A light sprinkling of vertical strategy

27 03 2011

Think of a law firm in the top fifty in the UK or US. Got one? Ok. Now think about how they go to market. I’m going to guess their market strategy. Think really hard. Visualise their website. Hold, on. I’ve nearly got. Think a bit harder……. They’re vertically focussed, right? Right!

The vertical strategy contained a handful of technology, some property, a bit of pharma and of course plenty of financial services

These days pretty much every large law firm has a vertical market strategy. Ten years ago, it would have all been about the practice areas – who has the biggest and best litigation practice. Now, it’s all about the sectors.

And let’s be clear, there are great reasons for doing this. Back once again to our old friend Michael Porter and his great book Competitive Strategy (see last week’s post for more detail on this). One of the strategies set out in the book is for organisations to focus on a narrower section of the entire market, rather than address the market as a whole.

So law firms often segment the market (i.e. narrow it down) for legal services in a number of ways – for example, firstly they may make a distinction between consumers and business clients, then perhaps a particular size of organisation (for example large listed organisations or small owner managed businesses) they wish to act for, and then maybe geography (a particular country or City).

In reality, many of these decisions may be made without much conscious thought – a very small firm may not have the resources to undertake a particular type of work, or have the resources to serve clients outside its immediate “catchment area”.

However, the chances are, a firm will often still find itself with plenty of competitors, and will see the need to differentiate itself further. It can be difficult to demonstrate that its skill in a particular work type is higher than a rival firm, so thoughts frequently turn to a sector focus – “if we can show our clients and prospective clients that we know more about their industry than firm X, then that will put us in a much stronger position”.

At its most basic, I think this is sound reasoning – a vertical focus is not the only way to differentiate, but if done well it can provide the client real benefit.

Now often the initial vertical segmentation is driven by the make up of the existing client base, rather than market opportunity. Perhaps the firm already acts (because of reasons lost in the mysteries of time) for three airlines, and so decides to position itself as a travel sector specialist.

This approach certainly has benefits, particularly if the existing clients are well known brands and are referenceable. The firm will undoubtedly have to deal with conflict and competitive issues amongst clients, but once established as a genuine industry specialist, the benefits undoubtedly outweigh these type of challenges.

Another, perhaps more scientific way of approaching verticalisation is to assess the fit between the firm’s resources and the market opportunities. For example, which industries have the greatest need for the firm’s core skills (be they compliance work, complex litigation, volume property work etc.)? Of these sectors, what are market growth rates? Which are the most competitive in terms of legal service provision? What are the upcoming triggers in the industry for legal work?

However the firm gets to a vertical strategy, my challenge is to ask how deep the specialisation really is.

How much industry expertise do you have? Really?

One observation that I’d make, both from my experience in law firms and as corporate counsel, is that there are some firms whose vertical strategy only runs skin deep.

To me, if you are a firm that focuses on the technology sector, all the lawyers in that sector group should have a genuine understanding of (and even better, a real interest in!) that sector.

The reality is often a little different.

It’s often only the lawyers whose practice is most relevant to that industry that really understand the sector issues. So for example, staying with the technology example, it’s the IT lawyers who know what’s going on in the sector, and perhaps in the travel sector it’s the aviation lawyers who have their fingers on the pulse.

But what about property lawyers who are supposed to know about the media sector? Litigators in the financial services sector? I.P lawyers in the property sector?

Often the insight, the passion is just not there.

Scratch the surface, and all the expertise that’s trumpeted on the website and in the collateral dissolves. The sector focus is just pretty wrapping paper on the same old firm.

There are often plenty of reasons for this too. Perhaps rather than being recruited to work into a particular practice area, the fee earners have been shoe-horned into a sector group (“ok, you need to join a sector group, which one will it be?” or “Right, we need two property lawyers to join the financial services sector group”).

Alternatively, maybe the firm still remains structured internally around practice areas, so lawyers identify more strongly with their colleagues in those teams, than with clients in a particular sector. Financial metrics, reporting lines and performance management may also remain driven by practice areas, and so encourage behaviours which are inconsistent with the sector strategy.

Whatever the reason, a client looking for genuine sector expertise won’t be fooled for long.

But don’t get me wrong, some firms do get it right.

