a friend of mine who is a property attorney and invited to read your articles on practice management. As a Marketing executive for an international oil company, I must firstly say how very impressed I am with this site. Its dedication to the property lawyers in S.A. is unique and a great platform to create an on-line community.

Secondly, the contributory articles I have read are impressive for the simple reason that they focus in on the core competencies of financial and marketing principles that are unique to the professional service industry. I have also taken the liberty to refer this website and its articles to some of our collegues overseas.

Well done to all of you and I will be sure to visit the site more often.

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