Improving client experience and success through a sector strategy
The majority of law firms are no stranger to a sector-based approach to the market. Indeed, a quick search on Google for ‘sector-focussed law firms’ will return a myriad of firms that feel their approach to sectors sets them apart from all of their competitors.
However, for most firms, this is purely their ‘go-to-market’ messaging, or the external face that they show to clients. Internally, firms are still usually structured by practice groups (there are some notable exceptions), and horizontal sector teams tend to be somewhat more ethereal with varying degrees of substance.
In theory, there is nothing wrong with this contrast between internal organisation and external presentation, and many would argue that it is simply smart marketing in action. For the reasons discussed below, I would propose that now is the right time to revisit this potential dichotomy and, at a minimum, narrow the reality gap between the two.
Clients have the power to influence law firms
The market has shifted exponentially over the last decade and law firms today find themselves squarely in a client-empowered era. Increasingly sophisticated clients are better informed than ever, both through their deeper internal legal resources and also the prevalence of legal information now made available directly to them from third-party sources.
When coupled with ever more competition from Alternative Legal Services providers, and the increasing use of innovative technology, firms are understandably feeling the pressure to provide more value to their clients. A genuine focus on, and expertise within, sectors then become pivotal to being able to provide that greater value – only by building up a deep understanding of the arena in which their clients operate will firms best help their clients to be successful.
A sector approach produces in a win-win for law firms and clients
Whilst clients will benefit from more rounded and commercially aware legal advice, the law firm will also experience a number of positive returns from a renewed focus on a sector approach – including, according to Acritas’ 2018 Sharplegal Research, a potential doubling of client wallet share.
As well as tangible gains in specific market reputation and increasingly efficient client service delivery, firms with a meaningful sector focus have also found significant benefits for their internal talent, including:
- Commercial awareness – lawyers have a more detailed understanding of the client’s business and the industry in which they operate, and are able to tailor their legal advice accordingly
- Networking – building expertise and spending more time operating in a sector enables lawyers to build reputation, and therefore more confidentially develop work from clients and targets alike
- Technical excellence – a continued focus on providing legal advice within the same, or related sectors, offers the opportunity for lawyers to become genuine technical experts in their field
Of course, there may be potential downsides to a sector focus that would need to be carefully managed. For instance, potential conflicts can quickly limit market opportunity if sectors are defined too narrowly, and sector definitions do not always easily apply across different jurisdictions for firms with an international footprint. However, when managed well, the benefits from a focussed sector program for client, firm and talent alike will normally outweigh any disadvantages.
Handling the sector-based resourcing conundrum
Leading a successful sector team is one of the most challenging roles in a modern-day law firm. Sector Group Leaders will usually have no direct line authority over their team members – often the team may include Partners that are actually more ‘senior’ than the team leader – and their team will normally be dispersed across various practices, offices and even jurisdictions.
This doesn’t mean that firms should necessarily realign to sit in, and budget by, sectors instead of practices. Interestingly, the leadership team at one firm that has made this change commented that they face similar operational challenges to other firms, but now with “sector silos rather than practice ones”.
It is essential, however, that these teams are adequately resourced internally to thrive externally. The most successful firms have accomplished this by supporting their teams with designated sector Business Development Managers, and by using innovative technology to ensure that the team receives actionable information from the multiple dimensions across the firm.
The importance of collaboration for firms
Firms are starting to remember the benefits that a collaborative approach can bring to the business and clients alike, which was arguably the bedrock of why the partnership model was first created. Amongst others, the impressive work by Dr. Heidi Gardner – in particular her insightful book “Smart Collaboration: How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos” – has played no small part in reminding firms of the value of their historic nature.
However, today’s law firms tend to be not only significantly larger than the originally intended 20-partner model, but also considerably more complex. When you combine this formidable scale with the narrowing of focus and specialisation that it takes to become a true leader in a sector, then it is perhaps no wonder that firms can easily become a collection of siloed experts.
Collaboration is therefore again essential – to be successful and drive growth, firms must facilitate an internal structure that allows these focussed experts to easily work together to solve clients’ complex challenges.
In the current competitive market, it is rare that a firm will ever be the only advisor operating in a particular sector. Moreover, that the firm may have a sector-based approach to the market will unlikely be a differentiator when potential clients consider their options. Only by having a true focus on a narrower range of sectors, where there is deep domain expertise, will a firm achieve something that is noteworthy for potential clients.
Firms that couple this focussed sector approach with a robust key client program will not only win greater market share in that sector, but will also be better placed to drive continued client success. Indeed, as Heidi Gardner’s extensive research demonstrates:
“when firms…do complex work for clients that spans practices and offices within the firm…they earn higher margins, inspire greater client loyalty, gain access to more lucrative clients and attract more cutting-edge work.”
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