I try to avoid mentioning places I’d worked in the blog, but the UK firm  Olswang really did implement the sector strategy very well. And to give the article some balance, I was chatting with the Financial Services lead at Bird & Bird last week, and while he was a trained technology and outsourcing lawyer, he really impressed me with his knowledge of the F.S. industry, his contacts and what was going on in the market.

So what can firms do if they want to go beyond a skin-deep vertical focus? Investing time (yes, non-chargeable) with clients is a great place to start, because they are the ones that will really understand their industry. Actively working with/in trade associations works, trade publications should be required reading, and vertical training (even better if clients will come in and run sessions) can make a huge difference.

One big question the firm needs to answer is what they will do with clients and prospects that are not in their chosen sectors.

Will the firm continue to service and grow this mix of “miscellaneous” business, or will it begin to act only for clients in its area of sector expertise? In the current climate I suspect more firms will choose the former, although arguably the latter will give a sharper edge to the focus.

Perhaps a half-way house is to draw a distinction between reactive and proactive pursuit of business.

So, to finish, have a think about your market strategy. Are you vertically focussed? If so, how deep does the strategy run? Could it be deeper? Are the sectors the right ones? Look at your competitors websites and collateral – are they the same sectors?

And if you are vertical to the core, give yourself a pat on the back.

Strategy without creativity?

1 11 2010

Walking towards Holborn yesterday I looked up at a building to see the statement “strategy is nothing without creativity” plastered across the window. My instinct was to file it away in the “I agree” compartment of my head, and, as the song says, “walk on by”. The more I thought about it however, the less easy I found it to compartmentalise my response in that way.

The energy team's market strategy was lacking detail

Perhaps betraying my origins as a lawyer, I thought the best place to start the discussion was by getting clear on what I’m talking about when discussing strategy. A key distinction is between “corporate strategy” and “market strategy”.

By corporate strategy I think about the high level decisions of what markets a business will compete in, and possibly (depending on factors such as how disparate those markets are), a broad set of principles on how the business will compete.

By market strategy I mean how the business will compete in its chosen markets.

It is in this arena I want to examine the role of creativity,  however in my experience, there are more fundamental questions that many law firms need to ask themselves about their market strategies before creativity comes in to play.

The first is whether market strategy actually exists. Often firm strategy (essentially the corporate strategy mentioned above)  is set by the management and then “rolled out” to the partnership, practice areas, industry sectors etc. At the market level, often the business planning that happens is purely financial in nature; usually as part of the budgeting process. Targets are set, and teams then work out how they are going to deliver those numbers. This then leads into a very tactical discussion; perhaps looking at how to grow major accounts or penetrate particular prospects.

The market strategy layer is, not always, but often, completely missed. And as a result, firms often struggle to articulate their positioning in the market (one of the key outputs of market strategy) and when asked about their strategy for a particular market often end up talking about their experience or resources, which may well be relevant, but means the lawyers often lack the clarity of a well defined strategy that they can articulate.

Another benefit of having a market strategy, is a deeper understanding of what the competition are doing. When the day-to-day pace of life is so fast, it’s easy to get by with a cursory understanding of what other firms are doing in the market, relying on what’s in the legal press, and what you hear from clients and contacts. However, the benefits of actually analysing competitors, working out how they are different from you and your practice, what they do well, are significant and can shape the way you think about your own practice (and crucially how you present it to clients and prospects).

So, in a roundabout way, this brings me onto creativity. There’s no doubt in my mind, that at the market strategy level creativity can bring tremendous benefits, and create the sort of breakthrough strategies that could help a firm really win in the marketplace. However, if many firms don’t really have a market strategy, then I think there are opportunities for those firms who do have one to reap significant benefits simply from implementing their strategy well and communicating it clearly (both within the firm and to the market place).

Implementing and communicating strategy are both huge topics worthy of their own posts, so I’ll leave those for another day. However, the point I’ll finish on is just to mention that creating a winning market strategy doesn’t have to be a laborious, bureaucratic process – in Strategy SafariMintzberg lists a whole host of ways in which strategy can be formed (from emergent and entrepreneurial strategy through to more formal planning and design processes).

My bet is that if market strategy is something your team has done before, a small time investment would pay big rewards.

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